David Harvey: The political implications of population-resources theory

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“Whenever a theory of overpopulation seizes hold in a society dominated by an elite, then the non-elite invariably experience some form of political, economic, and social repression.”

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Introduction. David Harvey is one of the world’s most influential geographers, and a highly-respected Marxist scholar. He is a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York (CUNY), Director of The Center for Place, Culture and Politics, and author of numerous books.

His most recent book, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, was published this year by Verso. Videos of his renowned lecture series on Capital were recently made available on the website Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey.

The following is an abridged section of “Population, Resources and the Ideology of Science,” which originally appeared in 1974 in the journal Economic Geography, and which was subsequently published as chapter three of Spaces of Capital: Towards a Critical Geography (Routledge 2001).

This article is copyright by David Harvey, and is published here with his kind permission.


The Political Implications of Population-Resources Theory

by David Harvey

At the Stockholm Conference on the Environment in 1972, the Chinese delegation asserted that there was no such thing as a scarcity of resources and that it was meaningless to discuss environmental problems in such terms. Western commentators were mystified and some concluded that the Chinese must possess vast reserves of minerals and fossil fuels the discovery of which they had not yet communicated to the world.

The Chinese view is, however, quite consistent with Marx’s method and should be considered from such a perspective. To elucidate it we need to bring into our vocabulary three categories of thought:

(1) Subsistence. Malthus appears to regard subsistence as something absolute, whereas Marx regards it as relative. For Marx, needs are not purely biological; they are also socially and culturally determined. Also, as both Malthus and Marx agree, needs can be created, which implies that the meaning of subsistence cannot be established independent of particular historical and cultural circumstances if, as Marx insisted, definitions of social wants and needs were produced under a given mode of production rather than immutably held down by the Malthusian laws of population. Subsistence is, then, defined internally to a mode of production and changes over time.

(2) Resources. Resources are materials available “in nature” that are capable of being transformed into things of utility to man. It has long been recognized that resources can be defined only with respect to a particular technical, cultural, and historical stage of development, and that they are, in effect, technical and cultural appraisals of nature.

(3) Scarcity. It is often erroneously accepted that scarcity is something inherent in nature, when its definition is inextricably social and cultural in origin. Scarcity presupposes certain social ends, and it is these that define scarcity just as much as the lack of natural means to accomplish these ends. Furthermore, many of the scarcities we experience do not arise out of nature but are created by human activity and managed by social organization (the scarcity of building plots in central London is an example of the former; the scarcity of places at university is an example of the latter). Scarcity is in fact necessary to the survival of the capitalist mode of production, and it has to be carefully managed, otherwise the self-regulating aspect to the price mechanism will break down.

Armed with these definitions, let us consider a simple sentence:

“Overpopulation arises because of the scarcity of resources available for meeting the subsistence needs of the mass of the population.”

If we substitute our definitions into this sentence we get:

“There are too many people in the world because the particular ends we have in view (together with the form of social organization we have) and the materials available in nature, that we have the will and the way to use, are not sufficient to provide us with those things to which we are accustomed.”

Out of such a sentence all kinds of possibilities can be extracted:

(1) we can change the ends we have in mind and alter the social organization of scarcity;

(2) we can change our technical and cultural appraisals of nature;

(3) we can change our views concerning the things to which we are accustomed;

(4) we can seek to alter our numbers.

A real concern with environmental issues demands that all of these options be examined in relation to each other. To say that there are too many people in the world amounts to saying that we have not the imagination, will, or ability to do anything about propositions (1), (2), and (3).

In fact (1) is very difficult to do anything about because it involves the replacement of the market exchange system as a working mode of economic integration; proposition (2) has always been the great hope for resolving our difficulties; and we have never thought too coherently about (3) particularly as it relates to the maintenance of an effective demand in capitalist economies (nobody appears to have calculated what the effects of much reduced personal consumption will have on capital accumulation and employment).

I will risk the generalization that nothing of consequence can be done about (1) and (3) without dismantling and replacing the capitalist market exchange economy. If we are reluctant to contemplate such an alternative and if (2) is not performing its function too well, then we have to go to (4).

Much of the debate in the western world focuses on (4), but in a society in which all four options can be integrated with each other, it must appear facile to discuss environmental problems in terms of naturally arising scarcities or overpopulation – this, presumably, is the point that the Chinese delegation to the Stockholm Conference was making.

The trouble with focusing exclusively on the control of population numbers is that it has certain political implications. Ideas about environment, population, and resources are not neutral. They are political in origin and have political effects.

Historically it is depressing to look at the use made of the kind of sentence we have just analyzed. Once connotations of absolute limits come to surround the concepts of resource, scarcity, and subsistence, then an absolute limit is set for population.

And what are the political implications (given these connotations) of saying there is “overpopulation” or a “scarcity of resources”? The meaning can all too quickly be established.

Somebody, somewhere, is redundant, and there is not enough to go round. Am I redundant? Of course not. Are you redundant? Of course not. So who is redundant? Of course, it must be them. And if there is not enough to go round, then it is only right and proper that they, who contribute so little to society, ought to bear the brunt of the burden.

And if we hold that there are certain of us who, by virtue of our skills, abilities, and attainments, are capable of “conferring a signal benefit upon mankind” though our contributions to the common good and who, besides, are the purveyors of peace, freedom, culture, and civilization, then it would appear to be our bound duty to protect and preserve ourselves for the sake of all mankind.

Let me make an assertion. Whenever a theory of overpopulation seizes hold in a society dominated by an elite, then the non-elite invariably experience some form of political, economic, and social repression. Such an assertion can be justified by an appeal to the historical evidence. ….

If we accept a theory of overpopulation and resource scarcity but insist upon keeping the capitalist mode of production intact, then the inevitable results are policies directed toward class or ethnic repression at home and policies of imperialism and neo-imperialism abroad.

Unfortunately this relation can be structured in the other direction. If, for whatever reason, an elite group requires an argument to support policies of repression, then the overpopulation argument is most beautifully tailored to fit this purpose.

Malthus and Ricardo provide us with one example of such apologetics. If a poverty class is necessary to the processes of capitalist accumulation or a subsistence wage essential to economic equilibrium, then what better way to explain it away than to appeal to a universal and supposedly “natural” law of population?

Malthus indicates another kind of apologetic use for the population principle. If an existing social order, an elite group of some sort, is under threat and is fighting to preserve its dominant position in society, then the overpopulation and shortage of resources arguments can be used as powerful ideological levers to persuade people into acceptance of the status quo and of authoritarian measures to maintain it. The English landed interest used Malthus’ arguments thus in the early nineteenth century.

And this kind of argument is, of course, even more effective if the elite group is in a position to create a scarcity to demonstrate the point.

The overpopulation argument is easily used as part of an elaborate apologetic through which class, ethnic, or (neo-)colonial repression may be justified. It is difficult to distinguish between arguments that have some real foundation and arguments fashioned for apologetic reasons. In general the two kinds of arguments get inextricably mixed up.

Consequently, those who think there is a real problem of some sort may, unwittingly, contribute strength to the apologists, and individuals may contribute in good faith to a result which, as individuals, they might find abhorrent.

And what of the contemporary ecology and environmental movement? I believe it reflects all of the currents I have identified, but under the stress of contemporary events it is difficult to sort the arguments out clearly. … Was it accidental that the environmentalist argument emerged so strongly in 1968 at the crest of campus disturbances? And what was the effect of replacing Marcuse by Ehrlich as campus hero? Conditions appear to be exactly right for the emergence of overpopulation arguments as part of a popular ideology to justify what had and what has to be done to stabilize a capitalist economic system that is under severe stress.

But at the same time there is mounting evidence (which has in fact been building up since the early 1950s) of certain ecological problems that now exist on a world-wide as opposed to on a purely local scale (the DDT example being the most spectacular).

Such problems are real enough. The difficulty, of course, is to identify the underlying reason for the emergence of these difficulties. There has been some recognition that consumption patterns induced under capitalism may have something to do with it, and that the nature of private enterprise, with its predilection for shifting costs onto society in order to improve the competitive position of the firm, also plays a role.

And there is no question that runaway rates of population growth (brought about to a large degree by the penetration of market and wage-labor relationships into traditional rural societies) have also played a role.

But in their haste to lay the origin of these problems at the door of “overpopulation” (with all of its Malthusian connotations), many analysts have unwittingly invited the politics of repression that invariably seem to be attached to the Malthusian argument at a time when economic conditions are such as to make that argument extremely attractive to a ruling elite.

Ideas are social relations; they have their ultimate origin in the social concerns of mankind and have their ultimate impact upon the social life of mankind. Arguments concerning environmental degradation, population growth, resource scarcities, and the like can arise for quite disparate reasons and have quite diverse impacts. It is therefore crucial to establish the political and social origins and impacts of such arguments.

The political consequences of injecting a strongly pessimistic view into a world structured hierarchically along class and ethnic lines and in which there is an ideological commitment to the preservation of the capitalist order are quite terrifying to contemplate. As Levi-Strauss warns in Tristes Tropiques:

“Once men begin to feel cramped in their geographical, social and mental habitat, they are in danger of being tempted by the simple solution of denying one section of the species the right to be considered human.”


  • I have responded to article here because I was encouraged by Ian Angus’s Comments policy – constructive discussion and debate so I am rather taken aback that the editor himself should have engaged in an ad hominem rebuttal of my arguments.
    However, I will resist the temptation to respond in kind instead will abide by the rules of the site in responding to this criticism.
    There are dangers in merely extracting data from the Net.
    So lets start with Conservatives for Climate and Environment – had Ian been more familiar with left activism he would have been aware of strategies (usually employed by the Trots) to infiltrate organizations – my reason for supporting that group was to try and split the conservative vote at the election – a perfectly respectable left wing strategy.
    And I am no longer a member of that group for if you had done your research you would have found out that Helen Caldicott and I founded the Zero Carbon Network some 5 years ago and this year I organized a public forum to destroy the credibility of the nuclear movement.
    I can point to over 40 years involvement in left wing activism given I tend to prefer anarchist politics I regularly cross swords with marxists.
    My PhD work is on Global Justice had Ian bothered to ask I could have provided the references on which my response was based – all either left wing commentators or marxist philosophers:Schweickart, D. (2002). After Capitalism. Oxford, Rowman & Littlefield. Porritt, J. (2006). Capitalism as if the World Matters. London, Earthscan.
    As far as the comments about the population debate are concerned I have worked for much of my life in the area of migration policy as an advocate for migrants – Australia’s migration policy does no one any favours. I discuss that here http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=10544 but for those who want a view other than mine all you need to do is look at Richard Dennis’s article here http://spgn.blogspot.com/ to see that there is nothing inconsistent with being progressive and left wing and supporting strategies to curb population growth.

    • John Tons — You haven’t identified any factual errors in my comment. If you do, I will apologize and remove them.

      I stand by my statement that the program of the “population reduction party” you founded is neither progressive nor left. The fact that you include Optimum Population Trust patron Jonathon Porritt among “left wing commentators and marxist philosophers” places a large question mark over your ability to distinguish left from right.

  • This is not a response to John Tons’ confused Comment. It may, however, help other C&C readers to understand why Mr Tons’ advice to the left can’t be taken seriously.

    In all of his comments on C&C, John Tons presents himself as an advocate of progressive social change, but until a few months ago, John Tons was a coordinator of an Australian group called Conservatives for Climate and Environment.

    In August 2009, that group changed its name to Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy Australia. I don’t know if he is still a member.

    Recently John Tons founded a population reduction party that is trying to attract 500 members so that it can run in Australian elections on a two point program: (1) Abolish baby bonus payments; (2) Reduce immigration.

    Many words could be used to describe that program, but “progressive” and “left” aren’t on the list.

  • Levi Straus’s quotation is on the money but much of the article is in the same danger as those Christians who determine everything by what would Jesus do.
    The young Marx wrote convincingly of the dangers of reification – the situation we are facing is essentially that.
    If we consider the four propositions at the heart of the discussion:
    (1) we can change the ends we have in mind and alter the social organization of scarcity;
    (2) we can change our technical and cultural appraisals of nature;
    (3) we can change our views concerning the things to which we are accustomed;
    (4) we can seek to alter our numbers.
    Then I would suggest that these are not alternative conclusions but four things that need to be done.

    We do need to make major changes to the ends we have in mind – this will take in the need to get away from the capitalist pre-occupation with economic growth. At the heart of that preoccupation is the necessity to keep people dissatisfied with what they have – so they keep accumulating useless goods reducing the natural resources.
    The second proposition needs to be pursued regardless of whether there is a population problem or not; we have created a natural world which is essentially a prothesis – we are no longer part of nature but seek to stand outside it – again it is part of the capitalist ethic. One only has to see the nature of the advertising that companies like Nestle undertake in the developed world bottled milk is touted as superior to mother’s milk – the message our technology is to be preferred over and above nature.
    Again the third view is critical we need develop the capacity to create a global network of independent sustainable communities.
    As far as population is concerned there is sufficient evidence that the way to tackle that is through lifting people out of poverty – capitalism will not do that; capitalism has an inherent tendency to blame the victim as can be the case here.
    However, Marx was wrong in his discussions with Malthus – had he paid more attention to biology he would have realised that or perhaps had he discussed the issue with Concordet he would have had a more nuanced view of the problem of population growth.
    The left needs to be part of this debate it is the one debate that cannot be conducted in terms of blaming the victim; we therefore need an articulate left wing willing to expose the weaknesses in the current social and economic organization that makes population growth such a problem.