As the whole world stares down the barrel of potentially catastrophic climate change, the supposed need to “deal with” population growth has become a popular incantation weighted with the power of redemption. Population growth, economic uncertainty, declining living standards, hunger in developing regions and environmental damage seem to march hand-in-hand; in fact, it is difficult to find a recent news article about population growth that doesn’t pose it as a “problem” with massive economic and environmental consequences for us all.
But the real problem is that economic uncertainty and environmental damage have nothing to do with how many people live in our world today, nor with the rate at which the human population is growing. Economic fluctuations, threats to our living standards and environmental damage are products of capitalism – products of an unplanned system of mindless production for profit, which has been incapable of meeting the needs of the world’s population at any time in its history regardless of the number of people living on the planet.
Another real problem is that those who bleat about “overpopulation” under the banner of concern for the environment or worry about poverty and food shortages are actually blaming ordinary people – people living in developing countries, migrants or refugees – for the starkly visible crisis that our world faces. This displaced blame gives cover to governments and the ruling class across the globe who orchestrate frenzied “debates” about population growth in order to pretend that they’re taking economic and environmental crisis (which they play a central role in creating) seriously, while doing nothing to address the very real economic and environmental threats facing the world today.
In Australia the political landscape is pitted with debates about what level of population growth this country can sustain. Reports in late 2009 flagging the possibility that the Australian population could grow to more than 35 million people by 2050 generated anxious commentary from politicians and media commentators. There was widespread condemnation of then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s short-lived claim that “it’s good news that our population is growing… I think it’s good for us, it’s good for national security in the long-term, it’s good in terms of what we can sustain as a nation”.
The ALP ditched this attitude as quickly as they ditched Rudd, opting instead for Julia Gillard who promised a “sustainable Australia” policy to ensure low population growth that “preserves our quality of life and respects our environment”. Gillard argued vehemently:
I don’t support the idea of a big Australia with arbitrary targets of, say, a 40 million-strong Australia or a 36 million-strong Australia… I support a population that our environment, our water, our soil, our roads and freeways, our buses, our trains and our services can sustain.
It’s not just Gillard who is promoting the idea that population growth is a threat. Tony Abbott claims that he is even more concerned about population growth than Gillard, and billionaire Dick Smith also weighed in to the “debate” last year, to make sure we all got the message, telling the media, “The world has too many people.”
Gillard and Abbott are happy to play the race card and blame refugees and/or immigrants for the country’s ills without blinking an eye, so their endorsement of any policy that lays a basis for more scapegoating should not come as a great surprise. Smith is a bit of a nutter and a media launch of his bizarre campaign to limit population growth in Australia was light on facts, but did include Playboy-style blonde models, a suitcase of cash, and a chihuahua!
But Australian Greens leader Bob Brown has much more credibility (largely due to the Greens’ opposition to the war in Iraq and endorsement of refugees’ rights), and his has been one of the most strident voices when it comes to the question of Australia’s population. Brown has categorically stated that “Australia cannot support a population of 35 million by 2050” and has argued that both major parties fail to address today’s “urgent population issues”. Population growth and the failure of the major parties to deal with it effectively, argues Brown, is “outstripping Australia’s infrastructure and environmental capacity and affecting quality of life”.
Brown’s statements are applauded by some sections of the environmental movement, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), another organisation that’s played a key role in forging a link between population growth and environmental destruction. ACF director of strategic ideas Charles Berger is careful to reinforce those links in his public comments:
A sensible population policy would set clear targets and plans for dramatically reducing greenhouse pollution, improving water and energy efficiency, stabilising the population in the long term and protecting key ecological assets.
In September 2009 the ACF called for a reduction in immigration for the sake of the environment, agreeing with right wing Labor MP Kelvin Thomson’s calls to curb immigration to “more sensible levels” in order to prevent “environmental disaster”. Thomson called for immigration to be slashed from 168,700 to 70,000 people annually to deal with our “runaway population” and his other suggestions included “abolishing the baby bonus, restricting family benefits for third and subsequent children, cutting the intake of skilled migrants and making overseas students return home for two years before [they are] able to apply for residency here”. These are the ideas that ACF is happy to give credence to in their pursuit of a “sensible population policy”!
Sensible, sustainable, preserving our quality of life, respect for our environment – this is the litany of words and phrases repeated over and over by those who would have us believe that the population in Australia, and in the world, is multiplying like a virus.
Those leading the population panic want us to believe that more people in Australia will mean lower quality of life and higher levels of environmental degradation in the future. Our water and our soil will suffer – not to mention our sanity as we battle to get to work on jammed roads or squashed like sardines on trains and buses that are even more overcrowded than now, because this country will be overflowing with too many people. And that’s if we’re lucky enough to have jobs at all – considering, remember, that there’ll be far too many people.
And the trickle-down effect of all this anxious repetition from our leaders is that many people are now worried about the prospect of “too many people”. Because, as our leaders know very well, daily life sometimes makes it seem like there are too many. As anyone who has tried to get to work on time on public transport in Sydney or Melbourne recently knows, these systems are hugely overcrowded during peak times. Privatisation, out-of-date infrastructure and a shift from the idea of “public” transport to “profitable” transport are the culprits, not workers using the systems, but the overall impact makes it seem like there aren’t enough resources. Overcrowded hospitals, not enough university places and long waiting lists for childcare all mean that our lives are made harder – and a chorus of our leaders’ voices tells us that more people living in Australia will threaten the “sustainability” of these resources even more. These voices are then backed up by “authoritative” academics, such as Monash University’s Bob Birrell, who argue explicitly against immigration and population growth. Birrell uses the infrastructure problems in major cities as cover for racist diatribes against migrants, particularly “non-English speaking” migrants.
One would have to wander deaf, dumb and blind through Australian capital cities to not notice how urban congestion has already reduced the quality of life… We are losing core elements of what was once shared. Almost all could once aspire to a house and land…and sharing a common language, sporting culture and heritage.
The assumption that population growth is linked not just to urban congestion but to economic and environmental Armageddon has begun to permeate everyday life, so much so that it has become “common sense”. For example, earlier this year, in an episode of SBS’s talk show The Late Session, where the theme was “the modern family”, host Waleed Aly asked whether Australians should consider the problem of overpopulation before deciding to have children! While the panel rejected the idea that individuals should feel pressured not to have children, no-one even thought to question Aly’s assertion that more people being born is a problem.
In this wasteland of public commentary on population growth, dissent with those who argue that people are the problem has come mainly from big business. Aaron Gadiel, CEO of Urban Taskforce, which represents property developers, argues that if government policies “limited Australia’s population to fewer than 30 million by 2050, the average annual growth rate would be half its historical level”. According to Gadiel, reducing population “would mean the economy would be 15 per cent smaller than it would otherwise have been” and “Any reduction to our nation’s rate of population growth puts at risk the very things that have made Australia what it is today”.
Gadiel is not alone in his concerns about economic growth. In January this year, ANZ property research head Paul Braddick called on the government to increase migration in order to “boost economic growth and prevent rising inflation”. ABC News reported that:
ANZ expects demand for workers to increase significantly in the short to medium term because of the mining boom, flood reconstruction and infrastructure and housing requirements. Mr Braddick says without a boost to migration to fill those vacancies, there will be further constraints placed on the jobs market. “That will end up flowing into higher wages and higher interest rates.”
And Braddick’s call was echoed in March by mining billionaire Gina Rinehart who said, “Australia needs guest labour” and has an obligation to “consider the terrible plight of very poor people in our neighbouring countries in Asia” and import more skilled and unskilled labourers – in the same autocratic manner as Singapore does!
So the hype from the ALP, the Liberals, Bob Brown and other leading figures in the environment movement about the supposed dangers of population growth has cleared the way for a section of the ruling class that has an interest in seeing more economic growth – but definitely not higher wages or better living conditions for the people who fuel that growth – to be the only ones appearing to argue in favour of human beings.
In this latest, panicked debate about population growth in Australia, nearly all sides are fielding arguments that are fundamentally anti-humanist, are rocket fuel for racists, and have no basis in reality – while the facts have been lost in the maelstrom.
It is true that the world’s population is currently growing and is expected to grow for much of this century. But, as author and socialist Jonathan Neale explains:
In most countries the rate of population growth is slowing down. These countries include the vast majority of humanity. In all the rich countries, and some of the poor ones, women in the present generation are having so few children that the population will soon fall. The trend is down and the earth’s population will begin shrinking at some point this century.
Neale’s claims are backed up by the estimates of the United Nations Population Division. In 2005, UN population experts examined three hypothetical fertility trends predicting global population. The low scenario predicts a global population of around 7.7 billion on the planet by 2050, the medium scenario predicts 9.1 billion, and the high scenario predicts as many as 10.6 billion.
As climate activist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot points out, the UN also predicted that “the twenty-first century is expected to be one of comparatively slower population growth than the previous century, and be characterised by declining fertility and the ageing of populations” and the world’s population may stabilise at “just above 10 billion persons after 2200”. Monbiot also cites a paper published in Nature in 2008, which suggests that “there is an 88 per cent chance that global population growth will end during this century”.
In May this year, the UN published higher projections, suggesting that the world’s population may reach 10 billion by the end of this century, which prompted another rash of panicked media hype about the supposed “population explosion”. However the new figures generated questions, with New Scientist’s environment consultant Fred Pearce claiming that the assumptions behind the new UN scenario are “perverse and contradictory” and that it “looks more like a political construct than a scientific analysis.” Pearce questions the UN’s “seemingly arbitrary” upward revision of fertility forecasts, and argues that global fertility rates are still falling.
The UN’s earlier forecast on population trends – slower growth, declining fertility and an ageing population – certainly makes more sense when looking at Australia. In 2004, concerns about the declining fertility rate and ageing population were the stated reasons for the Howard government’s introduction of the “baby bonus”– remember Peter Costello’s creepy exhortation to women to have “one for Mum, one for Dad, and one for the country”?  In fact, fertility rates were already rising in Australia by 2004 and they continued to rise for several years, but by 2009 they had dropped again. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures show that in 2009, “Australia’s total fertility rate was 1.90 babies per woman”, and fertility rates dropped in all states and territories except for Queensland. The total replacement birth rate for Australia – the rate at which existing population numbers would be maintained – is 2.1 babies per woman. Of course Australia’s population numbers are not solely determined by natural increase (births minus deaths) – net overseas migration is the other key factor in determining population growth in this country, and 60 per cent of growth in the 12 month period leading to 31 March 2010 was due to immigration. Taking both births and migration into account, Department of Immigration and Citizenship figures show that “Australia’s population grew by 1.8 per cent during the 12 months preceding 31 March 2010 and the growth rate has been declining since the peak of 2.2 per cent for the 2008 calendar year.” So the “runaway population growth” that Kelvin Thomson and other Australian political leaders have referred to is sheer fantasy.
The fact that population growth around the world is expected to stabilise then slow has not stopped Bob Brown from invoking the UN’s “worst case” scenario (10.6 billion people globally by 2050), as well as the bogus writings of eighteenth century misanthrope Thomas Malthus, and discredited (and racist) environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, in his public comments on population growth. Ehrlich, author of the 1968 alarmist text The Population Bomb, gained notoriety by arguing that people are pollution and flagging forced sterilisation as an option for dealing with “overpopulation”. Ehrlich’s distaste for anyone who isn’t white is revealed in the opening pages of his book, where he described driving through the streets of India.
People eating, people washing, people sleeping, people visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging… People, people, people, people. As we slowly moved through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, the noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect… [we] were, frankly, frightened… Since that night I’ve known the feel of overpopulation.
Ehrlich concluded his book by agreeing with another racist, anti-humanist text, Famine – 1975! America’s decision: who will survive?, which argued that wealthy countries like the US should use a system of military “triage” (where the most hopeless casualties are left to die) in determining levels of aid and withhold food aid from India.
Bob Brown’s deliberate reference to Ehrlich (arguably one of the most racist, anti-humanist pieces of garbage ever to have published a book) is a disgrace. In a debate on population on the ABC’s Q&A program in August 2010, Brown shamefully said, “We’re chewing up more than the planet can sustain and we’re giving future generations a deficit for having been here. Malthus warned about this two or three hundred years ago…” Then, in response to former Liberal Party president John Elliott’s retorts that Malthus was “wrong” and “totally useless” (an uncharacteristic insight from Elliott but there’s a first, and no doubt last, time for everything), Brown manoeuvred even further to the right and responded:
The Ehrlichs wrote The Population Bomb in the 1970s and they’ve been laughed at, but the serious matter is that in my lifetime…there were 2.7 billion people when I was born… There are now seven billion and we’re headed for 11 billion… we need two or three planets to be able to provide that and we obviously don’t have them…
The notion that we’ve reached, or are fast reaching, our country and our planet’s “carrying capacity” – that we’ll need the equivalent of two or three planets to sustain human life in the near future – is another myth promoted by Brown and other population growth scaremongers in Australia and around the world. Many of these people have liberal credentials that lend weight to their pronouncements, which are usually couched in tones of solemn, heartfelt regret for being the bearers of such bad news.
Johann Hari, a liberal columnist for UK newspaper The Independent is one of these scaremongers. In 2008, Hari wrote a column he apparently didn’t want to write, on an “ugly” subject he claimed makes him “instinctively recoil” – overpopulation. However, he managed to overcome his distaste for long enough to argue that, although “nobody thinks they are the surplus human being who should not have been born” we must all face up to the likelihood that soon there will be too many people. He wrote:
After studying the evidence, I am left in a position I didn’t expect. Yes, the argument about overpopulation is distasteful, often discussed inappropriately, and far from being a panacea-solution—but it can’t be dismissed entirely. It will be easier for 6 billion people to cope on a heaving, boiling planet than for 9 or 10 billion.
The “evidence” Hari refers to is an idiotic comment by Prince Philip: “The food prices are going up, and everyone thinks it’s to do with not enough food, but it’s really too many people. It’s a little embarrassing for everybody, nobody knows how to handle it”, and some unattributed figures which apparently show that population growth means the “equivalent to another Britain and Ireland whooshing fully populated from the ocean” each year. Hari is a bit scathing about Prince Philip but he gives full credit to the right wing argument that although people in developing countries have the lowest carbon footprint in the world now, they’ll be a problem in the future if living standards rise because they’ll “want to join in the carbon bonfire”.
Of course Hari shies away from suggesting any concrete solutions to the “problem” apart from arguing that increasing women’s rights is a tried and true way of decreasing the birth rate. And while this is true to some extent, it neatly avoids the logical but sticky questions that arise out of the argument that the planet cannot cope with more people – who is to blame and who are the supposedly surplus human beings?
Laurie Mazur, director of the US-based Population Justice Project, is another liberal commentator who insists that, no matter how distasteful it might be to discuss it, there is a link between population growth and environmental destruction. The Population Justice Project is an organisation that tries to juggle concern for women’s reproductive rights with the task of lobbying to reduce population and as a result ends up veering toward outright population control cloaked in feminist rhetoric. Mazur argues:
The population issue isn’t going away. It keeps coming up because we are staring into the abyss and because political efforts to avert disaster are floundering… It keeps coming up because there is a connection between population growth and environmental devastation, and because slowing population growth is one of many, many things we must do to save ourselves… But here’s the problem: if there is no left/progressive voice on this issue, environmentalists and others who are legitimately concerned about population growth will be driven into the arms of the neo-Malthusians.
But of course, neo-Malthusian arguments are the basis of many of the debates about population and this is as evident in Australia as it is elsewhere.
Current debates about our planet’s carrying capacity, our rate of consumption and the connection between population growth and environmental destruction hark back to Malthus’s original assertion (totally unsupported by any facts or research) that population growth will outstrip food production and that scarcity of resources will be the inevitable result. Malthus asserted that the world’s population – just 950 million in 1798 – faced catastrophic food shortages, so he’s probably turning in his grave at the prospect of 10 billion people on the planet.
Poverty, Malthus argued, is inevitable, and rather than suggest any measures to address it he took his assertion to its most extreme conclusion, arguing that nothing should be done to alleviate the dreadful living conditions of the eighteenth century working class and poor because that would only encourage them to breed, creating scarcer resources for the more deserving middle class and rich:
A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is.
Today, liberal concessions to the right wing barrage of panic about population, such as Mazur’s idea that it is okay for “environmentalists and others” to be “legitimately concerned about population growth”, only add credibility to revolting neo-Malthusian arguments calling for lower immigration, paternalistic “family planning” schemes – or worse, outright population control – in developing countries, and attacks on workers’ rights to paid maternity, parental leave and other state-funded family subsidies.
No matter how well “legitimate concerns” about population are coated in an environmental gloss, they are, in fact, just reheated versions of reactionary, anti-humanist ideas that have existed since Malthus’s time. Environmental concerns about the “carrying capacity” of the planet are, on the surface, more respectable than the overt racism of Ehrlich, but the “surplus people” who are apparently causing the problem are never white. Particularly in Australia.
There is no basis for “legitimate concern” about population growth and conceding any ground to the idea that it is the cause of declining living standards and environmental destruction, or trying to find some “progressive” spin to make this idea more palatable only helps to justify racism, and authoritarian attacks on people’s rights. What’s more, liberal concessions to arguments about overpopulation let the real economic and environmental bandits off the hook. The truth is that we are staring into the abyss of economic and environmental catastrophe not because there are too many people on the planet soaking up the world’s resources, but because we live in a capitalist society where a minority of obscenely rich people utilise the system’s rampant competition and crises to steal, accumulate, and then withhold most of those resources from the vast majority of the world’s population.
Capitalist production, rather than population growth or consumption, is to blame for economic crisis and environmental damage, and most people have absolutely no control over how production is organised. The anarchic, unplanned nature of production in our society results in economies that are skewed to the dictates of the market, rather than the best environmental outcomes and the needs of the population.
Australia, a country whose “soils are amongst the world’s most deficient in phosphorus” but which has based its “agricultural economy on export industries, like beef, sheep and wheat that need large amounts of phosphorus”, is just one example of the madness capitalist production generates.  European invaders to this country found a land of abundant resources, populated by Indigenous people who had for thousands of years been self-sufficient, lived in harmony with the natural environment, and developed rich and complex cultural, spiritual and social traditions.
The invaders set about destroying both the people and the land, importing a new economic system that relied upon the establishment and expansion of a vast pastoral industry to meet the voracious world demand for commodities, particularly wool and cattle. The toll exacted from the natural environment by these and other agricultural industries changed the landscape forever. Today, agricultural industries account for 65 per cent of water usage in Australia, which has the highest per capita use of water in the world, despite being the driest continent; and six million hectares are threatened with dryland salinity.
This is not a recent phenomenon – large areas of agricultural land were blighted by rising salt in the first decades of the twentieth century and by the 1940s, industry and government were aware of the problem. But as always, faced with widespread environmental damage caused by agricultural practices, the response of Australian capitalists has been merely to continue the routine grab for profits at the expense of people and the environment. In recent years, the intensification of water stress from the long drought was attributed not to the insanity of unsustainable agricultural industries competing madly to maintain profits, but to our everyday water usage. But while many of us were tripping over buckets in our showers and watching our gardens and veggie patches wilt during the drought, BHP Billiton was extracting 37 million litres of Great Artesian Basin water per day for the Olympic Dam uranium/copper mine in South Australia. For free. The waste of such massive amounts of water in order to mine uranium, to supply exports to countries that build nuclear weapons or house the ticking time bombs that are nuclear power stations, fits nicely with the logic of profit. So nicely, in fact, that in 2010 BHP Billiton announced that it wasn’t content to waste 37 million litres of water per day at Olympic Dam. They now insist that they need more than 250 million litres. Per day.
The prospect of scarcer resources – particularly food and water – is one of the big bogeys used to incite population panic in Australia, yet the massive levels of waste in the system are never mentioned, except when ordinary people can be blamed. So ordinary Australians are exhorted to “save water” or blamed for the 3.8 million tonnes of food that is thrown out by Australian homes and businesses each year (although a closer look at the figures indicates that primary industry wastes about 20 to 25 per cent of food). We are told that there may not be enough resources in Australia to sustain a growing population, but those who flagrantly waste the resources we do have (resources that could sustain many more people) in their pursuit of profit get off scot-free. In the case of BHP Billiton, literally!
The periodic crises that occur in the system, driven by competition in the global marketplace, make it seem like there is never enough for everyone. As US socialist Chris Williams argues:
A central concept within the ideological armoury of capitalism is the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. Hence we are confronted with the idea that there isn’t enough food, aren’t enough jobs, isn’t enough housing, or aren’t enough university places because there is a certain fixed amount of all these things. We then compete in the “free market” where the victory of one person necessarily comes at the expense of someone else.
But the terrible irony is that – even taking into account the massive environmental damage capitalism has inflicted on the planet and the flagrant inefficiencies and waste inherent in producing goods purely so that the rich can compete for profits – there are enough resources in the world to sustain not only our existing population, but billions more people as well. As Marx identified long ago, capitalist crises are not crises of scarcity, they are crises of overproduction. Production of commodities for profit rather than human need invariably leads to overproduction and when these commodities can no longer realise a profit on flooded markets, the system goes into crisis. So the financial crisis that began in the US sub-prime mortgage market in 2008 and quickly spiralled into the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression was not caused by a shortage of money or resources (as became evident when governments found trillions of dollars to bail out banks and big business), it was caused by massive levels of debt that had built up since the 1970s and that became just another commodity to be packaged up and traded – to the point where banks and finance markets around the world effectively went bankrupt. The extent of the crisis highlighted the madness of capitalism, the high levels of overproduction in countries such as the US, and the enormous class divide that gives the world’s wealthy and powerful access to unimaginable resources while billions around the world suffer austerity measures. And nowhere is the class divide more evident than when looking at food production.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) has stated that the world can produce enough food to adequately feed 12 billion people. So the current debates about whether the UN projection of 10 billion people by 2100 is accurate actually miss the point entirely. According to a 2011 fact sheet produced by the World Hunger Education Service, world agriculture “produces 17 per cent more calories per person today than it did 30 years ago, despite a 70 per cent population increase. This is enough to provide everyone in the world with at least 2,720 kilocalories per person per day.” Yet recent years have also seen food riots throughout the developing world. The FAO’s report The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2008 report sums up the situation:
For millions of people in developing countries, eating a minimum amount of food every day to live an active and healthy life is a distant dream. The structural problems of hunger, like the lack of access to land, credit and employment, combined with high food prices remain a dire reality.
In Egypt, the Philippines, Cameroon, Haiti and Burkina Faso, people who have long been forced to live on less than $US2 per day, have rioted to protest soaring food prices and the resulting daily deprivation they experience.
For those who argue that the world is on the brink of overpopulation, food riots seem to be evidence that too many people and too few resources are the problem. Yet the world’s food stocks do not correlate with the levels of hunger. 2008 saw the highest cereal production ever on record, with enough food produced to give everyone on the planet 2,800 kilocalories per day, yet by 2010 there were still 925 million hungry people in the world.
The problem is not scarcity of food; it is the fact that under capitalism food is produced for sale on the market. Global hunger is of little concern to capitalists who view food production as simply another profit making venture. If profits are not forthcoming and it becomes more lucrative to hoard food stocks and wait for an opening in the market, despite the desperation of hungry people, then that is what will happen. Hungry people who cannot afford to pay market rates for sustenance are not even factored into the equation:
[M]ainstream economists use the term “effective demand.” If people have money to pay for food, their demand is “effective”; if they are too poor to afford food, then their demand is not effective and they are “surplus”— they must somehow try to survive on less than $2 a day, as two billion people around the world are forced to do. This is a fact noted by the UN: “A stubbornly high share of the world’s population remains in absolute poverty and so lacks the necessary income to translate its needs into effective demand.”
Population growth does not cause food shortages – in fact, as writer and activist Frances Moore Lappé states, there is no correlation between population growth and hunger:
Despite the evidence, many people see high birth rates and hunger in the Global South and arrive at what seems like commonsense: just too many mouths to feed. But scanning the globe, no correlation between people density and undernourishment is to be found. High birth rates are best understood not as a cause of hunger but as a symptom. Along with hunger, they are a symptom of powerlessness, especially of women denied control over their fertility. Mounting evidence from around the world suggests that as people, especially women, gain education and income, fertility rates decline.
The systemic inequalities entrenched by capitalist production affect every facet of people’s lives, right down to their ability to eat and feed their children. In both developing and industrialised countries it is the dictates of the market, rather than peoples’ needs, that determine what type of food is produced and how it is distributed. Structural Adjustment programs force millions of poor agricultural workers to grow non-food crops such as coffee, flowers, and bio-fuel crops in developing countries – strategies which are unsustainable in the long term, but under capitalism, sustainability is not a priority. As Chris Williams argues:
Because of its inherent short-termism, its unrelenting obeisance to the profit motive, and inter-imperial conflict, capitalism, in contrast to all other modes of production, has a historically unprecedented tendency toward planetary biospheric crisis, regardless of the total number of humans living on earth.
Blaming population growth for the economic and environmental ravages of capitalist production is not just factually wrong – it also completely misses the point that there is a solution to the mad dictates of the market. This solution has nothing at all to do with population numbers, but everything to do with people – with workers and the poor across the world who bear the brunt of the madness. Because those who experience food shortages and who protest and riot against the deprivations of capitalism are not “surplus” people whose very existence needs to be fretted over and debated. In fact, as workers, students and the poor in the Arab world have made so clear in recent months, the hungry masses are the solution and, especially in the case of Egypt where the food riots of 2008 became the revolution of 2011, they are leading the world as they stand up for humanity.
Regardless of the number of people in the world or the rate of population growth, the massive level of environmental damage caused by capitalist production, in particular the threat of catastrophic weather events due to climate change, are ever-darkening clouds on the horizon.
Today all but a tiny number of people who cling to climate change denial know that human activity is contributing to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that these gases effectively act as a blanket, trapping radiation from the sun, causing the planet to warm up and creating the danger that as the earth gets hotter quickly, the likelihood of abrupt climate change and catastrophic climate events increases.
Many people who buy into the current population panic want to argue that there is a link between population growth and environmental destruction – in particular between population growth and the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere. But there is absolutely no correlation between higher population and higher carbon emissions (CO2) and it is logically impossible to blame the world’s poor or workers in developing countries for climate change. As George Monbiot argues:
[T]he places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for example, Sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5 per cent of the world’s population growth and just 2.4 per cent of the growth in CO2. North America turned out 4 per cent of the extra people, but 14 per cent of the extra emissions. Sixty-three per cent of the world’s population growth happened in places with very low emissions.
Even this does not capture it…around one sixth of the world’s population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning Rs30,000 or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.
Monbiot and others argue that it is the excessive consumption of the rich that is to blame for climate change – “It’s no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it’s about the only environmental issue for which they can’t be blamed” and “there is a strong correlation between global warming and wealth”. At their best, these arguments about the disgusting consumption of the rich sharply delineate the class divide and highlight the hypocrisy of wealthy white men like Dick Smith and Bill Gates who exploit humanity, then form elite clubs to bemoan population growth and fund think tanks to argue for funding programs to limit growth in the third world. As Richard Seymour writes:
What is driving “climate change” is a particular kind of economic activity, not population growth. Lifestyles are important too. Those sported by the richest tend to exploit and run down our environmental life support systems the hardest. The carbon footprint of a multi-billionaire philanthropist is certain to be dozens of times higher than that of an African labourer. To put it one way, Bill Gates will emit more CO2 jetting to conferences on population growth than a coltan miner in the DRC will in his entire lifespan. So maybe Bill and Melinda shouldn’t have any fucking kids. And, by the way, Bill needs that coltan miner, and the genocidal armies who ensure that the ore is delivered to Western corporations such as Microsoft, so he shouldn’t really get lippy about population growth.
It is certainly true that jet-setting multi-billionaires have super-sized carbon footprints, but individual consumption – even the excessive consumption of the rich – is not the cause of climate change. The rich maintain, promote and profit from capitalism, a system of environmentally unsustainable production. And it is their control of society’s productive forces – everything from machinery and materials to technology and human knowledge – and their drive to squeeze every last drop of profit from production that has created carbon-intensive industries and other environmentally destructive productive processes on a mass scale.
The notion that consumption rather than capitalist production is what causes environmental damage becomes much more problematic once it moves beyond disgust at the gross excesses of the rich. Blaming “affluence” for climate change often means blaming whole sections of the world’s population without making any clear class distinction. On these terms, it becomes not just the rich but also workers in industrialised countries like Australia, where living standards are higher than those in the developing world, who are perceived as being complicit in the cycle of excessive consumption.
In a debate in Overland in 2010, UNSW academic Mark Diesendorf argued that Paul Ehrlich’s “theories” about population could be usefully applied today because they
showed that environmental impact is equal to the product of population, consumption per person (sometimes called “affluence”) and the “dirtiness” of technology. Each factor is potentially equally important, in the sense that if we double any one of them, we double the impact. If we double all three, we get eight times the impact.
Diesendorf, referring to the fact that Australia is one of the worst carbon emitters, argues for severe cuts to immigration here because, “An additional person in Australia makes on average a bigger contribution to greenhouse gas emissions than an additional person almost anywhere else in the world”.
But as Andrew Bartlett, who stood as a Greens candidate in the last federal election points out:
To argue about how many people Australia can “fit in” while ignoring the rest of the world risks asserting that people living in Australia have a right to a far greater share of the world resources than those living anywhere else…[and we] cannot demand that people in poorer countries must stay poor, solely to make it easier for the world to reduce greenhouse emissions.
The argument that immigration “intensifies global as well as local environmental degradation” is not unique to Australia – concerns that more people might actually achieve better living standards and join the “carbon bonfire” can be heard in most industrialised countries around the world – and this is not solely the line of the most rabidly right wing commentators. In recent years in Australia, a number of prominent public figures have called for cuts to immigration to reduce carbon emissions. In 2008, Ross Gittins wrote:
It’s obvious that one of the quickest and easiest ways to reduce the growth in our emissions – and make our efforts to cut emissions more effective overall – would be to reduce immigration…because people migrate to better their economic circumstances, it’s a safe bet they’d be emitting more in prosperous Australia than they were before.
And in 2009 Tim Flannery argued:
Australia’s population has a much greater environmental impact than the growing population of a poor country. We are the heaviest carbon users in the world, about 23 tonnes per capita, so people who come to this country from anywhere on the planet will almost certainly result in an increase in carbon emissions.
Strip away these polite, reasoned arguments made by respectable public figures and what’s left is the unvarnished racism that has always characterised Australian debates on immigration. As Andrew Bartlett points out in his debate with Diesendorf, arguing for a reduction in immigration because of some perceived limit to Australia’s “carrying capacity” only opens the gate to outright racism. Bartlett quotes Mark O’Connor, one of the authors of Overloading Australia, who is a lot less circumspect about his opinion of immigrants:
Immigrants, when they change countries, characteristically suffer a huge loss of culture, language, self-respect and simple know-how of how to operate in their own society. What compensates them for it is increased energy use, water use, land use – increased affluence in a word. Characteristically they are met at the airport by relatives with furs and rings eager to show that they haven’t sold out culturally, or if they did they sold out for a very good price.
Almost immediately though, Bartlett undermines his own argument by commenting that “O’Connor’s statement does (unwittingly) recognise that the real ‘problem’ isn’t increased population but increased affluence.” This belief in the apparent affluence and rampant, greedy consumption of all who live in first world countries is the Achilles heel of most left-leaning liberals. And no matter how high the number of immigrants they are in favour of accepting, or how fervently they argue for “just” population policies, it is a belief that holds at its core the conviction that people – not just the rich but the mass of people – bear a good portion of responsibility for the climate crisis the world may soon face.
Of course it is true that the rich countries, in particular Australia, are the worst carbon emitters – as environmentalist John Bellamy Foster notes:
Where threats to the integrity of the biosphere as we know it are concerned, it is well to remember that it is not the areas of the world that have the highest rate of population growth but the areas of the world that have the highest accumulation of capital, and where economic and ecological waste has become a way of life, that constitute the greatest danger.
But this economic and ecological waste is not caused by the average Australian worker’s unrestrained greed in consuming more of the world’s resources. It is caused by the structural wastage and inequalities of Australian capitalism where ordinary people are expected to make sacrifices, while business has access to unlimited resources. Arguing that most Australians’ consumption or so-called “affluence” (a nebulous concept that completely fails to take into account the drop in living standards experienced by millions in the wake of the global economic crisis) is increasing carbon emissions and causing global warming is really just a slicker way of arguing that the world faces the prospect of too many people indulging in the combustible “carbon bonfire”. Of course the next questions then are: who determines how many people have access to this supposed orgy of consumption, and how many people are left out in the cold?
Conceding to the idea that consumption and “affluence” in countries like Australia is a key cause of high carbon emissions and a key driver of climate change necessarily puts a cap on the number of people who could or should live in this country. It is striking that nearly all those who have participated in the recent population debate in Australia and who have called for a reduction in the number of immigrants as a strategy to “deal with” population growth have also simultaneously called for an increase in the number of refugees Australia accepts. Climate change and (often new-found) concerns about the environment have become much more respectable grounds for opposing immigration than the blatant anti-Asian or anti-Arab racism that has been the more traditional clarion call of right wing bigots; and demanding slight increases to the minuscule number of refugees that Australia accepts bolsters arguments to cut migration.
Right wing Labor MP Kelvin Thomson, who in 2009 called for migration to be slashed by more than half, also stated that Australia should increase its refugee program “from 13,750 to 20,000 a year, including a new category, climate refugees”. Diesendorf also called for more refugees in his Overland piece, arguing that:
The reality is that our refugee and humanitarian intake is only about 4 per cent of immigration and the boat people make up a tiny fraction of it. So there is no necessary contradiction between making a home for refugees on non-discriminatory grounds and limiting our population.
Bob Brown and the Australian Greens also call for Australia to accept more refugees, and Bartlett, a long-time advocate for refugee rights, of course supports more places for refugees – but points out that “Some who argue for drastically cutting Australia’s migration intake seek to maintain their progressive credentials by also demanding big increases in the number of refugees accepted.” Bob Brown has sunk so low that it’s debatable whether he has any progressive credentials left, but he clearly feels that his pro-refugee position gives him some cover – he felt comfortable enough during pre-budget commentary this year to refer to skilled migrants as “queue jumpers”. Criticising a boost to the skilled migration program, while simultaneously criticising the government’s “Malaysian solution”, Brown said: “We know more than 90 per cent of them turn out to be [refugees] and we should be integrating them into an Australian economy where we are going to see, I think in the budget tomorrow night potentially, queue jumpers being brought in, at the interest of the mining corporations.”
Brown’s outrageous assertion that mining companies are helping “queue jumpers” to leapfrog into the country and nick Aussie jobs taps right into traditional fears about migrants that have long fuelled racism in this country and reinforces the idea that we face a scarcity of resources and jobs. He also reinforces the spurious idea that these resources and jobs are somehow further threatened by Australia’s migration program.
In essence, the call for lower overall immigration to preserve our environment, and a few more refugees to preserve anti-racist credentials is a slick new face of racism in Australia. Kelvin Thomson, one of the few to put a figure on the actual numbers they’re prepared to accept, demonstrates just how paltry the anti-racist gloss is when he called for just over 6,000 more refugees to be granted entry, with some categorised as being accepted due to climate change, and almost 100,000 migrants to be rejected. With some UN projections predicting that by 2050 there may be up to 150 million environmental refugees in the world due to catastrophic climate change, the minuscule number of people that Thomson begrudgingly deems acceptable is clearly a drop in the ocean.
While calls for more refugees should always be welcomed and are a reflection of how the sentiment about refugee rights in Australia has shifted in the last decade, demands for fewer immigrants and a few more refugees by those apparently concerned about population growth in Australia have opened a new vein for the long-established racism that flows unchecked at the heart of Australian politics.
In 2010 Gillard spoke explicitly about Australia’s need for the “right kind of migrants”. She was referring to her own Welsh parents and deliberately harking back to the White Australia immigration policy of the past. Gillard’s speech, a dog whistle to racists in a climate of fraught debate about immigration, deliberately echoed John Howard’s signature comment, “We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.”
A 2003 Pentagon report spelled out explicitly what sort of response to refugees and migrants wealthy countries like Australia might want to pursue later this century if climate change progresses unchecked. This report argued that wealthy countries like Australia should pursue “no regrets” strategies to ensure national security:
The United States and Australia are likely to build defensive fortresses around their countries…wealth, technology, and abundant resources, [means] the United States could likely survive shortened growing cycles and harsh weather conditions without catastrophic losses. Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.
So this is the future that the ruling class in Australia and around the world is planning for and is prepared to accept – as the debates on the carbon tax and on carbon trading schemes (or more accurately pollution trading schemes) demonstrate, the capitalist class – those who make their profits from the big polluters – are incapable of taking any decisive action to halt damage caused by climate change. The fallback then is closed borders, hoarding of resources and the condemnation of millions of people around the world to suffering and paying for the effects of climate catastrophes. A crucial element of this fallback plan is anti-immigration racism, and so the recent calls to lower immigration in Australia – with a sweetener promise of more places for refugees and a fair go for the environment – may seem somewhat more benign than the rabid Howard era, but they are actually a continuation of the racist strategy that the Australian capitalist class has pursued in a variety of forms since British invasion. An amorphous “crisis population” of potential immigrants and refugees from whatever corner of the world our government deems unacceptable has now joined Aboriginal people, Asians and Muslims in the pool of possible recipients for the racist bile that will spew forth from the mouths of our leaders in the future. Rejecting that racism, no matter how carefully it is clothed in green, will be the task of the left.
The debate that opened up in Australia in late 2009 and continued through to the 2010 federal election about what kind of population this country could sustain in the future generated fierce arguments about Australia’s so-called “carrying capacity”, and how many people could be reasonably sustained in a world that will continue to be affected by climate change. Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Bob Brown have all actively promoted their consensus that Australia is hurtling towards a future of dangerously unrestrained population growth. And this idea has been challenged not from the left, but by business leaders, particularly in the property and mining sectors, who have argued that limiting immigration will damage the Australian economy and the resulting labour and skills shortage would contribute to rising higher interest rates and higher wages.
The sustained effect of the population panic generated and fuelled by our leaders and by some sections of the environment movement has been to establish as “fact” the idea that Australia and the world are facing critical levels of overpopulation, with the possibility of scarcer resources as a future result. Concessions by liberals to the idea that the world cannot sustain a growing population and that it is human beings’ consumption of resources, particularly in the more “affluent”, high carbon emitter countries like Australia, that is causing environmental destruction and climate change, have helped to shift the blame from the real economic and environmental bandits – the capitalist class who profit from an unplanned, unsustainable system of production – to workers and the world’s poor.
Human beings face two possible futures. In one, the world lurches further down the trail of destruction, and the rich and powerful win the argument that the mass of people are surplus, pollution or even a cancer on the earth. This is the future imagined by the Pentagon, a world of tens of millions of climate change refugees, of starvation and deprivation in most countries and an abundance of resources in a brutally guarded few.
There is, of course, another possibility. Late last year, we received our first glimpse of a different future. A young Tunisian worker broken by subsistence living set himself alight in protest and defeat. No doubt he was one of the “surplus” in an “overpopulated” planet for those who think of human beings in such ways, but his act sparked a conflagration of revolution that burned and is still alight through Tunisia, Egypt and the Arab world. For the first time in a long time masses of workers, students and the poor – who pose such a dilemma for those “concerned” about overpopulation – have shown us a real alternative to our leaders’ anti-humanist strategies and the Pentagon’s nightmare vision. The masses have shown through their struggle that, far from being “surplus”, they are the essential antidote to the ruling class’s system of economic and environmental crises and closed borders. Millions are answering the question of what their place is in this world – opening up the hope that the planet can be theirs to live in and flourish. All they have to do is take it back.
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