Many environmentalists who comment on the future of mankind often stress the problems of rapid population growth. It has become a cliché in Britain to speak of “this overcrowded island”. In fact, the UK is far from being among the world’s more-populated regions. The overpopulation myth threatens to overtake the human nature myth as the chief explanation for the evils of the modern world. We have had gloomy book after book upon the prospects of a starving world as a consequence of the rising population numbers. The argument can be stated fairly simply; there are too many people on the planet and they are increasing too fast, enough is not provided by nature for them all, therefore, poverty, vices, misery and the splitting of society into haves and have-nots leading to violence and wars are inevitable. In most of the books, the basic ideas of 18th C Thomas Malthus remain unchanged. People starve because they breed too rapidly. People will stop starving when they stop breeding. It is not because the world’s wealth is owned and used by a small minority to increase this wealth still further rather than reorganise the resources in the interest of the world’s population. It may appear that for some in the ecology movement, they are not concerned with explaining poverty and misery, they are concerned with justifying it. They see scarcity as something natural and eternal. The trouble with over-populationists is that they take the social system as something given and unalterable.
But the point they seem to miss is that surplus population is not something natural and absolute. It is at all times relative to production, distribution and social organisation. There are definite socio-economic reasons why there was a “surplus” population in the Rhondda in 1931 and in Delhi in 1961. They were only relatively surplus and superfluous because they have been made so by the way the world’s population is organised (or disorganised) in relation to the means of production and world markets. Workers do not suffer the pangs of hunger and destitution because there are too many of them but because they cannot gain access to the things which would enable them to produce what they need. Poverty is not the result of overpopulation, on the contrary, overpopulation is the result of poverty. This is true in two senses:
(i) poverty in the sense of propertylessness which afflicts all workers generally and which can lead to relative overpopulation when this propertylessness leads to workers being cut off from the means of production during periods of unemployment and;
(ii) poverty in the sense of destitution which can lead to apathy over questions of family limitation, which, in turn, can lead to an increasing birth-rate.
The Greens readiness to accept the “overpopulation” argument arises from their lack of understanding of the way capitalism works. If millions are hungry, it is felt that this can only be because there isn’t enough food in the world. If millions live in overcrowded squalor, this must be because there is a shortage of living space. If people are homeless, there is a “housing shortage” and that is that. Overcrowding is not due to overpopulation, but exists principally because of the private property system which ensures that the majority of people, being poor, cannot afford to buy or rent sufficient accommodation, of sufficient quality, for their own health, privacy and peace of mind. It hardly needs pointing out that for the rich minority, there is no housing shortage and no problem of overcrowding.
It is a total evasion of these problems to put them down to “too many people.” In fact, the readiness to “solve” human problems by wishing away the human beings who are suffering from them, is itself a horrible symptom of something profoundly wrong.
It is true that the human population affects the natural environment but the vast majority of pollution, from pesticides, herbicides, industrial waste and so forth, is quite unnecessary, and could easily be avoided upon the abolition of capitalism with its reckless race for profits. If large parts of our country are polluted, it is not because we are too numerous, but because we pollute. The way to stop that is not to stop having children, but to start cleaning up.
The Socialist Party case against the population scare is that what manifests itself as an “overpopulation problem” is really a misuse of resources problem. Capitalism, as a system of rationing via the market, is justified in people’s minds by a belief in scarcity. We hear some in the environmentalist movement tell us, “There isn’t enough to go round, so we must be restricted in what we are allowed to consume”. “Overpopulation” is used to make those of us who possess a few elementary comforts feel that we are on the brink of a vast pit of scarcity, and we ought to be thankful for what we have. Yet if we examine the potential for satisfying human needs which have been released by modern technology, we see that the opposite is the case. In order to survive, the capitalist system must continue to develop its potential for plenty, even plethora, but in order to preserve the poverty and scarcity which are its life-blood, capitalism must restrict, waste and destroy on a colossal scale.
The Socialist Party is not opposed to birth control. On the contrary, we say that everyone should have free access to effective contraceptives. What we do say is that talk of overpopulation misdirects attention from the real cause of the problems in question, and that birth control will not solve them.