We’re overpopulated with oil tycoons and coal barons

Simon Butler, coauthor with Ian Angus of Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis, gave the speech below to a November 17 seminar in Sydney, “Sustainable population: towards a meaningful dialogue,” organised by the Nature Conservation Society of NSW.

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I don’t think there are too many people on the planet, but I do agree there are too many of “some” people. I think there are too many coal barons. There are too many oil tycoons. I think there are too many Clive Palmers – there’s just one of him, but one is still more than we need in my opinion.

I also think there are too many stockbrokers speculating on food commodity prices and too many coal seam gas wells being sunk across Australia. I definitely agree that there is just too much stuff: our sick economy thrives on waste and an endless stream of products “designed for the dump.”

The relationship between population size and environmental decay has been a long running controversy among environmentalists. But I take the side of the late Barry Commoner, the great US ecologist who sadly died earlier this year. His view was: “It is a serious mistake to becloud the pollution issue with the population, for the facts will not support it.”

In our book, Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis, Ian Angus and I took issue with a recurring mistake we found many populationist writers had made about population numbers, which is to think that correlation equals causation. For example, population levels and carbon emissions both rose in the 20th century, but these facts alone do not prove that one caused the other. The cause is still a matter for investigation.

Too often, populationist explanations for our environmental crises fail to look behind the big numbers. Our dispute with populationists is not about the numbers, but about what the numbers actually mean. We think the raw figures can’t reveal much at all unless they are placed in an economic context, a social context, a historical context and an ecological context.

To make sense of population, we also have to consider the unequal relationships between rich and poor, the between the First World and the global South and, especially, between men and women. Countries with extreme levels of poverty, and where woman lack education and economic independence, tend to have the highest population growth rates.

When you break down the population and pollution numbers countries by country a striking pattern emerges, which upends the simple people equals pollution assumption.

In the 20th century, the nations with the highest population growth rates tend to have had lower carbon emissions growth rates, and the nations with lower population growth rates tend to have had higher emissions growth. Clearly, population growth cannot not explain this. In truth, the biggest factor in ecological decay is how a society uses its resources, not how many people live in that society.

Given what we know about climate change and the consequences of acting slowly, it makes sense for environmentalists to focus energy on the most critical areas. These include campaigns to keep fossil fuels in the ground and forests in the soil, close existing fossil fuel infrastructure, build renewables and public transport and spread sustainable farming methods.

These campaigns aren’t new, but they have proved incredibly hard to win mainly because of the array of powerful corporations that stand in the way. To avoid the worst of climate change, we must make biggest polluters write off trillions of dollars of value.

The coal barons, oil tycoons and resources giants have moved to protect their assets from these campaigns. They’ve used their economic weight and political influence to accumulate even more wealth, while working to poison the public debate about global warming.

Their political grip is now so strong, US Presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could not even utter the words “climate change” in their three televised debates. The fossil fuel industry had spent enough to make sure it won the US election no matter who took office.

In Australia, the two big parties are equally tied to the big polluters. Labor and Liberal both agree that the fossil fuel juggernaut can keep rolling on indefinitely, when the science says that’s suicide.

In Too Many People? we say if we want a safe future, it’s either them or us. Any significant environmental gains will be won only through a confrontation with these elites who are resisting change. No gains will be permanent if they keep hold of economic and political power. And we won’t be able to harness the human potential needed to prevail unless we can build democratic political systems – controlled by people, not corporations – too.

We argue the super-rich are the real ecological vandals, whereas population growth, which has been trending downwards worldwide for the past 50 years, is not a key factor. Our pressing problem is the 1%, not the 99%. Or, as Barry Commoner put it: “Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”

And we also warn that the population argument is too often used to shift the blame for ecological destruction away from the real culprits and toward the poorest parts of the world where the human population is growing the fastest.

If we are to find solutions to the climate emergency, the food crisis and other environmental ills, we have to explore and act upon the causes, not the symptoms. These causes lie in the unequal power held by between different groups in society and an economic system geared for infinite growth on a finite planet.