Monbiot’s “The Population Myth”: A response

In 2009, George Monbiot wrote an article called “The Population Myth”. In it, he attempts to debunk the idea that overpopulation is a serious problem when it comes to climate change and pollution, and instead blames consumption on the rich of the world. Does his article have any merit? Let’s take a look.

Monbiot’s article cites many facts such as the following:

Between 1980 and 2005, for example, sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5 percent of the world’s population growth and just 2.4 percent of the growth in CO2. North America turned out four percent of the extra people, but fourteen percent of the extra emissions.

It is undeniable that Monbiot’s facts are true. Rich people produce more pollution than poor people. For example, in 2018 the average American produced 16.1 metric tons of CO2, whereas the average Indian produced 1.9 (source). He ends his article with:

So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against super-yachts and private jets? Where’s class war when you need it? It’s time we had the guts to name the problem. It’s not sex; it’s money. It’s not the poor; it’s the rich.

I actually agree with Monbiot in that the rich are very much helping to destroy the ecosystem. But, I vehemently disagree with him when he says that overpopulation is not a problem, because there are so few of the rich, and the poor are not to blame. So, although his facts are true, his conclusion is hopelessly false for three main reasons.

The first reason is that CO2 output is not the only environmental problem. Another major one is habitat loss, a lot of which is due to people simply taking up space, and in that regard more people means more habitat loss, period. Yes, some of the habitat loss is due to richer countries buying exports, but much of it is also due to people just taking up space. Africa may not release as much CO2 per capita, but they still have roads, habitat fragmentation, and a growing economoy.

The second reason is that technology is advancing so rapidly, that most poor people will become much greater consumers in the near future. Poverty rates are decreasing, and wealth is increasing all over the world.

The third reason is that the reason why there is so much wealth in the first place is that there are so many people. Poor people may not expel much CO2 directly, but en mass, they certainly enrich wealthy nations which in turn use all those resources to further contaminate the planet.

So, while I agree with Monbiot’s assessment that richer people and countries expel much more CO2 directly, I disagree that overpopulation is not a problem. If the world had only ten million people in it for example, there is simply no way people would be able to generate as much wealth disparity and hence pollute as much as they do. Habitat loss would be far less, and economic growth would be much less rapid.

Less people, and more precisely, less population growth, means that we would have to find a more stable society that does not depend on endless growth and the inventions of mostly useless technologies.

Of course, I do agree with George Monbiot in that the richest countries should reduce their per CO2 output. But it is also important to focus on getting education to poorer countries so that they can have less children and grow less.

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