Putting aside the fact that Disney is a bloated corporation hell-bent on monopolising the entertainment industry at the expense of quality cinema - I really enjoyed The Avengers: Infinity War when it came out a few months ago. Not only because it of its awesomely kick-ass action sequences, but because it contained an important lesson: Overpopulation is not the problem!
For some context: the main villain, Thanos, is intent on using the Infinity Gauntlet (a souped-up power glove) to wipe out half the life in the universe in order to restore peace and balance. In his own words, his own planet had “too many mouths, not enough to go around. And when we faced extinction, I offered a solution.” His philosophy is that overpopulation has caused society’s suffering and inequality, and that to fix it he needs to “mercifully” euthanise half of the population.
This is a form of Malthusian economic philosophy, first penned by Thomas Malthus in 1798. Malthus argued that population growth will always outstrip the resources needed to sustain it. He also proposed that some solutions to stop population growth included preventative checks (marrying and reproducing later in life, enforced contraception) and positive checks (things that shorten the average lifespan, such as war, famine and disease). Malthusian theory is still highly prevalent today, not only in the racist, anti-immigration ideology of centre-right to far-right politics, but also in environmentalism.
One of the most famous environmentalist proponents of Malthus is David Attenborough. I highly respect Attenborough for his work in increasing people’s love for nature, but his diagnosis of population growth as the main cause of environmental collapse is based on flawed Malthusian thinking.
Attenborough’s philosophy is obvious in a 2011 speech he gave to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), where he said that, “the disasters that continue increasingly to afflict the natural world have one element that connects them all - the unprecedented increase in the number of human beings on the planet.” In the same speech, he called Thomas Malthus a “prophet” and said that population growth can only be stopped by contraception - the “humane” option, or by an “increased death rate...through famine or disease or predation”. To be fair, Attenborough has also argued for female empowerment as another method for reducing birth rates.
The problem with any Malthusian environmentalism is that it skirts dangerously close to agendas of immigration control and white supremacy, and can easily slide into arguments for eugenics or forced sterilisation. In Australia, this is evident across all parties. Former Greens leader and ideological melt/Tree Tory Bob Brown has publicly proposed immigration control to combat environmental issues whilst simultaneously attacking anti-capitalists. The NSW Labor leader Luke Foley backed Tony Abbott’s calls for lower immigration and also claimed there was a “white flight” of Anglo families being forced out of Western Sydney suburbs by migrants. And of course in the Liberal, National and One Nation parties, there is open xenophobia and white supremacy.
The analysis trumpeted by Attenborough and other Malthusian environmentalists is flawed because it fails to identify the true cause of environmental collapse: capitalism. There are already more than enough resources for all the people on the Earth, they are just being hoarded and inefficiently distributed by the richest 0.1%.
The prevailing capitalist economic system has an in-built need to pursue growth (through chasing ever-higher profits, or in other words, capital accumulation). This manifests in huge rates of consumerism by a minority of people in rich countries, much of it over-the-top and useless, and results in the vast majority of CO2 emissions. On the flip side, the rest of the world’s population is deprived of even the most basic necessities of living. In fact, as Marxist philosopher David Harvey says: “Scarcity is in fact necessary to the survival of the capitalist mode of production, and it has to be carefully managed, otherwise the self-regulating aspect to the price mechanism will break down.”
Image source: Oxfam
Yet the absolute bullshit part of Malthusian arguments is that it is these masses of poor people who are to blame for environmental collapse, rather than the greedy consumerism of the world’s richest minority. Attenborough follows this trope, saying it would be “barmy” to send food aid to countries in famine, because of a convoluted argument that such policy does not deal with the problem of “too many people for too little piece of land”.
Most of these famines are actually the result of attempts to implement exploitative neoliberal economic programs, US-backed dictatorships, or actual military strategy by the US empire to maintain its capitalist supremacy. For example, about 18 million people might die of starvation by the end of 2018 because of the US-Saudi coalition’s continued blockade/destruction of Yemen. (Fun fact: Australia is selling weapons to the Saudis who are using them to kill Yemeni civilians.)
So if you genuinely care about saving the environment, the foundation of your activism or ideology must be anti-capitalist. No solution that is based on market-solutions (e.g. emissions trading), Malthusian population control or ethical consumption will work, because none of them have the power to destroy the core truth of the capitalist system: that it cannot exist without exponential growth (of profit and consumption), which is fuelled by the ever-increasing exploitation of both the people and the planet we live on.
Calum is an activist with experience in the Right to The City and climate change movement. He is a former Greens staffer and active Greens member. He is temporarily living in Vancouver, Canada, to take a break from Brisbane’s heat.