Sunday, 3 February 2008

Monbiot's population bombshell

I've noticed what seems to be a new tactic used by global warming deniers - rather than argue about climate change itself, they suggest climate change shouldn't be our priority. Occasionally, they say we should be concentrating on asteroid strikes, but usually it is population growth that is identified as the 'real problem' facing humanity. Phrases such as 'elephant in the living room' are used, and the suggestion made that the leftist-green cabal who promote climate change hysteria focus of that issue and ignore population growth because it suits their political agenda - industrialized nations are the heaviest CO2 emitters, developing nations the fastest breeding. So the cabal's anti-tech, anti-west, pro-socialist, pro-brown agenda is furthered.

It's nice to see Monbiot take on this myth, as he does so in his latest column (1). Yup, population growth is a problem, but not because we'll carry on breeding until we're all crammed onto every available bit of land, with the the luckless plebs on the outside of the huddle getting tipped over into the sea. He points out that global population is expected to stabilize around 10 billion, sometime roundabout 2200 (2). That's a lot, and it presents huge problems, but the issues inherent in a large population (where does everyone live? What do they eat?) can all be dealt with, assuming we're moderately sensible and organized (okay, I see the problem there ...).

A more worrying problem is that the burgeoning population is going to lead to more CO2 emmissions, and the situation could get out of hand. After all, it is reasonable to expect people to want to achieve a good standard of living. Currently, the high-pollution, oil dependent model on display in the developed western world is appears to be best option. People will want to attain that - and if they go about it the way we have, it will lead to a massive increase in the amount of CO2 being put out.

As Monbiot points out, this desire leads to mass migration - people moving to more developed countries in search of a better life. Unfortunately, when they do so, their impact on the environment increases as well, as they adopt the high-pollution, wasteful western model:
The Optimum Population Trust (OPT) maintains that the “global environmental impact of an inhabitant of Bangladesh … will increase by a factor of 16 if he or she emigrates to the USA.” This is surely not quite true, as recent immigrants tend to be poorer than the native population, but the general point stands: population growth in the rich world, largely driven by immigration, is more environmentally damaging than population growth in the poor world. (3)
The whole world, even on current population, can't live the way we do in the west. The west won't accept the living standards or a Bangladeshi peasant. A new, more sustainable alternative has to be found, where everyone can enjoy a good quality of life without destroying it for our children and grandchildren.

Monbiot's main point is that economic growth - currently predicated on the consumption of resources - will actually grow far faster than the population, and this has far more serious implications than population growth:
But compare this rate of increase to the rate of economic growth. Many economists predict that, occasional recessions notwithstanding, the global economy will grow by about 3% a year this century. Governments will do all they can to prove them right. A steady growth rate of 3% means a doubling of economic activity every 23 years. By 2100, in other words, global consumption will increase by roughly 1600% ... As resources are finite, this is of course impossible, but it is not hard to see that rising economic activity - not human numbers - is the immediate and overwhelming threat. (4)
Unless we can wean ourselves off the oil habit, our pursuit of wealth will destroy us far more swiftly than over-breeding can.

One obvious solution is to help sustainable economic development in countries with high birth rates. This will have the wonderful double impact of reducing the birth rate (as birth rates fall as a society becomes wealthier and more stable) and reducing migration to the west, where an immigrants environmental impact is far greater. And reducing emissions in developed countries, of course, since westerners are doing enough already to screw up the planet.

Bloody obvious? I thought so too. Needs sorting, though.
1 - 'Population bombs,' by George Monbiot, 29th of January, 2008. (
2 - ibid.
3 - ibid. The quotation he uses is from a pess release issued by the Optimum Population Trust, 30th of May 2006, "Mass migration damaging the planet." (
4 - ibid.


Dave Gardner said...

You did say helping "sustainable economic development" is desirable in undeveloped nations to speed stabilization of their populations. That's a noble goal, but to date economic development has not been "sustainable." I hope you mean economic development that does not increase resource extraction and carbon emissions. If not, then we improve the population picture a little while shooting ourselves in the economic growth foot! We can't win.

Glad to see you focusing on economic growth as inconsistent with climate change mitigation. But don't relax about population. Today more and more nations experiencing population decline are instituting baby bonuses out of concern their GDP may decline. The UN projections of population growth leveling off did not anticipate this.

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

lurgee said...

It would indeed be outlandish to encourage the developed world to make the same mistakes as we have in our development. Aren't we meant to learn from our mistakes?

Interesting point about the UN figures not including western measures to boost population. How much impact is this likely to have on the figures?

My instinct is that it is likely to be marginal (though obviously a few tens of millions of westerners is much more significant than the same number of people in the developing world). But my gut instinct has been very unreliable lately (John Edwards for president! David Cameron is veering to the right!) so I'm interested in your informed opinion.

Dave Gardner said...

Good question from lurgee. A couple of thoughts on this. Over the long-haul, a small increase in fertility rate can have a negative impact. We need downward trends seen in a few western nations to continue and to spread. Also, some nations, such as the U.S., are depending on immigration to boost population/markets/GDP. I believe Scotland is hoping to do this, as well. If this becomes widespread, might it delay the day that most of the planet gets serious about stabilizing population?

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity