The Overpopulation Myth
It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed. The brilliant earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for example, claimed last month that, ‘Those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational.’ But it’s Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.
A paper published in the Journal of Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5 per cent of the world’s population growth and just 2.4 per cent of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4 per cent of the extra people, but 14 per cent of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions.
Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around one-sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one-seventh of the transport fuel of households earning 30,000 rupees or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.
Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to us. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for example, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together. Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.
The paper’s author, David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development, points out that the old formula taught to all students of development – that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I = PAT) – is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I = CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world’s people use so little that they wouldn’t figure in this equation. They are the ones who have the most children.
While there’s a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there’s a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I’ve been taking a look at a few superyachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain politicians in the style to which they’re accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet’s RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour I realised that it wasn’t going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 litres of fuel per hour. But the raft that’s really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3,400 litres of fuel per hour when travelling at 60 knots. That’s nearly one litre per second. Another way of putting it is thirty-one litres per kilometre.
Of course to make a real splash I’ll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jet-skis and a minisubmarine, ferry my guests to the marina by private plane and helicopter, offer them bluefin tuna sushi and beluga caviar and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I’ll do more damage to the biosphere in ten minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime.
Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the Lower Thames Valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3,000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry. But at least the super-wealthy have the good manners not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human reproduction leave them alone.
In May 2009, The Sunday Times carried an article headlined ‘Billionaire Club in Bid to Curb Overpopulation’. It revealed that ‘some of America’s leading billionaires have met secretly’ to decide which good cause they should support. ‘A consensus emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat.’ The ultra-rich, in other words, have decided that it’s the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it’s impossible to satirise
James Lovelock, like Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Porritt, is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). It is one of dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere. But I haven’t been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich.
So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against superyachts and private jets? Where’s Class War when you need it? It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.
—excerpted from How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature by George Monbiot