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Is population control an anti-capitalist policy?

Poor peasants are to blame?

By Ian Angus and Simon Butler

March 10, 2013 -- Climate and Capitalism, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- This article responds to an article that appeared in Dissident Voice on February 17, 2013. We submitted our reply on February 24, but the editors have not acknowledged our submission, or even had the courtesy to answer a follow-up email we sent a week later.

Since they have since published articles that we know were written long after ours, we can only conclude that DV does not wish to publish criticism of one of their regular writers.

We would think that a publication that says it is devoted to “challenging the distortions and lies of the corporate press”, would welcome a challenge to the distortions they publish themselves. Apparently not

* * *

Is population growth a major cause of the global environmental crisis? In our book, Too Many People? (Haymarket Books, 2011), we argue that “environmentalists who promote birth control and/or anti-immigration policies as solutions to environmental problems profoundly misunderstand the nature of the crisis”.

We agree with the renowned environmentalist Barry Commoner: “Pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”

John Andrews, who blogs regularly at Dissident Voice, disagrees. He calls us “over-population deniers” and accuses us of having naïve faith in the goodwill of corporations, a charge that will certainly surprise anyone who is familiar with our views.

In a recent 4600-word response to a 960-word article we wrote for Grist, he blames environmental problems on some of world’s poorest people, displays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of corporate power, and proposes solutions that would do more harm than good.

African reminiscences

Andrews begins with a story about his childhood in what he still calls Rhodesia, although it has been Zimbabwe for more than three decades. He attended school there – a privilege denied to the black majority – at the time of the brutal apartheid regime headed by the racist Ian Smith.

Andrews’ account shows why serious social scientists treat anecdotal evidence with scepticism and caution. He may have seen the things he describes, but he didn’t understand them then, and doesn’t understand them now.

Andrews says he and his classmates were taken on a field trip and shown the contrast between the “natural grasses and all sorts of wild trees and healthy blooming shrubs” on a white-owned farm and the “hard sun-baked ground with scarcely a blade of grass” in so-called Tribal Trust Land on the other side of a barbed wire fence.

Probably his teachers meant this as a lesson about the innate superiority of Europeans over destructive Africans, but Andrews says he drew a different conclusion. On the tribal side, he tells us, “the people lived pretty much the same way as they had done for many centuries” – they had large families because it was “simply the custom” and they thoughtlessly expanded their cattle herds beyond the land’s carrying capacity. The land was destroyed by overpopulation.

There are so many things wrong with this picture that it’s hard to know where to begin. Far from living “as they had done for many centuries”, the villagers Andrews saw were living in conditions imposed by British imperialists after they conquered the area – then called Matabeleland – in the 1890s. After the invasion, every British soldier was allowed to carve a 6000 acre farm out of the land of the Shona and Ndebele people. In just one year, the Europeans stole over 10,000 square miles of fertile farmland, along with untold numbers of cattle.

Between 1899 and 1905, the British forcibly relocated more than half of the African population from their traditional homelands to reserves in the arid lowlands. More were forced to move in the following decades. A 1930 law prevented Africans from owning land outside the reserves. By the time Andrews was a child, almost all Africans were crammed into 25% of the country, while about 4500 white families owned 70% of the most fertile land.

The traditional way of life in Matabeleland was destroyed. Traditional procedures for governing the commons and managing communal herds were gone, leaving nothing in their place. The option of modern farming wasn’t available, because white-owned banks would not lend African farmers money for equipment or farm improvements, and agricultural schools would not admit African students.

The well-conserved landscape that Andrews saw on a white farm had much to do with government-funded soil improvement programs, training, irrigation, drainage and road building – services that were not provided in African areas.

In the three decades following World War II, the white settler government used “overcrowding” as an excuse to confiscate more than a million cattle from Africans living on the desperately poor reserves. During the same period, they forcibly moved another 100,000 people onto the same reserves.

So when Andrews sneers at Africans who hoped for many daughters because they would receive cattle as dowries, and says that having large families was “not an economic necessity”, he is being willfully blind. The “overpopulation” of the so-called tribal lands had nothing to do with birth rates, and everything to do with the brutal system of colonial-settler rule that made his privileged childhood possible.

Attempting to explain complex human problems by counting babies, while ignoring the historical, social and economic context, is a fundamental characteristic of populationist ideology. The Andrews version is cruder than most, but far from unique.

Anti-capitalist populationism?

In his classic 1974 study of population reduction programs in India, The Myth of Population Control, Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani concludes that “population control without a fundamental change in the underlining social reality is, in fact, a weapon of the political conservative”.

We expand on that point in Too Many People?

For more than two centuries, the idea that the world’s ills are caused by poor people having too many babies has been remarkably successful at preventing change by blaming the victims of the existing social order for poverty and injustice. Adding environmental destruction to the crimes of the overbreeding poor continues that process, diverting attention from the real environmental vandals.

Andrews claims just the opposite, arguing that population growth is the foundation of the entire capitalist system, that “the profit that drives the various corporations who are indeed responsible for causing environmental destruction is wholly dependent on numbers of human beings” [emphasis added].

Therefore, he says, population reduction is a progressive measure. “If there were fewer people to do the slaving and consuming, profits would be smaller – and surely this is at the heart of the problem?” Reducing global population will not just “benefit the planet” but “would also begin to cause the demise of corporations”.

He goes further, arguing that corporate power cannot possibly be reduced without population reduction. “If the power of corporations is ever to be controlled, the direct connection between their key driving force and energy source – maximum profit – and a permanently growing human population needs to be clearly understood.”

People like us, who oppose population control, are not only helping with “killing the planet” but also “playing to the tune of the corporate business world”.

An obvious real-world example contradicts his theory. Over the very years that its draconian “one child policy” has been in force, China has embraced capitalism, experiencing phenomenal rates of economic growth, a huge leap in social inequality, and massive environmental problems. Slowing population growth has definitely not protected China’s land, air or water from industrial pollution – nor has it caused “the demise of corporations”.

It’s also noteworthy that South Korea, with a birth rate well below replacement level, is one of the world’s fastest-growing capitalist economies. Nor is capitalism in imminent danger in Japan, where the population has been falling for some years.

Obviously capitalism requires workers and customers, but the idea that capitalist profits are “wholly dependent on numbers of human beings” is just absurd – as is the idea that population reduction will somehow weaken the system.

On the production side, even the most labour-intensive industries can replace people when necessary. For example, in 1930, 21% of the US population worked in agriculture: today less than 2% do, even though more than twice as many people are buying groceries. The replacement of people with machines – substituting dead labour for living labour, as Marx would say – is a constant feature of capitalism.

On the consumption side, a huge amount of sales growth has been achieved not by selling to more customers, but by using a variety of means to ensure that existing customers must buy more. One telling statistic: according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, between 1960 and 2007 the volume of throw-away products in municipal garbage dumps grew more than twice as fast as the population. For over 50 years, products made for instant disposal – or that can’t be repaired – have generated sales growth vastly greater than population growth.

And that’s only part of the story. Capitalism’s drive for growth isn’t a drive for more customers – it is a drive for more profit, and corporations have innumerable methods of achieving that goal, no matter what happens to birth rates. Andrews’ simplistic approach – fewer people equals fewer sales equals weaker corporations – entirely misunderstands what’s involved, and directs the attention of progressives to “solutions” that won’t have any effect on the power of the organisations and people who are destroying the global environment.

What is to be done?

Perhaps the strangest feature of Andrews’ article is the contradiction between how serious he says the problem is, and the feebleness of the solutions he proposes.

On one hand, he says that “human overpopulation … is the single most important factor contributing to human destruction of the environment”. It is “killing the planet”. He says the Earth has been overpopulated since “sometime around the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries” and perhaps much longer. If he really believes that, he ought to be demanding immediate drastic action. To get back to sixteenth century levels would require a crash program to eliminate more than 6 billion people, very quickly.

But he proposes no such thing. Instead, he wants a propaganda campaign (he calls it education, but that’s a euphemism) to promote a voluntary two-child policy. If we do that, he says, “the planet’s population would at least stop growing and more or less level out ... In other words a two-child family would be quite sufficient to be effective.”

Excuse us? If what Andrews has written about overpopulation is true, then what he is advocating is permanent overpopulation, guaranteeing the destruction of life on Earth in the not-distant future. He warns of an overpopulation apocalypse, then proposes measures that cannot possibly prevent it.

The problem for Andrews – and for the many populationist groups that take a similar stance – is that there is no humane way, no way that respects human rights, to reduce human numbers to the levels their propaganda says is necessary. Even China’s brutal one-child policy has at most slowed growth, not reversed it. That’s why so many supposedly voluntary population reduction campaigns have been found to use various forms of coercion in order to achieve the demographic targets their sponsors were promised.

And that’s why Andrews qualifies his claim that voluntary measures are enough, writing, “I do not believe there’s any need – yet – for forcing people to limit the number of children they have.” That little word “yet” speaks volumes: whenever population control is on the agenda, the human rights of people deemed “surplus” are always in danger.

A dangerous diversion

The environmental crisis demands rapid and decisive action, but we can’t act effectively unless we clearly understand its causes. If we misdiagnose the illness, at best we will waste precious time on ineffective cures; at worst, we will do even more damage.

Andrews’ article is a case in point. Because he separates population growth from its historical, social and economic context, his explanation boils down to big is bad and bigger is worse, and his solutions are just as simplistic.

If environmentalists adopt his approach, they will not just be ineffective – instead of confronting the real eco-vandals, they will target the victims of environmental destruction, the people who, as we wrote in our Grist article, “don’t destroy forests, don’t wipe out endangered species, don’t pollute rivers and oceans, and emit essentially no greenhouse gases”.

The capitalist system and the power of the 1%, not population size, are the root causes of today’s ecological crisis. If we don’t understand that, we will never stop environmental destruction.

[Ian Angus and Simon Butler are the co-authors of Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis, published by Haymarket Books in 2011. Ian edits the online journal Climate & Capitalism. Simon writes for the Australian newspaper Green Left Weekly.]

 

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