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Let's Explore Overpopulation

Updated: Dec 4, 2020

Photo by Archie Richards

Recently we saw the release of David Attenborough's latest documentary on Netflix: A Life On Our Planet. Leading up to the film's release Attenborough was interviewed by BBC Breakfast in which he states 'we have overrun the planet'. For those who are not aware, this is not the first time Attenborough, along with other prominent environmentalists, has spoken out about overpopulation and even population control as a solution to the climate crisis. The myth of overpopulation is steeped in racism and has been used frequently to fuel eco-facist ideals.

Overpopulation as a theory was formally introduced by Thomas Malthus in the late 18th Century, when he published 'An Essay on the Principle of Population'. The essay suggested that many issues society would face such as poverty, famine and war can largely be attributed to the growing human population. This theory has often been used since to blame societal issues on the poor reproducing, instead of war, misuse of resources, wealth extraction by the rich and starvation wages. In 1943 Winston Churchill blamed the Indians 'breading like rabbits' for causing the Bengal famine, which in fact he helped cause through mass exportation of Indian rice. In 2013, David Attenborough blamed the Ethiopian famine on 'too many people on too little land'. In regards to the climate crisis, overpopulation refers to the idea that there are more people on the planet than the earth is able to sustain, specifically referencing the excessive carbon emissions being emitted globally.

The rhetoric surrounding overpopulation is inherently racist. When discussed it is frequently done alongside narratives that allude to or explicitly state it is the Global South who need to curb their population growth. The Global South is home to some of the poorest communities, with the lowest consumption, and despite contributing the least they are facing the worst impacts of the climate crisis (MAPA - most affected people and areas). There are also dangerous consequences to the overpopulation theory, with an increase in white supremacists and alt-right members using it as justification for the 'ethnic cleansing' of communities in the name of environmentalism (El Paso shooting).

Most importantly the theory of overpopulation fails to acknowledge the vast difference in consumption across the world. Let this be a reminder that the richest 1% in the world contribute to double the emissions of the world's poorest 50%, and that 100 corporations are responsible for 70% of emissions. Whilst in localised areas population growth can be linked to environmental degradation - expansion of small-scale agriculture into rainforests - these often have a greater link to lack of means and extreme poverty. On a global scale population growth has a minimal impact.

Whilst it is possible at some point in the future there will be too many people for the earth's resources (many studies suggest the earth could sustain at least 10bn people, whilst others suggest the earth's rate of population growth will naturally decrease), we are not at that point yet. The climate crisis is not a distant horror, it is here and it is affecting people. Therefore, our energy should be on tackling the current issues not hypothesising over potential future causes.

So what should environmentalists be focussing their energy on?

  • Dismantle the oppressive systems that contribute to the climate crisis (think billionaires, white supremacy, capitalist ideals)

  • Call out those 100 corporations and hold them accountable

  • Uplift MAPA (both with exposure and money) and listen to those on the frontlines

Discussing the dangerous narrative of overpopulation is not too 'cancel' David Attenborough and other environmentalists, but to hold them to account. Accountability is an act of love, that shows the person you believe they are capable of bettering themselves and learning. It is undeniable David Attenborough has been instrumental in sharing nature's greatness and raising awareness of the climate crisis on an unimaginable scale - you just have to google the Attenborough effect to see his impact.

If our white environmental 'heroes' are advocating for population control but not for tackling extreme poverty, system change and calling out the billionaires then they are pedalling racist ideals. Overpopulation discourse often allows for the rich in the Global North to gloss over how the systems they uphold continue to perpetuate the climate crisis and global injustices. It is time to move beyond the overpopulation narrative and uplift the voices of MAPA. System change not climate change (or racist environmentalism)!


Attenborough's Interview

Article about White Nationalism and the Environment (El Paso Shooting)

Emission Statistics

Articles on Overpopulation’_Theory_of_Population_Growth

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