by Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak
[Note: The following text is adapted from the authors’ recently published book Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change in which the validity of the belief in the inherent unsustainability of economic growth is challenged more thoroughly.]
Numerous population control advocates have linked anthropogenic climate change to population growth, or tried to revive interest in invoking anthropogenic climate change as the key negative outcome of continued economic growth linked to, foremost among causes, an increasing population. One pioneer of establishing and cultivating population growth – anthropogenic climate change linkage was the “Population Bomber” himself, Paul Ehrlich, who during a conference in 1968 identified anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions as a “serious limiting factor” to economic growth. By the 1970s, Ehrlich, his wife Anne and his collaborator John Holdren raised fears that carbon dioxide “produced by combustion of fossil fuels in quantities too large to contain” may “already be influencing climate” and, as such, constituted one of the “gravest threats to human well-being. . . [i.e.] the loss of natural services now provided by biogeochemical processes.”
What motivated the Ehrlichs and Holdren to worry about a looming disaster threatening humanity just twenty years after the end of the Second World War (1939-1945)? After all, the war had brought with it wholesale destruction of infrastructure and loss of life throughout the world on a previously unparalleled scale. Was it the tension of the Cold War? Was it a specific epidemic or a natural event? We argue that no specific trigger events were necessary to spark the anxieties of these activists as they already espoused a neo-Malthusian eco-catastrophist mindset that is part of a wider pessimist perspective.
Among others, the ecological economics theorist John S. Dryzek recognized at least two distinctive perspectives on the understanding of the nature, role, and future of humanity – the pessimist, and the Promethean or optimist – each possessing a distinct set of assumptions, narratives, values and ultimate goals. The pessimists, like the Ehrlichs and Holdren, apply a limit-driven narrative to define the place and goals of humanity on earth. According to the pessimist view, the earth’s resources are severely limited while the balance between planetary health and disrepair is exceedingly tenuous. The pessimists model people as bacteria that, in their Malthusian exponential growth, tend to quickly outstrip the resources of their “test-tube earth,” swiftly destroying both themselves and their environment. Only – perhaps – the timely intervention of top-down expert planning may avert this preordained debacle. The optimists see resources as limited primarily by human ingenuity and ability to utilize them, and humanity itself as a gathering of creative individuals, each capable of being much more than a mouth to feed. Optimist individuals may be driven by seemingly local needs, such as the replacement of a scarce resource or the improvement of the efficiency of a process, but the outcomes of their individual efforts benefit others in a spontaneous diffusion process.
Thus, the Ehrlichs’ and Holdren’s preoccupation with human population numbers and their impact on global development or resource use did not need a specific cause or trigger. Population and resource use anxiety were part of their pessimist perspective that had them always on the lookout for humanity’s confrontation with the inflexible natural limits of the finite earth. The late 1960s and early 1970s belonged to an era when other pessimist scientists like the climatologist Stephen Schneider, a Stanford colleague of Ehrlich, were theorizing about impending glaciation caused by anthropogenic atmospheric pollution reflecting sunlight. The Ehrlichs – who, truth be told, were also worried about every possible (and always negative) impact of increasing human population numbers, including, for a time, the effects of population growth on global cooling – were casting about for a development-related scourge of humanity that would be, perhaps, less easy to redress with fundamentally optimist fixes than global cooling was thanks to technologies such as smokestack scrubbers. For this reason, anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions were the ideal villain – or, pun intended, windmill to tilt at – as their neutralization does require a fundamental reworking and re-thinking of humanity’s key stable technologies – including its electrical power grid – on a scale that, thanks to the quickly mounting “scientific consensus” and political pressure, poses a significant challenge to human innovation.
While admitting he was not a climate specialist – thus just as “qualified” as Ehrlich, a biologist specializing in entomology, to theorize about climate – the economist Julian Simon suspected over two decades ago that global warming was a dubious pessimist scare mostly rooted in older neo-Malthusian concerns about population growth. He observed then that the “latest environmental justification for slowing or halting population growth is supposed global warming.” Simon cited a World Bank paper on the new “global negative externality” represented by greenhouse gas emissions, which he summarized as follows: “[The] old rationales for World Bank population control programs – economic growth, resource conservation, and the like – having been discredited, a new ‘rationale’ has been developed on the basis of speculative assumptions about global warming’s economic effects derived from controversial climatological science.”
Simon then summarized the position of most environmentalists as follows: “But isn’t obvious. . . that additional people and additional economic growth will cause us to use more energy and hence emit more greenhouse gases? Therefore, even if we can’t be sure of the greenhouse effect, wouldn’t it be prudent to cut back on growth?” The economist Jacqueline Kasun similarly believed at the time that “by the 1990s the doomsayers had shifted their attack” as they could no longer invoke resource depletion as the key growth-limiting issue. As she wrote, “the alarmists didn’t miss a step. The problem, they now said, was that people were using too much energy and were causing Global Warming.” Both Kasun and Simon thus identified pessimist limits-based thinking as the chief impetus behind the elevation of anthropogenic CO2-caused climate change to the status of a global catastrophe.
Closer in time to us, retired Canadian academic Michael Hart has commented that “for alarmists, climate mitigation policy is as much a means of achieving their larger goals as it is a matter of addressing a possibly serious issue.” As another retired Canadian academic, historical climatologist Tim Ball, has long argued, the climate change policy agenda is based on certain assumptions ultimately related to a fear of reaching another terrestrial set of limits through overpopulation. Indeed, Dr. Ball goes so far as to argue that while global warming is a “contrived problem,” most of those “who know it is contrived still believe overpopulation is a problem.” It is indeed remarkably easy to find influential climate bureaucrats and scientists who will either admit this much or else acknowledge their neo-Malthusian pessimist stance rooted in enforcing limits to human (population) growth.
Maurice Strong (1929–2015), who was described by business journalist Peter Foster as “[m]ore than any other individual. . . responsible for promoting the [UN] climate agenda,” is the most obvious case in point. Strong first achieved some degree of notoriety in Canada as young deputy minister – a high-ranking civil servant – when he ended up on the record by stating that “with a growing global population, we will have to recognise that having children is not just a personal issue but a societal issue and at a certain point we may be faced with a need to have a permit to have a child.” He also referred to the need for “national population policies” in his opening speech at the 1972 Stockholm Conference. Strong reportedly stated the following Malthusian prediction at the 1992 Earth Summit: “Either we reduce the world’s population voluntarily or nature will do this for us, but brutally.”
Having started with the idea of limits to population growth, Strong eventually connected it to the limits of economic growth problem as defined by climate change. At the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, Strong declared: “The climate change issue and the economic issue come from the same roots. And that is the gross inequity and the inadequacy of our economic model. We now know that we have to change that model. We cannot do all of this in one stroke. But we have to design a process that would produce agreement at a much more radical level.” In one of his last extended interviews, Strong said that “growth in the world population has increased the pressures on the Earth’s resources and life-support systems.” He added that “China’s one-child policy is not a perfect policy by any means, but, on the other hand, how do you control growth in your population?” Strong viewed widespread aspirations for a better life as problematic, for if everyone “enjoyed the same patterns of consumption that we in the West do, then we would have an unsustainable situation, and we’re actually on the way to that now. We are in a situation that is unsustainable.” Thus, for Strong, the issue of population growth was clearly part of the pessimist narrative and a clear an issue of limits to growth.
The first chairman of the IPCC (1988-1997), Bert Bolin, was not only an early convert to the alleged catastrophic impact of CO2 emissions, but also a pessimist on population and resources issues, as evidenced in his stance on the controversy surrounding the 2001 publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist by the Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg. Bolin later wrote he “largely share[d] the gist of the . . . analyses” of Lomborg’s critics John Holdren and John Bongaarts. Bongaarts, a demographer long associated with the Population Council and a former chair of the Panel on Population Projections of the National Academy of Sciences, had then opined: “Population is not the main cause of the world’s social, economic and environmental problems, but it contributes substantially to many of them. If population had grown less rapidly in the past, we would be better off now. And if future growth can be slowed, future generations will be better off.” For his part, John Holdren contradicted many of his earlier warnings of imminent resource depletion by arguing that while the word was not “running out of energy,” it was “running out of environment,” by which he meant “running out of the capacity of air, water, soil and biota to absorb, without intolerable consequences for human well-being, the effects of energy extraction, transport, transformation and use.”
The second chairman of the IPCC (1997–2002), Robert Watson, would later go on the record with the following line of reasoning: “The more people we have on the Earth and the richer they are, the more they can demand resources. There’s more demand for food, more demand for water, more demand for energy. . . So, there’s no question the threats on the Earth today are far more than, say, 50 years ago and in 50 years’ time, there will even be more threats.”
The third chairman of the IPCC (2002-2015), Rajendra K. Pachauri, was even more explicit when he stated in 2007 that humanity has “been so drunk with this desire to produce and consume more and more whatever the cost to the environment that we’re on a totally unsustainable path.” He was “not going to rest easy until [he has] articulated in every possible forum the need to bring about major structural changes in economic growth and development. That’s the real issue. Climate change is just a part of it” (our italics). When asked why Indians shouldn’t aspire to the same standard of living as westerners, Pachauri answered: “Gandhi was asked if he wanted India to reach the same level of prosperity as the United Kingdom. He replied: “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to reach its level of prosperity. How many planets would India require?” In his IPCC resignation letter (apparently no longer available on the IPCC website) Pachauri admitted that, for him, “the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma.”
In Pachauri’s statements, and in others we have quoted so far, there is ample evidence of a passionate commitment towards the protection of the planet,but there is no sign of recognition that humanity can do, and has done, more than simply consume resources. At no point do neo-Malthusians like Pachauri admit the possibility that technological innovations and human creativity have a place among the things that deserve a place on Earth. What pessimist activists desire is a consensus on the classification of humanity as out of control and inherently driven by destructive greed, thus in need of top-down regulation by the few remaining clear-thinking and benign autocrats – that is, functionaries – of the global government.
Another important figure in the anthropogenic climate change institutional apparatus is former American senator Timothy E. Wirth, one of the main organizers of the 1988 James Hansen hearing on climate change, and from 1998 to 2013 president of the (hardcore Malthusian) Ted Turner-funded United Nations Foundation. While no longer in the news or on the frontlines of the US government, Wirth is still actively promoting a population control agenda. He is on the record as stating in 1993: “We’ve got to ride this global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy.”
Needless to say, many other influential politicians and bureaucrats share a similar outlook. In 1998 Christine Stewart, then Canadian Minister of the Environment, when speaking before editors and reporters of the Calgary Herald said: “No matter if the science is all phony, there are collateral environmental benefits… Climate change [provides] the greatest chance to bring about justice and equality in the world.” More recently, Connie Hedegaard, European Commissioner for Climate Action (2010–2014), argued that the European Union policy on climate change was right even if the science was not. As she put it:
Say that 30 years from now, science came back and said, “wow, we were mistaken then; now we have some new information so we think it is something else”. In a world with nine billion people, even 10 billion at the middle of this century, where literally billions of global citizens will still have to get out of poverty and enter the consuming middle classes, don’t you think that anyway it makes a lot of sense to get more energy and resource efficient… Let’s say that science, some decades from now, said “we were wrong, it was not about climate,” would it not in any case have been good to do many of things you have to do in order to combat climate change? I believe that in a world with still more people, wanting still more growth for good reasons, the demand for energy, raw materials and resources will increase and so, over time, will the prices… I think we have to realise that in the world of the 21st century for us to have the cheapest possible energy is not the answer.
Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres, said “We should make every effort to change the numbers… obviously less [sic] people would exert less pressure on the natural resources,” and humanity is “already exceeding the planet’s planetary carrying capacity, today.” She also added that population control was not enough and that fundamental changes need to be made to our current economic system. Figueres, like Strong, Wirth, Bongaarts, Stewart and Hedegaard, was speaking from the depths of the neo-Malthusian pessimist limit-based perspective.
Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and an adviser to the encyclical Laudato Si, has long been on the record as estimating the carrying capacity of the planet at “below 1 billion people.” More recently, researchers associated with the Population Reference Bureau and the Worldwatch Institute stated: “Human population influences and is influenced by climate change and deserves consideration in climate compatible development strategies. Achieving universal access to family planning throughout the world would result in fewer unintended pregnancies, improve the health and well-being of women and their families, and slow population growth – all benefits to climate compatible development.”
Since leaving his academic appointment, prominent Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver has become the leader of the British Columbia Green Party. As could be expected from a pessimist activist, Weaver is on the record as stating: “Technology itself will not solve global warming. Individual behavior and consumption patterns will need to change as well. For too long we have lived by the axiom that growth is great. We strive for economic growth year after year. We drive it by increasing population. But infinite growth cannot occur in a finite system. Collapse is inevitable.”
The late climatologist Stephen Schneider was a leading advocate for major reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. Schneider was sometimes derided by his critics for having switched, almost overnight, from being a major proponent of global cooling, as we mentioned earlier, to becoming one of the most prominent supporters of global warming. Less well known about him, however, is the fact that he never changed his Ehrlich-inspired belief in the existence of a “wide consensus that exponential growth, for both economies and human populations, cannot continue indefinitely,” and that “population growth must ultimately be controlled.”
Thus, Schneider was a classic neo-Malthusian pessimist thinker. As he wrote in a 1977 popular book mainly devoted to describing the perils of global cooling, the “obvious point about population growth [that] must be stated and restated” is that “population increases will only dilute the effectiveness” of achieving “rapid improvements in per capita living standards for the present 4 billion people on earth.” Twenty years later, having become a major proponent of global warming, he still believed that “control of population growth has the potential to make a major contribution to raising living standards and to easing environmental problems like greenhouse warming.” Not surprisingly, he urged the United States government to “resume full participation in international programs to slow population growth” and to “contribute its share to their financial and other support.”
Whether its goal was curbing anthropogenic global cooling or global warming, the pessimist narrative’s endgame was always to institute top-down expert controls over population and centrally limit the human impetus to grow, create and aspire to change. In effect, the pessimist goal was to combat and control the optimist narrative through fear and discrediting its foundational impulses.
 Shelesnyak MC (ed.) (1969). Growth of Population: Consequences and Control. Gordon and Breach, p. 141.
 Dryzek, J (2005). The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford University Press, 2nd edn.
 Kasun J (1999/1988). The War Against Population: The Economics and Ideology of Population Control. Ignatius, rev. edn., p. 49
 Hart M (2015). Hubris: The Troubling Science, Economics, and Politics of Climate Change. Compleat Desktops Publishing, p. 289.
 Bolin is also on the record as stating in 1959 that the increase in carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations “caused by the burning of fuels by industry and transport” could have an “effect on climate” that “might be radical.” Original quote in Anonymous. “Experts discuss monsters of sea.” New York Times, 28 April 1959.
 See Bolin B (2007). A History of the Science and Politics of Climate Change: The Role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, pp. 183-185, quote on p. 183.
 Bongaarts J (2002). “Population: Ignoring its impact.” Scientific American, 286(1), 67–69, quote on p. 69.
 Holdren JP (2002). “Energy: Asking the wrong question.” Scientific American, 286(1), 65–67, quote on p. 65.
 Fumento M (1993). Science Under Siege. William Morrow & Co., p. 362.
 Weaver, A (2011). Generation Us: The Challenge of Global Warming. Orca Books, p. 108
 All quotes from Schneider SH, Mesirow LE (1977). The Genesis Strategy. Climate and Global Survival.
Plenum Books. By order of appearance in the main text, pp. 318, 25 and 318.
 Schneider, SH (1997). Laboratory Earth: The Planetary Gamble We Can’t Afford to Lose, HarperCollins, p. 150.