The Myth That Population Growth Causes Climate Change
There is an enormous amount of discourse around climate change and solutions to the crisis. One of these so-called solutions is on addressing global population growth. I remember when I attended the public green zone of COP26 (the November 2021 climate conference in Glasgow) how the director of the global assembly stressed how one of the factors the assembly was talking about was population growth. I want to take this blogpost to do a quick analysis of the arguments used on the “issue” page of Population Matters, a UK-based NGO who wants to create a “sustainable human population, to protect the natural world and improve people’s lives.” They claim to be against “forced sterilizations and abortions” and want to everyone to “make informed choices about their family size.” They couch this protection in the language of human rights and women’s empowerment. However, what kind of discourse is perpetuated by a focus on global population growth for addressing climate change?
I admit that I was inspired to write this post by studying the work of Michel Foucault, a French philosopher and historian during these first few weeks of this semester of my master’s program. In 1979, Foucault published Discipline and Punish, which sought to problematize the discourse that prisons represented more humane and progressive treatment of criminals when compared with gruesome public executions. He argued that discourse around prisons as being more progressive had become naturalized. Naturalized discourse refers to discourse that has become so ingrained that it is not thought of as a discourse at all but rather simply as reality. In Foucauldian terms, problematizing a naturalized discourse means revealing the invisible power relations that make up reality and showing how these can be addressed. For instance, in the prison example, Foucault showed how the prison system shifted the place of punishment from the public square to the prison, but this did not imply a grand march of progress (which is what people believed in 1979 and still believe). In simple terms, a Focuauldian discourse analysis is one which problematizes a naturalized discourse or in other words challenge ideas that we simply take for granted as reality.
Returning to the example of population growth being a driver for climate change, I want to problematize this naturalized discourse. The naturalization of the idea that population growth will lead to human and environmental catastrophe has a long history. The philosopher Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century theorized that human population growth, if left unchecked, would eventually lead to mass famine because resources on earth were finite. Clearly, in 2022, this has not happened, but Malthusian ideas that population growth poses a catastrophic threat to human survival has continued into the 20th century with books like Paul Ehrlich’s, The Population Bomb (published in 1968), that once again argued that population growth would lead to famine in the late 20th century (which of course has not materialized) In 2017, The New York Times published an article claiming that overpopulation is the uniting factor driving forward mass migration and starvation. The article also talks about Malthusian ideas explicitly, stating that when there are a lot of poor people, “Malthusian concerns come back with a vengeance.” However, some scholars have already sought to denaturalize population growth. In 2018, gender studies scholar Jade Sasser argued in On Infertile Ground, Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change, that depictions by development organizations of sub-Saharan Africa (where global fertility rates are highest) is one of “endless failure, poverty and disease, war and extreme inequality, described as always in need of Western intervention and salvation” (p. 12). In this way, colonial and racialized ideas around population control are revealed, and Sasser argues that “in advocacy trainings, images of the poor are presented as dark-skinned women of color, often in tattered clothing and surrounded by children” (p. 12). These images of helpless victims present a gendered (in the sense that they are usually women) and racialized picture of population control where the West needs to come in and save everyone by stopping people in the Global South from having children.
I now want to turn back to the “issue” page of the UK NGO Population Matters to briefly show how this NGO naturalizes the discourse that population growth is a major factor contributing to climate change. On their issue page, under “We have to address overpopulation”, they write:
“More people inevitably put more demands on the planet. More people require more food, water, sanitation, homes, public services and amenities … Today a child born in the US will produce 24 times more consumption carbon emissions per year than one born in Nigeria. Addressing how people consume is not enough, however. We are already using resources of more than one-and-a-half planets.”
Here, Population Matters presents an apolitical view of population growth. By apolitical, I mean that they show how consumption levels in the Global North are drastically higher than those in the Global South but still frame the problem in terms of a collective “we” (thus hiding underlying power dynamics). That is, they admit that consumption in the Global North is a problem, but they insist that everyone shares a collective responsibility for addressing climate change and that population control will help. Surely, if Nigeria has such drastically lower consumption carbon emissions per year, the US should be the one that needs to address climate change. In this way, Population Matters is promoting the naturalized discourse that resources are running out and who does this sound like? They are clearly promoting neo-Malthusian ideas around population control, and this serves to shift blame for the climate crisis from the Global North to the Global South when it is the Global North that has largely been responsible for historical and current emissions.
Population Matters also frames their population control in terms of “smaller families” and “women’s empowerment.” This gendered language around population control implies that if only women were better informed and had better resources than they could solve these issues. And, of course, I hope that birth control is available to all those who want and need it, but this idea of women’s empowerment is helping Population Matters construct a naturalized discourse that population growth is a major contributing factor to climate change. A critical problematization of this discourse would show that it reinforces gendered, colonial, and racialized ideas around people in the Global South needing to have smaller families and obstructs the central place of Global North countries in causing climate change. As Population Matters shows, the 18th century Malthusian idea that population growth will lead to famine, poverty and environmental disaster is alive and well and has become naturalized as reality.
I wanted to do this exercise to show that naturalized discourses should be challenged, but it is not often easy to see them when we accept them as reality. In terms of population growth, a course on the politics of environment and development that I took in the first semester of my master’s program helped me to be able to denaturalize and problematize the idea that population growth will lead to famine and environmental disaster. A critical perspective highlights how a focus on population growth means blaming those in the Global South for climate change and helps sustain the unequal global power relations between the Global North and South. Thus, even if not using language such as “problematizing naturalized discourses”, it is important to be aware of how discourses we perceive as reality sustain and support the status quo and how we must challenge them if want radical change.