Too Many People? Review by socialist city councillor

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“This book should be on the shelf of every active socialist, as well as anyone serious about tackling climate change” – Stephen Jolly

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

“This book should be on the shelf of every active socialist, as well as anyone serious about tackling climate change” – Stephen Jolly

Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis
by Ian Angus and Simon Butler. (Haymarket Books, 2011)

reviewed by Stephen Jolly

Stephen Jolly, a member of the Socialist Party of Australia, is an elected Councillor in the City of Yarra, in the inner city of Melbourne. This review was published January 31, 2012, on the Socialist Party of Australia website.

Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s book Too Many People? provides a great service to the workers’ movement by systematically demolishing a key argument of the Right.

Since the 18th century, capitalism and its supporters have tried to ‘blame the victim’ for the horrors of their system. Arguing that over-population is a key contributor to scarcity has been the key point made by these types – from Malthus in Marx’s day to sections of the environmental movement and the political Right today. (Malthus falsely argued that population grows exponentially while food supply only grows arithmetically).

In Australia today some Greens and anti-development groups blame a rising population for climate change and urban squalor. This lets big business, greedy developers, and the big polluters off the hook and diverts attention away from the real issues.

This ‘mystification’ provides value to the propertied classes, as Angus and Butler point out. “While population is by no means irrelevant, giving it conceptual pride of place not only inflates its explanatory value but also obscures the essential factors that make for ecological degradation and makes it impossible to begin the hard work of overcoming them.”

It’s rich people and capitalist profit-first production in factories and farms that is the cause of most carbon emissions, not ordinary people. What Angus and Butler have done is take this basic truth and fleshed it out from many different angles.

They write: “Populationist policies focus on symptoms, not causes. Worse, they shift the blame for climate change, and the burden for stopping it, onto the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.”

They show how “poverty was the cause of rapid population growth in the 20th century, not an effect – and poverty itself was the result of centuries of colonialist plunder.” The Industrial Revolution in the rich countries eventually led to a fall in population growth as “children were no longer economic assets and improved pension and social services means that parents didn’t need to depend on their children’s support in their old age. This natural result was a reduced birth rate, which occurred even without the benefit of modern methods of contraception.”

One simple fact from the book demolishes the central tenant of over-polulationists. Between 1960 and 2000, while the world’s population doubled, food production increased by about two and a half times. In the same period, the global death rate fell from 15.5 to 8.6 (annual deaths per thousand people).

It’s therefore clear that food scarcity stems from inequality and the nature of capitalist distribution rather than a lack of food.

Angus and Butler show that isolating and linking population growth to a rise in carbon emissions only shows correlation, not causation. This correlation, “that seems obvious when we consider only global figures, turns out to be an illusion when we look at the numbers country by country.”

For example Sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. On the other hand high-income nations had 7% of the world’s population growth and 29% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore carbon dioxide emissions are primarily a problem of rich countries, not poor ones.

Too Many People? also has four very useful appendices including on ‘The Malthus Myth’ and a brilliant tract on immigration from US socialist Eugene V. Debs written in the early 20th century.

Socialists before have made all of Angus and Butler’s points but never in such a systematic, clear and concise way. This book should be on the shelf of every active socialist, as well as anyone serious about tackling climate change.


  • The French peasantry found ways to control its fertility which ensured population stablilty for 500 years.
    A small-holding peasantry has an economic interest in avoiding the continual subdivision of its plots of land to the point where they become uneconomic.
    This is what happened in Ireland, where the peasants had become the tenants of absentee landlords.
    It was able to barely survive through farming potatoes, which have the advantage of providing the essential vitamins and calories needed to avoid malnutrition.
    When this monoculture system failed due to the blight, the population crashed.
    Whereas the French peasantry could respond to famines by having more children, then reducing the birth rate to maintain the existing pattern of landholding.

    In Brittany, where peasant land ownership was less common, the birth rate was closer Britain’s.
    Italy is a similar case to France, albeit with the complication of also having a very high emigration rate since the late 19th C.
    Although they’re self-evidently Catholic Countries, there were nevertheless, various traditional means to control population besides artificial contraceptive devices.
    These include delayed marriage, non-reproductive sexual practices and prolonging lactation.
    Given a peasant agriculture that could supply ample foodstuffs, infant mortality could be reduced.
    Women could breast feed for longer, which is the natural method of birth control.

    Britain went through the “Demographic Transition” much earlier than either France or Italy.
    It had a very disruptive period of high birth rates, combined with high death rates, where the former overwhelmed the latter and drove rapid population growth
    As child labour was legislated against and the concept of a family wage spread amongst the skilled working class, there was less of an economic incentive to have large families.

    Then the public health reforms, sex education and the availability of contraception played a bigger role in reducing the birth rate than in France or Italy.

    I don’t think this disproves the thesis that it was the development of capitalism and generalised wage labour that led to rapid population growth in all these countries.

  • “The Industrial Revolution in the rich countries eventually led to a fall in population growth as “children were no longer economic assets and improved pension and social services means that parents didn’t need to depend on their children’s support in their old age.”

    “Eventually” in this case, being well over a century after the Industrial Revolution started. Which strains the credibility of the argument just a little bit!

    Meanwhile, between 1801 and 1901, England’s population increased from 8.3 to 30.5 million.
    London had become the largest city in Europe and the population of the industrial towns increased dramatically.

    Yet Engels, in his “Condition of the Working Class in England” (published in German in 1845) argued that the mortality rate from infectious diseases was higher in Manchester than in the surrounding countryside.

    So what was causing this rapid population growth?

    Arguably the main factor was the capitalist enclosure of farmland, which had led to the growing proletarianisation of the agricultural labour force.
    This undermined the traditional constraints on family size practiced in agrarian society.
    During the 18th century, the average age of marriage had decreased in England, leading to longer years of child-bearing for women.
    The illegitimacy rate also rose; from 2% at the beginning of the 18th century, to 6% by the end of it.
    Both factors caused a marked rise in the birth rate.
    Between 1820 – 1900, the population growth rate in England was 166%, whereas in France, where peasant farming was still common, it was only 26%.
    The potato blight and attendant evictions from the countryside after 1845, also meant that Irish migrants flocked into the growing industrial towns of North West England.

    Eventually, the Victorian Social reformers started to deal with the worst effects of capitalist industrialisation.
    In his introduction to the 1892 edition of his “Condition of the Working Class..”, Engels noted that:-
    “…the repeated visitations of cholera, typhus, small-pox, and other epidemics have shown the British bourgeois the urgent necessity of sanitation in his towns and cities, if he wishes to save himself and family from falling victims to such diseases. Accordingly, the most crying abuses described in this book [1845 edition] have either disappeared or have been made less conspicuous…”

    The reduction in the infant mortality rate helped to create a climate in which arguments for pactising contraception could be made by social reformers like Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh.
    But not without a fight; both were put on trial in 1877, for publishing a book by the American physician Charles Knowlton, advocating sex education and birth control.
    They were founder members of the “Malthusian League”, which wanted to abolish legal penalties against promoting contraception.
    This did not denote having reactionary politics; Bradlaugh was pro-trade union, a republican, and a supporter women’s suffrage.
    Annie Besant was a Socialist, active in the Matchgirl’s strike and a supporter of Irish and Indian Independence.

    In short, the development capitalism led to rapid population growth and the fact that this later stabilised was due to the conscious efforts of social reformers.

    • As any historian will tell you, altho the industrial revolution began in the late 1700s, it did not have much effect on death rates and life expectancy until the last quarter of the century — and then the birth rate started falling dramatically. Obviously crusaders like Beasant and Greenhalgh played a heroic role, but it makes little sense to attribute behaviour changes by millions of people to propaganda alone.

      In any event, birth control reformers can’t claim credit for the dramatic drop in the birth rate in Catholic France at the same time. Efven more framatic was the experience in Italy after WWI, a Catholic country where birth control was condemned by the church and outlawed by the state with heavy penalties, and where the Mussolini regime ran massive campaigns urging women to have more babies — and still the birth rate fell well below replacement level.