Saving resources and the environment: A modest proposal

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by Fred Magdoff. If population growth is causing the environmental crisis, here’s a simple 3-step solution that would actually work …

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by Fred Magdoff

There are significant numbers of people in the wealthy countries who believe that the great issues of resource depletion and global environmental pollution are caused primarily by the huge number of people on the globe — currently about 7 billion — and that things will only get much worse with the anticipated increase to about 9 billion by mid-century and 10 billion by the end of the 21st century.

Their suggested solution (although some say there really isn’t any — we are all doomed to chaos and barbarism) is to rapidly decrease the world’s population, mainly through a program to induce people to lower the number of children that they have.

They are behind the contraceptive programs in poor countries, funded by NGOs from the wealthy countries, making contraceptives and other family planning tools available to women.

I will save for a later date an analysis of these issues and the approaches that people are suggesting.  For our purposes in this piece I will assume that what they claim regarding the large global population’s deleterious effects on resource use and global environmental damage is absolutely correct.  Okay?

Staff at the World Bank have estimated the resource use of the world’s people by decile — the poorest 10%, the next 10% . . . up to the wealthiest 10%.

They estimate that wealthiest 10% of the people use approximately 60% of the world’s resources and that they are, therefore, responsible for about 60% of the world’s pollution, contributing to global warming, water pollution, etc.

The report also estimates that the poorest 40% of the population use less than 5% of the world’s resources. (World Bank 2008 World Development Indicators PDF)

Now let’s forget ideology for a minute. If you are very concerned about the issue of global resource use and environmental degradation, as I and so many others are, these numbers lead to an absolutely inescapable conclusion: Trying to reduce the population of poor people will not help deal with this at all.  It is the wealthy of the world that are overwhelmingly responsible for the resource/environmental problems we face.

Given this reality, here is my Modest Proposal.

The world ecosystem and its people desperately need a reduction in the consumption by the richest 10%.  I therefore propose the following program for immediate implementation:

  1. Enforce either a “no-child” or a “one-child” policy on the wealthy;
  2. Immediately introduce a 100% inheritance tax on the wealthy; and
  3. Lower the income of the wealthy by having a very modest maximum compensation (analogous to a minimum wage).

Following these prescriptions, we can rapidly reduce approximately half of all resource use and pollution in the world.  The previously wealthy would then either disappear (as they die out) or live a life in which they consume at the rate of the average person in the world.

Now that we have some breathing room, let’s get to work on the remaining issues to create a livable and socially just planet.


Fred Magdoff is professor emeritus of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor of crop and soil science at Cornell University.  He is co-author, with John Bellamy Foster, of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism: A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment. This article was first published in MRzine; it is posted here with the Fred Magdoff’s permission.


  • I have to admit I get pretty tired of hearing the over-population argument.  It is completely lacking any kind of sophisticated understanding of how consumption patterns are determined in capitalist society.  Aggregate consumption on its own is a useless statistic, not only because it ignores the fact that the bulk of the world’s consumption is done by a tiny minority, but also because it ignores the fact that consumption is determined not by consumers but by those who control production.  This is true whether you’re looking at the consumption of corporations and the military or the private consumption of the average person.  How people meet their needs for energy, food, transportation etc is largely determined by how those things are produced in the first place.  The illusion, constantly promoted by neo-liberals, is that we exercise choice, and therefore freedom, when we consume.  This is such a load of bs.  Go to the grocery store.  90% of the products in the store are produced by about 7 or 8 corporations who give us lots of pretty packages to choose from but the same garbage inside, produced in the same unsustainable way.  The highways lobby has been the largest influencer of US government policy on transportation for more than half a century.  People are driving their cars because most of the money is being spent on highways instead of mass transit systems.  City planning is largely a farce under the control of big developers who for almost a century have pushed suburban sprawl  with residences far away from work, shopping and everything else and only cars and roads for transportation.  Energy policy is perhaps the most absurd of all.  Oil and coal are the heart of how we fuel our world not because consumers chose it but because it is profitable.  By now the world should have super advanced wind generators and high efficiency solar cells providing most if not all of our energy needs.  Instead governments and corporations have chosen to put almost all the research and infrastructure funding into developing more ways to pollute, like the tar sands, highways etc. 

    When it comes right down to it the same people who are pushing neo-malthusian arguments about overpopulation are also the ones who embrace green consumerism, a strategy for change that is based on how and what you consume and therefore is dependent on how much you have to spend in the first place.  A pretty little illusion of being progressive for a minority of well-off consumers in rich countries but largely irrelevant to the majority of the world’s people whose problem is not over-consumption but under-consumption.

    The argument that I constantly hear from western overpopulation theorists is that if the rest of the world caught up to the same living standards as western countries it would wreck the planet.   The underlying assumption is that the current mode of production and it’s associated pattern of consumption is not going to change.  And that is absolutely a false and dangerous assumption.  It must change.  Here we have a choice to make.  We can push for population control policies that are inherently sexist, racist and classist and do nothing to challenge inequality or the corporate and state powers that are responsible for the ecological mess we’re in, or we can push for real, direct, democratic control of economic production with the goal of meeting human needs rather than generating profits. 

  • Ian, I agree with you that aggregate consumption is not directly proportional to population size. Relevant factors include the average consumption level and distribution amongst individuals and between consumption sectors – investment, military spending etc.

    However, consumption of resources for industrial and military purposes is not entirely separate from society but, to some extent, meets the demands or requirements of that society. So one would expect smaller populations to have smaller industrial and military sectors, assuming a similar average living standard.

    Certainly, seeking to reduce the birth rates of the poorest global communities would have limited effect on overall current consumption, even though they tend to have the highest birth rates. However, it is a prudent measure given that they may well not stay poor in the future. Moreover, environmental impact is not solely about consumption. Extremely poor communities can cause a great deal of environmental damage through hunting, forest clearance and cooking fires. In fact, populationists seek to reduce the birth rate in every community and in all classes. In the UK, the wealthy seem to have as many children as the poor.

    On another point, in your examples, you rightly point out that reducing the birth rate in one country will not affect consumption in another, though trade does mean that there are links. That is why every country has a responsibility to reduce or limit its aggregate consumption to a level which is sustainable from the renewable resources of that country.

  • Neither fewer people nor greater equity helps the environment and sustainability if aggregate consumption keeps rising. We can only ultimately reduce aggregate consumption to sustainable and equitable levels by getting everyone to a global average consumption level e.g. Ecuador and at the same time slowing and then reversing population growth. The former might well require “radical social, economic and political change” of some nature. The latter would require another $3.6bn dollars annually on rolling out family planning services and education. That’s less than one quarter of one per cent of global arms spending.

    • Simon, that might make sense if all (or most) consumption was the result of individual activity — so that what you call “aggregate consumption” was proportional to total population. But as Simon Butler and I show in Too Many People? the vast majority of pollution and environmental destruction is caused by a different kind of consumption — the use and misuse of resources by corporations and the military. Reducing population would have minimal if any effect on that.

      I’m all in favor of increased support for birth control, abortion and all maternal health services. But it is simply false to say that such programs will make any significant contribution to environmental protection. If the birthrate in Iraq or Afghanistan falls to zero, the U.S. military will not use one less gallon of oil. If every African country adopts a one-child policy, energy companies in the U.S., China, and elsewhere will continue burning coal, bringing us ever closer to climate catastrophe.

  • Fred’s 3 points for action actually include some redundancy. Point 3 would really remove the need for point 1 (and would be a more immediate solution!).

    If we’re discussing “modest proposals” a la Jonathan Swift, the film “Eat the Rich” has of course already been made. Perhaps it could be remade and updated for the era of catastrophic climate change?

  • I was so, so disappointed to read that this was satirical. I have used a similar argument every time I have had to deal with populationist propagandists especially affluent ones to very good effect. Please say it’s not satire.

  • Whilst us humans accord more significance and value to the means of exchange than to what is being exchanged and whilst we allow some of our number to endlessly accumulate the means of exchange into larger and larger holdings, thus ever increasing their power, population increase or decrease is, in my view, an absolutely irrelevant red herring.

  • @Corey It’s too sweeping to say that capitalist population policy is always for a growing population. The facts don’t support that argument. Capitalist governments have pursued policies that try to push population up, while other capitalist government’s have carried out draconian measures to push population growth down.

    So there is no consistent capitalist policy regarding high or low population growth, although there are contending, pro-capitalist economic and social theoretical trends that argue about it – neoliberalism vs neomalthusianism etc. The consistent element is that capital must treat people in the same way it treats nature — as objects of exploitation and sources of ever increasing profit.

  • You really think I did not understand Fred’s satire?

    I guess you missed the fact my reply was satire as well. The point I was making is that rearranging aggregate consumption may be morally compelling, but is not going to impact net consumption, is it? The hard limit on income, or “max compensation” might be worth looking into, but, inquiring minds want to know: who has the plan for the radical social, economic and political change capable of manifesting that? Not the delusion, but the plan?

    Secondly, for decile 7 and under it seems they need and deserve *more* consumption, so again, taking from the rich and giving to the poor isn’t going to change much of anything vis a vis consumption — though I agree we should try anyway.

    Let’s take a look at this article from Australia where capitalists are busy lamenting “slow” population growth as burden on the economy and sputtering out tidbits like “Population is power… If you don’t have people coming into the state you are not going to get the revenue growth you need.”

    Read more:

    Why can’t we agree that capitalism is both killing the planet and also looks to perpetual population growth as a primary tenet of its own development?

    • Corey, I apologize for failing to recognize your comment for the witty rejoinder you meant it to be.

      In my defense, it was an easy mistake to make, since you have repeatedly posted comments defending the very organizations and ideas that Fred is satirizing.

  • Fred,

    This is good. I first thought we would also have to *work hard* to make sure the remaining 9 deciles remain locked into their current consumption profiles, or else, the extinction of the wealthy people would not matter if they just got replaced by the deciles immediately behind them — afterall, what would “an average” person consume if they had the choice? Less or more? But that idea seemed malevolent and cruel; rather the intention should be to reduce the number of poor people by helping them to be more prosperous.

    This lead me to think “Hey, upon the 100% inheritance taxation, we could redistribute the consumption profile of the rich down to the poor… simply take that 60% of the world’s resources, and the pollution that accompanies their use, and redistribute it to all the remaining folks to achieve social equity in terms of resource use.” But then, I guess that does not make much of a difference, because overall impact does not change, it just get’s rearranged. Damn. Nice try though.

    Am I missing something?

    • Have you missed something? Let’s see …

      Mainly, you seem to have missed the fact that this – like the original “Modest Proposal” written by Jonathan Swift three centuries ago – is satire.

      Fred doesn’t really think the populationists are “absolutely correct.” He is exposing the class bias that their program conceals.

      Fred’s “Modest Proposal” would in fact require radical social, economic and political change. But, as C&C has said before, no actual populationist program ever calls for fewer rich people.