'Overpopulation': letting capitalism off the hook

The text below was written collectively by Manchester No Borders for Shift Magazine. It is a result of discussions in the group, and of the debates at the 2008 Camp for Climate Action, where we hosted a workshop on the topic. We have received lots of support/interest when we started engaging with the 'overpopulation' argument and would welcome further discussion of it within the No Borders network and beyond.

From when we started being active as a No Borders group in Manchester we have been frustrated with a lack of radical analyses and critiques (anti-state, anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist, anti-discrimination etc.) of climate change. This was particularly so, as we became aware of a ‘greening of immigration controls’. There appears to be an increasing tendency for green politics to lean towards repressive measures as solutions to the environmental crisis.

More specifically, in discussions with other (environmental) activists, we have recently found ourselves in disagreement over the issue of ‘overpopulation’. A common green orthodoxy today is that there are too many people on this planet, and that we need to do something about it. (Although as we gave a well-attended workshop at the Climate Camp on this topic, we were positively surprised how many of the participants were critical of this stance.)

In this article, we want to spell out the dangers of the ‘the planet is full’ argument and argue that ‘overpopulation’ is not the root cause of climate change. Not people are the problem, but society. Not human beings per se, but the way our social life is organized: capitalism.

There are two levels to our criticism of the ‘overpopulation’ argument. One, the argument quite simply plays into the hands of governments, nationalists and anti-feminists who are quite happy to step up demographic controls, people management and anti-immigration policies. Two, interpreting population growth as the root cause of the climate crisis completely disregards the systemic nature of the problem and thus lets capitalism off the hook.

The overpopulation argument

So where is the problem? The UN projects that world population figures will rise from today's 6.8 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. For the prophets of demographic doom, Britain, in particular, is under threat. Government projections are that the UK population is to rise from 60.6 million (mid-2006) to 77 million in 2050. Obviously, demographic modeling contains lots of cultural and political assumptions, and should be treated as politically informed rather than neutral observations. Human population behavior is very random and unpredictable and not something that can be forecasted as unproblematically as tomorrow’s weather, say (and you know how inaccurate that is!).

Whatever the assumption, an increasing amount of global players (from government agencies to international organizations, from think tanks to celebrities) conclude that the planet is full. They argue that any such densely populated area as Britain would be unsustainable in terms of food production, housing and energy needs. Also within the green movement this is not a marginal position and no longer limited to ‘deep ecologists’. The green-nationalist think tank ‘Optimum Population Trust’, for example, estimates that the UK can only sustain less than half its current population level. And they demand a national population policy that first stabilizes the number of people in the UK and then gradually brings it down to 30 million.

Fact is however, that the UK population is growing primarily because of immigration. The argument thus is threefold. First, immigration puts pressure on national resources such as water, energy, food and countryside. Second, new migrants tend to have more children than the national population thereby accelerating the problem. Third, migration to ‘first world’ countries turns previously low-impact consumers to high-impact consumers increasing their ecological footprints. It comes as no surprise to us, then, that the BNP calls itself the ‘real Green Party’.

The government’s chief green advisor, Jonathan Porritt, has also time and again argued this point. But what to do? Porritt’s suggestion is straightforward: zero net immigration! David Cameron also agrees that rapid population increase will put pressure on our natural resources. And again, his solution is to lower net immigration:

“my focus today is on population, and here we should note that only around thirty per cent of the projected increase in our population by 2031 is due to higher birth rates and longer life-spans…the evidence shows that roughly seventy per cent - more than two thirds - of the increase in our population each year is attributable to net migration. Of that increase, forty seven per cent comes directly from people to moving to Britain, and the rest from higher birth rates amongst immigrant populations.”

The feminist dimension

It becomes clear that in a sexist, imperialist, capitalist world, it is impossible to separate discussion of population control from hierarchies of oppression. Which population is going to be “controlled” and how will this control come about?

Any form of population control risks seriously impinging upon women’s right to bodily autonomy. State-enforced population control programs, such as China’s ‘one-child policy’, are usually enacted upon women’s bodies; it is women who are forced to have abortions, to undergo sterilisation, or to take long-term birth control products (often with serious health repercussions). Rarely are men forced to undergo vasectomies, despite the relative easiness of this procedure when compared to tubal ligation.

However, not all women will be affected equally; those from the Global South, ethnic minorities, those perceived as disabled, and the working class have historically borne the brunt of population control policies. Eugenicists in Victorian England were very clear about which segments of the population needed controlling: the poor and the disabled.

More recently, Black British feminists in the 1970s and 1980s wrote about the need to campaign for abortion rights while at the same time also fighting for their right not to have abortions and not to be pressured into sterilisation. At the same time dangerous forms of birth control, like early experimental forms of Depo-Provera, were being tested upon women in the Global South (and in predominantly African-American areas of the US) before being allowed for sale in the Western world. Today, women in the Global South are often ‘encouraged’ by NGOs to use long-term forms of birth control, like implants, that require a medical attention to stop (as opposed to something like The Pill, which can be stopped at any time by the woman taking it). This history cannot be ignored today when discussing population control in the UK. As single working-class mothers, immigrants and ethnic minorities (particularly Muslims) find themselves being increasingly demonised; any population control policies will target women from these groups.


Throughout its history then the overpopulation argument has been used to present people and children as the source of inherently social problems: letting capitalism off the hook. The argument always goes like this: there are too many of us and the planet can’t hack it. Whether it’s the poor, the Jews, women or migrants, all have been used strategically as scapegoats for an irrational and unproductive use of space and resources within a capitalist economy.

One of the most prominent writers on over-population was Thomas Malthus, a 19th century cleric of the Church of England. His treatise on over-population “A summary view of the principle of population” was printed in 1830, but is still read widely today. Malthus stated that whilst population increased at a geometric rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16…), doubling every 25 years, food production increases at an arithmetic rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…). Malthus believed this disparity between food production and population growth was the root cause of “checks to (human) growth” such as war, famine and disease.

The strong strand of prejudice within Malthus’ work, however, often goes unacknowledged by neo-Malthusianists. He saw poverty as deserved rather than produced and blamed the poor for their “lack of moral restraint” thus making them the primary focus of population policy. The inherent conservatism and class prejudice hidden behind a veneer of scientific objectivity has made Malthus a popular source of intellectual legitimacy for various conservative and authoritarian positions.

In the late 19th century Eugenicists began utilising and expanding on Malthus’s critique of the rapid population growth of the poor. Eugenicists argued that this lack of restraint was genetically inherited and posed a threat to the future of the nation. A prominent eugenicist was Winston Churchill and many discriminatory laws were passed to attempt to influence the outcome of breeding. Once again systemic problems were naturalised and projected upon the very people most negatively affected by them.


Many anti-migration authors have also mobilised Malthusian ideas. These arguments have relied upon an analysis of national resources as closed and finite systems and exaggerating rates of migration. Proposals for the closing of borders are contrasted with images of swarms of migrants exhausting national resources like locust. One example of this nationalist position, which supports the competitive nature of states, is this quote from the ‘Population and environment’ journal:

“Countries that are in the lead in reducing their populations should not give in to advocates of growth by allowing massive immigration. This rewards those who multiply irresponsibly”

As environments change due to climate change the monster of ‘overpopulation’ is being resurrected as a security issue. As we are seeing with climate change, environmental issues provide a space for the legitimisation of conservative and authoritarian policies.

Perhaps one of the most influential of these authors was Garrett Hardin whose essay “The Tragedy of the Commons”, printed in 1968, masked a pro-private property stance beneath a veneer of scientific objectivity. Hardin believed that, without private ownership of natural resources, unchecked population growth would lead to their exhaustion. The same arguments were used to support the 20th century ‘green revolution’ and are appearing again with the G8 leaders in Japan agreeing to extend research into GM crops to deal with ‘overpopulation’. ‘Overpopulation’ is used as a convenient argument to support the agendas of specific political and economic actors.

But let’s not attack a straw man here. None of the green progressives here in the UK argue for more stringent migration controls (in contrast to parts of the green conservationist movement in the US). Nonetheless, we have witnessed population graphs being used in climate change presentations, which could have lead to knee-jerk reactions and dangerous political conclusions when taken out their left-wing context.

Earth First?

The climate action movement of course recognises the repression faced by migrants and the fact that the groups of people who are hit hardest by climate change are in the Global South. However, even with the best intentions of warding off ecological destruction and creating better lives for people in the face of climate chaos the ‘overpopulation’ argument still ignores the systemic logic behind climate change: capitalism.

The central flaw to Malthusian thought is its a-systemic nature. Regardless of the economic system or social organisation, it views the root cause of most human suffering as population growth, and in particular the threat of the poor becoming richer (and thus consuming more). Poverty however, is produced not bred, and by projecting systemic flaws onto those it most affects neo-Malthusianism both helps to protect the status quo from criticism and construct vulnerable social groups as legitimate targets of control.

As relatively rich Western countries consume the most energy, it is often argued that it is their populations, in particular, that should be curbed, whether by authoritarian state control, or by individuals in the West simply realizing it is their moral responsibility not to reproduce. But to imply that the Earth should come before a child can lead down a dangerous path. It may lead to a resentment of those social groups that migrate or reproduce more often than others.

Besides, social, economic and cultural pressures to have or not to have children cannot be tackled through individual lifestyle choices and guilt trips. An emancipatory response to climate change requires a political and social solution.

We should be attacking capitalism, not children and families. In a world where children are killed over oil and exploited at the hands of multi-national corporations it isn’t surprising that children will eventually be blamed for capitalism’s fuck-ups. Capitalism doesn’t make sense and neither do capitalist solutions. The ‘overpopulation’ argument ignores the contradictions inherent in capitalism that mediate the relationship between human beings and the environment and already limit our freedom and desires on a real everyday level.

Instead of acknowledging the unprecedented global disasters that seem to spiral as capitalism grows and spreads its destructive wings, the ‘overpopulation’ argument asks not for a new form of social organisation (that might see land and resources accessed and shared more evenly, contributing to less poverty, more sustainable lifestyles and fewer wars) but takes the shameful and hopeless route of asking people to have fewer children. In a world where we are repeatedly screwed over we are now being asked not to screw!

Posted byManchester No Borders at 8:49 AM