Seven questions for a populationist

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An exchange with a reader regarding the article Sex, lies, and statistical correlation 

Eleanor comments:

I have been reading your debate with Saral Sarkar, and I am sorry, but much as I agree with many of your other conclusions and writings, you are wrong about population and environmental damage, and therefore, ultimately climate change. Today’s blog just leaves me cold. Not funny really.

Perhaps we need not be as drastic as Arne Naess suggests; however, 7 billion people is way too many. Sure policies need to change, governing needs to be just and equal, and wealth needs to be distributed fairly. But humans are part of the environment and we have no more right than any other part to consume its resources with abandon, neglect, and selfishness. Animal populations control their own numbers — so can we.

I believe the Earth will be able to survive the degradation wrought by humans — the question is will the humans? For us to survive, we must contain our numbers, slowly and fairly, but the growth must stop. Let’s strive for quality (development) not quantity.

My reply:

Eleanor, no need to apologize. I don’t expect to convince everyone right away.

The point of the article that you find “not funny” — and of others I’ve written on this subject — is that numbers alone prove nothing. The statement “7 billion people is way too many” is not a useful guide to action. It’s just a big number, nothing more.

The real questions are:

  1. Is environmental destruction primarily caused by the fundamental nature of our society, or by the number of people in it? Do we need to change the way we live, or just change how many of us live this way?
  2. Is the problem the existence of a large number of people, or the activities of a small number of people who plunder the earth to reap private wealth?
  3. Are the most destructive countries those with growing populations, or those whose populations are stable or falling?
  4. Will reducing population change the grossly ecocidal nature of capitalism?
  5. If capitalism remains intact, will reducing population reduce environmental degradation in any significant way?
  6. Will campaigning for reduced population help build a powerful green movement, or will it alienate us from our most important allies, and divert the movement away from its most important tasks?
  7. And even if you disagree with me on those issues: If we have at most 10 or 20 years to head off catastrophic climate change, does it make any sense to focus our efforts on population programs that even the most optimistic populationists say will take 50 years to have a marginal effect?


  • re: Ross’ weird idea that population control “shrinks” the reserve army and thus “strengthens the negotiating power of workers,” I suppose this comes from having a metaphysical *concept* of a “population problem,” abstracted from class, social formation and other determinants. The reserve army is NOT the product of some biological “intrinsic rate of increase” (also an abstraction), but of the dynamic process of capital accumulation. Capital is constantly creating the reserve army as it pours into and strives for ever-increasing productivity of labor in profitable sectors. And the accumulation process as applied by monopoly capital created a vast reserve army of labor in the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. You are truly delusional if you think population control would “strengthen the negotiating power” of workers of U.S. corporate chattel in Central America. On the country, the only thing that will enhance the “negotiating power” of workers in the U.S., Mexico, India and Nigeria is international solidarity, which your panacaea is precisely aimed at fracturing. Notice how the ruling class and its ideologues begins paying greater attention to populationist panacaeas (along with anti-immigrant and other racist ventures) during times of economic crisis?

  • Doing away with millionaires would definitely help but I bet there are plenty of wanna-be’s waiting in the wings.

    It seems to me that advocating for population reduction by passing out condoms and putting up posters wouldn’t hurt anyone. Taxing extra kids could prove very unfair to poor people.

    It is the idea that is dangerous. The idea that if people would just stop having so many kids then environmental degradation would be reduced and we wouldn’t have to change our life style very much is a bad idea to have floating around.

    It is an easy step to thinking it would be OK to “force” others to limit their fertility since the problems brought on by overpopulation are so terrible. Then it is a very simple step to use the idea to justify all types of control on certain populations or groups in the name of population control. This could be dangerous.

    Since limiting population is also too slow and there are faster ways to address our environmental problems why go there? For the time being spend your time and energy on tasks that are more rapidly productive to slowing environmental degradation. Then if we still need to address the size of the population, we can.

  • Actually, the average size of higher-income families in Burundi seems to be greater than the average size of lower-income families. This is also the case in other African countries like Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.

    This is also true in advanced capitalist countries like the United States, where median family income statistics consistently correlate positively with family size.

    Besides, if having fewer children meant greater wealth, that would be a powerful economic incentive for poor Burundians to limit family size. But the average fertility rate remains about 6 births per woman. So the incentive just isn’t there.

  • Answers to questions

    Stefan asks: It’s fine to say the planet is over-populated the question is, however, how do you reduce the numbers?

    A. Provide universal access to family planning; encourage use of more reliable contraceptive methods; structure tax and benefits to encourage “two or fewer” and make the environmental and sustainable case that a smaller family is the responsible choice.

    Ian challenged: The Overpopulation Index does not indicate causality.

    A. True. We now call it the Overshoot Index
    It is intended to demonstrate unsustainability at current living standards and production methods, and is simply a tool, not of course a comprehensive argued case.

    Ian challenges: When he posts here, population reduction is “somewhat important.” When he advises the UK government, it is “the most effective national and global climate change strategy.” Sorry Simon, you can’t have it both ways.

    A. You misunderstand. As an analogy, old age is the most important cause of death, but addressing cancer is the most effective strategy for delaying it, because you can’t do much about old age. Similarly, rising per capita consumption might be the most important cause of environmental degradation but, given that no-one welcomes a reduction in their living standards and many technological advances poses real problems and are hugely expensive, addressing population numbers is the most effective strategy for reducing human impact on the environment.

    Jeff asks: Would Burundians be wealthier if they had fewer children?

    A. Yes; it is called the demographic dividend. Fewer children frees up human and economic resources for investment and development, enabling economic growth. This has been shown repeatedly.

    Mike draws attention to capital’s need for a “reserve army” and suggests that population concern acts in the interest of the ruling class through blaming this reserve army for unemployment rather than capitalism’s drive for greater productivity.

    A. In fact, population concern acts directly against the interests of the ruling class by reducing this reserve army through seeking lower birth rates and balanced migration. As medieval plagues (the last time the UK population fell!) showed, falling population numbers strengthens the negotiating power of workers.

    • Simon Ross of Optimum Population Trust writes:

      As an analogy, old age is the most important cause of death, but addressing cancer is the most effective strategy for delaying it, because you can’t do much about old age. Similarly, rising per capita consumption might be the most important cause of environmental degradation but, given that no-one welcomes a reduction in their living standards and many technological advances poses real problems and are hugely expensive, addressing population numbers is the most effective strategy for reducing human impact on the environment.

      Here’s a better analogy: This patient has cancer, and will die if not treated immediately. But cancer treatment is painful and expensive, so you’ve decided to give him a haircut instead.

      Your entire argument hinges on the claim that individual behaviour, either in reproduction or in consumption, is the most important cause of environmental destruction. That claim simply doesn’t hold up.

      It’s been calculated that if every single individual in the U.S. did every single thing that Al Gore recommends, U.S. emissions would drop only 21% — because that would have no effect on corporate, government, and military emissions.

      Even 21% substantially overstates individual responsibility, because individuals actually have little or no control over the main emission sources they are blamed for.

      The most effective way to cut “individual” emissions would be to eliminate coal-fired electrical plants and make public transit a serious alternative to the personal car. But that will require social change — birth control won’t even begin to do the job.

      Your focus on “per capita” consumption also ignores the huge variations within populations. In the U.S., 20% of the population accounts for over 60% of consumer spending. The gap between rich and poor is even greater in Third World countries. But birth control programs such as those OPT promotes inevitably target the poorest people, whose emissions are relatively small, so reducing their numbers will have little of no effect.

      Insofar as there is an “overpopulation” problem, it is too many millionaires, not too many people.

      A case in point: a one day event, the recent Royal wedding, caused greenhouse gas emissions that were 1230 times greater than an entire year’s emissions from an average UK household. But if Optimum Population Trust called for a radical reduction in the number of royals, Prince Phillip probably wouldn’t chair public meetings for OPT patrons, would he?

  • It is worth quoting Marx to illuminate the class nature of the populationist ideological construct: Writing about how the process of capital accumulation generates a reserve army of labor, he notes “Independently of the limits of the actual increase of population, it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation.”

    “The expansion by fits and starts of the scale of production is the preliminary to its equally sudden contraction; the latter again evokes the former, but the former is impossible without disposable human material, without an increase, in the number of labourers independently of the absolute growth of the population. This increase is effected by the simple process that constantly “sets free” a part of the labourers; by methods which lessen the number of labourers employed in proportion to the increased production. The whole form of the movement of modern industry depends, therefore, upon the constant transformation of a part of the labouring population into unemployed or half-employed hands.”

    Of course, Marx didn’t have an understanding of what was to come with imperialism, particularly its wholesale displacement of much (by no means all) of this reserve army to the Third World, where it is conveniently available for U.S. & co. corporations to exploit in maquiladoras or as immigrant labor. And conveniently blameable in an econonomic downturn as a source of “overpopulation.”

    This ideological exercise is much more crucial at the present time, since over the past four decades, U.S. corporations and many of their peers have outsourced their manufacturing base and invested domestically in speculative finances and related services, leading to an accelerated secular loss of unionized industrial jobs and a growth in low-wage clerical and service jobs (however, at the present moment, unemployment remains high). It is quite convenient to blame undocumented immigrants (who were not displaced by free trade agreements, but by “overpopulation”) for the depression of wages and high unemployment.

  • And notice that Glover reserves a place on his list for the occupied territories. Rather disingenuous, don’t you think?

    Thus, his populationist b.s. converges with Zionist fears of a “Palestinian demographic time-bomb.” This bears out the utterly racist assumptions that underlie the “population establishment’s” ideology.

    Of course, the per capita income in the occupied territories has NOTHING to do with Israel’s complete destruction of Palestinian productive infrastructure and the ongoing blockade.

    Previously, he trumpeted his “profound” understanding, not “understood” by critics of populationism, that “the attempt is to relate consumption levels in individual countries to the resources available domestically to those countries.” Third World countries don’t control their own resources (and when they try to… Guatemala, Iran, Nicaragua, Grenada,…. Libya).

    They are extracted and sent to the imperial metropoles, where they help sustain demographic transitions in those countries.

  • Would Burundians be wealthier if they had fewer children? Doubtful.

    Would Burundians have fewer children if they were wealthier? Quite possibly.

    Would Burundians be freer to control their own reproduction if they were free to control their own society and economy? Most definitely.

  • no ian i’m not confused at all

    countries by fastest pop. growth rate UN 2006

    1 liberia
    2 burundi
    3 afghanistan
    4 western sahara
    5 east timor
    6 niger
    7 eritrea
    8 uganda
    9 d.r. congo
    10 palestinian territories

    and gdp/capita

    liberia $392 182/183
    burundi $411
    afghanistan $907 173/183
    east timor $2861 135/183
    niger $755
    eritrea $681
    uganda $1241 164/183
    d.r. congo #328 183/183
    palestinian territories $2465 ( from world bank 2005-2010) 130?

    high population growth = low income/ person

    • David:

      Ironically, your message proves my point. Once again you confuse statistics with truth and spreadsheets with thought.

      You appear to be incapable of understanding that correlation does not equal causation.

      Using your illogical approach, your little table might also “prove” that low incomes are the result of being a former European colony, or of years of brutal war, or even of not speaking Japanese.

  • stefan

    ist step is to tell the truth

    unless everyone knows where we are no one will be prepared to take the necessary action

    the depletion of non renewable resources and the damage from climate change will do the job for us if we refuse to take action

  • Dave Riley on August 12th, 2011 10:26 am asked,”What in fact is the program for direct applicable anywhere population control that does not involve impositions by the local state or foreign governments.”

    Where’s the answer?

    Its fine to say the planet is over-populated the question is, however, how do you reduce the numbers.

    This is the one question I want populationists to answer

  • ian

    how do you explain the fact that both the 2nd and 3rd largest economies have low population growth rates and yet they both have higher gdp/capita then high population growth countries like the us and australia

    china’s gdp/capita increased by 1820% from 1980 to 2009 and japan by 434% copared to 401% in australia and 374% in the us

    as recently stated by prof.micheal spence

    “the chinese realize that (lack) of natural resources won’t let them complete the journey”

    “complete the journey” ie to a “rich” high consumption economy

    ian it is a pity if you didn’t understand the assumptions behind the study

    the attempt is to relate consumption levels in individual countries to the resources available domestically to those countries

    it shows ( on the information available ) that most “rich” are overpopulated for the level of their consumption

    there are also “poor” countries who are overpopulated as there are “poor” countries who are not (yet?) overpopulated

    it is also of note that the study used figures from 2006 and we have added another 250 million plus humans to the planet since then

    this is almostthe same as the total human population when jesus was doing his thing

    usually the population 2 30ad is estimated @ 300 million

    and of course this is just a first attempt

    to conclude can i point you to jeremy grantham’s quarterly letter

    his july letter started with this quote

    “You and I, and our government must avoid the impulseto live only for today,plundering,for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow”

    Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961

    • No one, I’m sure, doubts David Attenborough’s sincerity. But it is difficult to see why his long career as a broadcaster and BBC bureaucrat should cause us to view his comments on population as anything more than opinions. His talk is long on numbers and assertions, and totally lacking in proof.

      I commented on his talk when it first appeared.

    • David Glover posted a link to an “Overpopulation Index” produced by the ever-vigilant Optimum Population Trust.

      Thank you David … I had not seen this wonderful example of populationist bafflegab before.

      A political satirist could not have done better — make a chart with lots of impressive looking numbers under the scary headline “Overpopulation Index” and the case is proven. No economic, social or class analysis is needed — just total up the bodies and divide that number into whatever other statistics you can find.

      The poverty of Africa is just the result of birth rates: it has nothing to do with centuries of imperialist plunder. People in Kenya are hungry because they have too many babies, not because agribusiness finds it more profitable to grow flowers for Europe than food for local consumption.

      Again and again, populationist propaganda demonstrates that, as Daniel Bensaid wrote, “information does not constitute thought, and factual information does not constitute knowledge.”

      See also: Sex, lies, and statistical correlation: A caveat for populationists

  • On the question of reducing population, I think Betsy Hartmann sums it up well: “The best population policy is to concentrate on improving human welfare in all its many facets . . . Take care of the population and population growth will go down. In fact, the greatest irony is that in most cases population growth comes down faster the less you focus on it as a policy priority, and the more you focus on women’s rights and basic human needs.”

    The point is that if women have real choices over their lives and their bodies, they will tend to have fewer children overall. High population growth rates (where they do exist, which is not the first world) are a consequence of several complex social factors that are not very well understood. But poverty, war & women’s oppression appear to be major factors. But we can safely say that high birth rates do not occur because NGOs in the North are yet to press a condom in a slum dweller’s hand or convince residents of refugee camps and shanty towns to be more “responsible” – as Simon Ross puts it.

    Simon Ross suggests without zero net immigration Britain’s wage levels and services will collapse … but you may have noticed these things are being destroyed right now through a vicious austerity program. The culprits are not migrants, but those that hold economic and political power in Britain. They are forcing the poor to pay for the bailout of the rich. And these powerful forces are the same vested interests that stand in the way of a rapid transition to renewable energy, mass transit and other measures.

    The kind of border-control ecology that Simon has put forward is not a “rational response” to the ecological crisis, but it is a “rationalisation” of the status quo. It suggests the ecological/social threat lies (at least partly) outside Britain’s (or Australia’s, Canada’s etc) borders. But the corporate polluters who make the decisions that force greenhouse gases up, bulldoze forests and worsen social inequality are not Polish bricklayers or West Indian nurses searching for a better life.

    Ecosocialists argue the ecological crisis is not a question of human numbers (which will stabilise mid-century and fall thereafter in any case), but a question of political and social power and who holds it – a tiny minority, or the disenfranchised majority. Migrants and the billions of people in the Third world will be the central part of any solution. Best to work out how to link up with them and join together in movements for ecological sanity. Border control ecology makes that task harder.

  • I’m new here and have tried to stay out of this discussion. Sorry, but now I feel I need to throw in a few point and I’ll apologise in advance if I repeat something already said as there was simply just too much to read and digest in one go ?

    ‘Socialism’ seems to be reified as a single, heterogeneous ideology, separate from ‘capitalism’. We should seriously think about what we mean when we use these two terms: I won’t even attempt to define either as they are probably indefinable. However, I can’t think of a single major socialist party or, even less so, socialist government, which is not overtly supportive of neoliberal capitalism. The only word on their typical manifestos which stands out is ‘growth’, as in economic growth.

    We need to find way to eliminate the false dichotomy between nature and society. Most of the world’s current problems can be linked to the way in which the people of ‘developed’ nations have separated themselves from, and placed themselves above nature. Controlling nature is as unnatural as controlling population. It is nature which is the defining measure of control. In this way, some might falsely argue that nature will get its revenge and force a reduction in human population. No, the only thing which will cause significant human population decline will be human foolishness and greed. Continued capitalism will, inevitably, reduce our population. I’ll come back to this.

    I can’t provide accurate numbers as they probably don’t exist given that all such numbers are created by humans, each with their own set of values and prejudices. However, I think that most of us here would probably agree that perhaps 20% of the human population of the Earth consume 80% of its resources (actually of its resources plus the overdraft of 30-40% which we are already taking). Therefore, any ‘planned’, or worse, ‘controlled’, cuts in population will do what? The most realistic answer is that they will reduce the 20% of the resource use by the 80% of people – except that most of this group already consume LESS than they NEED to survive. Where is the logic here? I suppose I could go into mathematical models to actually predict the realistic effects on consumption, but I also suppose that many of us here could do the same exercise and make the results fit our desires. But if the logic is sound, then the overall effect would be minimal at best, and certainly would not bring the total consumption down to real sustainable levels (ie. significantly less than 100% of the Earth’s actual resources minus what is required for the rest of the biosphere).

    Now to continued capitalism. By the way, until 10 years ago I was one of the ‘best’ capitalists and a great consumer, so change is possible! To an extent, this issue has been touched upon. Despite the current instability of markets and social unrest caused by draconian measures by our respective governments and financial systems to prolong the life of capitalism, capitalism isn’t going anywhere fast – which is a shame, as such radical social change is both inevitable and more importantly, a deal-breaker as far as human civilisation goes. It is essential. But on the current path, it will continue to rape and pillage the lives of rich (us) and poor (them) – I’m obviously not counting the tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of people who are actually ‘rich’. Therefore, we will be forced to continue to work too much to earn too much to consume too much to perpetuate the system – so that we remain incapable of changing. This is a good news/bad news situation.

    The bad news is that it will equal the demise of human civilisation. The good news is that to avoid that bad news, we will be forced to change. The problem here, and one which I think hasn’t really been brought up here, is that such ‘force’ will probably be external. At the moment, the only thing which keeps capitalism intact is ‘power’ and ‘control’ – the same types of unconscionable behaviours which are predicated in population ‘control’, birth ‘control’ and so forth – put differently, this is a perpetuation of the nature-society dichotomy. (Just think about this, when a very poor indigenous mother has multiple children it is very often due to the simple desire for the family to survive – more children to contribute to the labour required, and to replace the 50,000 children who die each day because they do not have the basics of food and water). Sorry, I’m digressing.

    One thing we can be sure about over the next 10 years, perhaps 15 years, but probably not much longer than that, is that this need to control will become paramount for several of the world’s hegemonic militaries and militaristic states. This will probably start with the US. An argument could be made that China might take the forefront given that just in order to provide jobs for the minimum number of new workers each year, China NEEDS a minimum of 8% annual economic growth. Remember, though, that despite a very few rich Chinese, the average income is still just $300 per month – and the only way those people can even think of raising their living standards to ‘our’ level is by increasing dramatically their incomes – with the consequent disastrous impact on resource exploitation), and in order to do that, ‘our’ costs of living would have to rise accordingly – this is simply impossible. No, this is not an argument in favour of reducing the Chinese population, as that would totally miss the point. In fact, ‘their’ incomes will have to be kept ridiculously low so that ‘we’ can continue to consume and support capitalism. So luckily, those poor people will not be able to become like ‘us’.

    Peak oil has been mentioned. The only possible result of peak oil, in a society which is governed by power and control, is that at some point in the very near future, one of the world’s major militaries will be obliged to take total control of the fossil fuel industry. Think about it: how can the US military even imagine maintaining it’s power if there is insufficient oil to power it. Technology will not come to the rescue (fast enough anyway). A hybrid-powered jet-fighter is a little bit still in science fiction; to say nothing of the millions of gallons of fuel it takes to keep their troops mobilised and even to simply get water and petrol to those same troops (it already costs hundreds of dollars for each gallon of petrol which arrives in Afghanistan). The military(ies) will have no choice but to take such drastic action long before there really becomes a serious supply issue. As I said, 10 or 15 years is my bet. At that juncture, society will have no choice but to change: it will either rise up in the war to end all wars, or it will submit. But submission will be the end of capitalism as we know it, as the world’s economy cannot continue to exist on whatever tiny portion of fossil fuels are doled out to it by the controlling military(ies). Oh, and the chances of the ‘other’ militaries just lying down and accepting such a move? Slim, I suspect.

    Therefore, given that even the most optimistic populationists cannot see adequate population decline in less than 50 years, and given that we, the world’s not-so-free people, cannot possible, collectively, accept world-scale war or submission to military control, we have only one viable option. To bring about radical social change as soon as possible. We must consider it to be our only goal. We must take one foot out of the consumer/capitalist trap and place it on terra-firma of a new societal model: if we collectively agree to do that, with even 10% of success at first, we will get there. Will it be ‘socialism’? Perhaps, perhaps not. Will it be better? That depends on your definition. Will it be successful? Only we can decide. This is no longer a debate about climate change, as it so often becomes: we need to transcend that debate as it disguises the real issues – a fact very well understood by the denialists. Anything we argue which can be done to ameliorate the negative change in climate is also essential to avoid the collapse of human civilisation.

  • Ian’s comment above about what we WON’T do makes very clear the position of ecosocialists. I agree completely.

    My impression at this point is that S. Ross does not have a plan to decrease any county’s birthrate other than “promoting” the importance of decreasing the human population by birth control. He is however choosing to be more active to control his country’s population growth (not birthrate) by working to limit immigration into his country.

    I can’t blame anyone for feeling concerned about populations from less wealthy countries immigrating to their own which is not suffering serious deprivation at this time. We all worry on some level because the truth is the length of time our own developed country could avoid similar suffering will decrease by allowing huge numbers to immigate. The day may come when we the lucky, will be compelled to do so or face committing large numbers of suffering people to death by refusing them refuge. Many of us do not want to face a choice like this and would rather work to stop climate change, the distruction of our environment and waste of our resources, not to mention fighting injustice against the powerless by those in power.

    S. Ross is acting first to protect his own safety and that of his country by advocating limits on immigration. It is his primary goal, possibly because he believes it is more easily acheived than changing our world wide social and economic systems. He is probably right. It is his first choice which I find understandable but it is not mine. Someday we all may be forced to face the same serious choices again when the options are not as easy to choose between. I hope we never get to that point. And I hope my values will stand up to a darker reality.

  • Is fighting against birth rates and immigration incompatible with fighting for social justice, as Ian suggests? No, and here’s why not.

    Socialists and environmentalists believe individuals bear some responsibility for their actions, even under capitalism. We welcome individuals’ efforts to live in a sustainable way, even though that on its own is insufficient. Having just one or two children is one way individuals can contribute to a better future. That is a universal message across geographical and class divides. It is true that the poorest communities tend to have the largest families (except for Nicola Horlick) for a whole range of reasons. We should be enabling those communities to address these reasons, which include poor reproductive health, gender inequality, poverty and lack of opportunity.

    Immigration is nothing new and is really a question of numbers. Freedom of movement is an ideal to aspire to. Currently, open borders would result in massive and hugely disruptive population flows to developed countries, resulting in a collapse of wage levels and access to services. These flows would only increase as climate change and resource scarcities become more severe. A rational response is to accept that migration should be limited to manageable levels – we suggest a broad balance between immigration and emigration – while supporting those seeking to improve those conditions in countries of origin which are driving the pressure to emigrate.

  • OK. Let’s accept the hypothesis that the population needs to be reduced. The core questions then are When? Where? How?

    If the populationists can argue that reducing population does not involve the forceful imposition of contraception by social, chemical or economic means — then let’s hear it.

    What in fact is the program for direct applicable anywhere population control that does not involve impositions by the local state or foreign governments.

    In Canada , as a ready example, what would be involved that was in sync with democracy or womens rights? In Bangla Desh from the POV of a committed Canadian populationist what sort of measures would need to be imposed on that country — by these same pro interventionist Canadians — to reduce its population growth rate there?

  • Ian knows me well, and what he says about my positions is correct.

    I do believe, however, that empowerment of women involves a great deal more than giving them access to contraception, and that countries like Bangladesh are hardly models of female emancipation. Moreover, having access to contraception and deciding whether to use it are two very different things. Under capitalism, as I have said, women’s freedom of choice is constrained my many different factors, which I don’t need to enumerate here. In addition, true freedom of choice works both ways: An “empowered” woman would have the choice to have more children, as well as the choice to have fewer, and it would be wrong to assume that she would always choose the latter.

    An exclusive focus on fertility rates ignores other, potentially more decisive, factors in population growth, such as mortality rates, longevity, public health, famine, drought, and war. Birthrates are declining worldwide, but so are mortality rates. The world population is aging, even as it increases. It will level off later this century because of increasing death rates. Wars and climate-related natural disasters will also play a big role, dwarfing the efforts of the populationists to reduce fertility.

    Even if the populationists are right, what are we to do, other than plead with people not to have children? What exactly is the “both” that they are always saying we can do? Certainly if we look at Simon Ross’s website, “both” does not include fighting for socialism. Simon Ross disputes the straw-man statement “that the green movement can only do one thing”, but his OPT doesn’t even do one thing – unless you consider a lot of rhetorical arguments for people to limit their fertility to be doing something.

    So where does this “both” come in? As an ecosocialist am I supposed to “both” be an activist for social change and wring my hands (and send money to OPT) over other people’s having more children than I do? Is ecosocialism merely “one solution” among a smorgasbord of available solutions, or is it comprehensive of all the issues of climate change, social justice, poverty, biodiversity, resource depletion, waste, famine, war, habitat preservation, and reproductive choice?

    Who’s wearing the blinkers here – Simon Ross or me?

  • Jeff and Richard make a good point, that in a time of crisis, the environmental movement can’t justify spending its limited resources trying to do “both,” which Simon Ross claims to favor.

    But a more significant problem with “doing both,” in my opinion, is that fighting to cut immigration and birth rates is incompatible with fighting for social justice. It’s not that we don’t have the resources to do both — it’s that populationism is a anti-social, anti-human ideology, no matter how sincere some of its advocates may be.

    Simon Ross caricatures our approach as “one solution, revolution,” a slogan chanted by some sectarian leftist groups in the 60s. In reality, ecosocialists will and do support any movement or reform that reduces, limits, or delays the devastating effects of capitalism. We will work with anyone, socialist or not, who seriously wants to to fight for such measures.

    What we won’t do:

    blame poor women for environmental problems;

    tell people in the South that they have to change their behaviour in order to save the world from problems caused by the rich and powerful in the North;

    promote birth control as a means to achieve populationist goals, rather than as a fundamental human right;

    tell anyone that using birth control is an effective way to fight climate change;

    try to turn rich countries into gated communities by locking out immigrants.

    Those are policies of privilege, policies that shift the responsibility for change from rich to poor, policies that divert attention away from the real environmental criminals. And they are the policies of Optimum Population Trust, which Simon Ross heads.

    No socialist can support them — not because we are sectarian, but because they are directly opposed to our fundamental goal of social justice.

  • We don’t think population is the most important factor but that it is somewhat important, that “it matters”, and that it has been ignored. We also reject the argument that population and consumption are unrelated. The number of children one has is the biggest consumption decision one makes. This isn’t only about Africa. Family size decisions in western countries have a bigger current impact.

    The critique of population concern seems to be that addressing population numbers would reduce humanity’s impact on the planet by a smaller amount or less quickly than “democratic socialist planning” and that therefore it should be dismissed out of hand.

    This “One solution, revolution” approach has the merit of simplifying your campaigning activity. However, I’m sure this blog’s readers know their history of socialism. Many influential socialists in history have rejected campaigns by the working class, trade unions, immigrants, women, developing countries, students, homosexuals and environmentalists as “distractions” from pure socialism or, later, the class struggle. Those socialists throughout history who dismissed real issues have tended to decline into irrelevance, because real issues are what motivate people. Population, rising from three billion in 1960 to around nine billion by 2050 is certainly a real issue, however society is constituted.

    I would similarly question that the green movement can only do one thing. The environment comprises many issues; we will motivate change by harnessing people’s concerns, from global to local and across the spectrum of declining resources and habitats. Similarly, we will unite the movement by accepting that all solutions have a role to play. Indeed, multiple solutions are often mutually supportive, such as the complementary roles of family planning, gender empowerment and social development.

    Instead you are counterposing solutions as exclusive alternatives, resulting in fruitless internal debates. This consumes time and energy better spent in promoting the wider environmental and sustainability agenda. It is as if you spent all your time denouncing renewable energy or sustainable lifestyles as pointless palliatives (perhaps you do that, too). Whatever one’s views on the merits of socialism, history teaches us that it is unwise to rely on it coming to pass by any particular date.

    I sometimes feel that some socialists studied Marx versus Malthus at summer school in their youth and can’t move on. As the policies arising from population concerns are generally and increasingly accepted by both governments and populations, it would be more productive if you ceased attacking it and focused on opponents of the environmental movement rather than members of it.

    • Simon Ross, CEO of Optimum Population Trust, contradicts himself.

      In the Comments above, he says “We don’t think population is the most important factor but that it is somewhat important, that ‘it matters'”.

      But just over one year ago, his organization issued a Briefing Paper calling on the UK to adopt “A Population-Based Climate Policy“, which said: “The most effective national and global climate change strategy is limiting the size of the population. Population limitation should therefore be seen as the most cost-effective carbon offsetting strategy available to individuals and nations.”

      When he posts here, population reduction is “somewhat important.” When he advises the UK government, it is “the most effective national and global climate change strategy.”

      Sorry Simon, you can’t have it both ways.

  • Richard and Jeff:

    In my opinion you actually agree on almost everything, and your vigorous arguments are focused more on the way statements are phrased than on content. That’s always a potential problem in online discussions, where the need for fast responses means we don’t always choose our words carefully.

    I have known Jeff for years, and I’m certain he doesn’t think reforms are impossible under capitalism. I’m equally certain that he supports making a full range of family planning and other reproductive health services available to all women as a basic human right, at all times and in all societies.

    I haven’t met Richard, but I follow his blog closely and have read his comments here. He does not believe that population growth is the major driver of environmental damage, which is the critical point in this discussion. Nor is he proposing that we should support family planning programs whose goal is population reduction.

    Richard is saying that there may be cases where high population complicates other problems, and ecosocialists should not be dogmatic about rejecting that idea.

    I generally agree with that, although I think Richard may be overstating the significance of birth rates as contributors to such situations. Most cases that I am aware of are the result not of high birth rates, but of economic and social changes that have undermined traditional population distribution patterns. The megacities of the south are a prime example, unsustainable by any measure — but they are the result of migration driven by the destruction of peasant economies, not of high birth rates among the urban poor. Still, over time ecosocialists will need to be alert to such issues.

    So I hope you’ll continue discussing, bearing in mind that despite some disagreements on secondary issues, you are both on the same side.

    That was clearly demonstrated by the fact that you both, in different ways, made the same response to Simon Ross’s “let’s do both” obfuscation.

  • Jeff,

    You continue to try to portray my position as of a populationist. I think I was clear enough in my second comment, so I won’t repeat myself. If you care to read what I wrote without thinking in black-and-white terms I think you will finally understand that our view of this matter is not that different.

    Where we do disagree is in your comment on family planning (BTW, Wikipedia defines it as “the planning of when to have children, and the use of birth control and other techniques to implement such plans).” You say that empowering women and raising living standards is only possible within socialist societies.

    I couldn’t disagree more. It’s not hard to see how reforms within the capitalist system have partly fulfilled these goals – the same reforms that now are being overthrown by the neo-liberal consensus. To say that only with socialism can we have an improvement of living conditions and an empowering of those who are discriminated is to kill any possibility of action within a capitalist society.

    It’s the old question of Reform vs Revolution again. I follow Gramsci on this and argue that we need to struggle for non-reformist reforms within capitalism as we struggle to overthrow it. And giving women the right to choose over their bodies is clearly a non-reformist reform, as it changes the power structure of societies and opens the way for further reforms.

    Again, things are not black-and-white. Not for me, at least.


    The main question here is what are our priorities. Should we focus on changing patterns of consumption and production or on reducing population? You say both but this is just an evasion as we clearly cannot do both with the same intensity.

    Struggling for social change is a hard task and no movement can afford the luxury of not choosing priorities. In fact, the easiest way to destroy a movement is to have people doing everything at the same time.

    Now, changing patterns of production and consumption is very ambitious. We are talking about changing the way we move, how we generate and use energy, etc. We are talking about reducing conspicuous consumption and making substantial changes in the production system. We are talking about facing the interests of the biggest corporations in the world (oil companies, car manufacturers and so on).

    If you think you can create a movement that can do all of this and still struggle for measures to reduce population growth you are truly a heroic figure.

    But, alas!, this is not what you do. You group is called “Population matters”. It isn’t called “All action that contributes to sustainability matters (including population)”.

    So, you made your choice. You focused on population as you think that population growth is the major driver of environmental damage (the definition of populationist). This is where we disagree.

  • I have been watching this conflict for some weeks and have looked back at earlier articles/posts in this site. This is what I see after struggling to understand the strong emotions generated by this topic.

    I am certain now that there exist individuals and groups that have and spread populationist beliefs for reasons I believe are UNETHICAL. I might even say EVIL. (This is what causes the strong emotions.)
    Reason 1- These BAD “populationists” use their beliefs and facts as a distraction so that most people will not notice how devestating Capitalism is to the planet, wanting others to believe that the ecological problems are caused by all the starving, breeding, uneducated, manipulated, undeserving masses in undeveloped countries. Since the populations of the advanced, developed countries are NOT growing, we are therefore not the ones to blame and WE DO NOT HAVE TO CHANGE UNTIL THOSE “OTHER” PEOPLE get their population under control.

    2. Then there are the populationists who are really are worried that because the poor, growing masses want to live like us, we must quickly stop them from breeding or we will have to give up what we have and share or we will all go under when resources are used up which may be soon if India and China don’t stop taking more and more of the planet’s resources not to mention the Africans.

    3. And some populationists are racially prejudiced and love any excuse to get rid of a bunch of creepy brown people.

    I see now that the people above really exist because I have read their comments, articles, etc. I think these kind of people are evil and I get really emotional too!

    But I also understand that scientifically speaking, the facts are clear that we overpopulated as a resource wasting species, quite a while ago, maybe centuries, but especially since we discovered petroleum which is a hugely dense store of energy that enabled us to increase our population to current levels. The planet would be doing much better without current numbers of humans and our oil no matter how we are divided up, by color, hemisphere, gender, type of government, religion or amount of oil we waste.

    But there are also populationists who don’t fit the profile above and who lke me, a non-populationist, find it difficult to hear that size of the human population is unimportant. I do agree however with the other non-populationists that there are many reasons that these facts are NOT IMPORTANT AT THIS TIME!

    There are obviously populationists who do not fit my profile of “VERY BAD Populationists.” They are decent individuals simply pointing out the fact that the planet will not be able to support this many people without the input of the huge amounts of energy it takes to support these numbers. We will continue to damage the planet wheather we are Capitalist, Socialists or some new thing. There are decent populationists, many Socialists and all Capitalists that don’t see how rapidly we are heading for a wall, a limit that is NOT of our choosing and which will PROVE the arguement unimportant.

    We need to stop climate change immediately if at all possible though it is probably too late. But most don’t also see that we better prepare for the ramifications of having passed peak oil. The limits of the planet’s oil reserves are already having an effect on the economy of Capitalism which requires continual growth and huge amounts of energy to support the population numbers that exist now wherever they live. None of the renewable sources of energy come close to amounts we need if we continue trying to live as we do now. As we try to extract energy from tar sands and other sources difficult to mine we are going to cause much more damage to the ecosystem. The problem is that we are not prepared to survive at this time, without such a dense source of energy.

    Wheather we can cange enough in 20 years becomes the ONLY IMPORTANT question. And it does make reducing our population in 50 years largly unimportant. Reality will limit our population sooner than that.

    Our only chance is to somehow quickly create the sane, just, healthy, sustainable, secure quality of life which the populationists above believe will also as a secondary characteristic allow and encourage women to voluntarily limit their own fertility.

    We need to recognize the people we can work with to create this kind of world. If you carefully read what the populationists that have commented above are saying, they will work with us to accomplish the difficult task ahead because, they are saying, it is also a world where women will choose to decrease their fertility. Even women in developing countries are smart enough to see what will be possible and necessary for the survival of the human race and the planet when and if we manage to survive the coming climate and energy crisis.

    We will be able to recognize the morals and ethics of our fellow activists when we start working together. Now is a good time to practice listening carefully to discover how we might misunderstand what others are trying to say. I read that something like 75% of what we communicate is non-verbal. Again I don’t have the source handy and I thought the figure was awfully high, but it points out the difficulty in communicating by the written word, thoughts that might be best expressed face to face where it would be easier to see facial expressions and body language. Face to face, would we find it easier to believe a populationist cared about the rights of women in undeveloped countries and also feared that we would not be able to create the necessary, just and sustainable life for these women before climate change destroyed any hope for a healthy planetary ecology which they believe includes a smaller human population?

  • I am impressed Jeff White can impute individual motivations better than the original prognosticator; in other words, those like Ross, who are working on sustainability issues in the population niche are not smart enough to understand their own motivations and failures to see the “eco-socialist truth”, or at least not smart enough to state their position clearly and without obfuscation. All “population fetishists” are part of a dim-witted racist conspiracy. Period. When Jeff White denies and rails against this, he doesn’t mean it. Er… maybe he does. So let’s run around and try to overthrow capitalism via that imminent proletarian uprising while disparaging efforts to try and expand access to family planning, strengthened gender equity and maternal health. Yay Jeff! Go you!

  • “Both, both, both”

    That’s all we ever hear from the population fetishists.

    But when they say “both” they don’t mean both. They mean let’s try to reduce the number of people so that the rest of us can survive a little while longer before the earth is completely destroyed, and then, if we really think it’s necessary, and we really have the knowledge and motivation, maybe we’ll think about changing the social order.

    Let’s run around with our squirt bottles putting out fires and then sometime later we’ll think about actually taking the gasoline cans away from the arsonists.

  • While understanding the importance of the sub-questions you ask, 1(b): “Do we need to change the way we live, or just change how many of us live this way?” seems to posit a false dichotomy. On all the numeric indicators of overshoot we would seem to need to do both.

  • A populationist responds…

    1. Is environmental destruction primarily caused by the fundamental nature of our society, or by the number of people in it? Do we need to change the way we live, or just change how many of us live this way?
    A. It is caused by both and we will thus make most progress by addressing consumption patterns, production technologies, social structures and population numbers.

    2. Is the problem the existence of a large number of people, or the activities of a small number of people who plunder the earth to reap private wealth?
    A. Both population numbers and significant inequalities contribute to growing biodiversity loss, climate change and resource issues.

    3. Are the most destructive countries those with growing populations, or those whose populations are stable or falling?
    A. The most destructive countries are those with high per capita consumption and concentrated populations, such as the UK, whose population is additionally growing rapidly. For a sustainable future, we should seek to both reduce consumption and population levels in those countries. We should also seek to moderate population growth in those less developed countries where per capita consumption is likely to rise substantially in the future.

    4. Will reducing population change the grossly ecocidal nature of capitalism?
    A. Reducing population can only be achieved through gender and social justice, including empowering women through enabling them to manage their own fertility. It thus presupposes some changes to society. It does not overturn the existing order; like renewable energy, it should be seen as a contribution to sustainability whatever the political and economic structure.

    5. If capitalism remains intact, will reducing population reduce environmental degradation in any significant way?
    A. Reducing population will reduce human impact on the environment. However, it is not sufficient and we should also address issues of social justice and technological choices.

    6. Will campaigning for reduced population help build a powerful green movement, or will it alienate us from our most important allies, and divert the movement away from its most important tasks?
    A. Taking a comprehensive and integrated approach to consumption, population and social issues will contribute to a united and evidence based green movement. The movement is weakened to the extent that it ignores or rejects a key and widely accepted factor. Population reduction is achieved principally through seeking reproductive health, gender and social justice and awareness of environmental and sustainable issues. These are widely held rather than divisive aspirations. Population, when approached as part of a wider environmental agenda, is not a diversion but integrates complementary factors.

    7. And even if you disagree with me on those issues: If we have at most 10 or 20 years to head off catastrophic climate change, does it make any sense to focus our efforts on population programs that even the most optimistic populationists say will take 50 years to have a marginal effect?
    A. Seeking lower populations is just one contribution to sustainability; it is complementary to other approaches, not a replacement of or opposed to others. Whatever happens in 10 or 20 years time, and however successful or unsuccessful other approaches are, seeking a long term reduction in human numbers means that it will be easier for humanity to solve the issues of a post fossil fuel future.

    8. Doesn’t carrying capacity or optimum population depend on resource use efficiency and per capita consumption and is thus a highly uncertain measure?
    A. Yes, but the evidence of biodiversity loss, climate change and resource depletion is that current aggregate consumption is too high. By seeking a falling population, we create the ‘head room’ to enable the per capita consumption of developing countries to grow without further adverse impact on the environment.

  • Ricardo Coelho wrote:

    Women should choose how many children they want to have. If a woman wants to have 10, fine by me. If a woman wants to have 0, fine by me. As long as it is the woman’s choice and that children are well taken care of, I can see no problem with having lots of babies.

    Well, which is it? Do you really see “no problem” or do you think it contributes to poverty, famine, and habitat destruction? You can’t have it both ways. And whether a woman “chooses” to have 10 children, or is forced by others to do so, makes no difference to the environment.

    Family planning does lower the fertility rate when it is high (look at Bangladesh, for instance). Empowering women and raising living standards work in the same direction.

    What is “family planning”? Does it involve empowering women and raising living standards? If so, family planning will have limited success under capitalism. If you want empowered women and raised living standards then you need socialism.

    As I put it, exponential population growth is A driver of habitat destruction in SOME parts of the globe.

    Well, what are we to make of this observation? Do we seek out the places in the globe where habitat destruction is rampant (i.e. most of the planet, by my reckoning) and teach the women we find there about family planning and birth control? Or do we fight to liberate all of the people from the habitat-destroying capitalist system?

    Capitalism is not just an abstraction. It has very real environmental effects, and all of its actions and functions that cause those effects are carried out by people. Does that mean that the people are the problem, or is the problem the system, which shapes and directs their social and economic activities, their needs, their wants, their reproductive behaviour, and their very perceptions of what a family is?

    In what sense is it possible to say that the problem is both?

  • Jeff,

    If you read carefully what I wrote you will see that I never argued that poor women should have less children. In fact, the point of my commentary was precisely to counteract that kind of argument.

    I’ll put it more clearly:

    – Women should choose how many children they want to have. If a woman wants to have 10, fine by me. If a woman wants to have 0, fine by me. As long as it is the woman’s choice and that children are well taken care of, I can see no problem with having lots of babies.

    – Family planning does lower the fertility rate when it is high (look at Bangladesh, for instance). Empowering women and raising living standards work in the same direction. This happens not because there is a deliberate attempt by the government to reduce the fertility rate but merely because most women who have lots of babies do so because they are forced by the curch, the patriarchy and/or poverty.

    – As I put it, exponential population growth is A driver of habitat destruction in SOME parts of the globe. A is different from THE. SOME is different from ALL. Recognizing that population growth is a problem in some cases does not make me a populationist.

    BTW, I do hate populationists. I think they’re sexist middle-class men from the North who think they know what’s best for poor women in the South. At least this is the case for most of them, as far as I can see. But this hasn’t led me to the point where I would just scrap population growth from the list of problems to solve, it just led me to put it at the bottom of the list.

    I also do think that it’s plain stupid to throw a number in the air and say that it’s the “right” number of people on earth. But I also think that reducing fertility rates in some cases can make a difference in solving environmental and social problems.

    Fortunately, this is an “externality” of family planning, contraception, poverty eradication and feminism, all of which are good things on their own.

  • Giving women the right to choose will not lower the population growth rate to zero. Their choices are constrained by a myriad of factors and forces perpetuated by the capitalist system and the capitalist institution of the family. The real freedom to choose is only possible in a free society – a socialist society, in which women (and men) are fully emancipated.

    Ricardo Coelho unwittingly illustrates this point when he says that women in poor areas of the globe should restrict the number of babies they produce, because having babies “contributes” to social problems like poverty and famine. Already he’s seeking to circumscribe women’s choice; and not just any women, but the poor ones. Women in wealthier areas of the world, it seems, don’t need to be so careful to keep their families small. Evidently, women’s right to choose depends very much on their status within the world capitalist system.

    Family planning programs are fine and good as far as they go, but they are neither an ecological cure-all nor a substitute for the replacement of capitalism with ecosocialism.

    Habitat destruction doesn’t require population growth to “drive” it. Even stable populations can wreak havoc on the environment when they operate under capitalist forms of social and economic organization, which entail production for private profit rather than human need, a built-in growth imperative that exists independently of population trends, and the drive to accumulate wealth at the expense of nature.

  • Although I agree with the arguments made by Ian Angus, I’m not as dismissive of the problems caused by population growth in some areas of the planet. It seems evident to me (although I might be wrong) that exponential population growth is a driver of habitat destruction in some parts of the world, as people need land to cultivate and build houses. But this doesn’t mean that population growth is a major driver of environmental degradation at a global scale. In fact, growing affluence contributes a lot more.

    On the other hand, though, exponential population growth can contribute to several social problems, like poverty and famine (contribute, not cause, note). That’s why it is criminally insane to say to women in poor areas of the globe to have a lot of babies, as the Church does.

    This leads me to a crucial point that is commonly overlooked in these debates among eco-socialists: the need for family planning. All socialists agree, I think, that women should have the right to control births and terminate undesired pregnancies. Progressive socialists agree on this above all because they are feminists and believe that women should decide on the fate of their bodies.

    Now, we know for a fact that when family planning is introduced and women’s rights are enforced the fertility rates decline, as women are no longer forced by their husbands, the conservatives and priests to have a lot of children and can freely choose how many children they want to have. So, in the end, just by giving women the right to choose (not by forcing them to have less kids), we lower the population growth rate to almost zero, as most women won’t have more than two children.

    The conclusion is that it is plain wrong to claim that population control is a taboo for socialists. Socialists worldwide already have struggled for family planning policies of the sort that populationists argue for (the ones that don’t argue for coercive policies, that is).

    What socialists reject is the very notion of “population control” as a societal goal instead of “family planning”, as the first requires an adherence to a unfounded belief about the right number of people on earth, while the second places the decision over how many children should be conceived in the hands of the women.

  • Thanks Ryan R. for pointing out what Cuba was able to do. It helps fight discouragement. Can’t we begin to do the same kind of thing on a local level, in effect stepping outside our nation’s economic system? We need to practice working together on this level anyway. We should stop looking for some leader, centralized organization or “big idea” to fix our problems. We can’t have a “nested array of decision making” without awareness at the smallest and most local levels. I am inspired by Rob Hopkins in the UK and Transition Culture.

    I do think the planet would, in the long run function better with a smaller human population, but I think we will approach that issue later after we have solved the more immediate problems. I wonder sometimes if those who are so desperate to control population growth, aren’t afraid that the people of the developing world, who are demanding to take part in the lifestyle of the wealthy nations, might make it impossible for us to continue living the greedy, wasteful lifestyle that we do now. Are we hoping that by getting rid of the up-and-coming populations, we won’t have to change our way of life by sharing with the rest of the world? Guess what. We are the ones who will be required to change our way of life since our way of the life is the problem.

  • Anyone think it’s a coincidence that the World Wildlife Fund, hardly a hotbed of environmental radicalism, calls Cuba the only country on the planet pursuing the path of ‘sustainable development’, combining relatively high standards of living with a very low ecological footprint.

    The most inspiring strides in this direction have certainly come in the field of agriculture. The highly industrialized and oil/agrochemical driven food system fell apart shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union ushered in the Special Period. Instead of famine and societal collapse, the world’s first (and so far only) national scale experiment in ecological agriculture. Democratically organized co-operatives are the basis for the whole process, both in the countryside as well as in the cities. Cuba’s pathbreaking progress in urban agriculture (98% of which is de facto organic) demonstrates a possible strategy for feeding swelling urban populations. Likewise, most of their world leading agroecological research programs, as well as extension programs meant to spread the new techniques to other farmers, actually incorporate farmers as more or less equal participants.

    The rest of the world should pay heed to these developments. The office of the UN special rapporteur on the right to food recent published a report advocating agroecology as the only way of feeding growing populations in times of increasing ecological pressure on our food systems. They estimated that the widespread switch to agroecological farming methods could double production in some areas in around 10 years.

    The only nation where the advancement of agroecology is official state policy is pretty much absent from the UN report, sadly. I’d say because of what closer examination of the Cuban case tells us: a socialist revolution is necessary to really implement ecological agriculture on anything more than a piecemeal basis. Worker’s control over the local level of production is the very basis for running a nation wide agroecological system. Richard Levins calls this a ‘nested array of decision making’ in the agrarian economy, in which decisions are made at the closest appropriate level. The conditions of production and appropriate solutions to problems will vary in often unpredictable ways from farm to farm, depending on a very complex number of variables.

    What’s more, can we expect capitalist agribusiness to just willingly relinquish their grip over global food systems if the food crisis gets bad enough? Of course not. To the contrary, they’ll use crisis to extract maximum profits and ride their insane and destructive trade to the very ugly end.

    It’s true that we don’t have a long period of time to avoid ecological catastrophe, but we also can’t count on any solution within the framework of capitalism. It’s socialism or barbarism, if we’re lucky. The good news is that Cuba’s example shows that with ecologically oriented socialism, a lot can be done in a short period of time, using limited resources, and under the most difficult conditions.

  • Thank you, readers, for this important and thought-provoking exchange on population and climate.

    Some of you say that populationism can’t affect anything that matters for 50 years, and then it will be only marginal. Not quick enough meet our challenge. Very true.

    Others say that the concept of radical social change is utopian and is not a practical solution 50 years from now or ever. I don’t believe that, but I’m in a minority, and, admittedly, the practicality of radical social change is hard to prove.

    I think we need a more transitional approach. Action is needed now. Massive resources need to be mobilized for planning and technological adjustment. Simple measures can achieve enormous gains, which will inspire us all to do more.

    In the process of working for immediate goals, we will come together as a world community and reason out together how to organize society to make radical adjustments possible.

    I’m struck by the U.S. government’s recent move to double auto fuel economy. I’m not saying that this is an appropriate measure from an ecological point of view. The motivation is strategic/military/financial. What’s interesting is that the car companies responded immediately that there is no technical problem standing in the way. And now it looks like this will go through.

    All that’s needed is the will.

    In Ontario, where I live, the dominant political forces are now poised to rip out the green-energy legislation. I’m not familiar with the legislation in detail, but to me, getting rid of it has a symbolic meaning. They insist that everything ecological must now end. Bike lanes are being removed. They are even talking about ripping out streetcar lines, of all things, at immense cost, to clear the way for more cars. This is a brainwashing operation, aimed at making ecological adjustment undiscussable.

    I appreciate the sincerity of many who focus on enabling (and persuading) impoverished peoples to have fewer babies. But I am alarmed that this approach is being presented as a response to global warming.

    The stakes are high, and they are posed here, right at home.

    John Riddell

  • Thank you, Eleanor, for bringing that Garrett Hardin quote to my attention: “If everyone lived on the energy budget of the Ethiopians, the Earth might support 60 times the present population, or about 300 billion people”.

    Nothing could illustrate more clearly the fact that there is no fixed “carrying capacity” to our planet – that the number of people who can live on it is extremely flexible, and depends very much on how we choose to use and distribute our natural resources and organize our social relations.

    It also illustrates very clearly that the “overpopulated” regions of the Earth are not in the developing world, where most of the current population growth is actually taking place, but in the resource-hogging capitalist metropolises, whose population growth is relatively stable.

    So whether you’re handing out birth control pamphlets in New York City or Addis Ababa, you’re not going to come anywhere close to solving the climate crisis without fighting to end capitalism.

  • …and 8) Can we even apply such ecological concepts as “carrying capacity” and “intrinsic growth rate” to a society — and nature and society are inseparable — when we are considering a market (i.e., commodity-producing) economy? Can we adequately assess such concepts, when availability of such things as food or energy resources depend on market forces? Consider “oil reserves”: two-three decades ago, tar sands would not have been considered part of them. And then we have to see human labor (power) as a commodity… Are human populations rationally distributed in a market economy? Thus, who (implied in point 3) “over-populates”? So, a corollary is, can rational population planning take place in such an economy?

  • All of Ian’s questions are meaningful and important. However, as Frederick points out, we can do both.

    If capitalism remains intact, will reducing population reduce environmental degradation in any significant way? Yes, because there is another issue—all the populations that subsist at less environmentally destructive levels are not happy in those positions. They want what “we” have . . . and without a doubt we clearly have too much material wealth to sustain an entire planet at this level. (And we cannot forget that humans are not the only inhabitants. (Our increasing numbers and the energy and food required to sustain them also destroy the habitats of our fellow nonhuman citizens. Species loss has risen exponentially and continues to do so—and can be directly attributed to human expansion—and, of course, capitalism.)

    At the risk of raising everyone’s hackles, I agree with Hardin: “If everyone lived on the energy budget of the Ethiopians, the Earth might support 60 times the present population, or about 300 billion people” (Hardin, G. From acceptance speech at the AIBS Annual Meeting at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst on August 10, 1986). Although these numbers are extraordinary, his point is valid. So long as emerging societies want to be “upwardly” mobile, population also matters.

    Will reducing population change the grossly ecocidal nature of capitalism? No, it will not, but it may mitigate continued destruction while we figure out a better way. Ridding the world of capitalism is no easy undertaking. It has proven resilient and addictive and it is far more intriguing and exciting than its alternatives.

    My question is how do we make “less” normative? Our species does not easily let go of the comforts of accumulation and technological advancement. Witold Rybczynski noted that human beings do not change behavior until absolutely necessary. He chronicled various “watershed” events from history, for instance, the switch to coal when the forests of Europe were plundered and then the switch to cleaner methods of producing energy when England became smothered in choking smog from burning coal. Rybczynski did not say that humans make better choices under these circumstances, just different ones (Taming the Tiger, 1985). We may move from bad to better, but often without investigating the future outcomes of the new choice—so it may not in the end be better.

    If climate scientists are correct, and I believe that they are, indeed we do not have much time—certainly, I agree, not enough time to reduce the population by billions. But let us at least address population as part of the platform for significant changes in how our society functions.

  • Excellent questions, Dave. I’m glad to see you back here.

    The 10 million figure you cite comes from the recent UN population projection, a forecast which, as Fred Pearce has shown, depends on some very dubious assumptions about population trends. A peak of 9.2 billion sometime in the 2050s seems more likely. But I know you think that’s too many as well.

    Can we provide economic and social justice for all, including other species? I believe so — but only if we get rid of an economic and social system that has waste and destruction built into its DNA.

    Lourdes Arizpe, a founding member of the Mexican Academy of Human Rights and former assistant director general of UNESCO, poses the issue very clearly:

    “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.”

    Climate & Capitalism has argued that case extensively, as you know. I won’t try to repeat all the arguments here.

    Can I guarantee that we can eliminate capitalism in 50 years? Of course not — I’m optimistic, but we can only do our best.

    I can just as reasonably ask: can you guarantee that your populationist agenda will have any more measurable impact on human numbers than it has in the past 50?

    But if you want guarantees, here is one: if environmentalists are diverted by the red herring of human numbers, if they focus on reducing population instead of building a movement to address the real social and economic causes of environmental destruction, then things are certain to be much worse 50 years from now. And that will be true no matter how many people use birth control.

  • Here are a few questions for you, Angus,

    Can you rearrange our civilization to achieve the noble goals of economic and social justice and provide for the needs of 10 billion people?

    Can you do this even if you have no regard for the rights of other species?

    Can you do this while respecting the rights of future generations?

    What assurance do you have that you can eliminate capitalism and achieve economic justice in far fewer than 50 years?

    Dave Gardner

  • Frederick, thank you for joining the discussion.

    You have offered an answer to the first of the seven questions. The rest remain unanswered.

    As for your answer to the first, perhaps you can explain how one goes about multiplying a quantity (population) by a quality (type of society). Whatever kind of math that is, it sure isn’t simple.

    Then maybe you can tell us how it is — if “capitalism is more destructive in larger societies” — that Australia and Canada, ranked 51st and 35th in world population, are ranked 1st and 3rd in per capita greenhouse gas emissions.

    Then perhaps you’ll show how your “simple math” explains the total absence of any correlation whatsoever between population density and emissions. (See Dissecting those ‘Overpopulation’ Numbers: Part One – Population Where?)

    As H.L. Mencken said long ago, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. The population explanation is a case in point.

  • It’s very simple: environmental destruction is caused by the fundamental nature of our society multiplied by the number of people in it? The lessons of the past clearly demonstrate that capitalism is more destructive in larger societies than in smaller societies. It’s simple math.

    Therefore, we must both reduce population and change the fundamental nature of human society to have enough effect to stop the destruction of the non-human world on which we depend for our own lives.