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Does history offer a key to understanding and solving the ‘population crisis?’

This third answer in a series on population from the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explores what a Marxist approach to population might be today

DISCOUNTING immigration and emigration, changes in population are primarily a function of the difference between birth and death rates. For by far the greater period of human existence birth and death rates were high and the population of humans relatively stable. With the development of agriculture and technology, death rates fell and the population grew rapidly.

But following industrialisation birth rates (as reflected in average family size) also began to fall. Population growth in “developed” countries began to slow. In some counties today, as in the 1930s, birth rates are below “replacement” level and populations have started to decline.

The whole process is known as the “demographic transition.” It’s drivers are still a matter of research and debate but go well beyond the availability of contraception. They include factors such as the social and employment status of women, that children are no longer seen as an economic asset (additional “hands”
to work on the farm or in a factory) and the spread of what were initially “middle class” family norms in relation to consumption and lifestyle. The whole process is complicated still further by other factors, particularly religion.

But at the same time as industrialised countries were undergoing their own demographic transition, many of the poorest countries in the world experienced a population “explosion,” due at least in part to the fact that reductions in the death rate were not accompanied by the kinds of social and economic changes that had led to birth rate reductions in “developed” countries.

A number of studies have documented the impact of imperialism on the demography and ecology of the exploited country. For example the population explosion in Indonesia was set off by the introduction of new technologies and living conditions by the Dutch, who encouraged a high birth rate in order to provide a growing labour force to exploit their colony’s natural resources. The wealth extracted from Indonesia ended up in the Netherlands where it supported the Dutch through their own demographic transition. Indonesia meanwhile remained impoverished.

As the Communist Party’s Science Bulletin put it almost 50 years ago: “In effect, the first or population-stimulating stage of the demographic transition in Indonesia became coupled to the second, or population-limiting phase of the demographic transition of the Netherlands.

“Then, with the post-war development of synthetic chemicals, Indonesia’s natural rubber trade declined, thus further depleting the economic opportunities for the advancement that might support their own motivation for population control.”

Analogous processes accompanied Britain’s own imperial conquests.

Britain exported much of its own “surplus” population to support its colonial endeavours and the wealth extracted subsequently provided the basis for Britain’s own demographic transition.

India’s own indigenous textile industry was destroyed in the early 18th century to protect British manufacturers, providing a convenient “surplus” Indian labour force to supply the raw materials for Britain’s own industrial revolution.

Still today, for every £1 in overseas “aid,” £3 flows back in the opposite direction.

The Marxist environmentalist Barry Commoner described this as demographic parasitism whereby the decline in population growth rates in the more economically and militarily advanced countries have been achieved at the expense of – and fed by – the suppression of that same phase in their exploited colonies. Citing the demographer Nathan Keyfitz, who calculated that the expansion of industrial capitalism in the Western nations between 1800-1950 produced a billion “extra” people in the rest of the world, he argued that “colonialism involves a kind of demographic parasitism: the second population-balancing phase of the demographic transition in the advanced country is fed by suppression of that same phase in the colony.”

The process is still continuing, though in complex ways and with great geographical variation and with migration increasingly a significant factor.

In some “third world” countries the decline in the death rate and consequent population growth is specifically a post-war phenomenon. In Sri Lanka (for example) the death rate has been reduced by over 70 per cent since 1945 due in large part to the spectacular success of DDT in controlling malaria.
More generally, reductions in the rate of population growth are predicated on economic and social progress and are most likely to be secured through social(ist) policies including an end to the stranglehold of multinational capital.

Wherever the production of children (usually sons) is still seen as a way of increasing the earning capacity of a family and the only means of obtaining a measure of security in old age, family planning campaigns have generally been successful only where they are accompanied by social and political changes including universal education and healthcare, welfare provision (including pensions) and improved status for women.

For example Kerala (where recent monsoon floods have created a major emergency) has a population density three times the Indian average with a per capita annual income of less than $300.

Despite this, Kerala, whose governing coalition includes strong communist parties, ranks highest in India for the elimination of poverty and illiteracy and an improved status for women (bitterly resisted by right-wing chauvinists including the ruling Indian BJP party) with good education and healthcare services.

As a consequence its fertility rates are one of the lowest in India (now dipping below replacement level).

Falling birth rates can themselves create problems. In Kerala, where life expectancy is the highest of any Indian state, they have resulted in an ageing population.

But as has already happened in the industrialised countries, neglecting migration, human numbers will eventually stabilise.
Trends in other developing countries too are encouraging.

Following the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1988, Indonesia is now well through the second phase of demographic transition and fertility rates have fallen significantly in part as a consequence of technological change and urbanisation itself prompting new calls for better welfare provision (including healthcare and pensions).

And globally, the rate of growth of the world population is falling, although population itself is not likely to stabilise anytime soon. Current projections are for a population of around 11 billion by 2100 though how far it will continue to increase thereafter is a matter of conjecture and contention.

So to return to the original question “are there too many people?” The answer has to be “yes and no.”

In many parts of the world population levels put immense pressure on resources, whether these are food, water, or wildlife and ecological processes. And while rates of population growth (and in some areas, population itself) are falling, human numbers will continue to increase for some time, exacerbating the problems caused by an exploitative economic system and will be a major challenge to socialism.

A stable or even a lower world population could be a desirable goal as part of an ecologically sustainable world. At the same time, we have to assert that our planet could feed, house and clothe the existing population at present levels of technology, though not with the excessively wasteful, environmentally destructive exploitative and alienating compensatory consumption that characterises capitalism’s metropolitan heartlands today.

The problem is not too little produced, but that patterns of production are distorted for profit and the poor cannot afford to purchase what is produced.

And, most importantly, we have to recognise that population growth is not the cause o f poverty, hunger, malnutrition or of environmental degradation. Rather, poverty and inequality are the cause of “overpopulation” — if anything an additional argument for socialism.


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