The linkage of an increasing population size to a degrading environment is not news to anyone. Right from our textbooks to news clippings, a relationship of inverse proportionality is cast between the two. But, it all begins with a simple question. When one conducts or reviews a population census, it is not numbers one reads, those are lived lives of people coming from different socio-political, economic classes.
Who are the Populationists?
Populationists are people who view the human population as a primary catalyst of environmental degradation. The populationists argue that climate change, and all that comes with it can be attributed to the increasing population rates across the world. A common idea that precedes this thought process is the general understanding that all humans are in pursuit of a better standard of living, and a better standard of living entails trashing the environment. Since, choosing the costlier healthy-sustainable-organic is reserved for the very few that are wealthy.
To deconstruct this argument, let’s talk about the major consumers of our resources. These are twofold: the super consumers who generate more waste than the rest of the poor population, and the industrial consumers.
An Era Of Superconsumers
When the top 20% of the income earners in the States generate 70% of the USA’s waste, one understands that not all consumers are equally contributing to environmental degradation. Therefore, not all numbers on the census report add equal waste to the environment. A look into India’s figures show a similar pattern: “India’s richest 1% of the population hold 42.5% of national wealth while the bottom 50%, the majority of the population, owns a mere 2.8%” reads an Oxfam Report. What’s more? In Australia 11 richest people own more than 800,000 of the country’s poorest households.
Oftentimes, acknowledgement, which in itself is a big step, only leads to misdirected solutions. Australian Prime Minister decided to not raise a policy on climate change, rather on a policy that focuses on and improves the quality and worth of life. India, too followed in similar steps with the ‘Hum Do, Humaare Do’ (Two of us and two of ours) slogan.
What, however, is most troubling is the lack of responsibility. Who is the ‘we’ when we say we are responsible? The introspection is never done inwards, but always outwards. It is the population, it is the capitalists, but it never is the waste generated by the person individually.
The Silent Destroyer
Another pawn in this populationist argument is the idea of Consumer Sovereignty, which one could bust by using a simple example of the Apple Ecosystem. Just last year, on 23rd September, Apple opened its online store in India. Everything on their website has been created with a simple idea of nudging the customers to buy the product. Among the many facilities that they’re going to offer to 0.008% of India’s population is ‘Shop with Apple Specialists’. A system which would essentially help consumers make better, more aware choices, but what’s important to note is that these choices are made within the limited framework of Apple Products- reinstating the fact that only Apple is the right choice. To reduce our moral culpability, they also created ‘Apple Trade In’ which allowed customers to buy new models in exchange for old gadgets, pushing them to buy the newly introduced products. In the words of the American band, The Eagles, “You can checkout any time you like, but you can never leave”. Therefore, consumers—in most cases—don’t have the freedom to choose what they wish to buy, in most cases they are seduced by capitalists into buying products they probably don’t even need.
Therefore, simply blaming the number of consumers leads us to false judgement. Consumer’s make limited choices within a framework of fixed options presented to them by the market. Due to internal and external constraints these options, more often than not, are guided by planned obsolescence, poor infrastructure by the government, and false advertising. All these factors corner the consumer and nudge them to buy goods and services just the way the market wants them to.
Hence, Consumer Sovereignty proves to be a falsity created by neo-classical economists to serve the populationist agenda and portray consumers as the culprits of environmental degradation. This causes massive overproduction and chemical wastes since companies puppeteer the market movements by manipulating customers’ desires causing them to create larger carbon footprints.
A Feminist Outlook
The Population Justice Project (PJP), a US based group, propound the stunted growth of population as a means to make “other problems easier to solve.” This would be a direct result of reduced pressure on the already overburdened natural resources. The PJP states that “environmental problems—including the growth of greenhouse gases, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss—would be easier to address if the world population peaks around 8 billion, rather than 11 billion.”
To achieve this, the PJP aims to provide people with smart choices by making contraception and reproductive health services available to the masses. Therefore, the PJP does not advocate for coercive means of population control, rather they wish to create a culture of family planning to slow down the population growth. The PJP was established after the formation of the Cairo Consensus, an action plan created in the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994. However, not much has been done since its inception, and the PJP is still working to procure the promised funding, since family planning programs shine forth as a relatively cheaper solution when compared to other mitigation strategies for environment protection.
As Mahmood Mamdani, a Ugandan writer, wrote in The Myth of Population Control: “Optimism concerning the possibility of population control without a fundamental change in the underlining social reality is, in fact, a weapon of the political conservative.”
Most populationists use the Cornucopian argument to silent their critics. Cornucopians are those who believe that the Earth has infinite resources that are capable of sustaining life and the growing human population. However, while this puts the populationists at a rational footing that there is no scope for infinite growth on planet Earth, it makes an implicit assumption that there is a limit to how many people can be sustained on Earth. To this, Demographer Joel Cohen stated that there are no estimates which define a sustainable number for the human population, and that all previous estimates have been politically charged- created to convince people into believing that there are, infact, too many people on the planet.
Noor Sharma (UG ’23) is an incoming freshwoman at Ashoka University. She is interested in exploring topics within the intersection of economics and behavioral science.