28 Responses

  1. Phil Ward February 8, 2010 at 3:06 pm |

    I’m not quite sure where Brendan is coming from. On reading his contribution, I thought that he’s really arguing that capitalism cannot sustain the current world population and that socialism could, something with which I entirely agree and tried to argue in my two articles on population control (on this site). But he then writes the paragraph above (in Jeff White’s post) about population “rationalising itself” under socialism, where the social, emotional (and material) drivers for having more than one child would (should?) not exist. Jeff then says that these conditions would encourage “rational reproductive behaviour”.

    I wonder if “reproductive behaviour” can ever be rational? In any case, I don’t think Jeff and Brendan need to be concerned about population under socialism. We don’t know what the “carrying capacity” of the earth would be under socialism, except that it will be a lot greater than that which exists under present conditions. We can show the ways in which capitalism reduces the earth’s “carrying capacity” and how socialism can reduce the material demands made of the earth (including through collective living arrangements, which would also change relationships between people: http://climateandcapitalism.com/?p=459). Population control could never have comparably large effects.

  2. Jeff White February 3, 2010 at 6:57 pm |

    Brendan wrote:

    “Perhaps if we lived in a world where people felt sure that if they had only one child it would survive and flourish, maybe if we lived in a world where women did not feel socially incomplete without children, maybe if we lived in a world on which childhood was a time of self-discovery and wonder, rather than either hard labour or hard consumption, population would rationalise itself.”

    Very true, Brendan. That’s why it’s not so far-fetched to suggest that radically changing our relationships to each other and to nature is a prerequisite to encouraging rational reproductive behaviour. That means getting rid of capitalism.

  3. wendy February 3, 2010 at 7:01 am |

    “Unsustainable human population growth is the primary underlying factor driving the current decline and mass extinction of other life on Earth.”Centre for Biological Diversity.

    Biologists talk of a 6th mass extinction-driven by humans; we cannot ignore this.

  4. Brendan February 3, 2010 at 2:28 am |

    That said, there is enough food for everyone right now. So says the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

    And intensive, permaculture + hightech, for the people not for profit style farming can produce even more, more nutrient rich food, without the fossil fuels.

    I see no reason why this population is unsustainable per se, it is the rate of its grow th that is, and the lavish demands of advanced capitalis consumerism that is, and these two things are only relevant under capitalism.

  5. Brendan February 3, 2010 at 2:17 am |

    Ian, I have been a fan of your work for some time now, ever since I attended th very useful talk you gave in my home town of Adelaide Australia last year, so knowing the profound work you have done, on the food crisi, climate change and in helping to buld a basic outline of what it is to be an ecosocialist, I know you must be laughing at the absurd insults being slung at you in some of these posts.

    This being said, however, if capitalism is part of the reason that population is over the carrying capacity, it might be that “people” and “capitalism” cannot be kept categorically seperate. After all, “capitalism” is too broad an umbrella of phenomena to be in itself a direct cause, the basic economic dynamic takes on concrete effects only through mediate occurrences – hence a specific type of population dynamic could in itself becaused by capitalism.

    There has to be sense in the idea that it is not possible to simply say “capitalism is the problem”, and leave people out of the question.

    Just because, and nor can it be true that an ecosocialist system will necessarily provide the economic basis to house, feed, educate, entertain an indefinite amount of people. If part of the ecosocialist – is it not true that ecosocialism, in proposing that the economy of capitalism needs to be replaced with a economy which does not require growth, already implies a population policy of some kind? Or can population growth and economic growth be analytically seperated? I doubt it.

    The presumption that such a separation is possible also dogs the “populationists”, it is impossibile to discuss population without recognising this fact, which is cornerstone of a left perspective on the issue:

    – it is true that population is only in excess in so far as that population draws on specific relations of production in order to maintain itself. Change the fundamental productive aparatus, and therefore of necessity change the energy and class relations in itr and a population – only, therefore treating humans like any other species is disingenuous, and a classical sine qua non of bourgeois ideology – elliding the place of labour in human affairs, and treating the relations of production as fixed an inflexible.

    -it is also true that such flexibility is unlikely to be infinite, resources come in fixed quanta.

    I think it needs to be said more clearly, it is not that the current population levels are sustainable which is being argued, it is 1) carrying capacity is relative to the overall ‘rationality’ of the economy, 2) current population levels are not the cause of the ecological crisis, they are one of set of proximate causes that rest on the first cause of capitalism, 3) it is more important to create a project of transforming that capitalist rationality, then trying to control population as an excessive outburst from within capitalims – which would proves as impossible as trying to constrain speculation as an excessive outburst within capitalism.

    Third World and slum-dwelling “excess” populations form a threat to capitalists, not because of the ecological imbalance, but because of the political threat they pose to the system. They form the “excess” to the totality of capitalism, excluded from it almost completely. Yet the footprint of these populations is less than our own.

    It is a point to take note of that the “populationists” in this debate have taken consideration of the fact that every child in the north is equal in ecological cost to 6 or 7 in the South – yet perhaps they miss what would become of a “war on population” when Capitalism is desperate to find ways and means of imposing governmentality on this population, while at the same time being incapable of provide education, employment etc.

    Perhaps the fact that this issue “has been left to the right” and become their plaything is because the issue is genuinely more amenable to such a political framework. Perhaps if you stick with it as a primary node in analysis; acting as cause, solution and polemic, you end up tilting right-ward anyway. By the very fact that the language treats people as nuetral “populations” – mere anonymous biological masses, without political subjectivity, class consciousness etc., tends to make me think that would be so.

    Perhaps if we lived in a world where people felt sure that if they had only one child it would survive and flourish, maybe if we lived in a world where women did not feel socially incomplete without children, maybe if we lived in a world which childhood was a time self-discovery and wonder, rather than either hard labour or hard consumption, population would rationalis itself.

    What is worth attacking, is the right-wing assualts on family-planning, reproductive rights for women, and the support of religious zealotry on contraception etc. Such an attack would have beneficial ecological side-effects.

  6. Stephen Darley February 2, 2010 at 8:53 pm |

    Leaving out the more cynical proponents for the moment, Population Reduction is the ‘deus-ex-machina’ of well-meaning liberal environmentalists that enables them to set aside all that messy, distasteful, ‘hard’ stuff about corporate dominance, capitalism and neo-colonialism (and also coincidently doesn’t challenge their own class interests). Throw in a few nods to population control in the developed world (but without any reference to the disparity in means there as opposed to the economic and physical coercion readily available in the developing world), and you can stand self-righteously on the platform of ‘population justice’! What a crock. Bottom line is, capitalism is driven by production not consumption. Increasing the divorce and family break-up rate is a far more effective driver of demand than population increase in the developed world – but capitalism’s social disfunction pushes that up quite well without any need to manipulate it.

  7. Jeff White February 2, 2010 at 7:17 pm |

    “If ever there was a measure of the green movement’s confusion, it is that so many environmentalists honestly believe that by soberly intoning that there are just ‘too many people’ they somehow cut across all the moral and political agonies of globalization, of rising human migrations, mass extinctions, atmospheric instability and all the rest of it. In fact, ‘overpopulation’ explains none of these things, and as long as we cling to it we remain the confused citizens of an incomprehensible world.”
    – Tom Athanasiou in “Green Romantics”,
    The Nation, May 1, 1995.

  8. Taya February 2, 2010 at 6:05 pm |

    At the risk of sounding ‘trite’!!…

    Why are “we” looking at birth rates to reduce population? Babies and children use far less resources than… oh, let “us” say 50+ year olds.

    I say the CUT-OFF-AGE should be 50 years. Well, maybe 55.

    Speak Out Now and Join the Crusade for Population Reduction!!

  9. wendy February 2, 2010 at 11:12 am |

    Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we possess.
    What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

    ‘ I agree that “reduction of GDP” won’t solve them, but neither will “reduction of people, because both “solutions” ignore the real problem — an economic and social system that treats the earth as a free source of resources and a free sewer’.

    To reverse the ecological and social meltdown facing us we need to address every aspect of humanity’s massive assault upon the earth’s resources:if ecosocialism is to have any chance of success-(and I do think that democratic socialism is the best form of governance)- a population policy must be included in the remedy.

    Imagine the UK with 70 million plus in the not-too-distant future: what kind of ecosocialsim would provide for a decent standard of living while at the same time protecting what little remained of the open countryside and conserving shrinking numbers of wild creatures?(The ONS has recently forecast that 70 million is now on the cards.)

    Imagine the social and political consequences of such overcrowding-and this in a comparatively wealthy European country.

    A one-sided crusade cannot work,no matter how well meant.

  10. Hayduke February 2, 2010 at 11:10 am |

    Capitalism does not exist without people. Nor does Socialism. There is nothing inherent in Socialism that would keep human population within carrying capacity, even under full production for use.

    10,000,000,000 times 50 equals 50 time 10,000,000,000.

    What will happen is both production for use and reduction in human population. Inevitably. The Earth cannot sustain the present human population, even absent a perpetual growth philosophy.

    A thousand years from now humans will be fewer and will consume less per capita. Or we will be extinct.

  11. Joe Bish February 2, 2010 at 10:18 am |


    I see from your history you are a blues man. I am a music aficionado and musician as well… currently in a Neil Young cover band, which is great fun. If you played an instrument, I wonder what sort of jam you and I would have given our only apparent disagreement:

    Progressive measures designed to achieve voluntary human population stabilization are a net positive to efforts at ecological remediation, gender equity and long term (measured in millenia) sustainable living scenarios with the planet — and are more in line with the subversion of eco-destructive capitalism than is inattention to rapid population growth (world population has grown by 328,000 since I made my first comment 36 hours ago).

    If that thought really caused you to hit a sour note I would be surprised.

  12. wendy February 2, 2010 at 2:54 am |

    ‘My view, which I have argued in the article above and elsewhere, is that the “population issue” is a red herring,’

    How can it possibly be a red herring? More and more of our flora and fauna are disappearing;water is becoming scarce;land is being degraded; poverty-matched by maternal and child morbidity-continues unabated.

    No anti-capitalist movement can ever hope to succeed without an effective population policy.

    As Joe says, we need to tackle the whole concept of unlimited growth and an integral part of this challenge must be our ever-increasing numbers.To concentrate solely on the reduction of GDP is to adopt an ostrich ‘flat earth’ mentality.

    I live in the UK, which as you know, has enthusiastically embraced free-market ideology- more’s the pity- and now has the fastest rate of population increase in many years.

    Again-this is not about too many poor people-it is about all of us.

  13. Joe Bish February 1, 2010 at 9:16 pm |


    Fair enough, it is your blog after all. But, while trying your verbal jujitsu (“won’t ask even though I already did”) you didn’t ever answer my question… which isn’t silly at all. I think your projecting.

    I am comfortable being associated with the general positions of the fellows you name, along with the ecologists, scientists and ordinary citizens (you know, those pesky proletariats) participating in the Global Population Speak Out.

    And just for the record, I am not against “uncontrolled growth”. I am against “growth”. Note the period.

    Best regards.

  14. lucas February 1, 2010 at 7:03 pm |

    I would like you to answer Joe Bish’s legimate question. People like you are why I am no longer a leftist. All you are really interested in is sounding morally self-rightous. Adrian was totally spot-on you need a basic education in the science of Human Ecology. I recommend starting with Willam Catton’s classic “Overshoot”. But, then I am sure you don’t care to become better informed. It is my belief that leftist such as yourself view “green issues” in much the same manner as a pimp views his prostitutes as something you can get something out of. Oh, by the way I am visiting from: http://www.energybulletin.net

  15. Joe Bish February 1, 2010 at 4:56 pm |


    Just remember it is your label, “Malthusian”, not ours.

    What do you think of this?


    Why as a professed soldier against capitalism do you end up on the same side of the population issue as the US Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Real Estate Association, etc?

    Rather curious don’t you think?

  16. adrian February 1, 2010 at 2:58 pm |

    I think perhaps Mr. Angus should do a little research into the Earth’s biological carrying capacity and the concept of overshoot.

    In that context, overpopulation is not a question of “blaming poor people,” nor is endorsing a woman’s right to choose how many children she would like to have part of some whacko liberal agenda. Rather it’s a question of how many members of a given species a habitat can support. From this perspective, even “the North” is overpopulated.

    This does not at all mean that access to family planning should be used as a blunt instrument of social control. Free to choose means exactly that: to choose to have no children or ten. The real point is being free to choose. Nor are the arguments that a) the earth is overpopulated; and b. the global economy should change in order to promote eco-justice along with CO2 control mutually exclusive. Either/or arguments tend to inhibit real problem-solving.

  17. tim February 1, 2010 at 12:53 pm |

    For anyone interested, here a few more very worthwhile articles on this subject:

    “Are there too many people?: Population, Hunger, and Environmental Degradation” by Chris Williams

    “The greening of hate” an interview with Betsy Hartmann

    “Malthus’ ‘Essay on Population’ at 200: a Marxian view” by John Bellamy Foster

  18. John Feeney February 1, 2010 at 12:23 pm |

    Among the problems with this article is that is starts off with and sticks to an erroneous premise — that a focus on overpopulation means some exclusive focus on the poor.

    The great majority of population activists, Ehrlich and Bartlett among them, point to the US’s population problem as one of the worst. Example:


    Quote: “Echoing a view expressed earlier by the Ehrlichs (Ehrlich 1992), Bartlett points out that because of the high per capita consumption of resources in the U.S., we in the U.S. have the world’s worst population problem! (Bartlett 1997)”

    The fact is that nearly all countries on Earth are deeply into overshoot of human carrying capacity.


    Overshoot must always be followed by a return to lower numbers. The more deeply into overshoot the population, the more likely that return will take the form of a crash. In our case, many of the victims first and hardest hit will be those people in the world’s poorest nations. Avoiding the population issue is to dismiss their lives.

    Nearly all countries must come down in numbers and a focus on the US is a fine place to start. A focus on the wealthy is fine too. But merely focusing, as most population deniers do, on reducing per capita consumption is simply not enough:


  19. Joe Bish February 1, 2010 at 7:42 am |

    No Tim, your wrong. I dedicated my life to world peace and environmental protection, and contrary to the misguided preaching of the original article, stabilizing and gradually reducing our planet’s human population is central to both.

    I come to be an advocate of women reproductive liberty through that lense, and need to make no apology for that. If you want to apply sinister motives to the discourse and action I promote and work on everyday by slinging about euphemisms of “population control”, that’s your business.

    Saying that a person can not advocate for women’s issues because they come to the fight via environmentalism is like saying a socialist can not be allowed to vote for a Democrat to defeat a right-wing candidate.

  20. tim February 1, 2010 at 2:45 am |

    Thanks for filling all that comment space up with the names of all those countries. That really helps a lot. Because in conditions of imperial-capitalist domination by, of course, benign moral and ‘progressive’ forces like the IMF, the World Bank, the United Nations, and the US government, there is no better way to check a country’s political and moral pulse than by consulting their heads of state.
    Come on.
    Are you shitting me?
    Many of the leaders of those countries you rattle off WOULD NOT BE the heads of state of those countries if they didn’t give the answer to questions that the imperialist-capitalist countries and institutions demanded that they gave.
    You also claim, against any acknowledgment of that thing a lot of us call reality, that:
    “It is disingenuous to claim that the rich are trying to coerce the poor nations on population issues.”
    Have you ever heard of John D. Rockefeller? How about Bill Gates? How about reality?
    See Sharon Smith’s article here:
    “After World War Two, population control agencies set their sights overseas. In the 1960s, the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, heavily funded by the Rockefellers alongside the U.S. government, played a key role in a coercive sterilization programs targeting Third World populations. By 1968, one-third of women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico — still a U.S. colony — had been permanently sterilized, often without their knowledge or consent. Rockefeller-funded programs sterilized 40,000 women in Colombia between 1963 and 1965, according to feminist author Bonnie Mass. These are just two examples among many.”
    And see this article:
    An excerpt:
    “A select group of billionaires met in semi-secrecy in May 2009 to find answers to a “nightmarish” concern. Their worst nightmare wasn’t the imminent danger of runaway climate change, the burgeoning levels of hunger worldwide or the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
    The nightmare was other people – lots of other people.
    The self-styled “Good Group” included Microsoft founder Bill Gates, media mogul Ted Turner, David Rockefeller Jr and financiers George Soros and Warren Buffet.
    The London Sunday Times said they discussed a plan to tackle overpopulation, something they considered “a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat”.
    Yet it was far from the first time that the “born to rule” had sought to make rules about who could be born. The brutal fact is that a policy of controlling global population means controlling the poverty stricken – whether the policy be concerned with fertility or migration. More than 90% of projected population growth in the 21st century will occur in the global South. The highest birth rates are in the very poorest nations. The same was true in the 20th century.”
    The tone of your post is one of prophetic pleading. “Please, stop the lie!”
    But the REAL hard fact to face is that, it seems, you’ve dedicated way too much of your time and life and energy to the reactionary and dead end (and in the worst case scenario, genocidal) cause of ‘population “control”‘.

    The population

  21. Joe Bish January 31, 2010 at 9:24 pm |

    I find a tragic humor in those who purport to be fighting “destructive capitalism” and can not find the synaptical fortitude to see how utterly dependent globalized capital is on perpetual population growth.

    So now we are left (excuse the pun), after this article to ignore population as an ecological issue whatsoever.


    Even better, since the liberal left can not approach the problem without falling from its moral certitude, it is left to bigots and mysogynists to enjoy carte blanche on the issue. Truly brilliant!

    I agree Laurie drops the ball on population in the developed north, but that’s a different issue altogether. Meanwhile, this article’s broad-based quill — dipped in tar feather potion — once again repeats the lie that this is a north vs. south issue:

    It is disingenuous to claim that the rich are trying to coerce the poor nations on population issues. In fact, they are not responding to the affirmed needs of the poor. The following countries are part of either the South Commission or Partners in Population and Development: Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mexico, Colombia, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, China, India, Pakistan, Uganda, Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Guyana, Ivory Ciast, Jamaica, Kuwait, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Philippines, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia (former), and Western Samoa. The “Partners” share expertise with each other in reproductive health, appropriate technologies, and population policy.

    Moreover, it is often over-looked that in 1989, as verified by The UN Population Fund, the following countries signed a statement urging early stabilization of human population. Austria, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Botswana, Cape Verde, China, Columbia, Cyprus, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Fiji, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Japan, Jordon, Kenya, Rep. of Korea, Liberia, Malta, Mauritius, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Panama, Philippines, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Sudan, Thailand, Tunisia, Vanuatu, and Zimbabwe.

    Stop repeating the lie.

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