Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as hundreds of thousands of people passed away from the virus, statements such as, “Mother Earth is cleansing herself,” or “The earth will be better off without so many people,” circulated around many environmental spaces. Although these sentiments are often shared by well-intentioned and intelligent people, their statements perpetuate a harmful idea in environmental movements.

These sentiments are examples of eco-facism, an ideology defined as any environmentalism that perpetuates existing systems of inequality and advocates for or accepts violence (Hancock). Although eco-facism appears in many of the ideas within environmental movements, one of the most pervasive and popular is the idea that human overpopulation in the less developed countries in the Global South is a major contributor to climate change. This hypothesis is wrong because it ignores the fact that the areas of rapid population growth in the Global South emit a lot less carbon dioxide than the more developed areas in the Global North. Additionally, those who promote the overpopulation myth push population control measures that are often rooted in racism, colonialism, sexism, and classism.

The Dark History of Population Control

The idea that human population growth will lead to the destruction of the planet is not new. In 1798, Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population. In this essay, he predicted that human population growth would always outpace the earth’s available resources, and the only way to curb this was to enact population control measures, especially on the lower classes (“Thomas Malthus…”). His ideas inspired a variety of policies aimed at regulating the reproduction of poor people and racial minorities. For example, the English Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 used Malthusian theory to justify cutting down on offering supplies to the poor because helping them would allow them to have more children and increase population growth (Shermer).

Thomas Malthus (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, 2018)

Another key idea in the history of population control is eugenics. The American eugenics movement, most popular in the mid-20th century, was based on the premise that some people are “unfit” to reproduce and that only “fit” people should be allowed to reproduce in order to better society. Combined with Malthus’s theories that population growth of the lower classes would lead to the collapse of humanity, eugenics was used to justify the forced sterilization, mostly of poor women, women of color, and disabled women (Stern).

Debunking the Overpopulation Myth

The history of population control is extremely grim, and unfortunately, these ideas persist into the present. Today, Malthusian theories manifest themselves in the sentiment that poor people in the Global South are causing overpopulation, and therefore climate change, by having lots of kids they can’t afford. This idea is based on the false assumption that overpopulation is a cause of climate change.

For overpopulation in the Global South to be a cause of climate change, each person around the globe would have to be emitting the same amount of fossil fuels. However, according to an Oregon State University study that measured the carbon footprint of people in various countries, the carbon emissions of one average American in one year is equivalent to the carbon emissions of about four Chinese, twenty Indians, thirty Pakistanis, forty Nigerians, or two-hundred and fifty Ethiopians (Murtaugh and Schlax). A study by Oxfam found that it only takes five days for an average Briton to emit the amount of carbon dioxide that the average Rwandan emits in an entire year (“Britons reach…”). This shows that the regions in which population growth is highest are also the regions that emit the least amount of carbon dioxide. Between 1980 and 2005, high-income nations had just 7% of the world’s population growth and 29% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions, while low-income nations had 52.1% of the population growth and only 12.8% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions (“Study shatters…”). Consequently, curbing population growth in the countries where it is growing rapidly will barely make a dent in global carbon emissions, as long as rich countries are allowed to continue emitting carbon dioxide at increasing rates.

Compare these maps. Notice how the countries with the highest population growth are also the countries with the lowest carbon emissions, and the countries with the lowest population growth are the countries with the highest emissions (Ritchie, Hannah, et al) (Roser and Rodés-Guirao).

Overpopulation doesn’t drive climate change, but overconsumption absolutely does. With the world’s richest 10% responsible for half of carbon emissions and the poorest half responsible for only 7% (“World’s Richest”…), it is clear that overconsumption is not distributed equally. Rather than concerning ourselves with population control measures in the Global South, which would be ineffective and most likely racist and classist, those of us in the Global North must instead work to decrease our own carbon footprints and, more importantly, put pressure on governments and corporations to decrease theirs.

The idea that climate change is the fault of non-white people in the Global South is an eco-fascist idea that allows for governments, corporations, and citizens in the Global North to remove the blame from themselves. Additionally, the idea that the world would be better off without humans ignores the fact that Indigenous populations lived on Earth for millennia without significantly increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

It is not merely the existence of humans that caused the climate crisis, it is systems and ideologies like capitalism and colonialism that advocate for the untapped extraction of resources that are responsible. In order to create an environmental movement that advocates for people and the planet, we must call out eco-fascism when we see and hear it, and we must seek solutions for the real causes of climate change.


Works Cited

“Britons Reach Africans’ Annual Carbon Emissions in Just Two Weeks.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 5 Jan. 2020,

Hancock, Elaina. “A Darker Shade of Green: Understanding Ecofascism.” UConn Today, 7 Sept. 2022,

Ritchie, Hannah, et al. “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Our World in Data, Aug. 2020,

Roser, Max, and Lucas Rodés-Guirao. “Future Population Growth.” Our World in Data, Nov. 2019,

Murtaugh, Paul A., and Michael G. Schlax. “Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals.” Global Environmental Change, vol. 19, no. 1, 2009, pp. 14–20., 

Shermer, Michael. “Why Malthus Is Still Wrong.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 1 May 2016,

Stern, Alexandra. “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities – and Lasted into the 21st Century.” Institute for Healthcare Policy & Innovation, University of Michigan,

“Study Shatters Myth That Population Growth Is a Major Driver of Climate Change.” International Institute for Environment and Development, 28 Sept. 2009,,Study%20shatters%20myth%20that%20population%20growth%20is%20a%20major%20driver,the%20journal%20Environment%20and%20Urbanization.

“Thomas Malthus (1766-1834).” Thomas Malthus,

“World’s Richest 10% Produce Half of Carbon Emissions While Poorest 3.5 Billion Account for Just a Tenth.” Oxfam International, 2 Dec. 2015,