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The Scapegoat of Overpopulation

In the face of evidence such as that cited in the last post, some are quick to blame ‘over-population’ and argue that the environment is under such strain because there are too many people on the planet.[1] Currently the world population is approximately 6.8. billion and is increasing by about 70 million people each year.[2] Though birth rates are slowly declining in some regions – and have already essentially stabilized in many parts of the developed world[3] – the United Nations has predicted that the global population will keep rising to a peak of approximately 9.2 billion around mid-century.[4]

Rising global population is obviously of immense environmental concern.[5] The impact an economy has on the environment depends, in part, on the number of people there are, such that environmental impact will tend to increase with population size, other things being equal.[6] Stabilizing and reducing the global population, therefore, is certainly to be desired, but how to achieve this effectively and justly is an extremely difficult question. Using state coercion, as China has done with its ‘one child family policy,’ has reportedly had disturbing unintended side-effects, including a rise in female infanticide;[7] in China today males under the age of 20 outnumber females by 32 million, creating a domino effect of other related social problems.[8] Furthermore, the actual effectiveness of, or need for, a coercive policy is questionable, given that some of China’s neighbouring nations, which have had no such policy, have experienced some of the lowest fertility rates in the world over the last 25 years.[9] There is also the question of whether coercive policies infringe illegitimately on basic human liberties.[10]

Leaving the issue of state coercion to one side, however, it could be argued that to focus on population as the primary cause of the environmental crisis is to use population as a scapegoat; that is, as a means of deflecting attention away from what is arguably the more important environmental issue, namely,  over-consumption in the developed nations.[11] Non-coercive measures to stabilize or reduce population worldwide should certainly be taken, such as reproductive education programs and the provision of free contraception; and the developed world should do more to assist the developing world in these matters. But it is suggested the developed nations cannot in good conscience lecture the developing nations about how expanding populations are putting immense strain on Earth’s ecosystems while at the same time indulging themselves in ever-higher levels of consumption. If the developed nations are serious about reducing global impact on the environment, then before looking overseas they must show the world that they are prepared to step more lightly themselves. There is little sign of that happening, however, as the next post will show.


[1] Concern about over-population has a long genesis. See Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population (1803). For a helpful discussion, see Worldwatch Institute, ‘Beyond Malthus: Sixteen Dimensions of the Population Problem’ (1998) < http://www.worldwatch.org/node/847> at 10 September 2010.

[2] See United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs, ‘World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision’ (2008) <http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp2008/pdf/WPP2008_Highlights.pdf> at 10 December 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See generally, Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Explosion (1990).

[6] Ibid 58, 273 (discussing the ‘I = PAT’ identity, which holds that environmental impact (I) is a product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T)).

[7]See Andrew Simms et al, ‘The Consumption Explosion’ (2009) 10 <www.neweconomics.org> at 10 September 2010.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Arguing for a non-coercive approach, see Bill McKibben, Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families (1998).

[11] See generally, Tim Jackson (ed), Sustainable Consumption (2005).

One Response to “The Scapegoat of Overpopulation”

  1. […] Continue reading here: The Scapegoat of Overpopulation | The Life Poets' Simplicity … […]

  2. David Kault says:

    The Australian government wants to increase population, to please real estate investors and developers and get the (wo)manpower to grow the economy on a continent relatively new to intensive exploitation so with still a lot to be exploited/destroyed – so offers baby bonuses and unduly generous maternity leave payment. Australia already When I think of overpopulation as a problem I am more concerned about the effect it is having in Australia not in impoverished parts of the world. In I=PAT, with more P and more A we get an enormous amount more I

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