The Problem with Villainizing our Growing Population

By Amaris Norwood

April 6th, 2023

In November of 2022, the UN reported that the world population reached 8 billion. As a result, many rushed to document this record-breaking statistic in their respective media outlets. An article that received traction in the Washington Post highlighted different perspectives on how we think a growing population will impact the planet. One of which came from Les Knight, who leads a movement called “voluntary human extinction” as he believes that “we’re not a good species.” He builds on the narrative that population growth is one of if not the major cause of climate change. But is this true? Also, what consequences could come out of speaking against a growing global population?

The countries with the highest population growth rates in particular are considered developing countries, aren’t major drivers of climate change, and most of these top 20 countries are in Africa. Furthermore, many of these nations face more vulnerabilities because of climate change, which population critics in the developed world tend to neglect. Additionally, studies find that increases in population growth rates are a result of decreasing infant and maternal mortality rates and increasing access to health care and economic improvements. 

Movements against population growth for the “greater good” are not new, but many have led to genocide, eugenics, and/or other forms of population control. These movements make up the fabric of colonial history and legacy for the advancement of white, colonial power. Eradication of Indigenous groups and incentivized, often non-consensual, racial mixing to decrease Black and Indigenous populations are two major examples within the Americas. However, there are more modern examples of minimizing population growth. In the United States, between 1907 and 1970, there were forced sterilization laws in place, which particularly targeted Black, Indigenous, Latine, immigrant, poor white, and disabled people in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Sterilization laws in California and Indiana are credited for inspiring sterilization practices enacted by the Nazis against Jewish and other marginalized groups in Europe. Furthermore, less than three years ago, in 2020, there were allegations of forced sterilizations of undocumented migrants in ICE detention centers.

Some see speaking against a growing population for the sake of the planet as different from these historic forms of population control, which have more explicitly racist, classist, and ableist motivations. However, minimizing populations for the sake of environmental preservation has its own history. Though elements of this could be attributed to misunderstanding the critical relationship between humans and their indigenous lands, the history of controlling populations for the sake of the environment is linked to the genocide and displacement of Indigenous people. Aldo Leopold was known as the father of U.S. wildlife management and was an early advocate of claiming overpopulation as the main driver of environmental issues. During his time, national parks were being established in the U.S., which led to the removal and further displacement of Indigenous people increasing their vulnerability to U.S. expansion and development. Indigenous groups to this day still have to fight for regaining access to and management of these lands.

In the examples above, we see how anti-population growth movements have led to the further marginalization of people of color, poor folks, and other vulnerable groups. We also need to consider how marginalized demographics face growing threats from those in social and political power and how modern technology permits misinformation about these groups to spread faster than it has in the past. This makes modern anti-population growth rhetoric especially dangerous. 

When it comes to addressing climate change, what then should we focus on? Firstly, we need to understand that the places experiencing population growth are some of the most vulnerable to climate change. Rather than villainizing their growing populations, we need to focus on ensuring these groups receive the resources they need to survive and build resilience against environmental degradation and disasters. We also need to elevate their voices, as a growing population allows for more minds to be empowered to fight climate change. Secondly, we need to understand the impact that western consumption patterns have all over the world. It’s estimated that the top 10% of the world produces nearly as much greenhouse gas emissions as the bottom 90%. Therefore, we need to focus on overconsumption, overexploitation of resources, and wealth inequality in our climate conversations over critiquing growing populations. As we’ve seen, movements against population growth historically only empower those already in power and further marginalize the most vulnerable groups.

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