Against Overpopulation: A Critique of Environmental Malthusianism
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In this thesis I analyse the argument that there are “too many people” on Earth and that we need to reduce the world population. I trace how the argument has been used throughout history, starting with the work of Thomas Malthus in the late eighteenth century, touching on its application by colonial officials, eugenicists, biologists, conservationists and ecologists, and finally its application in the environmental movement in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich and others. Building on this historical analysis, I address how the overpopulation argument has been taken up by contemporary feminists, most notably by Donna Haraway. Through tracing this argument back to its origins in Malthusian thinking, eugenics, colonialism and antiblackness, I argue that despite being presented as a purely mathematical or scientific theory, the overpopulation argument is co-constituted with, and difficult to disconnect from, these troublesome ideologies. With these ideological origins, overpopulation discourse has a tendency to target specific populations as trouble-populations: the racialised and the poor. Further, by showing the link between contemporary overpopulation and climate change discourses, I argue that the Malthusian legacy in the contemporary Anthropocene narrative is the idea that people are the problem, and therefore a reduction of population growth is the solution. Framing climate change as a man-made problem in this way presents the ‘human’ as a universal category, concealing intra-human difference, which allows for the development of a climate change strategy focused on population management, birth rates, and reproduction. In order to stop reproducing Malthusian ideas in the climate change discussion today, we must start to question the concepts we think with. A key part of this work consists of refusing universalistic conceptions of the human, such as in the notion of ‘population’ itself.