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Why the ‘population problem’ is not simple

This second of a three-part series on human population by the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY unwraps some of the complexities of human demography

OUR last answer looked at the over-simple positions often by pro- and anti- population control campaigners — the former arguing that population growth is the major “cause” of poverty, want and the environmental crisis; the latter that there can never be “too many people” and that under socialism our planet could sustain an infinitely greater population.

Few Marxists would agree with either position. Engels, for example, declared that “there is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase.” 

He continued: “But if at some stage communist society finds itself obligated to regulate the production of human beings, just as it will have already come to regulate the production of things, then it, and it alone, will be able to do this without difficulties.  

“It seems to me that it should not be too difficult for such a society to achieve in a planned way what has already come about naturally, without planning, in France and Lower Austria.  

“In any case it will be for those people to decide if, when and what they want to do about it, and what means to employ. I don’t feel qualified to offer them any advice or counsel in this matter. They will presumably be at least as clever as we are.”  

That was over a century ago, when the world population was around 1.5 billion. Today it is approaching eight billion.  

And while many “developed” countries — besides France and Austria — now have falling birth rates, many other parts of the world, particularly those with the lowest standards of living, have continuing high rates of growth.  

Yet concern has not always been about population growth. In the 1930s in the industrialised countries (socialist as well as capitalist) it was the opposite, a concern with population decline.  

In Britain the “menace of British depopulation” was accompanied of course by a racist and xenophobic fear of growing numbers of “others” (then it was the “yellow peril,” today more generally it’s “the poor” whether in the “developed West” or in the Third World).  

The online “manifesto” published by the far-right suspect in the recent atrocity against worshippers in the Christchurch mosques (49 dead) used the phrase “it’s the birth-rates” three times, predicting the end of white Europeans in New Zealand as they are displaced by immigrants of other ethnicities.  

Birth rates are expressed as the annual number of births per 1,000 people in the population and are dependent on fertility — the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime.  

Fertility rates in most developed countries today are less than 2.1 (the so-called replacement rate) and are expected to remain so for the foreseeable future.  

Several countries already have declining populations. Discounting migration, Europe’s population (fertility 1.57) is projected to peak within the next decade and to decline slowly thereafter.  

Ultra-right EU politicians are once again promoting pro-natalist policies that treat women as baby machines.  

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban attacks Britain and other EU countries for relying on immigration to counter the impact of a declining birth rate, declaring that in Hungary (fertility 1.45) “people think differently […] we need Hungarian children” not immigrants.  

Inducements to reverse the “baby bust” include housing subsidies, nursery provision and tax incentives.  

In Poland where fertility is even lower at 1.32, access to contraception and abortion has been restricted.  

Italy’s replacement ratio of 1.31 is the lowest in Europe. The president of Spain’s conservative Catholic Popular Party declares that Spain is facing a “demographic winter […] if we want to fund pensions and healthcare we need to think about how to have more babies” and restrict terminations.  

Only Germany has seen a rise in fertility — from 1.50 to 1.59 — and that is primarily due to recent immigration.  

In fact all developed countries have experienced a decline in fertility (and in average family size) since the late 19th century — and, broadly, this is a trend that has continued to this day.  

Given the opportunity, most people are happy to regulate their family size and in most materially wealthy nations with ready access to birth control, population growth is much slower than in poorer parts of the world.  

In the meantime world population continues to grow and, while the rate of growth is declining, in many parts of the world birth rates remain high and the sheer weight of human numbers adds to and is added to by the misery imposed by an exploitative economic system, and poses a major challenge to social and environmental progress under socialism.  

Marx declared that “every specific historic mode of production has its own special laws of population historically valid within its limits alone. An abstract law of population exists for plants and animals only, and that only in so far as humans have not interfered with them.”  

The starting point for any Marxist analysis of population issues has to be the observation that human misery and want are not caused by “too many people” but by the domination of our planet by an exploitative economic system — capitalism — which is incapable of functioning “for the many.”  

There has never been a time or a major geographical region when insufficient food has been produced to sustain everyone.  

Most famines are caused by maldistribution and inequality — between communities and particularly within them, between rich and poor — or by war.

Apart from “natural” catastrophes (themselves arguably more frequent today as a consequence of human impacts on the environment) and war, people starve, not because there is too little to go around, but because they cannot afford to purchase what is produced.  

During the Irish “potato famine” of 1845-49 the population dropped from over eight million to around six million; at least a million people died from starvation and its associated diseases and a further million emigrated.  

Yet during the famine, Ireland exported enormous quantities of food. The problem was not lack of food, which was plentiful, but the price of it, which was beyond the reach of the working class.  

There are plenty of similar, more recent, examples. Today 13 million people in east Africa are facing acute food and water shortages.  

Yet in Kenya, agricultural resources are diverted to produce “luxury” commodities for export — like the cut flowers in your local supermarket.

A parallel argument has to do with the environment — the per capita environmental impact of that mythical “average citizen” of the United States is some 30 times that of India and around 100 times that of the world’s poorest countries — a consequence both of consumption patterns (and the US itself has extremes of wealth and poverty) and of the damaging technologies developed by capitalism.  

A socialist society would need to develop in a very different direction (the focus of another answer in this series).

Does all this mean that population itself is not a problem? No; but it does suggest that the problem may be a little more complicated than it’s often portrayed.  

For example, migration has been a central feature of all human societies and it is a particular feature of capitalism today.  

Some Marxist demographers suggest that migration — in particular uprooted or displaced peoples often suffering great hardship and sometimes persecution (including racism and discrimination in Britain), is part of a new “population law” of absolute, globalised capitalism.  

This is the case, for example, in relation to immigration to western Europe from former colonial states (and from more recently colonised former socialist countries) and it suits representatives of capital who play off different forms of precariousness – “nomadic” and “sedentary” – to the advantage of profit and control.  

Extremes of wealth and poverty — both between nations and within them — are two sides of the same coin.  

And falling birth rates in the “developed” world and the still rapid rates of population increase in some Third World countries are also closely related.  

The third answer in this series will look at how they are connected through the history of imperialism, continuing colonial exploitation and the ongoing stranglehold of multinational capital.

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