Eco-Socialism and the Population Question: An Open Reply to Ian's Open Letter

Deep ecology versus ecosocialism, part 6: Saral Sarkar argues for a synthesis of socialism and deep ecology

by Saral Sarkar
Cologne, July 10, 2011

Dear Ian,

I had thought, two contributions from me, that was enough. But now that you have written an open letter directly addressed to me, I do not want to be impolite by ignoring it. I hope this contribution from me would bring the necessary clarity on my positions. And it might lead to a better understanding of our differences. I do not hope to achieve anything more in the short run.

First, however, let me remove one small misunderstanding. The term shameful (or: Sarkar should be ashamed) did not come from you, but from another participant in the discussion. But let us now forget such unimportant things and come to the more important matters. I cannot take up everything that you have written in the letter. That would be too much. And please excuse me if I am repeating here something I have already said.

(1). If eco-socialists are discussing (a) controversial issue(s) among themselves, then they should criticise something that the other eco-socialist(s) (in this case Sarkar) has said or meant or not said or not meant. But you are bringing into the discussion things that people who are not eco-socialists have said or done. It is totally irrelevant for our discussion what Dave Foreman or the World Bank or the REDD program, or various UN agencies have said or done or not done.

In one of my previous contributions I have criticised deep ecologists for not paying (not having paid) sufficient attention to the problems and sufferings of our own species and our own societies. I have also made clear that I do not share the view of my late friend David Orton that deep ecologists with concern for social justice should shun the term socialist or socialism. I need not repeat these points.

What I want to stress, however, is that it is not good enough to be a socialist, nor is it good enough to be a deep ecologist. We socialists must learn the true ecology lessons and deep ecologists (or deep greens or consequent ecologists) must learn the true socialism lessons. You seem to know my work. If you have read my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?, then you must have noted that in that book I advocated and tried to achieve a synthesis of the two streams of thought (in contrast to just adding together the two words eco and socialist). Such a synthesis is, in my view, not merely a matter of a good gesture but one of compelling necessity. Compelling necessity, because deep ecologists will completely fail to achieve anything in a capitalist system, and socialists will fail to achieve their goal if they try to build a socialist industrial society, because that will continue to destroy nature.

But obviously, in this open letter to me, you also wanted to criticise deep ecology and deep ecologists in general. That is fair enough. But then why do you take Dave Foreman as an example? He was (is still? I don’t know) an extremist. One might justifiably call him anti-human or a right-wing man. He would probably even agree. But he and the Earth First people like him are, as far as I can judge, not a representative sample of deep ecologists (and what do they have to do with eco-socialism and me?). But even Foreman (in the quote in your letter) speaks of the “depredations of modern industry and technology”, not of the forest dwellers. He demands, “Move out the people and cars. Reclaim the roads and the ploughed lands”. Obviously, he is not demanding the expulsion of genuine forest dwellers, but of the occupiers. Whatever he might have meant by the word “people”, you cannot blame deep ecologists in general for his follies.

Or why do you take the World Bank as example, or REDD programs or UN agencies? It is wrong logic, wrong method of discussion. Suppose we (you and I and others) are against Western imperialism. Should we desist from fighting against Western imperialism because also Islamist Jihadists are anti-imperialists? The proposals of the REDD programs must be resisted. But that does not mean that population growth is no problem.

Because you failed to differentiate in this regard, you also overlooked the difference between the words “withdraw” and “expel”. It is one thing to say we humans should withdraw from large tracts of the earth and another to say that sections of humanity should be expelled from their habitat. And the withdrawal also need not happen quasi overnight, which would indeed create massive problems. But a gradual withdrawal is possible, and that is only possible if our numbers go down gradually. Your general anger toward deep ecologists misled you to this very careless thinking. If you had noted the difference in meaning between these two words you would not have used the term ethnic cleansing in criticising me and deep ecologists in general.

(2). You write, “for ecosocialists to support wilderness clearances and population reduction would place us on the wrong side of some of the most important environmental and social justice struggles taking place in the world today.” What kind of an argument is that? That is purely opportunistic. You are simply afraid of being placed on the wrong side. Is any and every environmental or social justice struggles of large masses of people worthy of being supported by us eco-socialists?

Let us take one or two examples: In Germany, trade unionists are struggling for many years, in the name of social justice, for reducing working time to 30 or 35 hours per week, but they demand that they should continue to receive their current high wages. That is a very socialist demand but not an eco-socialist one, because that would raise hourly wages and contribute to further economic growth via higher consumption. Or take the struggles of workers to protect their jobs, whatever they might be producing (cars, weapons or toxic chemicals or …). Of course, it is very bad if some people lose their job. Must eco-socialists then continue to support more and more car and weapons and chemicals production? Or take a widespread environmental movement, struggles against waste dumping grounds, popularly called NIMBY struggles. Are we supposed to support such struggles, because wastes are indeed very often toxic or dirty or ugly?

In all such issues, a consequent eco-socialist must take a stance only on the basis of his/her conviction and long-term perspective. And that may, in the short-term, go against the immediate demands of the struggling people. In the 1980s, I opposed the above-mentioned demand of the trade unionists. To have the courage to swim against the current, is essential for eco-socialists. Otherwise they are only socialists, not ecos. And the truth must be said, even if it is unpleasant to the masses.

(3). One such truth is that the world is overpopulated, that population should, in the long run, be reduced, if we really want to protect the environment as a whole. It is an unpalatable truth, goes against the grain for all old socialists and many humanists. One may assert that by 2050, 9 billion people can be fed, clothed housed. etc. etc. Who knows? But what will then be the state of the environment in 2050? And how much room will then still be left for wild animals and plants? Here comes the crucial difference between deep ecologists and eco-socialists of my sort on the one side and old socialists and humanists on the other. For me, it does matter very much whether there is still room on the earth for wild animal and plant species – not in zoological and botanical gardens, but in their natural habitats. It is a question value.

I am not a First World environmentalist. I am from the Third World. One cannot accuse me of cultural imperialism. And I and my family do not belong to the elite of India (just educated middle middle class). So the criticism of Cronon and Harvey against the First World environmentalists and the elites in general, which may or may not correspond to facts, does not apply to me. Yet, I feel that the 1.2 billion population of India on a land area that is just about one third the land area of Brazil or the USA or China is simply too much. In the last ten years, India added to its population a number equivalent to the whole population of Brazil (180 million). And we are still adding 18 million people every year. One must be blind not to see a problem here.,

Currently, India has to import even wood and even coal. Although we still have much coal and other minerals underground and on the surface, there is hardly any uninhabited space, so that new mines cannot be opened without expelling people from their homes. Same is the case with irrigation and hydroelectricity projects. The cities and also villages (despite large-scale rural exodus) are becoming larger and larger and devouring more and more agricultural land. It is difficult to cross the main streets. (And India is not alone in this regard.) Indeed, I think, to use one of your own expressions, we Indians with our population growth and 9 percent GDP growth are paving our road to hell.

I have not read what you have written on this topic. But I have heard many left activists and read books and articles expressing the view that population is no problem. It has never convinced me. In fact, it is a matter of common sense. Even as a nine or ten year old child (in 1945 or 1946) I was disturbed by the fact that my parents, two persons, produced six children, and in 12 years, we became an 8 persons strong family.

Growth of human population is not only a problem for ecology and the rest of nature, but also for us humans. You may say, there is still much good arable land left in the world – in Africa and in Latin America. That is true. But should the Asians, i.e. the Chinese and the South Asians, and the oil-rich Arab states buy up such land in order to feed their growing population at the expense of the coming generations of the poor of Africa and Latin America? That is already happening. But isn’t it economic imperialism? Can we eco-socialists consider that as an argument for the thesis that population growth is no problem?

At least on this issue, it is you who are placing yourself on the wrong side. Maybe you do not know it. But it is a fact that it is the economic elite of India, the business class, i.e. the exploiters, who are glad that India’s population is still growing. They nowadays openly talk about it as a “demographic dividend”, as India’s “demographic advantage” (an allusion to Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage) over China, whose population is stagnating and aging because of this country’s one-child policy. In contrast, the super-abundance of hungry and unemployed young people in India are seen as an inexhaustible source of cheap labour. Slave-labour is persisting.

You have attached much importance to the following point in the 8-point platform of the deep ecologists: “The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantially smaller human population. The flourishing of non-human life requires a smaller human population.” What is so wrong with this point? Fifty years ago, i.e. in 1961, maybe some 3.5 billion people were living on the earth. Wasn’t human life and cultures flourishing in 1961? Is there any virtue whatsoever in having 7 or 9 billion people living on the earth rather than 3.5 billion? The second part of the point is also correct if we attach importance to the flourishing of non-human life. It too is a value question. Those socialists who do not attach any value to the flourishing of non-human life would not accept this part of the point. They would perhaps protect, even cultivate in farms, non-human life, if that benefits humans. That would be commercial bio-diversity preservation.

You have formulated your objection to this point as follows: Deep ecologists say “that the number of humans on earth must be drastically reduced. How this is to be achieved is usually not specified, but it is difficult to imagine a humane approach that could produce the desired contraction . ..”  I haven’t read all the deep ecology literature. If they haven’t specified how population reduction is to be achieved, then it is a bad omission, but it can be made up for. Deep ecologists should do it soon. And it is not at all difficult to imagine a humane approach to this goal. I have already suggested a policy of strong material incentives and disincentives for the purpose. (See my book Eco-socialism or Eco-Capitalism?!) That could be done more easily, if an eco-socialist government were in place. But even otherwise, we ought to campaign for such a policy.

In the 1960s, material incentives were used in India. But they were not very effective, because the incentives were too weak and flawed and, moreover, no disincentives were used. But the main problem was the lack of resolve among the Indian elites. Both the politicians and the government officers in charge were lethargic and corrupt. And as stated above, their short-sighted thinking favoured their current material interest in a steady and abundant supply of cheap exploitable labour.

In any case, the policy suggested by me or some more effective one must be tried, beginning today. Otherwise the march toward a 9-billion strong world population will be accompanied by a series of slow-moving catastrophes. Some of them we have already witnessed and are witnessing today. Those who play down the seriousness of the situation say that world population will level off at 9 billion. But is it immaterial to them how this levelling off will come about? Are they prepared to let this happen through hunger, famine, malnutrition, diseases, epidemics, wars and civil wars?

(4). There could be one painless way of stabilizing world population, if …. It has been called “demographic transition”. The assumption is that, a population stabilizes itself, its birth rate falls, when it has reached a certain level of socio-economic development. The population of West Germany, for example, stopped growing in the early 1970s. Development, therefore, was considered in those days to be the best policy for solving the population problem. The then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, said at the world conference on the population question held in Bucharest in 1974: “Development is the best contraceptive”.

But is the development path still open? The book Limits to Growth was published in 1972. Ever since, innumerable economists, politicians and publicists have tried to show that the conclusions of the authors of the book were false. The latest of such efforts is based on the assumption that inexhaustible renewable energies and renewable materials plus increasing resource efficiency would enable humanity to overcome the limits to growth mentioned by Meadows et al. and open the path for sustainable development. Green growth is the new slogan. But does anyone still believe that the majority of the people of the Third World countries will ever reach the average standard of living that the people of West Germany enjoyed in the early 1970s? I don’t.

I think some old socialists still believe that (I know a few of them in Germany and India). Ian, maybe you believe that too. But it should be interesting for you to hear that in May of this year, at the invitation of young leftist activists of Attac-Germany, a huge international conference was held in Berlin, the title of which was Beyond Growth. The organizers thought that it was now high time to deliberate on the kind of society that we should/must try to build in the post-growth era. Curiously, however, although they in their majority supported an anti-growth politics
(decroissance), they kept mum on the issue of population growth. It seemed to me that they were saying: economic growth must be stopped, but population growth could continue. Absurd, illogical. In the post-growth era population would not stabilize itself through demographic transition.

Dear Ian, let me stop here. I know I won’t be able to “convert” you immediately. But I still hope that the sheer weight of facts will do that – probably in the next ten years.

With best wishes

Saral Sarkar

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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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Chris Rodgers
5 years 2 months ago
Whoa! This topic is so emotional! I have to assume it produces intense fear in many minds for many reasons. There are projected outcomes both for population growth and attempts to control population causing such intense fear and panic that human minds shut down and logic is cast to the wayside! These intense fears should be given a great deal of thought and discussion until the fear itself is thoroughly examined and understood. This may seem like a waste of time but until it is done, no real discussion, thought, understanding or work can be done. A human fighting or fleeing for their life cannot be made to sit down and think rationally. It is not biologically possible. We all need to be able to entertain and examine ideas and positions that at first glance seem threatening. TO OPEN ONES MIND AND EMOTIONS TO FRIGHTENING THOUGHTS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE FEARED REALITY WILL HAPPEN NECESSARILY! We are free in our minds to play with a multitude of realities! That is what makes us different from most if not all other animals. That said, I would like to respond to several points made by Sakar and others in this conversation. But first I want to say that I found Sakar’s letter to be clear and well thought out. HE also found a problem that we all seem to have of not being clear about exactly who or what comment we are responding to. I like his method of numbering his responses to help be clear about the exact idea he is talking about. I hope I am able to do the same although my level of skill at writing is not as high as the standard on this site. 1) I find very important, the comment by Mike that it is increasing life SECURITY, and NOT simply industrial development that brings about a demographic transition. I assume that by “demographic transition” he means, a decrease in birthrate and is referring to the finding that women of a given population will reduce their own birth rate at some level of self governance and economic development for that population. And for the same reasons I find F. Arana’s comment relevant as well. I offer my own experience although I realize it holds no real value as data. I am very near retirement age here in the US and by choice lived simply with a small income, opting out of the consumer lifestyle which allowed me the freedom to pursue rewarding but low paying self employment of my choosing. This made sense in my youth since I felt very secure about my future as an American citizen. But now, given what has happened to our government and economy and given what we now know about the worlds’ resources and climate change I must admit that as I age, I find myself believing that it would have been better to have more offspring than I do. My family could combine resources, live together, share work and they would hopefully care for me if I no longer had Social Security and affordable medical care! Security is probably THE deciding factor when humans feel safe to reduce the number of offspring they produce. Raising children is hard work and takes an investment of resources and energy. I’m guessing that given availability of reliable birth control, large families would seldom be taken on unless it was an economic necessity. 2) Here I want to refer to Sakar’s point four. He states that he believes the earth will not support letting all people in the developing world achieve the same average lifestyle as we have in developed countries such as Germany. It has been suggested that it would take 2 1/2 planet Earths to achieve this average lifestyle at current population levels, given what we know about the remaining amounts of various materials on the planet. We may expect that this number is not exact, however it is clear that technology will not be able to change the amounts of needed “material” by enough to create even one more earth. Therefore it is possible to take as fact that the planet cannot provide such a lifestyle for all as the population increases. What type and level of development could we then hope to make available equally to all human kind? Many of us imagine that only industrial development as we have experienced it in developed countries can possibly produce a decent quality of life. Therefore it seems obvious that we must make sure all people are able to achieve this lifestyle. But the point is not to argue what side is right and what side is wrong. Maybe the point is to side-step that argument and ask if it is possible to provide a different, less wasteful, more sustainable lifestyle for all mankind that human beings ALSO find secure, satisfying and rewarding, and which allows the kind of socio-economic relationships between individuals and groups that fit our vision for mankind? And might such a lifestyle include a voluntary decrease in birthrate over time as well as a desire by all to leave more of the planet in its natural state? I argue that there is evidence that a simpler, sustainable lifestyle would not necessarily be primitive, unhealthy, with little personal choice, a short life span and miserable physical labor. We do have science, technology and knowledge now, that we didn’t have in more primitive times. It seems that we have been sold a world view in which the current “desirable” lifestyle developed (so far) in imperialistic, capitalist economies is the ONLY way humans can now live a good life. What if that world view is propaganda? Is this belief part of our brain washing, our training by the dominant global economic system that makes it almost impossible to imagine living any other way? What if a flawed world view was imposed on us, making us unable to imagine lifestyles that would be MORE liberating and satisfying while stopping… Read more »
Mike
5 years 2 months ago

Actually, it is neither women’s liberation nor crude capitalist development that bring about a demographic transition. Books like Mamdani’s The Myth of Overpopulation, revolutionary experiences, such as those in Cuba, and the efforts of movements such as La Via Campesina indicate that it is increasing life security that brings about the transition. Under capitalism that is indeed associated with the developmentalist paradigm. Sarkar seems locked into that paradigm. But, creating life security for the urban poor, the campesinos and workers in both developed and Third World nations doesn’t require capitalist development. It requires things like agrarian reform, universal health care based on primary attention, a revolution in geospatial patterning of settlement, changes in patterns (presupposing relations) of production and consumption, etc.

Jeff White
5 years 2 months ago

Sarkar wrote:

In Germany, trade unionists are struggling for many years, in the name of social justice, for reducing working time to 30 or 35 hours per week, but they demand that they should continue to receive their current high wages. That is a very socialist demand but not an eco-socialist one, because that would raise hourly wages and contribute to further economic growth via higher consumption….In the 1980s, I opposed the above-mentioned demand of the trade unionists.

Just as Robert Thomas Malthus called for the abolition of the Poor Laws because they supposedly encouraged the poor to have larger families, his modern disciple Saral Sarkar calls for workers’ demands for higher wages and shorter working hours to be resisted in the name of limiting growth.

Sarkar’s attempt to create a “synthesis” of socialism and ecology looks a lot more like a negation of socialism.

Sarkar wrote:

In the 1960s, material incentives were used in India. But they were not very effective, because the incentives were too weak and flawed and, moreover, no disincentives were used. But the main problem was the lack of resolve among the Indian elites.

Any “lack of resolve among the Indian elites” soon disappeared in the 1970s. Indira Gandhi may have said “Development is the best contraceptive” in 1974, but a year later she declared emergency rule in order to deal with “overpopulation”. As Betsy Hartmann recounts in Reproductive Rights and Wrongs:

Encouraged by her son Sanjay, she decided to take action once and for all to solve the country’s population problem. Civil liberties were suspended in 1975, and in 1976 a variety of laws and regulations on sterilization were enacted, as the central government put pressure on the states to meet sterilization quotas. Public employees’ salaries were made contingent on the number of acceptors they brought for sterilization. Fines and imprisonment threatened couples who failed to be sterilized after three children, and food rations and other government services were withheld from the unsterilized.

In some cases, state governments resorted to brute force, with police raids to round up “eligible” men for forcible sterilization. In at least one case, all the young men of one village were sterilized. It was the poor who were most often the victims of both the regulations and police violence, since the wealthy were able to buy their way out either with bribes or substitution of poor men in their places.

In the last six months of 1976, 6.5 million people were sterilized, four times the rate of any previous period. Meanwhile hundreds, if not thousands, died from infections associated with the operation, and in riots and protests against the program.

Sarkar insists that it’s “not at all difficult to imagine a humane approach” to the goal of population reduction. Unfortunately, if he succeeds in stiffening the resolve of the elites to do something right away to control population, their approach is unlikely to be humane. We’ve seen what population control looks like under capitalist rule, and it’s damned ugly – barbaric, one might say.

Anyone who chooses ecosocialism over barbarism will recognize that population control programs under capitalism are – at best – reformist, eco-capitalist projects that do nothing to challenge the rule of capital or to advance the prospects for an ecosocialist revolution.

Frederick Arana
5 years 2 months ago

Saral and all:

It is not development per se that results in lowered birth rate, it is emancipation of women. That is to say, when women are no longer considered property of men and are able to control their own fertility and pregnancy, birth rates drop.

This does not require economic development to achieve female emancipation, it is a subject of social development. Women can be emancipated in societies with a relatively low GDP, if the society is egalitarian, not patriarchical.

If human societies were to mimic non-human species, in which male and female roles are equally “valued,”that is, rewarded for their contributions to the whole, reproduction would be a function of available resources, rather than driven by economic necessities (e.g., requirements for large families to support older parents). In an ecosocialist society, women could choose to have fewer children because the basic needs of all are provided by the society as a whole.

This was/is the situation in egalitarian pre-state societies, in which the community is ultimately responsible for child care of all community children, leaving parents free to choose number of children based on resources available to the whole community. In times of resource stress, fewer children were born (or allowed to survive), thus supporting the community as well as the parents.

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