The Myth of Overpopulation
By: Stevie Terando
The term “overpopulation” often goes unchallenged when brought up to discuss our current ecological crisis. Even some self-deemed “radicals'' have been seen to accept the cruciality of the “population problem.” This harmful perception of our current crisis has not only led to an exclusion of discussing how social dynamics affect the environment, but also paved the way for the rise of “eco-fascists'' and preventing discussions on the systemic nature of climate change.
What is Eco-Fascism?
“Eco-fascism” is a theoretical political model that uses environmentalist language to bolster far-right views, specifically the concept of “overpopulation.” Eco-fascists condemn multiculturalism and believe people must stay in the regions their race originated in order to save the planet. Their logic is rooted in white nationalism and anti-semitism, and deflects from the real problems: greed and capitalism.
Thomas Malthus, 18th century English scholar, is credited as the “father” of pushing the narrative of overpopulation. Malthus argued that when food supply increases so will the population, thus leading to a world with a scarcity of resources and mass starvation. For him, population control was a necessity whether naturally, or artificially through disease, famine, or wars. The problem behind this ideology is it assumes every person creates and consumes an equal amount of pollution and emissions, but that is not a reality. One person from the top 1% creates the same amount of carbon emissions as 175 people from the poorest percentile. Malthus’s concern was not fostering human welfare, but callously justifying the oppressive actions of land-grabbing English aristocrats towards the impoverished masses.
The Danger of Confusing Mass Poverty as Overpopulation
Eco-fascists commonly confuse mass poverty as “overpopulation,” and place blame on poor people for their lifestyles rather than the social structures and institutions that led to their situations. Suggesting poor people should be held accountable for the wastefulness of the top 1% is dangerous, reckless thinking. Removing the emissions of the poorest half of the population — 3.5 billion people — would only drop global emissions by 10%. Environmentalism efforts must not be done on the backs of the poorest population. People experiencing poverty should not be left behind, and as a society, we should not be content with having such a large percentage of people living this lifestyle. If those in the top 10% wealth bracket are left unchecked, their carbon emissions would be great enough to raise temperatures by 34℉, even if the rest of the world cut their own emissions down to zero.
Overpopulation is Code for Imperialism
The narrative of a surplus population is a scaremongering concept that has led some countries to implement extremist practices, such as forced sterilization. In the 1970s, India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, declared she was suspending the Indian constitution and removing civil rights protections due to urgent population security concerns. Government workers of every status were being told to sterilize as many men as possible, some even given monthly quotas of how many men to convince to get vasectomies. In 1976 alone, the Indian government sterilized over 6 million men with an overwhelming majority from the low, impoverished class.
The shift of blame onto the poor represents the root of eco-fascism: justification of discrimination and imperialism. In the years prior to the state of emergency, the U.S. Government was placing enormous pressure on India's Prime Minister to enforce an aggressive population control policy. Powerful lobbying campaigns convinced Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration that population growth was a threat to national security and trade. When Indira Gandhi visited the United States an advisor to President Johnson asked if he wanted to offer more food aid for India, to which he responded, “Are you out of your fucking mind? … I’m not going to piss away foreign aid in nations where they refuse to deal with their own population problems.” President Johnson was being advised that overpopulation would lead to a world full of chaos, war, and communism. Centuries after it was introduced, Malthus’s scaremongering concept managed to infiltrate the mind of the most powerful man in the world and permanently transform a country’s society.
Changing our Understanding of Climate Change
The first step to resolving our global crisis is to understand it is not due to some innate human feature, such as childbirth. It falls on the social institutions we establish to determine the sustainability of human life, not the number of people in society. The current system we live under promotes excessive consumerism, short-term profiting, and unlimited economic growth — under this system, the amount of people who can sustainably live on Earth without harming it’s fragile conditions rapidly declines. There needs to be a shift in focus to more equal wealth redistribution, rather than phasing-out, or something harsher, the poor if any serious progress is going to be made about the climate crisis. Focusing on human needs at a grassroots level, rather than commercial industries, and switching to renewable energy sources will go a lot further for the planet than any horrific mandate of forced sterilization or family planning policies.
We can start by holding corporations and governments accountable when their greed impacts the general well being of the public. Universal health care is a necessary first step to not only fight illnesses, but help our environment at a grassroots level. Over 83% of major diseases are brought on due to environmental conditions. Clean air and water, nutritional food, health care, and sufficient shelter are all principle factors that contribute to a person’s health, but heavily depend on their surrounding environment. Our current climate crisis must be a wakeup call for society that our world of corporations putting human life below profit is not sustainable. Every person needs to become actively involved in their political realm to push the restructure of our society’s foundation. The climate crisis should not be our sign to give up on humanity, but rather show us that we can, will, and must create change.