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Debating rising population and the environment: meeting report

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This is a report on the Socialist Resistance meeting on ‘Population and the Environment’ which took place on 15 December at Canterbury Hall in London.

Socialist Resistance (SR), in a spirit of comradely discussion, invited IS Network members to their meeting on the environment and having an interest in such matters I went along to observe and contribute. The discussion was around two papers that had been circulated in advance: one by Alan Thornett and one by Phil Ward. It was a small meeting, with six members of SR and myself. Roland Rance was in the chair, Alan Thornett, Phil Ward and Terry Conway were the main contributors, and there were two other members present, Dave and Tony.

It soon became apparent that I had parachuted into the middle of an ongoing debate. They had been arguing about this within SR for a couple of years at least. Roland introduced the discussion by informing us that it was a matter of some debate within SR and the wider Fourth International (FI). SR’s ‘Ecology Commission’ has been discussing it and lots of the relevant articles are on the FI’s ‘International Viewpoint’ website (http://www.internationalviewpoint.org) and SR’s website (http://socialistresistance.org). It is for this reason that I am not going to present the discussion in the order that it transpired on the day. Phil Ward actually presented his article first, but I’m going to start with Alan and Terry’s contribution, because it was Alan who started the controversy with his review of Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s book Too Many People? a couple of years ago in Socialist Resistance (http://socialistresistance.org/3013/too-many-people-a-review).

There were two questions to be addressed in the meeting: is rising population a threat to the planet, and what is the socialist solution to this?

My personal viewpoint was the former question was addressed more adequately than the latter.

Alan started his contribution by reiterating the title of his circulated article: ‘Population and the Environment: time for a rethink’. He said that this was a difficult subject for the left to engage with, because of the spectre of Thomas Malthus, which always haunts discussion of demography. Malthus’s view was that population growth would always accelerate way beyond the plodding increase of food supply. His analysis in ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ (http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/malthus/) was powerful enough to change the law of the land in 1834! He argued that the only way to prevent catastrophe (the Malthusian checks of ‘war, starvation and disease’) was to prevent the poor and indigent from breeding, which led to the New Poor Law with its mainstays of ‘less eligibility’ and the ‘workhouse test’. The same philosophy is behind Iain Duncan’s Smith’s tenure at the DWP today: the poor shall not be ‘rewarded’ for being poor, life must be harder for them than the poorest in work and people with large families shall be especially punished (welfare caps, cuts in housing benefit, etc.).

Actually, in the last instance Malthus was right! A finite planet cannot provide for an indefinitely growing demand on its resources but, to borrow a phrase from the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, ‘the lonely hour of the last instance never comes’ – but we must leave this for Phil’s contribution and my own small intervention. Malthus of course greatly underestimated the ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet, because he didn’t take into account new agricultural techniques, improvements in medicine, surgical and clinical techniques and facilities, etc.

Alan acknowledged the fact that socialists are always shivering due to old Tom’s ghost, before going on to say that since he left school the population of the planet had grown almost fourfold. It now stood at well over 7 million and even this level was not sustainable without severe damage to ecosystems. The Earth’s population seems to increase by 80 million souls per year whatever happens, which is equivalent to a country the size of Germany appearing annually to share the world’s produce. According to Alan, it shows no sign of decreasing. The last UN estimate in 2012 (the UN publishes a new estimate every two years) was revised upwards. Because of this, Alan says, it is impossible to assess in advance what the population will be in 50 years’ time, let alone by the end of the century. The received view of the Marxist left (and also leftish academics such as Danny Dorling) is that population will level off before the end of the century and then start to fall and that the main problem is distribution of food and other resources.

Alan says that Phil and other Marxist theorists tend to ignore the problem because it seems to play into the hands of the right. Perhaps we could distribute food etc. rather better, but that in itself would cause ecological problems because of the energy usage and carbon emissions due to transport. Perhaps the world could feed 10 million if we used intensive factory farming methods, but this would cause great animal suffering and destroy ecosystems in the process. We are living through the ‘sixth extinction’, the only one that has been caused by a single species: human beings. We should be protecting biodiversity because we are a part of it and living in harmony with nature, because we are a part of it. This is not ‘hippy dippy shit’ (I paraphrase here!), but is in Marx!

We need to take all this seriously, because even if we had a revolution now a socialist society would still have to deal with the ecological emergencies created by capitalism. Because of population growth (of course allied with other issues, in particular climate change) there will be tipping points such as struggles over water in the Middle East and in the Sahel. Alan went on to say that most population growth was among people with low carbon footprints, but that this may change as they become more affluent, as we hope they do.

Phil Ward had actually started the discussion, but I decided to reverse the order of the contributions in order to better reflect the debate within SR, as I said. He also started with the title of his circulated paper: ‘Is Rising Population a Problem for the Planet?’ Phil said that he doesn’t see the question in those terms. The boundaries are not entirely those set by nature, but depend upon human activity, so that population growth is not an absolute but a relative problem. Phil thought that phrasing the problem in this way can align us with the right, as Alan had acknowledged, but denied that this had to be the case. I personally do not think that Phil’s assertion here is helpful; we and the right might ask the same questions, but have different answers.

Phil looked at the projections for the future based upon the UN figures. The UN estimates for the rise in population say that we will reach 11 billion by 2100, but it will peak before then and will be falling. Of that rise of 4 billion, 3 billion will be in Africa whose population will quadruple by the end of the century. Phil reckons this is nonsense; for example, the idea that Nigeria will reach a billion by then is completely unsustainable. Phil thinks it is ridiculous to think about how we are going to manage a planet of 10 or 11 billion people, as we aren’t going to get there; other factors will kick in well before then. The problem is not population but capitalism, which externalises environmental factors and doesn’t count them in the costs of production and distribution. The problem is capitalism’s obsession with growth.

As John Bellamy Foster, an editor of Monthly Review and the author of Marx’s Ecology, has argued, most growth is waste: check out what’s in your bin at the end of the week and check out what goes into landfill. If we take waste into account a socialist society can manage to sustain the current level of population and, indeed, a much bigger one, but we will have ecological disasters to deal with that we inherited from capitalism. We need to eat far less meat, which is a very wasteful use of agricultural land, and we need to move to clean energy, while recognising that the latter is not energy-neutral given the materials from which clean energy technology is manufactured. The post-capitalist world will be difficult and complicated, but at least the former rich, along with the rest of us, will pay their share.

For the most part, I agreed with Phil, which seemed to surprise the rest of the meeting, none of whom did. I mentioned the bourgeois ‘demographic transition theory’ (DTT), which has a graph at its heart. In traditional societies the birth rate is high and the death rate is high, so the graph flat-lines along the bottom, with a low and stable population. As the agricultural and industrial revolutions kick in then the death rate falls, but the birth rate remains high due to demand for labour; the graph becomes a very steep slope. As mechanisation increases, along with a decline in infant mortality, then fewer children are born and the graph begins to level out and, quite often, to fall. The DTT describes what goes on without giving a Marxist analysis of these phenomena.

In over half of the countries in the world the number of children born per woman is below replacement rate (which is about 2.1, because of infant deaths). This includes most of the countries with the highest population: China is about 1.8 (and the effects of the one-child programme, which favoured male births, won’t kick in for another 10-15 years); India is going the same way, as is Brazil. Most of the developed world is well below replacement: Japan being well below 1 and almost all of western Europe below 2. Britain has recently had a rise, but it is still below 2, and its population would be falling disastrously but for immigration. Sub-Saharan Africa is bucking the trend, but given other eco-disasters waiting to happen will not in the end.

To use Marxian language that has been forgotten or ignored, there is a ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and nature. We do not recognise that we are a part of nature; we see nature as a free ‘good’ to be exploited without cost. We are alienated from nature, which is what Marx said when he suggested we should abolish the distinction between country and town. Most of this is elaborated in Capital Volume III.

So, I agree with Phil, the current situation is not sustainable; probably (all other things being equal, which they aren’t going to be), the population would stabilise and then fall. The problem is that there will be issues in the meantime, mainly to do with climate change: water wars and desertification will lead to mass movements of people.

I thought the next part of the discussion, about what a socialist response should be, was far less impressive, which was probably inevitable. It’s always easier to identify a problem than identify solutions. Alan and Terry suggested that the main solution would be a socialist society (with which Phil obviously concurred) and that women around the world should be given full control over their own fertility. Alan suggested that this was a feminist solution and that the left, to their shame, had pretty much ignored feminism, and Terry agreed, but suggesting that the FI had a better record than most, given their central involvement in the early 1980s in the National Abortion Campaign.

Phil agreed that giving women access to free contraception and abortion would be a good thing in itself, but that it couldn’t solve what his antagonists considered to be the main problem. If there are 135 million people born every year and 55 million die, then there will be a net increase of the world’s population of the order of 80 million, the population of Germany. Somehow, somebody has worked out that of the people born about 35 million are not planned or ‘wanted’. So, if you give women complete control over their fertility then the world population will still grow by 45 million people a year. Phil thinks we need a better and more integrated Marxist analysis of the situation and campaigns to solve the problems of the environment we already have. If we don’t do this in 20 years then there’s no point worrying about 2100. I agree.

This was a fantastic discussion between passionate people who were incredibly well read on the subject that they were discussing. It grew rather heated at times, but that was an indication of how passionately they were engaged in the subject. I felt privileged to be a part of it and I look forward to other such discussions and to the time when the IS Network manages to match it. In my years in the SWP I never had a meeting like this, and almost never as a postgraduate at university.

Brian Collier (Bradford/Leeds IS Network branch)