One of the most common widely believed myths about climate justice is that the growing world's population is one of the biggest causes behind large-scale ecological breakdown. We have been taught from the very beginning that the world's finite resources cannot infinitely sustain an exponentially growing population. Thus, overpopulation must be tackled to ensure the sustainability of the earth's ecosystems. However, behind the popularisation of this widespread fallacy is a violent history of racism, white supremacy, and eco-fascism.
It is a dangerous belief that places the liability of the climate crisis mostly on ‘Most Affected Peoples and Areas’ (MAPA) communities of colour who contribute the least towards climate change. It also removes accountability from large-scale corporations and polluters with the greatest carbon footprint.
Further, there is a popular narrative that ‘humans are the virus’ and the human population itself is responsible for ecological breakdown. However, indigenous communities and societies have been living in harmony with the environment for centuries. Only with the rise of British colonialism and the industrial revolution that led to the eradication of indigenous societies, had man tipped the ecological balance off and started what we now experience as the climate crisis.
Even worse, the myth of overpopulation has justified historically violent and coercive population control policies that have seen the forced sterilization of marginalised women of color and the death of millions of people from MAPA communities.
The early 18th Century scientist, Thomas Malthus popularized the theory that food production will not be able to keep up with the growth in human population resulting in disease, famine, war, and calamity. However, this was an idea that has been proven false and was simply untrue. Currently, the world population has grown to about 7 billion, yet excess food is being produced to feed roughly 10 billion people. Hunger and poverty today are caused not because of insufficient food production, but by inefficient supply chains and inequity in food distribution.
The idea of overpopulation was further taken up by the 1960s book called ‘The Population Bomb’ by Paul Elrich which also warned about the problems that would arise from allowing the human population to grow.
These theories mostly targeted marginalised communities of color in post-colonial countries in the so-called Global South and led to the establishment of inhumane and coercive population control policies. These were established on the tenets of white supremacy and blamed poor marginalised communities of color for ecological collapse.
The Overpopulation theory has also been associated with the advent of the racist ideology of Eugenics which suggests selectively mating people with “desirable” traits to “enhance” human nature
Holding the right people accountable:
This theory fails to take into account the fact that not all humans on earth have the same energy usage and carbon footprint. Most of the population of the world living in MAPA communities have a minimal carbon footprint and energy usage compared to the richest 1 percent who are responsible for most of the historical emissions due to their luxurious, unsustainable lifestyles and overconsumption. According to an Oxfam report, the richest 1 percent of the world contributes double the carbon dioxide emissions than the poorest 50 percent. Further, roughly 100 companies are responsible for more than 70 percent of global carbon emissions.
The overpopulation debate fails to consider the larger crisis of poverty caused by wealth inequality and resource hoarding by the richest 1 percent.
The myth of overpopulation has led to the adoption of severe coercive policies which has led to the death of millions in MAPA communities. China’s population control one-child policy also led to the violent and forced sterilization of women and an increase in the female infanticide rate. Even today, countries like India are moving towards adopting similar brutal population control policies which target marginalised women of color.
Further, millions of indigenous people whose societies have been organised around protecting the environment are targeted under the idea of overpopulation. Ironically, it is in fact our societies that should be organised in a regenerative manner similar to their lifestyles to tackle climate change.
Unfortunately, this ecofascist myth of overpopulation is still held widely in environmental justice circles and must be tackled to hold the right people accountable for climate breakdown.
Greenpeace - Overpopulation and Environmentalism
Green is the New Black- The overpopulation myth is an example of ecofascism
USCB- The Myth of Overpopulation and the Folks who brought it to you
Investopedia- Thomas Malthus
The Guardian- World's richest 1% cause double CO2 emissions of poorest 50%
The Guardian- Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions