| Societies that require overconsumption and have to incentivise it based on the imperative for endless growth through market based economies are responsible for the destruction of the environment says the writer Photo Fani Mahuntsi Gallo Images via Getty Images | MR Online Societies that require overconsumption and have to incentivise it, based on the imperative for endless growth through market-based economies, are responsible for the destruction of the environment, says the writer. (Photo: Fani Mahuntsi / Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Saving nature: Overpopulation is not the primary problem

Originally published: Daily Maverick on July 16, 2020 by Bruce Baigrie (more by Daily Maverick) (Posted Jul 23, 2020)

In a period of ecological and climate crises, figuring out ‘how to save nature’ is perhaps the principal challenge facing our planet. Yet, a largely unchallenged view is the misconception that overpopulation is among the primary drivers of these crises.

Studying conservation can be quite overwhelming. One would think environmentalists could take great solace in the knowledge that there is a massive conservation literature and global sector worth over $20-billion. But, given the unprecedented and accelerating ecological crisis, you might be forgiven for thinking neither of these exist.

The 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) lays out the dire big picture. Around 75% of the land-based environment and 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered leaving over one million animal and plant species threatened with extinction.

Such findings should not discount the many dedicated people working on, often successful, conservation interventions. But these interventions are not nearly enough, not even close. A new approach is urgently required. To start with, we need better answers to “how to save nature?”

When I read the statistics of the IPBES report, they didn’t surprise me, nor would they surprise any of my previous conservation classmates at the University of Cape Town. While our lectures often focused on successful conservation stories, they couldn’t hide the fact that conservation was losing–badly.

The penny truly dropped when an alumnus, working for the IPBES, delivered a guest lecture on the IPBES’s most recent report. The findings were grim, and of course, worse than their previous assessments. I asked him whether he believed things could get better? He simply said, “not if things stay the way they are”. This might seem like a somewhat obvious and unhelpful response, but I understood it as he intended: That something is fundamentally wrong, the destruction of nature is systematic .

Still, it doesn’t answer the question of: “Why is the destruction of the natural world happening?”

Well, I had a professor who I thought would have the answer. He seemed to know everything there was to know about ecology, from conservation through to genetics. He was active in the field, even travelling deep into the tropical forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo to describe a species of goliath tigerfish–do yourself a favour and look them up. It was to my utter dismay that he gave me the same unsatisfactory answer I’d heard so often before: “There are just too many of us.”

Such a simplistic–though widely held–analysis of the ecological crisis is nothing short of disastrous. It misdiagnoses the roots of the crisis and offers up unworkable and unjust solutions–all the while, biodiversity as we know it collapses around us. Rather, it is to the endless pursuit of profit that environmentalists must look in order to save nature. An economic system that prizes endless short-term profit maximisation above all else is incompatible with ecological processes.


The concept of overpopulation supposedly dates back to the work of the 18th-century economist Thomas Malthus. I say supposedly because, ironically, Malthus never even used the term overpopulation in his argument. He in fact rejected the idea that overpopulation was even possible.

Sociologist John Bellamy Foster in his essay, “Malthus’ Essay on Population at Age 200”, notes that the original debate around overpopulation did not feature Malthus at all–it was between Robert Wallace and William Godwin.

Wallace believed that even with a “perfect government”, society would eventually collapse under the weight of exponential population growth. An enlightenment utopian, Godwin responded that various checks on population growth would prevent such growth “beyond the facility of subsistence”. He spoke of such checks as abstinence and abortion, but critically, that population growth would be regulated in accordance with wealth and wages–he’s right.

This was the debate in which Malthus intervened. He stated that overpopulation was impossible as there were natural checks on population growth. These included promiscuity before marriage (a widely held belief at the time), but for him, the most important constraint is food supply. Malthus argued that unlike a population that grows geometrically (exponentially)–not true of the last 50 years–food supply grows arithmetically (constantly)–not true either. But it is the second edition of his essay in 1803 that is the most influential, in no small part because it is so scathing of the poor.

For Malthus, the real danger was not overpopulation, but of the poor destroying what was enjoyed by those who are not poor. The danger was in assisting the poor “in any way” that might allow them to upset the equilibrium of “nature’s great feast” which could only remain bountiful through the exclusion of the poor.

So, not only did Malthus avoid the term “overpopulation”–he was in fact adamantly opposed to the use of contraceptives–he was also a principal advocate of the ecologically damaging idea that the earth or soil was a “gift of nature to man” and “indestructible”. Why then, was Malthus the foremost influence of those who propelled the use of overpopulation in the 20th century and who were so central to the ecological movement of the 1960s? Because of his animosity towards the poor.

The Neo-Malthusians of this period were proponents of social Darwinism and eugenics. Most notable was Garrett Hardin, who is primarily known for his Tragedy of the Commons (1968), who, refraining Milton, intoned: “Malthus! Thou shouldst be living in this hour: The world hath need for thee: getting and begetting, We soil fair Nature’s bounty?” Lesser known is Hardin’s other work, Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor (1974).

The overpopulation argument, historically and as primarily used today implicitly takes aim at “the poor” as the major threat. The target is always the population growth of the poor, and, thanks to the racist influence of social Darwinism and eugenics, particularly the poor in countries of the Global South.

It’s not overpopulation

We cannot entirely dismiss overpopulation as something that we can never be concerned about. Nor should it be understood that all its proponents are consciously anti-poor or racist. Indeed, acknowledging the finite resources of the Earth is the preliminary basis required to halt the ecological crisis. Rather, overpopulation is not responsible for the current devastation of nature. Understanding what is responsible, would also allow us to ensure overpopulation would never be a problem.

The climate crisis is a good place to start in evaluating the impact of overpopulation.

Discourse around emissions is often centred on the individual, their carbon footprints. This gives the illusion that converting to vegetarianism is somehow going to transform modern industrial agriculture, or that conscious consumption is going to save the world. A tweet by BP in 2019 most cynically displays how this is both misguided and useful to fossil capital. However, individual emissions reveal much when investigating whether overpopulation is responsible for our situation today.

In 2015, Oxfam released its Extreme Carbon Inequality Report. Their data should surprise nobody who is familiar with inequality statistics, nonetheless, they are still shocking. The richest 10% of people produce 50% of all emissions, while the reverse is also true, that the poorest 50% produce just 10%. Crudely put, in terms of population, a poor person must reproduce themselves 25 times to account for the emissions impact of one of the richest.

We can apply this emissions analysis to the use of water. During the Cape Town drought, swathes of people learned what it was like to ration their water use, something thousands in the city’s informal settlements have always been doing and continue to do. As a thought experiment, cutting off the water supplies of those in informal settlements would have still seen Cape Town run out of water. It was preventing the watering of gardens, filling up of pools and shortening of showers that–along with other measures–ultimately postponed Day Zero until it rained.

A man once said: “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimise the present model of distribution.” So, let’s heed the Pope and scrutinise the model of distribution.

The multiplicities of accumulation

The degradation of the more pristine frontiers of nature is also blamed on overpopulation. On this, Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher in their landmark essay Convivial Conservation described as “a vision, a politics and a set of governance principles that realistically respond to the core pressures [on nature] of our time”.

The authors show how conservation measures overwhelmingly focus on those who directly utilise or live alongside nature. It is such people that the overpopulation answer often takes aim at, the authors explain why it is wrong to do so.

The exploitation of nature at the frontiers is overwhelmingly in the service of centres of production, usually located far away in urban areas. Think of the clearing of tropical rainforest for industrial agriculture–meat, soy, palm oil–it is not the locals, who often do the clearing to earn a menial living, that are driving this process. Such processes also happen to the pathways for pathogens like COVID-19 to escape their natural containers and become pandemics.

Where the exploitation of nature occurs outside of such relations of production–perhaps poaching, local deforestation and overgrazing–those doing the exploiting have almost always been excluded by those very relations and have no other alternatives to put bread on the table. This is why Büscher and Fletcher describe the focus on such people, rather than those who own these centres of production, as a contradiction of conservation.

In the words of Bellamy Foster:

Where threats to the integrity of the biosphere as we know it are concerned, it is well to remember that it is not the areas of the world that have the highest rate of population growth, but the areas of the world that have the highest accumulation of capital, and where economic and ecological waste has become a way of life, that constitute the greatest danger.

It is both convenient to centre overpopulation as the problem instead of the logic of our economic system. Doing so protects the interests of those who benefit from it, the powerful.

The use of overpopulation to explain the ills of hunger and unemployment demonstrate this. There is, in fact, an abundance of food–the obsession of Malthus–and much of it wasted, yet there is hunger. This contradiction points towards the deficiency in the distribution of food, a result of food being produced for profit.

Conveniently for those that profit from food, overpopulation is ready to obscure things.

“There are too many people, not enough jobs.” Unemployment is perhaps South Africa’s largest crisis, exacerbating all others. How dangerous then, when reducing population is offered up as the panacea. Well, there will always be these surplus people under a system that maximises profit. This can be understood through the process of private firms seeking maximum profits by lowering the wages of those they employ to a “socially acceptable” minimum.

Unfortunately for such firms, since they are all doing this, aggregate demand lowers which means workers, collectively, don’t have the money to buy what they produce. This then results in the firms over-producing (overaccumulation) whatever commodity they sell, which in turn requires them to either fire workers and/or extract greater productivity from fewer workers. Unemployment is built into the system. A level of it is in fact preferable, as “evidence” for lowering wages.

It’s the economy, stupid

We cannot entirely dismiss the issue of overpopulation. Whereas it is not a crisis now, on our current growth trajectory, overpopulation might be a major problem of the future. But this trajectory is heavily dependent on future fertility rates. In many parts of the world, these have dramatically decreased with economic wellbeing (income and services), women’s rights, and access to free contraception.

Well, the manner in which the current economic system needs to be radically challenged to avoid ecological collapse will also bring about such wellbeing. This happens when we begin to break from the endless search for profit maximisation towards prioritising the needs of nature and people. That search both promotes endless production through the exploitation of nature, and sees “expensive” social programmes–e.g. free contraception–as an impediment. Foster states that:

There is a fundamental question that environmentalists are not very good at asking, let alone answering: ‘Why is this, the destruction of the natural world, happening?

Well, a recent study in Nature Communications, evaluating a range of datasets, confirms much of what I’ve written, that it is the affluent minority who “are responsible for most environmental impacts”. They speak to societies that require overconsumption and have to incentivise it, based on the imperative for endless growth through market-based economies. They are talking about capitalism.

So, the answer to the question is actually quite clear, and it’s time for environmentalists to accept it and focus on the hard and daunting work the answer calls for. Fortunately for environmentalists–and I as one of them–many people have already begun to do this. DM/MC

Bruce Baigrie works as an organiser and researcher for the Alternatives to Climate Change and Extractivism Programme at the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC).

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