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Why “Population Matters” Is Wrong

Someone isn’t happy. Here at Bright Green towers, we received a pretty miffed email from a member of the Green Party of England and Wales complaining about the party magazine – Green World. They seemed to want us to expose Green World for “censorship”. So, what is the allegation?

This article was originally published in Bright Green Scotland.

Well, it boils down to this: Population Matters – the people who think that the population of the world should be a major element of public debate – wanted to advertise in Green World. The editorial board ruled that they shouldn’t be allowed to, because they support political positions we ought not to support. It seems that those who are cross about this ruling are exercising their right to shout about it. So, let me explain why I disagree with them.

First things first, this isn’t censorship, it’s editing. My right to free speech does not equate to my right to have anything I want published in any magazine I choose just because I am rich enough to buy an advert. The Green Party magazine must, on occasion, refuse to run things it finds problematic.

And Population Matters are problematic. Join the dots marked out by their campaign and you draw an ugly picture of a world where those blamed for environmental problems are not those who do most to cause them, but those who suffer most from their consequences: theirs is the doctrine which blames the unemployed for the recession, the people of Iraq for Saddam Hussein. But before we get to why they are offensive, let’s look at why they are (mostly) wrong.

 

Focus on the Numbers

The birth rate in Mali is 6.29 births per woman. In the USA it is 2.1. So, if the problem is population, then Mali is where we should start to point our fingers. But let’s look at another stat: the average person in Mali is responsible for 0.06 tonnes of CO2 per year. The average person in the USA is responsible for 17. So, the average person in the USA is responsible for about 283 times more carbon than the average person in Mali. To put it another way, the average Mailian family is responsible for 1/136th of the carbon of the average American family. In this context, complaining about another Malian baby seems foolish.

Population Matters might respond that yes, this is true, but that if we aspire to a world where Malians have a better quality of life than they do now, then they will each use more resource. And so this will only be possible with a lower population. And largely, they are wrong. It is possible for a society to live well and use less of the world’s finite resources. It just isn’t possible under the current economic system (capitalism).

For many, the certainty that population correlates to consumption comes from the belief that we should learn from ecology: too many rabbits in a garden can eat all of the flowers and then have none left. Each new rabbit means an equal increase in the rate of consumption of flowers. But humans are different. We are the only species with such vast inequality.

 

Don’t Blame the Victim

But that they are wrong isn’t why the point is somewhat offensive. It is offensive because the implication that we should blame Mali for a problem they do almost nothing to cause, but from which they will suffer more heavily than the richest, is cruel. Talking about population serves to shift blame from the rich in the west (and the capitalist system established by the rich in the west) and onto those who are least to blame.

And when we take a problem largely caused by rich white people, but highlight ways of discussing it which shift the blame onto poor black people, we are perpetuating white power and the racism in our society. This isn’t to say that the people who run Population Matters are intentionally racist – I am sure they are lovely. But just as it is possible for me to accidentally do things which contribute to a sexist society, what they do contributes to a racist, classist society.

 

The Gender Aspect

It does something else too – something which climate campaigning is all too often guilty of. It shifts blame onto women. As Fiona Ranford has pointed out, it shifts blame onto women.

Now, this is a complex point. Because Population Matters aren’t fools, and they aren’t wilfully cruel. They don’t call for eugenics or one child policies. They call for something that no one could disagree with: women’s empowerment. Or so they say. But, as Fiona’s article explains, you are not empowering women to have more control over their reproduction if you pre-define the outcome of their family planning. This is like telling people they have democracy so long as they vote for you. It may be that fewer children is what women would choose. But we should give them control over their fertility because they ought to have that control – if they want fewer children, or if they want more.

Like people in poorer countries, women are likely to be the main victims of climate change. There are more women farmer. When natural disasters happen, usually, more women and girls die as sexist societies (ie all of them) prioritise help for men and boys, or support for the things men and boys need. And blaming women for this is nothing new: most solutions presented to climate change are domestic – changing lightbulbs, recycling, etc – things which usually mean more work for women. Yet climate change is driven by an economy owned almost entirely by men.

We live in a racist, sexist and classist world. This world props up its racism and its sexism and its classism by encouraging us to blame the victims of oppression for the problems they face. It is the responsibility of all progressives to challenge any voice which supports this process – intentionally, or not. And it is, therefore, for Green World, the only responsible thing to do to refuse advertisements from well meaning groups like Population Matters.

note – I’ve done some more research into Population Matters:

UPDATE 1: I’ve just found a policy statement showing that Population Matters (formerly the Optimum Population Trust) are in favour of no net migration to the UK. This immigrant bashing stance is more extreme than the Tories  or, even, than UKIP.

UPDATE 2:  They have a story on their website saying that population is ‘to blame’ for the HS2 train line, and that the solution to this is less immigration.

UPDATE 3:  In 2009, Population Matters (then known as the Optimum Population Trust) launched a ‘carbon offsetting’ scheme – whereby rich people could, rather than reducing their emissions, pay for contraception for people in impoverished countries.  (Thanks to a friend for highlighting this).