Book Review: Building the Population Bomb, By Emily Merchant (Oxford University, 2021)
By Big Yew
The myth of “the population bomb,” or the belief that population in and of itself drives ecological destruction remains pervasive. Yet, there is little evidence that more people inherently generate more emissions, or that reducing the number of people on the planet would reduce emissions.
In Building the Population Bomb (2021, Oxford University Press), Emily Merchant offers a well-researched history of the concept of the “population bomb,” showing how this concept was invented by eugenicists in the middle of the twentieth century, and then the concept was promoted by American businessmen as a means of forestalling environmental regulation.
Likewise, as Merchant explores, the myth of overpopulation has been used to harm reproductive rights, especially for people of color. One example of how this has played out has been the genocide in the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, where racist doctors used the myth of “overpopulation” as an excuse to justify sterilizing roughly 25% of Puerto Rico’s population from 1930-1980. The myth of overpopulation has largely been leveraged to rob people of color of their reproductive rights and cannot be untangled from its role as a white supremacist organizing tool.
Ultimately, the idea that “reducing population” will solve climate change is nonsense invented by corporations to keep us at each other’s throats. The corporate imperative to make more money next quarter than they did last quarter guarantees that these corporate actors will continue to accelerate emissions even if the population goes down.
Reductive equations that link population and emissions distract us from publicly addressing the activities that directly fuel emissions, while obscuring tactics that actually need to happen to get us to a net-zero society.
Time to focus directly on the pragmatic changes that are needed to get to a fully net-zero emissions society. Attention needs to be directly on the corporations that are fighting every day to lock fossil fuel consumption in place.
Time to yeet the Nazi-derived rhetoric of “excess population” from the climate movement. Time to put an end to investor-ownership in the energy sector. We need to yeet the capitalists, not each other’s reproductive rights.