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THE question sounds simple but if you really want a simple answer, there isn’t one.
It’s curious that when people invoke population growth as a problem — local or global — they rarely offer the removal of themselves or their family as a contribution to its solution.
“Too many people” is usually directed against others — and often at the wrong “kind” of people (their colour, religion, country or class).
“Too many people” is often presented as an imbalance of population and resources — and often with good reason.
Commuters on London’s Southern Region experience this (twice) daily as they are packed, standing, onto trains — when these are not cancelled.
There’s a good case for arguing that there are too many commuters. Some at least of their work (for example as financiers) is arguably of little direct public benefit, and some of it, at least, might be done at home.
There’s an equally good case for arguing that there should be more trains, but this (the train companies argue) would make their operations uneconomic (read: would reduce their profits).
Some resources of course (like space) are finite. You’ve probably felt on occasion that there were far too many people on the beach — you’d have preferred to have it to yourself.
Yet there are plenty of deserted beaches on the planet. That’s not, of course, to say they should all be packed with people. Turtles “need” beaches too!
More intractable arguments relate to other “finite” resources — minerals, fossil fuels, water, and agricultural land, the inability of ecological processes to resist pollution, of a deforested land or warming sea to absorb carbon dioxide or of the planet to re-radiate excess heat — as ultimate limits to population and/or industrial growth.
There is plenty of evidence that “natural limits” to growth — of human numbers and in general — are rapidly being reached. Some argue that population control is the most urgent problem facing humanity.
Against this, some socialists argue that people are inherently “good,” that most resource scarcities are the product of a wasteful economic system (and often created deliberately to enhance profits), that despite this global food production per capita has increased decade by decade, and that under socialism, innovation and the application of technology — to meet human need rather than to create profit — can (still) lead to abundance.
Their conclusion is that there can never be “too many people.” Both positions are over-simple and unhelpful.
All exponential growth — where something grows faster as it gets larger — is inherently unsustainable in the long term.
This — not particularly original — observation was the basis of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population published in 1798.
Malthus (a prominent economist for the East India Company, then Britain's biggest multinational) argued against the relief of poverty on the grounds that it would permit the poor to breed and threaten “civilised” society.
World population at the time was under one billion. It had taken the whole human history to reach that level (though it had doubled since the mid-17th century) and for the greater part of human existence on the planet it had been below four million — less than half the present population of London.
Malthus argued that people were inherently unequal; that there would never be enough to feed everyone, and better that some (the “civilised” rich) should survive than none.
“Misery” and “vice” were “nature’s way” of keeping the population down. (In later editions of his essay he added the possibility of “moral restraint” on the part of the poor).
Attempts to alleviate the condition of the poor (said Malthus) would only make things worse. Malthus’s views contributed to the New Poor Law of 1834 and the introduction of the infamous workhouse system (not finally abolished in England until 1929).
Engels rightly declared that Malthus’s “law” of population was an “open declaration of war by the bourgeoisie on the proletariat.”
Since Malthus’s day — and despite his predictions — world population has continued to grow. It doubled again to two billion by the early 1930s; again (to four billion) by the mid-1970s and is on its way to a further doubling by the early 2020s (it now stands at around 7.7 billion).
And Malthus’s argument has been repeated many times since. Cut to 1948 and William Vogt’s bestseller Road to Survival (published the same year as George Orwell’s 1984) argued that unless the “untrammelled copulation” of “spawning millions” was brought to an end, “we might as well give up the struggle.”
Vogt made his political position quite clear, declaring that it was necessary to get rid of the “sort of thinking […] that leads to the writing and acceptance of documents like the Communist Manifesto […] it tricks Man into seeking political and/or economic solutions.”
Twenty years later, as recognition of the problems of world hunger was beginning to be accompanied by a wider awareness of global environmental issues, Garret Hardin’s classic essay The Tragedy of the Commons (1968) advocated “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” arguing that “fortunate minorities must act as the trustees of a civilization that is threatened by uninformed good intentions.”
The “fortunate minorities” were of course the elites of “Western” civilisation and the “uninformed good intentions” those of aid agencies and others who sought to alleviate the position of the poor, particularly in “developing” countries.
Hardin’s argument formed the basis of the theory of “triage” advocated by some development economists in the 1970s.
Borrowed from emergency medical procedure it involved dividing the so-called Third World into three categories. Some countries were so overpopulated (or resistant to Western intervention) that nothing could be done to help them.
Precious resources should not be wasted; they should be left for famine and disease to impose its own solution. Other countries could survive — and recover — under their own resources.
Western “aid” should be targeted at countries (generally the more compliant ones) where it would have greatest effect.
One result of such “lifeboat ethics” was the mass sterilisation campaigns of the 1970s. In India in a single year (1972-3) over three million people are estimated to have been sterilised.
Such campaigns were favoured by the Indian government and by the agencies and Western nations sponsoring and funding them because they were highly cost effective and required (unlike contraceptive programmes) no social changes, medical provision or follow-up.
Nor were such campaigns limited to “developing” countries. During the first half of the ’70s, female sterilisations in the US trebled to around one million per year, with poor and black women heavily overrepresented.
In Puerto Rico (where sterilisation was legalised in 1937 at the height of the US eugenics movement) 45 per cent or more of all women of childbearing age were sterilised, many without understanding the full implications of the operation.
Since then it has become less fashionable to express such views publicly, though right-wing organisations often do so in private and arguments from Tragedy of the Commons have provided the basis for the commoditisation of nature through the creation of private property rights in ecosystem services, biodiversity offsetting and carbon trading, currently one of the largest — and most profitable — global commodity markets, led by hedging, profit-taking and arbitrage.
And population growth continues to be seen as one of the causes, if not the fundamental cause, of the “environmental crisis.” The next answer in this series will look at some of the complexities of the “people problem” and will ask what a Marxist solution might be.
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