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  1. Environment
10 June 2021

8 Billion Angels: A “simple solution” to the climate crisis?

The documentary film raises uncomfortable questions about overpopulation and the environment, but the supposedly easy answers it offers are anything but.

By Sophie McBain

The documentary film 8 Billion Angels opens with majestic footage of farmers tilling the land, factories billowing smoke, traffic-choked highways, city streets teeming with people, and a voiceover by the primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall. “What I really, really, really would love to change, without causing pain or suffering: reduce the number of people on the planet,” she says, “because there’s too many of us. It’s a planet of finite resources and we’re using them up. And that’s going to cause so much suffering in the future.”

With these words, she sums up the driving argument of this grand, sweeping documentary, produced by the environmentalist Terry Spahr. The film maintains that there is a simple solution to climate change, environmental destruction and mass extinction: to protect the planet and each other, we need to have fewer children.

But this is the kind of statement that only seems simple, and only looks like a solution, when you position yourself – as the film-makers do – at a god-like remove from the intimate politics of fertility and family planning, when you are most comfortable with a bird’s eye perspective on the world so high above the daily fray that people appear as small and indistinct as ants.

The film-makers visit the mega-farms of Kansas, where uniform rows of corn stretch to the horizon while beneath the overworked soil the water table is dropping, unseen, by around a foot a year. They travel to India, where the cameras luxuriate over the filth of overcrowding and poverty in the smog-filled mega-city of Delhi. They dive under the sea close to Japan, where fish numbers have plummeted.

The problem they diagnose is real and urgent – the Earth’s temperature is rising at an alarming pace, we are plundering natural resources at an unsustainable and potentially catastrophic rate, and we are doing so even as large numbers of the global populace live in abject poverty and permanent precarity. Of course, the rapid expansion of the global population has played a role in this. In 1970 there were just 3.6 billion people, now we’re nearing eight billion. So, what should we do?

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[see also: David Attenborough’s claim that humans have overrun the planet is his most popular comment]

8 Billion Angels argues that the key to curbing population growth is educating and empowering women. After all, demographers know that the key factor determining when countries transition from high fertility to low fertility is the status and emancipation of women. Unsurprisingly, when women have control of their own bodies and opportunities beyond the home, most decide they do not want to spend most of their youth locked in an exhausting cycle of back-to-back pregnancies.

The ecological impact of population growth has been much-discussed in recent years, during which there has also been the troubling rise of eco-fascist, anti-natalist movements that speak with undisguised contempt for “breeders” and aim for human extinction. It is a relief that 8 Billion Angels distances itself from these groups, which advocate coercive, illiberal ways for reducing population sizes.

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Even so, there’s something disturbing about framing women’s empowerment not as an intrinsic good but as a useful way to curb fertility. It is convenient to assign responsibility for getting us out of this self-made climate crisis onto poor, mostly brown women, while letting governments, corporations and rich-world consumers off the hook. “I think it’s actually easier to reduce population growth than it is to reduce consumption,” Bill Ryerson, of the Population Media Center, tells the film-makers. Easier for whom?

“One child born to an American family with means is equivalent to, potentially, 40 Bangladeshi children [in terms of their environmental footprint],” observes Zoe Weil, the president for the Institute for Humane Education. But somehow almost everyone else on the documentary forgets this fact. When Shashi Tharoor, an Indian MP, speaks of Delhi’s deadly smog, the first two sources of dangerous smoke he lists are “the chap on the roadside who is making tea on a charcoal brazier” and “the homeless person on the sidewalk who will freeze to death if he does not light a fire” – two people whose carbon emissions are negligible compared to, say, the coal-fired power generators that belch toxic fumes into the city.

Even Goodall, in her introductory voiceover, says that “when you’re poor, never mind individual suffering, you are destroying the planet because you have to”. A poor person, she says, might cut down trees because they need to farm the land, or they buy the cheapest food even if it causes horrendous suffering to animals. Forget that it is the world’s most affluent who eat the most meat, or that a subsistence farmer’s ecological impact is nothing compared to that of the average American consumer.

A paper published in Environmental Research Letters in 2017 maintained that having one fewer child is the most effective long-term action a person can take to reduce their carbon emissions, and is 20 times more effective than the next most-useful action, namely living car-free. The paper was widely publicised, but as Meehan Crist later observed in the LRB, it is predicated on the strange assumption that each generation is fully responsible for the subsequent generation’s emissions – “so why, come to think of it, shouldn’t you just blame your own parents, who are also 100 per cent at fault, for having you in the first place?” On top of that, as Crist argued, this reasoning contains a “glaring category error”: having a child isn’t merely a consumer choice, or a lifestyle one, comparable to going vegan or only travelling by public transport. But 8 Billion Angels does not address these important issues.

[see also: Why we must finally abandon the myth that Britain is overcrowded]

There is ample reason to feel wary of any group that seeks to promote smaller family sizes, when the history of attempts to control populations and curb individual fertility has so often been shaped by racist and prejudiced ideas. Consider, for instance, that Margaret Sanger, the reproductive rights activist who founded Planned Parenthood in the US, was motivated by both feminist and by eugenicist ideas. So was Marie Stopes, who pioneered birth control in the UK. This doesn’t mean that every group that seeks to empower women to plan their families is suspect, only that we need to be on our guard.  

I hope fervently that the uncounted women worldwide who are denied an education or opportunities beyond the home, or control over their bodies, are empowered in every respect, and I also hope that if they subsequently choose smaller families it is a positive, personal choice, and not something that stems from a sense of ecological obligation. Travis Rieder, a bioethicist, tells the documentary that he hopes the “burden of justification” will shift so that “if you have children you have to justify your choices”. I contend that no one should have to justify their choice to have a child, or not to have a child, to anyone.

When an oyster farmer interviewed by 8 Billion Angels starts to cry while contemplating the state of the world he has bequeathed to his unborn grandson, the documentary hints at other ways of thinking about reproduction and ecology. To have a child or a grandchild can extend your horizons, so that the longer-term future of the planet, what the world will be like in 80 or 100 years, decades after you are gone, feels more personal and less abstract.

The film’s most memorable and thought-provoking moments come when it acknowledges moral complexities. “Am I good or am I evil?” Lon Frahm, who runs a vast industrial farm, asks himself with a bitter laugh. How difficult it can be to live ethically, when our personal or familial interests are so often at odds with those of the planet. Who can say with any confidence that they are good?

Some of the wisest reflections come from the Indian environmental activist, Vimlendu Jha, who is most intimately acquainted with the cruel ways in which the planet-polluting excesses of the world’s wealthiest ultimately harm the poorest of society. “Progress was supposed to be a positive word,” he says, sitting on a small boat on Delhi’s toxic, ink-coloured Yamuna river, “Whenever there is progress, in the background there is some muck.”

I’d venture the same about grand solutions: whenever there are easy answers, in the background there is some muck.