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AS THE climate crisis gets worse there is a growing tendency amongst “the 1 per cent” to divert attention from their own complicity, while at the same time shoring up our continued subservience to their exploitation.
Late last year Chris Packham, BBC presenter and patron of Population Matters, made the case that the existential threat facing humanity was being largely driven by global overpopulation. A year earlier David Attenborough, another BBC presenter and patron of Population Matters, took the same position.
Ten years before that a small group of 0.01 per centers met secretly to discuss how best to manage the future of life on Earth. Reported in the Times, the meeting was said to have been convened by Bill Gates and attended by among others Warren Buffet, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Ted Turner and Oprah Winfrey. They also apparently came to the same conclusion — that overpopulation was the key to the problem.
This isn’t a particularly new idea. Over the 1970s and 1980s one of the key organisations discussing this theory has been the Club of Rome. Which coincidentally boasts Graeme Maxton as a previous secretary general, who now sits on the expert advisory group of Population Matters.
Back in 1972 the Club of Rome became famous for issuing a report entitled The Limits to Growth, which argued that a global catastrophe was imminent because economic growth could only ever be finite because of the finite nature of exploitable resources.
However, some have argued that their position was extending out from the 1968 book by Dr Paul Erlich called The Population Bomb. But even that is not the starting point, as this theory really stretches all the way back to at least 1798 and Thomas Malthus’s work on population control.
This argument, in all of its forms, is open to the same principal criticism. Arguing that “overpopulation equates to an existential threat” glosses over the fact that different people behave differently and therefore impact the climate and the planet differently.
One of the key demographic groups whose importance is lost in the generalisation of the overpopulation argument today is the one group who live the most unsustainable lives. The impact that this group has on the wider environment is hugely disproportionate to their physical numbers.
For instance, those who know about these sorts of things say that the two-litre Si4 petrol engine version of the Land Rover Discovery emits around 247g/km of CO2. So in order to do a 30-mile commute to and from work five days a week, each driver would emit 6.2 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, or roughly the equivalent of one person taking four round trip flights from London to Los Angeles.
Now compare that to the UK’s CO2 emissions for 2018 which are 5.3 tonnes per person, or better yet the CO2 emissions for Niger, the country with the fastest growing population on the planet, where the average person creates only 0.1 tonne of CO2 emissions per year.
The reality is that in the 25 years leading up to 2005 over 60 per cent of the population growth around the world was happening in the areas with the lowest CO2 emissions.
By over-simplifying the relationship between the various lifestyles and the planet, we leave ourselves open to being manipulated by the very people that are benefiting from the behaviour that causes this problem.
And when it comes to misleading the public, few industries have gone to the lengths that the oil industry has gone to. The list of think tanks, PR lobbyists and scientists, politicians and civil servants-for-hire that have been mobilised in order to create doubt over the link between certain human behaviours and climate change is like nothing seen since the tobacco industry hid the link between cancer and smoking.
Even the strategies that they are now employing have been tried and tested on us before. Raising doubt and undermining the credibility of scientists comes straight out of the tobacco industry playbook. Finding a powerless minority and blaming their lack of character for spoiling it for everyone else comes out of the alcohol and sugar industries playbook.
But it doesn’t stop there. When one group of capitalists loses ground, inevitably another group tries to fill the void.
Back in 2003 the nuclear industry decided to take the opportunity afforded by the climate crisis to put Chernobyl behind it and reposition nuclear power as climate-friendly energy. The trade association even wrote that phrase across the top of its website.
It wasn’t long after this that the biggest player in Britain, British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), employed the PR multinational Weber Shandwick to start repainting themselves green.
The problem is that nuclear power is simply not the answer. The new nuclear reactor being built at Hinkley Point looks likely to become one of the most costly single location PFI white elephants in British history. Current estimates suggest that UK taxpayers may well still be paying the French government via EDF and the Chinese government via CGN for it in 2065. And it is not just Hinkley Point, there’s Sizewell on the Suffolk coast and at least five more on the drawing board.
Even ignoring the fact that nuclear power is financially unworkable without massive taxpayer subsidies, it produces a waste product that will continue killing life on Earth for hundreds of thousands of years to come. We don’t even know what to do with the millions of cubic metres of radioactive waste we have already created.
So far the general consensus currently appears to be burying it really deep in the ground. Arguably a little better than some of the previous ideas, like making ammunition out of it and then firing it at people, or simply dumping it into the sea and hoping that no-one is looking. But none of these are truly sustainable as they produce a huge amount of CO2 in their various production processes.
Even though nuclear power is the definitive dirty energy, the relentless march to nuclear has been occurring over multiple administrations for decades now against an overwhelming tide of public opposition.
One of the key strategies used by the 1 per cent, when faced with any popular opposition whether in politics or business, is to divide, separate and then pick off the more manageable sub-groups. Like a recipe for subverting democracy it is broken down into nice easy steps. First isolate the radicals from the moderates. Then break the moderates up into idealists and realists. Then cultivate the idealist-moderates into becoming realist-moderates and then co-opt all the realists into your way of thinking.
And if I sound cynical, take a moment to look back at the establishment response to the anti-war movement, Black Lives Matter, #metoo, socialism in mainstream politics, climate activism, Save the NHS, or the BDS campaign. Even the last Labour manifesto fell under the spell of the nuclear lobby. And that is just in recent years. The list goes on and on and on. And while the language may change, the objective and the strategy remains the same.
The nuclear industry’s “climate-friendly” sleight-of-hand was so effective that the gas industry tried to pull the same stunt. And after one of the most intensive PR and lobbying campaigns in recent years the EU declared a fossil fuel — gas — to be a low-carbon energy solution to climate change. And of course then shale gas raised its green flag, a claim the climate sceptic think tank and big player in the new Conservative administration the Global Warming Policy Foundation,got right behind without hesitation.
The problem isn’t about overpopulation, it is about the behaviour of certain sections of the global population and specifically the amount of energy that their lifestyles demand. Pumping tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere to build new electric sports cars for rich people doesn’t help. We have to use significantly less energy and that energy has to come from sources that the planet can effectively metabolise.
However we do this, the relationship between the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent has to change dramatically. Their leadership is incapable of understanding solutions that don’t include their continued privilege and excess. Without addressing these inequalities we will never be able to minimise or effectively prepare for the existential threat now barrelling towards us.
For the fully referenced extended version visit nicolaslalaguna.com.
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