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Seeing past and beyond ‘population versus consumption’

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The population versus consumption debate can be a hindrance to progress (Image via Pixabay)

A peaceful compromise between environmentalists and populationists would be a step towards a progressive society, writes Mark Allen.

THERE HAS BEEN a number of articles in recent times that suggest the issue of overpopulation is a slippery slope towards eco-fascism. This has partly been in response to high profile figures such as Jane Goodall and David Attenborough who have recently cited it as an issue. The ensuing backlash has led to an increase in terms such as “neo-Malthusian” and “populationist”.

While it is essential that we embrace a critical mindset and challenge some of the arguments used by people such as Attenborough, it is also essential that we do it in a way that adds nuance rather than taking it away. For example, using the label “neo-Malthusian” is counterproductive when many in the environment movement are progressives who see the empowerment of women and universal access to healthcare as the proactive “solution”. This is the very antithesis of Malthusian thinking.

Undoubtedly, there are people who label themselves as environmentalists because they want fewer “brown babies” so that they do not have to question their lifestyle and they use the overpopulation argument as justification. However, the great thing about taking a much more nuanced approach to the population topic is that it illuminates the racists. Nuance is the enemy of dogma.

Therefore, irrespective of whether you think that overpopulation is real or perceived, working to connect with people on the deeper issues around social inequity and disempowerment is far more productive. For example, embracing dichotomies such as population versus consumption can be unproductive (that is unless someone is literally saying that the answer is to control our population rather than question our rate of consumption). From my own experience, few people walk away from such discussions with a changed mindset, only a greater sense of “us and them”.

A holistic approach to activism is one that looks at where the issues intersect at a more fundamental level and in doing so, develop the common ground that is required to build a movement for change at this crucial moment in our history. Some people will have more of a focus on population in the same way that others have more of a focus on clean energy or regenerative farming, or returning to traditional land management patterns.

This doesn't matter. In fact it is a good thing, as long as we can find the common threads of connection that are required to create a movement that is bigger than the sum of its parts. Even if you do not agree that overpopulation is an issue, most people who do see it as a symptom that is rooted in the deeper issues to which most of us connect.

For example, most progressives would broadly agree that empowered women who have control over their bodies are integral to our collective vision of the better world that we so desperately need. This connects beautifully with the growing call for a decolonised form of mutual aid. In turn, this intersects with our urgent need in the West to curb our high consumption lifestyle as part of a wider challenging of the corporatocracy.

My thoughts around the population issue led me to this deeper, more nuanced picture. In other words, given the opportunity, the population issue can be a pathway towards more integrated, holistic thinking.

When I was working as a town planner, the issue of population couldn't be avoided. I was compelled to examine how a city such as Melbourne can accommodate an increase of over 100,000 people every year, because this is the reality. How could we continue to justify this level of growth under a system of neoliberalism that is more attuned to generating profit than creating liveable neighbourhoods?

I realised that when neoliberal capitalism is the driving force behind population growth, we end up with poor development outcomes. This is what ultimately inspired me to develop Town Planning Rebellion, a movement that understands the importance of a transition to a form of de-growth society that is determined by direct democracy such as Citizen's Assemblies.

Town Planning Rebellion is about taking a proactive approach through collaboration. That way, we can nurture empowered and resilient communities across the world that are liveable, sustainable and joyful. While populations will more likely start to stabilise under this scenario, this process is also as much about looking for innovative and ethical ways of accommodating population growth.

For example, we can and should fill the enormous amount of homes that are lying empty across Australia. Another important approach is David Holmgren's Retrosuburbia model that examines how to better utilise the suburbs in a low carbon society. And the list goes on.

In the meantime, I hope that there is a growing willingness within the environment movement for everyone to embrace critical thinking. We should work towards accepting others' values without antagonism. This means that people who do have concerns around population must be open to looking at the nuances that are undercurrent while those who do not see population as an issue must be open to doing the same. With a proactive, cooperative approach, the issue of overpopulation will become less of an issue over time, irrespective of whether it was ever an issue in the first place. 

This approach will, among many factors, be integral to combatting eco-fascism and in doing so, help to build the diverse and interconnected movement for systemic change that we so desperately need.

Mark Allen is an environmental activist based in Melbourne who focuses on holistic activism, sustainable town planning and food ethics.


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