Saral Sarkar on Malthusianism and Ecosocialism

Deep ecology versus ecosocialism, part 3: Saral Sarkar explains why he thinks population reduction is essential, and why he nevertheless calls himself an eco-socialist.

Saral Sarkar has submitted another contribution to this ongoing  debate. He prefaced his submission with this:

“Here is my last contribution to this discussion. I will not write anything more on this topic, but will gladly read the opinions of the readers. You may request also Ian to post it on his blog (or give a link). He after all republished an article of David on the question of using the term eco-socialism.”

I’m of course pleased to post Saral’s comments here, especially since they clarify the views of a prominent figure in the green movement who considers himself an ecosocialist.

Franklin Dmitryev and I have each written replies to Saral Sarkar. They can be read here and here.

–Ian Angus
Editor, Climate and Capitalism


Discussion: Eco-Socialism and Deep Ecology

By Saral Sarkar

On the basis of my experience in political work and readings on political movements, I would like to make my following final comments on this particular discussion:

1. We must differentiate between attack and discussion. If you are writing/speaking against an enemy of the revolution or the movement (or whatever you might cherish), attack is appropriate. But then you are definitely not discussing. You discuss something with a person, because you think a discussion (which includes criticism) is useful for your cause or simply because you might after the discussion come to understand a matter — or a person, whom you want to win for your cause — better. The style is then very important. Important is also the willingness and effort to understand the point of view of the other side; bad is the tendency to pounce upon the other person, as soon as he/she says something that is wrong or unclear. In the recent discussion in the EI-Network in which I was involved people who disagreed with me and the deep ecologists hurled against us words like “shameful”, “anti-human”, “ethnic cleansing”. That was counterproductive. The EI-Network is supposed to be a discussion forum. Isn’t it?

Fortunately (but also unfortunately), we are not yet in a situation in which we have to defend the good results of our revolution (our eco-socialist society) by launching attacks against traitors. There are no traitors, only different views.

A very good example of discussion is David Orton’s text in which he explained why he could not sign the Belem Eco-Socialist Declaration. David maintained the proper style, although he had been attacked for allegedly hating socialism. It is good that Ian republished it in his blog.

2. The author of one comment on Ian’s text in his own blog pointed out very correctly (we should be grateful to him) that the first and foremost topic in the science of ecology is population (and now I add) in relation to the carrying capacity of a particular habitat. Related to the problems of humanity, ecology becomes political ecology. All political activists — whatever be their ism or creed — must learn political ecology.

Malthus was perhaps the first author on the subject political ecology. Unfortunately for us, he was a member of the ruling class and (being a clergyman) a beneficiary of the system of exploitation of the poor. We cannot but reject his political opinions. But his two theses (should we say laws?) on growth of food production and population growth are scientifically valid, even today, despite all the scientific and technological developments that have taken place since then. We should not be blind to facts. Unfortunately, the vicious attacks of Marx and Engels against Malthus are still influencing the discussion among socialist political activists.

Engels was absolutely wrong when he, in criticizing Malthus, wrote in 1865 that “economic laws are not eternal laws of nature but historic laws which arise and disappear.” The two laws of Malthus are not economic laws like, for example, Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage (in the area of international trade). The two laws of Malthus are very much laws of nature belonging to the area of life sciences (biology). Population growth is basically a function of the biotic potential of the human species embedded in our genes. And the amount of food production is basically a function of three variables: availability of fertile soil (chemical quality of soil), availability of fresh water. and amount of sunshine reaching the field. All three are geographical givens, which may change naturally, but only in the course of centuries — for good or for bad for us. So the law of diminishing returns, an economic law, is very much grounded in laws of nature. It is not nullified by the advance of science and technology, as Engels thought (see my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? page 130). The writings of Marx and Engels are not holy scripture.

By introducing artificially created factors — contraceptives and other birth control methods, social innovations, irrigation, chemical fertilizers, green houses etc. — we have, so far, succeeded in reducing the rate of population growth and increasing food production. But that has not nullified the laws of nature on which the two laws/theses of Malthus are based. Just as the fact that we can fly with airplanes and rockets has not nullified the natural law of gravity.

Allow me in this connection to recommend two must-reads:

(1) the essay of Kenneth Boulding, a famous US economist of his days, “Cowboy Economy and Spaceman Economy” (or something like that) (1966) [See editor’s note below], and

(2) the book by William R. Catton Jr. Overshoot — The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.

3. Like my friend the late David Orton, I too did not sign the Belem Eco-Socialist Declaration. But unlike David, I call my position “eco-socialism.”

My substantial grounds for not signing the Belem Declaration are more or less the same as those of David. So now allow me to explain why I prefer the term “eco-socialism” rather than “left-biocentrism.”

The term you use to make your position clear in short (in two or three words) depends on its suitability, that is, if you have to do that because people are not in a position to read your book or a whole article. In that case, the most essential part of your position must be conveyed by the term you use. I think the term “left” is so vague that it does not even convey that you are an anti-capitalist, which David was. If you survey the political discussions in the world, you will find that even people who accept capitalism are very often called “leftists.” So there are even “leftists” in the German Social Democratic Party and the German Green Party, in the Indian Congress Party etc. There is even a “left wing” in the conservative Christian Democratic Party of Germany. None of such people are anti-capitalists. They are at best advocates of social justice, another very vague term, which may just mean a little more social welfare dole for the poor and unemployed and/or a mild redistribution of income from the higher to the lower income groups. In this context, David too wrote in his text in favour of “social justice” and demanded “serious redistribution of wealth to those who are economically marginalized.”

That is too little. We must at least be clearly anti-capitalist. The term we use must clearly convey the essence of our position, namely that we are against private ownership of the means of production and for their collective ownership (with exceptions allowed), that we are against free market economy and for a consciously planned economy, and that we want economic equality. The term “socialism” does all that, although it too is at present being misused, e.g. by the French and Spanish “Socialist” parties.

One practical reason why David rejects the term “eco-socialism” is that its use, in his opinion, pre-empts the needed discussion on the good society of the future. He writes that this topic is “up for discussion”, that it is “work in progress”. I argue, in contrast, that it is high time that we say what we think in this regard, that we lay on the table the essential points of our vision. We cannot wait for ever. Even 10 years from now there will be differences among activists. An author who has just started to write his theoretical book, must also use a working title. That does not prevent him from changing it later if needed. “Eco-socialism” is, I think, a clearer, hence a better, working title than anything else.


Editor’s note:

The 1966 article by Kenneth Boulding that Sarkar refers to as “Cowboy Economy and Spaceman Economy” is actually “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth.” It is available online here.

This is an ongoing discussion. The following contributions have been posted on Climate and Capitalism to date:

  1. Ian Angus: Deep ecology versus ecosocialism
  2. David Orton: Why I am not an ecosocialist
  3. Saral Sarkar on Malthusianism and Ecosocialism
  4. Franklin Dmitryev: Sarkar’s confused defense of Malthus’s capitalist ideology
  5. Ian Angus: A letter to Saral Sarkar on population, wilderness, and ecosocialism
  6. Saral Sarkar: Eco-Socialism and the Population Question: An Open Reply to Ian’s Open Letter 



Posted in Ecosocialism, Population
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5 years 2 months ago

Before his death Orton was flirting with ecofascism. That is why I left the deep green list and others can confirm this if necessary. I’ll give Orton the benefit of the doubt because perhaps his illness clouded his judgement but he really embarrassed me when he published a favourable review of a particular ecofascist writer in a left newspaper here on Vancouver Island after I had made the mistake of suggesting to the editor–and, who knows, I may not have been the only person to do this– that it might be good to publish an article or two by him. I was not the only person critical– or should I say disgusted by Orton’s ecofascist turn– but there were others on the list who did not seem perturbed.

Jeff White
5 years 2 months ago

“Population growth is basically a function of the biotic potential of the human species embedded in our genes.”


So the fluctuations in population growth throughout history, including the current worldwide decline in population growth rates, are a reflection of changes in the human genome?

How can someone who places “geographical givens” and genetic determinism on a pedestal above any kind of historical class analysis consider himself an eco-socialist?