Environmental journalist David Roberts wrote, “Anyone who’s ever given a talk on an environmental subject knows that the population question is a near-inevitability.” It’s the first thing many people jump to: the question of population growth in “developing” countries—and with the BBC reporting that India’s population will overtake that of China by 2022, and that “Nigeria will replace the US as the world’s third most populous country by around 2050”, they are not wrong that countries with lower GDPs are rapidly expanding in population. The world is expected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, and half of this growth is predicted to occur in nine countries, only one of which—the United States—would be called an “economically developed nation”.
The concern is understandable when viewed as a simple equation. More people consuming resources equals more resources consumed, equals more pollution emitted, equals the end of the world coming around much faster. In fact, there is a well-known formula for describing the impact of humans on the environment, generally written as “I = PAT”, or impact equals population multiplied by affluence multiplied by technology. Population is certainly a key factor. However, it is not the only factor, and arguably not the most important one. An extremely wealthy population will use far more resources, simply because they can afford to consume more things.
According to a 2009 study from Oregon State, the lifestyle of a child in the United States emits more than 160 times the greenhouse gases as a child in Bangladesh. Overpopulation alone clearly is not the issue when the planet could support 160 people if one person lived in a more sustainable way.
In this sense, the fact that population growth is generally occurring in “developing” nations could be seen as something of an opportunity. Yes, it is true that a country of over a billion people, if their lifestyles closely resembled those of many people in Western countries today, would be an environmental disaster. Countries like India and Nigeria must “develop” in a more sustainable way than the West did, in a way which is not powered by fossil fuels and does not follow such a consumerist ideology.
Developing sustainably will be difficult and expensive. Many international climate talks have fallen over on the basis of these demands—the suggestion that countries which did not cause the problem should curb their growth in order to mitigate it: that they should not be allowed to strive for the same standard of living that people in the West currently experience. For this reason, Dr Richard Eckard from the University of Melbourne suggests that the onus still lies with the Western world: “[If we] choose to take electric cars, choose to use solar energy on roofs, choose to eat more plant-based diets—and that becomes an archetype of what a sophisticated lifestyle is or what a wealthy lifestyle is—what you will find is those rising middle class will aspire to a different end point … You’re actually building a better house and inviting them across.” And this house can fit more people, without the same impact on the planet.
Focusing on overpopulation allows affluent Westerners, the cause of the problem, to excuse themselves from being part of the solution. It also smacks of an almost eugenics-y attitude—these growing nations that we are so concerned about are generally non-Western and non-white, and the desire to see their size limited could have a more problematic basis than simply concern for the environment. The same is true for “environmental” objections to immigration—proper infrastructure, resource use and environmental management would allow a country like Australia to support far more people than it currently does, and yet organisations such as the Sustainable Australia Party insist that preservation of our environment requires closing our borders: an act of thinly- veiled xenophobia.
This isn’t to say that overpopulation is not an issue that must be considered. The population of planet earth is growing rapidly, and at some point we will reach a ceiling on the number of people it can support. But the solution is not coercive population control, as has been attempted in some countries. The best way of tackling population growth (and many other political and social issues as well) has been shown time and again to be educating women. The autonomy and opportunity granted by education often means that they marry later and have fewer children—in addition to achieving a higher standard of living for themselves and their families.
The issue of access to birth control and reproductive health care is also a vital factor. A study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 40 per cent of pregnancies worldwide were unintended. This is not only a serious problem for the people who become pregnant but also a significant contributing factor to the global population. The study estimated that 38 per cent of those pregnancies were carried to term, which is a huge number of people who would otherwise not have been born. If we are seriously concerned about overpopulation, we should take real action and work to ensure women worldwide have proper access to reproductive care, and are able to choose if and when they become pregnant.
But overpopulation is posed as the problem so that we in the Western world can avoid taking responsibility for climate change and changing our own lifestyles, and so that the issues caused by our lifestyle cannot be effectively mitigated in time to prevent catastrophic climate change.