Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s book ‘Too Many People?’ provides a great service to the workers’ movement by systematically demolishing a key argument of the Right.
Since the 18th century, capitalism and its supporters have tried to ‘blame the victim’ for the horrors of their system. Arguing that over-population is a key contributor to scarcity has been the key point made by these types – from Malthus in Marx’s day to sections of the environmental movement and the political Right today. (Malthus falsely argued that population grows exponentially while food supply only grows arithmetically).
In Australia today some Greens and anti-development groups blame a rising population for climate change and urban squalor. This lets big business, greedy developers, and the big polluters off the hook and diverts attention away from the real issues.
This ‘mystification’ provides value to the propertied classes, as Angus and Butler point out. “While population is by no means irrelevant, giving it conceptual pride of place not only inflates its explanatory value but also obscures the essential factors that make for ecological degradation and makes it impossible to begin the hard work of overcoming them.”
It’s rich people and capitalist profit-first production in factories and farms that is the cause of most carbon emissions, not ordinary people. What Angus and Butler have done is take this basic truth and fleshed it out from many different angles.
They write: “Populationist policies focus on symptoms, not causes. Worse, they shift the blame for climate change, and the burden for stopping it, onto the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.”
They show how “poverty was the cause of rapid population growth in the 20th century, not an effect – and poverty itself was the result of centuries of colonialist plunder.” The Industrial Revolution in the rich countries eventually led to a fall in population growth as “children were no longer economic assets and improved pension and social services means that parents didn’t need to depend on their children’s support in their old age. This natural result was a reduced birth rate, which occurred even without the benefit of modern methods of contraception.”
One simple fact from the book demolishes the central tenant of over-polulationists. Between 1960 and 2000, while the world’s population doubled, food production increased by about two and a half times. In the same period, the global death rate fell from 15.5 to 8.6 (annual deaths per thousand people).
It’s therefore clear that food scarcity stems from inequality and the nature of capitalist distribution rather than a lack of food.
Angus and Butler show that isolating and linking population growth to a rise in carbon emissions only shows correlation, not causation. This correlation, “that seems obvious when we consider only global figures, turns out to be an illusion when we look at the numbers country by country.”
For example Sub-Saharan Africa had 18.5% of the world’s population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. On the other hand high-income nations had 7% of the world’s population growth and 29% of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore carbon dioxide emissions are primarily a problem of rich countries, not poor ones.
“Too Many People?” also has four very useful appendixes including on ‘The Malthus Myth’ and a brilliant tract on immigration from US socialist Eugene V. Debs written in the early 20th century.
Socialists before have made all of Angus and Butler’s points but never in such a systematic, clear and concise way. This book should be on the shelf of every active socialist, as well as anyone serious about tackling climate change.
By Stephen Jolly
Too Many People?
Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis
By Ian Angus and Simon Butler
Haymarket Books, 2011