a11 – Defusing the population bomb – the climate movement needs to stop telling this racist myth

“As if we are only mouths to feed”

Arcade Fire, Intervention

By H-Cat

The largest contributor to climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. Beyond contributing to warming the planet through the greenhouse effect, the burning of fossil fuels contributes to a plethora of other problems for environment and human health, including acidifying the ocean, which is an immediate threat to nearly all marine life, and the release of PM2.5 particulate matter estimated to be responsible for over three million deaths a year due to health conditions related to breathing in air pollution. 

Fossil fuels include petroleum (crude oil), gasoline, coal, natural gas, oil shales, tar sands, bitumen, and heavy crude oils. Thanks to the large scale burning of fossil fuels beginning in the mid-1700s, humans are estimated to have released an over 1.5 trillion tons of CO2 into the planet’s atmosphere, increasing the amount of this heat-trapping agent in the sky to twice what it was prior to the Industrial Revolution, with the “safe” level of 350 ppm having been exceeded in 1988. 

Flowers are blooming in Antarctica and a sixth mass extinction is underway, with roughly 1% of species on Earth having been declared extinct and nearly half in decline, while oceans and mass displacement continue to rise. In 2022 alone, over 35 million people were displaced due to extreme weather events, and it is estimated that over one billion people will be displaced by 2050 if things continue as they are. 

We are losing the stability of our climate and the habitability of our oceans while humanitarian crises escalate, and the burning of fossil fuels is largely to blame. 

Ending the burning of fossil fuels requires an end to fossil fuel investments and subsidies. Fossil fuel subsidies are currently being expanded, despite calls for them to be phased out, including calls by university students, youth activists, and Indigenous groups. In 2023, the Secretary-General of the UN called for an end to fossil fuel investment and subsidies, as well as immediate global action toward net-zero emissions, which “must start with the polluted heart of the climate crisis: the fossil fuel industry.” Despite these calls, virtually all major banks and many credit unions continue to invest in expanding fossil fuel extraction — despite evidence that divestment from fossil fuels does not show financial risk to investors. If you have a pension or retirement fund, that money is likely being invested in expanding fossil fuel extraction, for seemingly no reason.

Steering towards a less catastrophic climate outcome will require the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The IPCC and UN suggest that emissions be cut by 45% by 2030 and net zero be achieved by 2050. Yet, due to current investments and subsidies in fossil fuel expansion, global emissions rates are set to increase almost 14% by the end of the 2020s, according to a UN Press release in 2022. Since the time of that press release, fossil fuel subsidies and investments have only increased. In 2023, over $7 trillion in annual subsidies were directed towards expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction, a roughly $2 trillion increase from the year before. In this regard, we can assume that the 14% estimated emissions increase is already outdated, as expanded fossil fuel finance is directly linked to expanding the burning of fossil fuels.

While discussions about mitigating the climate crisis should be focused on ending fossil fuel extraction — and on ending the subsidies and investments that accelerate fossil fuel extraction — some rather odd “red herrings” have made their way into conversations about climate solutions, including the idea that the number of people on the planet is too high, and that the number of people on the planet is somehow inexorably linked to the amount of emissions. 

The concept of “overpopulation” is a myth that serves to distract attention away from the direct causes of fossil fuel burning (e.g. the continued financial backing of fossil fuel expansion), while also being leveraged to accelerate other forms of harm. The mid-century revival of the idea of “overpopulation” occurred thanks to efforts funded by those with fossil fuel interests, as historian Emily Klancher Merchant has shown in her exhaustive history of the topic. In the mid-1950s, fossil fuel companies began funding efforts aimed to manufacture public anxiety around the number of people on the planet rather than around the direct sources of environmental degradation and pollution, As part of this strategy, they also platformed white supremacists who openly acknowledged their intention to reduce the number of people of color on the planet, both through forced sterilization and by strategically withholding food. 

The fossil-fuel-funded myth of “overpopulation” was lobbed into greater public consciousness with the publication of the book The Population Bomb in 1968 by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, which leveraged post-Atomic era hype to drum up public fears that the Earth had too many people. 

The myth of overpopulation is not only incorrect, but it also leads to infighting and fractures within the environmental movement that forestall regulation, while also promoting an ideology that underpins eugenics, genocide, and threats to reproductive rights — a reality that has been explored in the writings of Dr. Jade Sasser. Solving the climate crisis will require an intersectional approach. The lingering presence of the “overpopulation” myth in climate data, models, and educational tools serve to reinforce white supremacy and patriarchy, and it serves to drive those who are disproportionately impacted by these things from the discussion table, making spaces of climate-related decision-making less diverse, equitable, and inclusive, while also derailing efforts to draw attention to the direct, immediate causes of fossil fuel emissions. 

In an effort to draw attention to the types of harmful myths that have emerged in response to the continued presence of the “overpopulation” myth in environmental discourse, six scholars affiliated with the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) came together to create the zine Against the Ecofascist Creep. Using comic book-style art and situated within the diegesis of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the zine is offered as an educational tool to debunk myths regarding overpopulation that can sometimes crop up in classroom discussions, myths fueled by the inclusion of problematic “population” metrics that have made it into some climate data sets thanks to fossil-fuel-funded efforts, myths that, unfortunately, have been uncritically reiterated in Marvel films and comics. 

Many climate models likewise fail to account for the role of fossil fuel investments in accelerating emissions. When data fails to account for the continued investment into and subsidization of these companies and instead focuses blame on sheer numbers of people on the planet, these data become complicit in spreading harmful misinformation that undermines efforts to reign in the direct industrial causes of climate change. The conversation needs to shift away from policing the number of people on the planet, and rather towards ending the investment and subsidies that fund fossil fuel expansion.

Want to help make a climate scenarios data set that doesn’t have a broken population metric in it? Go to: