Monday, January 9, 2012

A reply to Alan Thornett's review of "Too Many People?"

By Ian Angus and Simon Butler
Climate and Capitalism
January 9, 2012

[On January 2 Ecosocialism Canada re-posted an article by Alan Thornett reviewing Too Many People? Ian and Simon's response is below]

We were pleased to learn that Alan Thornett, whose record as working class and socialist leader we respect, had reviewed our book, Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis. We didn’t expect him to agree with all of it, but we were looking forward to an open and comradely discussion.

Unfortunately, his review misrepresents our views and issues a sweeping condemnation that ignores most of what we wrote. No one who read only his article would have any idea what the book is about.

As a result, our reply has to focus on setting the record straight, rather than, as we would prefer, on deepening and extending the debate on population and the environment.


Since our book is about population and the environment, we were surprised to read, in the second paragraph of Thornett’s review, that we believe the subject is irrelevant. In fact, the word “irrelevant” appears in regard to population growth only once in our book – in the Foreword by noted ecosocialist Joel Kovel:

“while population is by no means irrelevant, giving it conceptual pride of place not only inflates its explanatory value but also obscures the essential factors that make for ecological degradation and makes it impossible to begin the hard work of overcoming them.” (p. xvi, emphasis added)

That sentence, which says just the opposite of what Thornett claims, concisely sums up our core argument – an argument that Thornett never mentions in his review. We wish that were the only case where he grossly misrepresents our views, but it isn’t.

For example, he accuses us of lumping everyone who disagrees with us – from some ecosocialists to reactionaries and despots – into “a highly objectionable amalgam … referred to throughout the book as ‘the populationist establishment’.”

In fact, we use the term “population [not populationist] establishment” just twice (pp. 98, 103), not “throughout the book.” And contrary to Thornett’s charge, in both cases it refers to the rich Western foundations and agencies that finance Third World population reduction programs, not to environmentalists of any political stripe.

But more important than specific phrases is the fact that in Too Many People? we consistently “distinguish between the reactionaries who promote population control to protect the status quo and the green activists who sincerely view population growth as a cause of environmental problems.” (p. 5) Thornett offers no evidence that we failed to make that important distinction.

We could continue, but even a summary list of his misreadings would require too much space. We’d rather discuss political issues.

Numbers versus social analysis

Thornett’s most important disagreement with our book is evident in his warning that world population “has almost tripled in just over 60 years – from 2.5bn in 1950 to the recently reached figure of 7bn. According to UN figures it will reach between 8bn and 11bn (with 9.5bn as the median figure) by 2050.” Such growth, he says categorically, is “unsustainable.”

In other words, he agrees with the populationist view that where human numbers are concerned, big is bad and bigger is worse. Although he says that capitalism is the real environmental problem, he accepts an argument that separates population growth from its historical, social, and economic context, reducing humanity’s complex relationship with nature to simple numbers.

We, on the other hand, agree with Mexican feminist and human rights activist Lourdes Arizpe:

“The concept of population as numbers of human bodies is of very limited use in understanding the future of societies in a global context. It is what these bodies do, what they extract and give back to the environment, what use they make of land, trees, and water, and what impact their commerce and industry have on their social and ecological systems that are crucial.” (p.193)

Thornett’s simplistic number-slinging is particularly problematic in a review of a book that explains why such statistics are misleading and unhelpful. Simply re-stating some big is bad numbers, while refusing to respond to or even mention our criticisms and counter-arguments, doesn’t advance the discussion one inch.

Is birth control an environmental issue?

But what seems to upset Thornett most is our criticism of environmentalists who believe it is possible to reverse decades of horrendous experience by combining Third World population reduction programs with respect for human rights. He endorses the argument of liberal feminist Laurie Mazur, that “We can fight for population policies that are firmly grounded in human rights and social justice.”

We, on the contrary, argue that “population policies not only don’t pave the way for progressive social and economic transformation, they raise barriers to it.” (p. 105)

To Thornett, that means that we oppose empowering Third World women, and that we unfairly label supporters of voluntary family planning programs as advocates of “population control.”

In what he seems to think is a challenge to our views, Thornett describes the oppression and restrictions faced by Third World women who want to control their fertility. He insists that ecosocialists must support the provision of contraception and birth control, and oppose any measures or policies that would restrict women’s reproductive rights.

You’d never know from his account that we make the same point several times in Too Many People? Far from considering these, as Thornett claims, “as secondary, as issues already dealt with” our book explicitly includes “ensuring universal availability of high-quality health services, including birth control and abortion” as priority measures that ecosocialists should fight for. (p. 199) Once again, what we actually wrote was the opposite of his charge.

Thornett’s false claim that we oppose empowering Third World women avoids our real argument: that Third World birth control programs are not an appropriate or effective way to fight the environmental crisis.

In the first place, as we show in Too Many People?, Third World population growth is not a significant cause of the environmental crisis – so focusing on population reduction would divert the environmental movement’s limited resources into programs that just won’t work.

And, as supporters of women’s rights, we oppose birth control programs that are motivated by population-reduction goals because they so often undermine the very empowerment they are said to promote. In Chapter 8, we discuss coercive measures found in supposedly voluntary programs around the world, ranging from the crude (denial of financial, medical or social benefits to women who refuse to be sterilized) to the relatively subtle (mandatory attendance at population-reduction lectures as a condition of receiving health care).

A recent article by noted feminist and population expert Betsy Hartmann explained the dangers of population-motivated birth control programs this way:

“Equally troubling about overpopulation propaganda is the way it undermines reproductive rights. While its purveyors claim they support family planning, they view it more as a means to an end – reducing population growth, rather than as a right in and of itself.

“The distinction may seem subtle, but it is not. Family planning programs designed to limit birth rates treat women, especially poor women and women of color, as targets rather than as individuals worthy of respect. Quality of care loses out to an obsession with the quantity of births averted.” (Climate & Capitalism, August 31, 2011)

Sadly, Thornett brushes these important concerns aside, calling them “sleight of hand,” and insisting that the term “population control” only applies when there is “enforced contraception.” That’s an astonishing statement for any supporter of women’s rights to make. Formally speaking, there is no “enforced contraception” in the United States, but, as feminist lawyer Mondana Nikoukari points out, there are “gradations of coercion” that cause women of color to be sterilized twice or even three times as often as white women. (p. 101-2)

Our comment: “If that’s true in the United States, how can we imagine that in countries where legal protections are much weaker, population-environment programs will truly respect women’s rights?” (p. 102)

We don’t doubt the sincerity of those who support what Thornett calls an “empowerment” approach to limiting population growth. We know that they oppose coercive population control. Unfortunately, their sincerity won’t protect poor women from the unintended consequences of the policies they advocate. Nor will it address the real causes of our mounting ecological crises, which – although Thornett doesn’t mention it – are discussed at some length in Too Many People?

Should we discuss population … or adapt to populationism?

In the Introduction to Too Many People?, we explained why we wrote the book:

“Our goal is to promote debate within environmental movements about the real causes of environmental destruction, poverty, food shortages, and resource depletion. To that end, we contribute this ecosocialist response to the new wave of green populationism …” (pp. 4-5)

So once more we were surprised to be accused of opposing discussion of population and its relationship to ecology. We clearly call for more debate, but Thornett claims we believe “that even discussing it is a dangerous or even reactionary diversion – a taboo subject,” and that “the left should leave this subject alone, keep out of the debates, and insist that there is nothing to discuss.”

On its face, this is an improbable charge. We have written an entire book and dozens of articles on population and the environment. We have spoken at public meetings, debated populationists in person and on radio, and participated in innumerable online discussions. Would we have done any of that if we thought the left should leave the subject alone?

Only in the very last paragraph of his review does it become clear that he doesn’t really think we oppose discussion. Rather, he wants us to stop criticizing the “too many people” argument – the discussion he wants is not about whether overpopulation is a major environmental problem, but about how to reduce birth rates.

Our failure to do this, he says, is “not only wrong but dangerous,” because “the field is left open to reactionaries” who will use our absence from intra-populationist debates as an opportunity to promote “some very nasty solutions indeed.”

Liberals often urge socialists to moderate their political views, to avoid strengthening the right. We did not expect to hear such an argument from Alan Thornett. In reply, we can only repeat what we said in Too Many People?

“The real danger is that liberal environmentalists and feminists will strengthen the right by lending credibility to reactionary arguments. Adopting the argument that population growth causes global warming endorses the strongest argument the right has against the social and economic changes that are really needed to stop climate change and environmental destruction.

“If environmentalists and others believe that population growth is causing climate change, then our responsibility is to show them why that’s wrong, not to adapt to their errors.” (p. 104)

Ian Angus is editor of Simon Butler is co-editor of Green Left Weekly. Their book, Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket, 2011) can be ordered from most booksellers. A free sample chapter is available online at

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