top of page
  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Capitalism has overrun the planet

When figures like Sir David Attenborough talk about the impact of population growth on the environment but not that of corporations and vastly unequal distribution, they act as apologists for imperialism and capitalism.

Sir David Attenborough in a BBC interview, September 28, 2020

Early today in Canada the BBC's interview in the UK with Sir David Attenborough was trending on twitter. If you watch the video it shows an obnoxiously fawning interviewer tossing various lightweight questions about threats to the global environment at the famed documentarian and nature popularizer and getting the totally expected platitudes in response.

"Waste less", "don't despair", "young people are the future" etc. The earnest, "trees and animals are great" kind of environmentalism that the folks at the reactionary, British neo-liberal state broadcaster can get behind since it really seems to put the onus on those the least responsible for the problems confronting the environment globally -- and the most powerless to change anything -- to do the most about it.

At one point he says "its humanity's fault" as if all people, everywhere are all equally culpable and goes on to dump on the Extinction Rebellion for "disrupting people's lives" while claiming he agrees with them which would be odd given that their radical environmentalist agenda would disrupt people's lives much more than a few protests.

He is also totally clueless as to why people are fleeing the Middle East and Africa for Europe which has much more to do right now with wars, imperialist regime change and colonialism and capitalism induced poverty and economic instability than it does with it getting "hotter".

Attenborough also indulges in that classic elite, western environmentalist line that population growth globally is a serious culprit. This line often ends with racist overtones as it suggests that the most populous places in the world must be doing the most damage, which is not at all true.

The BBC was even good enough to place the quote "We've overrun the planet" in the headline and tweets.

Predictably folks on twitter chirped along.

With all due respect to "Charlie" it is hardly a taboo subject. Given that taking this line means ignoring the actions of corporations and the nature of the global imperialist and capitalist system, western elite environmentalists love talking about "overpopulation". Attenborough, while mentioning population, did not, needless to say, mention the actions of corporations or the global imbalance in climate impact even once.

And that really gives away the game.

Just a week ago the western media, including in the UK, was talking about a "report, compiled by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute" that showed that:

The wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half of the world from 1990 to 2015, according to new research.
Carbon dioxide emissions rose by 60% over the 25-year period, but the increase in emissions from the richest 1% was three times greater than the increase in emissions from the poorest half.


Such a concentration of carbon emissions in the hands of the rich means that despite taking the world to the brink of climate catastrophe, through burning fossil fuels, we have still failed to improve the lives of billions, said Tim Gore, head of policy, advocacy and research at Oxfam International.
“The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity,” he told the Guardian. “A finite amount of carbon can be added to the atmosphere if we want to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We need to ensure that carbon is used for the best.”
The richest 10% of the global population, comprising about 630 million people, were responsible for about 52% of global emissions over the 25-year period, the study showed.

It is worth noting that:

If left unchecked, in the next decade the carbon emissions of the world’s richest 10% would be enough to raise levels above the point likely to increase temperatures by 1.5C, even if the whole of the rest of the world cut their emissions to zero immediately, according to Monday’s report.

Given that 90% of the world's population has less of an impact than the wealthiest 10%, "overpopulation" as the key point of emphasis when talking about climate change is simply wrong.

Since Attenborough pontificated about "waste" it also worth noting that things like food waste are not at all evenly distributed around the world (and neither is food consumption). This is a very important point due to the impact of capitalist agriculture and food distribution globally. As noted on CNN in May, 2020:

Climate experts have identified food waste as one of the top sustainability problems worldwide and the United Nations environment program has an ambitious goal of eliminating half of all food waste by 2030.
"Globally, if food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the US," the agency said on its website. "The resources needed to produce the food that becomes lost or wasted has a carbon footprint of about 3.3 billion tons of CO2."

Unsurprisingly "Researchers said that food waste is not a "problem at low levels of affluence," or in developing countries, and that a so-called "elasticity" or growth in waste occurs as incomes increase."

This understates matters considerably as the graphic below shows:

Again, a small minority of the global population is responsible for far more waste than all of the rest.

And then there are the corporations.

In just one report showing their impact in 2017, the Carbon Majors Report found that "100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988" and that:

...more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 – the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established – can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities. The scale of historical emissions associated with these fossil fuel producers is large enough to have contributed significantly to climate change, according to the report.

These facts put things into the proper perspective.

While, obviously, population growth impacts the environment, placing an emphasis on it while not mentioning vastly uneven global population patterns of emissions, consumption and waste as well as the hugely disproportionate impact of a relatively small number of corporations is deeply misleading and acts as an apologist narrative for imperialism and capitalism.


bottom of page