The environment and the population question

Within the environmental movement there are differing views about the question of population growth, its impact on the future of the environment, and whether and how campaigning should focus on it. The following article looks at the question in the context of the humanist tradition. It is a longer version of Richard Norman’s piece in the Humanist Climate Action newsletter for January 2024

Debate about population growth goes back to the beginning of the 19th century and the controversial theory put forward by Rev Malthus that because population tends to increase exponentially, whereas improvement in food production is only linear, the growth of population will always be liable to outstrip resources, and can be limited only by the natural effects of hunger, poverty and illness. Hence government action to prevent poverty will always be futile, because it will simply encourage people to have more children and thereby perpetuate poverty. The only way in which the poor can better their condition is to exercise ‘moral restraint’. The good clergyman added that because the law of population is an encouragement to virtue, “the ways of God to man with regard to this great law are completely vindicated.”

Others, especially free-thinkers and rationalists, drew a different conclusion – that people should have options other than ‘moral restraint’, and should be able to enjoy sexual pleasure without the fear that it would reduce them to inescapable poverty. The promotion of birth control has had a long and impressive history within the humanist movement. Richard Carlile published, in 1828, Every Woman’s Book, the first book in English to give advice on contraception, and shocked the devout by suggesting that women as well as men should be able to enjoy sex.  In 1877 Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh, members of the National Secular Society, were brought to trial for republishing the birth control booklet The Fruits of Philosophy. In their preface they said: “We believe, with the Rev. Mr. Malthus, that population has a tendency to increase faster than the means of existence, and that some checks must therefore exercise control over population. The checks now exercised are semi-starvation and preventable disease; the enormous mortality among the infants of the poor is one of the checks which now keep down the population. The checks that ought to control population are scientific, and it is these which we advocate. We think it more moral to prevent the conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food, air and clothing.” 

In the 20th century, discussions of population growth acquired a new emphasis, both in general and for humanists, with overpopulation seen as a global problem standing in the way of development and poverty reduction, and having potentially disastrous consequences for the natural environment. The famous biologist Julian Huxley, a pioneer both of modern environmentalism and of modern humanist thought who was to become the first President of the British Humanist Association, edited a collection in 1961 with the title The Humanist Frame. In his own contribution he wrote that the aim should be a “decrease in the rate of population-growth; and in the long run equally certainly, decrease in the absolute number of people in the world.”

The wider debate about population levels became more highly charged with the publication in 1968 of The Population Bomb by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. “In the 1970s”, they wrote, “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” The failure of their predictions, and the sensationalist tone of the book, was seen by many as discrediting their position, but that was not the only controversial dimension of the debate. Huxley, for instance, was from the 1930s onwards a leading member of the Eugenics Society. The term ‘eugenics’ was appropriated by the Nazis in the attempt to justify their extermination programmes, and though Huxley and others insisted that what they were advocating was completely different, the associations of the word were widely seen as calling into question the very idea of a ‘population policy’. More generally, the language of ‘population control’ could be seen as question-begging. Who is supposed to be doing the controlling, and who is being ‘controlled’? The language smacks of hypocrisy on the part of the industrialised countries of Europe and North America, who, now that their own rates of population growth have decreased, are telling the countries of the Global South to fall into line.

A recent Oxfam report revealed that “The richest 1% of the world’s population are responsible for as much carbon pollution as the people who make up the poorest two-thirds of humanity.”  The journalist Rebecca Solnit commented: “When you talk about the climate crisis, sooner or later someone is going to say that population is the issue and fret about the sheer number of humans now living on Earth. But population per se is not the problem, because the farmer in Bangladesh or the street vendor in Brazil doesn’t have nearly the impact of the venture capitalist in California or the petroleum oligarchs of Russia and the Middle East.”

The inescapable conclusion is that not just billionaires but the people of the richest countries, being the greatest source of carbon emissions, have the greatest responsibility to change their ways. However, that is not necessarily the end of the story. True, “population per se is not the problem”, but it may nevertheless be one part of a complex and many sided problem. The fact remains that if the global population were to continue increasing at the present rate, it would become unsustainable.

But the key word is ‘if’. The evidence on ‘demographic transition’ seems to indicate that as a society’s prosperity increases, with greater educational provision including women’s education and women’s empowerment, population growth naturally falls. Perhaps, then, if population growth remains a concern, the emphasis should be on poverty eradication, and on the promotion of women’s rights, including reproductive rights, so that women are empowered to make their own choices about how many children they want to have. But having said that, they cannot make those choices unless contraceptive methods and advice are available to them. And as we know, the provision of contraception and advice on birth control continues to be steadfastly opposed by some religious groups including the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which refuses to support any health services which include the provision of contraceptive advice. So perhaps the most useful contribution which the humanist movement can make is to go on campaigning, as it has always done, in support of women’s reproductive rights and against religiously-motivated restrictions on those rights.