The contested present, versus the populationists’ ‘ghastly future’

The false narrative that population growth is a key driver of ecological crisis “accus[es] and put[s] the onus on” people in the global south who bear the brunt of that crisis, Jevgeniy Bluwstein and others write in Frontiers in Conservation Science, an academic journal, this month.

They argue that, instead of drawing a straight line from rising population and affluence to ecological disaster, scientists “should help expose the structural causes and drivers of inequality, overproduction and overconsumption”.

Bluwstein and his colleagues are responding to an article that re-presents a populationist narrative, in a new version for the 2020s, “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future”. Its authors include Corey Bradshaw, an Australian ecologist, and Paul Ehrlich, a leading advocate of “too many people” arguments since the 1970s.

Protests against a new mining project in Chile. Photo from No A La Mina web site

Bradshaw, Ehrlich et al outline three linked crises – biodiversity loss, the sixth mass extinction and climate disruption – and suggest that scientists’ social responsibility is to “tell it like it is”: to adopt “a good communication strategy” to undercut human “optimism bias” that ignores expert warnings.

The implication is that political leaders need to be convinced to “listen to the science”, although they don’t use that well-worn phrase. They write:

The gravity of the situation requires fundamental changes to global capitalism, education and equality, which include [among other things] the abolition of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing externalities, a rapid exit from fossil-fuel use [and so on]. […] These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.

Bluwstein et al challenge the assumptions underlying this approach.

First, they write, there is not “one science” that simply needs to be communicated more clearly.

While there is broad scientific consensus on the existence and anthropogenic drivers of the crises [biodiversity loss, extinctions and climate], there is far less agreement on how we should understand the defining features of the Anthropocene, let alone how to address the crises.

Where Bradshaw et al focus on population growth, “historians and social scientists emphasise the role of centuries of European colonisation and fossil capitalism”, Bluwstein et al point out.

Second, they argue, “science-based awareness (or lack thereof) of environmental processes and crises is not the driving force in policy and politics”.

You can say that again. (For example: the UK government’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic clearly can not be explained by politicians’ failure to understand the science. Their decisions were guided by other imperatives.)

Political and societal change, Bluwstein et al continue, is actually driven by:

A complex set of societal conflicts, usually underpinned by social movements who contest the status quo by acting on real or perceived political, social, economic and environmental inequalities and injustices.

Millions of people are “already acutely aware” of the socio-ecological crises described by Bradshaw et al, “because they face them every day” and, in many cases, are fighting to protect their communities from the effects.

Taking aim at the title of Bradshaw et al’s article, Bluwstein et al continue:

The idea that only the “future” will be “ghastly” reinforces a western white and elitist framing of reality, since the present is already experienced as apocalyptic by many frontline communities.

Third, write Bluwstein et al, Bradshaw et al use:

well-worn neo-Malthusian tropes to frame an undifferentiated “humanity” in general, and human population growth more concretely, as a key driver of “many societal problems”, from food insecurity and malnutrition, soil degradation and biodiversity loss, pandemics and resource scarcity, crowding and joblessness, deteriorating infrastructure and bad governance, and conflicts and wars.

This approach “displaces attention” from patterns of uneven development and inequality. Bradshaw et al “do mention inequality and capitalism in passing as forces standing in the way of needed change”, Bluwstein et al write. But

To us, these are not peripheral but central aspects of any scientific analysis that takes seriously the causes and drivers of biodiversity loss, the sixth mass extinction and climate disruption.

The revival of Malthusian frameworks in the universities is not limited to a single article, by any means.

The idea of “scarcity” – an assumed mismatch between infinitely expanding human desires and finite means to realise them – is also being reconfigured in politically dangerous ways, Lyla Mehta and her colleagues argued in a 2019 article in the journal Geoforum.  

Scarcity “remains a powerful concept than continues to be deployed and redeployed” in debates on environment and natural resources, they argued – and against which challenges are being mounted in academia.

This false dichotomy, between human desires and limited resources, also finds its reflection in Bradshaw et al’s approach.

They draw a straight line from rising population, and rising affluence of what they call the “global middle class”, to the most damaging ecological impacts.

This downplays the central causal role of capitalism and its relentless drive to expand. To take one example, Bradshaw et al write:

More people means that more synthetic compounds and dangerous throw-away plastics are manufactured, many of which add to the growing toxification of the Earth.

This is clearly at odds with research on plastics production and consumption over the last 50 years. This has been caused, firstly, by the relentless rise of oil production, and the expansion of the petrochemicals industries for which oil and gas are cheap raw materials.

A second factor is the dizzying expansion of markets for cheap consumer goods in rich countries. The replacement, from the 1980s, of glass and cardboard packaging by non-recyclable plastic, and its relationship to the growth of international food trade and “just in time” supply lines, is well-researched.

So is the role of money-grasping corporations in boosting plastics consumption, and the laughable failure of state regulation. (An example that always sticks in my mind is the research by Juliet Schor, a sociologist, showing that in 2001, the USA consumed 69 plastic toys for every single child, many of them given away free with fast-food meals.)  

All these drivers of plastics use have everything to do with the social and economic structures of capitalism, and almost nothing to do with population growth per se, or with “affluence” in any meaningful sense.

Bradshaw et al’s more general claim, that population growth and “affluence” are the key drivers of global warming, is equally flawed.

There is extensive research showing, on one hand, that the poorest half of the world population accounts for only 7% of cumulative total greenhouse gas emissions, and, on the other hand, that where living standards in the global south have improved, the climate effect is minimal. For example, in late twentieth-century India, electrification that improved the lives of hundreds of millions of rural citizens was a “trivial” cause of greenhouse gas emissions, compared to urban industrial expansion.  

Another giant gap in Bradshaw et al’s logic is their emphasis on population growth not only as “a factor in many social ills”, but also as a cause of wars. “Population growth itself can even increase the probability of military involvement in conflicts”, they claim.

This protest in Longkou, in Shandong province, China, in 2016, blocked plans to build a new petrochemicals plant. The photo was sent to Radio Free Asia by a resident

As evidence, they cite a 1998 article by Jaroslav Tir and Paul Diehl, US-based statisticians. They claimed to show a “modest” correlation between nations involved in conflicts and rates of population growth between 1930 and 1989 – and wrote cautiously that this “seems to confirm the more pessimistic of the views of population and conflict”.

But Tir and Diehl made not the slightest attempt to contextualise the statistics collected in the actual history of the period 1930-1989. They acknowledged the falsity of the Nazi justification for invading countries, that more living space was needed – but beyond that, the social, political and economic causes of the second world war, or any other war, are not mentioned.

The statistics are presented without any reference to the drivers of the bloodthirsty imperial adventures of the postwar period – Vietnam, Algeria and so on. Those wars are not referred to by name.

To explain 20th century wars by focusing on the role of population growth – and exclude capitalist nations’ drive for economic and political domination – is false. Bradshaw et al extend this approach to ecological ruptures between humanity and nature.

In my view, this controversy between groups of university-based scholars has great importance for social movements.

The approach advocated by Bradshaw, Ehrlich et al – that if we only “tell it like it is”, existing political and social structures can be adapted to face a “ghastly future”, by having “difficult conversations” about population size and living standards – ignores the reality of the world we live in, in which political and decision-making power is intimately linked to structures of wealth, class and neo-imperial exploitation.

This neo-Malthusian ideology finds echoes far beyond the universities, among environmentalists who believe that climate issues can somehow be isolated from social issues.

Appeals to “listen to the science” and “tell the truth” – if ripped out of the social context in which we live – can justify damaging strategies.

In particular, calls for “climate action” in rich countries – severed from an understanding of the havoc being wreaked by climate change in the global south and the reaction to it by movements there – can support reactionary techno-fixes that both fail to address the climate emergency, and reinforce the misery and social injustice that is produced, alongside ecological damage, by capitalism.

The more interaction between the discussions in social movements and those in the universities, the better. Simon Pirani, 25 May 2021.

More about these debates on People & Nature

Strategies for the new climate war (April 2021)

The Earth and us: ways of seeing (February 2018 – review of Bonneuil and Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene)

The ideologue who tried to make environmentalism mean population control (July 2014 – retrospective on Paul Ehrlich)

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