Too Big Not to Fail?

I recently started to have an interesting conversation with David Cromwell, author of “Private Planet” and “Why are we the good guys?”, and co-editor of the superb British website Media Lens. I had just finished reading his latest excellent book (good guys) and wanted to congratulate him on his efforts. I also had a couple of points I wanted to discuss with him, one of which concerned a chapter titled “Global Climate Crime”.

The chapter is about the very serious issue of the effects of human beings upon global climate. David concludes the chapter with a section headed “The Eightfold Nay: The Great Unmentionables of Climate Coverage.” He introduces the Eightfold Nay (an eight-point list) with these words:  [H]ere are eight key issues [about climate crime] that are not being discussed at length by ‘mainstream’ politicians, academics and the media:”

I don’t disagree with any of the eight points listed. What I wanted to raise with David was something that was not on his list – something which, as far as I’m concerned, not only deserved to be there, it should have headed it: the issue of human overpopulation.

In my e-mail to David I wrote:

Accepting that the issues listed are all human-related rather than the many naturally occurring events which affect climate – such as comet strikes, super-volcanoes, periodic variations in the tilt of the Earth’s axis and orbit, solar activity, continental drift and so on… of the human-related issues listed not one of them includes human overpopulation. For me, human overpopulation not only deserves to be included in the list, it should head it. For me, it is the single most important factor contributing to human destruction of the environment. It’s sort of obvious: if there were fewer human beings there would be less human vandalism.

Part of David’s reply read:

On population, I did wonder whether I should tackle the issue head on or not. Perhaps I should have, if only to explicitly discount it as the central issue that so many people insist upon. I think Simon Butler and Ian Angus express it well in a well-argued article in Grist Magazine:

[M]ost of the 7 billion are not endangering the earth. The majority of the world’s people don’t destroy forests, don’t wipe out endangered species, don’t pollute rivers and oceans, and emit essentially no greenhouse gases … [W]hile populationist groups focus attention on the 7 billion, protestors in the worldwide Occupy movement have identified the real source of environmental destruction: not the 7 billion, but the 1%, the handful of millionaires and billionaires who own more, consume more, control more, and destroy more than all the rest of us put together.

I read the Butler and Angus article and realised I couldn’t properly respond to David in an e-mail. It needed something more. I said I’d write something and open up the subject to others.

An African field-trip

I went to school in Rhodesia. I was not a great scholar. I always referred to school as prison and resented the amount of my time it demanded. My reports show that I usually whiled-away the long, long hours at the bottom of most classes, and the only thing I excelled at were the number of beatings I received for various disciplinary offences (my best friend Alan was my only close rival). I can count the useful things I learnt at school on the fingers of one hand. One such very rare event occurred sometime around 1970, when our geography class went on a field-trip.

We spent the day on a farm, a farm owned by a white person. Now white-owned farms in Matabeleland at that time were very different from what most Europeans understand the word “farm” to mean. Here in England almost every square inch of farmland has some utilitarian purpose. Back then European farms in my home province of Matabeleland were more like national parks – mostly virgin bush, with relatively little land being actively farmed in any serious way.

Now the part of the farm where we went that day bordered an area known as Tribal Trust Land (TTL). TTLs were areas of land that were allocated to the majority of the country’s native African population to live in – a bit like reservations in the United States where American natives were,  and still are, confined. In the deeply racist society that imperial England had designed for her African colonies, and which I grew up in, black people couldn’t live in the same areas as white people (unless they were working for whites as domestic servants, in which case they were permitted to live at the bottom of the garden in tiny little sheds called “kias”); and white people couldn’t live in areas reserved for black people (not that many wanted to).

This situation was, of course, a deeply political issue. The foreign media made much of the fact that most of the land in Rhodesia was owned by a relatively small percentage of the population (the 99% – 1% argument of its day). This was, of course, absolutely true – every bit as true as it was (and is) right here in the UK, and in most other parts of the planet – but the media never bothered to point that out. Furthermore, according to the media, not only did the whites own a disproportionate amount of land, they also owned the “best” land. Now this was not quite so true, as our little school field trip was about to prove in quite spectacular fashion. I doubt very much that this was the purpose of the trip – it certainly wasn’t taught in that way – but it was one of the very few lessons I clearly remember from my time at school.

The white-owned farm we were visiting was separated from the TTL by a single barbed wire fence. The fence ran in a fairly straight line. On the white-owned side the land was mostly covered with natural grasses and all sorts of wild trees and healthy blooming shrubs. On the TTL side of the fence you could have been looking at a desert. The land was hard sun-baked ground with scarcely a blade of grass to be seen. There were fewer trees than on the other side of the fence and the shrubs were sparse and bedraggled. Now here’s the really important thing: the earth on either side of the fence was exactly the same. This was not a case of white people having the best land; it was exactly the same land – with a barbed wire fence running down the middle of it. If we could have travelled back in time a mere hundred years or so to that exact same spot the land all around us would have looked identical – wild, healthy savannah. The reason for the very obvious differences between the two sides of the fence was not about any natural qualities of the earth, it was about how the land was being used.

On the white-owned side the land was hardly used at all. It probably looked pretty much the same way it did a hundred thousand years earlier. On the TTL side, however, the land had been hugely overgrazed by cattle and goats. One of the simple little tests we did that day (the only one I remember) involved using a small metal cylinder about four inches in diameter and about two inches high. You simply put the cylinder on the ground and filled it with water and timed how long it took for the water to seep into the earth. On the white-owned side of the fence it disappeared pretty quickly. On the TTL side it took much, much longer. What this showed was that when it rained water would be retained on the white-owned land but would quickly run off into streams and rivers on the TTL side – helping to produce drought conditions.

The many critics of the day would have said the answer was obviously to remove the fence so the Africans living in the TTL would have more land to graze their animals. This would indeed have provided a short-term solution; but the long-term effect would not have been to convert the TTL into land that resembled the white-owned land, but to convert the white-owned land into overgrazed semi-desert.

This was possibly the first time the reality of human overpopulation began to dawn on me; although I did also attend an eye-opening lecture at about that time by some visiting “expert” who spoke about the effects of overgrazing and overpopulation in other parts of Africa – and that was over forty years ago.

What is “overpopulation”?

Sometime in the 1960s US President Johnson was addressing American GIs at Camp Stanley in Korea. He said the following:

Don’t forget, there are only 200 million of us in a world of three billion. They want what we’ve got and we’re not going to give it to them.

The comment is relevant to this essay for a couple of reasons, but for now I would just like to focus on the number he gives for the size of the planet’s human population – three billion people. Today it’s over seven billion. For the last four decades the human population has been growing by about a billion people every thirteen years or so.

In my opinion, and a slowly growing number of others too, our planet is overpopulated. In my e-mail to David I mentioned that I sometimes wonder at what point in our history the point of overpopulation was reached. Of course, we’ll never know the answer to that for sure – but it’s interesting to think about it. I reckon a fairly good contender would be sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, when European colonialism was just hitting its stride. You could put a case for an even earlier date, when the first empires were carving out sizeable chunks of the planet’s real estate for themselves by butchering or enslaving the people already living there.

David, and many other people too, are not at all convinced the planet is overpopulated. It’s a view I find surprising. I don’t understand how anyone can argue that human beings are a major contributory factor to climate change at the same time as appearing to believe that the quantity of those human beings is irrelevant. To me that view defies all logic. I mean, if the total number of human beings on Earth was just ten, say, I think it’s fair to conclude they couldn’t possibly affect its climate very much. A trillion human beings on the other hand would be a rather different story. So there must be some sort of optimum figure for human population that would not impact significantly on the planet – not just its climate, but on its many precious and fragile eco-systems too. What might that number be? A billion? Ten billion perhaps? Twenty billion? A hundred billion? A trillion?

I do not doubt for one second that it would be possible to cram many more human beings onto the planet than we currently have. I don’t doubt that it would be possible to provide food, water and energy for many billions of human beings; scientists are very clever, they could surely do that. But what would be the cost to the rest of the planet – the rapidly diminishing rain forests, over-fished seas, disappearing wilderness areas and, as my own school geography field-trip showed, disappearing savannahs? Of course, we could fill up wilderness areas with corporate factory farms, desalination plants, and easily power it all with nuclear energy; but is that really what we want for the planet? And, an even bigger question… why should we even do it? What on Earth is the point? How would it possibly benefit the planet if the human population was so huge that the only other forms of life that were allowed to exist were those in factory farms, being processed for human survival? Is human life really that important?

The over-population deniers say…

When David replied to my original e-mail he also sent a link to an article by deniers Simon Butler and Ian Angus, which David feels is “well-argued”.   So let’s take a look at what they have to say.

“[M]ost of the 7 billion are not endangering the earth. The majority of the world’s people don’t destroy forests, don’t wipe out endangered species, don’t pollute rivers and oceans, and emit essentially no greenhouse gases.

Even in the rich countries of the Global North, most environmental destruction is caused not by individuals or households, but by mines, factories, and power plants run by corporations that care more about profit than about humanity’s survival.”

This point is largely true, but it overlooks a very important factor: the profit that drives the various corporations who are indeed responsible for causing environmental destruction is wholly dependent on numbers of human beings. It depends on the numbers of slaves available to do the actual destroying, mining, transporting, manufacturing and retailing; and it depends on the numbers of consumers who will pay for the fruits of all that slave labour. If there were fewer people to do the slaving and consuming, profits would be smaller – and surely this is at the heart of the problem? We have a global economic system which demands that corporations maximise profits. That cannot be done with a shrinking human population; therefore we must have a continually growing one – not because it’s beneficial to the planet, or to ordinary human beings even, but because corporate profits are wholly dependent on it. Everyone knows that providing permanent growth with finite resources is impossible; but to the psychopathic corporate mentality that’s beside the point. All that matters to the 1% is maximum profit this year. Next year can take care of itself. As for twenty or thirty years’ time (let alone a hundred or more)… well, who cares? By then today’s top stock-holders – the only people who matter – will have long split the scene of the crime to join their loot and plunder in their off-shore tax-havens.

Butler and Angus continue:

“No reduction in U.S. population would have stopped BP from poisoning the Gulf of Mexico last year.

Lower birthrates won’t shut down Canada’s tar sands, which Bill McKibben has justly called one of the most staggering crimes the world has ever seen.”

These types of examples are used several times in the article. The first point is rather strange. BP is a huge international corporation with clients all over the world. Whilst the US is obviously a very important market, the profits of BP are not wholly dependent on the size of the US population; so although this point is correct it’s also largely irrelevant – especially given that US population growth is a slower rate than that of the planet as a whole.

The other point which ought to be mentioned here is the size of population reduction and over what period of time. If Butler and Angus are talking about a small and temporary reduction, then, of course, no self-respecting corporation would be too concerned; but if it was a sizeable and/or long-term reduction, there would very definitely be panic in the boardroom. Rats abandoning the sinking ship would be the order of the day and anything resembling unnecessary costs – such as drilling expensive new oilfields – would very quickly be knocked on the head.

The article goes on:

“Ironically, while populationist groups focus attention on the 7 billion, protestors in the worldwide Occupy movement have identified the real source of environmental destruction: not the 7 billion, but the 1%, the handful of millionaires and billionaires who own more, consume more, control more, and destroy more than all the rest of us put together.”

This is a repetition of the point that corporations are at the heart of the problem, and this theme is pretty much the only evidence that Butler and Angus provide to support their denial that human overpopulation is a problem. They go on to say:

“Those who believe that slowing population growth will stop or slow environmental destruction are ignoring these real and immediate threats to life on our planet. Corporations and armies aren’t polluting the world and destroying ecosystems because there are too many people, but because it is profitable to do so.”

As I hope I’ve made clear, I do not dispute the evil of corporations; but to suggest that the existence of 7 billion people has absolutely nothing to do with corporate profits is seriously misleading. Personally speaking, I would like to see a reduction in human population not only because I think it would benefit the planet, but because it would also begin to cause the demise of corporations.

The next point:

“If every African country adopts a one-child policy, energy companies in the U.S., China, and elsewhere will continue burning coal, bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe.”

Once again this is largely true, but why should Africa be the only country to adopt a one-child policy? What would be the situation if we removed the word “African” from the Angus and Butler statement? It doesn’t look quite so true any more. Energy companies would indeed still be producing energy – but not as much, and the quantity they produce would continue reducing.


“What we do say is that in an ecologically rational and socially just world, where large families aren’t an economic necessity for hundreds of millions of people, population will stabilize. In Betsy Hartmann’s words, ‘The best population policy is to concentrate on improving human welfare in all its many facets. Take care of the population and population growth will go down.’”

I can’t think of anywhere where large families are “an economic necessity”. In most places where large families are the norm I think it has more to do with custom and/or religious dogma than “economic necessity”. We can’t even blame the absence of birth control anymore as condoms are now quite easily available almost anywhere – except places where religious and/or secular authorities ban them. Most people hold up Africa for examples of the most impoverished populations on the planet – with good reason, and yet…

Shortly after my schoolboy geography field trip I worked in several different Tribal Trust Lands very similar to the one where we had conducted our geography experiments. Apart from the overcrowding, the people lived pretty much the same way as they had done for many centuries. Wealth was mostly measured in livestock. It didn’t matter what condition your cattle and goats were in (and the cattle seldom looked well), all that mattered was how many of them you had. Big families were normal – but this was definitely not through economic necessity. Men saw it as a sign of their virility and manhood; and whilst all children were adored and well cared-for girls, rather unusually, had “added value”, so to speak: before they got married their prospective husbands would have to give cattle to the girls’ fathers. I worked with a guy who had seven young daughters and no sons, and he seldom missed a chance to dream about how rich he was going to be, with seven dowries to look forward to, without the expense of having to provide any dowries for sons.

Where he was going to keep all the cows he was going to get was a non-issue. Every Rhodesian African had roots in a TTL somewhere. The cows would live somewhere in his home TTL. No matter the land was too parched and barren from having been overstocked for too long with too many cattle – and worse still goats. The point is, large families were not an “economic necessity” – in my twenty three years there I never saw any starvation in Rhodesia (starving cattle in times of drought excepted). Large families were simply the custom – like in so many other places around the world. These families measured their wealth in livestock, and big families equalled more livestock. The fact that limited land couldn’t support unlimited livestock never came into it.

What I saw that day when I looked at the two sides of the barbed wire fence was not the result of “economic necessity” or corporate greed (corporations were effectively non-existent in Rhodesia at that time when we were enduring severe economic sanctions). It was the result of overpopulation. I know it could have been alleviated by African TTL spreading out into white-owned land, but that would have only provided a temporary solution. This was land which had, in my early childhood memory, still sustained a wonderful range of wildlife that had roamed the savannah for a million years or more. It was so plentiful that my next-door neighbour could — and did — go shooting it once a year, bagging great antelopes such as kudu and sable. I remember him killing lion and leopard – just because he could. And I watched it rapidly disappearing before the expanding tide of human population – not corporations or “economic necessity”.

The corporate factor

Of course, corporations are a major problem in all of this. Recall the words of president Johnson:

“They [meaning non-American corporations] want what we’ve got and we’re not going to give it to them.”

It was a sentiment echoed more recently by the usually excellent investigative journalist Greg Palast when he told about the mighty multi-billionaire Charles Koch, presenting an almost identical display of corporate greed and arrogance.  In an article directly related to the subject of climate change Palast reported an event from 1989 when Koch industries were investigated on allegations of theft from an Indian reservation. According to Palast a secret tape recording was made of Charles Koch at the time, and he…

“was chuckling like a six-year old. Koch was having a hell of a laugh over pilfering a few hundred dollars’ worth of oil from a couple of dirt-poor Indians on the Osage Reservation.

Why did Koch, worth about $3 billion at the time (now $20 billion) need to boost a few bucks from some Indian in a trailer home? Koch answered:

“I want my fair share – and that’s all of it.”

It’s very tempting to look at the vast emptiness of the Sahara say, or Siberia, Antarctica or the Pacific, and ridicule the notion that the planet is overpopulated. But none of it is truly empty, of course – nearly all of it teems with life in one form or another. But corporations don’t see empty space, they see profit, and they all want to monopolise and maximise that profit. If the profit comes at the cost of the extinction of existing fauna and flora, so be it. Every third world country has its many tales of foreign corporations vandalising the land and poisoning local populations as they plunder it for all its worth. Almost every environmentalist understands that. But why can they not also see that growing corporate profits are wholly related to a growing human population?

Most studies show the planet’s human population growing exponentially at a truly terrifying rate; and population counters, which show not the rate of new human births but the rate of increase of new human births are the stuff of nightmares (5). A few of these population studies suggest the population will start to decline within a couple of decades – a view shared by Angus and Butler (“Take care of the population and the population will go down”).

These few studies completely ignore the corporate factor. Corporations do not “take care” of populations – they exploit them. To suggest that corporations will soon stop exploiting and start caring for human populations – and thereby the planet – requires a leap of faith that’s almost on a par with believing in virgin births and flying reindeers. It requires a belief that corporate bosses are going to start doing something they’ve never done before: think about the long-term future of the planet. What corporations may very well start to do (if they haven’t already) is start “managing” populations – which thought should send shivers down anyone’s spine if the way they manage livestock is anything to go on.

Back to school

The Chinese showed what needs to be done – but almost typically they overcooked the pudding. Half a century ago China realised the real problem of overpopulation and introduced laws forcing women to have only one child. China is often held up as an overcrowded country, yet its population density is only about half that of the UK. Today, as corporations flex their muscles in China, talk of “relaxing” population controls is becoming more common.

I do not believe there’s any need – yet – for forcing people to limit the number of children they have. Using force is seldom a good option. However, education is another matter entirely.

It would not be necessary to copy China’s one-child policy in order to reduce the human population. If each woman had only two children that grew to maturity, the planet’s population would at least stop growing and more or less level out (and this effort should be directed at women rather than men for the obvious reason that only women can bear children). In other words a two-child family would be quite sufficient to be effective, and provide all the social benefits of a “normal” family life.

If such a simple lesson were taught to every child on the planet, together with the rationale for it, it would soon become socially unacceptable to have a huge family; and social acceptability is a powerful teaching aid. If it became the norm for most women to have only two children, the reality is the human population would slowly decline: some women don’t want to have children at all, others can’t have them, and some children never make it to maturity. Childless women would no longer need to feel like failures or social outcasts, as some currently do, and could instead see themselves as environmentalists and anti-corporation activists.

So what should be an ideal size of human population?

I return to my geography field-trip to answer this one. On the one side of the barbed-wire fence human beings could just about live in harmony with wildlife that had been living there too for a million years or more. On the other side of the fence they most certainly couldn’t. If we accept that human beings have no right to live somewhere if it costs the forced extinction of creatures who had already been there for many millennia – a view held by many so-called primitive tribes and environmentalists alike – we could start to get somewhere. In other words, it comes down to a view that’s far from original: human beings should live in harmony with the environment, recognising the right of all species to live free lives; and humans should not use any resources that cannot be easily replaced. To a large extent it’s simply about self-sufficiency and living within our means, and being satisfied with Enough. Every country should easily be able to fully meet the needs of its own population in terms of essentials – food, water, clothing, shelter, energy – from its own replaceable resources, and without destroying its wilderness areas or exterminating natural fauna and flora. If a country can’t do that, it’s overpopulated.

Controlling human population is rapidly becoming essential. It’s necessary because:

1. the planet cannot replenish many of the resources human beings are consuming;

2. whole species of ancient fauna and flora are being eradicated as a consequence of human beings destroying their habitats for one reason or another;

3. if the power of corporations is ever to be controlled, the direct connection between their key driving force and energy source – maximum profit – and a permanently growing human population needs to be clearly understood.

Denying the fact of human overpopulation is not only killing the planet, it’s also playing to the tune of the corporate business world; and who on Earth wants to be doing that?

John Andrews is a writer and political activist based in England. His latest booklet is entitled EnMo Economics. Other Non-Fiction books by John are: The People's Constitution (2018 Edition); and The School of Kindness (2018 Edition); and his historical novel The Road to Emily Bay Read other articles by John.