Swans Commentary » swans.com November 2, 2009  



George Monbiot And The Persistence Of The Population Myth


by Michael Barker





(Swans - November 2, 2009)   George Monbiot is a progressive journalist who works within the corporate media. For any writer, particularly one like Monbiot who is embedded within such a powerful propaganda system, it is imperative that they understand the severe limitations that are imposed (externally and internally) on their journalism. In this way radical analyses can occasionally reach the public without the said author defending their publisher from valid criticisms, like for example, those aimed at the so-called left-leaning media by David Edwards and David Cromwell in their book Newspeak in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 2009). Unfortunately, Monbiot ignores the key role his reporting plays in veiling the propaganda function of the mainstream media -- a fact demonstrated in the aforementioned book -- and so the cumulative effect of his work is to discourage, albeit unintentionally, potentially sympathetic people from recognizing the urgent need to create popular independent media outlets.

This important shortcoming helps explain why, with regard to the environment, Monbiot readily dismisses revolutionary activism and promotes capitalist solutions for problems stemming from capitalist growth imperatives. (1) More recently, however, Monbiot appears to have had a change of heart, and in an essay titled "The population myth" he asks: "Where's Class War when you need it?" Consistent with his past record though this question is just part of his rhetorical flush, as he concludes his article by saying that "It's time we had the guts to name the problem," but then fails to mention capitalism, and instead goes on to misidentify the problem as being money and the rich. Even here, despite their names lurking just below the surface of his article (in a link) Monbiot neglects to follow through by providing us with the names of the specific rich people who may be fuelling the planet's environmental crisis.

For instance, Monbiot refers to a Sunday Times article headlined "Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation" but does not provide any historical context to enable his readers to understand the longstanding nature of this club. As the Times article notes, the secret meeting included notable elites like David Rockefeller, Jr. and George Soros and was "convened on the initiative of Bill Gates" at the home of Sir Paul Nurse, the president of Rockefeller University.

The key role played by Rockefeller monies in promoting population concerns was demonstrated nearly four decades ago by Steve Weissman in his important article "Why the population bomb is a Rockefeller baby." If Monbiot had taken his investigation further he would have seen why such Malthusian thinking dominates the environmental movement, as Rockefeller wealth has played a key role in forcing the evolution of the modern-day environment movement. (2) Likewise, it would not have been hard for Monbiot to see how ironic it is that Bill Gates has spent the last decade spearheading what he envisages to be the new Green Revolution in Africa. This is because the first so-called Green Revolution -- built firmly upon Malthusian premises -- was set in motion by Rockefeller monies in the name of "humanitarianism" to ensure that the rich benefited off the backs of the poor.

As Monbiot is widely regarded as one of the world's most influential environmental journalists, it is extremely problematic that he has not engaged with basic feminist critiques of the environmental movement. This is a large fault, but not an entirely unexpected one. Thus in January 2008 in an article titled "Population bombs" he acknowledged that, to date, he had failed to mention the p-word, and pointed out that the idea that "population growth is largely responsible for the ecological crisis is to blame the poor for the excesses of the rich." However, despite making this statement he prefaced it by writing: "Stabilising or even reducing the human population would ameliorate almost all environmental impacts." (3)

Returning to Monbiot's most recent article "The population myth," it is consistent with his track record that he draws upon the work of a neoliberal environmental outfit known as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). In the interests of current news values it is also understandable why Monbiot constructed his article around a current report derived from establishment sources, but again this does not explain why he fails to provide the necessary context to his story. Nowhere within the article does he mention that David Satterthwaite, the author of the report published in the IIED's journal Environment and Urbanization, is drawing upon the pioneering work of eco-feminist Betsy Hartmann. Indeed, the Hartmann article that Satterthwaite refers to (within his article) actually mentions the problematic influence of Rockefeller funding on the environmental movement. In fact, Hartmann concluded by writing how: "In a strange kind of déjà vu, the threat of resource scarcities and political instability also featured in Rockefeller's first rationales for population control in the 1950s."

Here it is noteworthy that the journal Environment and Urbanization counts among its five editorial board members two individuals who maintain intimate connections to population-fixated billionaires. Thus Tade Akin Aina is the Carnegie Corporation's program director for higher education in Africa, and prior to recently taking up this post he had spent a decade working for the Ford Foundation in Africa; while IIED staffer Diana Mitlin recently worked on a commissioned project for the Rockefeller Foundation. These links clearly do not imply that the journal never criticizes liberal philanthropy and population control environmentalism, because in 1998 Environment and Urbanization published Hartmann's aforementioned article; (4) however, it is clear that the IIED cannot be relied upon to provide a sustained critique of the environmental population nexus. Indeed, David Satterthwaite, the editor of Environment and Urbanization, was awarded the Volvo Environment Prize in 2004, a prize that has been regularly distributed to the world's most influential Malthusian environmentalists, i.e., James Lovelock, Paul Ehrlich, and John Holdren. (5)

Monbiot writes that Satterthwaite...

... points out that the old formula taught to all students of development -- that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I=PAT) -- is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I=CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world's people use so little that they wouldn't figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children. (6)

There is no doubt that Paul Ehrlich and John Holden's IPAT equation is wrong; however, one is hardly removing the population issue from the equation by substituting population with consumers. By way of a contrast, a more convincing case for reformulating IPAT has been presented by eco-feminist H. Patricia Hynes in her essay "Taking Population out of the Equation: Reformulating I = PAT," as recently summarized in "Environmental populationism, a dangerous obsession."

Unfortunately unbeknownst to Monbiot, his crusading journalism plays a vital role in sustaining a fundamentally unjust and destructive political system. Like most of the muckraking journalists of the progressive era, Monbiot is primarily concerned with "consequences of the alleged business debauching of politics" rather than the causes of his society's ills. (7) Instead of seeing the violence wrought by elites on our planet as stemming from capitalist growth imperatives, Monbiot follows Susan Jacoby's logic in her book The Age of American Unreason (Pantheon, 2008), as he writes how she has shown how "the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies." Continuing to draw upon Jacoby's book, he continues:

From the beginning, [Charles] Darwin's theory was mixed up in the U.S. with the brutal philosophy -- now known as Social Darwinism -- of the British writer Herbert Spencer. Spencer's doctrine, promoted in the popular press with the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people from being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation. Gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.

So, although Monbiot is evidently aware how both Rockefeller and Carnegie (via the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation) benefited from the promotion of Social Darwinism, he is incapable of seeing the parallel manner by which these same billionaires have benefited from, and actively promoted, the mainstream environmental movement's acceptance of crude Malthusian arguments. Thus I would like to conclude this piece by asking Monbiot if he would kindly think about the issues raised in this article and reconsider his problematic legitimization of two of the key elite players facilitating the global environmental crisis: the mainstream media, and liberal philanthropists. (8)


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1.  George Monbiot's book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning (Allen Lane, 2006).  (back)

2.  For an examination of the influence of the Rockefeller Foundation monies on the environmental movement see "Liberal philanthropy and the 'birth' of population control Environmentalism," "The philanthropic roots of corporate environmentalism," and "Laurance Rockefeller and capitalist conservation."  (back)

3.  Despite his evident confusion, Monbiot is well aware of the problems associated with Malthusian reasoning. For example, in May 2004 he wrote that: "Those who spent the 1970s and 1980s campaigning against overpopulation were lamenting not the evident surplus of white intellectuals, but the abundance of impoverished people with brown skins. The 'population crisis' offered a convenient means of overlooking the real source of environmental disaster, as it was the only problem for which the poor could be blamed and the rich could not."  (back)

4.  This article first appeared in Political Environments (Fall 1997), and a longer version was published as Betsy Hartmann, "Population, Environment, and Security: The New Trinity," in Jael Silliman and Ynestra King (eds.), Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Development (South End Press, 1999), pp.1-23.  (back)

5.  The first Volvo Environment Prize was awarded in 1990 to two economists at the Ford and Rockefeller baby, Resources for the Future. Later prizes have been distributed to Norman Myers (who is presently a patron of the Malthusian Optimum Population Trust), Partha Dasgupta (who is a patron of Optimum Population Trust, and a university fellow at Resources for the Future), Gilbert White (the former chair of Resources for the Future, 1974-1979), Monkombu Swaminathan (who is known as the father of the Green Revolution in India), and Amory Lovins (who is a board member of the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation). For a discussion of E. O. Wilson's conservative and Malthusian brand of environmentalism, see "Greenwashing Eden: the uses and abuses of biodiversity."  (back)

6. David Satterthwaite, "The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change," Environment and Urbanization, Vol 21(2), September 2009, pp.545-67. Notably this article was first published (pdf) at a United Nations Population Fund and IIED Expert-Group Meeting on Population Dynamics and Climate Change in June 2009. Incidentally this earlier version of Satterthwaite's article does not reference the work of Betsy Hartmann.  (back)

7. Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (Quadrangle Books, 1967 [1963]), p.16. "Expose literature of the time was, admittedly, often careless and exaggerated, but it was also usually conservative in its motives, and for the most part avoided posing radical alternatives to existing evils." (p.111)  (back)

8.  With reference to his recently published article "The population myth" (September 2009), on October 5, 2009, I wrote to George Monbiot and asked him: "Are you planning to write any articles that examine the integral role that the massive resources that the Rockefeller and Ford foundation philanthropies have had on promoting Malthusianism within the environmental movement?" A few days later Monbiot responded to this query by writing "thanks Mike, could you tell me more?" and in response I e-mailed him the digital version of my journal article "The Liberal Foundations of Environmentalism: Revisiting the Rockefeller-Ford Connection" (Capitalism Nature Socialism, 2008). Upon receiving this, Monbiot wrote to me (on October 8) saying: "thanks a lot Mike. I will read it now. Looks really useful."  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in Australia. In addition to his work for Swans, which can be found in the 2008 and 2009 archives, his other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published November 2, 2009