Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Is the World Overpopulated?

Is the World Overpopulated?

First cut of article written for Socialist Worker (27.06.08)

Just over two hundred years ago in 1798 an English clergyman, the Rev. Thomas Malthus, published his Essay on the Principle of Population which argued that population always tends to grow faster than food production, and that therefore, without severe moral restraint, mass poverty and famine were inevitable.

Ever since then there have been people who have argued that the world and/or Britain was, or was about to become, overpopulated. Overpopulation is cited as a or the main cause of world or national poverty, starvation, damage to the environment, climate change, unemployment, homelessness and so on. Now, with world and British food prices rocketing , oil at $130 a barrel, recession looming and hostility to immigrants being whipped up all over the place, this argument becomes more urgent than ever.

Socialists, beginning with Marx and Engels, who called Malthus’s theory ‘a slander on the human race’, have always rejected the whole overpopulation argument. It is false on principle because it inverts the whole relationship between human beings and their means of subsistence, and it is also completely at variance with the historical and contemporary facts. Let’s begin with some of the facts.

World population stands at about 6.7 billion. It is growing, but it is NOT exploding. The rate of growth is in fact declining. In the fifty years between 1950 and 2000 world population grew from 2.5 billion to 6 billion , an increase of 140%, but in the next fifty years up to 2050 demographers (experts on population) predict it will rise by 50%, and in the fifty years after that by 11%. The reason for this pattern is simple: world birth rates continue to exceed death rates, but birth rates are falling. As living standards, education and medical care improve women, more or less everywhere, tend to have fewer children.

The growth in population is NOT outstripping food production. World population grew 140% in 1950-2000, but world food production rose by 250% in less than half that time, in 1950-1970. There is no world food shortage; on the contrary there is more than enough food produced in the world to supply everyone with a decent diet.

If people are starving and there are food riots breaking out across the world this is because of the inability of particular countries or, more accurately, the poor in those countries to pay the prices demanded by the market. In other words it is because of capitalist economics and capitalist politics. I was in Egypt at the time of the food riots earlier this year – no middle class Egyptian and no tourist went short of food. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations acknowledges the situation openly:

"We have emphasized first and foremost that reducing hunger is no longer a question of means in the hands of the global community. The world is richer today than it was ten years ago…. The knowledge and resources to reduce hunger are there. What is lacking is sufficient political will to mobilize those resources to the benefit of the hungry."

Nor is the prosperity of individual countries determined by, or even significantly related to, their population size or population density. Consider the following table showing five Latin American Countries.

Country Population Area Population density GDP per capita

(millions) ( million sq. kms) (people per sq. km)

Argentina 40.6 2.7 15 $13,300 Brazil 192.1 8.5 22.5 $9.700 Bolivia 9.2 1.1 8.4 $4000 Chile 16 0.75 21.3 $13,900 Venezuela 26 0.9 28.5 $12,200

One can see at a glance that the least populated and least densely populated country, Bolivia, is also, by a long way, the poorest. Whereas Venezuela , which is more than three times as densely populated, is three times as rich.

Now look at these Asian countries:

Country Population Area Population density GDP per capita

(millions) ( million sq. kms) (people per sq. km)

C hina 1,300 9.6 135 $5,300 India 1,140 3.3 345 $2700 Japan 127 0.37 343 $33000 Pakistan 168 0.8 210 $2600

Note here that India and Japan have similar population densities, but very different histories (India was colonised , Japan was a colonising power) and hugely different levels of economic prosperity. India and Pakistan however have significantly different population densities but similar histories and economies, with almost identical levels of per capita GDP.

And these African countries:

Country Population Area Population density GDP per capita

(millions) ( million sq. kms) (people per sq. km)

Chad 10 1.3 8 $1700 Congo 66 2.3 29 $300 Egypt 81.7 1.0 81.7 $ 5500 Nigeria 138 0.9 153 $ 2000

All the African countries are poor, but Egypt which is quite densely populated (but was not devastated by the transatlantic slave trade) is relatively well off, while the very sparsely populated Chad is much poorer and the Congo, which suffered grievously under Belgian imperialism and has undergone a long terrible civil war, is poorest of all.

Finally look at these three ‘western’ countries:

Country Population Area Population density GDP per capita

(millions) ( million sq. kms) (people per sq. km)

Canada 33 9.9 3.3 $38000 UK 60 0.24 240 $35,000 USA 303 9.8 30.3 $45000

They represent completely different points on the population density spectrum, but because they have all had the benefits of industrialisation and imperialism, they all enjoy roughly comparable, high living standards.

What these examples all prove is that is economics, politics, war, in a word history, that determines a country’s (or the world’s) living standards and not the size of its population. And the reason why this is so goes to heart of what is wrong with the whole ‘overpopulation’ argument.

What that argument does is take the world’s or a country’s goods - its food, houses, health service, jobs, wealth, etc – as a given, a more or less fixed quantity, to which the population, i.e. the number of people, should be adjusted. In reality all these things are produced by people, and an increase in the number of people means not only increased demand for these products but also an increase in the number of people available to produce them.

If it were not so, the history of humanity would be an unmitigated disaster of increasing impoverishment and unemployment, for world population stood at 200 million in 1 AD, 310 million in 1000, 978 million in 1800, and 1,650 million in 1900. In fact, of course, the basic tendency has been for humanity to get richer, albeit incredibly unequally, survive better and live longer - which is precisely why the population has increased!

What has prevented the process from being even or harmonious has been the contradictions inherent in class society and, especially capitalism, with its periodic wars and economic crises. Because capitalism makes production dependent on profit, production falls when rates of profit fall, regardless of population size or the effects on the population in terms of poverty, unemployment or starvation.

The politics of this whole question is at its sharpest over the issues of climate change and immigration. Many greens and genuinely concerned people who might broadly have accepted the argument presented so far begin to change their tune when it comes to the environment and especially climate change.

The earth’s resources are finite, they say, and human beings are using them up. The more human beings there are the more pressure it puts on these finite resources . This is unsustainable; it has got to stop or the planet will be destroyed – population growth must cease, indeed the population should be reduced. But this reasoning is as false as the arguments already refuted and repeats the same basic error.

Yes, the earth’s resources are ‘finite’ and ‘limited’ in some cosmic sense but this does not mean that human activity is anywhere near reaching those limits, now or in the foreseeable future. And while some resources e.g.oil may be fixed in quantity others, such as wind and tidal power are ‘produced’ by human labour in the same sense that food is; consequently increased population means more labour to create more of these resources.

Where the carbon emissions that generate climate change are concerned it is not people as such that produce these emissions but, overwhelmingly, the burning of fossil fuels. The reason our societies are locked into the burning of fossil fuels, despite the knowledge that it is leading to catastrophe, is not the size of their populations but the crucial role this plays in the profits of big business – Exxon, Texaco, Shell, BP, Toyota, Ford etc.

Those who cite population reduction as a way to stop climate change are really saying they find it easier to conceive of ‘losing’ a billion or so people than to contemplate overthrowing capitalism, or even seriously challenge its priorities.

When it comes to immigration the overpopulation argument is largely a fig leaf for xenophobia and racism .Of course this is denied . It is a question of numbers not race, they insist . Britain (or Italy, or Spain or wherever) is simply full up. The falsity of this claim, taken literally, is obvious when one thinks of the vast empty spaces in the Scottish Highlands for instance.

However, it is also useful to have a sense of perspective on this. Hong Kong has a population density of 7000 per sq km. , making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. It also has a per capita GDP of $42,000, making it one of the richest places in the world. But at that level of population density you could put the entire population of the world into an area the size of Bolivia or Chad, i.e. one million or so sq.kms.

Clearly what they mean to say is that the country is full up in terms of jobs, homes, and services, but this brings us back to the original argument that jobs, houses and services are not fixed but are produced by people, including immigrants and it is therefore utterly wrong to blame unemployment or housing shortages on immigration.

Unfortunately, underlying the claim that immigration is causing unemployment etc. is the idea that some people (foreigners, blacks etc.) are not entitled to have jobs or houses, or at least are less entitled than others (whites, English etc). Both the absurdity and the racism of this way of thinking are neatly exposed if one simply substitutes some other group (red haired people, young people, women, Jewish people..) for foreigners or blacks, as in ‘ Its those red haired lot that I blame. There are two million Gingers and two million unemployed – kick out the gingers and we’d all have a job’

If there is serious racist or other prejudice against the group named ( as with Jews in 1930s Germany) the argument can sound plausible; if not it just sounds ridiculous – which is because it is ridiculous.

In the end all the claims about overpopulation boil down to same thing, blaming the people for the problems of the system, which is why Marx was right to call them ‘a slander on the human race’ and why socialists should reject them root and branch.

John Molyneux 27 June 2008


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georgec said...

The planet's population is already well beyond its carrying capacity.

We are living on capital. The more the population expands the faster we will ruin the planet and the harder it will be to make our activities sustainable.

Think science, think positive feedback, think loss of reflectivity of the ice caps, think release of methane clathrates. Even if we halved our population today, the planet is still in danger from these positive feedback processes.

It’s all very well to have some feeling for humanity, but humans cannot survive without caring for the environment. We cannot continue to support human life much longer unless we reduce our consumption drastically as well as our numbers. Let’s hope we reduce our numbers peacefully. If we don’t then they will be reduced by famine and war.

George Carrard

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