Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

It's Not Sex, It's Money

Population growth is not a problem - it's among those who consume the least. So why isn't anyone targeting the very rich?

George Monbiot

 by The Guardian

It's no coincidence that most of
those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive
wealthy white men: it's about the only environmental issue for which
they can't be blamed. The brilliant Earth systems scientist James Lovelock,
for instance, claimed last month that "those who fail to see that
population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are
either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental
problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is
irrational." But it's Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.

A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization
shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are
those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice
versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa produced
18.5% of the world's population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2.
North America turned out only 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the
extra emissions. Sixty-three percent of the world's population growth
happened in places with very low emissions.

Even this does not
capture it. The paper points out that about one sixth of the world's
population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all.
This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest.
Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees (£40) a month use a
fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel
of households earning 30,000 rupees or more. Street sleepers use almost
nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban
underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.

Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to the developed nations. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria,
for instance, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources
in sub-Saharan Africa put together. Even deforestation in poor
countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber,
meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.

The
paper's author, David Satterthwaite, points out that the old formula
taught to students of development - that total impact equals population
times affluence times technology (I = PAT) - is wrong. Total impact
should be measured as I = CAT: consumers times affluence times
technology. Many of the world's people use so little that they wouldn't
figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children.

While
there's a weak correlation between global warming and population
growth, there's a strong correlation between global warming and wealth.
I've been taking a look at a few super-yachts, as I'll need somewhere
to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they are
accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet's RFF135,
but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour I
realised that it wasn't going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise
half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which
sucks up 850 litres per hour. But the raft that's really caught my eye
is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives
total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3,400 litres per hour when
travelling at 60 knots. That's nearly a litre per second. Another way
of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre.

Of course, to make a
real splash I'll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry
a few jetskis and a mini-submarine, ferry my guests to the marina by
private plane and helicopter, offer them bluefin tuna sushi and beluga
caviar, and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life
of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I'll do more
damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes than most Africans inflict in a
lifetime. Now we're burning, baby.

Someone I know who hangs out
with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames
valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath
temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter
nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3,000 a month.
One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our
life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the
African peasantry. But at least the super wealthy have the good manners
not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human
reproduction leave them alone.

In May the Sunday Times carried an article headlined "Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation".
It revealed that "some of America's leading billionaires have met
secretly" to decide which good cause they should support. "A consensus
emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth
would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and
industrial threat." The ultra-rich, in other words, have decided that
it's the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a
metaphor, but it's impossible to satirise.

James Lovelock, like Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Porritt, is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust.
It is one of dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to
discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere.
But I haven't been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to
address the impacts of the very rich.

The obsessives could argue
that the people breeding rapidly today might one day become richer. But
as the super wealthy grab an ever greater share and resources begin to
run dry, this, for most of the very poor, is a diminishing prospect.
There are strong social reasons for helping people to manage their
reproduction, but weak environmental reasons - except among wealthier
populations.

The Optimum Population Trust glosses over the fact
that the world is going through demographic transition: population
growth rates are slowing down almost everywhere and the number of
people is likely, according to a paper in Nature, to peak this century,
probably at about 10 billion. Most of the growth will take place among
those who consume almost nothing.

But no one anticipates a
consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but
they don't consume less - they consume more. As the habits of the
super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption
can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits
the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that
population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock's words,
"hiding from the truth". It is the worst kind of paternalism, blaming
the poor for the excesses of the rich.

So where are the movements
protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where
is the direct action against super-yachts and private jets? Where's
Class War when you need it?

It's time we had the guts to name the problem. It's not sex; it's money. It's not the poor; it's the rich.


© 2020 The Guardian
George Monbiot

George Monbiot

George Monbiot is the author of the best selling books The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order and Captive State: the corporate takeover of Britain. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. Visit his website at www.monbiot.com

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Medicare for All Advocates Take to the Streets of Over 50 US Cities

"How can we have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when we live in constant fear of illness, bankruptcy, or homelessness because of the outrageous for-profit healthcare system?"

Jessica Corbett ·


Thousands Join Budapest Pride Parade to Protest Attacks on LGBTQ+ Hungarians

"A lot has happened over the last few years, and it's time to show that we're not okay with it," said one of the organizers.

Jessica Corbett ·


US Lawmakers Demand $34 Billion for Global Vaccine Equity Funding in Reconciliation Package

"No investment in the fight against Covid-19 is more urgent and cost-effective now than an investment in getting the world vaccinated as quickly as possible."

Jessica Corbett ·


Ilhan Omar Demands Answers After First Somalia Airstrike of Biden Era

"It is critical that we realize we are not going to simply drone the al-Shabaab problem to death," the Somali-American congresswoman asserted.

Brett Wilkins ·


'Huge Legal Win': Court Stops Police From Blockading Line 3 Protester Camp

One attorney described the blockade as "an outrageous abuse of law enforcement authority serving the interests of the Enbridge corporation against its environmental opponents."

Kenny Stancil ·