Carrying Capacity Carry-ons
When members of the World Socialist Movement explain that we aspire to a society of abundance where there is plenty for all, it is not a recommendation for some sort of orgy of consumerism, but simply referring to the fact that it is technically possible to produce more than enough to satisfy everyone’s material needs and that meeting everybody’s needs will indeed likely involve an increase in what people consume. This will certainly be the case for the billions of people who endure horrendous hunger, disease, and squalor. So, yes, socialism will involve raising the personal and individual consumption for much of the world’s population.
Surprisingly, some of our most vociferous critics are not conservatives but liberal progressives who decry such a goal as ecologically unfriendly and unachievable. More often than not, they will cite statistics of our planet’s carrying capacity and tell us we would require two or three Earths to provide for humanity’s needs.
Carrying capacity is a well-known and widely accepted concept. It basically says that sustainability requires balance and goes something like this: Humans need certain resources to survive, food, water and shelter. A sustainable habitat is one in which supply of and demand for these resources are balanced.
Some environmentalists today assert that current consumption limits have already breached or are about to breach the carrying capacity of our planet. This view assumes carrying capacity to be static. Seldom do they question why many carrying capacity calculations often differ. It is because determining a sustainable carrying capacity involves many variables which depend upon various criteria. Estimates vary widely depending on availability of resources and differing lifestyles of people in different parts of the world consuming different amounts of those resources.
The carrying capacity concept is fraught with problems from an ecological point of view. Carrying capacity is an idealised concept not to be taken literally. When applied to ecosystems, and even more, to human society, it falls apart. The fundamental flaw is failure to consider the role of social structure and relationships.
The talk of carrying capacity isn’t particularly helpful and supports the status quo. We are accustomed to the claim of too many people with images of the teeming slums of mega-cities, the bloated bellies of starving babies in the crammed refugee camps, as evidence that the planet cannot support our numbers. To bring the argument closer to home, we hear scare stories that Europe or the United States needs to shut its borders to (non-white) immigration, for having finally got our own birth-rate down to manageable levels, the last thing we now need to do is to open our doors to an invasion of poor (non-whites), who will use up our scarce social services and crowd us out of our neighbourhoods – the racist ‘white replacement’ theory.
The very concept of carrying capacity is a fabrication designed for social control. The possibility of marginalised populations being subject to eugenics and sterilisation to ‘curb’ their procreation isn’t too far-fetched. It is irrational that the culpability for poverty and hunger is attributed to them having big families and not to today’s wealth and resource inequality.
Too many sincere eco-activists buy into the idea that overpopulation is a problem leading to the destruction of the environment. The enemy is people. The poor are being blamed for being poor. The WSM response is that it is capital accumulation which is responsible for most resource use and subsequent waste. It demands increasing levels of consumption and strives toward unending growth and expanding markets. We should ask why advertisers need to spend billions of dollars on marketing if people seek never-satisfied levels of consumption. Under capitalism, there is a very large industry devoted to creating these wants. Capitalism requires consumption, whether it improves our lives or not, and drives us to consume up to, and past, our ability to pay for that consumption. In a system of capitalist competition, there is a built-in tendency to stimulate demand to a maximum extent. Corporations need to persuade customers to buy their products or they go out of business. De-growth as a few radical green proponents propose would destroy the capitalist economy.
‘Would the grow-or-die economy called capitalism really cease to plunder the planet even if the world’s population were reduced to a tenth of its present numbers? Would lumber companies, mining concerns, oil cartels, and agribusiness render redwood and Douglas fir forests safer for grizzly bears if — given capitalism’s need to accumulate and produce for their own sake — California’s population were reduced to one million people? The answer to these questions is a categorical no…’ argued Murray Bookchin, who introduced the school of thought called social ecology.
The ideal use of technology is to find ways to make fewer resources stretch far further. Renewable energy is clearly capable of providing large quantities of power for large numbers of people without emitting so much carbon. Adaptive agricultural methods are similarly capable of meeting the dietary needs of many more people than at present. Technology can cope with the growing demands placed on carrying capacity or planetary boundaries, by which we are not referring to greenwashing capitalist techno-fixes such as carbon capture and storage.
Technological innovation under capitalism is overwhelmingly introduced with the fundamental goal of enhancing profits and capital accumulation. So it is not suprising that some technological innovations under capitalism come at the cost of the environment. Capitalism lacks any intrinsic mechanism for regulating negative social and ecological side effects, which are deemed ‘externalities.’ The most that can be achieved, and then only under the pressure of social movements, is limited regulation.
Socialists are seeking to create a ‘steady-state economy’ which corresponds to what Marx called ‘simple reproduction’ – a situation where human needs are in balance with the resources needed to satisfy them. Such a society would already have decided, according to its own criteria and through its own decision-making processes, on the most appropriate way to allocate resources to meet the needs of its members. This having been done, it would only need to go on repeating this continuously from production period to production period. Production would not be ever-increasing but would be stabilised at the level required to satisfy needs. All that would be produced would be products for consumption and the products needed to replace and repair the raw materials and instruments of production used up in producing these consumer goods.
The existence of the carrying capacity concept is to maintain the ruling class’s current stranglehold over the lives of the poor – and to extend this stranglehold into the most intimate aspects of their lives such as decisions over family size and childbearing. Figures for carrying capacity are tied to current technology and practices. Any talk of carrying capacity should start by saying ‘If we never, ever do a single thing different than we do today…’
The future of society, and of the environment, relies on whether the global working class can wrest control of society from the parasitic few and commence production for need and use instead of for profit and capital accumulation.
When those in the environmentalist movement offer their ideal future it usually tends towards a pastoral idyll. Marxists have always advocated the greening of the cities ever since the Communist Manifesto declared for the ‘gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.’