Why Capitalism, Not Population Is Our Greatest Environmental Threat
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 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.
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.”
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.
(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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).