We are often told that we’ve exceeded our carrying capacity here on Earth (or are arriving at that calamitous denouement of the story of civilization in no time soon). It is very true that we’ve reached our carrying capacity, this planet cannot healthily sustain so many people living in current arrangements, but anyone who has closely studied the conflation of civilization, production, and capitalism understand well that human population booms are endemic to the aforementioned social formula. If the dominant economic mode were to shift gears, to one that wasn’t defined globally, and predicated upon the funneling of resources to the producer rather than the community; if community-scale projects and strict environmental protection policies were implemented to define our economic behavior, then I’m pretty sure overpopulation would not be as large of a problem as it is today. If overall social arrangements were to manifest Indigenism and parochial isolation, tribal anarchy, small-scale handicraft production and technics, and subsistence economics, then overpopulation would be an obsolete term, hands down.
With regard to a contemporary program, for instance (neo)-Malthusian measures, to solve the “population problem,” such propositional theory put into wholesale praxis would essentially expand and accelerate the genocidal effects of the civilizing process. Sure that sounds like a loaded allegation and indictment upon an archaic Western archetype and his immoral conjectures, but it is true. Not only did Malthus believe that inequality was natural and good, or “at least necessary for avoiding the problem of massive overpopulation and hence starvation;” he also “denounced soup kitchens and early marriages while defending smallpox, slavery, and child murder [sic].”1
Malthus believed that social inequality and poverty was natural, expunging from the historical record centuries, if not millennia, of social engineering, construction and stratification of a system that manifests inequality and penury by virtue of its own design. In other words, abject poverty, famine and, social stratification that unjustly engenders inequality, are tangents of social arrangements configured by sovereign powers themselves.
These same sovereign powers set up and normalized the city-state lifestyle/culture (i.e., civilization) as a way to enhance and, make more efficient, production at the expense of human and nonhuman resources in order to enhance the luxuries of those positioned at the top of the hierarchy. Surfeit resources, profits and assets, enjoyed by few, are commensurate with expanded efficiency in production and, in turn, so will a population that is organized around growing and perpetuating said social arrangements grow geometrically. In other words, “population growth correlates with economic prosperity.”2 Therefore, overpopulation of humans on this planet is not necessarily a natural phenomenon as much as it is a direct result of the dominant social construct, i.e., overpopulation is moreso anthropogenic than it is organic. So, for starters, Malthus had conveniently designed the theoretical framework for the dominant culture so to fix a problem induced by the dominant culture.
Second on the list of excoriations directed toward Thomas Malthus and his legacy of villainous schemes and those who propound and argue in defense of such machinations, is the hunger fallacy. Despite the fact that the world population is, at the very least, six fold from what it was in 1800, there is still more than enough food produced the world over to support the population.3 Africa alone produces 25 percent of the world’s cereals, but yet it is the most immiserated continent on the planet. This is a direct result of global trade, orchestrated by the world’s richest coterie of individuals (i.e., the WTO, World Bank and IMF, et al.). Africa grows enough food to feed itself, but because its countries have been co-opted, if not coerced at the barrel of a gun by Western trade agents over the centuries, it has to export its very own solution to famine. Those countries who spurn compliance with Western trade agreements are subject to reprehensible sanctions that Arundhati Roy refers to as “New Genocide,” meaning the creation of “conditions [through economic sanctions] that lead to mass death without actually going out and killing people.”4 Digression aside, what is transpiring in Africa is not an isolated occurrence. In India, where millions are the victims of starvation and malnutrition, there have been incidences, time and again, in which the government allows immorally imbalanced disbursement of food. One example that Arundhati Roy presents in her book, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, reports the Indian government allowing 63 million tons of grain to rot in its granaries.5 Meanwhile, twelve million tons were exported and put on sale at a subsidized price the Indian government refused to offer its country’s impoverished peoples.6 There is more than enough food to feed people – bottom line.
When exploring the implications of a (neo)-Malthusian program, one must ask, as Richard Robbins advises, “what social interests or purposes might be advanced by their acceptances?” Clearly, Malthus envisioned a world where the elite and upper class decide and act upon population control by advancing measures that materialized from within the very former and latter statuses. It should also be noted that Malthus was not concerned with population growth, he was concerned with the rising number of poor in England at the time and, why they should or should not exist and, “what should be done about them.”7 Malthus erroneously, and egregiously – might I add, saw poverty not as a consequence of “expanding industrialism, enclosure laws… or the need of manufacturers for a source of inexpensive labor…” but rather as a phenomenon that emerged from “the laws of nature…”7
The Malthusian premise is one that presumes poverty exists by virtue of overpopulation, which is often postulated as the fault of fundamentally flawed human beings – which is dehumanizing to say the least. And, his theory (and any other theoretical fledglings of similarity) exempts the privileged elite from any accountability for fomenting and perpetuating the framing conditions and social arrangements that engender overpopulation and poverty in the first place.
If there really were something inherently poor and laggard in large populations, then affluent places like London or Manhattan would elicit fear of overpopulation. But the truth is, such sentiment is not directed internally toward ‘civilized’ regions of high densities of people, but rather it is directed externally toward areas and regions that are sought after for resources – areas that need to be ‘managed’ and ‘civilized.’ These are areas that, unlike densely populated areas of developed countries, are impoverished and immiserated on account of sanctions, development projects, foreign debt, illicit purloining of resources, and more, perpetrated and/or effected by foreign institutions – the very institutions that not only wreak tremendous social and ecological havoc, but also castigate such ‘victim’ countries as being ‘poor’ and ‘problematic’ and as ‘jeopardizing’ the globe with overpopulation. This is pathologically depraved behavior.
Furthermore, in today’s economic climate, one who recognizes the limits of economics within an ecological context of invariable finite materials is often referred to as a ‘neo–Malthusian.’ But because one recognizes the intrinsic limits to growth does not also mean that such a realization is concomitant with Malthusian theory, or rather: Just because one recognizes the limits to growth does not mean they are a neo-Malthusian.
The crux is, there are limits to growth. The planet is comprised of finite resources. Any intelligent creature is aware of this unalterable truth. However, these facts do not warrant one group of people to assume a higher positioning over another as a means to decide who lives, who is ‘useful,’ who gets what and when and where. The truth is, as many maintain, the whole carrying capacity discussion is either a.) not discussed honestly, or at all, or b.) it is approached with a narrow set of ‘solutions,’ all of which intend to perpetuate the status quo – which translates into either not solving shit or, solving the problem in a way that keeps those in power in power to enjoy their luxuries and privileges.
More importantly, owing to the fact that overpopulation is commensurate with economic growth (which confers tremendous power and wealth upon economic architects and directors i.e., the state and financial and corporate institutions) – we should, as Derrick Jensen suggests, honestly acknowledge how different our discourse and theoretical solutions would be if we changed the language from ‘overpopulation’ problems to ‘overconsumption’ problems? Here is where we find the fundamental flaws inhered within the ‘panaceas’ that are prescribed to fix this entire conundrum. We can’t address this issue as an ‘overconsumption’ problem because mitigating consumption growth would destroy the capitalist economy. So, unforgivably, we go with ‘overpopulation.’ Does anyone see the fundamental flaw yet? Does anyone else see what’s wrong here?
According to Jensen, “The United States constitutes less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet uses more than one-fourth of the world’s resources and produces one-fourth of the world’s pollution and waste.” And, if you “compare the average U.S. citizen to the average citizen of India, you find that the American uses fifty times more steel, fifty-six times more energy, one hundred and seventy times more synthetic rubber, two hundred and fifty times more motor fuel, and three hundred times more plastic.” Nonetheless, our concepts of overpopulation are usually not comprised of “those who do the most damage, the primary perpetrators (there can’t be too many [middle-class] Americans, can there?), but instead their primary (human) victims.”8
There is much absurdity and arrogance, as Jensen asserts, in the call for the poor to stop having children but not minding the rich driving around in SUVs, watching plasma-screen TVs while living sedentary lives in 3500 square foot homes, etc. ad nauseam. Also, to quote Jensen in depth:
…there are those who claim—equally absurdly, and equally arrogantly—that all talk of carrying capacity is racist and classist. To even use the phrase carrying capacity in this crowd is to invite hisses and catcalls, as well as spat epithets of Neo-Malthusian. I suppose the argument is that because some of those who want to protect this exploitative way of living use carrying capacity as a means of social control against the poor—as an American Indian activist friend said to me, “The only problem I have with population control is that you and I both know who is going to do the controlling”—then the notion of carrying capacity itself must be racist and classist. This seems similar to me to suggesting that because Hitler claimed (falsely) that Germany was being attacked by Poland, and that therefore the Germans needed to attack, and that because this same argument has routinely been used (just as falsely) by the United States as well as other imperial powers, that anyone who claims self-defense is lying. These people seem to forget that the misuse of an argument does not invalidate the argument itself. Worse, this argument, that the very concept of carrying capacity is a fabrication designed for social control, as opposed to a simple statement of limits, serves those in power as effectively as does ignoring or de-emphasizing resource consumption when speaking of overshooting carrying capacity, because it goes along with the refusal to acknowledge physical limits (and limits to exploitation) that characterize this culture. What would it take, I’ve heard peace and social justice activists ask, to bring the poor of the world to the fiscal standard of living of the rich? Well, another thirty planets, for one thing. It’s a dangerous—and stupid— question. Within this culture wealth is measured by one’s ability to consume and destroy. This means that attempts to industrialize the poor will further harm the planet. Because industrial production requires the exploitation of resources, the wealth of one group is always based on the impoverishment of another’s landbase, meaning that on a finite planet, the creation of one person’s (fiscal) wealth always comes at the cost of many others’ poverty. Those reasons are why the question is stupid. It’s dangerous because it serves as propaganda to keep both activists and the poor playing a game that doesn’t serve them well, and which they can never win, instead of quitting this game and working to take down the system.”9
There is a term called lactational amenorrhea, which is the absence of menstruation due to lactation. As long as a mother is nursing her neonate (i.e., infant) each and every time the child wants to feed, fertility is postponed. Basically, the female body temporarily shuts off its procreational facilities because the body is taxed to its limits regarding nutrient allocation for not only the infant but the mother as well. In other words, “If you continue with exclusive breast feeding for your baby’s first six months, your risk of becoming pregnant is less then 2 percent.”10
Many indigenous mothers would sleep with their infants through the night so that their child would be able to nurse even during sleep. This beautiful communion between mother and child was practiced nightly for upwards of six months, if not more.11 This practice, which is being forever lost in the dominant culture, in tandem with sustainable living practices, conduced to a natural, safe, sane and non-exploitative program of population control.
One must ask, what sort of culture would replace such population control measures with something like the Malthusian model. The answers tell us that only an exploitative culture, hell-bent on production by means of degradation of another’s landbase, thence elevating one’s luxuries on account of another’s impoverishment, would discard sane and sustainable ways of living to achieve prosperous ends.
- R.L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999). [↩]
- Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (4th Ed.), (Boston: Pearson, 2008), p. 153 [↩]
- Robbins, p. 150. [↩]
- Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, (Cambridge: South End Press, 2004), p. 88. [↩]
- N.A. Mujumdar, “Eliminate hunger now, poverty later,” Business Line, 8 January 2003. [↩]
- “Foodgrain exports may slow down this fiscal [year],” India Business Insight, 2 June 2003; “India: Agriculture sector: Paradox of plenty,” Business Line, 26 June 2001; Ranjit Devraj, “Farmers protest against globalization,” Inter Press Service, 25 January 2001. [↩]
- R.H. Robbins, p. 156. [↩] [↩]
- Derrick Jensen, Endgame Volume I: The Problem of Civilization, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), p. 115. [↩]
- D. Jensen, p. 115-116. [↩]
- Katie Singer, The Garden of Fertility: A Guide to Charting Your Fertility Signals to Prevent or Achieve Pregnancy – Naturally – and to Gauge Your Reproductive Health, (New York: Avery, 2004), p.68. [↩]
- K. Singer, p. 67-70. [↩]