Tunnel vision on population and poverty

A critical review of the UK Royal Society’s report People and the Planet by Ian Angus

No matter how often the “too many people” argument is refuted, it always returns, making the same claim that people are breeding too much and consuming too much, devouring the earth like a plague of locusts. There is a tunnel vision that prevents mainstream demography, and many environmentalists, from seeing beyond symptoms and understanding the causes of the problems they describe. A narrow focus on numbers inevitably seems to produce opinions and reports that are rich in numbers but sadly lacking in social analysis or understanding. It is impossible to understand the causes and effects of population growth and individual consumption apart from the structure of social and economic relations within which people produce, reproduce and consume.

This can be seen most clearly in the “case study” on the Republic of Niger found in the UK Royal Society’s report, People and the Planet. A realistic account of the causes of poverty in Niger would include at least some of these points: the country was occupied and brutally “pacified” by French armed forces between 1900 and 1922; after achieving formal independence in 1960, Niger was ruled by corrupt governments with close links to France; French advisors and troops were used repeatedly to suppress opposition; in 2004, Anti-Slavery International estimated that nearly 9% of Niger’s population – over 870,000 people – were living in slavery; 85% of government revenue and over 90% of the country’s foreign trade comes from one industry – uranium mines controlled by French corporations, whose profits go overseas, leaving little for the people of Niger; the majority of the people are subsistence farmers or nomadic herders and many have been driven off their traditional lands by European or Chinese corporations seeking oil and other minerals; most of the country is desert, and all of it is frequently ravaged by droughts that have been made worse by climate change and finally; in 2005 the International Monetary Fund imposed a “structural adjustment program” that included a 19% sales tax on basic foodstuffs and abolished emergency grain reserves. That’s by no means a comprehensive list of social and economic factors, yet none of them are mentioned in the Royal Society’s People and the Planet. The only cause of poverty in Niger the authors consider relevant is too many babies.

Read the full review

See also Canadian Dimension’s review of Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s critique of populationism Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis

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