7 Oct 2009

Monbiot loses plot

I can’t be alone in thinking that Dear George has been eating one too many psilocybin mushrooms, gathered from his Welsh hillside rambles. He writes with vigour and great expertise about a wide range of environmental topics, and usually his perceptions are spot on. But every now and then, he blows it big time and throws up a horror show of prejudice and ignorance. It’s a bit like discovering a favourite uncle is actually a paedophile.

He’s just done it again in this piece published in last week’s Guardian. In it he lays into the super rich for tonking around the Mediterranean in gas guzzling yachts: that’s OK, he hates the super rich. Whatever turns you off. But this is really just posturing.

His real target are the esteemed worthies of the Optiumum Population Trust: characters like Sir David Attenborough, Jane “chimpanzee” Goodall, Jonathan Porrit, James Lovelock and Sir Crispin Tickell. “It's no coincidence” he writes “that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it's about the only environmental issue for which they can't be blamed.”

Now the logic employed by George in his attack on the Optimum Population Trust is somewhat flakey. In fact, it’s completely flakey. As far as I can understand, he seems to be saying that poor sub-Saharan Africans may breed a lot, but they have a minimal carbon footprint and therefore don’t cause global warming. Whereas rich Westerners don’t breed nearly so much but have huge carbon footprints. QED A Rich birth will cause lots of carbon to be released whilst a poor one doesn’t, therefore rich births are bad news and poor ones don’t matter.

But the Optimum Population Trust isn’t demanding that only the poor should stop breeding. They want everyone to breed less. It is making out that there are just too many of us in all parts of the World and this will inevitably put a strain on resources and cause environmental mayhem in the long run. It’s basically saying we are headed for an enormous tragedy of the commons scenario. Added to which, the poor nations don’t intend to stay poor for ever: as their wealth increases, so will their demand for carbon intensive goods and services.

George rightly identifies the correlation between wealth and carbon intensity, but if you follow his line of reasoning to its conclusion, it seems to suggest that mass poverty is the answer.

George concludes: “Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, hiding from the truth.”

Well, actually, no. It’s not an either/or. It’s both. The two factors are intimately connected. One isn’t more important than the other. The world could probably handle having 1 billion rich consumers living on it, but it is very doubtful that it could handle 10 billion. At the moment, we’ve got about 1 billion rich and 5 billion poor who would very much like to be rich. And the projections are that the population will grow to 10 billion sometime in the next 50 years. And the brake on population growth is projected to be widespread economic growth (for which you can read higher carbon intensity). That doesn’t seem like a recipe for a sustainable future.

As David Mackay keeps saying, do the maths. The solutions have to add up. And you can’t do the maths if you ignore the demand side of the equation.


  1. Enjoyed reading that Mark. I think it pays to reflect upon, and understand, the audience Monbiot is targeting here: Guardian readers.

    Comrade Monbiot may, or may not hate the filthy capitalist dogs but I'm sure he's now guaranteed a column until his bank account is fat and healthy!