The overpopulation myth obstructs meaningful climate action

Dealing with population growth requires us to strike a careful balance between the needs of humans and nature.

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Dealing with population growth requires us to strike a careful balance between the needs of humans and nature.

Indra Deshmukh, Copy Editor

Earth’s population just reached eight billion people, and many of them are upset about it. It’s hard to blame them: the environment is a hot topic, and overpopulation has contributed considerably to our ongoing climate crisis. Hasn’t it?

We’re taught to be “population alarmists”, constantly concerned with the risk that the human population will outgrow its carrying capacity and consume more resources than we can survive on. This belief can be traced back to the 1700s, when economist Thomas Malthus warned that while humans reproduce exponentially, food-production technology doesn’t advance quickly enough to meet their needs. He predicted “Malthusian catastrophes” – poverty, famine, war – unless the population could be controlled.

Nearly two centuries later, ecologist Garrett Hardin justified Malthus’s theories with the metaphor of a lifeboat rescuing passengers from a sinking ship. Each drowning person needs the lifeboat to survive, but if the boat takes on more people than it can support, everyone on it will drown. Hardin argues that we should put aside our moral qualms and let a few unlucky ones die in order to preserve the rest of our species.

But this introduces a tricky question: who is expendable, and who “deserves” to be saved? Population-alarmist rhetoric has been consistently used to justify discrimination, from anti-immigration policies to social Darwinism. Madison Grant, a staunch believer in overpopulation, was also director of the American Eugenics Society. The Nazis used the slogan “blood and soil”, believing they were tied to their homeland and were using genocide to cleanse it of the damage supposedly caused by other races.

These are examples of eco-fascism: an extremist viewpoint that blames immigration, overpopulation and over-industrialization for the climate crisis and calls for their abolishment in order to protect the environment, even when individuals’ needs and quality of life must be sacrificed. The overpopulation myth is a narrative carefully woven together to defend this ideology.

The problem with this reasoning is that the “population crisis” is nowhere near as severe as eco-fascists claim. Yes, it’s undeniable that everyone needs a certain amount of food, water and other resources in order to survive. It’s also true that the Earth’s supply isn’t infinite. But we’re facing an issue of overconsumption, not overpopulation. 

It’s also true that the Earth’s supply isn’t infinite. But we’re facing an issue of overconsumption, not overpopulation. 

According to Oxfam International, the world’s richest 1% of people are responsible for more than double the amount of carbon dioxide emissions as the four billion poorest people. A third of these emissions come from U.S. consumers. This excess isn’t limited to zooming around in brand-new private jets – it includes water overuse, unnecessary shopping sprees and same-day Amazon deliveries. According to The Guardian, the U.S. population has increased by 60% in the last 50 years, but consumer spending has gone up 400%.

Yet it’s people in poverty who catch the worst of the blame. Developing nations with high birthrates are targeted for causing a population boom, when in reality a population surge for these nations is a perfectly natural step in their development based on the Demographic Transition Model. But overpopulation fear-mongering leads to drastic measures, such as family planning in China and the United Kingdom funding forced sterilization in India. Ironically, the U.K. was simultaneously developing their own coal and oil plants in India and other countries. This is the danger of the overpopulation myth: it allows those in power to perpetuate the climate crisis and then scapegoat marginalized groups for the harm they cause.

So our survival doesn’t hinge on the number of people in the world, but on the way we manage resources. But being aware of that doesn’t change the fact that climate change is continuing at an alarming rate. How can we work towards a future that is both sustainable and equitable?

One way is to tackle the root cause: overconsumption. As consumers, we should be smart about what we purchase, whether it’s necessary and where we get it from. Taking public transport to decrease reliance on fossil fuels, managing food waste, saving water and electricity, choosing a thrift-store trip over a $300 SHEIN haul – these are all ways to bring down our carbon footprints.

Furthermore, we can support Biocultural Heritage (BCH), which focuses on Indigenous peoples who have been coexisting with and monitoring their ancestral lands for thousands of years. According to the Indigenous Foundation, their belief in the land as a shared community resource and knowledge of sustainable living makes it essential to recognize and protect their territories and rights. Advocating for laws such as the Indian Child Welfare Act directly contributes to conservation, because environmental protection goes hand-in-hand with Indigenous welfare.

NRDC explains how Indigenous activists have spearheaded climate activism by fighting fossil fuel corporations, preserving clean water, conserving wildlife and advocating for land-based stewardship. We can support these environmentalists by donating when possible, understanding their views and sharing their content. By amplifying marginalized voices, we can learn to live in harmony with nature rather than viewing human populations as a threat.

Taking an intersectional approach to environmentalism allows us to protect not just ecosystems, but the people who interact with them. When we push for a truly equitable future, we want all human lives and livelihoods to be valued. 

So don’t worry over the population hitting eight billion people, and don’t panic about when it’ll climb to nine billion and above. Instead, make the right choices to enable a bright future for however many people are sharing our planet.