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The "Eco" Marxist Case For Ignoring Overpopulation--Ian Angus' book launch in Montreal

The following is a report filed by Madeline Weld, President of the Population Institute of Canada, on the Montreal book-launch by Ian Angus, co-author (with Australia's Simon Butler) of "Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis". This launch took place at 7:30 p.m. on January 2012 in the Greenhouse of Concordia University on the 12th floor. Madeline attended the previous launch at Ottawa University in December, and her account of the proceedings can be found in the SPA newsletter for February 2012. (Tim Murray) See also "A real Ecosocialist review of that cornucopian book, Too Many People".

Our Mission

This event was brought to PIC's attention by Joe Bish of the Population Media Center (Shelburne, VT), who pointed out the public rift among those who call themselves "ecosocialists" at the Climate and Capitalism website, edited by Ian Angus. Angus' book, co-written with Simon Butler, got a scathing review by Alan Thornett, which, along with the authors' reply, can be seen at Joe was hoping that PIC had human resources in Montreal to attend the book launch and hand out copies of the unfavourable book review. PIC does have human resources in Montreal, but it turns out they were going to be on vacation in Mexico. So Ottawa PICers Madeline Weld and Paul Bendus drove to Montreal (about 2 hours east of Ottawa) to attend the launch.

The Scene

The Concordia greenhouse (actually on the 13th floor) is accessed by a set of stairs from the 12th floor. Paul and I got there about 20 minutes before launch time. Some people were already sitting in the rows of chairs of varying type and stability facing the front of the greenhouse or milling around in the narrow walkway beside the greenhouse. A young man and woman were strumming on guitars at the back of the greenhouse. All very mellow. Angus obviously recognized me from our encounter at his Ottawa book launch. His greeting "Oh, hello" was decidedly unenthusiastic. I tried to make my "Hello" sound a little cheerier. Paul and I set to handing out the literature packets we had brought with us: the standard PIC brochure for public events inside of which were Thornett's unfavourable book review and a two-sided sheet created especially for the occasion, challenging the assertion that overpopulation was a myth.

The Preliminaries

Since there was nothing going on other than the background serenade, many people began reading our literature while waiting. It was gratifying to see so many people reading the PIC literature challenging what they were about to hear. We continued to hand out our packets to new arrivals and as launch time approached, Paul went to the stairs to nab any latecomers. In all, there were about 30 people in attendance. Unlike the Ottawa book launch where there were only half as many people, everyone (aside from Angus, Yves Engler who introduced him, Paul and myself) was very young, probably all students. None looked like they could be older than 25.

The Introductions

Angus got two introductions. The first was by Matthew Brett, a student in political science, and whom a web search later revealed is an editor and contributor to Canadian Dimension (a left wing magazine founded in the 1960s), a booster of the Occupy movement, and involved with the Society for Socialist Studies. The second introduction was by Yves Engler, in his early thirties, and whom an internet search reveals to be a left-wing activist, former president of the Concordia Student Union, and an anti-Zionist, who helped organize the riots that aborted Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at Concordia in 2002. (According to Wikipedia, this cost him the job of president of the CSU for "vexatious conduct" which he unsuccessfully tried to get back.) You can learn what Engler says about himself here (also check out the items on the menu bar at the top of the page) and Wikipedia's take here Of the three people who spoke that evening (Brett, Engler, and Angus), Engler was by far the most aggressive in his language toward populationists. However, everyone remained civil and there were no incidents.

First Michael Brett

Matthew Brett spoke first and introduced himself as a student in political science. He praised Angus' book, calling it a "rich book" and "comprehensive" and "where the cutting edge of activism is today." He urged people to buy the book and said the first few buyers would get a copy of Canadian Dimension. He thanked the organizers, Naomi Large of Sustainable Concordia and Jackie Martin, co-ordinator of the greenhouse. You can read about the greenhouse project here It is probably symptomatic of the politicized population-denial culture of our progressive universities that sustainability advocates were involved in hosting the book launch of a population-denying Bolshevik.

Brett then praised Yves Engler and his work on Haiti. [Wikipedia tells us that this includes Engler pouring a bottle of cranberry juice on Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Pettigrew at a 2005 press conference, saying "Pettigrew lies, Haitians die" to symbolize the blood on Canada's hands for its involvement in the 2004 coup ousting Aristide.] Engler's "Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy" was an excellent work on corruption and gamesmanship, Brett said. For Angus' book "Too Many People?", the question mark was critical. Ian is one of the most important people of the radical left when it comes to the environment, Brett said. He is the editor of the website Climate and Capitalism and author of the book, The Global Fight for Climate Justice.

Then Yves Engler

Yves Engler spoke next. He said the book was about a topic he didn't know much about and he thought it was a burden, but he was happy that Matt had burdened him with introducing it because it was incredibly interesting. Engler said that what we needed to guard against as people concerned about the environment is racist and anti-human ideologies. There are people who are set in making the issue of population the overarching issue. He hadn't been aware of this and was glad to be made aware of these antihuman and racist ideologies. Then Engler went on about "blaming victims," calling them the "overbreeding poor" and diverting attention away from the real vandals, who are tied into a history of racism and imperialism. [As you can imagine, it was hard to listen to this stuff, but Paul and I bit our tongues.]

Engler said that the book cited a study that we have the capacity to feed 9 billion people with sustainable agriculture. Most people who are undernourished are tied into the food production process. The main point is the diversion that a focus on population creates, taking the focus from the main driver of destruction: an economic system of growth and an economic and political system driving our species toward devastation. The real danger is that liberal feminists and activists will strengthen the right if we allow society to be diverted by population away from things like the tarsands.

Finally Ian Angus

Ian Angus then spoke, thanking Sustainable Concordia and Greenhouse Concordia. According to the UN, the world population is 7 billion, he said. The UN chose October 31 as the official date, and some of his conspiracy theory-oriented friends thought Halloween was chosen on purpose. He seemed to be dubious about that. Ironically, despite all the media attention, there were articles complaining that no one talks about population. He and Simon Butler included "Immigration" in the subtitle of their book because of the argument that rich countries could solve their problems by keeping immigrants out: "They've messed up their place, keep them out of ours."

'Tertullian' Blindness not necessarily an affliction of 'bigots'

Angus then said that the overpopulation argument is not only put forward by bigots. Many honest sincere environmentalists think that we need to solve the population problem in order to solve other problems. Focusing on population diverts attention away from the real causes of those problems. However, it's not a new argument. In "The Population Bomb," (1968) Paul Ehrlich said that the battle to feed humanity is over. The prediction was all wrong. Paul Ehrlich was an early populationist but not the only one or the first. Angus cited Tertullian, a founder of modern Christianity (in the 2nd century) on how wars, famines, earthquakes etc were necessary to prune humanity's numbers. And other things being equal, a larger population means people will be eating more, wearing more clothes etc. So it is easy to conclude that too many people cause problems. But that's the case only if you think that the social and economic system in place is the only one possible. Tertullian couldn't have imagined a system that wasn't based on slavery or that didn't get all its energy from animal and human labour. In his day, a small class of landowners had all the land. Much of the food produced went to feed the army. A lot of the food produced in North Africa went to Rome.

Three Arguments Against A Population-Focus

If you don't believe that a different way of life is possible, you will think that there are too many people. Angus said that he would focus on three core arguments (1) statistics are misleading, (2) individual behaviour doesn't cause climate change, and (3) population is not the real cause of our problems.

Regarding statistics, Angus said that in one of his courses, the teacher said that in a European city, the number of storks correlated with the number of babies. Of course, we know that the storks aren't bringing the babies. Similarly, the increase in greenhouse gases (GHGs) is not associated with the increase in population. When you break things down, the correlation disappears. Most countries with the highest birth rates have very low emissions. He then gave some statistics on birth rates and emissions. So something other than birth rates is driving emissions. Many people assume that the total emissions are driven by the sum of the people emitting GHGs. Al Gore's book advised people on ways to reduce their GHG emissions. But if everyone did everything that Gore recommended, GHG emissions would fall by only 20%. Most of the emissions are from corporations and the military. In discussing emissions, one can't ignore class. The richest 7% of the global population produce 50% of the GHG emissions while the poorest 45% produce only 7% of the emissions.

Regarding point number 3, concerns about population ignore corporate power. At the time of the fuss over 7 billion, the Occupy movement was happening. In the US, the richest 1% own the majority of all stocks and corporate equity. An British consulting firm called Trucost found that 3000 corporations caused $2.15 trillion in environmental problems (higher than the GDP of all but six countries). And this number actually understates the damage because it doesn't include things outside of normal operations, such as oilspills like BP's in the Gulf of Mexico, or ecosystem destruction such as what Shell Oil has done to the Niger River Delta or Chevron to Ecuador's rainforests, or the impact of global warming resulting from normal operations, or the damage caused by worldwide use of products. The focus on population ignores real and immediate threats. Nothing we do about population will change things quickly enough.

The Overpopulation Argument Ignores The Role That Capitalism Plays In Our Environmental Crisis

Bill McKibben has called the Alberta tarsands the biggest crime. One can look at it as a simple statistic: If there were fewer people, there would be fewer cars, so emissions would decline. But by 2020, the tarsands alone will produce more GHGs than all cars and trucks. [Corporations?] are the fundamental cause of climate change. There is an artificial dichotomy of too many people and too much consumption that has prevented a real debate. The fundamental problem is an economy totally dependent on oil. Changing the birthrates would not stop deforestation in Ecuador, wouldn't stop the US army (using up resources), wouldn't stop coal burning. If we misdiagnose the problem, we won't find the cure. The argument of "too many people" ignores the role of the capitalist system.

"Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom" said Barry Commoner (author of The Closing Circle). 1800 years ago, Tertullian could never have imagined that the system could be different. For the idea that population causes environmental destruction, Commoner made an analogy of trying to save a leaky ship by throwing passengers overboard instead of fixing the ship.

Let The Questions Begin

That was the end of the presentations. Brett and Engler took questions from the audience for Angus to answer. One of them (Engler I think) informed us that they would favour first-time questioners over people who had asked a question before and that they would alternate between male and female questioners. Since no one was quick to ask a first question, I became the first in the audience to have a say. I didn't ask a question, but expressed the opinion that a simple comparison of birthrates and GHG emissions did not look at the totality of environmental damage. The countries with the highest birth rates tend to be among the poorest with low industrialization, but can cause a lot of environmental damage through deforestation, overuse of water etc (giving the example of the Nile that no longer reaches the Mediterranean). Also, as countries become wealthier and industrialize, like China, their GHGS increase, and having a large population exacerbates that.

Jackie (of the greenhouse) then asked a question about strategies for a more sustainable agriculture system. The answer was that there was a problem in distribution, not that there wasn't enough food. The food doesn't get to the poor people and they can't afford to buy it. And we could also get rid of waste. But should we feed 9 billion people? Fertilizer in the US is spread over fields and results in dead areas in the Gulf of Mexico. Could we feed 7 billion people without doing that? Agrimonde in France undertook a massive study of world agriculture and concluded that we could feed 9 billion with or without sustainable agriculture but global warming will make some [currently fertile] areas non-fertile.

Paul was called on next and commented on Angus' use of statistics. For someone who had criticised the use of statistics, Angus certainly cited a lot of them, he said. Paul also criticized the idea of the possibility of endless growth. Pointing out that both he and Angus were early baby boomers, he said that the world population had grown almost 4 times during their lifetimes [closer to 3 times]. Paul also pointed out that there had to be a market for the products produced by the oilsands and that market was affected by population.

Angus Answers Back

A woman then asked if Angus knew of any specific corporations that benefitted from population. Angus' answer seemed a little disjointed or perhaps I had exceeded my absorptive capacity. He said that regarding the comments on birthrates in Africa (mine), one can't blame it (presumably environmental impacts) all on population. The average doesn't show the distribution of use. Do humans just use oil for fun? If so, why are there ads? Why is there built-in obsolescence? The management of demand is a problem of capitalism. About governments and corporations favouring a populationist approach, that is mostly based on ideology. The UK is cutting immigration instead of dealing with the problem of unemployment. Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail said there is no way to deal with problems unless we get the birthrate down.

Angus: Population Is Not The Decisive Variable

Another woman then said that she loved Angus' clarification. He said that individual consumption is not a problem while capitalism is. But she saw it as a cycle. Angus said he didn't disagree with her. The problem with the population argument is that it treats one variable as decisive. He said something along the lines of fracking being related to everything else but where does the power lie and referred to population as an abstraction.

Population Is NOT An 'Abstraction'

At this point, since no one else had their hand up, I was called on again. (That's 3 women in a row. Apparently breaking the alternating sex rule was ok if there were no questions from the sex whose turn it was.) I asserted that population was not an abstraction. I told of having been in Rwanda in 1986 to see the mountain gorillas (on my honeymoon). I said that Rwanda is a hilly country and its hills had been entirely terraced for agriculture and the only remnant of original forest was in the park where the gorillas lived. Every woman I saw had a baby on her back and I wondered what the next generation would do. Later, when I checked the total fertility rate of Rwanda at the time, it was 8.2 kids per woman. I suggested that pressure on resources increases the likelihood of conflict and mentioned the brutality of the conflict in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Blame It On Imperialism, Colonialism And The Slave Trade

A young man was called on next and, referring to my comments, he said that it was hard to look at the issue and not take into account centuries of imperialism. In their imperial wars, Belgium and Holland used ethnic groups as their local armies. There were also centuries of the slave trade. It was the same in South Africa.

I believe it was Angus who then asked "Where is the power in those dynamics?" There isn't a group interested in population growth. There is an interest in driving demands.

Matthew Brett then said that the question was what can we do. There are activities that he sees (in the book?) that he knows and that he doesn't know. What can we do for alternatives and resistance?

Think And Act Globally

Angus said that what they (he and Butler) say in the final chapter about ecosocialism is that there is no socialist revolution that isn't ecological and no ecological revolution that isn't socialist. We can't turn back the tide. Some things are hard to cope with. In the US, the greens are in the Democratic Party. (I think he was saying that the greens shouldn't buy into current political systems.) There's the slogan "Think globally and act locally" but we also have to think globally and act globally, in solidarity with the oppressed. The environmental movement in Canada has not been good at linking up with the indigenous environmental movement. An example is the indigenous fight against the tarsands. This is not just a fight in the abstract but a fight for justice.

The Left-Wing Anti-Population Bias Of 'Sustainable Concordia'

That concluded the launch. Some people then went to the front to buy books. Paul and I knew that bad weather was on its way for the drive back to Ottawa and did not mingle. While no one made a bee line for us to learn more about PIC, almost everyone seems to have kept the literature we handed out. I collected only one copy from the floor. In total, we handed out about 30. I believe that the perspective we were offering was different from the one that these students were usually exposed to. For example, by organizing the book launch of a population denier, "Sustainable Concordia" was implicitly denying the importance of population growth. And based on the remark of the young man to what I said about Rwanda, some of the kids have been pretty thoroughly indoctrinated to understand that everything bad can be attributed to western imperialism. It is possible that the audience was not representative of the student body. Given the association of the two introductory speakers with socialist causes, many members of the audience may have come with that perspective. However, given that Yves Engler was a former president of the Concordia Students' Union, I suspect that the socialists have quite a strong presence on the campus.

Some Consolation In Knowing That 30 Students Have Finally Been Exposed To A Different Perspective

Of course, the format was frustrating for us in that only Angus got to answer the questions of students and we didn't have the opportunity to refute his answers. Having equal time would have been much more satisfying. Still, at least 30 students at Concordia U have now been exposed to sensible arguments on population and know that not everyone who is concerned about population has a white robe and hood stashed away in his closet. Let's hope we hear from some of them.

Madeline Weld
January 29, 2012

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Hi Madeline,

Thanks for this article. I would like to ask you a question and also make an observation. My question is:

To what do you attribute the population problems in Rwanda, Haiti, Australia, Canada etc, if not imperialism?

My observation is:

People who call themselves socialists have begun to uses the term 'populationist' with a meaning opposite to the one that I know of. I believe the word is derived from the French. Here is a definition I wrote a few years ago when I thought that I coined the English version:

"Populationism : refers to a philosophy, attitude or policy encouraging population growth by any or all demographic means - natural increase and/or immigration and, arguably, low infant mortality and increasing longevity. "Populationist" refers to a person who holds this philosophy etc. These words don't exist in English but I find them very useful additions."

Here is another useful word:

"Immigrationism : is fairly self-explanatory, I think, and refers to a philosophy, attitude or policy encouraging high immigration. "Immigrationism" and "populationism" are two useful terms I borrowed from the French immigrationnisme and populationnisme. I have dropped the typical French double 'n' when I have spelled them in English. An "immigrationist" is a person with a philosophy, attitude, etc. of immigrationism."

Just found an article by Angus reacting to the above article. [Ed. Writer has forgotten to include URL] He really undermines any arguments or good faith he might claim to by his ad hominem attack on Stuart Hurlbert, who has apparently criticized his ideology.

Angus has absolutely nothing to say in defense of Angus's 'theory'. Instead he goes on a personal attack, insinuating that Hurlbert is racist, elitist, a target of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a supporter of democratic immigration policy in Arizona.

Next, Angus attacks Madeline Weld for being an associate of Stuart Hurlbert, and, amazingly, an ersatz feminist because she wants to give women in the 'third world' the chance to use contraceptives. What would Angus know about feminism? Women want control over births! He would deny that? Sounds like an MCP ponce to me.

Finally, Angus gets upset because Weld distributed an article by another socialist that criticised Angus's book (which I see candobetter has also published here: A real Ecosocialist review of that cornucopian book, Too Many People). He calls this "participating in an international campaign to use a disagreement among socialists to discredit our book." Phew! Looks like they are right those who criticise the so-called socialist movement for censoring and intimidating free speech. Alan Thornett's only crime is solid argument that shows up Angus's ideology for the tosh it is. Where does Angus get off, trying to deny people the right to publish or the right to benefit from the publication and dissemination of wider views? Someone has to open the eyes of youth to the utter bogusness of elites in the so-called 'socialist' movements where so many young people are attracted to the ideals the movement pretends to espouse but actively undermines with cant like Angus's. (Wonder who subsidised their book? Most of these pro-growth books are cashed up by growth-lobbyists.)

Angus, you sound p-a-t-h-e-t-i-c.