Population Control and Climate Change, Part Two: The Socialist Alternative

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The world needs radical policies that challenge the economic power of capitalism, not repressive population control measures against the oppressed

Part One of this article outlined how, after a 10-year lull, establishment figures are again raising the issue of (enforced) population control as a means of tackling the environmental crisis. Now the focus is on climate change, with a pinch of anti-immigrant racism just to spice up the mix. The rationale is that immigration from countries where greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita are low, into imperialist countries where emissions are greatest, enhances climate change. Part Two looks at how socialists should respond to this debate.

by Phil Ward

The lull followed the UN Conference on Population and Development in 1994, which in the face of feminist pressure dropped explicit advocacy of population control programs, while presenting mealy-mouthed positions on women’s rights. In her book Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control, Betsy Hartmann argues that the commitment of this Cairo Conference to “sustained economic growth within the context of sustainable development” actually opens the door to population control: “…there is no way advanced capitalism and rampant consumerism can deliver all the goods to all the people and “sustain” both the natural environment and the grossly inequitable distribution of wealth.”

For an increasing number of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois politicians and organisations, the answer is to reduce the size of the category “all the people.” Indeed, on 26th October 2007, on Radio 4, Sir Crispin Tickell, one of the trustees of the Optimum Population Trust, argued that the UK should reduce its population from the current 60 million to 25m by 2100! He did not explain how this would be done, but you can bet that it would include a large dose of authoritarian, racist, anti-women and anti-working class measures.

Socialists take a different tack. There is plenty of evidence that increased living standards, reduction of inequalities, improved health (especially, but not only, birth control) and education systems and greater equality for women, separately, or in combination, will result in falling birth rates. This has been recorded in the imperialist countries, but also in workers’ states like Cuba and China (before the one-child policy and the capitalist restoration). It has also been noted in capitalist states where extensive agrarian reform has taken place (South Korea, Kerala).

The reason is that these policies increase the social status of women, enabling them to have greater choice over whether or not to have children. When women make such choices, they generally choose smaller families. More extensive reforms, historically advocated by socialists, designed to ensure women’s full participation in public life, would have an even stronger effect on population growth rates.

The following reforms could be added to those above: equal property and inheritance rights for women, an erosion of the cultural practices of dowries and arranged marriages, agrarian reforms such as collectives and co-operatives, that do not strengthen the family as a productive unit, extensive systems of child care, public restaurants and housing arrangements not based on the nuclear family.

However, it is not the effects these reforms would have on human numbers that is decisive from the point of view of GHG emissions. Rather, they serve as a platform for dealing with “rampant consumerism” in all its manifestations, while at the same time improving the quality of life of the working class and its allies. They herald a social system based on collective structures and provision of goods (sharing of use values), keeping resource use to a minimum.

Let us now tackle the proponents of population control directly on their own ground. Would it be possible to sustain a healthy, happy world population of 9-10 billion, which is the UN-projected peak? Although other issues are involved, the two central (and interlinked) factors concern supplying sufficient food and energy to sustain these numbers, while prevent GHG levels from rising. I will deal with these in turn.

Food Production

The first thing to note, and this applies to the issue of energy as well, is that we should be wary of concepts like the “ecological footprint” devised by the Ecological Footprint Network (EFN). This is the area of land and sea required to sustain humanity’s activities. When compared to the fisheries and land available, we get statements like “we” use “1.4 earths.” If this is broken down, we find that more fish are caught than can be replaced annually, but over half our “footprint” is allocated to forest that would be needed to soak up current carbon dioxide emissions.

Reforestation will be a small, but significant contributor to tackling GHG emissions. But other measures are necessary, so the EFN’s allocation is misleading. In fact, their data show that there is excess land area for food production. That does not mean, however, that it should be used for food, still less for biofuels, because of the ecological consequences.

In 1986, the Paul and Anne Ehrlich and their associates looked at the amount of the earth’s “products of photosynthesis” that humans were appropriating. They estimated 40% of all land-based plant growth is taken by humans, through food, wood use and deforestation and urbanization. They concluded that with current patterns of exploitation, distribution and consumption, supporting a higher population was unsustainable — unsurprising for consistent advocates of population control. They did not discuss changes in agriculture that could disprove this claim.

Zoologist Colin Tudge and agronomist Jules Pretty, have looked behind these figures. Currently, 50% of the world’s wheat and barley, 80% of the maize and well over 90% of soya is fed to animals. In addition, much pasture could be used for crops and more for forestry. The problem is Western diets spreading through the world. Average annual beef consumption in Argentina is 70kg, that’s a Big Mac a day for every adult and child. Denmark and Hong Kong eat the same amounts of pork and chicken respectively. High levels of milk consumption are also unsustainable.

A different food system is called for. Current consumption patterns represent outmoded nutritional thinking of the 1960s, when it was thought that high protein (meat) diets were beneficial. In fact, an agricultural system — diversified and mainly organic – that produces a balanced mix of grain, pulses and vegetables, with small quantities of meat, could, according to Tudge, sustain 10 billion people, without increasing cropland areas.

Numerous studies have added to this basic finding. One, from the University of Michigan, comparing 293 examples in imperialist countries and the third world showed that yields from organic and conventional farms are comparable, and organic could provide for the current diets of today’s population. New reports of greater nutrition in organic produce have also appeared (e.g. tomatoes, fruits, milk, meat), as listed on the Soil Association web site.

The best known example of sustainable agriculture is in Cuba where 80% is organic. Economic necessity, due to the collapse of the USSR in 1991, forced upon the Cubans a system with no fertilizer and few tractors. The result was a better diet for the masses, restoration of the soil in many areas, lower carbon emissions and the return of people to the land. Despite the bureaucratic nature of Cuba’s political system and land tenure largely based on the nuclear family, the planned economy made this transformation possible. Considering where Cuba started from in 1959, the Cuban people have achieved big improvements in living conditions without recourse to population control.

Energy Use and Carbon Emissions

Secondly, on energy, George Monbiot, in his book Heat, outlined how he saw the UK making cuts in carbon emissions of 90% by 2030. He rightly shows how much energy is wasted, in poorly-insulated houses, the way we shop, the use of private cars, etc. His central proposals are for electricity supply using solar power from the Sahara Desert, some coal-fired power stations, with carbon capture and storage (CCS, or sequestration) and off-shore wind farms. He envisages electric cars, with batteries changed at garages and a system of coaches to replace cars on long-distance travel.

As Roy Wilkes pointed out in his review of Heat in Socialist Outlook 11, Monbiot tries to come up with a solution that is compatible with the capitalist system. He resorts to large-scale technofixes, failing to realize that they can have damaging environmental impacts, as we are already seeing — and Monbiot acknowledges — with biofuels. Three examples illustrate the problem.

  • In the case of electric cars, it is not certain what the most suitable battery is, but let us say for the sake of argument that it is the lithium-ion cell, as used in laptop computers, despite their tendency to catch fire. A US company has produced an electric sports car that used 6,831 such cells. A normal car may use half this, but then the same number have to be charged at the garage. The UK car fleet would require 175 billion batteries: world production in 2002 was 800 million. Using a (generous) battery life of five years, the UK alone would need 40 times that production (and recycling) capacity.
  • Let’s look at the suggestion of obtaining electricity from the Sahara desert. The proposal is to supply Europe using 1000 solar power plants, each rated at 100MW, using mirrors to heat a liquid (sodium and potassium nitrate, SPN) to 600oC and boil water, generating electricity using turbines. The network of plants would stretch from Mali to Iran. It would barely be able to cover current UK electricity use, even without electric cars. A solar generator plant operates in California: rated at 10MW, it covers an area of 3.6 square km and uses 1,400 tonnes of SPN. Scaling up, the Sahara plants will use 14 million tonnes (about 10 times current annual production of these two salts) and will cover an area of 36,000 sq.km., nearly a third the size of England. This raises issues about environmental damage in the Sahara, which many people think is ‘empty’.
  • Finally, there is carbon sequestration. This requires taking the gases from burning fossil fuels, separating out the carbon dioxide and pumping it into oil wells, with the added benefit that more oil is recovered than can be done normally. This process uses 20% and 40% extra energy for gas and coal respectively, requiring more power stations for a given amount of electricity output. Also, it uses chemicals — amines — which are flammable, toxic and smell of rotten fish. This is not a technology that should be used indiscriminately.

What do we need — conservation and equality

The keys to sustainable energy use that could support current and future populations are conservation and equality. The former means dealing with the huge wastage associated with capitalism, not just direct use of energy, but whole sectors of the economy that are of no use to humanity, replicate resources or are much too large. Many examples can be given, but working people will decide what survives and what doesn’t.

Eliminating such waste and providing a shorter working week, not just in the west, but in the urban areas in developing countries, will reduce the need for commuting. Energy savings could be made by sharing of goods, design for a long life, repair and upgrade. Resource and goods sharing would be made easier by living arrangements not based on the nuclear family.

Shorter working hours will allow longer times for holidays, removing the need for air travel. Where unavoidable, air travel should be severely rationed. All these measures could reduce world energy use — probably by over 50%. The economy could be that much smaller, without harming quality of life. This is quite different from George Monbiot’s welcoming of recession as a means to reduce emissions.

At this level, renewables and reforestation become more practical. In rural areas, especially in hotter climates, the new agricultural system will allow local communities to use biofuels from waste or crops for heating, cooking and electricity generation. Solid waste could be used, sequestered, to improve the soil.

These measures would only be acceptable to the working class and oppressed if applied equally. It is not useful to talk about allocating GHG ‘emission rights’ to individual countries without dealing with what happens within those countries. The elite, in all countries should be stripped of their ‘right’ to emit GHGs with no regard for humanity’s future.

The GHG emissions reductions necessary to forestall the worst effects of climate change are possible. It requires radical policies that challenge the economic power of capitalism and not repressive population control measures against the oppressed. Alongside making that challenge, we need to campaign for immediate measures that reduce GHG emissions and for economic and gender equality.

[From Socialist Outlook #14, Spring 2008]

Further Information


  • I agree with Michael Thomas on both his points. Some “high tech” approaches to climate change will be required, but I was trying to make some points about scale and relate that to the bloated nature of the capitalist economy. With an economy that does not force us to sustain a load of very profitable but useless activities, alongside the usual measures to conserve energy and use it more efficiently, there would be more chance that renewable resources could replace fossil fuels.

    I would very much like to see is a study of just how bloated that economy is. Of course, one person’s useless commodity or activity is another’s necessity and what to maintain and what to ditch would have to be decided in a democratic manner, but I think that amongst socialists there can be agreement on quite a few sectors of the economy that could be disposed of, while at the same time improving working people’s general quality of life. Large sections of the car, finance and military industries for a start. I personally would include (most) bottled water, soft drinks, horse racing, professional sport, but I acknowledge that others value these things differently. And I think that, if we were to have a just world agriculture and food production system, we in the “west” may have to do with less (or no?) things like cut flowers, coffee, sugar, flown-in vegetables etc. However, I’m not sure I would advocate measures against these products while the market still reigns supreme and I don’t quite know how best to respond when shortages of these products kick in. And it looks as though this will happen in the coming years.

    The second comment by Michael is related to this. I think there will be a need for more people to work the land, and to restore its quality, both from the point of view of food production and its ability to sequester carbon. The comments above indicate where that labour power could come from. I’m not sure about draft animals, though. I know this has happened in Cuba, but I think some people may say that historically there were good reasons to move away from animals to machinery. Perhaps, though, there is a difference between the gargantuan machines found in the prairies, and light ones you might walk behind to plough a field, for example. Bit I’m not an expert on this at all.

    On Simon Ross’s point:

    I don’t think you really read the article. If it is not clear, perhaps I should try to deal with your comments about the global south, and especially the rapidly-growing economies. The rate of increase of use of resources there is far higher, by a factor of at least five – and possibly ten – than their rate of increase of population. Most of that growth is wasted, from the point of view of the living conditions of the majority of worker and peasant masses, because it is unplanned and devoted entirely to the pursuit of profit and the creation of more and more bill-and-mill-ionaires.

    I believe it is possible to sustainably improve the living standards of the working class and peasantry, but not using the wasteful and resource-hungry methods of capitalism. After all, this “development” is partly responsible for what is about to become the starvation of millions more people. Organisations like Via Campesina show there is an alternative approach.

    Population-controllers need to be challenged on how they propose to achieve their aims. What’s happened in compulsory programmes is well-known. “Voluntary” ones have always (and immediately) ceased to be voluntary, as governments, NGO’s etc. build up a population-control bureaucracy with a vested interest in “results”. Then they “make choices” about who to sterilise, fit with IUDs or abort, how to “incentivise” these procedures etc. And they appropriate women’s bodies. These programmes will always be fought by the masses and will fail in their stated aims. They may be more successful in their real aims: to blame the poor and exploited masses for their plight and to terrorise and disorient those who would dare to oppose their exploitation. This is well documented by Matthew Connelly in his recent book “Fatal Misconceptions”.

  • I agree that a more vegetarian diet and energy saving would be beneficial. But a greener lifestyle will struggle to compensate for the impact on resources of the justifiable struggles of developing countries to industrialise and improve their living standards.

    So limiting population growth has to be part of the strategy for ensuring a sustainable human race.

  • I agree with most of what is said in this article. However, I would like to make two points:

    1. Clearly some high tech solutions will be required to address the twin crises of resource depletion and global warming.

    2. I am afraid I do not envisage a future in which working hours can be reduced. l think that work will become more labour intensive and people will have to work longer to sustain a simpler lifestyle whilst providing for their basic needs. Organic farming methods will have to be used to produce food and this will require more people working on the land in conjunction with draft animals.