How racist myths built the population growth bogey-man

The environmental movement in the Global North needs to address the elephant in its white and middle-class room – the myth of overpopulation as a driver of climate extinction. For too long, it has allowed this perception, fuelled by the relics of eugenics and racism, to flourish, thinking that ‘more mouths to feed’ automatically means a ravishing of the planet’s resources to the full.

This analysis largely presumes that all people on the planet have an equal access to its resources and are therefore all equally to blame for the environmental devastation we see today. They don’t.

It also unfairly highlights low-income countries in the Global South as a driver of this trend, implying that racialised human masses will ‘eat the planet bare’. They won’t.

In fact, the poorest half of the global population, some 3.5 billion people, are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions (while living overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change). The richest 10% of people in the world are responsible for around 50% of global emissions.

Northern lifestyles

Largely sustained by Paul Ehlrich’s proto-environmentalist “The Population Bomb”, a book built on Malthusian ideologies of population growth as a catalyst for environmental extinction, this myth has allowed racial ideology to flourish in the Northern environmental movement.

Well-meaning Northern climate activists presume the role of planetary guardians, lecturing the people least likely to contribute to climate extinction on family planning for a sustainable future while forgetting the devastating impact Northern lifestyles have had historically and presently on the climate.

This helps shift the focus of discussion from unfettered capitalist production to dehumanised, marginalised communities who have limited capacity to deal with the climatic disasters which displace and kill them indiscriminately.

Shifting the focus

With recent research pointing to a population peak in 2040 followed by a sharp decline, our focus must shift from this arbitrary, deeply racialised discourse.

We must centre our environmental struggle on intergenerational climate justice. That means righting the historical wrongs that have created the situation we see today and that will continue to fuel the devastation of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

We owe it to the future to do better.

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