By Yavor Tarinski
The “population problem” has a Phoenix-like existence: it rises from
the ashes at least every generation and sometimes every decade or so.
The term “overpopulation” often comes unchallenged, or there is almost always a reaction if an attempt to challenge it is being made. Even supposedly radical people can be found to accept the “population problem” and defend its cruciality. This is part of a general narrow perception of the ecological crisis, which tends to exclude social relations from environmental debate.
The “population problem” has been plaguing ecological movements for a long time, giving birth to paradoxical tendencies like “eco”-fascism and preventing people from seeing the systemic nature of climate change. 18th century English cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus has often been credited as “the father” of overpopulation scaremongering. He argued that whenever the food supply increases, population will rapidly grow to eliminate the abundance, and thus eventually, in the future, there wouldn’t be enough food for the whole of humanity to consume and people would starve. For him, there was the need of natural or artificial means for population control such as wars, famine or diseases for a “balance” to be struck. But as social ecologist Murray Bookchin noted:
“Malthus did not mean this to be an argument to foster human welfare; it was an unfeeling justification for the inhuman miseries inflicted on the mass of English people by land grabbing aristocrats and exploitative “industrialists.” True to the mean-spirited atmosphere of the times, Malthus opposed attempts to alleviate poverty because they would remove the limits imposed on “population growth” by prolonging the lives of the poor.”
It is no wonder then, that in the end of the 18th century, Malthus entered in a heated debate with William Godwin, considered by many to be the father of anarchism. For the latter, the rate of population growth was negligible in comparison to other problems like the concentration of power , and believed that humans are capable to control their numbers when they deem it necessary, all of which contradicted the arguments of the former.
Malthus’ ideas continued to influence people in more recent years. In 1968 the book “The Population Bomb” was published, which renewed the fear of overpopulation. Its author Paul Ehrlich describes in the opening chapter his experience of a taxi ride, which he took through the slums of Delhi, India:
The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrust their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. . . . [S]ince that night, I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.
But there is something very wrong with his observation. The trip he described took place in 1966, when Delhi had a population of a bit more than 2.8 million, according to the United Nations. During the same period, the inhabitants of Paris numbered the staggering 8 million. How come then, you might ask, he saw Delhi as overcrowded, when France’s capital, an international emblem of elegance and sophistication, was almost three times more populated at that time. What Ehrlich did was he mistaked poverty for overpopulation, by blaming slum dwellers for the way they live, instead of the social structures, institutions, and international relations, which led them to this situation.
Author Charles Eisenstein observes that overpopulation plays into a colonialistic narrative that the fecund masses of the global south are to blame for the environmental crisis, and suggests that the solution is more development (with its population-limiting effects).
When overpopulation was embraced by Nation-States and supranational organizations, it led to horrific practices such as forced sterilization. One of the grimmest examples is India, where during the 1970s, encouraged by tens of millions of dollars loaned from the World Bank, the Swedish International Development Authority and the UN Population Fund, Indira Gandhi’s government began large-scale sterilization efforts. Those efforts peaked in 1975, when the prime minister suspended civil liberties, declaring a state of “emergency” and sterilized over six million people in a single year, an estimated 15 times the number of people sterilized by the Nazis. And once again it was the poorest and most disempowered who were sacrificed in the name of population control.
What we see in reality is that overpopulation was used as a pretext for the ruling classes to get rid of the people on the margins of society, who have become superfluous in the cogs of the system. And it is not only India. As Bookchin has suggested:
if there is a “population problem” and famine in Africa, it is the ordinary people who are to blame for having too many children or insisting on living too long — an argument advanced by Malthus nearly two centuries ago with respect to England’s poor. The viewpoint not only justifies privilege; it fosters brutalization and degrades the neo-Malthusians even more than it degrades the victims of privilege.
Instead of getting rid of those who have nothing, we should strive at a more just redistribution of wealth. There is more than enough wealth already to end famine and poverty on global scale, without the need of enforced castration or more economic growth. The Hampton Institute has suggested that:
Overpopulation is a Malthusian myth. There are 7.7 billion people. 95% of us occupy only 10% of the land. We produce enough food to satisfy 10 billion people and can double that in a more sustainable way. We have a profit and distribution problem (capitalism), not a people problem.
It is time to realize that our present multidimensional crisis – global warming, increasing inequality etc., is not due to some innate human feature. The amount of people who can be sustained by our planet is not dependant on sheer quantity, but on the institutional arrangements humanity will establish. In a system, such as the one we live under today, based on unlimited economic growth, wealth and power concentration, short-term profiteering and excessive consumerism as the prime goal of life, reduces the amount of people who can live on the Earth without to harm the fragile planetary conditions, which make life possible.
If on the other hand, we radically restructure our societies, redistributing wealth equally among all members, determining human needs on grassroots level by the people themselves and not through commercial industries, reducing, recycling and reusing our waste, switching to renewable sources of energy etc., we can see how many more billions of people can live on the planet without harming its complex ecosystems in any negative way.
Such a transformation is a deeply political endeavor, which requires holistic change in the way power is being managed. On the one hand, it requires the overcoming of the Nation-State, since the latter is a bureaucratic mechanism that view human beings and nature as cogs that can be tossed in the garbage when no longer of use to it. Furthermore, as philosopher Simone Weil suggests, the state kills, suppresses everything that might be loved, creating a fertile ground for the development of a worldview, in which human beings can be deemed superfluous.
The capitalist artificial markets are also a thing that stands as an obstacle to such a radical transformation. Their focus on individual economic patterns as main vehicle for change puts the blame on the most disadvantaged and their supposedly “bad” decisions for their current situation. This corresponds to overpopulationist blame on poor and disempowered people for the ongoing environmental degradation. No significant transformation can take place within capitalism, as the latter tends to be blind for any systemic response, shifting always the responsibility on the individual.
The way one such transformation can be established is from below: by integrating it into a broader project of direct democracy, where power is being equally shared by all members of society. It is one such democratic setting that can allow all people to recreate the organizational fabric of their communities in a more just manner. One such system places human beings in a role much different from the mindless consumers and vote casters of today – that of conscious and active citizens, capable of self-limitation regarding their environmental and social impact.
Overpopulation is nothing more than a racist boogeyman, intended to distract us from the systemic roots of the current ecological crisis. To all those who try to dismiss our criticism of overpopulation scaremongering, by arguing that there is physically no space for an indefinite amount of people on the planet, we can answer that this is simply not the issue. We are far from such a phantasmagoric scenario. What we face now is the crisis of a system of waste production and extreme inequalities that is rapidly destroying nature and local communities in the name of short-term profits of a handful of corporations and national governments. If we change it, then there will be space for many more billions of people to live in symbiosis with the complex network of interconnected ecosystems that cover the planet.
The solution does not go through a “green” cannibalism, in which the wealthier will sacrifice the poor and disempowered for a little bit more time on Earth. What we need is for all members of society to enter actively the political realm and restructure the foundational basis of our societies and pave the way for a more democratic and ecological future for all.
 Spengler, J.J. Malthus on Godwin’s of population. Demography 8, 1–12 (1971)
 Simone Weil: The Need for Roots (London and New York: Routledge Classics, 2005), p111