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Return of the Population Bombers

Canadaian Ecosocialist Ian Angus is determined to undermine efforts to achieve sustainable population levels. He’s convinced we can only choose one remedy for our society’s unsustainable ills.

Ian Angus I disagree strongly with this view, and I take great exception to several of his misassumptions and generalizations about sustainable population advocacy. So it is tempting NOT to bring attention to what he writes. However, I think we can all learn something from his mistakes. I trust you to see through the fallacies in his arguments, but just in case the clueless happen across this, I’ll shine a little light here on them.

Angus’ mission in life is to rid the world of capitalism. He is certain we cannot achieve climate stability unless we replace capitalism with socialism. He may very well be right. Where he errs, however, is in his view that – regardless of which system we organize by – the sheer quantity of people on the planet has little to do with our sustainability or carbon footprint. Of this he is so certain, that he co-wrote a book, Too Many People?, to convince us.

This year’s World Population Day brought a lot more daylight to the subjects of overpopulation and family planning. Media coverage was encouraging. The Gates Foundation’s commitment to improving access to family planning helped. I raised the hackles of a few anti-sustainable population pundits with my www.worldpopulationday.org efforts. Apparently some or all this got to Mr. Angus, so last Friday he published The Return of the Population Bombers on his Climate & Capitalism website.

Early in this piece he bemoans the attention overpopulation got last October when the UN estimated world population surpassed 7 billion:

“Global warming, loss of bio-diversity, deforestation, food and water shortages: all of these problems and many more problems were consistently blamed on a single cause: too many people.”

Here I must pick a major bone with Mr. Angus. I’m pretty sure he knows that many, many, many sustainable population advocates – myself included – over and over again stress that population is only part of the sustainability problem and solution. Here he intentionally misleads. Obviously we would focus on the subject of population when it passes a milestone.

Yes, as Angus laments, more and more environmentalists are once again feeling it is okay, if not essential, to address overpopulation as a major contributor to our environmental, social and economic crises. But very few of us believe it is the only cause. Perhaps he is fooled by the fact that some choose population as their primary issue. I would suggest that usually has something to do with the fact that effectiveness requires some focus and specialization. Also contributing to this is the fact that there is no shortage of environmental groups focusing on saving rivers, preserving habitat, reducing carbon emissions, etc., but there are relatively few organizations focused on stabilizing or reducing population. So some groups have organized to fill that need. It is disingenuous to jump to the conclusion these groups feel population growth is the only problem. Especially when you know better.

How can I be so sure of this? I’m a perfect example (and I DO know what is in my heart). One only needs to view the GrowthBusters film or peruse a few of my blog posts here to know the GrowthBusters project addresses both population growth and economic growth/overconsumption as the major contributors to the unsustainability of our civilization. Are there individuals or groups who – as Angus accuses – do focus on reducing population, in the hopes that will allow them to go on overconsuming with impunity? (my paraphrase here) I’m sure there are. But they are the exception, not the rule.

Angus doesn’t stop here, however. In my view, he appears to err in the complete opposite direction:

“…ecologically sound agriculture can produce more than enough food to feed the expected population growth.

In fact, existing food production is more than enough to feed many more people. Just by reducing the food wasted or misused in rich countries to reasonable levels, we could feed billions more people. Or, if population doesn’t grow as much as expected, we could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by reforesting excess farmland.”

Surely Mr. Angus is aware we are using vast quantities of nonrenewable oil and gas to feed most of the today’s 7 billion. It would appear he wants us to believe capitalism is the sole cause of our sustainability crises. You have to look hard, but there is evidence he has not gone quite that far off the cliff:

“Populationists are right that human numbers must be considered, but they are wrong to blame the imbalance between human needs and resources solely or primarily on human numbers, and they are wrong about the measures needed to solve it.”

Thank goodness! Maybe there is hope. If it weren’t for the fact he puts SO much energy into castigating and spreading false information about “populationists,” as he calls them, we might think Angus understands I=PAT and believes we’ve got to work on both the population (P) and the consumption (A, and often T) multipliers in this equation. But if you read the rest of his piece, you’ll find 90% of it attempts to unfairly and inaccurately paint sustainable population advocates in a very negative light. Here is one offensive statement that just ticks me off:

“As Simon and I say in our book, for many populationists, “too many people” is code for too many poor people, too many foreigners, and too many people of color.”

He takes what might apply to a very small percentage of activists today, or what might have applied to some activists in the past, and attempts to paint the movement with that black brush. I interviewed over 100 experts for my film, GrowthBusters. I’ve researched the sustainable population movement extensively. I monitor what the organizations say and do. I am certain Angus’ negative assumption applies to a small minority.

In making that statement, Angus is being either quite prejudiced (judging the motives of others based on his own assumptions), or intellectually lazy (not bothering to investigate his assumptions), or possibly even deceptive and dishonest (making the accusation even though he knows it is false). Hoping he wouldn’t stoop to deliberate dishonesty to make his case, how dare Angus believe he has the magical power to see into the hearts and minds of others? If he is to avoid being guilty of prejudice, he must rely on what they say and do, not on what he believes their motives to be. He chooses instead to judge unfairly, and he has a (hopefully small) following willing to take his word for it.

Since I cannot peer into his heart, I can only suppose he might be jealous of the traction overpopulation is getting. He of course has chosen dethroning capitalism as his mission, and he wants more attention on that cause. For whatever reason, he is not content to join together with us to reform all the major contributors to unsustainability: consumption, population and an inequitable system that requires their perpetual increase. He paints this as an either/or choice. He is welcome to focus on eliminating capitalism. As I wrote, we need specialization and focus. But I wish he could embrace rather than denigrate those who might specialize on the other culprits, especially when they are not insisting we ignore capitalism’s role in all this. We should be working together, not trying to undermine one another’s efforts.

Dave Gardner - will direct to save the planet. Dave Gardner
Filmmaker

Dave Gardner is the director of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth, which uncovers the cultural forces that keep us pursuing growth in the face of overwhelming evidence we’ve outgrown the planet.

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  • Avatar

    Dave Gardner

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    Simon Ross of Population Matters made this excellent comment on Angus’ Population Bombers piece at the Climate & Capitalism website:

    “Unless we transform the economy and our society along sustainable lines, we have no hope of securing a habitable planet, regardless of population levels.” Agreed.

    Also, unless we address population levels, we have no hope of securing a habitable planet, regardless of whether we transform the economy and our society along sustainable lines. The reason is that there is a direct relationship between the number of people on earth and
    the amount of food required to sustain them. That’s a fundamental fact of material existence, one that no society can possibly escape.

    It is claimed that ecologically sound agriculture can produce more than enough food to feed the expected population growth. But, right now, agriculture is depleting soil, ground water, fish stocks and habitat, while relying heavily on fossil fuels and energy intensive and polluting fertilizers. That cannot last for ever, while climate change will further reduce agricultural productivity. At the same time, rising living standards in developing countries will create explosive demand for resource intensive meat and dairy diets, in place of the current reliance on more ecologically friendly subsistence crops.

    Consequently, it is prudent to seek to reduce by voluntary means family size in all countries and communities, of every class and colour, while simultaneously seeking transformational routes to sustainability.

    Reply

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    Tim Heffernan

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    You don’t reject the argument that “ecologically sound agriculture can produce more than enough food to feed the expected population growth.” But you don’t think it’s worth exploring because “right now” it isn’t happening. Right now, your favoured solution, reducing population growth, isn’t happening either – at least, at the rate, you want. You seem to think that persuading people in the developing world to have fewer babies is a more viable solution. I’m not against that, per se. I support programs to expand the education of girls and women in the DCs, considered to be the best contraceptive out there. I support the expansion of health care, pre-natal, post-natal and maternal care facilities. At the same time, and more importantly, I support agricultural, economic and trade policies that will free these countries from the grip of corporate interests and allow them to develop sustainable agricuultural policies.

    Reply

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    Dave Gardner

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    Tim, I think Simon Ross makes it pretty clear there is no sound reason to believe there is a sustainable way to feed 10 billion. He points out how unsustainably we’re behaving just to feed 7 billion poorly today.

    Otherwise it appears we agree on much. Thanks for your comments.

    Reply

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    Steven Johnson

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    The intrinsic competitive dynamics of capitalism establish perverse incentives to convert as much of the world’s resources as possible, as quickly as possible, into profits for a few, without regard for the long-term consequences for all of us. And capitalism’s tendency to concentrate real political power into the hands of an elite few ensures that attempts to mitigate negative externalities through regulation will generally be grossly insufficient, temporary, and ever subject to rollback. The logic and actual history of capitalism have proven, over and over, that it is not a horse that can be tamed, but a monster that must be slain, before it kills us. So I share Ian Angus’ view that replacing capitalism, and finding an effective way to manage the world’s resources for the common good, must be the number one priority.

    Yet I do not find convincing the notion that if we overthrew capitalism and learned to democratically manage the world as a commons (which, again, we MUST do), that all would be well, without the need to reduce other multipliers of human impacts such as population. Such either-or thinking must be rejected. To be sure, if we removed rapacious capitalism, which is dispossessing peasants to produce biofuels and export crops, for example, and implemented socialism, we could feed the world’s 7 billion people MORE sustainably (“more” is a relative term) than at present. And employing the best of agroecological methods could yield SOME improvement in biodiversity over chemical-saturated monocropping. But the people who would state or imply that such solutions are complete, without the need for humane efforts to reduce population, do not seem to grasp the enormity of the damages to ecosystems and biodiversity, or the concrete needs of specific endangered species, such as the large predators which require large amounts of minimally impacted space, as understood by conservation biologists.

    I would argue that we must strive to implement an ecologically attuned and bioregionally oriented socialism precisely SO that we can effectively implement humane means of population reduction, among other goals. Because the lack of social equity in managing resources is arguably the greatest impediment to promoting fertility control. As long as great masses of people are trapped, as capitalism ensures they will be, in insecurity… As long as people do not personally grasp and feel the relationship between their fertility and the carrying capacity of their region, which global capitalism obscures, because it does not make any kind of accounting of resource throughput accessible to popular understanding and democratic process, it is unlikely that people will willingly and democratically embrace adequate population policies. It is only when people are given a fair and equitable stake in a bioregionally based economy (allowing, of course, for a rational and democratically determined degree of division of labor among bioregions, e.g., limited mining, export of grains, etc.) that people will FEEL and reliably estimate the impact of their fertility on the well-being of themselves and their progeny, so that salutary incentives prevail.

    To what level should we aim to reduce the world’s population over the coming generations? Rather than spend much time arguing about numbers, I think it is enough, for us in our generation, to understand that we are currently courting disaster by being radically out of sync with the parameters of population and other factors which prevailed during the aeons over which we and our fellow inhabitants of the earth evolved. When some day we can honestly look around, and see that biodiversity is being restored, and the integrity and stability of ecosystems restored, we can safely consider relaxing efforts to reduce some of the multipliers. Even one generation of an effective one-child practice, combined with other political and economic changes, could take a very significant edge off of our problems, at the least. But there is no inherent value of having a larger rather than smaller number of humans, and we have the technology at hand to humanely achieve whatever level of reduction we wish, so there is no reason that the societies of the world could not continue seeking to reach what they feel is an ideal population level within their bioregions that will create abundance for humans and other creatures.

    But isn’t it a bit like spinning wheels to combat overpopulation while leaving the capitalist engines that drive it intact? I disagree quite vigorously with Ian Angus on some of the ways in which he frames the issues, and I would recommend Saral Sarkar’s books and articles as an alternative presentation of a vision for ecological socialism which I find more balanced and compelling. But I think Angus and others have a very valid bone to pick with those who invest their energies in restricting immigration, and it is a case which I think illustrates the futility of thinking we can make much headway on ecological issues, via fertility programs or anything else, without making the dismantling of capitalism an utmost priority. It is capitalist expropriation of lands that is DRIVING immigration! And it is to a very large extent U.S. foreign and trade policy that is driving that expropriation! With or without immigration, the torrent of destruction will continue until its principal driving engines are dismantled; yet once these are dismantled, there will be neither overconsumption nor undue levels of immigration! So why not go for the JUGULAR of these problems! How desperate and lacking in hope we must be, if we resign ourselves to not being able to contend with the elephant in the room, and seek to ameliorate, to a meager and pitiful degree, some of the ecological damages by punishing immigrants whom global capitalism and its corrupt oligarch cronies have deprived of a means of living! I don’t mean to suggest that there is nothing we can do to reduce fertility before we overcome capitalism. Certainly we must labor to make contraception and abortion more available, and yet on this all parties present are agreed. And the effectiveness of such efforts are vastly multiplied by socialist circumstances or even measures that veer in the direction of socialism, such as social security, nationalized health insurance, etc.

    In sum, I think we should 1) direct our principal efforts toward overcoming and replacing capitalism, even while some legitimately specialize in other needed efforts, while 2) increasing the availability of reproductive health care, 3) encouraging awareness of the benefits of reducing population, and 4) leaving open for discussion the question of the ultimate reduction targets that might ideally be reached over a number of generations. Angus and fellow travelers, in my opinion are misspending energy and employing much fallacious reasoning against the validity of 3 and 4, and at times seeming, despite those “hard to find” qualifications that occasionally appear, to imply that perhaps not quite so much fuss should be made about 2, and all of that, in the final analysis, is quite extraneous to and distracts from, rather than promotes 1, contra their goal. They do make the salient point, however, that, regardless of the personal motives and beliefs of people active in fertility reduction efforts, the tendency of capitalism-allied FUNDING will always be to support ONLY such efforts as leave 1 for all practical purposes out of the picture, and we must not let that fact color our thinking or distort our priorities.

    I would have sought to limit the length of my comments here if I knew of any widely known materials, to which I could refer, which treat these matters giving appropriate and reasonable weight to all of the pertinent factors. It is maddening that, in this critical moment of history, such materials are not abundant and known by all. Why does one “side” stop short of seeing capitalism as the overwhelming factor that it is, and act (or fail to act) accordingly, while another “side” swims in a sea of the genetic fallacy and either-or thinking, dismissing population concerns because Thomas Malthus and a number of others were elitists? Why should it be so hard for these polarized groups to conceive and promote an aggressive movement against capitalism and for an ecological system of social and economic cooperation which does full justice to biodiversity concerns and the facts of conservation biology?

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner

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      Thanks, Steven, for a very thoughtful and reasoned response here. Not a lot to argue with!

      Reply

  • Avatar

    Dave Gardner

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    Ian Angus apparently continues to feel there is some kind of competition going on here (while I keep asking why we can’t just get along). He has posted a response to my blog post above, but just not here. Perhaps he sees participating in the conversation here as helping this cause.

    Or it could be for the same reason I stopped posting comments on Climate and Capitalism some time ago (I just wasn’t getting anywhere with otherwise good folks, who just can’t be open-minded about overpopulation).

    Anyways…here is the response Mr. Angus posted over at Climate and Capitalism:

    “Conventional people,” Bertrand Russell wrote, “are roused to fury by departures from convention, largely because they regard such departures as a criticism of themselves.”

    A case in point is a recent blog entry in which populationist film maker Dave Gardner is personally offended by an article that doesn’t even mention him.

    Gardner used to be a regular participant in discussions of population here on Climate & Capitalism. Every comment he submitted was published in full, and the debates, though vigorous, were all polite. But when others pointed out the reactionary implications of his support for population reduction and strict immigration limits, he stormed off in a huff.

    His current fury has been roused by my recent article, The return of the population bombers. When I first saw his post, I hoped that he was initiating a debate the article’s central theme, the conservative impact of overpopulation ideology in the past and today. But unfortunately, he doesn’t deal with the substance of my article at all.

    Instead he focuses on a few out-of-context sentences, words he seems to regard as personal attacks.

    His response involves insisting that he is “a perfect example” of a populationist, and that those horrible sentences don’t describe him. To paraphrase: I don’t focus on population alone! I have never noticed any racism in populationist circles, and I don’t dislike foreigners! I’ve interviewed lots of experts and they agree with me. How dare Angus claim to see into my heart?

    It’s all very solipsistic. Apart from the discussions he initiated on this website, I’ve never written about Gardner at all, much less claimed to see into his heart.

    Nevertheless, he feels justified in calling me ”prejudiced … intellectually lazy … possibly even deceptive and dishonest.” My motive? I am “jealous of the traction overpopulation is getting.” But fear not: only “the clueless” will be fooled by my fallacies.

    Bertrand Russell might have been amused, but I suspect not. As furies go, this is pretty unimpressive stuff.

    But don’t take my word for it. If you have time, read his article, and please let me know if you find anything it that hasn’t been answered many times over, in Climate & Capitalism or in Too Many People?

    ——
    Ian

    Reply

    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner

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      And here is my response, posted at Climate and Capitalism:

      Ian, I was looking forward to your response, but if this is it, then I’m disappointed. It appears you’re too entrenched in your position to really consider what I had to say. You certainly aren’t responding to it here. And my offer at the end of my apparently furious rant stands: we should be able to coexist, and even support one another. We are rowing the boat in the same direction. I fear it is your misassumptions that propel you to continue taking potshots at “populationists.”

      Reply

      • Avatar

        Ian Angus

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        Dave, I briefly considered writing a detailed reply, but decided not to, for two reasons.

        1. You said nothing that hasn’t been answered many times over — so I included a link to a long list of articles that do just that. I see no value in rewriting them.

        2. Terms like “prejudiced … intellectually lazy … possibly even deceptive and dishonest” can not be called an invitation to collegial debate. I’m a big boy, I can take the heat, but I’m interested in discussion, not insults.

        I’m sure you are completely sincere in your belief that “We are rowing the boat in the same direction,” but sincerity is no substitute for understanding, nor will it won’t make oil and water mix.

        “The “too many babies” argument … misdiagnoses the problem, directing the attention and efforts of sincere activists to programs that will not have any substantial effect. At the same time, it weakens efforts to build an effective global movement against ecological destruction by dividing our forces, by penalizing the principal victims of the crisis for problems they did not cause. (Too Many People? p. 189)

        Of course we will continue to coexist, and maybe we will find specific projects we can collaborate on. I certainly hope so. But I would not be true to the cause of social justice if I remain silent about major concerns, just for the sake of harmony.

        Reply

        • Avatar

          Dave Gardner

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          I appreciate you stopping by to reply, Ian. The quote from your book you include above (“penalizing the principal victims of the crisis for problems they did not cause”) reveals your strong bias and lack of understanding of what most of today’s sustainable population advocates are saying and trying to accomplish. There are so many assumptions built into that statement, it saddens me greatly. You think you know us. You do not. Get to know us. Have an open mind.

          Reply

  • Avatar

    Daniel Hudon

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    Hi Dave, my recent comments about population’s effect on the environment are here: http://econowblog.blogspot.com/2012/07/thoughts-on-world-population-day.html

    I posted over at CC to say that population trumps the economic system in the long run, that Earth can’t support several billion more people without enormous cost to the environment and that the solutions are inter-related. Much of the present environmental problems are due to first-world over-consumption. Western desires for beef every day are having a direct effect on the high rates of deforestation in tropical countries as forest cover is converted to land for agriculture. The US population is slated to increase some 30% by mid-century, mostly due to immigration. This can only stress already stressed environmental systems. A sound approach would be to reduce Western over-consumption and to increase global education of women and the provision of birth control.

    Reply

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