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Not Too Many People

The overpopulation myth threatens to overtake the human nature myth as the chief explanation for the evils of the modern world. A recent Observer feature confidently attributed the following problems to an excess of human beings: hunger, disease, the retarded development of backward countries, social unrest, political instability, urban sprawl, radio-active waste, destruction of wildlife, city squalor, crowded mental hospitals, violence, all kinds of pollution and ecological upset, the shortage of housing in London and the desecration of the English countryside. The writer of this piece did not think it necessary to supply any evidence for his assertions. They are, after all, common gossip.

People's readiness to accept the "overpopulation" argument arises from their lack of understanding of the way capitalism works. If millions are hungry, it is felt that this can only be because there isn't enough food in the world. If millions live in overcrowded squalor, this must be because there is a shortage of living space. If people are homeless, there is a "housing shortage" and that is that.

Occasionally we hear a few snippets of information which might be expected to disturb those who take this fashionable view. The growing problem of huge surplus food stocks in many parts of the world, for example. Or the recent recommendation to the French government to take measures to increase the French birth-rate, in the interest of France's long-term economic and political strength.

It has become a cliché in Britain to speak of "this overcrowded island". In fact, although the British Isles are far from being among the world's more lightly-populated regions

“The whole population of the United Kingdom could be rehoused in the single county of Devon with a density of ten houses per acre (quite a generous piece of land for each family) and there would still be land to spare.” (J. P. Cole Geography of World Affairs, p 319)

Indeed, the fear of overpopulation does sometimes appear in its most naive form: the fantasy of human beings so thick on the ground that there wild be "standing room only". Such a state of affairs would certainly be frightening, but even if the world's population continued to grow at its present rate, it would be a long way off. If, for example, the entire world's population were now placed in the United States, the population density in that country would still be no more than that of Holland today. Overcrowding is not due to overpopulation, but exists principally because of the private property system which ensures that the majority of people, being poor, cannot afford to buy or rent sufficient accommodation, of sufficient quality, for their own health, privacy and peace of mind. It hardly needs pointing out that for the rich minority, there is no housing shortage and no problem of overcrowding.

Also, though capitalism does increasingly necessitate attempts at planning the layout of communities, this takes place within a context, and with a scale of priorities, fixed by the market and by the warring of mighty vested interests. Small wonder that, under capitalism, the anarchic arrangement of our physical environment adds its weight to the other forces which oppress and depress us. It therefore plays a part in generating the frustration and disharmony which lead to mental illness and some forms of violence. It is a total evasion of these problems to put them down to "too many people." In fact the readiness to "solve" human problems by wishing away the human beings who are suffering from them, is itself a horrible symptom of something profoundly wrong.

It is true that the human population cannot grow without affecting the natural environment, sometimes with the risk of dangerous ecological chain-reactions. But the vast majority of pollution, from pesticides, herbicides, industrial waste and so forth, is quite unnecessary, and could easily be avoided upon the abolition of capitalism with its reckless race for profits. "If large parts of our country are polluted, it is not because we are too numerous, but because we pollute. The way to stop that disgrace is not to stop having children, but to start cleaning up." (Henry Wallich, in an otherwise abysmal column, Newsweek, 29 June 1970.)

Recently even the crackpot notion that overpopulation is the cause of war has been creeping back into circulation. When the spotlight was on the danger of war between Russia and America, two very sparsely populated countries, this theory could hardly be paraded with any seriousness. But now, though the main danger of world war remains in that region, the press and other media are paying more attention to China, which is depicted as being both over-populated and especially bellicose — both falsities. Mention is rarely made of China without the magic phrase "teeming millions", and often there is an attempt to conjure up the picture of a country bursting at the seams with hordes of people wishing to pour over its borders in search of room. This is ludicrous. If there were anything in it, China would be the one to fear invasion from its much more densely populated neighbours, India and Japan. (But as we have seen, it can more realistically expect attacks from "underpopulated" Russia.) Of course, it would be in the interest of China's capitalist class to expand its economic and political domination over other nations — not, however, to unload surplus -people, but for the classic purposes of capitalist international squabbling: to control trade routes, markets, sources of raw materials and strategic positions.

Increasingly too, there is fashionable chatter about an impending war between the "haves" and the "have nots". Every so often we are ominously warned that the "have nots" are out-breeding the "haves", and casting jealous eyes on their possessions. By the "have-nots" we are to understand the poorer nations (including the millionaire maharajah, the African state bureaucrat with his Mercedes, the Brazilian capitalist), whilst the "haves" include ourselves, the wage-workers of the advanced countries.

This is highly misleading because, apart from subordinating class divisions to national ones, it gives the impression that the so-called "have-not" countries or "Third World" have identical problems and prospects for development. What interests us here however, is that birth control is frequently advocated as a solution to the problem of uneven capitalist development (the problem of "backwardness") and it is sometimes claimed that these countries could industrialise faster but for their rapid rate of population growth. This may be so in some cases, but many of the arguments used to support it are weak, for example the use of statistics to show that a certain increase in production has been "eaten up" by an increase in population. Obviously, from some points of view it might be more important for a new capitalist nation to increase its total production than to increase its production per head. In some conditions a rapid rise in population is favourable to rapid capitalist development.

Essentially, the Socialist case against the population scare is that what manifests itself as an "overpopulation problem" is really a misuse of resources problem. Capitalism, as a system of rationing via the market, is justified in people's minds by a belief in scarcity. "There isn't enough to go round", so we must be restricted in what we are allowed to consume, by the amount of money we can get. "Overpopulation" is used to make those of us who possess a few elementary comforts, feel that we are on the brink of a vast pit of scarcity, and we ought to be thankful for what we have. Yet if we examine the potential for satisfying human needs which has been released by modern technology, we see that the opposite is the case. In order to survive, the capitalist system must continue to develop its potential for plenty, even plethora, but in order to preserve the poverty and scarcity which are its life-blood, capitalism must restrict, waste and destroy on a colossal scale.

Socialists are not, of course, opposed to birth control. On the contrary, we say that everyone should have free access to the most effective contraceptives which science can devise. The modern Malthusians have profited greatly from the fact that their best-known opposition has come from the superstitious teachings of the Catholic Church. What we do say is that talk of overpopulation misdirects attention from the real cause of the problems in question, and that birth control will not solve them.

Yet there is a positive outcome of the overpopulation scare, in that it has prompted many individuals and institutions to begin making an accurate inventory of the world's resources, and to chart out the possibilities for their use. The knowledge thus provided will cause many to query the efficiency of the capitalist system from the standpoint of human needs — and is also laying a possible basis for the world production plan to be instituted by the Socialist revolution.