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George Monbiot must bring population back to the table

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British writer and environmental/political activist George Monbiot is being criticised by demographers for his ideas on population (Screenshot via YouTube)

Activist and writer George Monbiot's ideas on the link between environmental problems and population growth are misguided, writes Michael Bayliss and Mark Allen.

GEORGE MONBIOT is a hero of the environmental movement who has delivered so much wisdom to the cause. Therefore, it is disappointing that his approach to the issue of population is currently one that perpetuates polarised thinking, especially at a time when we need to be looking for common ground more than ever.

For example, his article published on 26 August 2020 draws on a recent study as justification for closing down all discussion on overpopulation. This is despite the fact that many demographers have serious concerns about both the study and the alarmist way that it was reported.

A concerned group of demographers issued a signed letter for The Lancet noting that:

‘The models, data and underlying assumptions have not received sufficient scrutiny… and the media coverage surrounding future population scenarios needs to be less alarmist and more cautious.’

Another article for the Overpopulation Project, written by Jane O’Sullivan of Sustainable Population Australia, responded to the same study’s concerns around an ageing population by saying that:

‘There is no evidence at all that a declining “working-age” proportion will limit economic activity. In the real world, ageing countries have simply had higher workforce participation, not lower employment.’

Nevertheless, Monbiot is right to say that people with population-related concerns should consider tackling the social issues that lie behind it, including ‘structural poverty’, ‘third world debt’, ‘tax avoidance’ and ‘extractive industries that drain wealth from poor countries’. (Does this also include the lithium and rare earths that are mined for green energy?)

The problem, however, is the way he makes this point. Rather than demanding to look at people's past record on tackling these social issues as a means of calling them out (which is about as constructive as demanding to look at the flight history of everyone who votes Green), he could have instead used this opportunity to acknowledge the many environmental organisations who have a population focus and who do emphasise these deeper issues. In doing so, this would have provided a clear progressive path for those individuals who cite population as an issue but who are unsure about how to approach it.

Population Matters is one such example who, in their response to Monbiot's article, remind readers that their concerns are rooted in ‘addressing global poverty, inequity, human rights and especially the empowerment of women’. Another example is the famous study, Project Drawdown, that concludes how family planning and education together are effective media to long-term means of addressing greenhouse emissions.

Therefore, Monbiot sadly misses an opportunity to de-escalate this issue in this instance. What we need to be doing is building a movement that welcomes everybody to the table irrespective of our real or perceived hypocrisies — because we are all implicated to some extent. In this case, it is about encouraging people who do have concerns around population growth to look at parallel and correlating issues.

For example, CHASE Africa and Family Planning Australia provide family planning and sexual health services to Kenya and the Pacific Region respectively. Their grassroots experiences reinforce the fact that low fertility rate leads to contained population growth which is a key factor in socio-economic development and resource management. Furthermore, good reproductive healthcare can save women’s lives. Imagine denying people this fundamental human right because any discourse on population was shamed. It would be counter-productive.

One of the biggest threats to the environmental movement is divisiveness among activists and the continual “weaponisation” of identity politics. People using words such as “privilege” and “eco-fascism” in order to win arguments only entrench cognitive dissonance and reduce nuance. An obsession with political point-scoring and overcritical examination can also play into the neoliberal narrative, which requires an ever-growing number of people to siphon wealth towards a diminishing number of billionaires.

Monbiot's declaration in the final paragraph that nations will need to compete for migrants in order to cater to an ageing population does just that. This perception, of course, has been debunked many times. A de-growth society or steady state economy could easily adapt and flourish with an ageing population. It is something that every society will need to do at some stage in order for their populations to stabilise. 

Australia also shouldn't be afraid of its population stabilising over time because one of the major causes of emissions in a country like Australia is through urban development and construction. This is something that contributes towards more than twenty per cent of emissions and forty per cent of landfill as well as the ongoing loss of biodiversity and agricultural land. These industries are underpinned by the high population growth/development treadmill that we are becoming increasingly reliant upon in order to prop up GDP. 

The concern is that when population policy is directed by neoliberal interests, we end up with entrenched poverty overseas coupled with developments at home that are built around profit instead of people. For example, when Sustainable Population Australia interviewed a first-generation migrant living in Melbourne’s outer west suburbs, it was apparent that infrastructure is failing to keep pace with growth, negatively affecting his quality of life as well as those around him.

Therefore, the only truly equitable and proactive way of dismantling this treadmill is to work at an international level in partnership with other countries to create communities that are low carbon, resilient and that are transitioning away from the population pressures that force the displacement of people. While at a local level, the focus needs to be on better utilising our existing built stock in a way that creates regenerative meaningful communities for migrants and non-migrants alike.

In the meantime, the environmental movement needs Monbiot more than ever, but we will not succeed until we are willing to create a wider movement that can accommodate both Monbiot and organisations such as Population Matters, even if they have different priorities. Therefore, we should consider taking a more holistic approach to activism by understanding how discussion needs to be specifically about adding nuance and looking for areas of common ground rather than entrenching tired old dichotomies.

In other words, we will not overcome the multiple crises that we are currently facing with the same behaviour that led us into them.

Michael Bayliss is communications manager for Sustainable Population Australia and Co-founder of Population, Permaculture and Planning. You can follow him on Twitter @Miketbay83 and Sustainable Population Australia HERE.

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

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