Green Trade Unionist: "No Place for Malthus in the Green Party"

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“I just don’t see how their bitter philosophy has any place in a party which stands for social and ecological justice …”

Andy Hewitt, co-chair of the Green Party Trade Union Group (U.K.), sent this message to the group’s email discussion list, responding to a message favoring population control. Thanks to Derek Wall, Another Green World

After seeing some of the offensive materials on the Optimum Population Trust stall at Blackpool Conference I just don’t see how their bitter philosophy has any place in a party which stands for social and ecological justice. This email list is for discussion of Trade Union issues and workers rights. Trade Unions are organizations which should represent the collective interests of workers. Right now, the working class and the poorest and most vulnerable in this country face the fight of their lives to defend their jobs, livelihoods and the welfare state against ideological onslaught from the capitalist class. Capitalism by its very nature creates social inequality. It exists through the exploitation of a majority who work and produce value, the surplus of which is accumulated by a minority. In times of crisis, the ruling minority pull in the drawbridge to protect their self interests, to protect their accumulated wealth, ergo to protect their power. This is the situation we face now, in collective action to fight against the cuts.

Essentially, the system is unsustainable. As Marx pointed out the social relationships necessary to the continuation of capitalism, the existence of a minority class expoiting a majority working class, is an internal contradiction which will necessitate its downfall. Only by replacing capitalism with an economic and productive model where production is democratically controlled by the workers themselves, for the benefit of the needs of all and not the few can we begin to plan collectively to solve the problems of inequality and poverty.

Equally this applies to the ecological question, Marx describing the metabolic rift between humans and nature created by capitalist production. The ecocoide and mass species loss we are witnessing are a product of the expansive and exploitative nature of capitalism, its need for profit overriding all else. It seems to me that the arguments put forward by the Malthusianists and those advocating population controls equate to the pulling in of the drawbridge which we see in times of capitalist crisis. With the pulling in of the drawbridge there is also the pouring of boiling oil over those who attempt to break the siege, if you allow me to stretch the metaphor. We see violent suppression of protest and opposition as the ruling class desperately protects its influence and power. Imposition of population controls is the boiling oil deployed by the Malthusianists.

The generation who are inheriting the world are already on the receiving end of the boiling oil (double metaphor). Education becoming a right only of the privileged few who can afford it. Ecosystems on the brink of collapse. War and conflict for resources because of the greed of the wealthy minority. Faced with the prospect of no access to education or the prospect of any meaningful employment, many working class kids are lured into the military to become cannon fodder for the imperialist interests of capitalism.

Are these the only choices we offer the generations to follow? Furthermore, the malthusianists would then dare to suggest that the only solution is to cap population, that in some way the next generation are an unwanted burden, further alienating those who inherit the future. If the malthusianists have the courage of their beliefs maybe they can try telling the students who rose up in protest that the problem was not the system, but the students themselves. It seems to me that this is the logic of their arguments. Rosa Luxemburg said we face a stark choice, socialism or barbarism. We are witnessing the barbarism of the capitalist class as people and planet become expendable against the need to protect and expand accumulated wealth. As the economic and ecological crises deepen, as the production of oil which has fuelled capitalist expansion peaks, the violence of the minority against the majority and the environment increases. So we now face a stark choice, ecosocialism or barbarism.

The problems of inequality of distribution and protecting the future sustainablity of the ecosystem will only be solved by collective action, by democratic decisions being taken about production, for need and not profit. We follow the example of the Lucas Aerospace workers in the 70s, who collectively drew up a plan to use their skills to convert production in their factory from weapons to socially and environmentally useful products.

We build trade unions which are capable of representing the collective needs of their representatives, not the bureacrats who serve themselves and a labour party which puts the needs of the capitalist system ahead of those who are exploited by it. Through collective action and solidarity we can build a movement with the capacity to remove the chains of capitalist exploitation and build a society providing for the needs of all and for the generations who follow. In the words of the early green socialist, William Morris: Educate, Agitate, Organise.

I do not see where the barbarism and elitist philosophy of Malthus fits in to the equation of building a trade union movement capable of meeting the demands of our future. I am yet to see any argument on this Trade Union Group email list which would convince me otherwise.

For peace, ecology and socialism, Andy GPTU Co-Chair


  • I love the above quote by Dr. Arizpe! “The concept of population as numbers of human bodies is of very limited use in understanding the future of societies in a global context…”

    If Capitalism continues to run the world, population will soon be externally controlled but not by the intelligent response of those in power. Arguing about whether or not it is ethical to require the masses to forgo children is wasted time and effort. (Altho discussion and concerned thought is never wasted.) Of course the planet has some kind of limit to the size of human population it can support and the activities of those humans will have a huge effect on that number. We are never going to have to deal with that problem though because we can’t be bothered to deal with the fact that we are rapidly squandering the earth’s ability to sustain life as we know it.

    We had a certain amount of time, energy and science with which we could have put our heads together and created a sustainable, quality livelihood for all life on this planet but that time probably passed several decades ago without our notice. We need to act immediately. We could all stop having children at this very moment but it would make no difference for several more decades. So what can we do today, this week, in a month, through this year? Can we create a believable vision for action that will motivate large numbers of people by the end of the year?

  • John says “this thread is about population.”

    No, this thread is about an article that begins “After seeing some of the offensive materials on the Optimum Population Trust stall at Blackpool Conference I just don’t see how their bitter philosophy has any place in a party which stands for social and ecological justice.”

    For over 200 years, the claim that population explains ecological or social problems has diverted attention from the real causes of those problems. The arguments you are making now were made in identical terms in the 1960s when the Paddock brothers (“Famine–1975!”) and Paul Ehrlich (“The Population Bomb”) told us that 3 billion people was more than the earth could possibly support, so massive famines and a a major decline in population were inevitable in the 1970s.

    Over forty years later, populationists are still making the same the same predictions. Only the numbers and the dates have changed.

    In another thread, I quoted Dr. Lourdes Arizpe, a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and former Assistant Director General of UNESCO:

    “The concept of population as numbers of human bodies is of very limited use in understanding the future of societies in a global context. It is what these bodies do, what they extract and give back to the environment, what use they make of land, trees, and water, and what impact their commerce and industry have on their social and ecological systems that are crucial.”

    If we don’t understand that, we will not be able to act effectively, and capitalism will destroy the planet.

    UN ‘concerned’ by world population growth trends

    The world population growth rate must slow down significantly to avoid reaching unsustainable levels, says a new UN report.

    To have a reasonable chance of stabilising world population, fertility must drop to below “replacement level”.

    It must then be maintained at that level for an extended period, says the report.

    This replacement level is the fertility level at which a population replaces itself from one generation to the next.

    The world population is already poised to reach 7 billion later this year and this figure potentially could double to 14 billion by 2100 if action is not taken.

    This is of particular concern for the least developed countries worldwide, which are growing at the fastest rate and are already the most vulnerable to famine.

    The UN Population Division have produced six projections of potential future population change based on different changes to fertility level and other factors.

    In the medium scenario, world population peaks at 9.4 billion in 2070 and then starts to decline.

    However for this to happen, fertility needs to decline significantly in most developing countries.

    No guarantee

    In recent years, there has been widespread acceptance of the medium scenario as almost a certainty.

    However Hania Zlotnik, the Director of the UN Population Division says there is “no guarantee that this scenario will become a reality because high-fertility countries may not reduce their fertility fast enough and countries with intermediate fertility levels may see them stagnate above replacement level”.

    “Even countries with intermediate fertility need to reduce it to replacement level or below if they wish to avert continuous population increases to unsustainable levels.”

    The high and low projections reveal how even relatively small deviations from replacement-level fertility can lead to dramatic changes in the size of the world population.

    The high scenario, where fertility remains mostly between 2.2 and 2.3 children per woman, would lead to a world population of nearly 30 billion in 2300.

    The report says that “even with significant fertility reductions, Africa’s population will likely increase by 150% by 2100 and many of its countries will see their populations increase four-fold or more”.

    It warns that although the reduction of fertility may be inevitable, considerable effort over the next few decades is required to make it a reality.

    The “World Demographic Trends” report has been released by the UN Population Division today ahead of the UN Commission on Population and Development.

    • John quotes a BBC news report about a UNPD report on demographic trends,

      Surprise — an organization created on the assumption that population growth is a major problem has issued a report that says population growth is a major problem. Next you’ll tell us that the Pope thinks we should all be Catholics.

      But at least they are focusing on Total Fertility Rate as the main issue in population growth — a few posts back you denied it was relevant.

  • “The problem isn’t people, it’s profit”

    Halving the number of potential purchasers is likely to reduce profit and share prices.

    However, this thread is about population.

  • Radical ecologist Murray Bookchin once posed a simple question: if the population of the U.S. were halved today, would U.S. corporations reduce their output and their ecological destruction by the same amount? The answer, of course, is “no.” The problem isn’t people, it’s profit, and no population control program will change that.

  • “The increase in population that will inevitably continue for quite a few years is frightening. I can’t help feeling that we are probably way over our heads at this moment. I’m fairly sure that we won’t make it in one piece to 2050.”

    Am making no predictions: but I fear this could well be right. Climate change, drought, more dams, further drought, [and wars?] seem likely in the short term. And no one seems to be talking about the domino effect as more and more species approach extinction.

    However, if some of us ARE still here in a few decades, I predict it will be with a smaller population. Though how much it is reduced by intelligent response, and how much by other means, I really cannot say.

  • The increase in population that will inevitably continue for quite a few years is frightening. I can’t help feeling that we are probably way over our heads at this moment. I’m fairly sure that we won’t make it in one piece to 2050. It all hinges on our realizing that we need to give up our horribly wasteful, poluting lifestyle here in the developed countries. It does NOT rely on our ability to stop people from having babies. I don’t think civilization will last that long. Many other factors may cause a decline in our population growth before then.

    Of course the underdeveloped countries want to get a chunk of what we have had. Who wouldn’t. But it isn’t possible. Period! No matter who stops having babies. It will require that we give up a good portion of what the developed populations amass, indulge in, use and waste everyday to boost the quality of life for the rest of the world in any significant way.

    If we could envision and create a better, healthier way of meeting our most necessary and life enhancing needs, we might set an example for the rest of the earth’s population that will stop us ALL from destroying the planet. It might stop others from rushing headlong to achieve our supposed “success” if we were to admit that accumulating wealth and power, consuming mass quantities of useless “products” while sacrificing community, self reliance, interdependence, healthy families, healthy food, good work, integrity, and authenticity produces mostly unhappy, depressed, disinterested, unfulfilled citizens. The undeveloped nations might be willing to accept a simpler, less wasteful, more fulfilling lifestyle than the one we have been flaunting for decades if we achieved it first.

    Of course I am talking of the “common persons.” “Special” individuals that have already accumulated most of the world’s value will have no intention of sharing and the “potentially rich and powerful” in undeveloped countries won’t be interested in settling for “less” either.

    I would also like to add that any woman with safe birth control, food, education and medical care for herself and her children, good work, and the prospect of a productive, satisfying life for herself AND her living progeny, will usually choose to have a only a couple of children. It happens over and over when women’s lives are improved. It is not because raising children is expensive that we quit having so many. Obviously many poor women manage to birth up to a dozen or more babies if they can handle the infant mortality. No, we choose to have fewer children because we choose then to value each infant and devote to it 20 years of loving attention when we have faith that all the energy, sustenance and love we put into its’ care will be rewarded with a special, unique and healthy individual that will survive to adulthood. That is most woman’s child care method of choice. Given any choice at all.

  • “Best predictor” does NOT mean equivalent to or identical with.

    Total population NEEDS to decline over time. And not too slowly.

  • My apologies. Since you started this discussion by posting numbers from the UN’s population forecasts, I assumed that you knew something about demographics. My mistake.

    Total Fertility Rate — the average number of babies a woman will have in her lifetime — is the best predictor of long term population growth. Replacement rate TFR varies with mortality rates and other factors. It averages about 2.3 globally, ranging from about 2.1 in rich countries to 3 or more in countries with high mortality rates. If TFR is below replacement rate, total population will decline over time.

    The UN projects that the global TFR will be below replacement level by 2050. It’s important to note, however, that over the past decade each of the UN’s forecasts of population growth has been lower than the previous one, so the next forecast could move that date forward.

  • The “average number of babies a woman will have in her lifetime” is not the same as the rate of population growth, as it ignores changes in infant mortality and increases in longevity.

    To achieve a sustainable global population, we need contraction and convergence: in some fair and equitable fashion including consumption and pollution footprints, with need for, availability of, and accessibility to food, water, fuel, housing, and other resources. That, I believe, is where urgent discussion should focus.

  • John writes that the rate of population growth “MAY now be on the verge of falling” (his emphasis).

    In percentage terms, the global population growth rate peaked in 1962-63 at 2.2%/year. It has fallen since then.

    In absolute terms, it peaked in 1989 at 88 million. It was 74.6 million, down 15% from the peak, in 2009.

    The global Total Fertility Rate — the average number of babies a woman will have in her lifetime — peaked at about 4.9 in 1950-65. It is now about 2.5, and the UN forecasts that by 2050 it will fall to 2.02, which is below replacement rate. Already, the TFR is below replacement rate in 116 countries.

    So there is no “MAY” about it. By every measure, the rate of growth is declining.

  • Ian,
    You also mention “the decline in fertility rates which has been under way since the 1960s, but which takes decades to be reflected in reduced totals”.

    Underway in the “developed” world: partly as people [even in the once Vatican-dominated Italy] realise that raising children is horrendously expensive; also as biological fertility falls, owing both to pollution [e.g. female hormones in mains water] and to lifestyles [e.g. rampant obesity].

    In the developing world, fertility rates vary with education and with availability of contraception. The latter has long been blocked by Vatican dog-poo dogma [“every sperm is sacred”] which somehow equates contraception with genocide.

    Although Andy reviles “Malthusianists”, [whatever they may be, and assuming that they even exist], he writes about a “stark choice” and a “productive model where production is democratically controlled by [society at large], for the benefit of the needs of all and not the few”.

    Facing the stark choice of destroying our ecosystem by overpopulation, I hope that some form of “democratic control” results swiftly enough to be save us.

    If I write of “democratic control”, it is only to reuse Andy’s term. With sufficient democracy, the “control” need not be draconian. I would hope that EDUCATION will be sufficient. However, I regret that education on this topic seems currently to be opposed by those with a phobia of “Malthusianism”. But if this proves to be only an imaginary fear of a possibly imagined philosophy, there may yet be hope.

  • Ian,
    They’re not “my” numbers: they’re the U.N.’s.

    They’re based on an estimate from 2008: shortly to be updated.

    The rate of [numerical] growth WAS rising, and MAY now be on the verge of falling. HOWEVER, the TOTAL population is still rising: as, understandably, are people’s aspirations.

    If we assume [rashly] that no one wants people in developing nations to continue to live in abject poverty, only rudimentary appreciation of mathematics is required to see that increasing population [even if growth is slowing] and increasing consumption result in increasing footprint.

    The footprint doesn’t need to grow much more before we’re all trodden underfoot.

    Some already describe this as our planet cleansing itself of a virus, possibly leading to the evolution of more intelligent species than Man.

    If we are unable to accept and confront the problem, that is precisely what will happen. If our species proves that f***ing irresponsible, it is precisely what we shall deserve.

  • I don’t know what John Hunt thinks his numbers prove, but assuming they are correct, it is interesting that the rate of growth is slowing down:

    From 3 to 4 billion: 14 years
    From 4 to 5 billion: 13 years
    From 5 to 6 billion: 12 years
    From 6 to 7 billion: 12 years
    From 7 to 8 billion: 14 years
    From 8 to 9 billion: 20 years

    This reflects the decline in fertility rates which has been under way since the 1960s, but which takes decades to be reflected in reduced totals.

    Most demographers think we will never reach 10 billion — that world population will start to decline sometime after 2050.

  • The place I start from is that whether we like to think so or not we are all, capitalist, communist, socialist, anarchist etc etc in it together so any viable way forward must be inclusive. Proposals that are basically adversarial are not solutions in the long term because in the end we are all going to have to cooperate.

    The development of unions was a natural response to the undemocratic structure of developing industrial and business organisations but it is in my view a sub-optimal response because it did not question the essentially undemocratic and therefore unhealthy structure of these organisations. The unions just took this structure as a given and reacted to it. So undemocratically is how industrial organisations happened to develop and continue but it did not and does not have to be that way. These organisations could have evolved with democratic ownership and governance structures and over the years there are some that either started like that or have become so over time. In the UK there is an association of such business organisations, its website will be found at

    Perhaps unions as institutions are not very interested in democratic business organisations because any need for the existence of unions then naturally falls away as every thing about the business is agreed by the people who comprise the business. There is no adversarial relationship between owners and employees they are one and the same.