The Population Myth

People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor

by George Monbiot: journalist, author, academic and environmental and political activist, United Kingdom

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 example, 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.”(1) 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 example, 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 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions(2).

Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that around 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 a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 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 us. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for example, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together(3). 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(4).

The paper’s author, David Satterthwaite of the International Institute for Environment and Development, points out that the old formula taught to all 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 superyachts, as I’ll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they’re 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(5) 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 l/hr(6). 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 3400 l/hr when travelling at 60 knots(7). That’s nearly one litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre(8).

Wallypower 118

Of course to make a real splash I’ll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jet skis 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 ten 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 £3000 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.”(9) 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 (OPT). 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(10), probably at around 10 billion(11). 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 superyachts 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.


  1. Optimum Population Trust, 26th August 2009 Gaia Scientist to be OPT Patron.
  2. David Satterthwaite, September 2009. The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change. Environment & Urbanization, Vol 21(2): 545–567. DOI: 10.1177/0956247809344361.
  4. For example, Satterthwaite cites the study by Gerald Leach and Robin Mearns, 1989. Beyond the Woodfuel Crisis – People, Land and Trees in Africa, Earthscan Publications, London.
  8. 15 US gallons/nm = 56.775l/nm = 31 l/km.
  9. John Harlow, 24th May 2009. Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation. The Sunday Times.
  10. Wolfgang Lutz, Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov, 20th January 2008. The coming acceleration of global population ageing. Nature. doi:10.1038/nature06516
  11. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005. World Population Prospects. The 2004


  1. Bravo, George! The next myth to investigate is that we can’t feed these people. There may be some areas where population density is a serious problem, but I would like to know to extent systems such as permaculture can feed the world. According to Sharon Astyk 85% of the world’s farms are less than 5 hectares, and produce almost half of the world’s grains ( Havana supposedly sources 90% of its fresh food within the city. This undermines claims that we need agribusiness and GM crops. Food not lawns!

  2. An excellent article – brilliant work!

    I’m currently working on my master’s thesis in environmental sociology, in part looking at the ruling class’ version of sustainability by doing content analysis on (the UN publication) Agenda 21 (among other documents). The hypothesis is that this publication (and others) reflect an attitude or worldview of the ruling class. I intend to investigate two concepts: empowerment and sacrifice. Namely, who is empowered, and who is charged with needing to make the deepest sacrifices. Part of their view (I posit), with regard to population, is that it is the problem of the poorest communities – they should surrender more power, and make more sacrifices.

    I greatly appreciate your input on this topic, and don’t be surprised if this article gets cited, soon!

    -Ben Brucato
    [email protected]

  3. Thats the solution! We all become as poor as the poorest on earth and make babies like there is no tomorrow!

    Overpopulation is a major problem. Our planet is a nearly closed system with limited resources, which limits the number of supported humans or as a matter of fact every other species.

    1. No, that isn’t the solution, nor was that even suggested by anyone here, except you…? How bizarre. NO the solution is to ensure no one has to struggle to survive. It’s those who are struggling who have the most children. It’s a natural response to material insecurity, many hands making light work and providing social bonds to compensate for feeling less than worthy as a human being. As material well-being increases that feeling subsides and family sizes decrease. It’s all been researched and proven already. The solution is the wealthy need to stop believing that they are more worthy of the earth’s resources than others and trying to have it all for themselves.

  4. The esteemed Mr. Monbiot makes the irritating error of equating CO2 emissions and environmental impact. Its obviously much more complicated than that.

    Mr. Rich may burn more petroleum in a year, but Mr. Villager fells more trees.

    Poor people are still directly interacting with their environment, so their pollution of waterways and felling of trees is much easier to see. More of them, more deforestation.

    Harder to see, and no doubt greater impact, is the complicated chain of events leading from the purchase of a car to the manufacture of the engine control chips, to the pollution of waterways with silicon industry waste. Repeat for steel, plastic, “rubber” tyres, wiring, etc. of example car.

    Seems to me we might have too many of both types of earth citizens.

    1. Actually, you are wrong, the one’s causing the most deforestation are the wealthy investors clearcutting hundreds of acres for vast monocultures. The peasant who cuts down trees does so to plant and then move on to another little patch, leaving the previous area to re-grow.

  5. greg,

    No, Mr. Villager made his house out of mud and coppiced wood. He grows is food around his house. He is sustainable. Mr. Rich fells more trees to build his stick built house with imported lumber harvested by clear cutting and transported with petroleum.

  6. More people means less biodiversity-high biodiversity is a key indicator to a healthy, resilient ecosystem.

    1. Depends upon how those people live. At the moment consumer driven, scales of economy, type mono-cultural agriculture means people are displaced to cities, where overcrowding and unhealthy lifestyles are the norm. If people farmed the permaculture way diversity would increase and there would be more than enough for everyone to live well, so long as having constant stream of new electronic gadgets isn’t their idea of living well. Well made gadgets that last for generations and can be re-purposed at the end of their life would be fine though.

  7. George is indeed on the right track. We will know there is more seriousness when citizens in developed countries are implementing consumption and efficiency measures which result in reduced overall electricity use and therefore no need for additional fossil fuel power stations. Fundamental living standards can still increase. At the same time, households in developing countries can get access to electricity (replacing kerosene) resulting in improved fundamental living standards, but in sustainable ways. This will also put a natural break on population growth. Citizens in developed countries must take the lead in both directions.

  8. George,

    While your assertion that the wealtiest nations are the highest carbon emitters is something that few would argue with, population is indeed the chief cause of every environmental problem the world experiences today. Name one problem that would exist today if there was one quarter of today’s population. You can try and simply your argument by breaking the human population into two groups (rich and poor), but in fact there exists a wide spectrum of classes in this world. You think that all carbon emission created by the so-called “rich” is only for themselves? Nope. They may not see African bush tribes as customers, but a great many in the “lower economic classes ARE in fact consumers of these goods, and with less consumers there would hence be less products created, hence less polution. And what about they effects globalization has had into forcing poor nations into environmentally destructive agricultural practices. Even with so-called “sustainable” living practices, the fact remains, the more people, the more consumption and the more resources needed to maintain that population. Anyone who has ever taken an ecology 101 class knows that population of any species (when it grows beyond its means) will eventually crash. Unfortunately, human arrogance and the belief that it can overcome anything it screws up with “human ingenuity” is really taking it’s toll on the environment and it’s myriad species that are powerless to stop it. Bottom line, the world is a finite place with finite resources and human overpopulation will continue to worsen our known environmental problems as it (if it) continues to grow. You can argue who is most responsible for carbon emissions all you want, yet the population issue still remains. Not a very well thought out discussion in my opinion, and it’s not just the rich that are concerned with overpopulation.

    1. It’s still driven from the excesses of the top echelons who control the media and thus the aspirations of the rest. If you are told you are going to be inadequate if you can’t compete for things from an early age it is hard to do otherwise. The education system follows suit, as per the dictats of the politicians, who are nothing more than corporate drones, even if they believe they are serving the greater good. But there are those who understand human frailty very well and are using it to their advantage. That’s what you learn in English public school.

  9. To quote the Optimum Population Trust: “Meanwhile each additional person, especially each rich person in the OECD countries, reduces everyone’s share of the planet’s dwindling resources even faster.”

    So it’s not like they put blame on the poorer regions, as your article might imply if misunderstood.

    1. But do they consider the wealthy to be a problem ? It could just as well be that they pursue the wealth agenda, and are simply saying, ”Well, we need to have less people so that wealth can continue to be aspired to.” Do they cite anything else, any moral value or ethic, that should be aspired to, that perhaps doesn’t require being wealthy ?

  10. I’m disappointed to see this argument go in predictable social-justice directions. To me, this is a variation on “white guilt” in which the west feels guilty for its sins and feels politically incorrect in casting a finger to anybody with brown skin.

    It’s not an either/or debate. It’s BOTH the 1st world and the developing world.

    And it’s polyanna to think that raising the 3rd world out of poverty will create the desired demographic shift. It’s also not thermodynamically possible to raise the 3rd world far enough out of population to enable that demographic shift, even with some powerdown from the 1st world.

    This was the “happy ending” part of 11th Hour, Earth 2100, ad nauseum and it’s just too deus ex machina. It won’t happen. It can’t happen.

    1. And yet none of what you are talking about was mentioned in the article. Things turned out the way they did for many more reasons than the colour of people’s skin. And, it really doesn’t take much to establish contentment in someones life, so by what measure are you claiming it is impossible to give everyone enough to provide them with the security they need in order to have less children? …poverty being THE reason why people have a lot of children…insecurity drives people to want more help, and the easiest way to do tha,t in a competitive environment, is to breed. All of which has been well researched and documented.

  11. Here in Norway we have a so called welfare system, sosialistic based. Now half the population, the middle class, work in buerocrasy, working with in a “rightfull way” sharing the wealth with the “poor”. These “Roobin Hoods” are very rich, with an average income of about 100000 USD. The other half of the population, the “poor”, live on pensions and benefits from the welfare system. Half the population don’t work, half the population work with sharing money in a justice way to those who don’k work. To make the weels of community go around, we have imported workers from former Eastern Europe and Asia, to do the work Norwegians don’t like to do. This system is going on with pumping up huge amounts of oil and natural gas from the North Sea, and with fishing industry (most workers from North Russia etc.).

    My point is that the solution of sharing is not sosialism or sosial democracy, as we like to call it. The solution for the world is Permaculture, and this have to grow out from peoples minds.

  12. An excellent article but, i would suggest that its not the superrich who are doing the most damage although the hypocrisy spelt out is worth highlighting as you have done. But because they are few in number the comparative damage they do is much much less than the total of Mr and Mrs Average. It is Mr and Mrs Average whose consumption needs to bear the brunt of campaigns to address climate change. I believe that is happening – but still not much is going on and the campaign needs to be broadened. Nevertheless, the rich should be made to feel guilty and discouraged from wasteful behaviours such as described in the article.

  13. Greg said “Mr. Rich may burn more petroleum in a year, but Mr. Villager fells more trees.”

    I am not sure this is true either. In India I observed that the poor chop branches off the trees for firewood. They don’t chop down the tree. It is when the rich move in that the trees are chopped down. I saw that in the holy town of Amarkantak. People I met who had been going there for a long time commented on how much the forest had receded in 20 years. The population of the town had grown considerably and much of the impact was from visitors to the town, of which there are many every day through the cooler months of the year. Whereas the population of the poorer people is unlikely to have risen anywhere near as much.

    But it is true that in India villagers pollute the waterways. They do everything in the rivers and streams. They get their drinking water from wells. However, the degree of the pollution pales in insignificance compared to what the industrialists are doing in coal mining towns. I visited one and almost suffocated. Less well off indians get work there but they die an early death of diseases related to their occupation. You see the coal is free for locals so they use it for their cooking fires. Whereas cleaner forms of fuel cost money. The town is poisoning itself. I was glad to see that the government “said” it was going to address this problem of pollution in the town. Can’t happen fast enough as far as I am concerned.

  14. There is no doubt that wealthier countries are responsible for climate change. But I don’t buy the idea that the current population of the world is sustainable. There are too many resources in short supply, and they are getting more scarce in the face of climate change as well as over-population. To name a few:
    1. the amount of arable land and healthy soils
    2. clean drinking water
    3. places to live that are safe from rising oceans and increasingly violent storms
    4. a healthy diet (which differs from a sufficient number of calories)
    Everyone throws around the number 10 billion as if the population will magically stop growing at that point. That is just a blip on an exponential trajectory. Every geographical area has a carrying capacity. If this planet is to survive we must decide at what point we can not only produce but deliver the resources for a “good enough” lifestyle to every man, woman and child on Earth, and to do it sustainably.
    Footnote: While wealthier populations have the ability to limit their growth, there are a good many people who don’t. Some places in North America have modestly affluent families who have 3 or more children. And since North Americans use more resources per capita than other regions, I would argue that there remains work to be done in limiting our own numbers.

  15. All because the wealthy few are driving the economic factors that determine how land is used, and for whom, how water is allocated, and for whom, how people should live, in order to fit the economic model that siphons resources and income to the top few…etc. etc. Permaculture is the answer.

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