'Overpopulation'

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Scallywag
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Feb 1 2015 14:01
'Overpopulation'

I am taking a course in Geography and often It seems to blame 'an exponential growth in the human population' for pretty much every environmental problem in the world. Some of the problems it associates with a growing population are that it:

Places pressure on natural resources
Leads to land degradation and destruction of the environment
Leads to greater production of waste, pollution and greenhouse gases
Accounts for the vast appropriation of surface water and groundwater
Leads to the intensification of farming thus soil erosion and pollution from chemical fertilisers and pesticides
Impacts on climate change and loss of biodiversity
Led to greater industrialisation due to higher demand and consumption
Intensifies inequalities in the world, between rich 'developed' countries and poorer 'developing' countries
Creates a problem for how to manage resources, deal with waste and provide food water and energy to the world population

We have talked about how capitalism is harmful to the environment - but at the same time annoyingly how it 'incentivises' people, creates 'innovation', 'efficiency' and new technologies sad - and we have also looked at inequalities in the 'developed and 'developing' world and the differences in population growth between them, but still 'overpopulation' is mostly blamed for all the problems.

I don't disagree with any of the above points and the course so far has made me much more aware of how we have drastically altered the entire planet. There is actually a theory that climate change began not with the industrial revolution, but with the development of agriculture and that if we had not cut down the forests and domesticated livestock the planet would have actually headed into another ice age a few thousand years ago.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_anthropocene

I still don't like though that the problem is often put down to there being 'too many humans on the planet' as its misanthropic and could result in reactionary policies or ideas about killing or allowing people to die because they are a burden, non-productive, inefficient and a strain on resources, and I have seen people (who ironically call themselves 'libertarians') argue that the poor should be left to die for those reasons and justifying poverty and famine as natures way of getting rid of all the non-productive people.

So I am just looking then for the libertarian communist perspective on population growth and the causes of the environmental crisis.

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Joseph Kay
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Feb 1 2015 14:41

It's virtually always taught this way, substituting racialised population control politics for a critique of political economy...

On the early anthropocene hypothesis, my understanding is it's an interesting but unproven conjecture at this point. Apparently a lot of it comes down to a technical question of how best to align climatalogical datasets (see here).

On overpopulation, this has been a reactionary trope for over 200 years. Danny Dorling's Population 10 Billion is a good recent, fairly mainstream account that critiques Malthusian over-population theories along the way.

With climate and population specifically, population growth serves as a convenient fig leaf to obscure the imperative for capital to grow. For example, the IPCC reports talk about 'economic and population growth' (at least in the Summaries for Policy Makers, which is all anyone except a handful of specialists reads!). The problem with this conflation is that there's very different mechanisms driving population and economic growth: the exponential phase of a sigmoid demographic transition and the dynamics of capital accumulation, respectively. This conflation is often presented via the Kaya Identity:

The component 'population x GDP/person' includes economic activity as a mean per person. But as any stats 101 class will tell you, the arithmetic mean is a poor way to represent a highly skewed sample like economic income. Specifically, the places where population growth is highest usually have amongst the lowest GDPs per capita, greenhouse gas emissions, and so on. Whereas the states where population growth is lowest also tend to have the highest greenhouse gas emissions and GDPs per capita.

And if you zoom in within those countries and look at income distribution (as opposed to the mean of GDP/capita), then it's the activities of the rich and commercial activity etc contributing most to climate change. That said, focussing on consumption patterns, even of the rich, occludes the imperatives to economic growth and the structural imperatives to treating the environment as a disposable 'externality'.

So behind the rather innocuous looking arithmetic of the Kaya Identity, the imperative for capitalist growth is occluded by a misleading focus on (anyhow decelerating) population growth. It's a convenient way for the predominantly rich white dudes on the boards of major multinationals to pin responsibility for climate change, environmental destruction etc on supposedly prolifically pregnant impoverished black and brown women in the former colonies, the housing projects, and the prisons.

Out of the Woods' blogs have touched on this. See the section 'population is not the problem' here, and the section on 'absolute scarcity' here.

Edit: I haven't read it myself, but ecosocialist Ian Angus has co-authored a book called 'Too many people?' which is meant to be a socialist critique of overpopulation theories.

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Steven.
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Feb 1 2015 21:14

Yeah, that's a good long answer!

In short, "overpopulation" theories are just racist. Population numbers don't matter, what matters is resource consumption/production. And as Joseph points out the relatively low number of predominantly white people in the West use way more resources than the higher numbers of nonwhite people in the global South. For example the average person in the US has an annual carbon footprint of 18.1 t, whereas in Ethiopia it is just 0.1 t.

Scallywag
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Feb 1 2015 22:17

Thanks very good answers!!, so should I reject the idea of larger populations harming the environment entirely or is it just that it should not be the focus and isn't the root cause of problems?

confusionboats
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Feb 2 2015 04:38

I would partially reject and primarily try to shift focus/show that it is not the root cause.

Proving that population growth 'in no way' effects the environment is going to require all kinds of crazy stats stuff / you'd probably need to do a ton of research on 'agriculture'

attempting to do so would also, on some level, indicate that you agree to 'the terms of the debate' - namely that all parties involved are genuinely trying to 'solve' climate change and not just social darwinists

China, who emits 24.65% of the world's total carbon, has around 20% of the world's population. The United States, who emits 16.6% of the world's total carbon, has only around 4.5% of the global population. The average person in the United States emits around three times per capita more than the average person living in China. India, around 17% of the global population, emits around 6% of the world's total carbon, less than 1/10th per capita than the 'average' person living in the United States.

So okay, yeah, you can say that three countries with the world's highest populations are also the world's greatest polluters but these correlations begin to break down if you begin to analyze the 'demographics' (not quite the right word but whatever) between/within those countries.

'exponential' population growth began at the period of industrialization. Those in service of capital love this sort of question because it is a correlation that is easy to assume and difficult to disprove entirely. It would be easy to say something like "with the exception of 'excessive outliers' like the United States, generally speaking greater population = greater CO2 emissions" This isn't necessarily true, but in order to disprove it you would need to do all kinds of statistical analysis, navigate your way through a series of rhetorical mazes, come up with graphs, spreadsheets, power point presentations etc.

Another tactic is simply providing examples. For instance, Pakistan (around 2.5% of the global population) is only responsible for around 0.48% of CO2 emissions globally. The 'average' person living in the US emits around 19 times per capita more than someone living in Pakistan. In this case, the evidence seems clear that the 'problem' is not overpopulation but rather resource production/consumption as stated earlier in this thread. This kind of argument fails however, (despite being true) since the question at hand deals with global generalities and not 'outliers' like the United States or Pakistan. Someone who adheres to broad generalizations like 'overpopulation' can always provide counter-examples. Portugal, for instance, contains 0.15% of the global population and is responsible for 0.16% of CO2 emissions. The 'average' person living there emits around 1/4th than that of someone living in the US, which is somewhere around the global mean.

Of course, all of the statistics that I have just posted don't really correspond to anything. I have not shown any causal links between population size and CO2 emissions, and couldn't anyways because there aren't any - which is something that I also 'cannot prove'. Another problem arises from this kind of analysis. It would be safe to assume that the percentage of China's GDP that comes from exports is significantly higher than that of the United States. The globalized economy doesn't happen at the level of isolated nation-states, and so to even begin to attempt to disprove that ''overpopulation' has resulted in our current ecological crisis' I would first have to memorize all kinds of boring macroeconomic data.

The problem rests on an assumption, namely that 'overpopulation' has resulted in ecological crisis, and the burden of proof should not rest on those who take issue with this claim. The question itself is also loaded. The question "What are we going to do about 'overpopulation' in the context of ecological crisis?" can only yield two answers. Either you accept that climate change is an issue and admit that some form of 'soft' eugenics is permissible, or you deny that it is - neither of which are acceptable.

The only option then becomes to change the framework of the debate. Generally speaking Industrialization, the Fordist mode of Production and the Post-Fordist form of Capitalism that exists almost everywhere in the world today brought about the crisis. From there we can decide what changes should be made

boomerang
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Feb 2 2015 04:48

Great answers so far.

Scallywag, you really have an ignorant person teaching this geography class!

Quote:
So I am just looking then for the libertarian communist perspective on population growth and the causes of the environmental crisis.

You don't even have to turn to libcoms for this answer. It's really not radical, and I don't even think it's controversial, to say that production methods and consumption levels matter more than population size. I learned this in my high school geography class and it was taught by a liberal and right in our textbook.

Scallywag
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Feb 2 2015 09:38
boomerang wrote:
Great answers so far.

Scallywag, you really have an ignorant person teaching this geography class!

Quote:
So I am just looking then for the libertarian communist perspective on population growth and the causes of the environmental crisis.

You don't even have to turn to libcoms for this answer. It's really not radical, and I don't even think it's controversial, to say that production methods and consumption levels matter more than population size. I learned this in my high school geography class and it was taught by a liberal and right in our textbook.

I thought like Joseph said its always taught like this, and certainly for me the way I've been taught in school and now in my first year of uni its always the case that population growth puts great strains on the environment and leads to all the problems mentioned in my first post. We did have a lecture on capitalism though and the lecture who gave it was fairly critical of it, in terms of it requiring constant growth and being exploitative of both people and the environment, but it seems he was required to give a more 'balanced' opinion by saying how its still the best system so far for innovation and incentivising people etc. Tbh though its not even what annoys me most about the course, but the stupid way they teach it, grades, the ridiculous assignments we get and the education system in general really.

confusionboats
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Feb 2 2015 12:22

I would also suggest that positing ecological crisis as a crisis of 'overpopulation' is a way of avoiding the issue altogether since, clearly, mass extermination of entire portions of the global population is not a solution to climate change (even on purely practical grounds). Those who have framed the debate in this manner can now eschew responsibility by claiming that they just simply can't do anything and that its someone else's 'fault' anyways, they can do so while simultaneously endorsing neoliberal 'no alternative' ideas, and they can ascribe a 'lack of ethical consideration' or 'dangerous radicalism' to anyone who suggest even marginal changes like that the United States should ratify the Kyoto Protocol - all seemingly without contradiction.

boomerang
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Feb 3 2015 06:06

"Nothing uses carbon like a first world human...." A scene from "Utopia" that makes a true point in a sick and creepy way. Show it to your teacher/class for extra credit?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcx-nf3kH_M

boomerang
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Feb 4 2015 04:23
boomerang wrote:
It's really not radical, and I don't even think it's controversial, to say that production methods and consumption levels matter more than population size. I learned this in my high school geography class and it was taught by a liberal and right in our textbook.

Scallywag wrote:
I thought like Joseph said its always taught like this,

Oops, yeah, I somehow read what he wrote as "It's virtually always talked of this way" rather than "taught this way." That misread made me think he meant how it's talked about in the media... I'm surprised to hear that the academics who study this issue don't know better, as anyone who's actually studied this issue should realize the obvious. But I guess no, eh?

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Joseph Kay
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Feb 4 2015 07:05

I was basing that claim on books/textbooks rather than classes. I haven't studied geography formally since I was 14, but 'tragedy of the commons' seems a staple, even in climate science textbooks. I suppose teachers might use those textbooks critically, and challenge such assumptions? (That said, a friend is doing a PhD and questioned tragedy of the commons, and was quickly told off as an idealist dreamer by their supervisor. Only anecdotal of course...)

confusionboats
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Feb 5 2015 00:51

I had an English professor who once claimed that traditional farmers (he actually used the term 'peasantry' but my guess is that that term is somewhat contentious...) actually had more freedom under feudalism than they did after industrialization (after the commons were fenced off and people were forced to move to the cities)...

Its actually a pretty decent injunction against classical liberal thought (which I assume is how he meant it - since my experience with that class wouldn't ever lead me to believe that he was somehow a monarchist...)

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Joseph Kay
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Feb 5 2015 06:52

That's probably true in parts of Western Europe, and among indigenous north American horticulturalists. Eastern Europe had seen a resurgence of serfdom; while in Asia, rice-growing peasants worked a lot more than wheat-growing ones as rice is more labour intensive. And I'm not sure of the freedoms of peasants in pre-colonial empires like the Incas or in West African statelets (both of which used war captives as slaves, I think).

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Noa Rodman
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Feb 5 2015 08:14

Word on the street is that [the father of marxism] Kautsky wrote strong critiques of Malthus.

Der Einfluss der Volksvermehrung auf den Fortschritt der Gesellschaft (1880)
https://archive.org/details/dereinflussdervo00kaut

Vermehrung und Entwicklung in Natur und Gesellschaft (1910)
http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001888158

Scallywag
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Feb 11 2015 01:37

This book doesn't look to bad, anyone heard of it before or read it?

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/mar/27/peoplequake-population-fred...

noclass
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Feb 12 2015 04:01

My approach to the issue is holistic, meaning sticking to one factor is naive. What seems to be "overpopulation" is indeed hard to define in-itself under capitalism. You may ask what exactly number of population should be in order to have concept of "over" population? Those who made up this concept should be first to answer this question. I think those who are not critical of capitalism, cannot answer it. Lets look at some population related issues. War, unemployment, poverty and many others are related to population issues. Can you fight a war with low population? Can you have profit without unemployment? If you reduce poverty, don't you decrease motivation to work? Capitalism is full of dilemma and is the main source of all problems. By the way, I don't think that capitalism is behind development of technology and science, I think labor is. Scientific advancement requires hard labor and that comes mostly from workers. Capitalists give themselves too much credit.

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Flava O Flav
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Feb 12 2015 11:24

This is well worth getting your hands on http://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=565

Reclus was way ahead of his time.

"Elisée Reclus (1830–1905) was a renowned French geographer, writer, and anarchist. He produced his 19-volume masterwork La Nouvelle Géographie universelle, la terre et les hommes ("Universal Geography"), over a period of nearly 20 years (1875–1894). In 1892 he was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Paris Geographical Society for this work, despite having been banished from France because of his political activism"

Scallywag
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Feb 12 2015 22:08
Flava O Flav wrote:
This is well worth getting your hands on http://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=565

Reclus was way ahead of his time.

"Elisée Reclus (1830–1905) was a renowned French geographer, writer, and anarchist. He produced his 19-volume masterwork La Nouvelle Géographie universelle, la terre et les hommes ("Universal Geography"), over a period of nearly 20 years (1875–1894). In 1892 he was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Paris Geographical Society for this work, despite having been banished from France because of his political activism"

Thanks!! I think that's exactly the sort of thing I am looking for

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Khawaga
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Feb 12 2015 23:27

Marx had the best dig at Malthus. Called him a bumbling baboon in the Grundrisse.

Scallywag
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Feb 21 2015 17:28
Flava O Flav wrote:
This is well worth getting your hands on http://secure.pmpress.org/index.php?l=product_detail&p=565

Reclus was way ahead of his time.

"Elisée Reclus (1830–1905) was a renowned French geographer, writer, and anarchist. He produced his 19-volume masterwork La Nouvelle Géographie universelle, la terre et les hommes ("Universal Geography"), over a period of nearly 20 years (1875–1894). In 1892 he was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal of the Paris Geographical Society for this work, despite having been banished from France because of his political activism"

Thanks for recommending this book btw, I got a hold of a copy and have read through the first part of it. His materialist pantheist tendencies are of interest to me, although he never identified with the term. Sometimes it seems as if he is too anthropocentric though, if 'man' is self conscious nature then what of other animals?

His examination of religion and how progressive tendencies within early religions became corrupted with establishment was also interesting to read.

Quote:
'As has been mentioned, he sometimes writes in a rather pantheistic vein of the experience of nature as involving a loss of the ordinary sense of selfhood and merging with the surrounding milieu.....

When the Journal La Revue proposed discussion of "morality without God," Reclus replied that "the public good or in other words the happiness of all human beings, our brothers, will naturally become the special goal of our renewed existence" and that "we will thus have our religion, which henceforth, will be in no way incompatible with reason, and this religion, which is moreover far from new and has always been practiced by the best people, includes everything good that was contained in the ancient religions."

'Reclus holds that this positive core of religion has been overwhelmingly betrayed by its institutionalized forms; nevertheless, he recognizes that it is still put into practice by the more enlightened and compassionate adherents of these traditions. He admits that there are tendencies within religion that are compatible with the social goals of anarchism, even when there are irreconcilable divergences on the level of beliefs.'