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Depopulation – the elephant in the eco-room


THE fear that unchecked population growth will lead to increased competition for resources, causing environmental degradation and economic instability has a long history. Its contemporary incarnation came with biologist Paul Ehrlich and his 1968 book The Population Bomb (co-authored by his wife, Anne), which warned of mass starvation, environmental destruction and other catastrophes resulting from excessive population growth.

Coupled with a growing pessimism around increasing affluence and material consumerism, population increase has topped many social and political commentators’ concerns in recent years. But even before the industrial revolution, when the global population stood at fewer than one billion, the Rev Thomas Malthus raised the spectre of limits to the planet’s capacity to produce food, and that when population growth exceeds food production, poverty and starvation result, it would threaten social order. 

Too many people consuming ever fewer resources has had a huge influence on the development of economic thought (economics is the ideological justification of the allocation of scarce resources). It also highlights the nature of humans and their putatively exploitative role on the planet. This dual ideological position can be seen in the UN’s sustainability agenda, in what can  be described as the new green tyranny, with depopulation the elephant in the room.

Man-made impacts on the environment and growing dangers to the earth’s eco-systems were first politicised in the 1960s, spearheaded by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book documents the rise in use of pesticides, particularly DDT, and their effects on the natural world.  A later book, Ralph Nader’s 1965 Unsafe at any speed, went further to suggest a collusion between governments and the environmental recklessness of corporations. 

Man-made impacts on the environment (and the central role of free-market capitalism) symbolised the growing influence of environmental lobby groups, civil society organisations and left-wing think tanks – a confluence which gave a massive political push to a growing ideology around sustainable development. The Stockholm Conference in 1972 began the political consolidation of these ideals and the incorporation of NGOs such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth into a longer-term political strategy. In his excellent book Green in Tooth and Claw, Niall McCrae documents the later influence of the Green Party and what he calls eco-fascism, first on German politics, subsequently on the EU. 

But it was Ehrlich’s book that provided the blueprint for the burgeoning environmental movement. As a straight revisiting of Malthus’s arguments, The Population Bomb encouraged a viewpoint which served to evoke Malthus’s fears around the implications of population growth and a dark pessimism of human nature, as one commentator argues here.

Coincidentally or not, the year of its publication, 1968, also saw the appearance of the Rockefeller-funded Club of Rome. This was organised to operate as a high-level think tank, through which a chosen cadre of elite/expert/scientific collaborators could begin to reimagine ‘business as usual’. They envisaged that Plan B would eventually involve the UN, national governments, NGOs, local authorities and other agencies working together to coordinate sustainable development into mainstream policy.

The Club of Rome produced the scientific study which would guide the future direction of sustainable development. Limits to Growth, published in 1972, employed rudimentary computer technology to simulate long-term trends in the exchanges between the planet, industrial processes and predicted population trends, the so-called dynamics of ‘earth systems’. Its authors argued that at their projected rate of resource use, without direct intervention a rapidly expanding population would mean that per capita food production, energy use and industrial production would inevitably decline and create societal crises. They warned that ‘ecological crisis points’ would appear during the period 2025 to 2050.  

Limits to Growth has been criticised on several grounds, particularly for its weak methodology and assumptions around the exponential growth of capital, population and pollution without factoring in the possibility of technological innovation or more organic adaptations (eg reduced family size with decreasing poverty and more education). Nevertheless, 50 years later, its ‘zero growth’ mantra had become the accepted benchmark for policy as set out in the 2016 All-Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth review, Limits Revisited. 

The principal message from the original Club of Rome report remained the same: ‘there are too many people on the planet’. Hidden behind the veneer of ‘sustainable development’ is a dark and dystopian answer to this problem. Since the turn of the decade, and particularly since the covid pandemic responses of lockdown and mass vaccination, with a rise in global death rates, this is what many commentators fear.

While we can never impute intent, the underlying agenda may have been unwittingly revealed on occasion. Population reduction as a goal can slip out. In July 2023 for example, the American Vice President Kamala Harris said: ‘ . . . when we invest in clean energy and electric vehicles and reduce the population, more of our children can breathe clean air and drink clean water.’ The White House has since changed the transcript to read ‘pollution control’. A Freudian slip?  Who knows? 

The ideas promoted by Malthus and those who have followed him have clearly been concerned both by population levels and the multiplying factor of unregulated wants and needs. UN policy on sustainable development mirrors this pessimism, which is given more credence by the worst of the environmental zealots – those who believe that the planet is better off without the great majority of people ‘doing damage’ to it. These two factions may have different reasons for their motives, but they have a unifying goal – ridding the world of what they see as unconscious, uncaring and unintelligent people whom they do not consider to be a part of Gaia, but as part of a problem which needs to be rectified by self-appointed guardians of the planet. 

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Dr Shane Fudge
Dr Shane Fudge
Dr Shane Fudge has been an academic in the field of environment for 20 years.

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