According to the CIA’s World Fact Book, the world’s population is believed to be just under 6.7 billion people (June 2008).
Three billion people today—almost half the world population—survives on less than $2 a day.
Of these 6.7 billion, 600 million people lack adequate shelter.
1.1 billion people—approximately one in six people on earth—have no access to drinkable water (United Nations Development Report 2006).
The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 854 million people worldwide are undernourished.
300 million children go to bed hungry every day and more than 90 percent of these children are suffering long-term malnourishment and nutrient deficiency.
United Nations estimate that approximately 18,000 children die daily as a direct or indirect consequence of malnutrition (Associated Press, February 18, 2007).
People are being forced to resort to new lows to try to feed themselves and survive. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. There, 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day and the typical adult diet consists of just 1,640 calories—640 calories less than the average adult requirement (World Food Program). Haitians are now eating biscuits made from yellow clay dirt. In Burundi, people are trying to survive by eating a mixture of black flour and moldy shrubs. And Somalis are trying to sustain themselves on a thin gruel made from mashed thorn-tree branches.
Most recently, as a result of world food inflation, protests have sparked in Egypt, Haiti, Mexico, Mogadishu and elsewhere basically demanding the right to eat. Even the President of the World Bank warned that 33 nations are at risk of “social unrest” because of the rising prices of food (NYT 04/10/08 editorial).
Food inflation, raising gas prices and economic turmoil resulting from the subprime mortgage meltdown has put big questions back on the table for both those that control society (or the ruling class), and those that work for a living. The ruling class is eager to explain the current situation in a way that protects their power and wealth. And the working class is trying to figure out how to change their increasingly dire situation.
From radio talk shows to internet blogs to newspaper editorials (liberal and conservative alike), one explanation that seems to have quite a serious following is that the food crisis stems from out-of-control population growth—that there are just too many people to be fed.
So, just skimming down the comment section of the first New York Times editorial that popped up on my Google search—which, by the way, discusses the role of ethanol in raising food prices—I found the following comment among others of the same vein:
“As with all discussions of food supply, global warming, land degradation etc., this editorial fails to even mention the only real issue underlying all of these: limitless growth of the human population. Essentially all environmental problems are proportional to the number of humans consuming resources and belching out chemical pollution…All of these problems are insoluble without confronting the fact that there are far more people than the world can support. Until all countries institute effective measures to lower the birth rate and gradually reduce the human population to sustainable levels, we will continue to destroy the planet at an ever-increasing rate until it becomes incapable of supporting any kind of life. Avoiding this issue is suicidal madness” — Jeremy Bounce
The argument that: the world is overpopulated (or overcrowded), and the pressures of population on the earth’s resources create the social problems we see around us today—from poverty, to global warming, to famine—is not a new argument. In fact, it was made popular by the Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 by political economist and Cleric in the Church of England Thomas Malthus.
Malthus claimed to have discovered a “law of nature” which explained poverty as natural and inevitable. He proposed that population, if unchecked, increases at a geometric rate (i.e. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.), whereas the food-supply grows only at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 etc.). Poverty and starvation therefore were natural consequences of food production being unable to keep up with population growth.
Malthus never really proved this law scientifically, and as many of his critics pointed out, historical data did not support his claims either. So from where, according to Malthus did this law arise? Malthus argued in his first essay that: “The Supreme Being, through the gracious designs of Providence…ordained that population should increase faster than food”.
Malthus argued that if left unrestricted, human populations continue to grow until they become too large to be supported by the food grown on available agricultural land, causing starvation which then controls population growth.
Malthusian population theory has resurfaced over and over again since. When I told my Dad that I was doing this talk, he said nonchalantly, “Oh yah. They were talking about the overpopulation “crisis” back in the 60’s and 70’s when I was in school”…So I looked it up:
Paul R. Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb (in 1968) and The Limits to Growth (in 1972) where he predicted that "the population of the U.S. will shrink from 250 million to about 22.5 million before 1999 because of famine and global warming". Ehrlich also predicted that, "Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion."
These ideas have been popular enough to have crept into literature and television. The 1969 Star Trek episode (in the original series of course) entitled “The Mark of Gideon” dealt with a race of overpopulated aliens who abducted Captain Kirk to solve their population problem.
So at this point you may be thinking (especially after my Star Trek reference: “What is the purpose of this talk anyway?”)
Well…First, I want to show the social implications of the overpopulation argument—that the “plague” of overpopulation has been used as a tool of the ruling class throughout history to advance its agenda at the expense of the working masses. Second, I want to argue that while sustainability is an important question for socialists, we cannot understand sustainability and overpopulation without first understanding the way things are produced under capitalism and the corresponding way society under capitalism is divided into classes. Third, I want to argue that the current food and environmental crises are the result of capitalism, not overpopulation. And finally, I want to put forth some reforms we can argue for today in the process of rebuilding a Left, but I also want to argue that ultimately, socialism is a necessary step for planning a sustainable society.
Social Implications of the Population Argument
Far from being “fair and balanced” (like Fox News), Malthusianism arose from and was propelled forward by the ruling elite to justify the wealth, power and private property of (none other than…) the ruling elite. Anthropologist Eric Ross points out that:
Among [Malthus’] principal aims was to explain the nature of poverty in a way that not only would suggest that there was no viable alternative to capitalist economy, but which would also contribute to the evolution of that economy in a form of certain policy prescriptions—most notably the abolition of the old poor laws, the closest thing that existed in his time to social welfare (The Malthus Factor, pg 1).
Malthus’ argument was to absolve the emerging system of capitalism of responsibility for the impoverishment of the masses. The blame instead was placed on the victims. Any public obligation to mitigate that misery therefore was fundamentally incompatible with the ultimate rights of property, since any form of social welfare was bound to be little more than a way of subsidizing the fertility of the poor at the expense of the well-to-do.
In fact, Malthus argued that poverty, misery, disease and famine where actually necessary to check overpopulation. Malthus argued that hardships awakened “Christian virtues” missing from the poor.
Socialist, Frederick Engels succinctly summed up the social implications of Malthusianism: “It is always the poor who are the surplus and nothing should be done for them except for make their dying and starvation as easy as possible (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy)”.
Malthusian thought presumes that the poor are not really the equals of the more privileged. It rationalizes poverty using the “laws of nature”. But you can also see what is implied here: That the poor innately lack middle-class virtues such as prudence, foresight and the capacity to manage their affairs in a rational manner.
Throughout history, the Malthusian line of thinking has led down the political road to justifying imperialism: The line is that “The problems of developing countries aren’t the result of colonization and plundering by imperialist pirates. It’s because they are irrational and uncultured”. Malthus himself advanced similar arguments to justify English colonization of Ireland after the potato famine.
If we follow the line of thinking, it is not hard to see how eugenics—trying to create a “purer race” through breeding—could flow from Malthusian arguments of overpopulation and poverty. To quote Eric Ross again:
Eugenics was the next step in drawing the conclusion that these moral deficiencies were innate, that the poor where inherently inferior to the well-to-do and therefore incapable of manifesting such traits. The implication was no longer that the poor were a threat to social order simply because they were too numerous. They were dangerous on an even more fundamental level, because their excessive fertility was considered to be the cause of the deterioration of the nation’s “racial stock” (pg. 60).
I don’t think most people on the liberal or Left side of the political spectrum making overpopulation arguments today should be accused of supporting eugenics. But I do think it’s important to point out the implications of the argument. And it’s important to understand the history of overpopulation thought and its class nature.
Just a couple more examples and then we’ll move onto the real causes of poverty:
1. Overpopulation was used to try and justify cold war. It was argued that overpopulation and poverty was a breeding ground for communists and measures needed to be taken.
2. Along with Reganism, we heard that “welfare queens” were the reason for economic hardships—that poor people were just having too many babies and draining the system.
3. Finally, we hear overpopulation arguments used to criminalize immigrants. It is portrayed that immigrants are the reason that it is hard to find work: “There are only so many jobs and immigrants are taking them all”.
Hopefully you can see that the overpopulation argument is no friend of socialists or the Left because it diverts attention from the system and scapegoats the most oppressed and struggling in society. But what is our analysis?
Capitalist Production and Overpopulation
Rather than poverty and environmental destruction flowing from overpopulation, Socialists argue that these problems are the result of the way that capitalism organizes production.
In fact, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels—authors of The Communist Manifesto pointed out that capitalism creates for the first time the potential to eliminate poverty and hunger once and for all. Before capitalism, the technology did not exist to produce enough to meet the needs of the whole population. When people ran out of food, they “packed up shop” and moved somewhere else. When draughts or floods happened, huge sections of the population were wiped out. But the rise of capitalism has created a world market where each part of the world is dependent on the other. It has developed machine-based mass production creating the productive forces that far surpass all previous societies. Marx and Engels identified this aspect of capitalism as progressive.
The problem isn’t that capitalism can’t produce enough to sustain its population. The problem is that production under capitalism takes place for profits, not human need.
What Marx called the “means of production”—the factories, the machinery, the tools are controlled by a minority in society while the majority has to work for a living. In fact Marx and Engels pointed out that the immense wealth of the ruling class is made on the backs of the exploited majority. Under capitalism, those that own the means of production—the ruling class—produce in competition with other capitalists for profits. If one capitalist is not making as much in profits as possible, chances are, they are losing out to another. Think of it this way: If Kmart isn’t leading the pack in making profits, they are being gobbled up by Walmart. So under capitalism, profits are the driving force.
Competition for profits is the logic that drives the system and if “minor details” such as feeding people, housing people, and protecting the environment get in the way, they are trampled. Human needs like food are treated just like any other commodity under capitalism. That is, their only worth to the system is how much profit it produces for the rich. People are not considered to have a right to purchase any particular commodity, and no distinction is made in this respect between necessities and luxuries. Those who are rich can afford to purchase anything they want while the poor are often not able to procure even their basic needs. Under capitalist relations, people have no right to an adequate diet, shelter, and medical attention (Monthly Review 05/08).
So while overpopulation is decried as the reason people are starving, consider the following: According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, with record grain harvests in 2007, there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone—at least 1.5 times the current demand. In fact, over the last 20 years, food production has risen steadily at over 2.0 percent a year, while the rate of population growth has dropped to 1.14 percent a year.
That’s right. The rate of food production has increased over the past twenty years and the rate of population growth has decreased. Population is not outstripping food supply. The problem is that people cannot afford the very food they need to survive. People under capitalism starve amid plenty. Take for example the New York Times article from a couple years ago with the following headline “Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots” (December 2, 2002). Or as a Wall Street Journal headline put it in 2004, “Want Amid Plenty, An Indian Paradox: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger” (June 25, 2004).
How can this be?
1. Agribusiness actually hoards food or destroys it to keep prices high. And believe it or not—governments actually pay subsidies (with taxpayer money) to agribusiness to not produce food. According to The Washington Post, $25 billion per year is paid by the US Government to agribusiness and individuals to effectively not feed the hungry. One of the starkest examples of this was painted during the Great Depression. While millions of poor and unemployed Americans went hungry, U.S. farmers were facing the exact opposite problem: They were producing too much food to keep prices from falling. So at the same time that millions of poor and unemployed people stood in breadlines for food assistance, food crops were being destroyed, because no profit could be made from giving it away (SW “Can the world be fed?”).
As the author John Steinbeck characterized this tragedy in the Grapes of Wrath:
The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price, and this is the saddest, bitterest thing of all. Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at 20 cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up?...A million people hungry, needing the fruit–and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains...
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.
So as Marx and Engels characterized in the Communist Manifesto, corporations sit on top of their huge piles of wealth by sending the rest of us on a downward spiral into poverty. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that the agriculture business industry has become the second most profitable section of business in the United States—second only to pharmaceuticals.
We should consider the question of the environment in the same way as food, specifically the question of oil reserves.
At some point clearly the oil reserves will run out, and there is a serious debate taking place right now on whether or not we have reached peak oil production. But the fact of the matter is that there are other far less polluting technologies such as water and hydrogen fuel systems, as well as technologies that harness the sun, sea and wind. What prevents them from replacing oil today is simply that oil and coal are cheap to get out of the ground and are extremely profitable. Energy companies are not interested in the massive retooling and investment a shift in energy sources will require—not to mention the amount of capital they have sunk into oil exploration, extraction, and refining that they will be forced to write off. Existing forms of alternative energy, moreover, are at this point not nearly sufficient to meet present needs. What is needed is massive investment in research and development to develop viable alternatives to oil, but this is not profitable (Meaning of Marxism, 182).
2. In the drive for profits, Marx and Engels described another tendency of capitalism: the tendency of capital to be concentrated and centralized into the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists. That is, as successful businesses run other smaller businesses under, they gobble up “the weak” and acquire their wealth. In order to outcompete, capitalists purchase the latest technologies and machinery enabling more to be produced with fewer and fewer hands. These two aspects of capitalism combined to create greater and greater unemployment. Marx and Engels called the unemployed the “reserve army of labor”. Further, Marx described how capitalism needs the unemployment and poverty to keep competition for jobs intense which puts pressure on workers to accept lower wages.
Statistically, this trend is illustrated by the unprecedented growth in the gap between the super-rich and the super-poor.
But this can be seen most devastatingly in developing countries where there has been a huge migration of people out of the countryside to the cities. They leave the countryside because they have been forced off their land as giant agribusiness takes over. The small farmers move to cities seeking a better life but they instead find a hellish existence—life in slums with extremely high unemployment and underemployment. Mike Davis in his book Planet of Slums describes how most try to scrape by in the “informal” economy by buying things and then selling them in small quantities. He describes how people are packed into hand-made shacks like sardines and live in their own “shit” (his words) because they lack any kind of sewage system. Of the half of humanity that lives in cities (3 billion), some 1 billion, or one-third of city dwellers, now live in slums.
3. When discussing the question of world poverty—especially in relation to the current food crisis, one cannot ignore the role of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Without getting into too much detail (because there are whole talks on this stuff), the World Bank and IMF have been tools for huge corporations—many being from the U.S.—to extract wealth and profits from poorer developing countries. The term “neoliberalism” has been used to describe this, but it’s really just the economic side of imperialism. When Marx and Engels pointed out that capitalism chases profits all around the globe, they described this process accurately. Let me give you just one example in the interest of time (printed in the very first color edition of Socialist Worker) to illustrate how this works:
Haiti, one of the countries hardest hit by the food crisis, used to grow its own rice, and Haitian farmers were protected by high tariff barriers. All that ended in 1986, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF), as a condition for more loans to pay off previous debt, forced Haiti to remove trade barriers.
Within two years, domestic rice growing was decimated by cheap U.S. imports, leaving Haiti open to the vagaries of the world market and unable to feed its own population when prices shot through the roof.
How can U.S. companies afford to sell rice so cheaply that they can undercut competition in a country where 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day? U.S. agribusiness is subsidized to such an extent that it can sell rice at up to 20 percent below production cost--the very kind of support that Haitian farmers were barred from receiving.
By using the leverage of debt, these policies have gutted the economies of developing countries and pushed huge sections of the population off their land while funneling billions of dollars into the coffers of rich corporations here in the United States. The crisis is not the result of some “iron law of nature”—of overpopulation. It is the product of the laws that govern capitalism—profits before people.
American Exceptionalism and Consumerism?
One of the arguments that is popular on the Left related to overpopulation and sustainability is that average American workers and their culture of overconsumption and waste is eating up the world’s resources. The real situation though is much different:
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10 percent of U.S. households today are either at risk of, or experiencing, hunger.
According to America's Second Harvest, the largest food bank in the U.S., demand across the U.S. is up 15 percent to 20 percent over last year, and many food banks are having difficulty coping. CBS News recently reported that more than 80 percent of food banks said they were unable to meet that rising demand.
In some places, applications for food stamps have doubled in the last year. According to federal statistics, in March alone, some 27.9 million Americans received food stamps—up 1.5 million, or 5.7 percent, from a year earlier.
And with food stamp benefits averaging just $1 per person per meal, many recipients find it nearly impossible to stretch what little they get.
The idea the Americans are fat and happy while the rest of the world starves if far from the truth.
Additionally, as Heather Rodgers makes clear in her book Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage the way products are consumed needs to be understood in relation to the way they are produced under capitalism. Workers don’t need two or three cars. But capitalism needs workers to have two or three cars. She quotes a marketing consultant after World War Two:
Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life….We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace.
As a result, manufacturers designed products to wear out faster than they need to through technological obsolescence, fashion obsolescence, or some combination of the two. Durable items have been manufactured to be less durable to increase profits. Whole categories of products have been created to be disposable from the outset. Think of Styrofoam plates!
And workers in the US had to be taught to accept disposability. It was not natural. The Society for Plastics Industries funded a massive public relations campaign to educate workers to shift their attitudes on their “notions of waste”.
Another telling example is that US workers did not choose to rely on gas guzzling automobiles for transportation. In fact, Rockefellers' Standard Oil of California joined General Motors, Firestone Tire and Phillips Petroleum to form the National City Lines holding company, which bought out and dismantled more than 100 trolley systems in 45 cities between 1936 and 1950. Cities like Rochester, NY where I live have such a pathetic public transportation system now that most employers during interviews ask applicants if they have reliable transportation. The buses are totally unreliable and at the same time, we have empty rail tunnels weaving throughout Rochester that now are only used as shelter for the homeless.
Which way forward
This is clearly not our fault. Capitalism is a chaotic system because it is driven by profits. In competition, capitalists are only concerned about the short-term profit. They do not consider the long-term effects their decisions will have on the rest of society and generations to come (and we’ve seen that when they do, they don’t care). In fact, I hope my talk has shown how their profits are made because the poor are starving. Capitalism by its very nature has alienated workers from nature. Workers have been ripped from the land and hoarded into giant cities (and now slums). Capitalism has created an antagonism between agriculture and industry where there should be cooperation and planning. This rift needs to be healed.
So what is the solution? How do we create a sustainable society?
Many propose individual solutions to the problem. I talked to a woman the other day that said she is going to plant her own vegetable garden and stop eating anything with corn syrup in it. But while I encourage people to plant gardens and recycle and carpool…etc, there are no individual solutions to what are systematic problems rooted in the very structure of capitalism.
As Paul D’Amato wrote in his book The Meaning of Marxism using quotes from Marx and Engels:
What is required is nothing short of a revolutionary reconstitution of society—“a complete revolution in the hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order”. The point is not to leave nature alone, but to transform human social relations so that production (and the technology accompanying it) develops in a planned manner. Human need—and, by extension, the care of the natural environment upon which human needs depend—must be central to that planning. Only by overcoming capitalism’s contradiction between production and distribution, between social planning and market blindness, and between classes, can all scientific knowledge that we have acquired be used in a completely conscious and rational way (pg 185).
In short, we need socialism. We need workers to collectively seize the means of production to make decisions collectively in the interest of the majority. Then, profit can be taken out of the equation all together.
But honestly, revolution is not on the agenda for the next couple weeks. So what do we do today?
First, we need to combat the overpopulation arguments that blame the victim. We should use the current period—when the failures of neoliberalism are so clear for people to see—to explain why capitalism—where profit rules—is an irrational way to organize society. We have a role to try and win political arguments about the nature of the system and why the status quo can be changed.
Second, we need to be proponents of collective action against the system. Take for example, the struggle in Bolivia in 2000 against the privatization of the water system. Millions of Bolivian workers, peasants, and poor people took to the streets and forced the government to back down on its plan to hand the country’s water systems over to the American-owned Bechtel Corporation.
What is required now is the rebirth of a global justice movement that can link arms in solidarity with the protesters around the developing world and raise the slogan that “food is a fundamental human right”—that demands that debts held by developing countries are dropped so they can spend their money on feeding people instead of paying international loan sharks. We need a global justice movement that recognizes capitalism has created the problem of world hunger and is incapable of being part of the solution.
We should continue to organize collective struggle against the war in Iraq. After all, the gasoline used by me or you in our cars pales in comparison to the fuel needed every day to grease the gears of tanks and jets needed to occupy Iraq. Depleted uranium used in US weapons has spread throughout Iraq and created a toxic environment resulting in high rates of birth defects as well as what is being called the Gulf War Syndrome in returning soldiers. And the occupation of Iraq has caused the largest world refugee crisis where people are corralled into refugee camps—a place that overpopulation is clearly a problem.
Lastly, and I’ll finish on this: we need to build a revolutionary organization of militant Marxists that can implant themselves into the struggles around—that can help to propel forward the movements as they develop—that can help people see that capitalism is the problem, and can articulate an alternative worth fighting for. More than ever, after writing this talk, I know this needs to be done—and i’m proud to be a part of it.