from It’s Going Down
A critical look at how historically white nationalists and the State have weaponized discussions of “over-population” to intervene in the environmental movement. Proposes that anarchists and autonomous anti-capitalists need new ways of discussing the unsustainability of industrial capitalism without falling into the tropes of our enemies.
For decades, the far-Right has used “overpopulation” as a dog whistle to infiltrate predominantly white environmentalist movements. (I use “overpopulation” in quotes because it is a term I use critically.) Their goals include a push for reducing or eliminating immigration, as with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, founded by former Sierra Club leader John Tanton, and eugenics programs targeting black, indigenous, and other people of color, as proposed by the white nationalist ecologist Garret Hardin.
Garret Hardin, the white nationalist behind “The Tragedy of the Commons” SOURCE: Southern Poverty Law Center
This has led many on the Left to dismiss concerns about human population outright. In an article from 2019, Rainier Shea writes that:
Liberals, who are the main people in the present time that advocate for population control as a climate solution, don’t like to think that their ideas have such sinister implications. They like to think that their statements will only result in increased access to birth control and sex education. But with the way that global capitalism is structured, and the way that reactionary politics is trying to hijack environmentalism, the end result of the ideas they’re promoting will be atrocities on a gigantic scale.
This is an understandable reaction, given both the history of white supremacist/colonialist violence against people of color and the heightened danger that fascism currently poses – in the US and around the world. For example, on inauguration day 2017, I was at the University of Washington’s Red Square when Trump supporter shot and nearly killed an antifascist. White supremacist murderers have gone on politically motivated killing sprees in cities across the US, like El Paso and Charleston. Far-Right violence has claimed scores of lives since Trump’s election, and if fascists are able to consolidate power, they will do far worse.
It also must be mentioned that fascist fantasies of eugenics programs, militarized borders, and genocide are essentially just expanded versions of what has been constant through US history. The current threat of fascism is not a new and unique menace. There’s the popularity of eugenics in the early 1900s, including the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which legalized forced sterilization for eugenics purposes. In 1970, the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act became law, and in the six years following, at least one quarter of all indigenous women of childbearing age were sterilized. In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that almost 150 female prison inmates in California had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010 – they were coerced and the required state approval was not obtained. Since the mid 1990s, US policy on the southern border has funneled migrants into more remote and dangerous crossings. In 2020, immigrant children were held in cages in camps along the southern border of the US. Late last year, news broke of undocumented children being held in hotels by private contractors, with seemingly no oversight or accountability. This long history and current reality of violence and trauma makes statements about population toxic and difficult to navigate.
It’s great to see the antifascist movement growing in the wake of #Pittsburgh attack, and calling out connections between neo-Nazis and white nationalists and the GOP. That’s why we should remember those like Steve Miller who are connected to FAIR. https://t.co/TxbpgbCoiz
— It’s Going Down (@IGD_News) October 30, 2018
The Left refuses to talk about “overpopulation” because the far-Right has made it the premise of one of their main arguments, which generally go: (a) environmental destruction is caused by too many people, so (b) in order to stop environmental destruction, we need fewer people. In the fascist vision, (b) this means concentration camps, eugenics, and mass death. The fascist argument that overpopulation causes environmental devastation is obviously deceitful: its only purpose is to justify the violence they propose, not actually address environmental destruction in an effective and holistic way. The premise is fundamentally flawed. Environmental destruction is much more a qualitative issue with our way of life, not a quantitative issue with population.
Only fascists see a problem and say that violence and coercion are the only/best/logical solutions. That’s how fascism works: they take a problem, then find a scapegoat to terrorize, exploit, and kill, thereby deepening the divisions in society and consolidating their base.
What makes this confusing is that fascists use both real and invented problems as the premises for their arguments. For example, increasing inequality in the US that has relentlessly squeezed working families for decades is a real problem. Based on that, fascists blame “illegals” for “stealing jobs” or the “Jewish Illuminati,” or a mix of both, as in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. An invented problem fascists use is the supposed epidemic of undocumented immigrants victimizing US born (read: white) citizens. Even a cursory investigation into criminology and demographics reveals that most crime is localized – e.g., white people are far more likely to be victimized by other white people than any other demographic. This means that to effectively confront a fascist argument, you have to understand whether the issues they say that only they can solve are real or not. If they are proposing a solution to an invented problem, one can simply dismiss the premise of the argument. But environmental destruction is clearly a real problem.
The premise that “environmental destruction is caused by too many people” is essentially a misrepresentation of the biological concept of “carrying capacity,” which is the maximum population size of a species that an environment can sustain indefinitely. Multiple factors contribute to carrying capacity, including available food/resources, prevalence of predators/diseases, and climate. Although you can’t tell by looking at any industrial or post-industrialized modern country, humans are able to live sustainably on a given land base for thousands of years – hundreds of indigenous communities throughout history have shown that. Those communities had an embodied, land-based understanding of exactly what the carrying capacity of their land base was, and how it fluctuated with time.
Despite billions of people around the world going without or struggling to meet their basic needs, we currently have the technology and resources to feed and house everyone on Earth. Through the use of abundant fossil fuels and a massive increase the use of complex technology, we have dramatically – and temporarily – increased the carrying capacity of the Earth. The shortages and inequalities that currently exist are a problem of distribution: a small number of people have disproportionately hoarded the earth’s resources. According to Oxfam, the richest 10% of people produce half of earth’s greenhouse gas emissions, while the poorest half contribute only 10%. Not only that, but much of what is produced by capitalism does not provide for anyone’s basic human needs: it’s frivolous, a luxury/status object, or simply wasted. Think of all the vacation homes and unfilled mansions that sit empty while people languish on the streets or in refugee camps, or the massive amount of food wasted in the United States – estimated at 133 billion tons in 2010.
Jeff Bezos has reclaimed his title of world’s richest person, ending Elon Musk’s roughly six-week reign atop the list. https://t.co/jadvQkaYco
— CNN (@CNN) February 17, 2021
This incomprehensible level of inequality is why simply looking at population as a number leads nowhere. Modern humanity is not made up of individuals who each consume approximately equal amounts of resources and produce approximately equal amounts of waste products, as with most other species (including many classic examples used to teach the concept of carrying capacity, like deer, cattle, or barnacles).
But we will not always have access to the resources and energy stocks that the world economy uses to sustain us and itself. Fossil fuels are a finite resource that are growing more and more difficult to extract, despite innovations like fracking that have allowed the extraction to continue for a few more years. Climate change demands that we shift to renewable energy sources. We simply do not have access to energy sources or technologies that can do a one-to-one replacement of fossil fuels, despite many optimistic claims to the contrary. I won’t go into detail here, but some major issues include intermittency (as in the case of wind and solar), habitat destruction, and a huge need for rare earth metals. (Hundreds of books have been written about “green energy” and its shortcomings. I recommend the work of Richard Heinberg and the Post Carbon Institute to learn more.) This means that we are entering a future where we, as a society, will have access to much less energy, and therefore fewer resources, than we do currently.
So in order to sustain human life in the future, we will need to both radically redistribute resources and transition to renewable economies. Jasper Bernes, in a fiery takedown of the Green New Deal, specifies “…a rapid decrease in energy use for those in the industrialized global north, no more cement, very little steel, almost no air travel, walkable human settlements, passive heating and cooling, a total transformation of agriculture, and a diminishment of animal pasture by an order of magnitude at least.” Ideally, this means communities that are resilient and mostly self-sustaining, with community control over all aspects of energy and food production, as well as what industry will remain. This will look very different in different parts of the world.
This is a beautiful vision, but it is not likely to come into reality everywhere around the world. Societies that experience shortages, contractions, and collapse do see a lot of cooperation and mutual aid. (I recommend Rebeca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell for an in-depth look at this topic.) We can work to build pro-social culture to make those things more likely to happen. But there will be hoarding and strife and violence, the majority of which will fall on the poorest people, mostly in the global South, who contributed the least to the climate crisis. The more people there are during this time of change, the more challenging it will be to transition to our new ways of life and find a new equilibrium with the world around us. We cannot count on a future in which we have a best-case scenario of equitable distribution of resources and widespread renewable energy technologies.
So what can we do? There is no panacea, but here are three things that would make a difference:
- Ensure total, safe, and free access to all forms of birth control and contraception, while retaining full bodily autonomy for every person, everywhere.
- Create a culture that recognizes we must live within the limits of our environment. An important part of this is re-imagining what kinship and family look like, since the Western hegemonic ideal of a heterosexual nuclear family encourages population growth. Create networks of support and community that are more inclusive and flexible.
- Redistribute wealth and eliminate poverty.
Part of understanding the age we live in is that we are facing problems that have no solutions. There are ways for us to move through the challenges we face with dignity and togetherness, but nothing will make these problems go away. Techno-fixes don’t exist. Politicians won’t save us. In fact, nothing can “save” us. We are all we have.
A desperation for solutions and certainty is part of what propels people towards fascism, but in a interconnected and mind-bogglingly complex world of interlocking systems, easy solutions do not exist. Politicians don’t win elections by admitting that history has led us into a place from which there is no easy escape.
Refusing to talk about population cedes narrative ground to the far-Right and paints anarchists and autonomous movements into an ideological corner. It forces us to implicitly support the hegemonic default: a technocratic vision of the future that does not question the growth cult of capitalism. When we opt-out of discussions about human population and carrying capacity, we are not controlling the terms of the debate, but reacting to what our enemies have proposed. Anyone who looks at the nearly identical hockey stick graphs of fossil fuel use and population growth and then hears a leftist say “population isn’t an issue/we shouldn’t talk about it” is likely to see that leftist as naive and foolish.
I think refusing to engage with this issue exemplifies mistakes that anti-capitalist movements make all the time:
- Obsession with purity – refusing to engage with difficult questions and justifying it as a matter of principle. This is dogmatic and counterproductive.
- Poor understanding of science and the material economy, making us susceptible to plans that are based in ideology and not reality. Our understanding of the material world is always filtered through culture and ideology, but it exists independent of and beyond our understanding.
- Thinking about the challenges we face as dualities, as all or nothing things that we win or lose, rather than something that we can achieve partially or mitigate.
That last point means that we can never achieve victory, but we can also never be defeated. There is never a time to despair. There is always something that can be done.
This essay is meant to be a cultural intervention. I am not proposing any solutions to the questions of limits to growth or the menace of eco-fascism. Instead, it is my hope that people approach these conversations in a more grounded and forward-thinking way.
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photo: Yogesh Pedamkar via Unsplash