PIC Responds to George Monbiot’s Article, “Population Panic Lets Rich People Off the Hook for the Climate Crisis They’re Fuelling” 
The Guardian columnist George Monbiot’s above-named article of August 26th recently came to our attention. In that article, Monbiot equates concerns about overpopulation with blaming the poor and abnegating responsibility for one’s own consumption of resources. He mentions the ecological impact of overpopulation only to dismiss it. PIC President Madeline Weld submitted an op-ed rebutting Monbiot’s accusations to The Guardian on October 12. While we are not holding our breath that Madeline’s op-ed will be published, several letters to the editor taking Monbiot to task were published, including one by Population Matters’ Robin Maynard.
 Illustration: Sébastien Thibault/The Guardian. This photo accompanied Monbiot’s Guardian article.


It seems that Monbiot is getting more and more strident in his attack on populationists. His views align with those of Marxists such as Ian Angus and Simon Butler, authors of “Too Many People?” In the Marxist view, all problems can be blamed on capitalism and the unequal distribution of wealth, and people who are concerned about overpopulation as an issue are racist, colonialist etc. Monbiot hits all the Marxist talking points in this article. And, as is typical of population deniers, he engages in a lot of non-sequitur reasoning and misleading by omission. And ad hominems, bien sûr.

The primary tactic of Monbiot and his fellow travellers is to measure the human impact on the planet entirely in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. That of course leaves people who raze local forests to grow crops and deplete local areas of fish and wildlife through overfishing and bushmeat hunting entirely off the hook. A case in point is Ethiopia, a country Monbiot mentions to chastise Sir David Attenborough for “wrongly blam[ing] famines” on too many people for too little land. “Wrongly”? Worldometers gives some population statistics for Ethiopia. From under 20 million people in 1955, it now has 115 million (an almost 6-fold increase) and is projected to be 205 million in 2050. In other words, if projections are correct, it will have increased by more than a factor of 10 in 100 years.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has undergone extensive deforestation as described by Wikipedia, which says that it is caused by “locals clearing forests for their personal needs, such as for fuel, hunting, agriculture, and at times for religious reasons. The main causes of deforestation in Ethiopia are shifting agriculture, livestock production and fuel in drier areas.” The deforestation caused by Ethiopia’s population growth does not show up as having any environmental impact in Monbiot’s entirely GHG emission-focussed way of measuring impact.

Monbiot begins his article by citing a study which suggests that the global population will peak and then “crash” (which is the wrong term for a slowly declining population) far sooner than “scientists had assumed.” By which he presumably means UN projections. It would be great if the recent study turned out to be correct, but that would be no reason to stop being concerned. Without continued pressure to provide family planning and more education for women, the developments that the optimistic projections of the recent study depend on might not occur. And even if the projections of the recent study come to be, its projected peak of 9 billion (as opposed to 11 billion) will still put enormous pressure on the planet.

If the founders of the BirthStrike movement indeed dissolved themselves, as Monbiot claims, because they had “underestimated the power of ‘overpopulation’ as a growing form of climate breakdown denial,” then they are as poorly informed or as wilfully blind as Monbiot is. Since when is being concerned about overpopulation incompatible with being concerned about climate change? I would hazard a guess that most population activists and a lot of other people are concerned about both.

One of the dumbest arguments that slanderers of population activists make, as Monbiot inevitably does, is exemplified by the last sentence in his fourth paragraph: “The extra resource use and greenhouse gas emissions caused by a rising human population are a tiny fraction of the impact of consumption growth.” So the problem isn’t a growing population, it’s that people are consuming more. What Monbiot can’t seem to grasp is that the dirt poor people in developing countries with high levels of population growth don’t want to be dirt poor but want to consume more. Can’t blame them for that. When underdeveloped China started to modernize, the consumption level of its people rose enormously. Meat eating is one of the things that rises almost immediately with an increase in income, and in China pork consumption on a per capita basis became equal to that of the US. Meat eating is one of the things we are encouraged to do less of for the sake of the planet.

So, to follow Monbiot’s logic, since the problem is consumption growth and not population growth, we need to keep those poor people in developing countries poor. Otherwise they will be sinners like us. But if we agree that everyone deserves an adequate standard of living, and the only way for poor people to achieve an adequate standard of living is through more consumption (schools, hospitals, cell phones, adequate diet which generally includes meat, etc.), doesn’t it make sense to help poor countries from keeping their population from doubling every 20 to 35 years?

Throughout Monbiot’s article is the de rigueur dismissal of Thomas Malthus along with the linking of racist opinions from the past with concerns about overpopulation today. Because the white population is shrinking, while African and Asian populations are growing, as a percentage of the total human population, anyone concerned about overpopulation must be racist. But over the six editions of his Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, Malthus made astute observations about human population cycles, based on his wide reading, including the journals of explorers, as noted by John Meyer in his article, “Why Malthus is Not a Social Hero Like Darwin.” Monbiot also pans Paul Ehrlich for his incorrect predictions of mass famines, which were only averted because of the Green Revolution, the high-yield crops the breeding of which was initiated by Norman Borlaug.

But Borlaug, the “father of the Green Revolution,” was fully aware of the impact of human population growth, and in his acceptance speech for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, said, “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” In his Nobel lecture (Dec 11, 1970), the day after receiving the Prize, Borlaug praised Malthus as having “signaled the danger [of overpopulation] a century and a half ago.” But, said Borlaug, Malthus could not have foreseen (among other things), “the disturbing and destructive physical and mental consequences of the grotesque concentration of human beings into the poisoned and clangorous environment of pathologically hypertrophied megalopoles.” These are the “megalopoles” which many cities in developed countries are turning into, but even more so, the burgeoning slums of the developing world, many countries of which are more accurately described as “failing states.”

Given the foregoing, it is not surprising that Monbiot would link concerns about high levels of immigration in countries like the US and UK (and one might add Canada, Australia and many more) with the eugenics movement, with no acknowledgement that the rapidly growing populations of these countries through immigration have actually had an enormous impact on their environment. (For example, in Canada, at least one fifth of the best farmland in the province of Ontario has been lost to urbanization.)  Nor does he mention that new immigrants to those countries on average enormously increase their GHG emissions (especially in high GHG-emitting countries like the US and Canada, where the increase is approximately four-fold per newcomer). Given his almost exclusive focus on GHGs and climate change, this is a significant oversight.

Also not surprisingly, Monbiot concludes his article by asserting that nations will soon be fighting to attract immigrants. He seems unaware that Japan is doing fine despite having a very high percentage of old people and a very low intake of immigrants, while studies in industrialized countries with high levels of immigration have found no net economic benefit to the resident population. Such studies include a 2008 study by the British House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs and a recent (2020) analysis by Statistics Canada.

In conclusion, Monbiot’s articles are more about his virtue-signalling and less about solving problems. Denying the reality of human overpopulation does no one a favour.