Population is not the problem

Two hundred years ago, British economist Thomas Malthus (pictured) pioneered the simplistic argument that population growth was

Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations & the Coming Population Crash
By Fred Pearce
Corgi Books, 2010, 352 pages

Review by Martin Empson

In the 200 years since the Reverend Thomas Malthus first penned his tract, An Essay on the Principle of Population, the question of the “carrying capacity” of the planet has repeatedly appeared.

Most recently, mainstream debates around how to solve the question of climate change have boiled down to the simplistic argument that “there are too many people”.

James Lovelock, for instance, argues “that we are treating the planet so badly that we are likely to require a population crash to about one billion people before the world can again live within its ecological means”.

The Optimum Population Trust, which “support research into lower optimum population sizes” and “campaign for a lower population in the UK”, claim that “human consumption of renewable resources is already overshooting Earth’s capacity to provide”.

This argument fits perfectly with Malthus’s own beliefs. It would have been recognised by writers such as Paul Ehrlich who spent the 1960s warning the world that its rapidly growing population would soon exceed the planet’s ability to provide. It is a recipe that ends up blaming the poorest people for the world’s problems.

The idea that a growing population means a greater pressure on natural resources, which eventually exceeds planetary capacity, is a simple common sense one. It is also wrong.

Since Malthus’s time, those who have followed in his footsteps have used such arguments to justify the world’s unequal distribution of wealth and argue against the possibility of social reform.

Racism and scapegoating have flowed from the theory and have lead to forced sterilisation programs, abortion and anti-immigrant legislation. The resurgence of these debates in the context of environmental crisis is a distraction from discussions about the political and economic changes required to tackle global warming.

It is in this context that Fred Pearce’s latest book is such an important contribution. Pearce turns just about every perceived wisdom about population on its head.

From the publication of his first writings, Malthus’ ideas rapidly made it into the mainstream. Eugenicists tacked on their ideas of racial superiority to Malthusian concerns and the resultant poisonous mix made the perfect ideology to justify colonialism and empire.

Malthus himself had become one of the first professors of political economy, teaching a generation of future administrators of empire about the “perils of overpopulation” and the “pointlessness of charity”.

Charles Trevelyan, who oversaw the Irish potato famine of the 1840s for the British government, was a student of Malthus.

The same ideas were at the back of Winston Churchill’s mind when he called for the sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”.

Between the First and Second World Wars “60,000 imbeciles, epileptics and ‘feeble-minded’ were compulsorily sterilised in the US”, there were tens of thousands of further victims in countries as diverse as Sweden and Japan.

The logic was taken to its brutal extreme by the Nazis, who sterilised half a million people. At the time, Pearce points out, their policies were “widely admired”.

In the post-war period, Malthusian ideas were very much part of the ruling ideology of the Cold War. In the early 1950s, the Rockefeller Foundation was set up to ensure industrial development was held back from countries like India until they had dealt with their population problem.

Senior figures in United Nations organisations and Western governments believed that aid shouldn’t be given to “overpopulated” countries until they had reduced their numbers.

But for leading figures in the US administration at this time, concerns about overpopulation were not driven by a desire to improve the lives of the world’s poorest. Rather they saw the issue as a strategic threat to US dominance.

One government report concluded that “hungry people without enough land to grow food were likely to be seduced by dreams of land reform”. In addition to the introduction of population control programs, groups like the Rockefeller Foundation funded research into crop improvements — which heralded the so-called green revolution.

One of the problems for Malthus’s followers, is that time and again their predictions haven’t come true.

Today’s population of Britain is far in excess of what was possible, according to Malthus. Billions of people did not starve to death in the developing world as Ehrlich had promised in the 1970s.

The simple reason for this is the development of new and improved ways of producing food. The introduction of improved varieties of wheat, rice and maize massively increased the amount of food that was grown.

In the “30 years from 1963, food output outstripped population growth by 36 percent in Asia as a whole”, writes Pearce. “In this light, the green revolution and population control were both part of a fix to preserve the capitalist status quo”.

Changes in farming brought other consequences — the risks of relying on a few crop varieties, the environmental problems caused by increased use of water as well as the consequences of over-reliance on pesticides.

The green revolution hasn’t led to an end to hunger — though millions of people who might have starved to death can get food to eat. As Pearce points out, those who starve today do so because they can’t afford to eat, rather than a shortage of food.

But for Pearce there is another unintended consequence. Because the green revolution allowed greater crop yields, less people were needed to farm the land. This led to smaller families and falling fertility levels in Asia.

Pearce argues that falling fertility and crashing population are likely to be the real population problem for the 21st century.

In many parts of the developed world we are already experiencing a major population crisis. If fertility rates stay the same, in countries like Italy and German native populations will fall by over 80% by the end of the century. Currently Europe is producing about 6 million babies a year. That’s 2 million less than needed to maintain the population. The population of Russia is dropping by half a million every year.

Increasingly, richer countries will be relying on immigration from the developing world to keep society running. But the developing world is also having fewer children. On current trends, world population is likely to start falling within a generation for the first time since the Black Death.

The reasons for this are complex. Pearce highlights a number of factors — improved access to contraception, for instance.

He also notes how, when access to education improves, women tend to have fewer children. But he also makes the point that when there is access to decent healthcare and childcare, women are able to make the decision to have children.

An ageing, shrinking population brings its own problems. Already in France and Japan there are only two taxpaying workers to support each pensioner. In Italy the figure is as low as 1.3.

Many economies will increasingly rely on migrants to work; flying in the face of the anti-immigrant rhetoric we currently are experiencing. But Pearce comes to a positive conclusion.

However, from an environmental point of view, he doesn’t believe we should stop worrying. Population is not the key factor in environmental destruction. What is important is the distribution of wealth.

“The poorest three billion or so people on the planet (roughly 45 percent in total) are currently responsible for only 7 percent of emissions, while the richest 7 percent (about half a billion people) are responsible for 50 percent of emissions.” Thus an increase in the population of the poorest areas of the world, despite what we are told by some environmentalists, will make little impact on climate change.

The big question is how we change society in the richer world.

Fredrick Engels summed up Malthus’s ideas simply: “The earth is perennially overpopulated, whence poverty, misery, distress and immorality must prevail; that it is the lot, the eternal destiny of mankind, to exist in too great numbers, and therefore in diverse classes, of which some are rich, educated, and moral, and others more or less poor, distressed, ignorant and immoral.”

For Marx and Engels, arguments of overpopulation hid a wider issue. They were a fig leaf covering racist ideas that justified the way that the world was.

Today questions of population are still used to hide from us the wider question of how we must transform our own societies to save the planet and its people.

It is for these reasons that Fred Pearce has done socialists engaged in the environmental movement, as well as those defending migrants and fighting racism, a tremendous service with this book.

[Abridged from International Socialism Journal.]


So just what are you suggesting -- that continued and unbridled population growth is aok as long as its within a bright green(-left) future? Of course this, like much of the commentary is patent nonsense. You can of course take the view that anyone suggesting any form of population control are one-step away from being 'neo-nazis', seeking ultimate sway over life-and-death, and implementing strategies that remove personal choice, such as enforced sterilization, enacting euthanasia, committing 'ethnic cleansing', all in a drive to reduce the world population to the mythical and supposedly-manageable 1 billion level... You can criticize Malthus for the aspects of his proposition that seem to have become archaic -- but where is the fault in the observation that: "population growth (is) to blame for social and ideological decay." You only have to look at urban and inner city examples in the developed world to witness how humans degrade when forced to live in concentrated numbers in squalid conditions, under educated, without prospects in the society 'we' (they?) have created. You 'cite' Engels as if he had greater insight -- but use and example that highlights his own naive and erroneous views: “The earth is perennially overpopulated, whence poverty, misery, distress and immorality must prevail; that it is the lot, the eternal destiny of mankind, to exist in too great numbers, and therefore in diverse classes, of which some are rich, educated, and moral, and others more or less poor, distressed, ignorant and immoral.”... Today it is clearly evident that it is by far the 'rich and educated' who are the truly 'immoral', and that any immorality on the part of the 'poor' stems from desperation and resentment. NO wealthy citizen of the developed world can claim the moral high ground whilst we continue to fail to help poorer countries to address their issues, such as simply providing clean water, and we continue to expect to use others as suppliers of cheap commodities and goods. The simple fact is that 15 million children do die every year, and over 100 million died during the 90's alone from disease and malnutrition -- maybe not as dramatic as you point out that Ehrlich forecast -- but be sure his predictions will prove to be just a few decades out -- it is STILL on the cards to happen. It is simply the fact that the 7 billion people on the planet by 2012 are churning out millions of tons of CO2 that is going to change the face of the earth and this IS a population related issue -- The fact that some propose proactive consideration of population curbing strategies is not wrong, it just one aspect of several unpleasant nettles we have to grasp if we hope that this planet will remain habitable for us and other species in a century or twos time! Another 'nettle' is the complete revision of lifestyle, values and expectations of the citizenry of the developed world starting with those who churn out 20 times more CO2 than the poorer nations per head -- the 307 mill and rising US citizens, closely followed by certain wealthier European Community members. The massive populace of India and China, for example, must be assisted to achieve standards of living commensurate with the best of west, but NOT by using the means and methods that the west has used to date to achieve its so called 'luxury lifestyle'. This is a massive task, that will mean improving their infrastructures before we improve our own in the current 'developed' world, and frankly hardly imaginable given the way things work in the world just now...and rest assured if these things are not addressed Malthus will yet be proven to have been 'right on the money' with his predictions. You say: "Today questions of population are still used to hide from us the wider question of how we must transform our own societies to save the planet and its people. "... Let's be clear we must, as you suggest, transform our societies, but we must also not shy away from the issue of examining moral, ethical and proper ways of implementing controls upon future population growth all around the world.

First, you are mistaken on several points about what the article argues.

It doesn't argue that it's impossible that population could become a driving cause of environmental destruction, it argues that it isn't at the moment.

Secondly, you seem to think that all people have an equal impact on society. The easiest way to debunk this is Dick Smith himself. Dick Smith has a much higher impact — both as a producer of cheap, plastic crap that has to be upgraded every two years and as an owner of a private airplane — than the average Bangladeshi whom you hold responsible for "overpopulating" their own country.

Thirdly, you are mistaken about inner-city life in Australia. Read this, http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/45138 and you may get smarter.

As for water consumption, you have to know of Cubby Station, yes? This cotton farm had the right to use up to 50% of the throughput of the Murray at any time it wished. Do you really believe that some poor migrant had any impact comparatively? Come on.

Water consumption in Australia is dedicated to big business. Little concerns like food production never get a serious look-in. Witness the way coal-mining gets a gurnsey over agriculture in NSW and QLD. It makes more money, so it has more say, even if it screws the water table in the process.

Better water management, food sovereignty and global justice would do a lot more to curb environmental destruction impoverishment than cuts to immigration.

P.S. Your post would be easier to read if you broke up the odd paragraph. The "preview" button is there for a reason.

Thank you for sharing!