Sierra Club Takes A Commendable Turn On Population, Climate Change, And Inequality

| Educate!

The Sierra Club – long a retrograde proponent of saving the planet by driving a Tesla, eating wild-caught salmon, and voting blue – took positive environmental leadership with their end of the year issue of the Sierra magazine. Stating it is “time to fix the population fixation,” they examine the interactions of population, climate change, and inequality. This commendable development from bourgeois lifestyle environmentalism to a more genuine red-green understanding, though, has a way to go.

The ideology of over-population

The ideology of over-population diverts criticisms of capitalist social relations of unequal distribution. It serves to justify a system, capitalism, which creates needs for the many while satisfying them only for the very few. The Sierra Club, in a bold turn, now argues that the problem is not the fertility of women but “overconsumption” and the “outsized contribution of the wealthiest few to the climate crisis and the extinction emergency.”

Birth rates go down when human needs are met and women are afforded reproductive freedom, while the global carbon footprint of the superrich few is vastly greater than that of the poor multitudes. As the status of women improves, birth rates have indeed been stabilizing; world population is predicted to nearly stop growing by the end of the century.

The opening Sierra editorial argues: “The tendency of environmentalists to blame individuals – in particular, women in developing countries – for the number of children they have is problematic…Pointing the finger at women for this is essentially blaming the victim.” Noting that “the killers behind the mass shootings in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas referenced overpopulation and environmental degradation as reasons to target immigrants,” the Sierra Club unambiguously decries “such eco-fascist rhetoric” as having “no place in the environmental
movement.” A sympathetic article follows in the Sierra magazine about the Border Angels, who defy the US Border Patrol by leaving caches of water in the Sonoran Desert for migrants.

Climate justice is given its due importance in the latest issue of Sierra with the recognition that: “Some people are consuming wildly more and wildly different than others…10 percent of the world’s population is responsible for about 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and about 60 percent of those people are in the Global North. The bottom half of the world’s population is
responsible for about 15 percent of emissions.”

The Sierra Club understands, “a mere 100 companies count for more than 70 percent of the carbon pollution.” This is a big step forward from the simplistic notion that “people create pollution, so population is the problem.” But a sharper point on capitalist relations of production by the national environmental organization is wanting, and the vast contribution of the US military to global warming is rendered invisible in the Sierra Club’s analysis.

In “a conversation about capital, consumption, and population” recognition is given by the Sierra Club of the need to “transcend our culture of consumption.” An audacious (for a mainstream environmental organization) comment is made about “the value of life beyond a
capitalist system” [Emphases added.] Flirting with a Marxist concept of alienation, the article is critical of seeing “ourselves as a commodity or a consumer.”

The article recognizes “growth is what’s creating more inequality,” but does not yet quite name the beast by saying it is capitalist growth, although they come close with saying “it’s a system.” Their call for “system change” is informed by understanding the connection of “growth and the disparity of income levels and the wealth gap.”

Reducing wealth inequality is a fundamental climate solution

The Sierra Club deserves credit for coming around to a progressive stance on population, immigration, and minorities. Back in the 1950s, the southern California chapter of the club had a policy barring African Americans. In the late 1960s, the Sierra Club published Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, which wrongly predicted that hundreds of millions of people (including in the US) would starve to death in the 1970s due to population growth. In the 1980s, Sierra Club national committees advocated for limiting immigration to the US. In 1998 and again in 2004, elements within the organization pushed hard to change the then policy of neutrality on immigration to one of actively closing the US borders to immigrants. The nativist anti-immigrant faction was defeated.

Presently, the Sierra Club opposes the border wall, supports a path to citizenship for the undocumented, and works actively with immigrant rights groups. From those dark days of Ehrlich when human population and especially the reproductive capacity of women were seen as the source of environmental problems, this latest issue of the Sierra magazine has the tagline “the planet is in crisis – SHE has solutions.” A young African woman wearing a hijab is on the cover.

The Sierra Club is a member-based NGO with the latitude to make this leap forward on the population question. Most other major environmental NGOs won’t likely follow, because they are more dependent on funding from rich individuals and their foundations for whom the hint of income equality is a non-starter. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with their Environment and Population Research Centre and their Climate Foundation, works tirelessly to suppress what the Sierra article concludes: “reducing wealth inequality [is] a fundamental climate solution.”

Hopefully the days are gone when the Sierra magazine gets all weak kneed gushing over the “green lifestyle” of a former corporate executive who cashed in early on her stock options, left the “rat race” of Los Angeles, and moved into a sprawling spread in the formerly unspoiled desert. And the reason why Sierra viewed her as an environmental paragon? She installed solar panels on her roof. Hopefully, too, will be the passing of those cheery infomercials for the US military about how cool it is that their killing machines are fitted with solar panels.

Identifying overconsumption and waste as problems is a breakthrough from the mainstream narrative on climate solutions, which usually focuses almost solely on alternative technologies and consumer preferences to maintain the capitalist growth economy of waste. If only “we” weaned ourselves off of “our addiction” to oil and went solar, the narrow narrative goes, all would be satisfactory. The next step, yet to materialize for the Sierra Club, would be to recognize the necessity of ending that system of waste known as capitalism.

Nevertheless, the Sierra article concludes on an auspicious note: “What we need to think about is how do we bring those who are the biggest power brokers on the planet to heel.”

Roger D. Harris is with the Task Force on the Americas (, a 34- year-old human rights organization. He is Certified Wildlife Biologist and longtime member of the Sierra Club.

  • voza0db

    In short the solution is simple!

    We just need to start awarding the Nobel Prize of Economics to scoundrels, sorry, to dear economists that start working on decreasing the number of billionaires and millionaires instead of wasting TIME with localized programs for “their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty“.

    It seems that those rich scoundrels in the Nobel committee just wasted another year.

    But I guess economists also just want to REACH THE TOP!

  • ThisOldMan

    This article misunderstands the nature of the overpopulation problem for much the same reason that many people misunderstand the severity of the climate change problem: Both problems will primarily affect future generations, and at present most countries certainly have even more pressing problems immediately facing them.

    Nevertheless, soon or later, one way or another, levels of consumption by the poorest 90% of the world will increase, as they find ways to escape the poverty trap. Of course this can be done with far less environmental impact per capita than what the richest 10% is currently guilty of, and of course reducing the environmental impact of the richest 10% should be given the highest priority, if only because that can be achieved within a much shorter time frame. It remains unlikely, at best, that the poorest 90% can achieve a living standard approaching that of the richest 10% with an environmental impact per capita that is less than 10% of that now being committed by the richest 10%.

    If you do the math, you will see that even if that could be done, and at the same time the per capita environmental impact of the richest 10% were also reduced by a factor of 10, the overall environmental impact that the human race exerts upon the planet would not be much less than it now is: about 1.7 times what the earth can sustain in the long run. In short, the world already has more people in it than we currently know how to sustainably care for, even in an otherwise perfect world, and by all accounts there will be at least 20% more people on the planet before the population stabilizes.

    At this particular point in time, however, it is clear that the specter of runaway climate change has become a far more pressing global problem than overpopulation per se, and if that is what the Sierra Club was trying to say, they certainly got that right.

  • Greeley Miklashek

    “…the planet is in crisis-SHE has solutions…” is perhaps the only accurate statement in this poorly thought out defense of our massive overpopulation of our planet, although focusing on the central importance of women being freed to choose when and if to conceive is implied and correlated with decreasing fertility. This long standing Sierra Club member has apparently forgotten the 3 R’s long promoted by his group: Reduce, Recycle, and Reuse. His critique of Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” is as misplaced as those of Malthus’ “Essay”, both of which were correct, but got the dates wrong, which always occurs with futuristic projections.

    So, what are Mother Earth’s “solutions”? “Population Density Stress Is Killing Us NOW!” is a recently published NPG (Negative Population Growth) Forum Paper introducing the medical consequences of overpopulation, and introducing “Stress R Us”, the free 623 page e-book PDF at Ehrlich’s MAHB website’s e-library, or Amazon PB.

    In as few words as possible, we are 3,000 times more numerous today than our pre-agricultural revolution Hunter-Gatherer ancestors just 7-12kya. Today, we make up 30% of the vertebrate land-based biomass on the planet, and our food animals make up another 69%, which leaves 1% wild. So, focusing on our admitted over-consumption of natural resources is legitimate, but inadequate and myopic. TOO MANY HUMANS are using too many natural resources and producing too much pollution, heat (global warming), wars, civil unrest, 71,000,000 migrants, “the diseases of civilization”, the 6th Extinction, and the gigantic wealth accumulating dominance hierarchies of Predatory Capitalism (aka wealth inequality).

    It all boils down to our massive human overpopulation, contrary to Mr. Harris’ claims to the contrary and the Sierra Club’s loss of focus and integrity. Both Malthus and Ehrlich were accurate in principle, if off on the dates and ignorant of technological invention’s capacity to extend our species’ lifespan a few centuries further, but no more. Now, you have the rest of the story! Stress R Us

  • mwildfire

    I find this piece largely dishonest, as well as full of self-righteous condemnation of the Sierra Club for only now “getting it right”… which though apparently SC now goes along with what the author wants virtually entirely, it is still castigated (with a red ban bar as the image to go with the piece), I guess because they didn’t make the immediate overthrow of capitalism their top priority.
    Why “dishonest”? Because in the early parts it largely pretends that population isn’t a problem, and that our high numbers will automatically go down once the poor world reaches the levels of wealth that the author condemns in the already rich world…as though that were even possible. He actually says we should be cheered by a projection that population will NEARLY have stopped GROWING by the turn of the century! Fortunately–or not so fortunately–the reality will be much better than that. I predict that our numbers will stop growing, and probably decline precipitously, by mid-century. It’s really quite simple. As someone else posted, scientists estimate that our current usage and waste rate is 1.7 times what the Earth can sustain (and growing). If something is unsustainable, that means it can’t be sustained. Which means it won’t be sustained. Just how long does the author–or so many other people–think we can go on borrowing from the future, destroying the ecological base on which our civilization rests, in order to provide the “good life” for more and more and more billions of humans? Inevitably, since we are proving ourselves no smarter than the rabbits and deer and bacteria whose populations we have witnessed in overshoot, we will suffer the same fate–a sudden drastic decline in our numbers when we can no longer squeeze more food out of a limited Earth (or when our numbers and other aspects of our late-stage civilizational decline create a perfect opportunity for plague, or our squabbling over remaining resources causes wars, which possibly go nuclear…) The only way we can avoid mass premature human deaths is through an utterly unprecedented, incredibly unlikely, global scale program to begin reducing our numbers with a universal one-child policy AND begin rationing the things that are the most damaging to the Earth (like fossil fuels, poisons, anything radioactive). That kind of cooperation, and the belt-tightening that needs to happen in the rich world, are so unlikely that I think we can expect the period of denial to go on for another decade or so, and the Three Horsemen will show over the horizon, long before the turn of the century.