What does ‘too many people’ mean?

We are told that the more people there are in the world it must mean more resources used and therefore fewer resources to go around for everyone. It is a logic that has led to some highly unsavoury arguments reflecting racist views.

By arguing that population growth is the main cause of hunger and environmental ruination, we play into the hands of the ruling class who wish to apportion blame to the victims. By helping the poor, some say tell us, threatens to drag the relatively well-off down to the same subsistence level. Under this belief, no sharing is permitted, as it will only generalise deprivation to the entire population because there is only so much to go around. Rather than solidarity and mutual aid, the answer is to build walls and erect fences to keep away outsiders.  

But that simplistic policy sounds a little bit too crude and crass so instead, it is explained by a more sophisticated justification, referring to the carrying capacity of the planet and carbon footprints, the language of the liberal to disguise the conservative implications. 

Humanity transform ecosystems to sustain itself. It is what we do and has always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits. There is no environmental reason for people to go hungry now or in the future. There is no need to use any more land to sustain even increased population numbers — increasing land productivity using existing farming knowledge can boost global output and even provide more land for nature — a goal that is both more popular and more possible than ever. Today it is possible to plant the seeds of a future that the next generations can be proud to be born into.

Societal collapse due to populations reaching some environmental limit need not come to pass. Human well-being and improved stewardship of nature are restricted by the present social system, not by any population impact upon the environment.  

The World Socialist Movement does speak of socialism as a world of abundance and we have critics who claim that the demands of mankind are “infinite” and interpret this as meaning that socialism will be a society of ever-increasing personal consumption, of people coming to consume more and more, to taking more and more, aspiring to acquire more and more. If the desires of people were “infinite” then this would indeed be the result of a society based on free access and geared to meeting human needs, but human wants are socially-determined, not unrestrained and boundless.

Humans can only consume so much food, for instance, and they only seek to accumulate material goods in a society of economic insecurity like capitalism. In a society, such as socialism, where people could be sure that what they require to comfortably satisfy their needs would always be available then individuals would settle with only taking what they needed and no more. This is what we mean by talking of socialism as a “society of abundance”: that there is enough to go around to allow every man, woman and child in society to have what they need for a decent life. It is not suggesting some orgy of over-indulgence, but simply referring to the fact that it is technically possible to produce for everyone’s material needs.  

We do acknowledge that meeting everybody’s requirements will indeed involve in many cases an increase in what people consume. This will certainly be the case for the billions of people in developing countries who suffer from horrendous poverty problems of hunger, disease, and slum-housing. So, yes, socialism will involve increases in personal consumption for much of the world’s population.  

 Our goal to accomplish this humanitarian aim, there are some environmentalists who claim it is impossible as such a goal would exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity and make environmental destruction even worse.

Not necessarily so, is the answer.  

They confuse consumption per head with what individuals actually consume. To arrive at a figure for consumption per head, what the statisticians do is to take total energy (or whatever) and divide it by the total population. But this doesn’t give a figure for what people actually in the real world consume as, in addition to personal it includes what industry, the government, and the military consume. It a grossly misleading to equate consumption per head with personal consumption since it ignores the fact that consumption per head can be reduced without reducing personal consumption and that this is, in fact, fully compatible with an increase in personal consumption.

This is, in effect, what the WSM propose: to eliminate the waste of capitalism, all the socially unnecessary costs involved in the buying and selling exchange economy, not merely armies and armaments industries.

It has been estimated that, at the very least, half of the workforce is engaged in such socially-useless, non-productive activity. In a socialist society all this waste will be eliminated, so drastically reducing consumption per head. This will allow room for the personal consumption of those who desperately need it to be lifted to offer a decent life. Diverting resources to do this and ensuring that every human on the planet does have a beneficial standard of living will be the primary aim of socialism, something that cannot be obtained under capitalism.      

Our planet does possess limits. It is geographically finite. 

However, the total number of people that can be supported by Earth’s resources cannot be predicted merely by knowing the total amount of matter or surface area on Earth. So indeed those analogies of everybody in the world can stand on the Isle of Wight is irrelevant.  Every time we get into a conversation with someone, and we hear “well, everyone knows the earth is over-populated” we can start by clearing up the misconception by showing it is directly contrary to the facts. Globally, women today have half as many babies as their mothers did, mostly out of choice. They are doing it for their own good, the good of their families, and, if it helps the planet too, then so much the better. Nothing the Catholic priests or the Muslim mullahs say can stop it. Women are doing this because, for the first time in history, they can. Better healthcare and sanitation mean that most babies now live to grow up. It is no longer necessary to have five or six children to ensure the next generation—so they don’t. Lower infant death rates mean families don’t need to have as many children in order to guarantee that some will survive. At the same time improvements in quality of life make it less necessary to have many children working to support their families. Greater access to contraception gives families more control over fertility.  

Today the reality is that the world is experiencing lower birth rates and rising life expectancy.  More and more countries have a falling fertility rate.  Professional demographers tell us this will continue and that perhaps as early as 2050 and no later than 2100, the Earth’s population will begin declining.   

The “greying” that has plagued Japan and Europe will envelop the planet.  The world population is getting much older: by 2050 the number of people over the age of 65 will triple from 531 million to 1.5 billion. In fact, perhaps the real issue of the world population is not those being born, it is those not dying. There is a growing life expectancy gap where the affluent may expect to live to 120 or more while the poor won’t see 60. In most developed countries actual fertility is lower than desired. We should allow immigration from overpopulated countries to keep the ratio of working-age to elderly dependants constant. Unfortunately, most immigration policies severely limit the migration of unskilled people.  

 If better survival rates for babies and longer lives for the elderly contribute to “over-population”, what is the eugenic social engineers’ policy going to be infanticide and euthanasia? Let people die of epidemics and war?  

The exception to the drop in population rate trend at the moment appears to be Africa, a continent with rich potential. Ethiopia is among nine African countries whose rate of population growth is declining. Others are Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda. Ethiopia has seen a massive cut in its fertility rate, from an average of seven children per woman in the 1990s to 4.6 currently. Experts say reducing poverty rates also leads to a decline in fertility rates. 

“It’s not the population growth that is the problem – it’s the extreme poverty that is the underlying reason,” says Hans Rosling, professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. “If you continue to have extreme poverty areas where women give birth to six children and the population doubles in one generation, then you’ll have problems.” A case in point is Niger, the country with the highest fertility rate in the world. It is also one of the poorest.

 The amount of so-called arable land on the planet is according to Wikipedia about 14 million sq. km. If we only use this amount of arable land, we would have about 20 times the land we need to feed all of us on the planet, according to the research. If we include permanent pastures, which amount to about 33 million sq. km and is used for livestock, and grow vegetables there instead, we end up with more than 60-100 times of what we actually need. But, of course, we don’t need all that land so there would be plenty of room for some grass-fed free-ranging animals that can be managed holistically.

On the question of resources, its availability or lack of it, and therefore its ability or inability to support the African population – another component of Africa’s ‘overpopulation fallacy –  well over 50 per cent of Uganda’s arable land, some of the richest in Africa, remains uncultivated. Were Uganda to expand its current food production significantly, not only would it be completely self-sufficient, but it would be able to feed all the countries contiguous to its territory without difficulty. Just about a quarter of the potentially arable land of Africa is being cultivated presently. Even here, an increasingly high proportion of the cultivated area is assigned to so-called cash crops (cocoa, coffee, tea, groundnuts, sisal, cut flowers, etc.) for export. As for the remaining 75 per cent of Africa’s uncultivated land, this represents 66 per cent of the entire world’s potential. This vast acreage of rich farmlands with the capacity to optimally support the food needs of generations of African peoples indefinitely. In addition, the famous fish industry in Senegal, Angola, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, for instance, Botswana’s rich cattle farms, West Africa’s yam and plantain belts extending from southern Cameroon to the Casamance province of Senegal, the continent’s rich rice production fields, etc.

 The current economic situation demonstrates that if the acreage devoted to cultivation is expanded and expressly targeted to address Africa’s own internal consumption needs rather than land-use directed to the calamitous waste of cash-crop production for export there need be no food shortages. It is an inexcusable tragedy that any African child, woman, or man could go without food in the light of the staggering endowment of resources in Africa. Africa constitutes a spacious, rich and arable landmass that can support its population, which is still one of the world’s least densely populated and distributed, into the indefinite future.

It is clear that the factors which have contributed to determining the very poor quality of life of Africa’s population presently possess is to do with the non-use, partial-use, or the misuse of the continent’s resources year in, year out thanks to foreign capitalists and the native overseers – the national government and its indigenous domestic capitalists.   

When we look at the world around us we cannot fail to notice the extent to which nature is being ravaged in the name of short-term economic gain. It is all too clear that the prevailing economic system of capitalist competition is quite incapable of seriously taking into account the long-term considerations of a healthy planet. On a global basis, the alteration in the natural balance is taking place on a massive and unprecedented scale. One of the gravest criticisms that can be levelled against the capitalist system is that the application of the profit motive has been disastrous to the land. Throughout virtually the entire world, the land is not used to produce the crop best adapted to it on a permanent basis but to produce as much cash as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible – the same system exalted by the industrial manufacturer. Almost everywhere, the land is being impoverished; its fertility flushed down the world’s rivers or blown away by its winds or simply buried under an expanding carpet of concrete. A socialist world would obviously want to halt and reverse the long-term decline in soil fertility by improving the humus content of the soil. Not only would this make for the more efficient absorption of chemical fertilisers but would help contain further topsoil loss as a result of erosion. Whilst this would involve more labour intensive work which would require a larger agricultural workforce it should be borne in mind that one of the greatest productive advantages of socialism over capitalism is that it would release a tremendous amount of labour for socially productive work.  

 Concentrating on population confuses symptoms with causes while simultaneously validating apologists for the system. Population growth arguments fit in with the ideological needs of the system rather than challenging them and are the primary reason that they receive so much publicity. It is completely acceptable to capitalism to place the blame for hunger and ecological crises on the number of people rather than on capitalism.  

 The simple fact is that being apologists for over-population advocates makes ecologists allies not only with all who accept capitalism but also with the racists.   

After clearing up the mess inherited from capitalism, both consumption and production can be expected to level off and something approaching a “steady-state economy” reached, what is described as zero-growth. In a society geared to meeting human needs, once those needs are being met there is no need to go on producing more. Population levels will stabilise too. This is a reasonable assumption as it is already beginning to happen, even under capitalism, in the developed parts of the world.

If socialism is rejected, all that remains is to envisage either compulsory sterilisation family-planning programmes, the revival of inhumane eugenic policies or simply letting starvation and disease take their course. Socialists emphatically reject such an anti-human approach. If that’s what ecology-centred ethics teach then we want nothing to do with it. We’ll persist with our human-centred approach, which embraces the view that the balanced functioning of the biosphere is something that humans should try to achieve since, as part of the biosphere, it is in our interest that it should function properly. There is, in fact, no antagonism between the interest of humanity and the interest of the biosphere. This system must go.