1970s >> 1971 >> no-800-april-1971

Population and Pollution

If someone says that the world is now overpopulated, most people would take him to mean that the resources of the world were not sufficient to support the present population of the world. In their recent book Population Resources Environment (W. H. Freeman. £4.20) two American biologists, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, have convinced themselves that the Earth is, in their other words, “grossly overpopulated”; they compare the Earth to a spaceship which “is now filled to capacity and beyond and is running out of food”. They can only present some sort of case for this by using a definition of overpopulation that is slightly, but significantly, different from its normal meaning. They say:

“The question of how long the population is to be maintained is important. An area must be considered overpopulated if it is being supported by the rapid consumption of non-renewable resources. It must also be considered overpopulated if the activities of the population are leading to a steady deterioration of the environment ” (our emphasis).

This would mean that any area which, for whatever reason, was rapidly using up its natural resources or polluting its environment would have to be considered overpopulated. For instance an area which was doing this through the misuse of technology rather than through pressure of population would still on the Ehrlich’s definition be “overpopulated”. So all the Ehrlich’s have to do to prove that there is “overpopulation” now is to point to the undeniable fact that there is pollution and that the world’s resources are being plundered. This of course is much easier than proving that the world really is overpopulated in the sense that the needs of its people can only be met by doing these things.

Apparently contradicting their main argument the Ehrlich’s believe that pollution can be abolished. “State and federal legislatures”, they say, “could, easily stop pollution if they wished to do so”. They use their knowledge as biologists to reject the view that food production can only be maintained by using pesticides like DDT.

“It is commonly claimed that only current patterns of chemical control stand between us and starvation or death from insect-borne disease. Nothing could be further from the truth; the alternatives are not death or the continued dosing of ourselves and our environment with chlorinated hydrocarbons.”

The Ehrlich’s are unconcerned about the extra cost of their proposals to maintain the natural fertility of the soil. Speaking of the way sewage is at present wasted they say that “regardless of the cost, manure should be returned to the land to help build humus”. But when earlier they discussed suggestions for increasing world food production put forward by those they dismiss as “technological optimists”, they adopt a different standard: cost is the great objection.

After conceding that only a quarter of the land that could be used for farming is now actually under cultivation they say:

“But the term ‘potentially arable’ can be misleading. Actually, almost all the land that can be cultivated under today’s economic circumstances is now under cultivation” (our emphasis).

The costs of massive irrigation projects are “staggering” while desalting sea water “has serious economic limitations”. Discussing synthetic foods such as protein from petrol they concede that “theoretically, much if not all of the world’s protein deficit in the last two decades of this century could be made up with protein from such sources”, but go on to ask whether the purification costs might not make this “uneconomical”. Obtaining more food from the sea is dismissed on the grounds that most such schemes are “based on the premise that fish stocks will be harvested rationally” while “the history of fisheries so far gives little hope that rationality will prevail”.

These objections to the argument that mankind has the technical knowledge and ability to produce much more food are not technical at all (which is what they should be if the Ehrlich’s are to prove that the world is overpopulated in relation to technology) but economic. “Today’s economic circumstances”(that is, capitalism with its class ownership of the means and instruments for producing wealth and its profit motive) are a barrier to the production of abundance, but these circumstances can be changed by human .action. Capitalism in fact gives rise to the illusion of overpopulation by creating an artificial scarcity of food. The Ehrlich’s have been taken in by this illusion.

They also argue that the supplies of certain key minerals like gold, silver, lead, zinc and tin are being rapidly exhausted. Again they dismiss proposals for overcoming this — the extraction of trace metals from ordinary rock and the sea as well as the mining of lower grade ores — on grounds of cost, but still do not deny that mankind could get metals-from these sources if it had to. Later on in their book, again contradicting their main argument, the Ehrlich’s themselves advocate ways of conserving metals: the recovery of waste and scrap; making articles so that their materials can conveniently be used again; replacing planned obsolescence with, articles made to last; disarmament (arms are surely not only a great waste of resources in the first place but could also be an important source of scrap metal for many years to come). One very important way of overcoming this problem which the Ehrlich’s do not discuss is the manufacture of plastics which as synthetic organic products do come from renewable sources.

As far as sources of energy are concerned the Ehrlich’s are forced to concede :

“It does not appear … that availability of energy itself will place a limit on population growth.”

and have to fall back on the well-known fact that “all the energy used on the face of the earth … will ultimately be degraded to heat”. Ultimately, fortunately, is a long time and the Ehrlich’s make no attempt to show that it is near.

Although they claim that the world is now overpopulated and at one point predict “a drastic rise in the death rate”, they also believe that something can be done about it. They correctly point out that technology alone is not the answer since a changed attitude to its use is also required. They think that this is just a question of attitudes, but it is much more than this. What is required is a change in the basis of society so that the profit motive and vested interests no longer operate. Naturally birth control is their main plan for ending the overpopulation they mistakenly believe exists. Indeed they are driven by their mistake to seriously consider the propositions that the people of India should be left to starve and that it should be illegal to have more than two children. Socialists of course have no conscientious objections to birth control. It is absurd that knowledge about contraception and contraceptives, are banned in countries like Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland where the Catholic Church still has political influence. But no more than technology can birth control (which is only a part of technology anyway) be the answer, for as long as capitalism lasts it could only palliate the artificial scarcity and organised waste that are built-in to this system.

Apart from birth control the Ehrlich’s make a number of other suggestions for overcoming “overpopulation” some of which we have already mentioned. These other proposals amount to a call for an economic system that is not wasteful and that is not driven to go on plundering the world’s resources. They even wonder, as well they might, whether such a system would be compatible with capitalism:

“Marxists claim that capitalism is intrinsically expansionist and wasteful, and that it automatically produces a monied ruling class. Can our economists prove them wrong?”

Capitalism, as a system geared to producing profits out of which those who own the means of production accumulate more and more capital, is quite incapable of serving human interests, mankind does have the technical knowledge to provide for much more than its present numbers. The problem is not overpopulation, but the underproduction and waste that are built-in to capitalism. The plundering and pollution of the world is not caused by modern technology but by its misuse in the service of profit. If the resources of the Earth, natural and man-made, belonged in common to all mankind they could be used in a conservationist and non-polluting way to provide for the needs of all. If overpopulation were ever to become a potential problem in a socialist world, then mankind also has the knowledge of how to control births.

The Ehrlich’s comments on political and economic matters are generally very simple, but oddly enough two of their ideas could only be realised in a socialist world; indeed they would be essential features of it. They call for some arrangement “which will permit all peoples to have access to the basic needs of adequate food, shelter, clothing, education and medical care, regardless of the economic value of their productivity.” Again in discussing how to preserve the world’s resources and environment they advocate the establishment of what they call “world commons” and a “comprehensive Planetary Regime” that could control “the development, administration, conservation and distribution of all natural resources, renewable and non-renewable.”

This book is one of a number that have been published recently claiming that pollution is due to overpopulation but, as we have seen, it fails to prove its case.

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