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.
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 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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