‘Overpopulation’: A reactionary myth


This month, the Earth hit a record number of humans on it, with our species passing the eight billion mark. Most of the news reports on the subject looked to this fact with apprehension about the challenges of equitable distribution on a planet facing climate change. Indeed, with inequality at all-time highs, the growing threat of warfare and famine, and the coming climate catastrophe, equitable distribution is not merely a political demand but a vital need. Hundreds of millions of people still live in abject poverty.

As far as “resources” are concerned, there are already plenty of resources on Earth—financially and also materially—which can be used to improve the quality of life of all people. Currently, the top 10 richest individuals hoard as much wealth as is owned by the 3.1 billion poorest people. This is a result of the institutions of capitalism; the wealth of these 10 men is generated by the labor of millions of workers. There is, in fact, more than enough money to fund schools, health care, and green mass transit worldwide, although the major media (owned by rich people) limits the understanding of this fact by working people. Instituting a maximum income, and adjusting wages for inflation and cost of living, would go a long way towards improving people’s lives.

The very methods we use to distribute and consume products are wasteful. Useless and redundant consumer products are manufactured daily and involve immense production and packaging waste. A planned system that ditches the anarchy of the market could solve this problem. Massive corporations like Walmart and Amazon demonstrate the immense capacity to distribute products to people. All that is needed is to transform them into democratic institutions unfettered by capitalist methods. A similar nationalization, under workers’ control, should take place across the energy and transportation sectors to make a green economy.

American grain production produces enough calories to feed the entire human race by itself, but too much grain production goes toward the production of red meats—in reality, quite the luxury of the global North (red meat could be a component of a healthy diet, not its main staple). Additionally, war and the imperialist wrangling over bits of territory disrupt the lives of people globally. This is seen clearly in the disruption of Ukrainian grain exports to much of the global South by the Russian invasion, as well as the countless U.S. sanctions against its enemies that amount to an attack on the living standards of the masses but not the ruling classes. We should call for an end to all imperialist sanctions, and provide a route for all working people to get food at a subsidized cost.

Millions of vehicles, tools, and raw materials remain unused all over the planet because they cannot be profitably sold. The quantity and quality of construction labor in the United States and China alone is at such a high level that if useless production was halted (military production, overproduction of infrastructure, and luxuries for the rich), the rapid transition to a renewable economy could be accomplished before absolute catastrophe hits. We need to fight for a democratic labor movement that allows workers to debate on what kinds of infrastructure is needed and how to build it.

Most direct destruction of the environment occurs due to deforestation and mining, in order for corporations to make a quick profit. And often these are multinationals based in imperialist countries that destroy bio-diverse regions such as the Amazon rainforest, or various lithium mining projects, with the blessing of the domestic ruling classes. We need to fight conserve major ecologies like the Amazon, and also promote the re-wilding of areas destroyed by industrial development, in accordance with a general plan put forward by the working people and Indigenous communities who live there.

Under a democratically planned system, in which production quotas are based on needs, not profits, and distribution is done in a rational way and not by market anarchy, the working people of the world could rapidly eliminate all poverty. Under such a system, we could begin to channel our energies into the improved production of consumer products, improved farming methods, and environmental engineering on a large scale. That is why we should fight for independent workers’ or labor parties all over the world.

Reactionary anxiety over population

All of this and more will need to be done as the ongoing and persistent climate catastrophe challenges the human race. Unless the human race changes its activities very soon, we will be looking at an Earth with mass extinction of wildlife and biodiversity, severely reduced fertility of the soil, worse water and air quality, and large swaths of the Earth being uninhabitable. Given this harsh scenario, many people and organizations within the broader climate movement believe that climate change is either the result of—or will be made worse by—too many human beings taking up too many resources, and that the “solution” is to simply have less human beings on Earth.

Population control schemes—no matter how well intended—must be fiercely combated. This Malthusian perspective is, at bottom, a reactionary logic that puts the blame for climate change on the victims of climate change, rather than its perpetrators. Thereby, it ignores superior methods of addressing climate change and human (and animal) quality of life, such as more equitable distribution, or a democratically planned economy, as mentioned above.

Suggesting that human-caused climate change is largely the result of there being too many people is not only an oversimplification of the problem, but gets it wrong entirely. Climate change has its primary cause in the global system of extraction and use of fossil fuels, and then secondly in the overall system of industrial production—strip mining, deforestation, and military investment and deployments. Ending these industries (or severely curtailing them to the absolute necessary limit—which should only be defined by a democratic government of the working class and not the executives that currently run corporations) is what is needed, not population control.

The idea that people are the problem necessarily leads to the banal conclusion that the mere consumption of consumer, household products is the main driver of human-caused climate change. While it is indisputable that household goods can be made more environmentally friendly, more efficiently, and that unnecessary products can be eliminated, the majority of people who currently live on Earth don’t even have access to many consumer goods taken for granted by the global North. The eight billion people now on Earth don’t need to be limited, but their lives need to be improved.

In addition, it leads to the wrong idea that, for example, having a fridge in your house is a major emissions problem that needs cutting, rather than the industrial refrigeration wasted on bitcoin mining and block chain computers worldwide! It suggests that the possession of a car makes you complicit (when most workers in the United States have few other options) rather than those who have the power to prevent any kind of mass transit alternative. It suggests that the need to eat food from a plastic container is the big problem, while companies like DuPont have made billions on the production and marketing of these products and the market elimination of alternatives. It wrongly implies that household lighting and water use is the number-one environmental issue, but what of the billions of watts of electricity used to power billboards, storefront signs, and city lights 24/7?

When a person (no matter how well meaning) reaches for population control as a solution, they’ve already accepted the narrative that condones an inherent attack on the living standards of the masses, but not an attack on the system controlled by the wealthy or their capital.
Any progressive, nay, any effective solution to climate change must incorporate the will and living activity of the whole human species. We need to gradually repair and reconstruct nature on a foundation that can last for geological timescales. Population control, of any type, is a tool of the ruling class to maintain a dead system that can only lead to humanity’s complete destruction. In any case, current projections seem to indicate that world population growth is slowing and will level out toward the end of the century.

Reproductive justice & the rights of women and oppressed minorities

Population-control schemes have historically been an attack on women. In all instances in which governments try to regulate the sexual habits of women, or try to socially engineer some “ideal” family unit, this bureaucratic, top-down attempt to declare supremacy over human reproduction inevitably leads to the oppression of women as second-class citizens. In the case of the United States, ICE has been engaging in forced sterilization of immigrant women, which is only part of a longer history of forced sterilization targeting working people of color.

Historically, men and women have been targeted by forced sterilization, generally fueled by racist assumptions about the parenting ability or criminality of oppressed minorities. The U.S. South has a particularly nasty history with forced sterilization. Furthermore, forced sterilization schemes in the U.S. were used by the Nazis in their own eugenics playbook. It is estimated that over 70,000 working-class women of color were sterilized in the United States as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Buck v. Bell (1927).

In the same measure that the United States has promoted policies for the reduction of minorities, so it forces—with help from the cultural superstructure of the Christian far right—unsterilized woman to give birth. Again, the attack on reproductive rights has come via the Supreme Court, by eliminating abortion as a constitutional right earlier this year. In the U.S. there is not only an ongoing government encroachment on the rights of individual women within the working class to control their bodies, but also an attack on the democratic rights of women as a whole.

The attack on the rights of women by capitalist governments is a global phenomenon, from the U.S. to Iran, from India to Canada. But let us not forget how even the Stalinist bureaucratized workers’ states were complicit in the oppression of women. The chief case was the People’s Republic of China, which in 1980, before the country reverted to capitalism, enacted a population control measure known as the “One Child Policy.” This policy, which enacted heavy fines for violators, had notable social consequences among the population, chief among them the tendencies to abandon infant daughters or send them to be adopted abroad. This population control scheme resulted in a disproportionate ratio of men to women in China. 
Considering the above (along with uncountable issues with gender and racial discrimination worldwide), the “solution” of population control to resolve climate change can only lead to femicide, racist policies, and a retrenchment of gendered discrimination.

Connection to the far right, or fascist “ecology”

“Ecofacism” is a topic that deserves more explanation, and we will be writing on that movement soon. For our purposes here, however, only a few comments are needed. Population control by planned government policy, or by warfare and famine, is a prime staple of the ideology of the far right and its approach to climate change.

In those rare, though increasing, instances in which rightists acknowledge the unavoidable reality of climate change, it is presumed to be a completely natural phenomenon that has nothing to do with human activity, and therefore they offer no policy solution to slow or minimize its negative effects. They see in climate change not a clarion call to modify human activity but a pressure to intensify reactionary rhetoric against immigrants and enemy nations, and for increased militarization and policing.

The goal of the far right, in other words, is to “adapt” to climate change by means of exclusion and plunder. If vast swaths of the Earth are to become uninhabitable by the end of this century, then, in the fascist mind, the remaining areas should be preserved for the “deserving.” Far-right parties around the world have lately experimented with “green” policies in their platforms that amount to halting immigration to preserve the natural splendor of their country—a pure fantasy. Some extremists go further and believe in the necessity to exterminate billions in the global South, to insure enough resources for the “chosen.”

Since the system that causes the destruction isn’t questioned, one may wonder where this logic leads. Toward a continual shaving off of human bodies in a world progressively getting worse and worse, it seems! Ecofacism would help bring environmental catastrophe much sooner, and population control is at its heart.

The relationship to imperialism cannot be forgotten. The majority of population growth that humanity is experiencing is occurring in the poorer countries of the so-called “developing world,” i.e., the global South. Therefore (and this is a vital consideration for climate justice activists), proposals to stop population growth through active policy proposals have an almost guaranteed risk of smuggling in white supremacist rhetoric that will result in greater economic exploitation of the global South with no reduction in consumption or fossil fuel use the global North.

Whither humanity?

The accumulation of capital in the U.S., and the world, continues apace, for “economic development” (the increase of the share of total wealth to a few individuals) is deemed necessary by capitalist governments to compete both ideologically and militarily with their enemies. It is necessary to continue the pace of “economic development” to continually produce products, increase market share, and make a profit, they profess. But to what end?

The world’s governments cannot make a binding agreement that meets the required targets to avoid absolute catastrophe. They consistently fail to follow even the lamest targets, and the real answer of why is obvious: because these governments act as a screen for the accumulation of capital, and the rule of the capitalists, including the oil magnates, mining companies, real estate developers, the banks, and speculative financial capital.

And the capitalists themselves will not, and cannot by their very nature, stop accumulation. It is their social role under capitalism to accumulate!
The capitalist investors, executives, and think tanks will do everything possible to avoid system change, so tools like population control are not off the table for them.

People in the broad climate justice movement need to seriously ask themselves about who, and under what institutions, they would be giving the power to decide who lives and who does not, by promoting population control. Under capitalism, population control becomes a means for a minority of self-appointed “enlightened” people to decide for whom the Earth belongs. The ecological reconstruction can only begin in earnest after humanity has ridden itself of capitalism, and that can only happen when the majority of humanity takes its own destiny into its hands. Workers’ Voice supports every advance of the eight billion towards this realization.

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