Leftish Apocalyptic Environmentalism and the Ideology of Overpopulation

Gregory Barrett’s rant against childbearing in Dissident Voice repeats a similar admonition by the author a year before in the same publication. Barrett, who now regrets having his two daughters, finds 2019 to be just as bad as 2018 to have offspring.

Unsustainable production models and wasteful lifestyles

While Barrett’s article includes repeated references to his own thought, there is only one hyperlink to evidence purporting to support his view about “near-term human extinction” caused by the fertility of women. The cited report does not, in fact, support Barrett’s argument, but rather supports this response to his essay. The report concludes: “We can no longer ignore the impact of current unsustainable production models and wasteful lifestyles.” That is, population numbers are not the fundamental problem, but capitalist relations of production and consumption are.

Barrett’s complaint is encapsulated in the title of his article: “Doctrinaire left lines up with Trumpists, calls overpopulation ‘myth’: humans über alles…to the bitter end.” Barrett does not identify the “doctrinaire left,” though presumably those who read and publish in Dissident Voice are included. Nor does he provide evidence of the left lining up with so-called Trumpists.

Trump did suspend US contributions to the UN Population Fund. But it was because Trump opposed women’s reproductive freedom including access to abortion. In contrast, women’s reproductive choice is an issue long supported by the left.

Overpopulation is a theory justifying capitalist social relations

While there are overpopulation theory proponents on the left, the theory has its origins and greatest publicists in bourgeois political thought.

After World War II, overpopulation theory was resurrected to support the ideological initiatives of the ascendant US superpower and its cohorts. The World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, and later the Ford Foundation have been leaders in promoting the threat of overpopulation. More recently Ted Turner’s philanthropies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, bolstered by Warren Buffett’s fortune to become the world largest private charity, now spread the overpopulation gospel.

This ideological initiative in the service of international capital took place in the context of a wave of third world national liberation struggles in the post-war period. Peasant tillers of the soil were demanding land reform; workers were demanding just compensation. Overpopulation theory conveniently seeks to delegitimize these struggles by suggesting that poverty, which gives rise to the struggles, results from too much reproduction rather than exploitation and repression.

Let the people have their rightful means to land and livelihood, and they will take care of their own contraceptive needs. Where the standard of living and educational level of a population rises, especially for women, birthrates plummet.

Distribution of resources – not limitation – is the problem

Overpopulation theory claims, as Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster observes, “that all of the crucial problems of bourgeois society and indeed of the world could be traced to over-procreation on the part of the poor.” Accordingly, Barrett warns that the “vast numbers of humans on our planet may be killing it,” without distinguishing between the perpetrators and the victims.

Eight people now have the same wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. At the other end of the spectrum, the poorest 40% of the world’s population use less than 5% of the world’s resources. Friends of the Earth reports, “People in rich countries consume up to 10 times more natural resources than those in the poorest countries.”  If we do have an over-population problem, it is too many too rich people depleting too many resources.

The earth and its resources are undeniably finite, but currently there is more than enough food to meet the caloric needs of the world’s population. Hunger exists in the world and even in the US, but that is a problem of economics and distribution, not a problem of too little to go around.

Over the last century, world population increased four times. However, world resource consumption increased over 20-fold, suggesting that even at zero population growth consumption of resources would still have grown over 500%.

It is not population growth itself, nor even total human consumption, but the kind of social relations leading to harmful patterns and types of consumption that are environmentally destructive. These are determined not by the absolute numbers of humans but by the political economy imposed on them.

The ideology of overpopulation is based on fake science

It is instructive to compare climate change theory to overpopulation theory. Climate change predictions are based on science in contrast to the quackery of overpopulation theory. Scientific climate models provide clear quantitative benchmarks for when anthropogenic climate warming became a dominant factor, what level of CO2 in the atmosphere should be targeted, and when this needs to be achieved.

In contrast, the overpopulation theorists do not posit a time when there weren’t too many humans. Instead, they base their simplistic plea that there are too many people in the world based on prejudice against the fertility of women of color (see also Sasser), which has its antecedents in racist and classist eugenics.

When did the earth become overpopulated according to overpopulation theory? In 1798, Thomas Malthus, a seminal overpopulation theorist, wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population in opposition to the English Poor Laws. Malthus posited a “natural law” for population to increase beyond the means of subsistence.

Malthus, as do modern-day proponents of overpopulation theory, do not contend that the earth will become over-populated in the future. Rather, they believe that it is a “law of nature” that human needs for resources always have and always will outstrip the planet’s supply. As Friedrich Engels wrote in 1844, according to the logic of Malthus’ theory “the earth was already over-populated when only one man existed.”

While climate scientists have empirically predicted the deleterious effects of global warming, the overpopulation ideologues have a consistent record of crying wolf. Take perhaps the leading and most respected overpopulation proponent in the US, Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, who predicted in print:

  • In the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people (including in the US) would starve to death.
  • By the mid-70s, “smog disasters” would kill 200,000 people per year in the US.
  • In the 1980s, “food riots” would lead to the dissolution of the US Congress.
  • Between 1980-1989, 65 million would die of starvation in the US.
  • By 1999, the US population would decline by 22.6 million due to scarcities.

Overpopulation theory has discredited itself as fake science by its own false predictions. Unrepentant, Ehrlich claims that his critics are “idiots,” he “never made predictions,” and he only made the “mistake” of presenting “scenarios.”

High fertility rates are a symptom not the cause of social and environmental problems

This is not to imply that population growth is not an important issue. Only from an environmental point-of-view, it needs to be coupled with an understanding of the social relations that generate patterns of consumption and distribution.

Barrett, who calls himself a “refugee,” could learn from the example of his adopted home in Germany, which is experiencing negative population growth. Germany is an example of a society where, to a significant degree, women have freedom of reproductive choice, improved equality, and a relatively secure standard of living. The lesson being that a society that provides for people’s material and social needs, especially those of women, results in lower birth rates.

In contrast, Syria, which is benighted by a US-backed regime-change war, has the world’s highest birthrate of 7.37%. High fertility rates in such conflict zones may be understood as products of dysfunctional social relations. That is, high fertility rates are a symptom not the cause of social and environmental problems.

The ideology of overpopulation serves to divert criticisms of capitalist social relations of unequal distribution. Wasteful and environmentally destructive economic mis-planning invariably results from those social relations. Barrett exemplifies the phenomenon of the uncritical acceptance of such bourgeois ideas by otherwise consistent leftists.

Anne Hendrixson of the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College observes:

Babies and yet-to-be-born babies in areas like Sub-Saharan Africa are not responsible for existing environmental problems. The reverse is true: wealthy countries like the United States are responsible for burdening those babies with a legacy of global environmental degradation and climate change caused (problems).

The biggest danger of blaming overpopulation for environmental problems is that it ignores the real culprits.

Roger D. Harris is with the 37-year-old human rights organization Task Force on the Americas and the FreeAlexSaab campaign. Read other articles by Roger D..