Shoehorning Every Crisis into a Climate Box – All While Ignoring Population, Of Course

Somalia as a case study

Recently I received an email from the activist organization Avaaz, soliciting money for Somalia. “This is the face of the climate crisis,” the subject line read, and the message opened with a picture of an emaciated-looking man sharing a tender moment with his young son. This moment, the message continues, is happening “in the midst of unspeakable horror.”

That horror is famine: there are 7 million people in danger of starving in Somalia, half the children are severely malnourished, a starving child is admitted to hospital every minute, and close to 40% of Somalia’s population could starve to death. Somalia is experiencing its worst drought in forty years.

Avaaz tells us that the world’s poorest people are dying from climate disasters right now; people who have done the least to cause the climate crisis, and that more children will die as climate disasters slam the planet. We are informed that our money could help support a massive feeding program, fund medical assistance, run ads in major media, and launch powerful campaigns to carry the voices of those caught on the climate frontlines to decision makers.

The Avaaz solicitation does not mention family planning. It does not tell us that Somalia’s population has increased from 2.8 million in 1960 to 17 million today. This greater than 6-fold increase in 62 years has occurred despite its large diaspora of refugees fleeing Somalia’s endless conflicts. Relative to climate change over the last 62 years, how much did massive population growth and the resulting deforestation and soil erosion, not to mention so many more people to feed, contribute to Somalia’s woes?

Nobody seems to be asking that question although there are two and a half times as many people in danger of starvation now as the total population in 1960.

In modern human history, Somalia has always been arid. The rampant deforestation, much of it for charcoal production, has sped soil erosion and robbed the land of its ability to hold water. Though a changing climate could make matters worse, these underlying causes were already at work well before the 1970s when some scientists and even the CIA were warning us about a coming ice age.

Population growth of Somalia 1956 to 1921 from Our World in Data

The More the Merrier?

And yet, the Washington Post celebrated the milestone of eight billion people (officially on November 15 this year) as an achievement, not a catastrophe. Perhaps it took its cue from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) itself, whose executive director Dr. Natalia Kanem said that “the sheer number of humans is not a cause for fear” and warned against “population alarmism.”

The  Washington Post portrayed Malthus, who in 1798 famously warned that the rate of the increase in human population growth inevitably exceeds the rate of increase in the food supply, as an alarmist. But the Post’s dismissal of Malthus raises the question: If Malthus was so entirely wrong, why is Avaaz begging me for money to help starving Somalis? Why is the World Food Programme warning us that this year is a year of unprecedented hunger? Why are there, according to the UN, up to 828 million food insecure people in the world today?

It is perhaps ironic that when Malthus published the first edition of Principle of Population in 1798, the entire global population was about 800 million. Now, as we “celebrate” our 8 billionth arrival, the number of underfed or starving people is over 800 million.

Ignoring the population connection at our own peril

And what of the serious environmental problems that the Washington Post (and sadly many other editorials in mainstream publications) are choosing to overlook – such as the ones discussed above for Somalia?

Ninety percent of global deforestation is caused by agricultural expansion, which is caused by population growth, essentially all of which is occurring in poor countries. What about the perilous state of the world’s fisheries? It is not just ocean fish that are being depleted by trawlers from rich countries. The dwindling of the Lake Victoria fishery in Africa is due primarily to overfishing, notwithstanding other damage from human interference, such as the introduction of invasive species.


Ninety percent of global deforestation is caused by agricultural expansion, which is caused by population growth, essentially all of which is occurring in poor countries.
Photo by Levi Nicodemus on Unsplash.

Professor Al Bartlett famously challenged anyone to name even one environmental problem that was not driven or exacerbated by population growth. If current changes in climate are indeed driven more by human activities than by natural phenomena, then surely any numerate person can predict that the use of energy and resources that drive climate change will increase as the number of climate changers increases. Lifting people out of poverty will necessarily increase their use of energy and resources and so Africa, with the help of China, is on track to begin to seriously develop its coal reserves while China is going gangbusters on developing its own.

Meanwhile, agreements reached under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (such as the recently ended COP27 in Sharm-el-Sheikh) require stronger commitments of emissions reductions from developed countries than from developing countries. Despite being the second largest economy in the world and the world’s highest total emitter of greenhouse gases, China is still considered a developing country.

The price of denial

In his recent articleThe human eco-predicament: Overshoot and the population conundrum, (available online and to be published in print in 2023), University of British Columbia Professor Emeritus and PIC patron Dr. William Rees calculates that population growth accounted for about 80% of the increase in the total human ecological footprint between 1961 and 2016, despite the much larger average per capita consumption levels of rich countries (see Figure 3 and accompanying text of the paper).

Yet it seems that every serious problem is depicted through the lens of climate change, while to bring up population growth is suspect. The Guardian columnist and climate change activist George Monbiot has long disparaged concerns about population growth as a fig leaf by rich overconsumers to detract attention from their own greed. But as John Meyer, president of Canadians for a Sustainable Society points out in his recent article, “George Monbiot is an Environmental Disaster,” the constant inflow of foreign workers from overpopulated poor countries benefits cheap-labour businesses in rich receiving countries and drives the lower-income earners in those countries out of their jobs and even out of the housing market. Overpopulation is a bread-and-butter issue to working people in both poor and rich countries.

The Avaaz solicitation mentioned at the beginning of this article referred to “the face of the climate crisis.” But what about the face of the population crisis? As far as the mainstream media and many of our leaders are concerned, there doesn’t seem to be one. Climate change is highlighted as a driver of phenomena in which it plays only a minor role, if any. In his article “Climate refugees or overpopulation escapees?” Professor Philip Cafaro dissects a New York Times Magazine article whose headline “The Great Climate Migration” belies the model cited by its author, which predicted that only 5% of the migrants in question would be driven by climate change.

The fact is, the human population is in overshoot; that is to say, it has exceeded the carrying capacity of Earth. As Dr. Rees notes in the above-cited paper, “Mainstream approaches to alleviating various symptoms of overshoot merely reinforce the status quo.” Applying this to the desperate situation in Somalia, we can say that feeding the hungry without reversing population growth will simply lead to more hungry people to feed in the future.

We can also agree with Dr. Rees that in the absence of a contraction of both the material economy and the human population, the future of our civilization — quite sadly but not shockingly — looks like Collapse.

Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668
Email: [email protected]