Climate Change and Overpopulation

An Open Letter on Climate change and overpopulation

By Ollie Langridge

It’s a new and very disagreeable feeling to be roundly berated in a national magazine for being a climate activist. A cover story article recently came out that makes a case for overpopulation as the leading cause of climate breakdown, and strings me up like a prize pinata in front of the nation.

The article kicks off by documenting my standing in front of Parliament for 100 days last winter with a placard asking the government to “declare a climate emergency – for our children”. The author immediately questions my moral right to do so, as I have 5 children. It then unfolds into several interviews, but largely paints a portrait of me as a willful hypocrite – how can I be a climate change activist if I have 5 kids?

The author then steers the reader to conclude that it’s absolutely fine that we can live however we want, travel as much as we want, and generally have the freedoms that the wealthier sector in first world countries see as an entitlement in the system we live in. Further, that those who have no children should be celebrated more.

The overpopulation argument is one I’ve heard many times, it’s a high risk discussion and very easy to step on moral and ethical landmines – where you find concern over “population,” you very often find racism, xenophobia, or eugenics lurking in the wings. It’s almost always particular populations that need reducing, right?

Fear of overpopulation is widespread. It’s important to understand why and how the issue contributes to a rhetoric of white supremacy and elitism, and to respond to these arguments with some considerations and context. There’s an oft-cited fallacy of blaming all our woes on the fact that there are simply too many people in this world.

Most statements fail to see the root cause not as overpopulation, but as climate collapse. What they do is shift the blame to the most marginalized communities least responsible for having caused these problems, and that’s grossly unfair. These ideas will permeate as they always have done. And they will be dangerous and wrong, as they as they always have been.

The more people, the higher the overall consumption, yes. But consumption/ emissions patterns are massively skewed – the real issue is the wealthy minority over-consuming far more than their fair share of resources in a way that’s massively contributing to the accelerating climate and ecological crisis faced already by the majority of the world. Yes, having fewer children is a way to reduce consumption, however if we focus EXCLUSIVELY on population numbers and not consumption patterns, then we’re looking through a highly distorted lens.

If you’re a wealthy person living in Remeura or Oriental Bay, sitting around your teak dining table eating steak and drinking French champagne, driving a German-made SUV and travelling business class to Asia every month, then your carbon footprint will be a lot bigger than a subsistence farmer in rural Bhutan.

Let’s face it – blaming the climate crisis on overpopulation means blaming the poor for a problem caused by the rich. It’s the ravenous demands of a few that is enlarging the human footprint on our planet – wilfully pumping greenhouse gases into the air, polluting the oceans, trashing the forests, and any further rise in the numbers of the world’s poor will barely figure in that.

Further, fertility declines generally offset themselves even when couples have zero children. The couple who forego having children take several international vacations – burning extra fossil fuels for airfares and extra driving. Their plane ticket alone to any one of these multiple destinations produces several tons of carbon emissions.

Because of this higher-intensity consumption by childless couples, while lower fertility could reduce long-run emissions, it probably has no net impact on short-run emissions — or more likely even increases them. And short-run emissions have the largest impact on future temperatures (because there is a time delay between carbon emissions and climate impact).

Another way to approach the problem would be, rather than prevent the birth of extremely wealthy people, prevent the creation of extremely wealthy people. In other words, prevent the accumulation of massive wealth by addressing issues of income inequality. Why do we live in a world where the 26 richest people on the planet have more net worth than 50% of the world’s population? How can this be fair?

For the lucky few, the luxury we live in was bought on the backs of slavery, exploitation, colonialism, war, nepotism and more – we have every reason to be ashamed of ourselves and every reason to be a tad more humble when telling poor people – who let us not forget are not the problem here – what to do and not to do. Yet most of us would not like to admit it.

In fact, I’m fairly convinced now that people continually derail conversation towards overpopulation because collectively we do not want to stabilise (never mind reduce) our own overconsumption. It therefore becomes an exercise in reinforcing the idea that the poorest are worth the least and that we can all live a bit easier in luxury knowing that there are a few fewer of them to be worrying about. Ultimately, we think we have more right to live than they do. And that doesn’t sit well with me at all.

Also: An Interview with the author, Ollie Langridge