Study Guide to Population and Resources
THE SOCIALIST PARTY EDUCATION SERIES, no. 4
POPULATION AND RESOURCES February 1994
The aim of this education document is to consider the question of population and resources, concentrating on the issue of whether the earth is currently (or soon will be) over-populated, and of whether there are sufﬁcient resources to provide adequate living standards for all. Socialist society could not function by means of free access if indeed there are too many people for the earth to sustain, so these questions go to the heart of the Socialist case. Many objections to Socialist ideas derive from views about population and the alleged inevitability of famines, while recently Green ideas about population reduction have become increasingly popular. So we shall provide some background information on ideas about population, see how Socialists can respond to them, and seek to establish the current situation concerning population and agricultural and other resources.
It is hoped that this document will help Party members to become better informed on population questions, and better able to answer objections brought up on these grounds. It is possible, too, that there will be increased Party discussion on such matters in response to this document.
The ideas of Malthus
Probably the most famous name in the study of population is that of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), whose Essay on the Principle of Population (ﬁrst published in 1798) is a much-cited text. For a number of reasons, we are going to start our exposition with a presentation and critique of Malthus’ views they are historically important, Marx and Engels developed some of their own ideas on population in response to them, and they show how population-related notions are involved with many general ideas about politics and society.
One reason for the importance of Malthus’ work is that he was not just making a claim about population, but about the possibility of a society based on equality and abundance. He argued that the law that population could not outstrip food supply had far-reaching consequences
I see no way by which man can escape from the weight of this law which pervades all animated nature. No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it for a single century. And it appears, therefore, to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all the members of which should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure, and feel no anxiety about providing the means of subsistence for themselves and families.
though the rich by unfair combinations contribute frequently to prolong a season of distress among the poor, yet no possible form of society could prevent the almost constant action of misery upon a great part of mankind, if in a state of inequality, and upon all, if all were equal (ch. 2).
Malthus begins with two assumptions, that food is necessary for humanity, and that sexual passion will continue to exist. He then jumps to the conclusion that population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio (i.e. doubling 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc.), while subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio (i.e. a constant amount of increase 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc.). When unchecked, population will double in a period of about 25 years, and go on doing so, but it is impossible to increase food supply consistently in such a way. After 200 years, population would have increased to 256 times its original ﬁgure, but subsistence would be only nine times its starting-point. Such a mismatch of people and resources, says Malthus, is inconceivable, and it can only be resolved by some check on population increase. These checks he classiﬁes in different ways at one point he distinguishes between preventive checks (poverty will prevent people from starting a family at all) and positive checks (poverty is responsible for children dying). More generally, though, he distinguishes misery and vice as the two ways of limiting population increase by vice is apparently meant contraception, abortion, infanticide, homosexuality, masturbation, while misery covers famines and general distress and poverty.
Little evidence is actually offered in support of the different ratios of increase. Malthus accepts that human labour can augment the amount of food produced in some speciﬁc area, but considers that food is a special case, quite unlike manufactured goods. A demand for manufactured goods ‘will not fail to create them in as great a quantity as they are wanted’ (ch. 5), but the demand for more food does not automatically lead to increased production, as there are limits to the amount of fertile land available, and already-cultivated land cannot have its yield improved continually.
This iron law of population could not be avoided by increasing the income of the poor, for doing so would not increase the amount of food. It was this consideration that led Malthus to oppose the existing Poor Laws, on the grounds that they shifted income (and hence food) from the hard-working poor to the less-deserving poor in the workhouses (ch. 5). General improvement in the lot of the vast majority of the population was therefore impossible (ch. 14). The laws of population and depopulation were constant throughout history, and any possibility of human perfectibility (a popular doctrine in writers a little earlier than Malthus) was thus out of the question. The best hope that Malthus could hold out to workers was that they should have smaller families, thus reducing the supply of labour and increasing its price.
Malthus in fact believed that population laws made the existence of class society inevitable
The structure of society, in its great features, will probably always remain unchanged. We have every reason to believe that it will always consist of a class of proprietors and a class of labourers (7th edition, ch. 14).
Quite a large part of the Essay was devoted to a rebuttal of egalitarian arguments, which Malthus believed were unsustainable precisely because of the population laws he claimed to have established. He gave special attention to the anarchist William Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, which had appeared in 1793. Book VIII of this (‘Of Property’) argues for a society of equality, where all necessaries could be supplied on the basis of half an hour’s manual labour per person per day. Godwin believed that cultivation in Europe could be improved so as to support ﬁve times the then population, and that large areas of the earth remained uncultivated. He speciﬁcally discussed (Book VIII, ch. 9) the idea that an egalitarian society would collapse under the weight of a vast increase in numbers, arguing that population would ﬁnd its own level.
It was this view that Malthus set out to repudiate in some of the central chapters of his Essay. After expressing his admiration for Godwin’s egalitarian system, he attacks much of what Godwin says, not just about population but about society in general
The great error under which Mr Godwin laboured throughout his whole work is the attributing almost all the vices and misery that are seen in civil society to human institutions (ch. 10).
Malthus of course believed that the vices and misery were due to his iron law of population, and he argued that in an egalitarian set-up such as Godwin advocated there would be a great spur to population increase. This increase would, Malthus writes, soon outstrip the food supply, and people would no longer be content to share what was produced, and would seek to gain more food for themselves and their families, thus undermining the principle of cooperation. Violence, oppression and distress would inevitably reappear, and population would be reduced to the level that the food supply could support. The idea of private property would be reintroduced, as the best way of mitigating the evils, and marriage would be reinstituted as a way of ensuring that men provided for their own offspring. Property and marriage would inevitably result in inequality, and indeed in a division into property-owners and property-less
thus it appears that a society constituted according to the most beautiful form that imagination can conceive, with benevolence for its moving principle instead of self-love, and with every evil disposition in all its members corrected by reason and not force, would, from the inevitable laws of nature, and not from any original depravity of man, in a very short period degenerate into a society constructed upon a plan not essentially different from that which prevails in every known State at present; I mean, a society divided into a class of proprietors, and a class of labourers, and with self-love the main-spring of the great machine (ch. 10).
So it was not human nature that made an egalitarian society based on cooperation impossible, but the workings of the law of population.
It goes without saying that Malthus’ ideas are inherently conservative. If misery and distress are not caused by human institutions, then changing human institutions can do little to alleviate them. If population pressure operates identically in all social systems, there can be little hope for improving the way the mass of the population live. Even the bourgeois economist Nassau Senior complained that Malthus’ population principle was ‘the stalking-horse of negligence and injustice, the favourite objection to every project for rendering the resources of the country more productive’. Malthus was indeed writing in response to the early period of the industrial revolution, the ﬁrst growth of industrial cities, the resulting social disruption and working-class resistance. It is in this light that his views on the efﬁcacy of attempts to improve general conditions, and his recommendations to workers, must be seen. He was without doubt an apologist for capitalism and, as we shall see, Marx and Engels denounced him in no uncertain terms. But let us ﬁrst look critically at the structure of Malthus’ argument in its own right.
As we hinted above, Malthus provides little empirical evidence for his ideas about arithmetical and geometric rates of increase, and indeed his theory is provided with little concrete evidence in any way. Even some of the ﬁgures he cites are wrong. For instance, he wrote before the age of proper censuses, and the ﬁrst British census did not appear till 1801. It revealed that population had been growing rapidly in the second half of the eighteenth century, and that the population was over 10 million, rather than the 7 million assumed by Malthus. Though many classical economists discussed population, very little was actually known about the populations of various countries and regions, either then or in earlier periods. It seems reasonable to conclude that Malthus’ theory is not dependent on the evidence he cites for it, nor is the arithmetic/geometric mismatch crucial to it. Rather, it seems best to take Malthus as asserting a general proposition about population and resources, viz. that population increase is bound, sooner rather than later, to come up against the limits of food supply, and some way will be found to limit the growth (e.g. famine). It is not possible for population to continue to increase unchecked, or for there to be a general improvement in living conditions (since such an improvement leads to further population growth, and we are back on the treadmill again).
At the time Malthus was writing, the world’s population was approaching 1 billion. It is now over 5 billion, and, despite the numbers of undernourished people, it is clear that far more people are supported in reasonably adequate circumstances than in Malthus’ time. This in itself may be seen as a refutation of the most pessimistic interpretation of his views clearly population can increase quite dramatically, despite various population checks operating.The increase since Malthus’ day has in fact been far greater than that before his lifetime.
Moreover, there have been many changes in agriculture since Malthus wrote. For one thing, more than 25 times as much land in the world is irrigated now than in 1800. The extent of arable land has expanded markedly — probably by as much as two-thirds just between 1870 and 1950; in addition, crop yields have increased enormously. But above all this there has been a dramatic change in people’s diets until the early nineteenth century in Western Europe, the majority of the population depended largely on bread and potatoes for their food supply. Only later did the diet become more varied, and meat come to form a sizeable part of most people’s food consumption. This was all part of the revolution in agriculture which took place between around 1750 and 1900. Malthus’ ideas about the limitations on increase in the food supply are without doubt well clear of the mark, for he had little grasp of the potential for development in agricultural outputs.
The views of Marx and Engels
We now consider the views on population of Marx and Engels, largely in the light of their response to the ideas of Malthus. The general tenor of their argument was that capitalism could make it look as if there were too many people, but that this was due to factors peculiar to capitalism rather than to any general relation between population and means of subsistence.
Before examining this in more detail, we can brieﬂy look at Marx’ and Engels’ other opinions on Malthus and his work. Firstly, they regarded Malthus as a plagiarist, who derived most of his views from the work of others, but without speciﬁcally acknowledging this. Secondly, they described him as a ‘bought advocate’, who spurned a scientiﬁc approach to economics and instead supported the class interests of the capitalists and landowners (especially the latter, as he defended their existence as a class of unproductive consumers). Thirdly, they rejected the view (due originally to Darwin himself) that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and in particular the idea of a struggle for existence, was an application of Malthus’ ideas on population to the plant and animal kingdoms.
The earliest discussion of Malthus’ work is in some of Engels’ writing. In Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1844), he argued that Malthus’ theory of population had been invented to reconcile the undeniable facts about apparent surplus population with bourgeois economic theory. Rather than admit that capitalist competition, with its booms and slumps, made some productive power appear superﬂuous, economists conceived the idea that population tended to multiply beyond the means of subsistence. Engels’ response was that Malthus had confused means of subsistence with means of employment, and that population in fact pressed against the means of employment. Moreover, Malthus had left out of consideration scientiﬁc progress, which advanced at least as rapidly as population, and would help to ensure increased agricultural production.
Engels returned to this issue in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), which was based largely on his experiences in Manchester. He accepts (pp. 113–4) the views of Adam Smith and Malthus that there are always ‘too many people’ in the world, but emphasizes that this is merely the appearance created by capitalism. Competition among workers forces them to work as long as they can, thereby reducing the numbers in employment and giving the impression that there are more people than can be proﬁtably employed. But Malthus was crucially wrong to conclude that there are more people than can be maintained from the available means of subsistence. Engels returned to this theme towards the end of the book (pp. 308–11) since, on Malthus’ account, the earth is always overpopulated, poverty and misery is the eternal lot of humanity. The ‘surplus’ population, then, should not be made useful but allowed to starve to death in the least objectionable way. This was the aim of the new Poor Law passed, under Malthus’ inﬂuence, in 1834, which made workhouses even more degrading. The strong language which Engels sometimes uses here echoes his earlier description of Malthus’ theory as ‘this vile and infamous doctrine, this repulsive blasphemy against man and nature’.
However, the fullest discussion of population can be found in chapter 25 of volume 1 of Capital. Marx here studies ‘the general law of capitalist accumulation’, and the relation between accumulation of capital and the demand for labour, since it is lack of demand for labour which can create the appearance of a ‘surplus population’. The increase of capital may lead to an increased demand for workers, and so to an increase in wages. These higher wages in turn mean smaller proﬁts and less accumulation, so wages fall back. The rate of wages is thus dependent on the rate of accumulation of capital, rather than vice versa. The apparent ‘law of population’, which gives the appearance of workers being now too few and now too many, is not a relation between two independent things, the amount of capital and the number of workers, but simply reﬂects the varying shares of labour and capital in what is produced. The number of workers can only be relatively superﬂuous, i.e. surplus to the demands of capital at some time. Marx continues
This is a law of population peculiar to the capitalist mode of production; and in fact every special historic mode of production has its own special laws of population, historically valid within its limits alone. An abstract law of population exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them. (p. 632)
It should be noted that this conclusion is quite at odds with Malthus’ view that ‘since the world began, the causes of population and depopulation have probably been as constant as any of the laws of nature with which we are acquainted’ (Essay, ch. 7).
We can conclude this section with the following passage from Engels
There is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society ﬁnds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difﬁculty. It does not seem to me that it would be at all difﬁcult in such a society to achieve by planning a result which has already been produced spontaneously, without planning, in France and Lower Austria. At any rate, it is for the people in the communist society themselves to decide whether, when, and how this is to be done, and what means they wish to employ for the purpose. I do not feel called upon to make proposals or give them advice about it. These people, in any case, will surely not be any less intelligent than we are.
This is a point which should be kept in mind it is not part of the Socialist case that population can or will go on rising indeﬁnitely for ever.
Population growth in history
In this section we survey the historical facts about population and population growth. Naturally, the farther back one goes in history, the less certain the population estimates are; but the general trend is clear and uncontroversial.
When agriculture began to develop around 8000 BC, the earth’s population was probably around 4 million. Agriculture could sustain far higher numbers than the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and population gradually increased until, between 4000 and 1000 BC, it roughly doubled every thousand years to reach around 50 million. It then doubled in only 500 years to reach 100 million in 500 BC. The growth rate then slowed again, and 200 million was not attained till 200 AD. From that date numbers stagnated till around 1000 AD, and then rose to around 350 million in the 13th century. The following century saw a decline, but then there was a sharp rise to 550 million by 1600. From this date it makes better sense to present the ﬁgures in a table
Year World population in millions
However, the simple ﬁgures about global population need to be supplemented by examining two further aspects the distribution of population, and the rate of population growth.
In hunter-gatherer times, population was fairly evenly distributed over most of the habitable globe, but after the rise of agriculture population naturally came to be concentrated in the agriculturally-advanced areas. In the long term, the regions of highest population became Europe, India and China. By 1900, the ﬁgures in millions were Europe 450, China 450, India 290, Africa 110, USA 76. Compare the ﬁgures (also in millions) for 1987 — Europe 495 , China 1090, India 780, Africa 590, USA 245. The rapid increase in Africa (from 7 to 12% of the world total) postdates 1900.
Under the hunter-gatherer adaptation, population growth was effectively zero, and even a doubling in a thousand years (see above) means a very small annual increase. But since around 1800 the average annual increase has risen quite dramatically. The following table gives average annual increase per thousand people between the dates shown
Period Annual increase per 1000
Since 1900 the rate of population increase has gone way beyond previous levels; if this rate of increase were to continue till 2100, the earth’s population by that date would be 48 billion. A simple way to show the increase since 1900, and especially since 1950, is by means of a graph
Population theorists assume that there is generally an equilibrium mechanism which keeps births and deaths within a reasonable distance of each other
for any one of the three basic types of economic organisation there exists — at least potentially — an equilibrium mechanism that controls population growth. For the hunting-ﬁshing societies we suppose — rather vaguely, and with allowance made for some taboo contraceptive practices and counting infanticide in the death-rate — that the equilibrium mechanism consisted of a high death-rate matching a high birth-rate. How ﬂuctuating these rates could have been we simply do not know. For the agricultural societies we can state more precisely that the mechanism generally consisted of a high and highly ﬂuctuating death-rate that checked a high but more stable birth-rate. The death-rate was normally lower than the birth-rate and the population tended to increase, but eventually catastrophic peaks of the death-rate wiped out the ‘surplus’ population. Then the cycle started again. For industrial societies it seems that the mechanism should mainly consist in adjustment of the birth-rate to a very low death-rate. The looser the adjustment of the birth-rate to the death-rate, the higher the probability of the reappearance of the peaks as equilibrating devices.
We now look at the evidence for such an equilibrium mechanism, and at some of the reasons why the earth’s population has grown in the ways sketched above, i.e. why there has been rapid growth at certain times, and virtual stagnation or even reduction at others. Various factors enter into the determination of population growth, with different factors operating at different times. At a ﬁrst, superﬁcial level, birth and death rates are the crucial points. On average, women are biologically capable of giving birth to twelve children, but such high rates are not often met in practice. A rise in average life expectancy increases not just the number of people alive but also the number of women of child-bearing age and thus the potential for more births. However, it is essential to look beyond the birth and death rates and to investigate what determines these, bearing in mind Marx’s warning (see above) that laws of population vary in different historical epochs.
The hunter-gatherer mode of production can only support very low population densities, and so cannot cope with any appreciable population growth. The minimal growth-rate was probably not caused by malnutrition or starvation (as implied by Cipolla), but by a combination of two methods. Infanticide, especially of girl babies, was one; note that infanticide may cover everything from neglect to abandonment or outright murder. The other method was that of prolonging lactation as long as a woman is breast-feeding a child, she will be unable to store in her body sufﬁcient calories to recommence ovulation and so be unable to conceive. It is argued that by means of low birth- and death-rates, hunter-gatherers could maintain a virtually stationary population, and so enjoy adequate diet and reasonable life-expectancy without causing massive disruption to their environment. This, however, implies constant mobility to ﬁnd new sources of food, and hence constant expansion into new territories.
Agriculture was probably adopted once hunter-gatherers had sufﬁciently depleted food supplies over fairly large areas, and they thus had no choice but to make greater use of the techniques of cultivation which they already possessed but made relatively little use of. Agriculture requires more time and effort than hunting and gathering, but it can provide more food from a smaller land area. Settled agriculture led to private property, surplus produce and a ruling class that controlled it. As we saw above, it also enabled a steady growth of population. In contrast to hunter-gatherer societies, agricultural societies tend to have high birth- and death-rates (with birth-rates of over 35 per thousand, at least twice the current ﬁgure in Western Europe). Death-rates were slightly lower than birth-rates, leading to ‘a normal rate of growth of 0.5 to 1.0 per cent per year’. However, population was kept down by recurrent drastic increases in death-rates, primarily caused by epidemics and famines. The Black Death of the mid-14th century wiped out at least a quarter of the population of Europe, and was partly responsible for the global population decline mentioned earlier; but this was only the worst of many similar occurrences. Late marriage and (especially female) infanticide also helped to keep the population down at various times and places, but on the whole it was natural disasters that were responsible for keeping population within the bounds of what agriculture could support.
Agricultural societies have of course varied greatly. We discussed earlier some of the changes in agricultural practice since Malthus’ day; we can now point out that many changes took place in agriculture in earlier centuries too. Besides increasing the cultivated area, new crops were developed, methods of fertilisation were improved, irrigation was reﬁned and expanded, and crops were introduced to new areas. Taking 1000 BC as an arbitrary (and rather late) starting-point, the world’s population increased nearly twentyfold between then and 1800 AD, though at the later date as much as 85% of the world labour force were still employed in agriculture. It is clear that agricultural society could sustain considerable population growth over the long term.
The development of capitalism and industrial society once more altered the relation between population and birth- and death-rates. The population of England and Wales trebled to 18 million between 1750 and 1850 (probably because of a rise in birth-rate), and then went up to 33 million by 1900. The annual birth-rate remained at 30 per thousand till the start of the present century, and dropped to half that by 1950 (the 1987 ﬁgure was 13). Meanwhile, the death-rate dropped from 30 per thousand in 1750 to 20 in 1850 (a ﬁgure which remained more or less constant in the remainder of the century), and to 11 in 1950 (the same as today). This, then, is the general picture of industrial societies a decline in mortality levels leads to a drop in the death-rate, which is followed at varying intervals by a decline in the birth-rate, caused by the increased availability of abortion and contraception. Food production is increased in keeping with the growth in population, e.g. by the kind of means seen earlier.
What, then, are the causes of the enormous increase in population over the last few decades? One answer is that it is simply due to a combination of a cut in death-rates in underdeveloped countries (itself caused by improvement in medical care) and a continuation of high birth-rates (which have not fallen as has happened in industrial nations). On its own, this explanation begs the question of why birth-rates have continued so high. The orthodox explanation for this is that for poor people, especially peasants, children represent an investment for the future and an insurance for old age a larger family increases the supply of labour power and makes it more likely that enough children will survive to adulthood and so be able to look after their ageing parents. This account relates large families to poverty, and implies that population growth would be far less if people were more comfortable and secure. Another possible explanation also ascribes large families to poverty, but on physiological rather than social grounds. J. de Castro argues that protein deﬁciency affects the functioning of the liver, thereby allowing excess oestregens to remain active and increasing women’s fertility. In contrast, Harris claims that low fertility relates to diets that are high in proteins and low in carbohydrates better-quality food means a longer interval between births, as more proteins are consumed and so fat is built up more slowly; cf. our remarks above about the reasons for low birth-rates among hunter-gatherers. More carbohydrates (a lower-quality diet) means more fat, and so conception is possible earlier. On the other hand, it is also argued that malnutrition reduces fertility (e.g. it reduces the sperm count in men, and disrupts women’s menstrual cycle); this may explain why, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in England, the rich had more children than the poor. The physiological explanations of large families among the poor, then, cannot be taken as established; it might be added that they are not incompatible with the social-based explanation discussed above.
Some contemporary theories of population
The study of population has become extremely popular over the last couple of decades, partly in response to (and partly as a cause of) the growing interest in ecology. Very broadly, a division can be made into optimists — who argue that known resources will at least keep pace with population growth — and pessimists — who argue that population growth will outstrip, or is already outstripping, the earth’s capacity to cope. Rather than surveying this debate in detail, we shall concentrate on typical proponents of each approach.
The best-known pessimists or doomsters are probably Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who have authored a string of books, starting with Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968; the work we refer to here is The Population Explosion (Arrow 1991). This contains a fairly standard list of problems, from famine and epidemics to global warming, pollution and the depletion of resources, based on the assumption that, even if over-population is not responsible for all these and more, it at least contributes to making them far more severe than would otherwise be the case. The population problem, the authors claim, will eventually be solved by nature in a harsh and horrendous way (e.g. global famine, massive agricultural crisis) if people do not take steps to solve it ﬁrst in a far milder way, via birth control. They do not see population control as a universal panacea, though, as there are plenty of other problems around
Limiting human numbers will not alone end warfare, environmental deterioration, poverty, racism, religious prejudice, or sexism; it will just buy us the opportunity to do so. As the old saying goes, whatever your cause, it’s a lost cause without population control. (p.23)
In reaching their conclusion about the crucial role played by population, however, the Ehrlichs have to rely on a distortion of the usual sense of ‘overpopulation’
if the long-term carrying capacity of an area is clearly being degraded by its current human occupants, that area is overpopulated.
By this standard, the entire planet and virtually every nation is already vastly overpopulated. (p.39; emphasis in original)
The conclusion no doubt follows from the deﬁnition, but the deﬁnition is utterly unacceptable, for it links over-population to the misuse of resources and technology rather than to the number of people. It would probably follow that the earth has been over-populated ever since human beings appeared and began to eat plants and kill animals, so depleting their local resources. On the other hand, if the Ehrlichs were to apply their concept consistently, they would have to conclude that ‘overpopulation’ in their sense is not to be solved by reducing the number of people but by fundamentally changing the way we interact with the rest of nature. Instead they deﬁne over-population one way and (inevitably) conclude that it exists, yet deﬁne it another way (the ordinary, everyday way) when suggesting a solution.
To put a little more substance in the Ehrlichs’ argument, let us summarise some of their claims. They argue, for instance, that agricultural topsoil is being lost far faster than it is being replaced, just as water is being withdrawn from underground stores more quickly than its replacement rate. Extraction of ﬁsh from the oceans is supposedly approaching the maximum sustainable yield, beyond which stocks become depleted and future generations will not have enough ﬁsh to satisfy their needs. Fertiliser applications have reached the point of diminishing returns, with few further gains waiting to be made. There is little possibility of increasing the amount of cultivated land, and indeed the world amount of cropland actually shrank by 7% in the 1980s. In many places, the number of livestock exceeds the carrying capacity of the land. In short, humanity is now living on its resource ‘capital’, rather than on renewable resources. It is interesting, however, to note that even this list of problems makes hardly any reference to resources such as coal or iron and other metals.
For a work which takes the opposite, ‘optimistic’ view, we look at Julian Simon’sThe Ultimate Resource (Princeton University Press 1981). This is a defence of the position that a higher population is better, since it means that more useful knowledge comes into existence (the ultimate resource of the title are people), and gives a boost to invention of new technology and adoption of that which already exists. Natural resources are becoming less scarce over the long run the evidence for this surprising-sounding view is that raw material prices have fallen steadily, and price is a reliable indicator of scarcity. It is also relevant that the ‘known reserves’ of various materials increase over time as demand rises and more surveys are carried out. Simon concludes
natural resources are not ﬁnite in any meaningful economic sense… there is no solid reason to believe that there will ever be a greater scarcity of these extractive resources in the long-run future than there is now. Rather, we can conﬁdently expect copper and other minerals to get progressively less scarce. (p.17)
An apparent ‘shortage’ of some material will lead to attempts to remedy this problem, either in increased efforts to ﬁnd more supplies or in development of alternative materials. Food prices, too, have generally fallen over the last century or so. The sharp rises in the early 1970s were caused by speciﬁc short-term reasons, and small-scale ups and downs do not invalidate the long-term trends. The amount of arable land in the world is increasing year by year, perhaps to the extent of 1% per year.
Simon’s arguments have to be treated extremely critically. He is an admirer of the free market, and some of his logic is very suspect — for instance, he argues that the amount of pollution is steadily declining, as this is best measured by examining life expectancy, which is steadily increasing. Nevertheless, his book is worth reading alongside the Ehrlichs’, to see that there is another side to the argument. His acceptance that virtually everything can be measured by price is a typical capitalist viewpoint, but the idea that shortages and population growth can lead to the solution of the problems they create is of interest. It is often assumed that technological development enables an increase in population, yet Simon is not the only one who makes a case for the opposite inﬂuence, viz. that population growth acts as a spur to, or at least removes an obstacle against, technical progress. For instance, it has been argued that population increase in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was a cause of the industrial revolution, and, more generally, that population growth creates the framework within which intensive agriculture can develop, cities expand and transport systems improve. Such an approach views technological development as the result of human response to social pressures, rather than something which just happens.
These theories are of course not just a matter of academic argument, since they can be made the basis of policies, imposed or proposed. The Ehrlichs advocate population control (primarily by means of contraception), and see this as being hardest to achieve in underdeveloped countries. They actually consider world cooperation to be a prerequisite for proper population control, but are not explicit about just how to achieve it, or what level of population should be aimed at. The idea of reducing population has also been a popular theme in much Green writing; one suggestion, for instance, is that the optimum population for Great Britain would be 30 million (compared to a current UK population of 57 million).
The subsequent section on famines and food potentials will show that the Ehrlichs’ arguments are untenable.
The food problem and its solution
In this section we examine the extent and causes of famine, with particular reference to whether over-population can be blamed for starvation and malnutrition. We then go on to look at the possibilities for food production, and whether it is feasible to produce enough to feed the whole of the current and likely future world population.
Terms such as ‘hunger’ and ‘malnutrition’ are often used rather loosely, so let us begin by offering some deﬁnitions. Some authorities draw a distinction as follows. Undernutrition occurs when a person’s body-weight falls or their capacity to work drops owing to lack of food. To avoid undernutrition (which leads to death if it continues long enough), a person needs to consume a certain amount of calories in order to obtain sufﬁcient energy to survive and work. This amount varies according to a person’s age, sex and weight, how active they are, and what kind of climate they live in. Giving an average ﬁgure is therefore difﬁcult, but one typical amount is a requirement of 3500 calories per day for an adult male weighing 56 kg and engaged in a moderately-active occupation; the average amount per person would therefore be considerably less than this. Malnutrition arises when a person’s diet is deﬁcient in quality and there are insufﬁcient proteins and vitamins. Various illnesses then result (such as rickets or scurvy, depending on what is lacking). Protein is also needed for growth, and to replace body tissue.
Determining just how many people fall into either of these categories, however, is not easy. One estimate for 1980 gives 535 million qualifying as undernourished, while others claim 70 million people as suffering from hunger. The March 1985 Socialist Standard estimated that in 1980 17 million people died from malnutrition (including undernutrition, presumably) and related diseases. This article also makes the point that the category of deaths from hunger covers both those who literally starve to death and those who die from diseases caused or exacerbated by malnutrition.
There is a simple and straightforward argument against the position that famine and malnutrition are due to over-population, viz. that enough food is currently produced to feed the whole world population. Just taking grain alone, enough is produced to provide everyone with 3600 calories per day, and plenty of other foodstuffs are produced as well. The problem is not one of production but of distribution the poor simply cannot afford to buy enough to feed themselves. Citations and references to this effect can easily be multiplied, e.g.
Today’s world has all the physical resources and technical skills necessary to feed the present population of the planet or a much larger one.
On average, over the past few years, 1300 million tons (Mton) of grain have been marketed each year, enough to feed 5200 million people.
The world produces more food per head of population today than ever before in human history. In 1985 it produced nearly 50 kilogrammes per head of cereals and root crops, the primary sources of food … The agricultural resources and the technology needed to feed growing populations are available.
there is plenty of food in the world. Production of cereals (wheat, rice, millet, etc) last year  reached 1799.2 million tons, enough to offer everyone in the world well over the recommended minimum of 2,500 calories per adult per day. And that is before you’ve even begun to count the calories in vegetables, nuts, pulses, root crops and grass-fed (as opposed to grain-fed) meat.
Statistics show there is more than enough food to go round. At a global level, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that the world grows enough grain to provide every human being with 3,600 calories a day, well above the average 2,400 calories a day they need. Neither is hunger a simple question of there being too many mouths to feed — of pressure of population on ﬁnite resources. Between 1950 and 1983, world population increased from 2.51 billion to 4.66 billion, but agricultural production increased from an average of 248 kilograms to 310 kilograms per head.
Moreover, the spread of colonialism created the ‘Third World’, by imposing in Africa and Asia systems of agriculture which served the interests of the developed world. Cash crops were introduced, and subsistence economies were often undermined in the name of cheap food for the dominant capitalist countries. This pattern still exists, with its consequent distortion of the optimal way of organising world agriculture in the interests of the greatest production and least environmental damage. The underdeveloped part of the world as a whole exports more food than it imports.
Nor are speciﬁc famines caused by population pressure, or by problems with the weather. Rather, they result from a combination of the general framework of agriculture in developing countries and individual acts of power politics. Time and again, famines are accompanied by a net export of food from the country concerned or by the loss or destruction of food there. The Irish Famine of 1845–7, which led to the death of around a million people, was triggered by the failure of the island’s potato crop, but plenty of the Irish grain harvest was exported, and of course the rich, who could afford to pay the inﬂated food prices, did not starve. In Somalia in late 1992, harvested and unharvested crops went to waste while millions starved. In these and other cases, the food is there, it simply does not get to the starving because of the monetary and military rules of capitalism.
Another reason for claiming that population growth is not the simple cause of hunger and famine is that over the last few decades the world’s food production has increased faster than the population. There are slightly different estimates of the extent of this Grigg (pp. 48-9) gives a 16% increase in global food supply per head over the period 1950-80, while Lowry (p. 26) claims a 24% increase in food output per head between 1952/4 and 1978/80, adding that total output more than doubled in this period. The ﬁgures cited above from Jackson imply a 25% rise in food output per head between 1950 and 1983. This increase in food supply per head applied in most of the Third World, too, with the exception of Africa. Moreover, the discrepancy in consumption of calories between different areas of the world existed in the 1930s when modern record-taking ﬁrst started. Though the amount of food produced has increased enormously over the last 50 years, outstripping increase in population, undernutrition and malnutrition have not disappeared.
How has this increase in food produced been possible? Between 1950 and 1980, the area in major food crops increased by 23%, and the amount produced per hectare rose too (crop yields increased by 82% in the case of cereals). And what of the prospects for future increases? There are in principle three ways of boosting food production increase the amount of cultivated land, improve crop yields, and develop new food sources. We now consider each of these in turn.
Firstly, there are still massive potentialities for increasing the amount of cultivated land (in addition to bringing back into cultivation land which capitalism deliberately takes out of production). Exact ﬁgures are hardly possible in this respect, but some estimates are that perhaps twice the currently-cultivated land could be brought into use, or that 1400 million hectares are in use at present, with another 1800 million cultivable but not used. It is clear that we are by no means near the limits of the earth’s cultivable land. One way of increasing the area of arable land is by means of irrigation. Many deserts, especially in the Near East and North Africa, have vast subterranean supplies of water, which could be used to irrigate now-arid areas (Lowry, p. 50). Of course, this has to be done sensitively, but there is little doubt that it can be done. In addition, multiple cropping of a piece of land has a comparable effect, and is also open to increase.
Secondly, the improvement of crop yields has by no means reached its ceiling. Irrigation can be used to increase yields, as well as to extend the cultivated area. Measures to combat soil erosion (which are well understood but not applied as much as they might be) can raise yields and prevent land becoming useless. Organic manure also expands yields, but is little used in most parts of the world. The breeding of new species can also cause drastic improvements, especially hybridisation, the creation of plants with new genetic combinations. Control of pests and diseases is another important area one estimate for the United States is that 40% of each farmer’s potential saleable crop is destroyed each year, by a combination of weeds, insects, disease and rats. Obviously the use of pesticides etc. needs to be properly controlled, but they can play a part in increasing yields. The proper use of mechanised equipment can make a major contribution (many poor farmers are in no position to buy such equipment at present). Improved storage techniques are important too it is claimed that 10% of all the world’s stored grain is lost. Rapid transport facilities make it much easier to move foodstuffs to areas where they will be consumed. One estimate is that, on their own, ‘best’ farming practices could increase world production of food twenty times.
Thirdly, new sources of food should not be overlooked, however difﬁcult it is to predict future discoveries. Edible derivatives of oilseed are being developed to combat protein deﬁciency, though it is not clear if a properly-organised world would want or need such ideas. Probably more palatable are aquatic animals and plants, which are at present comparatively underused. Artiﬁcial brackish ponds can be created to produce food, and ﬁsh farming in general can be very promising. Aquaculture certainly has enormous potential for the provision of food supplies.
Additionally, and more radically, we could eat food which is further up the food chain and so closer to the ultimate source of most energy, the sun. A food chain is a sequence of events between the arrival of the sun’s energy and humans’ consumption of food; it may consist of plants gathering the sun’s rays, animals eating the plants, other animals eating these animals and ﬁnally being eaten by humans. At each step in the chain, something like 90% of the energy is wasted, which means that by cutting out one or more steps, far more people can be supported. This argument does not imply that everyone should become a vegetarian, but it does suggest that a slightly different outlook on food could lead to a vast increase in available proteins and calories.
We are not attempting to give the impression that everything is easy, that a massive expansion of food supplies is a simple matter. For one thing, many of the points advanced in the last few paragraphs have environmental implications. But a Socialist society is the best-equipped to handle these implications and to strike a balance between ecology and food production. Capitalism, with its ungovernable quest for proﬁt, cannot do this.
Raw materials and energy
As mentioned in a previous section, even doomsters such as the Ehrlichs do not make reference to the supply of raw materials in arguing that the earth’s resources will soon be exhausted. There have been occasional claims that supplies of oil, iron, or whatever will run out in the next thirty years or so, but these are always based on ﬁrmly-known supplies, and the fact is that capitalists have no great need to locate supplies decades before they can be used, so ‘known reserves’ are constantly being extended and keeping just ahead of what capitalism requires at any particular time. As more resources are required, so more effort is spent in surveying and locating them, and they always are found. For example, estimates are that the top kilometre of the earth’s surface contains enough iron to last us for 100 million years. Even the United States has only been very partially surveyed for natural resources. Sometimes, problems of supply under capitalism prompt remarkable discoveries; for instance, in response to a temporary price rise in cobalt in the late 1970’s, it was found that nodules on the sea bed contain 7,500 years’ worth of cobalt supplies. The problem is not the technical one of whether sufﬁcient raw materials exist for current or likely future uses
The key issue is not is it possible to extract the raw materials, but how much does it cost.
In other words, the economic constraints of capitalism may artiﬁcially restrict the amount of raw materials which it is proﬁtable to extract, but the materials are deﬁnitely there. We may conclude that population, however high it reaches, will not outstrip available resources of minerals etc., and that a Socialist society need not worry about the availability of raw materials.
However, the situation with regard to energy is less clear-cut. This has already been discussed in the previous Study Guide on Ecology, so we can be briefer here. For reasons of environmental impact as much as any potential exhaustion of supplies, it will be necessary in Socialism to switch from an emphasis on fossil fuels such as coal to renewable energy sources such as small-scale turbines in rivers and streams, wind turbines, tidal barrages, solar heating, and geothermal energy. Massive replacement of private petrol-burning cars by good-quality public transport based on electricity or the burning of hydrogen could make a considerable contribution here. Research on improving existing exploitation of renewable energy sources and developing new ones, would probably have to be one of Socialism’s priorities.
A number of basic books on population issues have been mentioned in the course of this Study Guide, but it may still be helpful to recommend brieﬂy some speciﬁc further reading here
Clive Ponting A Green History of the World, Penguin 1992. (An overview of human history, including discussion of population trends and various ways of obtaining food.)
Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins World Hunger Twelve Myths, Earthscan 1988. (Readable de-bunking of many erroneous views on food and famine.)
J. H. Lowry World Population and Food Supply, Hodder & Stoughton 1986. (Non-technical account of ways of increasing food supply.)
John Gribbin Future Worlds, Abacus 1979. (Survey of various ‘alternative futures’.)
In addition, Socialist publications contain much material dealing with population, food supplies and other resources, and we just list a few here, starting with the Socialist Standard
August 1970 special issue on ‘A world of abundance’, with articles on the misuse of resources, ‘over-population’, food production and mineral resources.
June 1975 one article on Malthus, and two on resources.
October 1984 4-page feature on world hunger, with articles on famine in Africa and world population.
November 1991 lengthy letter and reply on whether population causes pollution.
May 1993 hunger amidst plenty.
From the World Socialist
1, 1984 how Socialism can increase food production.
6, 1986–7 energy supply.
The 1978 pamphlet Questions of the Day contains a chapter on ‘The myth of over-population’. Socialism as a Practical Alternative (1987) has a discussion of conserving resources.
Some questions to consider
1. Consider the following passage
Archaeologists studying the rise of farming have reconstructed for us a stage where we made one of the most crucial decisions in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population growth or trying to increase food production, we opted for the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny. The same choice faces us today, with the difference that we now can learn from the past. (Jared Diamond The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, Vintage 1992, p. 172.)
Is it valid to compare the situation when agriculture was adopted with that prevailing today? In what ways do the two situations differ?
2. In what circumstances might a Socialist society ﬁnd it necessary to control population? How could such a policy be implemented? Would it have to apply to the whole world, or to just parts? Might there be a concept of optimum population size which could call for such a policy?
3. If it is true that sufﬁcient food is currently produced to feed everybody, what happens to all this food? Is it simply destroyed, or stored away, or what?
4. Consider the following
although hunger is not caused by too many people, for many other reasons one might well judge a nation to have too many people. (Frances Moore Lappé and Rachel Schurman Taking Population Seriously, Earthscan 1989, p. 69.)
The ‘other reasons’ cited by the authors include pollution, and the availability of sufﬁcient physical space. Is this a valid point at the present time? If not, might it ever become valid in the future?