Is overpopulation destroying the forests?

By Kacey Peters

One quick google search of ‘climate change’ is guaranteed to be met with emotive pictures of burning forests and burgeoning environmental catastrophe. With the World Bank estimating that deforestation makes up 12% of global greenhouse gas emissions, we cannot deny that forests are imperative in mitigating climate change. Yet, with more than 25% of the world’s population relying on forests for their livelihoods – the majority living in low-income countries – I begin to question, what are the underlying drivers? And who must be held accountable?

For many, the earths rapidly increasing population is propositioned as the driving force, leading to increased wood fuel demand, extraction of forest resources and expansion of agriculture. Yet the scarcity of concrete data on expanding populations and their subsequent effects on deforestation begs the question, to what extent is the overpopulation argument used as a scapegoat to place the blame conveniently back onto the forest-dependent poor?

The Overpopulation Argument  

The overpopulation argument has been around for some time, gaining traction in the 18th century through clergyman Thomas Malthus who predicted that exponential population growth would overwhelm agriculture, ultimately leading to widespread famine. This has yet to be proven. Similarly, Paul Elrich incited worldwide fear by rebirthing population arguments in the 1970s through his book ‘The Population Bomb’, a bomb which never went off. Today, overpopulation arguments are still prevalent amongst environmental discourse, but the problem is overstated. Whilst increased population growth means increased demand for food, water and other resources, consumption rates across the globe vary dramatically, with high-income countries creating the biggest demand. Therefore, the issue lies not within the scarcity of resources but the distribution of resources across the world.  

Throughout history, such narratives about nature have become rooted within environmental discourse that favour certain powers. The overpopulation argument is just one of many due to its appeal to environmental policy makers. The argument that overpopulation is destroying the forests convincingly places the blame back onto local forest dependent communities, victimising and villainising those who depend on forest resources. However, this victim (villain)/hero dichotomy only serves to distract us from systemic issues such as consumption and distribution.

 Albeit this is not to deny any impact of population growth on the environment. A global population rise of 1.1% growth per year will inevitably have an impact on resource use. However, there is a need to challenge the popular environmental orthodox that population growth is a cause of deforestation and environmental degradation. If rapid population growth in the ‘Global North’ coincides with improved infrastructure and distribution of resources, why in the ‘Global South’ it mustlead to disaster?

The Shortcomings of the Overpopulation Argument

The view that overpopulation causes deforestation has been formed through a complex web of political, scientific, social and economic factors. The overpopulation argument assumes that humans are a homogenous cause of environmental degradation, overlooking the heterogeneity of individuals and their uneven consumption rates. Thus, the creation and prioritisation of such environmental discourse and knowledge works to benefit the most powerful within society. Yet, it is striking that the individuals making the decisions to implement forest policies are those which are not a part of the society that those projects will impact. Thus, the victim (villain)/hero dichotomy is reinforced.

Arguably, the overpopulation rhetoric works well as it presents a future of crisis and justifies urgent action. For example, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+)  is a climate change mitigation project that aims to help developing countries manage forests more sustainability and conserve forest carbon stocks,  providing financial incentives to communities to protect areas of the forest. While on the face, these incentives appear as a win-win, a closer look and overpopulation arguments can be seen throughout many of their policy documents. Yet, evidence of the impact of population on the environment is complex and misunderstood. Therefore, more nuance is required to negate further marginalisation of forest communities as we step-up our efforts to protect forests. Counter to common beliefs, famous studies in Guinea found that higher population densities led to improved forest cover (see Fairhead and Leach 1996 study). Likewise, in Ethiopia and Kenya (countries which have both introduced REDD+ policies), photographic evidence showed that forest cover has actually increased since the end of the colonial period, along with population growth (see Meire et al., 2013; Nyssen et al., 2009).

Even our national treasure David Attenborough, has fallen into the overpopulation trap (oh no). As a supporter of U.K. charity Population Matters, Attenborough states, “All of our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people” which the company now use as their slogan. In 2013 he wrongly blamed the famines in Ethiopia on  “ too many people for too little land”. Yet, it seems unfair to blame famines in Ethiopia on population growth when there is more than enough food in the world to feed all of us.

It seems Attenborough, like many others, has succumbed to the popular yet unfounded environmental discourse.

Escaping the Overpopulation Trap

Whilst deforestation is the second largest threat to climate change, we must not forget that the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions are contained to the actions of a very small number of people. Roughly 60% of global carbon emissions are emitted by only six countries: the U.S., China, Russia, India, Japan and Germany. Further, when half of the world’s wealth is controlled by only 8 men the question of wealth distribution must rise to the fore. Pinning poor, forest dependent communities as the agents of deforestation is not the answer.

The most common way to measure our environmental footprint is Impact. = Population x Affluence x Technology (I=PAT_=). Yet while the world’s poorest may have the highest birth rates, they have hardly any affluence or technology. Therefore their consumption rates are far lower than those in high-income countries, with estimates suggesting that the world’s poorest are only responsible for around 10% of the total global carbon emissions.

That is not to say that overpopulation is not having an impact on forests, nor to deny that population rates are rapidly increasing. However, recognising that birth rates are higher in developing countries urges us think about the deep-rooted inequalities which lead to higher birth rates. Higher birth rates in low-income countries could be accredited to the gender gap in education and lack of access to family planning services. UNESCO estimate that 132 million girls are not currently in education and around 200 million women do not have access to family planning services. Yet, although fertility decline can be achieved through better access to family planning services, it must coincide with improved female education and female empowerment through education.

Female emancipation and education are key to providing women with more control over their reproduction, and studies have shown that fertility tends to decline with wealth. With the biggest obstacle to female education and empowerment being extreme poverty, perhaps we should concentrate on the equal distribution of wealth before we start blaming the poor for all of our environmental problems.

Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.