E.6 What is the population myth?

The idea that population growth is the key cause of ecological problems is extremely commonplace. Even radical green groups like Earth First! promoted it. It is, however, a gross distortion of the truth. Capitalism is the main cause of both overpopulation and the ecological crisis.

Firstly, we should point out that all the "doomsday" prophets of the "population bomb" have been proved wrong time and time again. The dire predictions of Thomas Malthus, the originator of the population myth, have not come true, yet neo-Malthusians continue to mouth his reactionary ideas. In fact Malthus invented his "law of population" in response to the anarchist William Godwin, as an attempt to "prove" that social stratification, and so the status quo, was a "law of nature" and that poverty was the fault of the poor themselves, not the fault of an unjust and authoritarian socio-economic system (in contrast, and in direct contradiction to his population "theory," as an economist Malthus was worried about the danger of over-production within a capitalist economy. No mention of "excess" population then, which indicates well the ideological nature of his over-population theory). The utility of the population myth as a justification for the inhuman miseries inflicted upon the British people by "its" ruling class of aristocrats and industrialists was the only reason why it was given the time of day. Similarly today, its utility to the ruling class ensures that it keeps surfacing every so often, until forced to disappear again once the actual facts of the case are raised. That the population myth, like "genetic" justifications for race-, class- and gender-based oppression, keeps appearing over and over again, even after extensive evidence has disproved it, indicates its usefulness to the ideological guardians of the establishment.

Neo-Malthusianism basically blames the victims of capitalism for their victimisation, criticising ordinary people for "breeding" or living too long, thus ignoring (at best) or justifying (usually) privilege -- the social root of hunger. To put it simply, the hungry are hungry because they are excluded from the land or cannot earn enough to survive. In Latin America, for example, 11% of the population was landless in 1961, by 1975 it was 40%. Approximately 80% of all Third World agricultural land is owned by 3% of landowners.

Increased population is not the cause of landlessness, it is the result of it. If a traditional culture, its values, and its sense of identity are destroyed, population growth rates increase dramatically. As in 17th- and 18th-century Britain, peasants in the Third World are kicked off their land by the local ruling elite, who then use the land to produce cash crops for export while their fellow country people starve. Like Ireland during the Potato Famine, the Third World nations most affected by famine have also been exporters of food to the advanced nations. Malthusianism is handy for the wealthy, giving them a "scientific" excuse for the misery they cause so they can enjoy their blood-money without remorse.

In a country that is being introduced to the joys of capitalism by state intervention (the usual means by which traditional cultures and habits are destroyed to create a "natural system of liberty"), population soon explodes as a result of the poor social and economic conditions in which people find themselves. In the inner-city ghettos of the First World, social and economic conditions similar to those of the Third World give rise to similarly elevated birth rates. When ghetto populations are composed mostly of minorities, as in countries like the US, higher birth rates among the minority poor provides a convenient extra excuse for racism, "proving" that the affected minorities are "inferior" because they "lack self-control," are "mere animals obsessed with procreation," etc. (an argument which ignores the fact that slum dwellers in e.g. Britain during the Industrial Revolution virtually all white but still had high birth rates).

Population growth, far from being the cause of poverty, is in fact a result of it. There is an inverse relationship between per capita income and the fertility rate -- as poverty decreases, so do the population rates. When people are ground into the dirt by poverty, education falls, women's rights decrease, and contraception is less available. Having children then becomes virtually the only creative outlet, with people resting their hopes for a better future in their offspring. Therefore social conditions have a major impact on population growth. In countries with higher economic and cultural levels, population growth soon starts to fall off. Today, for example, much of Europe has seen birth rates fall beyond the national replacement rate. This is the case even in Catholic countries, which one would imagine would have religious factors encouraging large families.

To be clear, we are not saying that overpopulation is not a very serious problem. Obviously, population growth cannot be ignored or solutions put off until capitalism is eliminated. We need to immediately provide better education and access to contraceptives across the planet as well as raising cultural levels and increasing women's rights in order to combat overpopulation, which only benefits the elite by keeping the cost of labour low in addition to fighting for land reform, union organising and so on. However, the "population explosion" is not a neutral theory, and its invention and continual use is due to its utility to vested interests. We should not be fooled by them into thinking that overpopulation is the main cause of the ecological crisis, as this is a strategy for distracting people from the root-cause of both ecological destruction and population growth: namely, the capitalist economy and hierarchical social relationships it requires.

Some Greens argue that it is impossible for everyone to have a high standard of living, as this would deplete resources. However, their use of statistics hides a sleight of hand which invalidates their argument. Firstly, the argument assumes that society and technology are static and that the circumstances that produced historic growth and consumption rates will remain unchanged. This is obviously false, since humanity is not static. In addition, for all their concern about "average" consumption in the West, they fail to ask how many tanks and fighter aircraft the "average" person "consumes" in a year or how many Rolls Royces or mansions they have.

The advocates of the "population myth," as well as getting the problem wrong, also (usually) suggest very authoritarian "solutions" -- for example, urging an increase in state power, with a "Bureau of Population Control" to "police" society and ensure that the state enters the bedroom and our most personal relationships. Luckily for humanity and individual freedom, since they misconceive the problem, such "Big Brother" solutions are not required.

It is probably true that a "Western" living standard is not possible for the population of the world at its present level. A recent study posited that for the rest of the world to enjoy the standard of living the First World does, it would require the resources of two additional Earths! This "standard of living" is a product of an alienated society in which consumption for the sake of consumption is the new god. In a grow-or-die economy, production and consumption must keep increasing to prevent economic collapse. This need for growth leads to massive advertising campaigns to indoctrinate people with the capitalist theology that more and more must be consumed to find "happiness" (salvation), producing consumerist attitudes that feed into an already-present tendency to consume in order to compensate for doing boring, pointless work in a hierarchical workplace. Unless a transformation of values occurs that recognises the importance of living as opposed to consuming, the ecological crisis will get worse. It's impossible to imagine such a radical transformation occurring under capitalism, whose lifeblood is consumption for the sake of consumption.

It is often claimed that "industrialism" rather than "capitalism" is the real cause of overpopulation -- as if there could be a capitalism that does not lead to industrialism or depend on a large industrial base. Of course it cannot be denied that developments like better health care, nutrition, and longer life spans contribute to overpopulation and are made possible by "industry." But to see such developments as primary causes of population growth is to ignore the central role played by poverty, the disruption of cultural patterns, and the need for cheap labour due to capitalism. There are always elevated birth rates associated with poverty, whether or not medical science improves significantly, e.g. during the early days of capitalism. "Industrialism" is in fact a term often used by liberal Greens who don't want to admit that the ecological crisis cannot be solved without the complete overthrow of capitalism, pretending instead that the system can become "green" through various band-aid reforms. (As shown in D.4 and in the next section, this is not possible.) "Controlling population growth" is always a key item on such liberals' agendas, taking the place of "eliminating capitalism," which should be the centrepiece.

As Murray Bookchin argues, "If we live in a 'grow-or-die' capitalistic society in which accumulation is literally a law of economic survival and competition is the motor of 'progress,' anything we have to say about population causing the ecological crisis is basically meaningless. Under such a society the biosphere will eventually be destroyed whether five billion or fifty million people live on the planet" ["The Population Myth" in Which Way for the Ecology Movement?, p. 34]. A sane society would not be driven by growth for the sake of growth and would aim to reduce production by reducing the average working week to ensure both an acceptable standard of living plus time to enjoy it.

By focusing attention away from the root causes of ecological and social disruption -- i.e. capitalism and hierarchy -- and onto the victims, the advocates of the "population myth" do a great favour to the system that creates mindless growth. Hence the population myth will obviously find favour with ruling elites, and this -- as opposed to any basis for the myth in scientific fact -- will ensure its continual re-appearance in the media and education.