Thursday, September 03, 2020

Is there time for System Change?


Is there time for system change?

This first appeared on the Global Ecosocialist Network website

Time is always an important factor in politics and history but never has it mattered as much as on the issue of climate change.

The IPCC Report’s warning in October 2018 that the world has twelve years to avoid climate disaster was undoubtedly a major factor in galvanising a global wave of climate change activism, especially in the form of Greta Thunberg and mass school strikes and the Extinction Rebellion movement. At the same it is clear that this warning could be, and was, ‘heard’ or interpreted in different ways by different people. In this article I want consider some of those interpretations and their implications, particularly in relation to the question of whether there is time to bring about system change or whether, because time is so short, it is necessary to focus on and settle for changes that can be implemented within the framework of capitalism.

Before coming to that, however, I want to suggest that many an opportunist politician will have heard the twelve year warning quite differently from Greta and her followers. To them twelve years would be a very long time indeed: three US Presidential terms, two full length parliamentary terms in Britain and many other countries; in other words more than enough time to fulfil your ambitions, secure your place in the history books or, at least, secure your pension and several directorships, before anything serious would have to be done at all. The only practical implication of the twelve year warning would be the need to set up various commissions, draw up some action plans, attend a few conferences and generally engage in a certain amount of greenwashing. Should you be the CEO of a major oil, gas or car company exactly the same would apply.

At the opposite end of the spectrum there were large numbers of people, especially young people, who ‘heard’ the warning as meaning that there was, literally, only twelve years to prevent global extinction.

These are not equivalent misreadings : the first is utterly cynical and immensely damaging to humans and nature alike; the second is naive but well intentioned. But they are both misreadings of what the report said and of what climate change is. Climate change is not an event that may or may not happen in 2030 and which might be averted by emergency action at the last minute, but a process which is already underway. Every week, month or year of delay in reducing carbon emissions exacerbates the problem and makes it harder to tackle. By the same token, there is no absolute deadline after which it will be too late to do anything and we might as well give up the ghost.

The focus of the IPCC Report was not on ‘extinction’ but mainly on what would be required to hold global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and what would be the likely effects of allowing it to reach 2C.  What it actually stated in its Summary for Policy Makers was:

A1. Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming

 above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence) (Figure SPM.1) {1.2}


And it added, fairly obviously you might think, that:

B.5. Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C. (Figure SPM.2) {3.4, 3.5, 5.2, Box 3.2, Box 3.3, Box 3.5, Box 3.6, Cross-Chapter Box 6 in Chapter 3, Cross-Chapter Box 9 in Chapter 4, Cross-Chapter Box 12 in Chapter 5, 5.2}

I don’t quote these passages because I regard the IPCC Report as a sacred text or by any means the last word on these matters.  On the contrary it seems to me clear that the Report was conservative in its predictions – not surprising since its method required consensus among thousands of scientists – and in reality global warming and, crucially, its effects are proceeding at a faster rate than the IPCC expected. [See John Molyneux, ‘How fast is the climate changing?’ Climate & Capitalism, 2 August, 2019.] My purpose is rather to show that according to the IPCC and to any serious understanding of climate change what we are facing is not a cliff edge over which we all fall in 2030, or any other exactly predictable date, but a rapidly intensifying process with increasingly catastrophic effects. Within that process there will most likely be tipping points at which the pace of change accelerates very rapidly and certain shifts become irreversible, but no one knows exactly when they will be and even then we will still be talking about a process not an immediate total extinction.

A correct, scientifically based, understanding of this process is vital. As activists it is probably not helpful to be engaged in some kind of countdown – we now have only ten years, nine years, eight years...left to save the planet - as if there were a fixed time line. Nor do we want to be called out for crying wolf when the world fails to end. It is also important as a foundation for addressing the question of whether there is time for system change.

The argument that there is insufficient time for ‘system change’, by which I mean the overthrow of capitalism, has been around a long time in the environmental movement, since well before the 12 year warning. I remember it being put forcefully (and angrily) against a rather hapless Trotskyist in Campaign to Stop Climate Change when I was first involved with it in the early noughties. ‘There is no time to wait for your revolution’, he was told. Now, of course, this ‘no-time’ argument can be used as a cover by people who are actually pro-capitalist but it can also be put in good faith by people who would welcome the replacement of capitalism if they thought it a practical possibility. As evidence of this I cite Alan Thornett who is a lifelong socialist. In his book Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism, Alan writes:

The standard solution advanced by most on the radical the revolutionary overthrow of global capitalism – by implication within the next twelve years because that is how long we have to do it...

Such an approach is maximalist, leftist and useless. We can all, as socialists, vote to abolish capitalism with both hands, and this is indeed our long-term objective. But as an answer to global warming within the next 12 years it makes no sense.

It amounts to a ‘credibility gap’: while catastrophic climate change is indeed just around the corner, the same can hardly be said with any credibility of global socialist revolution - unless I have been missing something. It may not be impossible but it is far too remote a prospect to provide an answer to global warming and climate change...

Put bluntly, if the overturn of global capitalism in the 12 remaining years is the only solution to global warming and climate change, then there is no solution to global warming and climate change.  (Alan Thornett, Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism, Resistance Books 2019 p.95.)

Alan, here, has expressed very clearly the argument I want to contest.

The first thing to be said is that for serious socialists and Marxists (beginning with Marx, Engels and Rosa Luxemburg) the struggle for revolution is not counterposed to the struggle for reforms on any issue. Rather revolution is something that grows out of the struggle for concrete demands . So just as Marxists combine the belief that the only solution to exploitation is the abolition of the wages system with support for the trade union struggle for wage increases and better work conditions, so they can fight for immediate demands such as free public transport, leaving fossil fuels in the ground and massive investment in renewable energies at the same time as advocating ecosocialist revolution. In this way the possibility of an ecologically sustainable capitalism is put to a practical test.

But this necessary reply does not exhaust the issue. If revolution is seen as too remote and unlikely a development to be advanced as a solution then climate activists should focus virtually all their energies simply on winning reforms rather than on arguing and organising for revolution. Moreover , the focus would be overwhelmingly on reforms on only this question. What would be the point, except abstract morality, of focusing on issues such as workers rights at work, anti-racism, women’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights etc, when the survival of humanity was at stake in the next few years? If, however, the estimate is that capitalism will prove un- or insufficiently reformable in this regard, then it is necessary to combine ecosocialist campaigning with revolutionary activism, propaganda and organisation on a broader front, recognising that revolution will require the mass mobilization of working people on numerous issues and their unification in the face of numerous strategies of divide-and –rule.

Consequently three real questions arise: 1) How likely is that climate change can be halted or contained by reforms on the basis of capitalism? 2) How ‘remote’ is the possibility of socialist revolution? 3) Are there alternatives to this binary choice?

On the first question I and other ecosocialists  (notably John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, Michael Lowy, Martin Empson, Amy Leather etc) have argued repeatedly and at length that the possibility of dealing with climate change on a capitalist basis is remote in the extreme, whether in twelve years, twenty years or forty years. I will not rehearse all the arguments here but simply say that capitalism is a system, inherently and inexorably driven by competitive capital accumulation into a collision course with nature and the fossil fuel industries – oil, gas and coal – play such a central role in that capital accumulation that there is no realistic prospect of capitalism being able to end its dependence on them.

On the second question I would admit that if the future , say the next twelve years, resembles the  immediate past, say the last fifty years, the possibility of international  socialist revolution does indeed appear very remote. But the very fact of climate change guarantees that the next decade is NOT going to resemble the past. On the contrary precisely the conditions brought about by global warming – increasingly unbearable heat, droughts, fires, storms, floods etc – will transform the level of awareness among the mass of people of the need to end capitalism and the possibility of revolution. The fact that the worsening climate crisis will be accompanied by a wider environmental crisis(in a multitude of forms), deepening and recurring economic crisis (as is evident right now)  and increased international geo-political and military tension (for example with China and Russia) will compound this.

Here the fact established at the beginning of this article that the ‘twelve years’ is  not and cannot be an exact or final deadline is very important. If, as I think is overwhelmingly likely, capitalism is unable to hold warming to 1.5C this will not mean, as Thornett suggests, that the game is up and the struggle is over, but that all the conditions and disasters outlined above will intensify and in the process increase the likelihood of mass revolt and revolution.

Many people find it possible to imagine a revolution in one country but find the idea of international or global revolution implausible. If by international revolution is meant a simultaneous worldwide coordinated rebellion this indeed extremely unlikely but this was never the scenario envisaged by advocates of international revolution. Rather it is that beginning in one country – Brazil or Egypt, Ireland or Italy – revolution could and would spread to other countries in a long but continuous series of struggles. This is a prospect that is actually reinforced by the experience of recent waves of struggle. First, there was the Arab Spring in 2011 which witnesses a chain reaction of uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria before also inspiring lesser but still significant revolts with the Indignados in Spain and Occupy in the US. Then there was the wave of mass rebellions across the globe in 2019 – the French Yellow vests, Sudan, Haiti, Hong Kong, Algeria, Puerto Rico, Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon etc [See John Molyneux, ‘A New Wave of Global Revolt?’ Plus there was the global spread of School Student strikes and, this year, even in the midst of Covid, of Black Lives Matter. What this makes clear is that in today’s globalised world revolts can spread internationally with amazing reach and rapidity. The international impact of a socialist revolution in any one country would be immense. This will be all the greater if there is a strong anti-climate change, ecological, element in the revolution – as there will be – because whatever the debates about socialism in one country in the past, it will be abundantly clear that no revolution in South Africa or France, Indonesia or Chile will be able to tackle climate change while the US, China, Russia and India carry on with business as usual. Climate change is an international issue like no other in history.

In relation to the question of other alternatives to either making capitalism sustainable or its revolutionary overthrow there are two that suggest themselves: there is the perspective/strategy of transforming capitalism into socialism by means of winning a parliamentary election – what might be called the Corbyn strategy; there is the ‘alternative’ of fascist/authoritarian barbarism. The first, unfortunately, is illusory; the second, even more unfortunately, is all too real.

What I have called the Corbyn strategy (as its most recent iteration) is in fact very old, going back at least to Kautsky and the German Social Democratic Party before the First World War, and it has been subject to numerous practical tests with disastrous consequences whether in Germany itself, in Italy during the Red Years, in Chile in 1970-73, or with Syriza in Greece or indeed with Corbyn (except that he failed to achieve the necessary general election victory). Superficially this strategy seems enormously more practical and plausible than revolution but in reality it is  fundamentally flawed .The existing capitalist ruling class  will not, either in any one country or internationally, vacate the stage i.e. surrender its power, on account of a socialist election victory. On the contrary it will deploy all its economic power (through investment strikes, flight of capital, runs on the currency etc), its social and ideological hegemony especially through the media and, crucially, its control of the State to bring the would-be socialist government to heel or if necessary to destroy it. Such sabotage could be resisted and overcome only by the revolutionary mobilization of the working class. That is why this option, for all its progressive intentions, is an illusion; it will either become the revolution it was designed to render unnecessary or it will vanish into thin air.

When it comes to the fascist/authoritarian option, we know from bitter experience, the experience of Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Chile and elsewhere,  that this is a real possibility, in many respects the opposite side of the coin of the failure of the reformist option. And as we look around the world today at capitalist system trapped in a multi- dimensional crisis we can see growing political polarisation and the forces of the far right mustering in many different countries. It is a grim fact that three major countries (the US, Brazil and India) are under far right if not fully fascist control and that significant numbers of others are ruled by highly authoritarian regimes. As the climate crisis grows, and with it the number of climate refugees, the authoritarian/fascist option will look increasingly attractive to panicking ruling classes and to some of their middle class supporters.  In the long run fascism will not stop global warming but that failure may be on the far side of an ocean of barbarism.

To return to the question of is there time for system change: no one can predict the future with any precision but by far the most likely scenario is that the accelerating climate  and environmental crisis will intensify class struggle and political polarisation across the board. This process will mount as the world heads towards the 1.5C threshold and continue after it is crossed. The movement will have to deal not only with how we avert or stop climate change but also with how we deal with its devastating effects: with barbarity or solidarity? Capitalism, in all its forms, will increasingly turn to barbarity, only system change i.e. the replacement of capitalism with socialism will permit a response based on working class and human solidarity.










On 24 July, Matt McGrath, BBC Environment correspondent, put up the alarmingly headed post; ‘Climate change: 12 years to save the planet? Make that 18 months’. It states:

Do you remember the good old days when we had “12 years to save the planet? Now it seems, there’s a growing consensus that the next 18 months will be critical in dealing with the global heating crisis, among other environmental challenges.


Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5C this century, emissions of carbon dioxide would have to be cut by 45% by 2030. But today, observers recognise that the decisive, political steps to enable the cuts in carbon to take place will have to happen before the end of next year.





A.1.2. Warming greater than the global annual average is being experienced in many land regions and seasons, including two to three times higher in the Arctic. Warming is generally higher over land than over the ocean. (high confidence) {1.2.1, 1.2.2, Figure 1.1, Figure 1.3, 3.3.1, 3.3.2}


B.1.2. Temperature extremes on land are projected to warm more than GMST (high confidence): extreme hot days in mid-latitudes warm by up to about 3°C at global warming of 1.5°C and about 4°C at 2°C, and extreme cold nights in high latitudes warm by up to about 4.5°C at 1.5°C and about 6°C at 2°C (high confidence). The number of hot days is projected to increase in most land regions, with highest increases in the tropics (high confidence). {3.3.1, 3.3.2, Cross-Chapter Box 8 in Chapter 3}

B.1.3. Risks from droughts and precipitation deficits are projected to be higher at 2°C compared to 1.5°C of global warming in some regions (medium confidence). Risks from heavy precipitation events are projected to be higher at 2°C compared to 1.5°C of global warming in several northern hemisphere high-latitude and/or high-elevation regions, eastern Asia and eastern North America (medium confidence). Heavy precipitation associated with tropical cyclones is projected to be higher at 2°C compared to 1.5°C global warming (medium confidence). There is generally low confidence in projected changes in heavy precipitation at 2°C compared to 1.5°C in other regions. Heavy precipitation when aggregated at global scale is projected to be higher at 2°C than at 1.5°C of global warming (medium confidence). As a consequence of heavy precipitation, the fraction of the global land area affected by flood hazards is projected to be larger at 2°C compared to 1.5°C of global warming (medium confidence). {3.3.1, 3.3.3, 3.3.4, 3.3.5, 3.3.6}

B.5. Climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth are projected to increase with global warming of 1.5°C and increase further with 2°C. (Figure SPM.2) {3.4, 3.5, 5.2, Box 3.2, Box 3.3, Box 3.5, Box 3.6, Cross-Chapter Box 6 in Chapter 3, Cross-Chapter Box 9 in Chapter 4, Cross-Chapter Box 12 in Chapter 5, 5.2}

C.2. Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). These systems transitions are unprecedented in terms of scale, but not necessarily in terms of speed, and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors, a wide portfolio of mitigation options and a significant upscaling of investments in those options (medium confidence). {2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 4.2, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5}

What Does '12 Years to Act on Climate Change' (Now 11 Years) Really Mean?


AUG 27, 2019


Mid-century is actually the more significant target date in the report, but acting now is crucial to being able to meet that goal, said Duke University climate researcher Drew Shindell, a lead author on the mitigation chapter of the IPCC report.

"We need to get the world on a path to net zero CO2 emissions by mid-century," Shindell said. "That's a huge transformation, so that if we don't make a good start on it during the 2020s, we won't be able to get there at a reasonable cost."

The Coalition Trap

The Coalition Trap

written by John Molyneux June 27, 2020

This first appeared on the REBEL website

John Molyneux dismantles the idea that the Green Party in government with the right can bring any real change for the working class in Ireland.

One of the many reasons for reading Marx is that he shows, especially in his great work Capital, that the reason why capitalism operates it does, prioritising profit over people, is not because the wrong people are in charge but because of the inner logic of the system. 

That logic is driven by competitive capital accumulation. Every capitalist unit, every business, bank and corporation from the global giants like ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, BP, Toyota and Apple to the your local shops and small employers, is competing with others in its sector to maximise its profits, so as to invest further, capture more of the local, national or global market, and make even more profit, and so on in an endless cycle. 

This competitive struggle is relentless and ultimately all consuming. Any business that does not take part will be driven out of business. 

Governments and state apparatuses of nation states are not outside of or above this process but part of it and subordinate to it. They can influence and modify the course of the competitive struggle  a little bit here and a little bit there, slightly to the left on this issue and slightly to the right on that issue but they cannot alter its overall trajectory or turn it into one that serves the interests of working class people . 

‘Serious’ politicians, ‘senior hurlers’  as they like to call themselves in Ireland,  or ‘the grownups in the room ‘ as Christine Lagarde of the IMF put it, understand this and accept it. They know their job is not to resist or challenge the system but to serve it, perhaps making it work as well it can, perhaps lining their own pockets on the way or most likely doing both. This is why the current coalition is such a trap for any party that aspires or claims to be ‘left wing’ or bring about real change. 

‘Come into my parlour!’ said the spider to the fly. ‘Then you’ll have real power, real influence, instead of just staying out in the cold, sitting on the sidelines’. In reality any left party that falls for this is immediately caught in a dense spider’s web of constraints that massively restricts their freedom of action. 

First they will have ministerial seats at the cabinet table – that’s what joining a government means. These ministers will be in a minority, of course, compared to the ‘real’ grownups, but they will be bound by collective cabinet responsibility. 

Below the cabinet ministers, there will be elected representatives given Junior Ministerial posts which also locks them into the government consensus. Moreover, these ministers and junior ministers will gain very considerable material, status and career vested interests in ensuring the continuance of the government and of their own positions within it. 

Ministers will be subject to massive pressure (and obstruction) from Senior Civil Servants and the bureaucracies that they head. The civil servants will also consider themselves ‘grownups in the room’ and regard any idea of radical change, especially anti-capitalist change, as completely ‘impractical’ and out of the question. 

The pressure exerted by the dominant right wing members of the government and the civil servants will unquestionably be complemented by, and often coordinated with, pressure from highly paid lobbyists from industry. 

Most important of all will be the objective constraints imposed by the major capitalist corporations and institutions: the banks, the multinationals, the stock and currency markets, the European Central Bank, the IMF etc. Any sign of serious deviation from serving their interests, which is precisely what a left wing party should be doing, would be met with falls on the stock market, threats to the currency, disinvestment, capital flight and the kind of economic terrorism that was visited on the Syriza government when they tried to defy austerity. 

And the media would be on hand to blame the resulting economic chaos on those in the government who dared to challenge the status quo – its left component. 

If, as is the case in the present state of the world, the left party joined the government coalition in a time of economic crisis and recession, pressures to make working class people pay for the crisis would intensify immeasurably. 

In such a situation, ‘left’ party leaders would be transmitting to their base, and thence to the wider working class, all the well worn excuses and familiar arguments against mobilisation or resistance. ‘Don’t be impatient’, they would say, ‘we’ve only had 6 months, a year, two years…’ or however long it might be. ‘These are exceptional circumstances’ they would plead. We have to put the national interest first.’ ‘Yes we know it’s painful, but we have had to make hard decisions … in the national interest!’ It is possible to write these speeches in advance. We’ve seen it all before.

Thus the overall effect of going into coalition with the right will be not to advance the cause of the left but to create a new obstacle in the way of change and, if the members and voters of the left party concerned are serious in their expectations or their principles, to massively damage the left party itself. 

Even if the Programme for Government weren’t such a slap in the face to those who overwhelmingly voted for change, those in power economically would do everything possible to smash attempts to deliver on radical promises.

But what is the alternative? The alternative is just to sit on your hands and do nothing, all the establishment commentators will say as one. But this is predicated on the idea that all real change ever comes about through parliamentary legislation and being in government.

This is completely untrue. It is untrue historically – think of the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Irish Revolution and so on – and it is untrue in terms of more recent history, globally and in Ireland. 

Consider for a moment the struggle against racism. In the United States, the decisive moments have been the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and early sixties; the Black Revolt of the late sixties (Black Power, the Black Panthers, the Watts and Detroit uprisings etc); and the current Black Lives Matter movement. None of these took place inside government or legislatures. All were primarily mass movements on the streets. 

Nor is this just a matter of the US – the other great anti-racist struggle of modern times, the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, was also waged not in parliament [Blacks were not allowed in the South African parliament] but in the streets, the townships, the mines and the countryside. Its principal leader spent almost the entirety of the struggle in jail. 

Then there is the anti-colonial struggle. All the great victories against colonialism and empire – India, China, Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Kenya, etc. – were won through extra-parliamentary struggle. 

When it comes to climate change, very little of substance has yet been won but it has been mobilisation on the streets – by the school strikers and Extinction Rebellion – that has been key even to put the issue on the agenda. 

In Ireland the massive water charges movement and the Repeal movement prove the same point. And for trade unionists in all countries, industrial action, the strike, not parliamentary manoeuvres, has always been the key to defending and advancing their rights.

In short, an abundance of historical experience in Ireland, with both the Labour Party and the Greens, and in numerous other countries, shows that for a left party to go into coalition with the parties of the right, of the ruling class, is a recipe for disaster both for themselves and for those they claim to represent.


Climate Change and the Overpopulation Argumeny


Climate Change and the Overpopulation Argument

John Molyneux

This article first appeared in Irish Marxist Review 26

The idea that the world is, or will shortly become, ‘overpopulated’ has been around long time. It can be traced back to Thomas Malthus and his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. Its most famous modern articulation was in Paul Ehrlich’s best selling book The Population Bomb in 1968 and it has always been a component of the ideology of a wing (largely the more conservative wing) of the environmental movement as exemplified by James Lovelock, the founder of Gaia theory, Jonathan Porritt, erstwhile Director of Friends of the Earth (UK) and personal advisor to Prince Charles, and by some of the British Green Party.[1] Pioneer ecosocialist, Joel Kovel, has described how, driving round California in 2000 in his campaign for the Green Party Presidential nomination, he was left with a bitter taste in his mouth by the undercurrent of racism in the party maskedby concern about ‘population’.[2]

In the 1960s the claim was mainly that overpopulation was the cause of world poverty but as time passed the popularity of this argument faded; recently, however, the overpopulation argument is making something of a comeback in relation to climate change as evidenced, for example, by the increasing activity and presence of the ‘charity’ Population Matters. Moreover, some people on the left seem to have to have bought into the idea, for example the long standing Marxist and ecosocialist, Alan Thornett who, in his Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism insists that the left should see ‘the rising human population as a problem to be addressed’.[3]

In this article I propose to reject all of this and argue against the whole idea that overpopulation or population growth should be seen either as a driver of climate change or as some kind of general ‘problem’.

Climate Change and Population Growth.

When it comes to attempts to present overpopulation as a cause or exacerbator of climate change there are a number of straightforward and politically convincing arguments that socialists should understand and advance.

First,we know very precisely what are the causes of climate change: the projection into the atmosphere of greenhouse gasses- primarily CO2 and methane – as a result of the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) and the release of methane (from cattle and the melting permafrost). This is not done by ‘humanity as a whole’ and is not caused by the size of the world’s population. It is the responsibility of a relatively small minority of humans engaged in very specific activities.

There are many ways that this fact can be expressed. There is the fact that the carbon foot print  per capita (measured in metric tons per year) varies enormously from country to country : in Afghanistan in 2018 it was 0.3; Albania 1.6; Brazil 2.4; Ethiopia 0.2, Australia 16.8; China 8.0; US 16.1; India 1.9; Ireland 7.7;Germany 9.1.[4]Here it is interesting to note that Canada, Australia, Iceland and Greenland are among the least densely populated countries on earth (4,3,3 and 0.1 people per respectively) yet all have very high per capita carbon foot prints (16.9, 16.8, 12.1, 9.4 respectively) compared to a global average of about 5.0. Among the countries with the highest per capita carbon footprints are Bahrain (21.8), Kuwait (23.9), Saudi Arabia (18.6), UAR (22.4) and Qatar (38.2). Again, this has nothing to do with population size or density: Kuwait has 200.2 per; UAR 99 per and Saudi Arabia only 15 per There are no prizes for guessing what it has to do with.

As it happens Ireland is also a good example here. Ireland, at 7.1, is above the global average in terms of its per capita carbon footprint and as Leo Varadkar has conceded ‘Obviously, climate emissions and greenhouse gas is an area where we’re laggard and falling way behind’.[5] Yet Ireland has a relatively low population density and, crucially, a smaller population than it had before the Famine of 1845-9, when its carbon footprint was more or less zero.

In short,the variation and level of carbon emissions has nothing to do with size of population and everything to do with the level and specific character of a country’s and, by extension, the world’s economic and social activities.  It is also clear from the nature of these variations that carbon footprints will be grossly unequal within countries as well. It is not Brazil’s favellas or Amazonian Indians that are producing its 2.4 figure, still less is it Australia’s indigenous Aborigines who are responsible for its very high 16.8.

Then there is the well known claim that 70% of greenhouse gasses emitted since 1988 have been produced by just 100 multinational corporations. There is the even more graphic assertion that it is possible to name the top 100 people killing the planet (the CEOs of the 100 corporations).


Names and Locations of the Top 100 People Killing the Planet

“The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” – Utah Phillips

Jordan Engel / / Jun 13, 2019

Names and Locations of the Top 100 People Killing the Planet

Whether or not these claims are exactly accurate can probably not be verified but they represent a much more accurate picture of greenhouse gas emissions than suggesting that they are produced by the world’s population as a whole.

Let me put it this way: should there occur through some dreadful tragedy a repetition of the terrible famines of the late nineteenth century or some recurrence of the Black Death, which wiped out 200 million Chinese peasants, 200 million of India’s poor and 150 million rural sub-Saharan Africans, while ExxonMobile, BP, Shell, Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, General Motors, the US military and suchlike continue their activities unaffected (which they would do) the reduction of the world’s population by 550 million would have close to zero effect on the level of global emissions or the pace of climate change. To repeat population growth is simply not the cause of climate change.

From this follows that raising the issue of population is music to the ears of every rotten government, every cynical and opportunist politician, every oil industry spin doctor and PR merchant. It simply lets all the real culprits off the hook and directs all our concern, anger, and campaigning energy in precisely the wrong direction.

Insofar as capitalist governments and their media purport to address the climate emergency at all it is everywhere in terms of us ‘all being in this together’; we must all learn to ‘change our behaviour’, probably with the aid of carbon taxes on ordinary people. In Ireland this is exactly how the right wing Fine Gael government posed the question and exactly how RTE, in its week of broadcasts devoted to climate change, presented the issue.  Any focus on population size is guaranteed to let these people and their equivalents, in every other country, off the hook, just as it would if we were to make any concession to the idea that the reason for the housing and homelessness crisis was due to the rising population and there being too many people.

This last example points directly to the third major reason for not accepting the idea of overpopulation as a cause of climate change: not only is it untrue but it feeds directly into racism. Without doubt many, perhaps most, of the proponents of population control would indignantly protest their innocence of this charge and even their avowed anti-racism and in many cases their protestations would be entirely genuine. For example, I do not doubt that David Attenborough, a lead patron of Population Matters, is not subjectively racist, while Alan Thornett is a long standing committed anti-racist. But it is not just a matter of subjective intentions; there is also the objective logic of ideas, not in a vacuum but in a concrete historical context. If it is argued that climate change is, even partially, caused by there being ‘too many people’ then this raises the question of which kind of people are there too many of and the answer is not going to be white Europeans and Americans. This is particularly likely to be the case when a very tempting excuse for Western politicians who want to avoid emergency climate action or tackling the fossil fuel industry is to say the real problem is China and India. And if more people are a problem in general then it is hardly a giant leap to suggest that therefore immigration must be restricted or reversed.

Thusthere has always been a racist tinge to advocacy of population control and to certain kinds of environmentalism. In the opening scene of The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich describes a taxi ride in Delhi in 1966 through ‘a crowded slum area’. 

“The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrust their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. . .  [S]ince that night, I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.”[6]

As has been pointed out, Delhi in 1966 had a population of 2.8 million. In contrast the population of Paris at that time stood at 8 million, but no one cited Paris as an example of overcrowding or overpopulation. Rather it was seen as the epitome of elegance. Paul Ehrlich is a current patron of Population Matters. Another current patron of Population Matters is James Lovelock, producer of the somewhat mystical ‘gaia’ theory of mother earth. Lovelock argues that the maximum ‘sustainable’ population on earth is 1billion; so which 6 billion are going to go and how are they going to be got rid of? Again it is a fair bet it is not white British Lovelock wants to cull. In addition there are a multitude of small population control organisations with manifestly racist attitudes and policies – groups likeCalifornians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) founded in 1986 which works to "preserve California's future through the stabilization of our state's human population".

My favourite – and they would be funny if they weren’t so nasty – is Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) (formerly Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population). This is an Australian pressure group  founded in Canberra in 1988, that seeks to establish an ecologically sustainable human population. SPA claims that it is an "ecological group dedicated to preserving species' habitats globally and in Australia from the degradation caused by human population growth", and that it "works on many fronts to encourage informed public debate about how Australia and the world can achieve an ecologically sustainable population".[7]

SPA argues that population growth exacerbates Australia's water shortage and adds to greenhouse gas emissions.SPA also seeks to highlight what it claims are the negative economic effects of population growth, such as increased housing costs, lower wages and living standards, and opposes the current historically high level of immigration to Australia.[My emphasis].

Australia is the sixth largest country in the world in areaand has a population of only 24.6 million. At 3.1 per it ranks 226th in a list of countries by population density (with only places like Iceland, the Western Sahara and Greenland below it. This gives you a clue that the size of the population is not really what Sustainable Population Australia are worried about!

Fear of encouraging or being tainted by racism is probably the main reason why many environmental (and other)campaigners refuse to take up the population issue saying things like ‘I don’t want to go there’, or ‘I don’t see population in itself as the main problem’ and in a sense that is quite reasonable and right but the issue goes broader and deeper than this and I want to argue that, even if there was no question of racism involved,and even if we are talking about other issues than climate change,the notion that overpopulation exists or that population growth  is a bad thing would be profoundly mistaken. It is mistaken not in the way scientists and social scientists may over or underestimate the role of a particular factor in a situation. It is mistaken in the way those who believed (prior to Copernicus) that the sun revolved round the earth were mistaken i.e.the truth was not just different from what they believed but, appearances to the contrary, the complete opposite.

Impervious to evidence

One of the clearest signs of the weakness of the overpopulation argument is the way in which its advocates remain impervious to evidence which manifestly refutes their claims. The opening lines of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) read as follows:

“The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

What actually happened? In 1968 the world death rate stood at 13.4 per 1000 of population. By 1980 it had fallen to 10.3 per 1000 and by 2018 it was down to 7.6.[8]

Ehrlich also claimed in 1969 that“Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,”and in 1970 “Sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come ... And by ‘the end’ I mean an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.” [9] And in 1970 he predicted that ‘in ten years all important life in the sea will be extinct’ and in 1971 that ‘by the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of islands inhabited by some hungry people...I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000’.[10]

On the first Earth Day in 1970, he warned that "[i]n ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish." In a 1971 speech, he predicted that: "By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people." "If I were a gambler," Professor Ehrlich concluded before boarding an airplane, " I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000." ... Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb that, "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

When none of this occurred, he refused to accept there was anything wrong with his approach or method. He just said ‘When you predict the future, you get things wrong. How wrong is another question... If you look closely at England, what can I tell you? They’re having all kinds of problems, just like everybody else’.[11]

I have focused on Paul Ehrlich here as the most famous name associated with the overpopulation argument, but the truth is that virtually all the predictions of all the population doomsters from Malthus onwards have been falsified by history. Of course, there are always ‘problems’ and disasters that can be pointed to: for example, the dreadful famine in Ethiopia in 1983-5 which claimed 1.2 million lives. For the lazy minded this could be ascribed to ‘overpopulation’ but the argument is nonsense. Ethiopia had a long history of famines when its population was much lower, it had a catastrophically incompetent government and there was more than enough food available to feed the starving Ethiopians if it could have been distributed to them. Moreover Ethiopia in 1983 had a population of 37 million (half that of Britain in a country four times the size) and a Gross National Income per capita of $210 per annum. By 2018 its population had nearly trebled to 105 million. Has it got poorer? No, its GNI per capita now stands at $790 per annum- still very low but more than three times higher than in 1983. What is more with the rise in world population in the last 100 years the overall trend has been for the deaths from famine to decline.

Death toll from famines.jpg

 (5w Infographics; Sources: World Peace Foundation, Tufts; Food and Agriculture Organization, U.N.) [12]


Vague alarmism


Faced with the dramatic refutation by history of these specific predictions the tendency of population control advocates and those who are ‘concerned’ about population growth has become to engage in what I would call vague alarmism.

A typical example of this is the world population meters that can be seen at the top of many population websites which purport to show the disturbing growth in population second by second. Now obviously if the world population is rising, as it is, and we are talking about the whole world it will inevitably be rising every second. This doesn’t mean there is a problem but, of course, it vaguely suggests there is. The same technique can be used by showing the number of births every second with the implication we should be worried about this.[13] Note here the difference between attitudes to births in the abstract and the concrete. Concretely when someone has a baby the normal human reaction is to congratulate them and greet the birth of a new human life as to be welcomed. But in the abstract we are supposed to regard it as a misfortune. Or is it perhaps that white European babies are welcome, but babies of colour or babies of the Global South are not (as happened with the racist reaction online to the news that the first Irish baby of 2020 was black)? In any event this method of presenting worldwide or national statistics by the second or the minute to make them look alarming can be used for any and every purpose, e.g. the number of abortions per minute; the number of muggings, crimes, road accidents etc. Unless put in context and set against a real benchmark such statistics may be emotive but have no real value.


At the head of the Population Matters website we find the statement:

It took humanity 200,000 years to reach one billion and only 200 years to reach seven billion. We are still adding an extra 80 million each year and are headed towards 10 billion by mid-century. [14]

But if the population is rising by 80 million a year that means that the rate of population growth is actually slowing. If that were not the case the annual increment would increase. And why should 80 million a year or 10 billion by mid-century be a particular problem.  Population Matters and other ‘populationists’ assume it will be but offer no convincing reason. They just assume, or intend, that the figures will alarm people. Alan Thornett writes, ‘The human population of the planet is growing by over 70 million a year – almost the population of Germany. It has done so for the last 50 years and shows little sign of slowing down’.[15]Thornett repeats the mistake. In 1973 the world population was approximately 3.9 billion. Today it is 7.7 billion. 70 million is a much smaller proportion of 7.7 billion than of 3.9 billion and the world population growth rate in 1970 was 2.1% per annum and now it is 1.2%.  In other words, the rate of growth is slowing and IF the present trend continues the population will level out by the end of the century and even decline thereafter.

This whole discourse is predicated on a fear of large numbers of human beings which has many sources in our culture, not least the elite’s fear of ‘the masses’ or ‘mob’ and the perennial excuse that ‘rising/ageing population’ and ‘too many people/an influx of immigrants’  provides for governments for crises in housing, health and education. If the same conscious or unconscious attitude applied to birds it would be possible, as Alfred Hitchcock probably realised, to scare people silly with the statistic that there are 200-400 billion birds in the world ie. between ten and twenty times the number of humans. 

Two terms that pepper the writings of populationists are ‘unsustainabilty’ and ‘carrying-power’. We are repeatedly told in their literature that current levels of population growth are ‘unsustainable’ as if this was obvious or proven. In fact it is neither. The concepts of sustainability and unsustainability are familiar in the general ecological discourse but let us ask what they mean in the context of population. If we say that China’s rates of economic growth are unsustainable this means either that in the not too distant future, they will fall to a lower rate or that there will be a recession and they will go into reverse.  If that is what the term means in relation to population growth, then what is really being said is that the rate of population growth will not continue ie. it will self-correct.  This would, of course, be reassuring rather than alarming but this never seems to occur to overpopulationists, much as it never seemed to occur to Malthus or Ehrlich that if population growth would increase poverty and starvation the increased poverty and starvation would reduce the population.


The notion that the earth, or even parts of it, has a fixed ‘carrying capacity’ is similar to ‘unsustainabilty’ but even less substantial and convincing. The carrying capacity of a bus has real meaning but what does the carrying capacity of the earth mean? The population of Hong Kong was 7,450 in 1841. In 1851 it was 32,983. Looking at Hong Kong in those days it would no doubt have seemed ‘obvious’ that this small island could not possibly ‘sustain’ or ‘carry’ a population of 7.4 millionas it does today.[16] Clearly they would all starve or eat each other long before such an unthinkable figure was reached!

Sometimes the overpopulation argument is put in terms of the earth has certain ‘natural limits’. Are you saying, the population controllers ask, that the earth can sustain unlimited population growth, that it can support an ‘infinite’ number of people? But this is an absurd way to pose the question. ‘Unlimited growth’ and an ‘infinite number’ is so vague and potentially enormous that it would apply to absolutely anything or everything. Can the world carry an ‘infinite’ number of peanuts? Clearly not. Similarly, you could raise the alarm about the impossibility of coping with an indefinite or unlimited number of bees or trees. But this would similarly obscure the fact that right now, and for the foreseeable future, we need more bees and trees.

The only real meaning that all this alarmism has and can have is that population growth is driving climate change and other forms of ecological damage such as ocean acidification,plastification and destruction of the rain forest. But as we began by showing, this is not true of climate change and the same arguments apply to the other forms of ecological destruction. The Great Barrier Reef is being killed off but by Australian mining and farming methods (along with climate change) not by Australia’s ‘vast’ population.  The terrible felling of the Amazon rain forest is not being done to provide space for Brazil’s population, which is neither dense (at 25 per nor growing very fast (at 0.72% per annum[17]) but to serve the profits of beef and logging corporations. The vast quantities of single-use plastic that are choking the oceans are produced by a tiny percentage of the world’s population and, even more importantly, the decisions to produce and use that plastic are taken by literally handfuls of people.

A misanthropic argument

There has always been a fundamental contradiction in the populationists’ arguments. They are alarmed at the size and growth of world population. But world population is NOT growing because people are having more babies, they are not. In 1950 the global birth rate stood at 36.937 per thousand; by 2000 it was 22.29 per thousand and today it is 17.464 (and predicted to fall to 14.634 by 2050.[18] It is growing because the death rate is falling (infant mortality is falling and life expectancy is rising). In 1950 the global death rate was 20.15 per thousand, in 2000 it was 8.647 per thousand and today it is 7.612.[19] In 1950 global average life expectancy was 47.0; in 2000 it was 67.1 and today it is 73.2[20]. Of course, as we know, there is increased alienation, exploitation and inequality, all brought to us by global capitalism, but in itself this rise in the population is caused by an improvement in people’s living conditions, especially their nutrition and health care. In itself it is a gain for humanity not a cause for alarm or fear.

It is true that climate change and related environmental catastrophes have the potential to wipe out these gains, but this will not be because the population is too large but because capitalism, with its production based on competitive accumulation, was unable to break its addiction to fossil fuels. To blame the number of people for this and not governments and the system is not only to let the guilty off the hook but also to malign the innocent. In 1865 Marx called Malthus’ theory of population, according to which population inevitably grew much faster than food production, a ‘libel on the human race’ [21] and the same is true of contemporary would-be population controllers. There is a deep-seated misanthropy involved here.

Unfortunately, we are not just dealing with a bad explanation or a reactionary theory but with an idea which can have, and has had, very reactionary consequences in the real world. Liberal and leftist populationists try to avoid this by denying they are for forcible or racist population control and stressing instead population limitation by means of ‘female empowerment’ i.e. contraception and abortion rights. Both Population Matters and Alan Thornett do this with Thornett calling population an ‘eco-feminist issue’.[22]But obviously the left have fought for these rights for decades, ever since the Bolshevik Revolution and before, without ever endorsing the call for population control and in the real world the people who will take up and implement this policy will not be liberals and leftists but governments who want to cut child benefit[23] and authoritarian regimes like China with its horrific one-child policy[24]  and India’s highly repressive forced sterilisation programme under Sanjay Gandhi in the 70s.

The underlying problem in the whole populationist ideology is that it its advocates see the mass of the world’s people, including the international working class, simply as passive consumers and not as active producers, still less as people who can take collective control of society. This why they fail to understand that it was and will be perfectly possible to greatly increase food production and that the real problem is to ensure its equitable distribution. And why they fail to see that it is possible for those teeming masses in Delhi and Mumbai, in Jakarta and Cairo to smash the system that is driving us all towards catastrophe and create a new economic and social system in which the metabolic rift with nature is healed.  And why they fail to see that from that point of view the more of such masses, increasingly proletarianised and urbanised as they are, the better.
















[2] See Joel Kovel, Foreward to Ian Angus and Simon Butler, Too Many People, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2009, pp.xiii-xvii.

[3] Alan Thornett, Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism, Resistance Books, London 2019, p.152

[4] These and subsequent statistics on per capita carbon foot print are from


[6]Cited in Charles C.Mann ‘The book that incited a world fear of overpopulation’. Smithsonian Magazine, January 2018.

[9]Cited in Mann, as above.

[10]Cited in Mann, as above.

[11]Cited in Mann, as above.

[12]From Charles C. Mann, as above.

[15] Alan Thornett, as above, p.130. SadlyThornett’s reference to this being ‘almost the size of Germany’ is a terrible argument.  Racist anti-immigration campaigners often try to scare people by saying the level of immigration is equal to ‘a new town the size of Birmingham’. Now I know full well that Thornett is not a racist and has no racist intention here but this shows the kind of bad argument his position on population leads him into.

[17] This compares to population growth rates of 2.9% p.a. in 1960 and 1.95% in 1990. Moreover Brazil ‘s population is 87.6% urban and concentrated overwhelmingly in the coastal cities such as Rio and Sau Paulo. (All statistics from

[20]As above.

[21] Karl Marx, Letter to J.B Schweizer, 24 January, 1865.

[22] Alan Thornett, as above, Ch.14.

[23] On a personal note I well remember debating with Jonathan Porritt, then of the Green Party, at London Marxism in the early 90s and I particularly recall reading out from Porritt’s book The Coming of the Greens a passage in which he called for removing child benefit after the second child. I’m sure this policy went down well with Prince Charles whom Porritt served as an adviser and who has, of course, lived on benefit all his life.

[24]Introduced in 1979 and modified in the mid-1980sto allow rural parents a second child if the first was a daughter (no women’s empowerment there!) and,incidentally,supported by our friend Jonathan Porritt who said, "Had there been no 'one child family' policy in China there would now have been 400 million additional Chinese citizens,"