Is population control an anti-capitalist policy?

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Ian Angus and Simon Butler reply to a critic who says their opposition to population control puts them in the anti-environment, pro-corporate camp.

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by Ian Angus and Simon Butler

This article responds to an article that appeared in the webzine Dissident Voice on February 17. We submitted our reply on February 24, but the editors have not acknowledged our submission, or even had the courtesy to answer a follow-up email we sent a week later.

Since they have since published articles that we know were written long after ours, we can only conclude that DV does not wish to publish criticism of one of their regular writers.

We would think that a publication that says it is devoted to “challenging the distortions and lies of the corporate press,” would welcome a challenge to the distortions they publish themselves. Apparently not.

TooManyPeople_CoverIs population growth a major cause of the global environmental crisis? In our book, Too Many People? (Haymarket Books, 2011), we argue that “environmentalists who promote birth control and/or anti-immigration policies as solutions to environmental problems profoundly misunderstand the nature of the crisis.”

We agree with the renowned environmentalist Barry Commoner: “Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”

John Andrews, who blogs regularly at Dissident Voice, disagrees. He calls us “over-population deniers” and accuses us of having naïve faith in the goodwill of corporations, a charge that will certainly surprise anyone who is familiar with our views.

In a recent 4600-word response to a 960-word article we wrote for Grist, he blames environmental problems on some of world’s poorest people, displays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of corporate power, and proposes solutions that would do more harm than good.

African reminiscences

Andrews begins with a story about his childhood in what he still calls Rhodesia, although it has been Zimbabwe for more than three decades. He attended school there – a privilege denied to the black majority – at the time of the brutal apartheid-like regime headed by the racist Ian Smith.

Andrews’ account shows why serious social scientists treat anecdotal evidence with skepticism and caution. He may have seen the things he describes, but he didn’t understand them then, and doesn’t understand them now.

Andrews says he and his classmates were taken on a field trip and shown the contrast between the “natural grasses and all sorts of wild trees and healthy blooming shrubs” on a white-owned farm and the “hard sun-baked ground with scarcely a blade of grass” in so-called Tribal Trust Land on the other side of a barbed wire fence.

Probably his teachers meant this as a lesson about the innate superiority of Europeans over destructive Africans, but Andrews says he drew a different conclusion. On the Tribal side, he tells us, “the people lived pretty much the same way as they had done for many centuries” – they had large families because it was “simply the custom” and they thoughtlessly expanded their cattle herds beyond the land’s carrying capacity. The land was destroyed by overpopulation.

There are so many things wrong with this picture that it’s hard to know where to begin. Far from living “as they had done for many centuries,” the villagers Andrews saw were living in conditions imposed by British imperialists after they conquered the area – then called Matabeleland – in the 1890s. After the invasion, every British soldier was allowed to carve a 6,000 acre farm out of the land of the Shona and Ndebele people. In just one year, the Europeans stole over 10,000 square miles of fertile farmland, along with untold numbers of cattle.

Between 1899 and 1905, the British forcibly relocated more than half of the African population from their traditional homelands to reserves in the arid lowlands. More were forced to move in the following decades. A 1930 law prevented Africans from owning land outside the reserves. By the time Andrews was a child, almost all Africans were crammed into 25% of the country, while about 4500 white families owned 70% of the most fertile land.

The traditional way of life in Matabeleland was destroyed. Traditional procedures for governing the commons and managing communal herds were gone, leaving nothing in their place. The option of modern farming wasn’t available, because white-owned banks would not lend African farmers money for equipment or farm improvements, and agricultural schools would not admit African students.

The well-conserved landscape that Andrews saw on a white farm had much to do with government-funded soil improvement programs, training, irrigation, drainage, and road building – services that were not provided in African areas.

In the three decades following World War II, the white settler government used “overcrowding” as an excuse to confiscate more than a million cattle from Africans living on the desperately poor reserves. During the same period, they forcibly moved another 100,000 people onto the same reserves.

So when Andrews sneers at Africans who hoped for many daughters because they would receive cattle as dowries, and says that having large families was “not an economic necessity,” he is being willfully blind. The “overpopulation” of the so-called tribal lands had nothing to do with birth rates, and everything to do with the brutal system of colonial-settler rule that made his privileged childhood possible.

Attempting to explain complex human problems by counting babies, while ignoring the historical, social and economic context, is a fundamental characteristic of populationist ideology. The Andrews version is cruder than most, but far from unique.

Anti-capitalist populationism?

In his classic 1974 study of population reduction programs in India, The Myth of Population Control, Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani concludes that “population control without a fundamental change in the underlining social reality is, in fact, a weapon of the political conservative.”

We expand on that point in Too Many People?

“For more than two centuries, the idea that the world’s ills are caused by poor people having too many babies has been remarkably successful at preventing change by blaming the victims of the existing social order for poverty and injustice. Adding environmental destruction to the crimes of the overbreeding poor continues that process, diverting attention from the real environmental vandals.”

Andrews claims just the opposite, arguing that population growth is the foundation of the entire capitalist system, that “the profit that drives the various corporations who are indeed responsible for causing environmental destruction is wholly dependent on numbers of human beings.” [emphasis added]

Therefore, he says, population reduction is a progressive measure. “If there were fewer people to do the slaving and consuming, profits would be smaller – and surely this is at the heart of the problem?” Reducing global population will not just “benefit the planet” but “would also begin to cause the demise of corporations.”

He goes further, arguing that corporate power cannot possibly be reduced without population reduction. “If the power of corporations is ever to be controlled, the direct connection between their key driving force and energy source – maximum profit – and a permanently growing human population needs to be clearly understood.”

People like us, who oppose population control, are not only helping with “killing the planet” but also “playing to the tune of the corporate business world.”

An obvious real-world example contradicts his theory. Over the very years that its draconian “one child policy” has been in force, China has embraced capitalism, experiencing phenomenal rates of economic growth, a huge leap in social inequality, and massive environmental problems. Slowing population growth has definitely not protected China’s land, air or water from industrial pollution – nor has it caused “the demise of corporations.”

It’s also noteworthy that South Korea, with a birth rate well below replacement level, is one of the world’s fastest-growing capitalist economies. Nor is capitalism in imminent danger in Japan, where the population has been falling for some years.

Obviously capitalism requires workers and customers, but the idea that capitalist profits are “wholly dependent on numbers of human beings,” is just absurd – as is the idea that population reduction will somehow weaken the system.

On the production side, even the most labor-intensive industries can replace people when necessary. For example, in 1930, 21% of the U.S. population worked in agriculture: today less than 2% do, even though more than twice as many people are buying groceries. The replacement of people with machines – substituting dead labor for living labor, as Marx would say – is a constant feature of capitalism.

On the consumption side, a huge amount of sales growth has been achieved not by selling to more customers, but by using a variety of means to ensure that existing customers must buy more. One telling statistic: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, between 1960 and 2007 the volume of throw-away products in municipal garbage dumps grew more than twice as fast as the population. For over fifty years, products made for instant disposal – or that can’t be repaired – have generated sales growth vastly greater than population growth.

And that’s only part of the story. Capitalism’s drive for growth isn’t a drive for more customers – it is a drive for more profit, and corporations have innumerable methods of achieving that goal, no matter what happens to birth rates. Andrews’ simplistic approach – fewer people equals fewer sales equals weaker corporations – entirely misunderstands what’s involved, and directs the attention of progressives to “solutions” that won’t have any effect on the power of the organizations and people who are destroying the global environment.

What is to be done?

Perhaps the strangest feature of Andrews’ article is the contradiction between how serious he says the problem is, and the feebleness of the solutions he proposes.

On one hand, he says that “human overpopulation … is the single most important factor contributing to human destruction of the environment.” It is “killing the planet.” He says the Earth has been overpopulated since “sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries,” and perhaps much longer. If he really believes that, he ought to be demanding immediate drastic action. To get back to sixteenth century levels would require a crash program to eliminate more than 6 billion people, very quickly.

But he proposes no such thing. Instead, he wants a propaganda campaign (he calls it education, but that’s a euphemism) to promote a voluntary two-child policy. If we do that, he says “the planet’s population would at least stop growing and more or less level out …. In other words a two-child family would be quite sufficient to be effective.”

Excuse us? If what Andrews has written about overpopulation is true, then what he is advocating is permanent overpopulation, guaranteeing the destruction of life on earth in the not-distant future. He warns of an overpopulation apocalypse, then proposes measures that cannot possibly prevent it.

The problem for Andrews – and for the many populationist groups that take a similar stance – is that there is no humane way, no way that respects human rights, to reduce human numbers to the levels their propaganda says is necessary. Even China’s brutal one-child policy has at most slowed growth, not reversed it. That’s why so many supposedly voluntary population reduction campaigns have been found to use various forms of coercion in order to achieve the demographic targets their sponsors were promised.

And that’s why Andrews qualifies his claim that voluntary measures are enough, writing, “I do not believe there’s any need – yet – for forcing people to limit the number of children they have.” That little word “yet” speaks volumes: whenever population control is on the agenda, the human rights of people deemed “surplus” are always in danger.

A dangerous diversion

The environmental crisis demands rapid and decisive action, but we can’t act effectively unless we clearly understand its causes. If we misdiagnose the illness, at best we will waste precious time on ineffective cures; at worst, we will do even more damage.

Andrews’ article is a case in point. Because he separates population growth from its historical, social, and economic context, his explanation boils down to big is bad and bigger is worse, and his solutions are just as simplistic.

If environmentalists adopt his approach, they will not just be ineffective – instead of confronting the real eco-vandals, they will target the victims of environmental destruction, the people who, as we wrote in our Grist article, “don’t destroy forests, don’t wipe out endangered species, don’t pollute rivers and oceans, and emit essentially no greenhouse gases.”

The capitalist system and the power of the 1%, not population size, are the root causes of today’s ecological crisis. If we don’t understand that, we will never stop environmental destruction.

Ian Angus and Simon Butler are the co-authors of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis, published by Haymarket Books in 2011. Ian edits the online journal Climate & Capitalism. Simon writes for the Australian newspaper Green Left Weekly.


  • Population control is an anti-capitalist policy because capitalism requires increasing demand given increasing production to ensure more profits.

    Population control is not an anti-capitalist policy if it leads to lower birth rates which, coupled with economic development, leads to more prosperity, and thus similar (if not greater) demand for increasing production to ensure more profits.

    Thus, capitalists support both, i.e., a birth rate that will ensure a steady increase of consumers, but low enough to ensure more consumption per capita thanks to prosperity.

    • Great: a comment from someone who hasn’t bothered to read the article. Ralfy has just repeated the “capitalism needs customers” argument that we criticized, without any reference to what we wrote. How very thoughtful. And how very typical of populationism, a school of thought that is, it seems, impervious to evidence.

  • Well written retort to the ridiculous Andrews. I can only add that the spurious causative claims regarding population and resource exhaustion/pollution/whatever obscure a basic logical problem with the argument. There is no such thing as population. How do they miss that one? At the very least it remains a much better test of intelligence than the racist IQ test. Andrews fails miserably.

  • The math is even simpler than you think.

    total consumption ÷ population size = consumption per capita

    That’s how per capita consumption is calculated. Transposing one term from the left to the right produces your formula, which is nothing more than a tautology:

    total consumption = consumption per capita × population size

    You might as well say:

    total income = average income × population size

    and pass that off as a brilliant insight into where money comes from!

    There are biological limits to the size of any animal population, including humans. I don’t know what the limits are for human population on this planet, but I do know that the limits are not fixed and immutable. I also know that that limit is much higher if the human population has the power to plan and organize our society and our production of goods in a democratic way that respects and preserves the natural environment, and when we have the individual knowledge and means to plan and control our own reproduction. I also know that such a society is impossible under capitalism, where everything is geared toward the maximizing of private profit and the vast majority of people are disempowered and alienated from their own environment and their own economic life. That’s why Job One is to change the system.

    • Please, there is no need to be sarcastic. Your mathematical reasoning is not correct, but that is beside the point here.

      Socialism is a goal in order to end oppression and exploitation of the working billions. Now it is also a necessity for avoiding a cathastropic development of the climate and the environment. Some people may have thought that under socialism (or perhaps under communism), the road to unlimited affluence would lay open. Today we know better. If it turns out that even under socialism, the present population is too large to secure a desired standard of living for everybody on Earth, one will have to choose between my options (2) and (3). Would it then be reasonable to claim that the poorest people should be responsible for downregulating the size of the population to match the available resources?

      • Leaving aside the possibility that a future socialist society might face challenges relating to population (or not), the real issue is what do we do today, in today’s society, dominated by today’s social relations.

        I say we have to fight for socialism, because without it, we have no chance of saving the planet.

        Others, like John Andrews, think we can’t wait for socialism; we have to start now to reduce the world’s population. Do you agree with Andrews?

        If so, please tell us what you are advocating that should be done by today’s capitalist governments – the ones controlled by the one-percenters who want to keep the lion’s share of the earth’s consumption and wealth for themselves.

        Forced sterilization? Mass culling of populations? Establishing a maximum lifespan, as in Logan’s Run or Soylent Green? Laws to limit women’s reproduction to two children? one child? none? Or something kinder and gentler, like persuading 7 billion people, nicely, one at a time, not to have too many children, out of consideration for the rest of us?

        After you tell us your plan, please explain how you expect it, even if 100% successful in reducing the world’s population by billions within this century (because that’s all the time we’ve got left, if even that much), to save the planet from destruction by capitalism?

        If you could somehow reduce the population in the next 60 years to, say, 4 billion people, all you’d be doing is setting the clock back to 1975, when the populationists were already screaming that the planet had reached its carrying capacity for people. You wouldn’t be doing anything to change the fundamental nature of the capitalist society that has gotten us where we are now.

        The fact is that no amount of population reduction is sufficient to make capitalism safe for Planet Earth.

  • Is there a limit to how large population the planet can feed more or less indefinitely, without depleting non-renewable resources, upsetting the climate, etc? Obviously, yes. Have we surpassed that limit? Most likely, or we will in the (near) future unless steps are taken either to diminish the footprint of each citizen or to curb the population growth. I never wrote that “world’s ills are caused by the world’s relatively wealthy top 10% having too many babies”. Breaking the capitalist rule is imperative, but won’t automatically solve all ecological and resource problems. All other species on earth meet boundaries beyond which they are unable to multiply. Man is hardly different. Even under socialism it may turn out that the world’s population is simply too large. Nobody knows how to feed a world population of the present size or even larger 100% on renewable resources. The math is simple: total consumption = consumption pro capita x population size. If it is necessary to reduce total consumption, either one of these factors or both must be reduced.

  • The Earth is simply not big enough to provide a population of the present size with the Western standard of living. But who are using the resources? Data from the World Bank show that the wealthiest 1/10 of the world population is responsible for 60% of the world’s consumption. There isn’t much left to share for the remaining 90%. If we continue “business as usual” and more and more people aim at a western standard of living, we will run into serious trouble due to resource depletion and climate cathastrophe, not in some distant future, but in this century.
    If we aim at avoiding this, what are the options? (1) The West may use military and political power to keep the billions down while keeping control of resources for our own exclusive well-being. (2) The world population continues to grow unconstrained, but everybody accepts a standard of living that the planet can sustain, given the population size. That means lowering the standard of living in the West considerably, and the more people, the lower the standard. (3) We aim at a western standard of living for everybody, and reduce the size of the world population to a level that makes this feasible and sustainable. (4) We develop space technology and colonise other planets or import what we need from them. (5) We do none of these, and nature itself will ensure that both the population and the standard of living will decline due to climate cathastrophes, food scarcity, epidemics, drought, etc.
    Of these, (1) is no longer feasible, (2) can hardly be agreed upon in any foreseeable future, (4) is science fiction. (5) is a looming danger, and at present seems unavoidable. What about (3)? Severe birth control among the poor masses wouldn’t help, because it isn’t they who deplete the resources, it is the rich 10% minority, and among them, the 1% who commands the capital. As long as the West insists on our high standard of living, the rest of the world will strive for it, too. Therefore, if we want the world population to share evenly a decent standard of living, it is the West that needs to reduce its population and resource consumption. Other countries would have to adopt the same policy, of course, but the West would have to take the lead. Definitely not an easy policy to implement. But are there other realistic alternatives?

    • As Ian and Simon say in their book, it’s wrong to think the world’s ills are caused by poor people having too many babies.

      But it’s equally wrong to think the world’s ills are caused by the world’s relatively wealthy top 10% having too many babies. To say that “the West needs to reduce its population” is to accept the premise that resource consumption is driven by population, and not by the waste, pollution, overproduction, continual drive for profits, private appropriation of natural and public wealth, and built-in growth imperative that all characterize the capitalist system of commodity production. If you could wave a magic wand and reduce the world’s top 10% by half, they’d simply become the world’s top 5%. They’d still own 85% of the world’s wealth and their economic activity would still account for 60% of consumption. The capitalist system would continue on, with all its exploitation, inequality, and environmental destruction unabated. People would still be starving in Ethiopia.

      Capitalism has trained us to assume that a high standard of living is impossible without a society and economy built on a correspondingly high degree of waste, pollution, and destruction of non-renewable natural resources. I hope for a society in which “standard of living” is not synonymous with “level of consumption”, and consumption itself is not synonymous with destruction of the planetary ecosystem. Such a society is impossible under capitalism, but achievable under socialism. That’s the only realistic alternative.

  • Although access to abortion and contraceptives are noble causes to campaign for, there is absolutely no correlation between these and population growth. China’s one-child policy has resulted in a horrific mistreatment of children born of an unwanted sex or out-of-wedlock, and hasn’t even resulted in a declining population there or a halt to environmental damage. The only real way to shrink numbers is compulsory mass sterilisation, culls, plague or natural disaster. If the populationists aren’t proposing any of these then they’re wasting their time and should be focussing on the real causes of environmental destruction and climate change (capitalism). If they are proposing them then they’re vile and shouldn’t be given any platform anywhere. Either way, blaming climate change on population numbers shifts the blame from the people and structures that actually cause it onto (predominantly black and south Asian) women in the developing world. This is not only incredibly racist and sexist, but a huge distraction from the fight against climate change.

  • The more kids we have, the more likely it is that some of our descendants will starve, & easy options are unavailable. China’s one-child policy was often horrible, but so are famine & disease. Social justice, education, (esp of girls), & re-examination of attitudes that encourage people to breed, regardless of vocation, may not spread fast enough to avert disaster, but the future is unwritten, & we may be reduced by natural disaster or disease, epidemics being facilitated by crowded cities & fast, easy, transportation.

  • John Andrews does seem to be typical of a view of population before eco-awareness was a factor. In those days, only ‘right wingers’ were interested. An unfortunate hangover is that for ‘left of centists’ who still discount concerns that we might be reaching the planet’s ecological limits, there is an assumption that anyone who does mention population must be racist.
    Although as a founder member of the Green Party, before its ethos became indistinguishable from Old Labour, I do regard sheer numbers as ultimately crucial, I could be accused by the likes of Andrews of complacency. It is clear to me that cultural patterns and infrastructure can be developed whereby security and care do not depend on either damaging the environment or having children to make sure you are cared for in your old age – this becomes a communal responsibility. If women in particular can believe that their first two children will survive, and are given control of their bodies and their lives, birth rates will fall as they have already where this is the case.
    It is a simple fact that Britain already has a much larger eco-footprint than its productive capacity, but the primary response to this should be greater social justice as between nations – to remove the desperation which forces people to risk death in freezer vans to get here.
    Once that can be taken for granted we can concentrate on the possible inverse correlation between low birth rate and per capita consumption, which does threaten the planet.