Too many people? A review


Too many people? Population, immigration and the environmental crisis

Ian Angus and Simon Butler

Haymarket Books, 2011

Available in Australia from Resistance Books

In about 20 years as an active supporter of the Australian Greens I’ve regularly encountered people advancing populationist points of view, which all share the starting point that overpopulation is the main cause of the global environmental crisis.

Environmentalists are justifiably alarmed about the damage human activity has caused, and is still causing, to our planet, particularly since the industrial revolution that transformed firstly Europe, and then the world, in the 19th century. Too many, however, avoid looking at the role of forms of government and corporate control that developed out of the industrial revolution.

As Ian Angus and Simon Butler point out in their book, world population has increased dramatically in the past 200 years, but that doesn’t automatically mean population is the cause of the environmental crisis. The most serious environmental problems would exist even with a substantially smaller population.

The overpopulation thesis is hard to pin down because, while appearing simple, it is in fact endlessly mutable, like a virus. At its most repugnant it contains elements of eugenics: a view that only some people should be allowed to breed. When challenged, most populationists quickly retreat from this view.

I haven’t come across any population theorist prepared to defend infanticide, probably the main method of population control before the advances of science and medicine  brought the development of safe, effective birth control.

Populationists at the present time in Australia seem to have only one policy that they’re prepared to advocate publicly: severe restrictions on immigration. Some will say that refugees should be accepted on humanitarian grounds, but other immigrants should be excluded.

Most populationists will bristle at suggestions that they are advocating state-imposed limits on the right to give birth, such as China’s so-called one-child policy, let alone forced sterilisation.

Many also reject the slowing of the birth rate that has been proven to flow from education and creation of economic opportunities for women through participation in the workforce as employees or  small business proprietors. They respond that a more prosperous smaller population does even more environmental damage than a larger number of poor people.

Ultimately, that leaves the main populationist organisation in Australia, Sustainable Population Australia, with only one real policy: exclusion of immigrants, making it just another anti-immigration organisation.

At this point, in my experience, having abandoned most of the known measures of population control that have ever been effective — infanticide, authoritarian state-imposed birth control, and forced sterilisation — populationists often fall back on the claim that they are somehow a victimised minority prevented from discussing their views.

This is the point reached by a letter writer to the NSW Greens’ magazine Greenmail in its Spring (southern hemisphere) issue. The letter writer quotes science journalist Julian Cribb from his book, The Coming Famine: “All people should be free to talk about [population reduction]”.

This seems like a rather strange statement, because in Australia in 2011, for all its other faults everyone is free to talk about population and pretty well all other topics, although most can’t get their opinions presented in the media, as Cribb can, and no one can automatically get a political party to adopt their views unless they present a convincing argument.

The real problem for the populationists is that their views are widely rejected, or perhaps accepted with a shrug of the shoulders and a series of questions: “Yes, OK, but what do you want to do about it? Who has to go? Are you volunteering?”

The Greens letter writer, a member of Sustainable Population Australia and the Greens, along with some others campaigned vigorously a few years ago to have the NSW Greens adopt a population policy, and was defeated. Hence the retreat to the position in his letter, echoing Cribb: “the Greens should be able to discuss the issue”. The issue is, in fact, widely discussed in the Greens and elsewhere.

It’s in dealing with the constantly morphing body of populationist arguments that Too Many People? is valuable. In one of two forewords to the book, environmental and philosophical writer Joel Kovel comments:

“The whole argument becomes displaced to the high ground of population — displaced over and over, it may be added, because the population question provides such fertile ground for evading the truth about society and its current ecological crisis. It really is quite amazing how many tricky and complicated arguments can be mounted once one abstracts from social reality and converts the human condition into a matter of quantity. This so-called science is an intellectual toadstool that sprouts without end.”

Kovel goes on to say that Angus and Butler have produced “a guidebook” equal to the complexities of the populationist swarm of arguments.

Too Many People provides an overview of populationist theory, particularly its modern roots in the long-discredited work of Paul and Anne Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, taking up some of the predictions and pseudo-scientific methods of the Ehrlichs and others who followed them, demonstrating their logical fallacies and repeated, also erroneous, attempts to update their theories as reality constantly proved them wrong.

Among many other things, Angus and Butler point out that world population growth has been slowing since the early 1960s, several years before The Population Bomb was published, with its wildly inaccurate population projections. The world’s population is still growing, but at a slower rate, and it’s certainly not the geographic progression that Reverend Malthus theorised back in the 19th century, or that the Ehrlichs predicted in The Population Bomb.

The authors avoid branding modern populationists as Malthusians because in fact most don’t agree with Malthus’s theory, the core of which was that population will always increase to consume all the available food, which means the world is always overpopulated whether the population is 1 billion or 7 billion. As well, Malthus opposed birth control. Most modern populationists have more in common with Francis Place, probably the main source of the neo-Malthusian current, which usually advocates birth control.

Another serious blow to populationism is the collapse of the IPAT theory, a pseudo-mathematical attempt to prove that overpopulation causes environmental destruction. Dr Donella Meadows, a lead author of Limits to Growth (1972), reluctantly accepted in 1995 that the IPAT formula was defective, and her explanation of this conclusion is included as an appendix to the book. Despite that, the “formula” is still doing the rounds. At a debate that I attended organised by the Greens, the populationist lead speaker described it as irrefutable.

Angus and Butler say of IPAT that it is not a formula at all, but “what accountants call an identity, an expression that is always true by definition”. In other words, it is an attempt to define away objections to an aspect of overpopulation theory.

The authors of Too Many People? do not say population can grow infinitely, and they are not left cornucopians who place their faith in the endless march of science and technology. Their point is that the populationists are looking in the wrong place for answers to the environmental crisis.

They identify the causes of the crisis in corporate control of vast resources, and ultimately government policy to further one aim, profit, at the expense of almost all other social and environmental considerations.

I have one reservation about this book. It is written largely, I think, for socialists. In places it appeals out of the blue to the authority of Marx and Engels, perhaps as an an automatic reflex. But there is no automatic acceptance of the works of those and other socialist writers among non-socialist circles in which this book would be most useful.

A little more explanation of the content of  the authors’ ideas would be more valuable than such appeals to authority.

Even so, this book provides a valuable survey of the population debate and a riposte to the likes of the Greens-populationist letter writer mentioned above, who ends his letter with a prediction of a “horrendous future” if his views are not accepted.

Angus and Butler point out that acceptance of these views is more likely to lead to such a future.



5 Responses to “Too many people? A review”

  1. John Passant Says:

    Good review Ed of a good book.

  2. Ed Lewis Says:

    Alan Thornett’s review raises some points well worth considering.

  3. Terry Says:

    Ian Angus and Simon Butler reply to Thornett at

  4. Admin Says:

    Thank you for your kind and fair review.

    Simon Butler and I have written a reply to Alan Thornett’s review. It is posted on Climate and Capitalism and on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

    Ian Angus

  5. Ecosocialists debate ‘Too Many People?’ :: Climate & Capitalism Says:

    […] Ozleft (Australia) […]

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