A letter to Saral Sarkar on population, wilderness, and ecosocialism

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Deep ecology versus ecosocialism, part 5: If ecosocialists support wilderness clearances and population reduction they will be on the wrong side of some of the most important struggles in the world today.

The following is C&C Editor Ian Angus’s response to Saral Sarkar on Malthusianism and Ecosocialism, and Sarkar’s Reply to some points made by my critics and sympathizers.

Dear Saral Sarkar:

Thank you for taking time to respond to my criticisms of your article on the Bolivia’s Pachamama ecological philosophy, and of the attempt by you and others to combine deep ecology and ecosocialism. While we disagree strongly on these important issues, an open dialogue can only strengthen the green left.

I won’t try to respond to all of your arguments. In particular, I will not comment on your defense of Malthus against Marx and Engels, since I agree with the reply by Franklin Dmitryev. Nor will I respond to your more general argument that “too many people” is a valid explanation for ecological destruction, because the  book I’ve co-written with  Simon Butler deals in detail with that.

* * * * *

You open your latest message by objecting to my style, which you describe as attack rather than discussion. In particular, you object to my use of words such as “shameful,” “anti-human,” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the policies advocate by you and deep ecology advocates.

First, let me repeat what I wrote in my first contribution to this exchange, that I do not question your dedication or sincerity. You have been a long-time activist in the green movement, and have made many valuable contributions to our understanding of the crises we face. I do not view you as an enemy. As you write, within the broad ecosocialist movement, “there are no traitors, only different views.

But that doesn’t mean we should soft pedal our differences, If you were a naïve newcomer to ecosocialist debates, I might have muted my criticisms and adopted a gentler, more indirect approach. But because I know you are a knowledgeable and experienced activist and scholar, I assume that you mean what you write, and that you have thought through the implications of your statements. Precisely because I respect your experience and influence in the green left, I have tried to state my disagreements clearly and firmly. None of my words were meant as personal insults, and none should be interpreted that way.

I can’t find that I used the word “shameful,” but I did indeed describe deep ecology as “anti-human,” and I did compare the call for wilderness depopulation to “ethnic cleansing.” I believe those words accurately describe the ideas I was criticizing.

Is deep ecology “anti-human”?

Imagine a political group that sets out to solve problems in central Africa. After much discussion, it adopts an 8-point program. Six of the points are broad philosophical or ethical generalizations that could be interpreted in various ways. Two points stand out because they are concrete: they say that malaria is Africa’s biggest problem, so  reducing the number of cases of malaria has to be a priority.

I think it would be reasonable to describe such a group as anti-malaria.

Now let’s look at deep ecology. There are many currents within it, but the fundamental basis of agreement is the Eight Point Platform written by Arne Naess and George Sessions in 1984. Some deep ecologists add other points to their personal lists, but all accept the Eight Point Platform.

Six of the eight points are broad philosophical or ethical statements that could be interpreted in many ways. Point 6, for example, says that policies must be changed, and the result will be a situation that is “deeply different from the present.” Most of the other points are equally vague.

Only two identify a concrete problem and a concrete solution:

4. 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.

5. Present human interference with the non-human world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

Problem: Humans are harming the non-human world, and the problem is rapidly getting worse. Solution: Reduce the number of people.

Population reduction has been called the “litmus test” of deep ecology. The one concrete position supported by all deep ecology advocates, left or right, religious or secular, is 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 before the “die-off” that most deep ecologists think is inevitable in the near future.

So in exactly the same way as our imaginary Africa group is anti-malaria, deep ecology is anti-human.  I cannot think of a more accurate term for an ideology that views people as the problem and reducing population as the solution.

What about ethnic cleansing?

In your article “Pachamama and Deep Ecology,” you wrote that if the Bolivian leaders were sincere, they would “press for the withdrawal of humanity from large tracts of the earth, [and] … demand that such vacated tracts are allowed to again become wilderness. It ought to demand that large parts of the forests, savannahs, rivers and swamps are not changed anymore.”

As I’m sure you know, this is a variation of a proposal made in the 1980s by the right-wing deep ecology advocate Dave Foreman, a founder of the U.S. group EarthFirst!, who wrote: “The only hope of the Earth is to withdraw huge areas as inviolate natural sanctuaries from the depredations of modern industry and technology. Move out the people and cars. Reclaim the roads and the plowed lands.” It’s relevant to note that at that time, Foreman also favored reducing population by denying food aid to Ethiopian famine victims and banning all immigration to the United States.

I responded to your version of this proposal by pointing out that such a plan would inevitably target the people who now live in the “forests, savannahs, rivers and swamps,” including Indigenous people. It would require the removal of hundreds of millions of people from their homes, and that, I said, might better be called ethnic cleansing.

In reply, you say that you would oppose the expulsion of Indigenous people from the wilderness. When you called for removing “humanity,” you only meant “the civilized occupiers.” That would be a welcome (if terminologically outrageous) correction, but it appears that you limit the term “Indigenous people” to the small number of hunter-gatherer peoples who live totally outside the capitalist economy, such as the Yanomami of Brazil.

Among the “civilized occupiers” whom you do want to expel, you specifically describe “rice farmers and fishermen” in Bengal. Presumably you would also include peasants, fishers, and subsistence workers in other countries of the South as well. Such people may not be “Indigenous” by your definition, but they are among the poorest people in the world.

As I wrote, “the primary victims of capitalism and imperialism would become the primary victims of deep ecology.”

Obviously, I used the shocking words “ethnic cleansing” to stress the inhumanity of such a project. Nevertheless, my dictionary defines the term as “the systematic elimination of an ethnic group or groups from a region or society, as by deportation, forced emigration, or genocide.” I think that describes any program that removes humans from large parts of the earth, even when the objective is to recreate a mythical wilderness.

This is not an abstract question

I asked how much population contraction is needed. You replied that scientists are studying the problem of carrying capacity and ecological footprint, and so, “on the basis of the results of their research, and with resolve, reasonable decisions could be made if the people in power had the will.”

Really? How can you responsibly advocate population reduction as a top priority for the world if you have no idea, not even an opinion, about how many is too many? What if the scientists conclude (as many already have) that there is no objective test for human carrying capacity, and no ideal human population?

Then I asked, regarding your proposal for depopulating wilderness areas, “Who will decide which human beings must leave the places where they and their ancestors have lived for millennia? Who will enforce the compulsory migrations, and how will they do it?”

Once again, you avoided the question:

“When an eco-socialist government (and perhaps also such a society) is in place, the citizens who have elected such a government will know what to do and they will do it. In the time before that, i.e. in the transition period, a policy of strong material incentives and disincentives would be necessary (see my book).”

If this were an abstract question that could wait until the worldwide victory of ecosocialism, or at least until the “transition period,” we could debate it at leisure. But proposals to drive Indigenous and other people out of their homelands on environmental grounds are not intellectual games – they are really being implemented today. Most notably, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program, led by the World Bank and supported by various UN agencies, encourages governments to generate carbon credits by preserving supposedly pristine forests.

As justice activists point out, the losers in this are Indigenous and other forest peoples. Their lands are being seized, their access to traditional food and shelter denied, their spiritual and cultural practices destroyed. From Kenya to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Papua New Guinea, Mexico and Indonesia, to name only a few, people have been expelled and arrested for using resources on their lands, in the name of slowing greenhouse gas emissions thousands of miles away. (See Carbon Trade Watch, Key Arguments Against REDD.)

I’m sure you’ll reply that this isn’t what you intended. Unfortunately, as the proverb says, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Proposals such as yours can easily give credence to imperialist schemes such as REDD.

U.S. ecologist William Cronon writes,

“protecting the rain forest in the eyes of First World environmentalists all too often means protecting it from the people who live there. Those who seek to preserve such ‘wilderness’ from the activities of native peoples run the risk of reproducing the same tragedy—being forcibly removed from an ancient home—that befell American Indians. Third World countries face massive environmental problems and deep social conflicts, but these are not likely to be solved by a cultural myth that encourages us to ‘preserve’ people-less landscapes that have not existed in such places for millennia. At its worst, as environmentalists are beginning to realize, exporting American notions of wilderness in this way can become an unthinking and self-defeating form of cultural imperialism.” (The Trouble with Wilderness)

Similarly, proposals to reduce population have concrete, often horrifying, consequences. As Marxist geographer David Harvey warns:

“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.” (The Political Implications of Population-Resources Theory)

The lives of hundreds of thousands of real people have been destroyed by well-meaning western programs meant to save them from overpopulation. In case after case, supposedly humanitarian campaigns to reduce birth rates have led to mass coerced sterilization and other human rights violations. Once again, good intentions aren’t just insufficient, they can be deadly.

In short, 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.

If ecosocialists truly want to build a movement than can build a better world, we must be absolutely clear: people are not the problem, and reducing the number of people is not a solution.

Ian Angus
Editor, Climate and Capitalism


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 



  • So Ian, you are saying that the people who previously had free access to the forest resources can no longer access these resources but some other group is instead taking those same resources and making a profit from them by selling them to consumers in other countries? That is extremely rotten to the core which I’m betting even Saral Sakar would agree with!

    Maybe we need more CONCRETE examples of the problems each of these concerned activists fear the other’s beliefs will cause.

    If science could show that the whole ecosystem of the whole planet would be detrimentally effected by letting humans decrease the total forest area in the world by ONE SINGLE ACRE thereby endangering all life as we know it, we would all immediately stop any burning or clear cutting of any acres of forest even if we had to displace some indigenous people in the process. That is one extreme and not likely but it is good for another logic exercise.

    And we would all jump immediately to stop any possibility of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by any Imperialist or powerful group for its own profit that it excused by “protecting” a natural environment from ANY effect by humans. This is the other extreme case.

    Most of us who read material on this site are very concerned with human justice AND environmental justice. The two extremes in this particular discussion are aware and afraid of the potential harm that can be done in the name of the opposing beliefs.

    But PLEASE help the rest of us readers by not ONLY giving us the most frightening theoretical scenarios as examples of what might go wrong with the position of the other side! I realize of course it is important to understand the worst potential problems. But I found the more informative and helpful example to be the more concrete the forest people who used forest resources as part of a relatively sustainable living being kept out of the forest so that outsiders could use those same resources to make a profit by sustainably exporting forest products. Sounds to me like this is another example of Capitalism at work and surely a much better example of the misuse of Deep Ecology than threatening ethnic cleansing or on the other hand, planetary death, or maybe forced sterilization as opposed to the powerful using the protection of the species as an excuse to wring the last resources from our ecosystem.

    I am confused and saddened by the extreme mistrust between people who I see as very intelligent, thoughtful and truely concerned with what happens to their fellow humans as well as the planet. I can understand disagreement but how are we ever going to save this planet and its living ecosystems if we fearfully distrust even those who obviously are not out to misuse these movements. I know there are those who do and will such as REDD sounds like it might be doing, but given the facts and an open discussion, most of us can understand the problems and differentiate between the issues and non-issues. So give us facts and more concrete examples, not potential, theoretical fears.

    I realize that we don’t yet have all the facts but they will be discovered and understood as we proceed. We don’t yet need to know EXACTLY what the population limit for human’s will be. We don’t yet know exactly how we will humanely and fairly reduce population growth. There ARE many issues that will be worked out by the people themselves with the latest scientific information in hand as we succeed in changing social and economic systems.

    I would like to point out that it is imperative that solutions to particular problems are developed locally by the people concerned and not imposed from above by organizations that are not familiar with the particulars of a local ecology and related social systems. Solutions imposed from outside have proven not to work in the long run.

  • Hi Paul: Your enthusiasm for REDD is misplaced. As many studies have shown, it’s about increasing profits, not saving forests.

    See, for example, REDD Myths published by Friends of the earth.

    Commodifying forest carbon is also inherently inequitable, since it discriminates against people, and especially women, who previously had free access to the forest resources they needed to raise and care for their families, but cannot afford to buy forest products or alternatives. Any REDD projects that deny local communities and Indigenous Peoples access to forests risk having grave impacts on poverty and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. …

    The REDD proposals currently on the table are intended to generate profits for polluters, not to stop climate change. They must be replaced with a commitment to stop deforestation once and for all.

  • If we are arguing against population as an issue because it is being used to distract from the most fundamental issue – Corrupt Capitalism, then fine I would rather focus on that.

    It could be argued that it is ‘corrupt capitalism’ which energises populations to be so destructive to the ecosphere And when these ‘Capitalist Stimulated’ populations are vast the damage is equally vast.

    Rainforest protection seems to be a core issue here. I’m not sure but Ians pro-human stance is possibly saying ‘forget the rainforest, that land should be utilised for production for human needs, whatever the cost. The deep ecologists are saying ‘forget the Local Humans those ecosystems are far too valuable to lose’. In my humble view the tropical rainforests are too important to lose, both as vital carbon sinks and as symbols of the natural integrity of this planet. I don’t think that’s anti-Human, but maybe a touch ‘Imperialist’.

    The main reason we are losing so much forest is Western consumption, Corrupt Capitalist mentality,
    I guess we could save the forests by cutting off the demand in the west, by outlawing consumption of products which cause Destruction ?

    So I agree with Ian, I think, in that it should be us Westerners who make the sacrifices and we should focus on that as the root cause of the problem.

    However projects such as REDD are so valuable at the moment in slowing rapid Deforestation and Imperialist or anti-human as it may be, if a few indigenous people are displaced (which i’m not convinced is true) then that’s OK with me.

  • Saral Sarkar states:

    “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.”

    Well, if this is so, then the first and foremost topic in human ecology is population: a purely circular form of reasoning. Sarkar uses this thesis, as did Malthus, to define population in terms of physicalistic and quantifiable variables. It was this that led to Marx’s stern and sarcastic dismissal of Malthus in the Grundrisse (which of course was a personal notebook not for public consumption). For Marx, we were the history-making creature, hence the human world cannot be reduced to physical inputs but included what he called, in the First Thesis on Feuerbach, “sensuous activity,” that is, Praxis, or from another angle, the dimension of freedom.

    With respect to population, there many ways of regulating numbers of people, but only one is humanly worthwhile: seeing to it that people, and especially women, have power over the terms of their existence; this includes, to be sure, power over reproduction.

    Population, therefore, is a dependent variable. Ecosocialists should regard it as such and seek to universalize our collective power over production as well as reproduction. Freely associated women and men will have no trouble solving the population problem.

    Joel Kovel