London, United Kingdom – Prince William stirred controversy last week after suggesting that population growth was responsible for the endangerment of wildlife in Africa.
Many took to social media to share their frustration at the royal figure’s sentiment, with some connecting the statement to “eco-fascism” – a theory that argues humans are overburdening the planet and that some populations are more responsible than others.
The ideology has racist connotations – in short, Black, Brown and marginalised people are blamed for overpopulation and consequently the environment’s demise.
The idea’s origins can be traced to an essay by the English 18th-century economist Thomas Robert Malthus entitled “The Principle of Population”, which lays the foundation for eugenics in the arena of climate change.
Malthus argued that due to unchecked population growth, food production would not keep up and would result in disease, famine, and war.
It was Malthus’s essay that helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory on natural selection.
But speaking at the Tusk conservation awards in London, the prince said that the increasing pressure on the African continent’s “wildlife and wild spaces as a result of human population” was presenting “a huge challenge for conservationists, as it does the world over”.
He said it was “imperative” that the natural world is protected “not only for its contribution to our economies, jobs and livelihoods but for the health, wellbeing and future of humanity”.
Experts have weighed in to the debate, suggesting that the prince’s understanding of the situation is misguided.
Heather Alberro, a lecturer in global sustainable development at Nottingham Trent University, told Al Jazeera that equating population growth with climate change, or conservation, is a complex issue.
“Focusing only on human numbers functions as a red herring,” she said. “What research increasingly shows is that extreme poverty, socioeconomic inequality and capitalist systems predicated on endless growth for maximising shareholder value are greater predictors of ecological decline.
“Is it any wonder [then], that a poacher, driven by poverty and the lucrative price tag associated with ivory, would be compelled to kill an elephant?”
Alberro explained that the narrative on blame needed to shift. Instead, she argued, the focus should be on how global inequities are at the heart of the climate crisis.
“Reckoning with the ongoing, violent legacies of colonial capitalism, which continue to drive the exploitation of people, places, resources, other species, is an important first step towards truly transformative change,” she said.
“The irony is that recent research has found that Indigenous peoples are often the best stewards of ecosystems.”
Prince William says mounting pressure on Africa’s “wild spaces as a result of human population” is a “huge challenge for conservationists”.
Staggered by the racism & hypocrisy?
👇Kenyan ecologist @m_ogada on Westerners criticizing African "overpopulation." https://t.co/kFBlXKaoof pic.twitter.com/ZuL3vmSDOP
— Survival International (@Survival) November 24, 2021
The world’s population is now close to eight billion and is expected to grow to about 9.7 billion by 2050, with most experts agreeing that Africa will witness a population boom.
However, according to the UN, the continent only contributes to 2 to 3 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
Josina, from the grassroots environmental collective Land in Our Names, who also has a background in sexual and reproductive health, told Al Jazeera that the narrative on overpopulation is often linked to the “demonisation of Black and Brown women’s fecundity”.
“There’s a long history of Black women being blamed for having too many children. Now, what is too many? There’s no one in the royal family who will be demonised for having too many children. [United Kingdom Prime Minister] Boris Johnson has got quite a lot of kids.”
Josina’s collective focuses on building relationships with the land, particularly for people from Black and Brown communities, that “exist beyond the dynamics of extraction”.
“‘Conservation’ comes from a very colonial time. It treats people who are living there as feckless and worthy of being kicked off the land,” Josina added.
“Some of the most dangerous narratives come from upper-class environmentalists. It’s not just Prince William; it’s not just his father, it’s also David Attenborough, it’s also Jane Goodall,” they said, referring to the British broadcaster and natural historian, and English primatologist.
“All these people promote this idea that it’s other people irresponsibility, that it’s poor people’s responsibility.”