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Panic Over 7 Billion: Letting The 1% Off The Hook

Panic Over 7 Billion: Letting The 1% Off The Hook

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DifferenTakes Issue #73, Fall 2011

In October 2011, the UN Population Fund decided to pinpoint the birth of the world’s seven billionth living person as Halloween — a choice clearly meant to encourage conversations about how terrifying the number should be. In this issue of DifferenTakes, authors Ian Angus and Simon Butler explain that the wave of populationist fearmongering that followed was based on misleading statistics, and dangerously ignores the real perpetrators of environmental destruction.
DifferenTakes Issue #73, Fall 2011

In October 2011, the UN Population Fund decided to pinpoint the birth of the world’s seven billionth living person as Halloween — a choice clearly meant to encourage conversations about how terrifying the number should be. In this issue of DifferenTakes, authors Ian Angus and Simon Butler explain that the wave of populationist fearmongering that followed was based on misleading statistics, and dangerously ignores the real perpetrators of environmental destruction.

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Published by: Population & Development Program (PopDev) on Nov 30, 2011
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Panic Over 7 Billion:Letting The 1% O
 
The Hook 
by Ian Angus and Simon Butler
Editors’ Note: 
In October 2011, the UN Population Fund decided to pinpoint the birth of the world’sseven billionth living person as Halloween — a choice clearly meant to encourage conversationsabout how terrifying the number should be. In this issue of 
Di 
 
erenTakes
, authors Ian Angus andSimon Butler explain that the wave of populationist fearmongering that followed was based onmisleading statistics, and dangerously ignores the real perpetrators of environmental destruction.
— Co-editors Katie McKay Bryson and Betsy Hartmann
but the overpopulation argument isn’t justadvanced by racists. For many sincere anddedicated green activists, people whose pro-gressive credentials can’t be doubted, the claimthat there are
too many people
has becomeaccepted wisdom. They are honestly convincedthat to save the earth, we must give top priorityto reducing birth rates.For people who want to stop climate change,for example, blaming overpopulation seems to
ow naturally from the fact that both humannumbers and greenhouse gas emissions havebeen growing at unprecedented rates for overa century. What’s more, it promises a seeminglysimple and humane solution — just make birthcontrol and abortion available to all women The United Nations says that the world’s popu-lation has now reached 7 billion people.Inevitably, the populationist lobby — thegroups and individuals who attribute social andenvironmental problems to human numbers— has used that fact to spread their argumentthrough the mass media. We’ve been treatedto a tsunami of articles and opinion piecesblaming the world’s environmental crises onoverpopulation. Global warming, loss of bio-diversity, deforestation, food and water short-ages: all of these and more are blamed on asingle cause:
too many people
.It’s easy to see why promoting panic over 7billion appeals to right-wingers who fear thegrowth of the world’s non-white majority,
NO. 73FALL
2011
A publication of the
Population and Development Program
CLPP

Hampshire College
Amherst, MA 01002413.559.5506
http://popdev.hampshire.eduOpinions expressed in this publication are those of the individual authors unless otherwise speci
ed.
Think. Act. Connect.
For people, environmentand justice.
 
DIFFERENTAKES
http://popdev.hampshire.edu
 

everywhere, and educate everyone about the needto have fewer babies. Population will fall, so emissionswill fall, and global warming will slow. Britain’s Op-timum Population Trust describes population limita-tion as the “most e
 
ective national and global climatechange strategy.
1
As H.L. Mencken famously said,every human problem has a solu-tion that is neat, plausible, andwrong. The overpopulation argu-ment is a powerful case in point: itis based on misleading statistics,it depends a false view of the roleof individuals in environmentaldestruction, and it ignores the realenvironmental criminals.
Misleading Statistics
At some point in every introduc-tory statistics course, the instructortells students about a Europeancity where increases in the stork population weresupposedly matched by increases in the number of new babies. The point of the story is that
correlationisn’t causation
—storks don’t bring babies, no matterwhat the numbers seem to imply.Similarly, the fact that both population and pollutiongrew dramatically at about the same time doesn’tprove that population growth
caused 
the pollution. Infact, when we break the statistics down, what seemsto be a correlation disappears. The countries thatproduce most greenhouse gas emissions and otherforms of pollution are those with the lowest rates of population growth: most have fertility rates that areat or below replacement level.And the countries with the highest populationgrowth rates — particularly those in Africa — are thelowest polluters. Between 1980 and 2005, poor coun-tries had 52% of the world’s population growth butonly 13% of the greenhouse gas emissions growth.In the same period, rich countries had just 7% of theworld’s population growth but 29% of the emission/sgrowth.
2
The Role of Individuals
 The
too many people
explanation for global warminghinges on the belief that global emissions are simplythe sum of emissions produced by individuals. If that were true, then reducing the number of peoplewould certainly slow global warming, but in realitymost emissions are not caused by individuals.It’s been calculated that if every single person in theUnited States faithfully did every single thing thatAl Gore recommends in his book 
 An Inconvenient Truth,
total U.S.emissions would fall only 22%.
3
 Nearly four-
fths of U.S. emissionsare caused by corporate, military,and government actions, not byindividuals. Even 22% greatly over-states what most individuals reallydo, because such overall averagesignore critical class di
 
erences.Globally, a few very rich countriesproduce most of the pollution— and within each country a fewvery rich people have most of the wealth and use most of theresources. But when we look at thepolicies promoted by populationists, we always
ndthat they target the world’s poorest people, thosewhose impact on the environment is negligible. Re-ducing their birth rates will make no contribution tosaving the earth.
Ignoring the Real Criminals
Ironically, while populationist groups and authorsfocus attention on the 7 Billion, protestors in theworldwide Occupy movement have identi
ed the realsource of environmental destruction: not the 7 Billion,but the 1%, the handful of millionaires and billionaireswho own, consume, control, and destroy more thanall the rest of us put together.In the United States, the richest 1% own an absolutemajority of all stocks and corporate equity, givingthem control of the corporations that are directlyresponsible for most environmental destruction.
4
A recent report prepared by the British consulting
rm Trucost for the United Nations found that just3,000 corporations cause $2.15 trillion in environ-mental damage every year.
5
Only seven countries have annual GDP higher thanthat — but it is still a substantial understatement,because Trucost excluded events such as
shery orecosystem collapse, as well as damage done by the
2
... when we look atthe policies promotedby populationists, wealways
nd that theytarget the world’spoorest people, thosewhose impact onthe environment isnegligible.
 
DIFFERENTAKES
http://popdev.hampshire.edu
 

3
use or disposal of those corporations’ products. Inthe case of oil companies, the
gure covers “normaloperations,” but not deaths and destruction causedby global warming, not damage caused by worldwideuse of its products, and not the multi-billions of dol-lars needed to clean up oil spills.Every year, those companies actu-ally do trillions of dollars worthof damage, much of it irrevers-ible. And yet Paul Ehrlich, JamesLovelock and other populationistshave written entire books aboutthe dangers of overpopulationin which the word “corporation”rarely appears.When populationists do mentioncorporate pollution, they typicallyo
 
er the excuse that businessesare only responding to consumerdemands, so reducing the numberof people will reduce pollution byreducing demand. That argument ignores both thebillions of dollars that corporations spend every yearto manage and create consumer demand, and thefact that consumers have no control over corporateextraction, manufacturing, or distribution processes— the primary sources of pollution.Oil company operations in Canada’s tar sands, de-scribed by environmentalist Bill McKibben as one of the most staggering crimes the world has ever seen,illustrate the absurdity of focusing on populationgrowth rather than on the corporate drive for pro
ts.According to the populationists, if there were fewerpeople there would be fewer cars, so emissionswould decline. But the Canadian government esti-mates that by 2020 oil production in the tar sandsalone will produce more greenhouse gases thanevery car and truck in the entire country.
6
As longas projects like tar sands extraction continue, tryingto solve global warming by persuading individualdrivers to use birth control is like
ghting cancer bygetting a haircut. It may make some cosmetic di
 
er-ence, but it leaves the disease untouched.* * * The world’s multiple environmental crises demandrapid and decisive action, but we can’t act e
 
ectivelyunless we understand why they are happening. If we misdiagnose the illness, at best we will wasteprecious time on ine
 
ective cures; at worst, we willmake the crises worse. The media frenzy over 7 billioncan only serve to direct the attention and e
 
orts of sincere environmental activists to
 programs that will not work.
Universal access to birth controlshould be a fundamental humanright — but it would not have pre-vented Shell’s massive destructionof ecosystems in the Niger Riverdelta. It would not have halted oreven slowed the immeasurabledamage that Chevron has causedto rain forests in Ecuador.If the birth rate in Iraq or Afghani-stan falls to zero, the U.S. military— the world’s largest single pol-luter — will not use one less gallonof oil, or
re one less shell madefrom depleted uranium, or clean up any of the toxicwaste dumps it has created around the world.If every African country adopts a one-child policy,energy companies in the U.S., China and elsewherewill continue burning coal, bringing us ever closer toclimate catastrophe.Focusing on population growth weakens e
 
orts tobuild an e
 
ective global movement against ecolog-ical destruction. It divides our forces, by blaming theprincipal victims of the crisis for problems they didnot cause. Above all, it ignores the massively destruc-tive role of an irrational economic and social systemthat has gross waste and devastation built into itsDNA. The capitalist system and the power of the 1%, notpopulation size, are the root causes of today’s eco-logical crisis. In 1970, at a teach-in during the
rstEarth Day, the pioneering radical ecologist BarryCommoner said, “Pollution begins not in the familybedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”Unless we confront and overcome the power of corporate boardrooms, we have no hope of securinga habitable planet, regardless of population levels orbirth rates.
The capitalist systemand the power of the1%, not populationsize, are the rootcauses of today’secological crisis.

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