comments_image Comments

Why Capitalism, Not Population Is Our Greatest Environmental Threat

The greatest threat to our planet is capitalism and more specifically the globalization of capitalism as the singular economic model embraced by all nations.

Photo Credit: Andrey N Bannov/ Shutterstock.com


I have long detested the work of Paul and Anne Ehrlich. I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin when I was first introduced to the Ehrlichs’ infamous book,  The Population Bomb, which was first published in 1968 and reprinted countless times before being “updated” and reissued in 2009 as  The Population Bomb Revisited. It always struck me that the topic became a mini-industry and the authors made a pretty profit from pandering to the crowd that invests so much in the sentiment: “Oh my! There are way too many little brown people on the planet. What are we to do?”

The  Bomb was required reading in a demography and population class I took as a sophomore in 1974. There are passages in this book that made me cringe then and continue to remind me that much of what is written by the privileged Stanford scientists displays a complete lack of understanding of colonial history, capitalism, patriarchal domination, and the political ecology of environmental degradation. It seems to me that the Ehrlichs do not much like humanity, or at least not brown people. In one of the more oft-cited passages they display a discernible contempt for humanity that is probably derived from an inability to situate events in historical and political context and to respect or at least perceive cultural differences for what they are, i.e., examples of human variability to adaptation:

The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people…As we moved slowly through the mob, the dust, noise, heat and cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel…? Since that night I have known the feel of overpopulation.

Excuse me? What else would people do if not eat, wash, sleep, visit, argue, and scream? I suspect they were also singing, dancing, praying, whistling, smiling, hugging and kissing, helping one other, and so on; but none of that makes it into this description of the hellish street scene in Delhi. This is what people do as they go about the business of living. It always struck me that the Ehrlichs must have come from or lived in a mostly white suburb devoid of street life. Turns out this was precisely the case. To such persons the rousing daily street life of India or Mexico might just seem more than a tat overpowering, crowded, and noisy. But that is a problem born of the authors’ subjective biases rather than the result of the scientists’ objective insights. Putting aside the inanity of this style of writing and obvious grammatical and rhetorical smugness, Erhlichs’  Population Bomb was a total bomb. It may have sold enough copies to make the authors wealthy but from a strictly social scientific standpoint, the predictions they made were wildly off the mark. Hunger  has increased, and recent estimates we have reported on peg the number of hungry people on the planet at close to 1 billion. But this is not the result of the operation of some simple Malthusian equation in which population outpaces food production. Famines, where and when they have occurred, have basically been a result of the uses of food as political weaponry and the operation of wild speculation in the derivatives markets [e.g., see the blog entry of  October 7, 2011]. Despite the fact that we are producing more food than ever before, hunger and malnutrition are still growing. This is a function of a complicated set of forces that pivot around the persistence of structural violence. Hunger exists because colonialism and capitalism, including the long-heralded Green Revolution, undermined largely self-reliant and sustainable local food systems across the planet, replacing these with export-oriented cash and luxury crops destined for consumption by people in the late imperial centers of the so-called developed world. The fact that we dedicate so much of our grain production to animal feed or biofuels is another factor that is contributing to a hungry planet. Cutting back on the consumption of grain-fed beef and pork would go a long way toward resolving the problem of hunger but nothing would work better than a return to indigenous agroecosystems and heritage cuisines.   We need to eat simply so that others may simply eat.
Malthus, Again? The Global Population Speak Out (GPSO) is a campaign led by scientists who hail principally from the U.S. and other Western nations who seek to place the population issue at the center of policy discussions related to the multiple threats to the Earth’s ecosystems and indeed the future survival of life on the planet. 
They are not entirely correct in pointing out that: “Media coverage of the problem is sorely lacking.” Coverage of global climate change, the ozone hole, massive extinctions and threats to biodiversity appear to be a major source of headlines in all media all the time. It has even reached an over-saturation point that turns many of our potential allies off, especially since the ecological doomsayers too often resort to unproven or even embarrassing hyperbolic claims that allow misinformed skeptics to continue challenging the basic scientific truths about climate change, biodiversity extinctions, and the collapse of more resilient human-ecological couplings.In 2008, I received an email from the GPSO inviting other “authoritative” scientific voices to join their call. This campaign is highly problematic and is basically a rehashing of the same arguments that the neo-Malthusians like the Ehrlichs have been making since the 1960s. First, a summary of key aspects of the GPSO campaign. The authors of the letter are correct to argue that our global ecological plight continues to worsen. The letter cites a recent World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Living Planet Report suggesting that in “a moderate business-as-usual scenario…exhaustion of ecological assets and large-scale ecosystem collapse become increasingly likely.”  I especially take exception to the next part of their argument: “Particularly underreported is the fundamental link between the size and growth of the human population and environmental degradation. It is no comfort that the rate of global population growth has slowed in recent years...” The GPSO website and project emphasizes the idea that the greatest threat to our planet is overpopulation. I disagree and insist that the greatest threat to our planet is capitalism and more specifically the globalization of capitalism as the singular economic model embraced by all nations including India and China. Why am I reframing the threat as capitalism instead of overpopulation? I have many reasons but present five here to provoke further reflection and discussion. (1) History of Overpopulation Discourse. I wish to start with a brief history of the overpopulation discourse and present an interesting historical example to illustrate the problematic nature of the reductionist claims made by GPSO. The overpopulation thesis was really first put on the discursive map by Thomas Malthus, an English philosopher, mathematician, and heir of a prosperous family from Surrey. He published the first edition of “An Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798.  What became the Malthusian thesis is simple if inelegant: While population growth expands geometrically, our food supply expands arithmetically. Thus, population growth overtakes the growth of our food supply resulting in mass famine and starvation. A corollary of his argument was that the growth of population was also the principal cause of poverty. Paul and Anne Ehrlich in  The Population Bomb were proponents of this view. The Ehrlichs’ basic argument was that the principal cause of environmental degradation is overpopulation. It appears that this argument is still embraced by the majority of Western natural scientists as is evident not just from a review of the signature list endorsing the GPSO letter but from any review of the scientific literature on population and the environment. Indeed, at the University of Washington our own celebrated Program on the Environment (PoE) often includes syllabi and lectures that uncritically emphasize the orthodoxy of overpopulation as the key factor underlying ecological degradation and the crises of species extinctions and climate change.

The vital issue of consumption the Ehrlichs ignored in the 1968 book is indeed taken up in the GPSO letter, which acknowledges that consumption is also part of the problem. The inclusion of the issue of consumption may have largely been a result of decades of solid criticism by anthropologists and Marxist scholars studying consumption.  It is becoming clear that the “population” problem is largely a “consumption” problem. One of the most significant events in this recasting was the realization in the early 1980s that the average American consumed as many natural resources as 1000 average inhabitants of India. It was also realized that the average American produced as much waste (including the all important carbon footprint) as 2500 Indians! Americans were consuming much more and they were also producing more waste. Of course, today the situation is a bit different with the growth of industrial capitalism in India and China and yet, even today, the ratios are still approximately 1:300 (US compared to India) and 1:500 compared to China.

(2) Learning from the Past: Lessons of Tenochtitlan. I want to turn to history for another important nuance in the population versus consumption problematic. I have often lectured on the state of the environment in 1519-21 by comparing London, Madrid, and the Colhua Mexica (a.k.a. Aztec) twin-city capital of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. What does this comparison reveal?   In 1519, London and Madrid (two of the largest population centers in Europe at the time), had a population of around 90,000 people. The populations there were just recovering from the effects of the “Black Plague.” The Mexica island twin-cities, and the surrounding landside settlements around Lakes Texcoco-Xochimilco-Chalco had over one million inhabitants.  The forests around London and Madrid had been cut clear in areas as far as 100 km from the city centers. The forests surrounding the Mexica capital were intact; indeed, they were protected areas because of their role as sources of the water supply for the island twin-cities. London and Madrid had raw sewage spewing death and infection from freely flowing and untreated fecal material in the streets and alleyways. This was a persistent health hazard and would remain so for some time since sanitary systems would not be developed for another 150 years in the case of London and 200+ years in the case of Madrid. The Roman Empire innovations in public sanitation – which were largely borrowed from Arabic civilizations – had been sadly forgotten.
Second, capitalism undermines the autonomy and self-reliance of numerous communities and this often includes the imposition of a patriarchal divisions of labor in which men produce and women reproduce; the removal of women from the sphere of production meant in part that they were no longer able to effectively limit their fertility. In contrast, the Mexica had the world’s most efficient and effective sewage recycling system comprised of public bathrooms and several thousand canoes that collected human waste and recycled it as a fertilizer for the famous floating gardens ( xinampas) of Lakes Chalco and Xochimilco. In this manner, water quality was protected and water-borne illnesses were rare.

In 1519, the average resident of London and Madrid lived to the ripe old age of about 34. The average Tenocha in the Mexica capital city lived to the age of 43. So, the Mexica were healthier compared to the Europeans as judged by longevity and morbidity. The average residents of London and Madrid had severely restricted diets comprised primarily of a few grains (rye, barley, and sometimes wheat). The average Tenocha consumed protein rich grains like Amaranth and also enjoyed the corn-bean-squash sacred trinity and access to fish, deer, other mammals, and numerous reptiles, insects, and wild edible and medicinal plants. Indeed, the Mexica ethnopharmacopia included more than 1000 medicinal plants at the time of the Spanish conquest.

While the Mexica urban area had 10 times the population of London and Madrid, the environment was intact, prospering under careful management, and the citizens were also healthier and leading longer lives. Biodiversity was intact in Mexica bioregion while it was devastated in the European capitals. This evidence suggests that there is no simple population = environmental degradation correlation.  It is not the number of people but what and how they are consuming and how they go about inhabiting a place that are more important.

(3) Capitalism and Environmental Change. A third reason for finding the GPSO letter problematic is that it completely ignores capitalism as the source of environmental degradation. Several points need to be made here: First, capitalism requires an unlimited supply of “cheap” labor and this means that policies favoring high birth rates were (and still are) the norm wherever the capitalist system has taken root.  Third is the problem of the “second contradiction” of capitalism: To exist, capitalism cannot accept limits to growth; capital must constantly expand its production and hence consumption; it must break down barriers to expand markets and access to natural resources for raw materials and exploitable sources of labor. Since capitalism is inherently expansionist it eventually and inevitably must degrade the environment. This is the  second contradiction: Because of its expansionist quality, capitalism inevitably destroys the natural conditions of production (land, water, other resources, and labor). 

Now, most scientists and environmentalists have argued that this is the case with capitalism but also with all other forms of industrial economic organization including socialism and communism. The problem is not capitalism as such but industrialism (deep ecologists are principal proponents of this view). This is a flawed argument since industrialism predates capitalism and yet plenty of cases exist where industrial organization did not bankrupt or degrade nature on a massive scale.  Also, we are yet to see a country or society organize the economy on the basis of socialism or communism (understood essentially as the abolition of waged-labor, the reduction of labor time, and the free association of independent producers). The Soviet Union and China were not socialist and even less so communist.  The USSR was a state-capitalist formation as argued by Herbert Marcuse in the book,  Soviet Marxism, an ironic title since there was very little of Marx in the organization brought forth by the Bolsheviks. We should recall that Lenin not only destroyed the “factory soviets,” the workers’ factory councils that were supposed to democratically manage the factories, he also adopted the American system of “scientific management” or Taylorism to catch up and surpass the U.S. and its economic might. In the former USSR, workers were still treated as commodities; products were still commodities (and had prices); this was a centralized command and control form of industrial capitalism in contrast to the anarchy of the free market form of Western capitalism, although even in this second case, for e.g., during the Great Depression, the state had to take control and command the planning process to save capitalism from the capitalists!  Such a form of state capitalist intervention is happening again with the $700+ billion bailout of too big to fail banks and represents the “socialization” of the risks of private investment decisions. The U.S. is in this sense “socialist” whenever crisis requires it. None of this is communism and we have never seen a communist society take root yet.  (4) The Effects of Colonialism and Imperialism. Another issue is that prior to the rise of industrial capitalism and in many places the domination and transformation that accompanied colonialism and imperialism, most so-called third-world countries had steady-state populations. In some places this was a consequence of the high rates of mortality that balanced high fertility rates. However, a more profound, and much less recognized, reason for the low population growth rates was that women were able to use natural methods to control their own fertility rates. Throughout pre-colonial Africa, the Americas, and Asia, women used natural herbs to prevent pregnancy or to induce abortion. With conquest, colonialism, and the intrusion of capitalism, the traditional ethnogynecological knowledge was lost and in many places forbidden. Women healers and  parteras(midwifes) were burned at the stake as “witches” all over Europe and the Americas. 
The destruction and displacement of women from the central role they played in medical care was a fundamental aspect of the transition from steady-state populations to uncontrolled growth of populations in the West as well as in Africa, Asia, and across the Americas.Everyone should read one of the most significant books ever written about this issue: Sylvia Federici’s  Caliban and the Witch. With the persecution of the witches [sic] came compulsory Christianization and with this extreme pro-natalist ideologies and policies; by pro-natalist I mean pro-birth in the sense of ecclesiastical and state policies intended to keep as many women as possible pregnant to produce fodder for the armies of workers and soldiers needed to advance the cause of Western empires and “progress.” 
(5) The Return of Political Ecology and the Carrying Capacity of the Planet. The GPSO letter fails to address the concept of carrying capacity. What is the carrying capacity of the planet? Is it 6, 10, 15, 20 billion people, or what? The answer is complicated but to initiate a conversation on this important issue we must first recognize three qualities. First, carrying capacity  is not static; it can increase or decrease depending on many factors including the nature of our food systems and the ability for humans to engage in ecological restoration. Indeed, one reason that current population numbers  are so destructive has to do with the capitalist nature of our agricultural systems. Industrial monocultures, especially when compared to traditional agroecosystems, are incredibly destructive of ecosystems and biodiversity. If we have enough food right now to feed the entire planet why is hunger so rampant? In the USA, we have at least 25-30 million people going hungry every day. The problem is not overpopulation but maldistribution of food and the use of food as a “political weapon.” Second, the carrying capacity is constrained and influenced by our carbon footprints; if we make a transition to renewable alternative energy systems, and we must in a post-Peak Oil world, this will allow us to increase the size of the human population while at the same time restoring natural ecosystems. and reducing our environmental space. Third, carrying capacity is affected by diet; too many of us in the industrialized capitalist world eat way too much meat (beef, pork, chicken, fish, etc.). This reduces the carrying capacity of the planet, increases hunger since instead of eating grains we feed the grains to livestock while millions of human beings go hungry. We need to make a transition to a diet minimally reliant on meat consumption and entire free of meat produced in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or “factory farms.” A transition to at least partial vegetarian/vegan diets would help to eliminate world hunger and increase the carrying capacity of the Earth. Yet, not all local cultures have to go vegetarian or vegan to be sustainable.

I have other objections to the GPSO letter, which clearly fails to pass the test of historical accuracy or demonstrate the courage it takes to critically examine the capitalist nature of the environmental crisis. Capitalism is the invisible elephant inside the conservation biology and sustainable development living room. It is, in other words, the unacknowledged gorilla; the source of destruction that remains unmentionable. The invisible hand is only invisible because we refuse to acknowledge its ugliness, brutality, irrationality, and the insatiable appetites it unleashes and thrives on. In this regard, I recommend that readers and followers become familiar with the  Blue River Earth Ethic, a more radical declaration issued by a coalition of scientists, artists, and activists that integrates discussion and proposes solutions based on recognition of the problem of capitalism. When scientists are ready to stop acting and being dumb in the sphere of political economy, then I will sign the GPSO letter. When they show some intelligence and courage regarding critical social theory; when they acknowledge that the system that feeds them with multi-billions in research grants in the making of an ultimately anti-democratic “market-steered” military-scientific-industrial iron triangle; when they acknowledge the role of greed, hyper-individualism, militarism, imperialism, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, nationalism, ageism, and all the forms of division that capital exploits to keep us all under control and that are the extended tentacles and prostheses of capitalism, then I will sign the letter.  
I remain steadfast in my insistence that scientists should show a bit more of the same curiosity they demonstrate in the natural sciences when it comes to more critically examining and studying the economic systems that underlie the “business-as-usual” they complain about as the source of our ecological, cultural, and social devastation. For now, I remain steady in accusing them all of being naively ideological when it comes to (mis)understanding the global capitalist system that is commodifying all of life and destroying our lovely little blue planet in the process. I urge my readers and followers to write the GPSO and help awaken well-meaning scientists from a self-deluding harmful slumber. Now is a good time – given the current crisis of capitalism – to shake them up and get them to understand that the principal problem is not population as such but the effects of capitalism on consumption and population dynamics.  Environmental justice and the population debate For environmental justice (EJ) activists the population debate comes down to a matter of women’s empowerment and self-determination. Both ecofeminist and EJ scholars and activists long have argued that the issue of population growth is actually about reproductive rights and wrongs. Women can and do control their own reproductive life cycle when they have the power and means to do so. The keys are equitable access to education, health care, and the means of production including farmland, seed, and water. Those countries that provide women meaningful access to education and health care have lowered their birth rates while simultaneously ameliorating the poverty of deprivation. EJ analysis of population dynamics goes further than issues posed by the struggle for reproductive justice and autonomy. If we focus again on the problem of consumptive violence we can understand that indigenous populations, including displaced peoples of the Mesoamerican Diaspora, have a lot to teach the “developed” world about sustainability and resilience. Native people consume less compared to the average hyper-individualistic, freedom of choice-driven, American [sic] glutton. 
Yet, the racist right-wingers, many of them affiliated with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), have duped a good number of well-intentioned environmentalists into believing that a “wetback invasion” is overpopulating our country. EJ activists note than immigrants actually provide a sound model for an alternative lifestyle that reduces consumption while increasing the ethic of self-reliance and promoting opportunities for people to develop a stronger and more resilient sense of community – all factors that appear to improve the health of the planet and the population.This is also true of undocumented and legal immigrants: Studies show that despite being cash poor, immigrants are healthier than many U.S.-born citizens. The so-called “Latino health paradox” is largely a result of three factors: Immigrants eat better (they avoid fast foods); are more physically active (they are not couch potatoes); and rely on social networks and cooperation to create a healthier sense of belonging and community (they enjoy the benefits of sociability and conviviality). The EJ movement has thus aligned itself with the reproductive justice movement. Together these represent a powerful force seeking to address population growth dynamics by rejecting the coercive numerical control policies of the top-down managerial advocates and embracing a more profoundly grounded bottom-up process moving us toward the qualitative transformation of the conditions under which women and communities control their own biological and social reproduction.  

See more stories tagged with: