Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eco-malthusianism

When the system fails people, the bourgeoisie instinctively responds by blaming those people for being inadequate and supernumerary to the system's requirements. During the 1980s, when there was a wave of anger and horror over the famines needlessly blighting parts of the African continent, it was a polemical commonplace to blame overpopulation. Today, a disaster known euphemistically as 'climate change' threatens the lives of millions, particularly the poorest millions. Predictably, there are those for whom the problem is too many people. In May this year, it was reported that a select coterie of billionaires - including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and George Soros - was teaming up to combat overpopulation. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is already committing some of the immense wealth appropriated by Bill through his career in stolen software to tackling the problem. (Don't bother mulling over the quantity of CO2 emissions that were needlessly generated by the excess of production, retail and consumption entailed by Microsoft's practises of planned obsolescence. That's philanthropy for you.)

Now one is increasingly likely to hear from a British think-tank that has been getting in all the newspapers, called the Optimum Population Trust. Some of its leading members are also connected to the racist think-tank Migration Watch, whose bogus statistics are used in immigrant-bashing tabloid eristics. The OPT wants to return population levels in the UK to those pertaining in the Victorian era, before modern hygeine and medicine stopped wiping out the labouring classes. The optimum world population, it says, could be as low as 2.7bn. Its most vociferous champions, including such distinguished individuals as James Lovelock and Sir David Attenborough, assert that the ecological crisis is the flip-side to a population crisis.

In one of its efforts to frighten people into accepting its bizarre conclusions, the OPT says that if population continues to grow at its present rate, then by 2300 it will reach 134 trillion. This is an opportune moment to wheel out the old chestnut about insurmountable horseshit (cited here). It was a commonplace in the 19th Century that if horse-drawn traffic continued to increase at its then current rate, the ordure would eventually pile up several storeys high in New York, London and other major cities. (You can insert your own warmed over horseshit joke here). There are many lessons you can draw from the parable of the horse apples, but one is that just because a trend can be extrapolated from to reach an absurd conclusion doesn't mean that the extrapolation is trustworthy. There may be some important data that is excluded from the extrapolation. As George Monbiot has pointed out, the UN expects the world's population to stabilise at around 10bn by 2200, because the trend is for population growth to stop at a certain limit.

Today, the OPT was once more given television and newspaper spots to comment on a new United Nations report some of whose conclusions seem to abet its crazy eco-malthusianism. It would be ridiculous to blame the UN for the way debates over its reports are framed by the media (unless it courts such a reading). But, for example, C4 News tonight chose to focus on the claim that slower population growth would help slow climate change, citing statistics that claim a difference of a billion people is equal to a difference of 1-2bn tonnes of carbon per year. There followed an insultingly poor 'debate' in which Simon Ross of the OPT squared off against Caroline Boin of the International Policy Network, a corporate lobby group opposed to restrictions on profit-making activities (of course, the nature of neither group represented was explained to the viewer). The OPT is understandably cheered up by this report, with Ross glibly asserting that more people equals more mouths and a greater carbon footprint. The glaring flaw in this argument, which I'm sure immediately occurred to most LT readers, is that population is growing most where carbon emissions are least.

The highest population growth rates are in countries such as Liberia, Niger, Uganda, Eritrea, Afghanistan, etc etc - precisely the countries where carbon dioxide emissions per capita are very low and generally close to zero. Those countries which produce most carbon emissions per capita are a cluster of relatively rich Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, which don't have especially high population growth rates, and the late capitalist economies of Europe and North America, where politicians tend to argue that there is inadequate population growth to sustain existing social security safety nets.

To quote Monbiot again:

Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions.
What is driving 'climate change' is a particular kind of economic activity, not population growth. Lifestyles are important too. Those sported by the richest tend to exploit and run down our environmental life support systems the hardest. The carbon footprint of a multi-billionaire philanthropist is certain to be dozens of times higher than that of an African labourer. To put it one way, Bill Gates will emit more CO2 jetting to conferences on population growth than a coltan miner in the DRC will in is entire lifespan. So maybe Bill and Melinda shouldn't have any fucking kids. And, by the way, Bill needs that coltan miner, and the genocidal armies who ensure that the ore is delivered to western corporations such as Microsoft, so he shouldn't really get lippy about population growth.

All of the above is perfectly obvious and could be worked out without the aid of a degree in one of the physical sciences. All that is required is a simple inference, based on well-known facts about the distribution of population growth and about the sources of carbon emissions. So, why are we still stuck with these kooky theories? There is obviously an element of ideological legerdemain, particularly when the rich start lecturing the poor on family planning. And corporate PR machines are very adept at muddying waters. But more fundamentally, I fear, it is that the capitalist media is constitutionally incapable of dealing with the issue of environmental disaster seriously, and of grappling with the profound issues raised by it. There is such a blind-spot about any issue that has systemic implications that it can only be approached through such contrived controversies, which are then furiously argued over for five minutes before the advertisements for cheap airlines.