The Urgency of Population Control and Appreciating the Accomplishments of the Developed World

The world capitalist system, which can now boast of nearly eight billion humans within its boundaries, is pressing against global ecological limits. Present and expanding rates of economic growth and consumption are environmentally unsustainable, evidenced by the rapid pace of climate change. The world cannot wait to tackle this problem.

Dhaka Bangladesh

I mention the nearly eight billion people who live on this planet because the mass of humanity is a big part of the problem. World population exploded after 1960s, growing from 3 billion to 7.7 billion today (the growth rate began its staggering climb after the world crisis of capitalism in the 1920s), and it is expected to grow to nine or ten million by 2050 (these are median projections). The rate of growth is decreasing, but the problem remains: the impact of billions of people today and in the coming years, almost all of whom will be born in developing countries. The fact that the projected near-zero population growth projected for 2100 comes with more than eleven billion people gives us no space to breathe a sigh of relief. It’s time for alarmism. 

Rather than helping the world’s public grasp the significance of the human population overshooting its planet’s carrying capacity, political and economic elites tell the developed world a different and egoïstic story: rising life expectancy and declining fertility rates are producing rapidly aging societies that will not be able to sustain their progressive structure of human services without some sort of intervention to restore integrity to the system. Life expectancy was 52 years in 1960; many people did not live to see retirement. Today, the population in the developed world has doubled and life expectancy extended to 67 years. By 2050, life expectancy will be 75 years. Many more people are living to see their golden years.

Twisting the good news that developed societies are at or below replacement rates, elites advocate importing from the developing world bodies to sustain the social structures of the developed world. They never mention the capitalist need for more bodies to suppress wages and consume goods and services. They never suggest redistribution of property as a means of securing future living standards for the mass of their citizens. They never appear concerned about the problems of overextending resources, environmental degradation, diminished social services, declining standards of living, the well-being of the native born, or political, cultural, and social disorganization. There is no talk of national strategies for creating a well-functioning societies that serve the interests of their citizens; instead, the best we can do is react to the changing demographic profile by patching it with peoples from other countries.

When the problem of overpopulation is raised in leftwing circles, either the conversation goes nowhere or the person introducing the topic is suspected of eugenics or racism. To be fair, much of the fear on the left of critical discourses concerning the matter is due to its perceived Malthusian implications. Thomas Robert Malthus, the English cleric and political economist, whose book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, and undergoing numerous revisions over the next couple of decades, posits a relationship between population and the social surplus in which greater food production only temporarily improves the welfare of a people because surplus in turn triggers population growth, is rightly viewed as reactionary. 

Malthus insists that the rate of population increase tends to exceed the rate of increase in food production, which ensures a class of impoverished individuals, and can result in what later observers dubbed “Malthusian catastrophe,” where people at the bottom suffer famine and disease. His formula, posited without proof: the arithmetic increase in food production is swallowed up by the geometric increase in population. Crucially, overpopulation is not a future problem for Malthusian theory; overpopulation is an ever-present dynamic that drives human societies.

One implication of the Malthusian argument is that helping poor people through public intervention perpetuates the problem of misery by producing more miserable people. And so his theory was used to justify rolling back government assistance to the poor. A more general implication is the ideologically view that poverty is the inevitable and indeed natural result of progress; thus, the argument provides ideological cover for inequality and neglect. On a positive note, Malthus’s insight—a general law of population across the spectrum of life—was exploited by both Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin, co-founders of the principle of natural selection, for their paradigm-shifting theory of natural history. However, human beings build their environments; so the Wallace-Darwin principle does not apply to humans (which did not stop social Darwinists from claiming it did).

But the logic of Malthus does not encompass all possible thinking on the population question. Karl Marx, the great revolutionary communist and radical political economist, also developed a theory of population, one explicitly at odds with Malthus, who Marx regarded as representative of the crude style of the vulgar British economist.

Operating on the basis of a material conception of history, Marx recognizes the inapplicability of natural selection to the human situation and inverts Malthus’ causal order, theorizing political economy as the driver of demographic change, not the other way around. As such, Malthus’ theory applied to humans amounts to a “libel on the human race.” Malthus’s claim is, Marx contends, “an apology for the misery of the working class.” Marx writes in Capital: “Every method of production that arises in the course of history has its own peculiar, historically valid, law of population,” which he distinguishes from the general law of population for plants and animals for which there a law “in the abstract”—“only in so far as man does not interfere with them.” 

The problem of the surplus human population, which is the source of human misery among the ranks of the working class, is tied not to an abstract and general Malthusian principle but is the concrete consequence of the capitalist mode of social production and its conditions. It is the result of capitalist accumulation, specifically the organic composition of capital, a term denoting the ratio of constant capital to variable capital, or the price of labor power. The dynamic proceeds thusly: maximizing surplus value production in pursuit of profit using the method of relative production, i.e. the introduction of labor-saving machinery and organization, systematically generates a surplus population, a redundant mass of labor, workers with no productive function. 

Marx thus proposes a law of progressive decline in the relative size of variable capital. At the same time, the capitalist system promotes population growth to maintain at its disposal a ready supply of labor power and a lever on the price of labor. Surplus population functions to suppresses wages, which is why, Marx argues, the price of labor-power never consumes the surplus. At the system level, this situation creates a contradiction in which capitalists fail to realize the results of expanded surplus value production as commodities as profit in commercial markets, thus triggering periodic realization crises, which lead to other crises until the system either resets and innovates its way out or collapses. 

There are two types of surplus population. The first is the traditional population characterized by a culture of high fertility rates (a bad thing) but for which modernity has reduced the mortality rate (a good thing), with the result a high natural rate of growth (a bad thing). Thus, the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist modes of production, or the impact of capitalism on societies peripheral to it, create a situation where extraordinary population pressures mount. China and India represent two examples of this problematic, where the development of productive forces outstripped the development of a culture conducive to optimal fertility rates, leading to a population explosion in those countries; both are the most populous nations in the world (1.4 billion and 1.3 billion respectively). The second type is in part the process described by the problematic of the organic composition of capital: workers have a functional role in capitalist production only to the extent that they can provide capitalists with useful labor power. As labor becomes more productive (more production with fewer workers), it is inevitable that there will be individuals who are no longer useful to capitalism, and thus will fall into the surplus population or, if lucky, suffer marginal engagement with the labor market. 

One suggested method for dealing with the problem is to tolerate a high mortality rate among the surplus population. Even if this were an effective strategy, humanitarian sympathies rightly prevent people from tolerating such a thing. Species ties require those with means find some way of at least ameliorating the conditions caused by overpopulation, which I am defining here as a mismatch between the needs of social productivity and the mass of people in a society. Thus, the standard solution is to compel the population that derives an income from either work or the exploitation of work to pays taxes that can be used to support a system making it possible for those who do not have an income or whose income is meager to continue consuming goods and services, thus subsidizing capitalism by recycling income (earned and unearned) through the system. The welfare system associated with the modern capitalist state, while often successfully ameliorative (more so in some developed European states than in others and in the United States) is not a vehicle for self-actualization for those at the bottom of the class structure, but rather is a functionalized system for managing their predicament. And without progressive taxing systems, there is a real question as to how secure this system is, with neoliberal restructuring by the transnational capitalist establishment shrinking the quantity and equality of the social welfare provisions. 

There is another solution. Recognizing that the capitalist class is less concerned with the problem of the surplus population than it is with economic growth, it falls to the world proletariat to limit the numbers of people in their respective nations by maintaining low fertility rates and restricting immigration from developing countries. Sharply limiting national population growth, ideally reducing the size of the population the long term, produces several benefits. First, it reduces the problems of overextending resources, environmental degradation, diminished social services, declining standards of living, and political, cultural, and social disorganization. Second, it reduces the surplus population which in turn shrinks the class of the unemployment thus pushing wages higher. This means that there is a smaller mass of people to be managed by government, which allows for more generous social provisions for those still or permanently in need of public assistance. Third, as I have written about in other essays on this blog, economic empowerment and cultural homogeneity contribute to social solidarity and strengthen support for the achievements of enlightened society: civil, political, and social rights.

When Marx published Capital, the world’s population stood at around 1.2 billion. Marx did not reflect on the impact of this mass of people on the ecosystem because the problem of surplus population was a political economic question; whatever the size of population, capitalism would see to it that there would always be too many people. Therefore, the solution was the overthrow of capitalism and the creation of a socialist society in which all the needs of the people—even the desire to engage in creative work—would be met.

To be sure, socialism is still the solution to the problems of humanity. However, we are facing a problem that a world of 1.2 billion did not face: there are now nearly eight billion humans, and to make a world that allows all of them the comfort they deserve, while observing the principles of sustainable economics, is a daunting task the accomplishing of which is rapidly receding from the realm of possibility. The problem is not solved by redistributing the trillions of dollars currently hoarded by the global bourgeoisie. While they consume more per capita than the average people on the planet, they are small in number; meeting the normal needs of this group does not require very much of the world’s productive output. The real problem is elevating the average Asian or African to the same standard as my family enjoys here in the United States. 

My parents’ generation warned the world about the problem of overpopulation. Perhaps Paul Ehrlich of The Population Bomb fame was the wrong messenger, but the generation’s instincts were right: there are limits. My home country, the United States, is the third largest county in the world population-wise. Americans consume a lot. We should be this comfortable. I deserve it. Indeed, every American deserves to be as comfortable as I am. But the world is not able to support a world population of ten billion people consuming the West’s average level of consumption. It’s not just meat (the most recent effort to distract the public about the actual problem). It’s population.

We in the West can at least do our part: no more people. Indeed, we need fewer people. In a November blog I shared the thoughts of ecohumanist Karen Shragg’s on this subject. In her essay, she explains how it is not just a matter of radically reducing the consumption levels of the West. Total population numbers matter. So even though the average American adult impacts the environment more than the average Chinese adult, the Chinese people’s impact on the environment is twice as great as the impact of the American people. Imagine matching consumption on a per capita basis. 

The West overall has done a good job reducing fertility. And its people are more free as a result—especially women. But to many other cultures have not done this work and many of them aren’t prepared to. Moreover, some are worse than others. In a November 2017 article, The Atlantic complained that the myth of Muslim overpopulation won’t die. But there’s a reason for that: the world’s Muslim population is growing twice as fast as the non-Muslim population. Muslims have the highest fertility rate in the world. There are 1.8 Muslims worldwide, a population that far exceeds China’s entire population. Because this growth is occurring in developing countries (and they are to a substantial extent still developing because of the overbearing nature of their religion), mass migrations are going to grow in size and frequency. Some folks think Europe and North America represent the cornucopia into which population pressure can be relieved. Our spaces cannot be allowed to serve these ends. We must not willingly suffer on account of other peoples’ recklessness and irresponsibility and backwards cultural sensibilities. And we must not help capitalists in their desire for cheap labor. I see good-hearted people eager to open our space to the world. They should know they are serving the interests of capitalism.

Knowing that nothing is so obvious as to obviate straw man objections to argument, I hasten to clarify that the arguments in this essay have no basis in the net-malthusian and eugenicist theories of Garrett Hardin or Fairfield Osborn and William Vogt before him (which is not to say they were wrong about everything). I do not celebrate death as a means of restraining overpopulation. I abhor population control strategies that select reductions of groups based on race (as I have written about). I am advocating reducing fertility worldwide (which, to be sure, means some population groups require greater levels of intervention) and equitably redistributing resources as means of preventing deprivation. Even those harshly criticizing the neo-Malthusians, for example Marxist environmentalist John Bellamy Foster, recognize that, to quote Foster, “population growth is one of the most serious problems of the contemporary age.” And Bellamy wrote the words in 1988, when the world’s population was 5 billion. Population is tied to historical conditions, conditions driven by what Amartya Sen demonstrated long ago to be the result of differential entitlement radiating from capitalist market dynamics. To grasp the reality of population pressing upon society, one must understand how population is a result of the capitalist dynamic. But this is no reason to forget that “population growth is one of the most serious problems of the contemporary age.”

In these essays, I am advocating for the working class. The national proletariats in the developed world must resist the call for their countries to serve as the pressure valves for global population problem. They should not fall for false rhetoric about the need to import bodies to sustain entitlements, an argument designed to undermine the demand for redistributive policies to shore up the living standards of those who produce the value in society. Nor should the working class fail to recognize that the surplus population problem is a strategy capitalists use to suppress wages and create a culture of uncertainty that pits workers against each other and makes them thankful for the jobs capitalists “create” for them. A million and more immigrants a year keeps wage-killing competition going (as we have achieved low fertility in the West, which promised higher wages and stronger bargaining power). Half a trillion dollars in wages lost annually to the capitalist class because of the wage differential between native and foreign born labor. Should American workers start begging capitalists to pay them less so they can have a job? The national proletariats should not be expected to suffer diminishment in their standard of living because capitalism and overpopulation create crises in the developing world. We have tens of millions at home who need work. Constrain the labor supply and you raise wages and create jobs. There is no proletarian interest in increasing the population of their respective nations, either in the developed or the developing world. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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