Fall 2022: Introduction to Population and Environment

Hannah Vander Meulen

Chapter 2 from Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitics is titled “Population and Environment” and considers connections between human population and environmental issues. It challenges a persistent idea that the amount of resources we have on earth cannot keep up with the growing human population. This narrative, focused on resource scarcity, is a familiar and deeply problematic framing that was promoted in the late 1800s by Thomas Malthus . The chapter describes how such a scarcity narrative draws attention away from patterns of unequal use of resources.

In many contexts, groups of people in power often benefit from unequal access to, control over, and use of resources (e.g., food, fuel, water, land, etc.) leaving other groups of people with less power with less access to resources. Despite several flaws in Malthusian frameworks of scarcity, this way of thinking persists today and focuses attention on the supposed ways in which resource use or consumption by less powerful groups of people poses a threat to the availability of that resource for everyone.

Determinist arguments assert that a given starting condition will lead to a specific outcome. Determinist arguments offer a narrow perspective rather than considering multiple, possible outcomes. We can see this in Malthusian arguments because these arguments about human populations and resource scarcity do not offer a complete understanding of the resource that is being discussed People make different choices, have access to different technologies, and these arguments don’t take these variations into account.

Malthusian arguments are the ultimate determinist argument because they conclude that scarcity will lead to conflict. In this argument, there are things being overlooked. Is there scarcity? Who is creating this scarcity? Is conflict the only or most likely response to the situation? Determinist arguments overlook the inequity that is at the true origin of the issue; inequitable distribution of resources and inequitable power in decision making. Overlooking these inequities is dangerous because it masks “dynamics of power and spatial elements of the very processes they address” (O’Lear, 40). Malthusian arguments are everywhere and are important to recognize because we see them in many different contexts without understanding what they are or what is being hidden.

When analyzing present day determinst arguments through anenvironmental geopolitical lens, it is important to keep three questions in mind. The first question needed to critically examine determinist arguments is how the environment is defined in this specific claim. Having a clear idea of how the environment is defined with help uncover vagueness that may be overlooked.

The second question that must be considered is the role that humans have played in this claim. Human agency is often portrayed selectively or overlooked in claims; addressing this question helps uncover roles humans have had in situations that has been disregarded. Finally, analyzing the spatial scale of a claim is important when critically examining environmental claims. The spatial scale of “human-environment relationships” is often overlooked (O’Lear 2018, 27).

The three podcasts in this section illustrate the key theme of present day determinist arguments from Chapter 2, “Population and Environment” by critically examining determinist arguments in the media. Each podcast addresses a simple, technical solution to a problem, and reveals how each group has overlooked key details that would affect the outcomes of these solutions. These features are part of a determinist argument because determinist arguments state that certain starting conditions will lead to one outcome. Having a simple solution and stating that one outcome will come from that can be quite appealing to the general public, which is why these arguments are so persuasive. Another key theme illustrated in these four podcasts, and a key theme in determinist arguments in general, is the hidden inequities at the root of the problem.

Elyse Porter’s podcast “Staying Afloat: Artificial Islands as Climate Change Solutions” displays a critique of a determinist argument made by the city of Copenhagen, stating that creating an artificial island for this city will solve this issues of flooding and housing issues. A determinist argument is displayed here when the city of Copenhagen states that one solution, building an artificial island, will create one outcome, solving the flooding and housing issue. This argument is persuasive and simple, but overlooks key issues of ocean destruction and inaccessible housing. Inequity is discussed throughout this podcast because the determinist argument made by the city of Copenhagen does not address the reality that this project is increadibly expensive, meaning housing will not be accessible for all. This oversimplification illustrates the artificial island as a solution, but this does not address unequal access to housing and the destruction that this would bring to the ocean.

Braedyn Mcbroom’s “What the Texas Tree Foundation doesn’t tell you about it’s free tree programs” touches on the free tree program the city of Dallas has implemented to help reduce “the urban heat island effect” (Mcbroom, 2022). Mcbroom discusses the determinist argument made by the Texas Tree Foundation, stating that the free tree program, a solution to the heat island problem, will result in one outcome, reducing “the urban heat island effect” (Mcbroom 2022). This claim, however, oversimplifies a much more complicated issue. This program requires that individuals who are planting the trees have access to certain tools in order to plant the trees; the tools are not provided by the foundation. This program also requires that people have their own space to plant trees, which excludes renters from the program as well. The oversimplification of this solution to urban heat islands overlooks important inequities that make this an inaccessible solution.

Hannah Vander Meulen’s podcast the “Effect of Sunscreen on Coral Reefs” considers the issue of chemical sunscreens and their impacts on coral reefs. Governor David Ige, the Governor of Hawai’i, claims that passing a law banning oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals known to harm coral reefs, will improve the health of coral reefs in Hawai’i. This claim exemplifies a determinist argument, namely, a proposal to ban two chemicals will result in improved health of Hawaiian coral reefs. This claim by Governor Ige does not acknowledge two key things that impact the reefs; tourism and spatial unevenness. In not addressing these things, Ige oversimplifies a complex problem by ignoring multifaceted issues worsening damage of the coral reefs.

Determinist arguments that limit the scope of the situation and focus on a single, particular outcome, are seen in the present day because of their persuasiveness and oversimplification of a complex issue. The promise of such a simple solution is often hard to pass up. Each podcast in this section highlights how complicated, often systemic issues, are overlooked within determinist arguments. Proper solutions consider these key questions; “who benefits from a particular view of the environment or a focus on certain features or processes? What important issues are left out of such a focus?” (O’Lear, 27).


O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.


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Fall 2022: Introduction to Population and Environment Copyright © 2022 by Hannah Vander Meulen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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