It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that 2020 has been an interesting year (in the sense of “May you live in interesting times”). Fires, plagues, floods, Presidential impeachment, global economic meltdown, lockdowns: this year has seen them all. And we’re only in September. Thank goodness there isn’t a major election coming up where some are predicting social breakdown in nearly every conceivable scenario or anything

It’s not quite dogs and cats living together in peace and harmony, but another sign that the end is nigh is that I find myself nodding along to an article of George Monbiot (greenie extraordinaire) in the Guardian. In it, Monbiot argues that blaming overpopulation for environmental concerns is a cop out, particularly for rich people in first world nations who get to lecture the third world on the need to have fewer children while they enjoy a lifestyle with a carbon footprint bigger than that of small central African nations. 

As he states, the current population growth is overwhelmingly concentrated among the world’s poorest people. This means that a rising human population is only producing a tiny fraction of the extra resource use and greenhouse gas emissions due to consumption growth. Instead, we in the West should be turning our attention on our own behaviours (that latest iPhone, the plane trip to Davos to discuss climate change) rather than fretting about more Indian or African babies.

The example Monbiot gives of Dame Jane Goodall is a good one. She told the World Economic Forum in Davos that if only we had the same population as we did 500 years ago (500 million) then the current environmental issues would not be with us. The audience of course consisted of those with ecological footprints many thousand times greater than the global average. But the greater irony is that Goodall has previously appeared in British Airways advertising. If the world’s population was 500 million, and it was entirely composed of the average UK plane passenger, then our environmental impact would probably be greater than the 7.8 billion people alive today. When it comes to the environment, population size does not matter nearly as much as lifestyle. 

Indeed, wishing that the world’s population was one-sixteenth its current size is the same as wishing for the moon and just as useless. Tut-tutting about more people being born over there saves us from having to worry about anything we are doing over here. It is environmental virtue-signalling.

Except when it leads to policy outcomes that are far worse than virtue-signalling. Population panic has led to barbaric, coercive population control measures in many countries throughout the world. And this is not an historical problem: UK foreign aid was helping to fund crude, dangerous and coercive sterilisation in India as recently as 2011, it was justified on the grounds that it was helping to “fight climate change”. (At the same time the UK aid was also pouring money into developing coal, gas and oil plants around the world…)

Of course, Monbiot could have been reading Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si in which the Holy Father said that:

“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 legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”

And both Monbiot and Pope Francis had perhaps been reading this very blog, since nearly a decade ago I wrote of the thinly-veiled condescending bigotry underlying much of the West’s panic about overpopulation. Perhaps now that the more people are coming around to the view that the world’s population will stop growing in a few decades, we will see less insistence on the kinds of arguments Monbiot is railing against. 

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...