Continued population growth raises serious questions about access to food, water, energy and land and the related issues of climate change with the projected impacts and loss of habitat, species and biodiversity. The issue is certainly one that socialists cannot ignore and one we do not shy away from. Mankind has not exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet despites claims to the contrary but what has been exposed are the fundamental flaws in a system not designed to feed and provide for all the people. The competitive essence of capitalism, forever seeking short-term gain, counters the wisdom of an ecological perspective.
According to some environmentalists, overpopulation poses the major threat of irreversibly undermining nature's capacity to provide food for mankind in the future. Technological progress may well have pushed back the Malthusian limits but, goes the argument, the evironmental consequences of population increases are such that those limits threaten to close in again like a noose around mankind's neck. This rather sophisticated form, Malthusian ideas have acquired a certain plausibility. It has misled many progressives and liberals to inadvertntly side with right-wing racist promoters of eugenics.
Certainly the evidence suggests that women want—and have always wanted—is not more children but a smaller number of children they can reliably raise to healthy adulthood. Women left to their own devices, contraceptive or otherwise, would collectively “control” population while acting on their own intentions. Better family planning services, easier access to contraception and abortion, more sexual equality and increased female education all play an important role in reducing birth rates. Socialism would help every woman bear a child in good health when she wants one. There is no question of some sort of central authority controlling family size. Our case is that socialism is the best framework for liberating women and managing population levels. It is by eliminating poverty we achieve a stable world population. Needless to say, there are many wrinkles and complexities in the population, resources and environment issue but it is all too clear that the prevailing economic system of capitalist competition is quite incapable of seriously taking into account the long-term considerations with which ecology is vitally concerned. Only where the system's immediate objective of profit maximisation is threatened does it become expedient to act upon such considerations.
The severity of soil erosion and its implications for future agricultural production worldwide was known by Marx.
“Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing pre-ponderance of town population on the one hand, concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer.”(Capital, Vol 1)
Marx further commented in Capital on the destructive impact of profit-motivated agriculture on the environment:
“Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combination together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the labourer.”
Competition and the application of the profit motive have been disastrous to the land. Throughout the world, land is not used to produce the crop best adapted to it on a permanent basis but to produce as much cash as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as quickly as possible - the same system exalted by the industrial manufacturer. Almost everywhere, the land is being impoverished; its fertility washed down the world's rivers, borne away by wind because of excessive erosion associated mainly with agriculture and the associated deforestation.
In socialist society, free of the constraints of the marketplace, it would of course be entirely feasible to allocate resources in such a way as to ensure their most productive use. Underpinning this freedom would be the unity of common purpose, a unity forged in the basic structure of a society in which all had free and equal access to the wealth that society produced. Socialism will be society freed from the profit motive and competitive pressures. Socialism will be able to adopt agricultural methods which achieve a working compromise with nature (for all agriculture unavoidably upsets the pre-existing ecosystem to a greater or lesser extent) respecting the long-term considerations which ecological science teaches are vitally important. There is bound to be a degree of tension between the needs of agriculture and the maintenance of environmental integrity. Agriculture has had a destabilising impact on the environment by reducing its complexity and hence its capacity to adapt to ecological disturbances. Inasmuch as food is an absolute necessity for mankind there can be no question as to which of these ought to take priority over the other. What can be challenged, however, is the foolish belief that the production of food can take place without regard to the environmental consequences of this for ultimately the harmonisation of agriculture with nature, the achievement of a workable compromise between them, is vital to the maintenance of a productive and lasting agriculture itself. Even without any increase in the global use of chemical fertilisers, food production could be significantly expanded were such a resource to be more rationally distributed.
Engels addressed the question of man's relationship with our environment:
“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquests over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivatable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of those countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture...
...Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature - but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.” (The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man" Dialectics of Nature)