Sunday, November 6, 2011

576. Saral Sarkar on the Population Question

Increasingly, people have been driven into over-crowded
spaces alien to our species and destructive of ecosystems

By Saral Sarkar, November 5, 2011

The United Nations has declared that the world population has just passed the 7 billion mark.  As the editor of Our Place in the World I hold the view that human population has long passed the threshold of sustainability of ecosystems.  While it is certainly necessary to expose (bourgeois) claims that poverty, disease and misery of the majority of people is over-population, an ecological socialist would recognize human population size, rate of growth and geographical distribution as a significant and sometimes deciding factor is the crisis of ecosystems. 

Our Place in the World has and will continue to publish information, analysis and arguments about the population question.  The following text is excerpts from Saral Sarkar, Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?: A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices (London and New York: Zed Books, 1999), 128-135, 196-197, and 209-210, with corresponding bibliographic entries, plus an additional comment by Saral Sarkar from July 4, 2011, concerning issues of human population.

Note: Much discussion in Sarkar’s book concerning the limits to growth, the inadequacy of technical solutions, etc., all of which has crucial bearing on the population question, has not been included in these excerpts, due to space limitations. Readers are encouraged to read the fuller presentation contained in the book as a whole.

--Kamran Nayeri
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Land and water are essential resources. Water is renewable. But we cannot increase the amount of rain and snowfall, the ultimate source of all naturally fresh water. The area of land is given, and is inexhaustible, but its fertility can become exhausted. Of course, sea water can be converted into fresh water, but that is a very energy-intensive and hence costly process. Moreover, since energy prices will rise in the future, this process would also become even costlier. So far as irrigation is concerned, as already mentioned in connection with hydroelectricity, suitable sites for dams are scarce. As far as land is concerned, soil erosion is caused not only by human activity. It is also a natural process. Preventing erosion and other kinds of soil degradation requires a lot of energy. The same applies to land reclamation.

Given these facts, it is not easy to increase food production. In eco-alternative discourse, one often hears the following quotation from Mahatma Gandhi: ‘Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs but not for every man’s greed’ (Gandhi 1997: 306). This rhetoric is too simple. It ignores the question of the number of people whose needs must be satisfied, which cannot be ignored. For while the global human population is continuously growing, the rate of growth in food production is falling. Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute shows that while between 1950 and 1984 world grain production grew – thanks to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and high-yielding varieties of plants – at the rate of 3 per cent per annum, between 1984 and 1993 the annual growth fell to less than 1 per cent, reducing per capita availability by 11 per cent (Brown 1994: 179). Brown also cites FAO experts who state that both fish catch in seas and meat production can hardly be increased any more, so that per capita availability of animal protein is tending to fall (ibid).

In view of these facts, it should be obvious that we should try to stop population growth rather than grow more food. For both population growth and growth of food production have an adverse environmental impact. Yet several political forces, with which I sympathize in other matters, oppose any active population control policy: leftists, feminists, third world solidarity groups, and third world NGOs. For reasons of space, I shall give only one example. Ursula Pattberg, a German third world sympathizer, wrote in 1992:

I am against any population policy because it is not needed at the moment. What is needed is rather a different policy on resources. It is a matter of…distribution of land, air, water, food and other things. If we can achieve a just distribution of these resources, then the debate on population policy is superfluous.

On the ecological crisis, she wrote: ‘…the causes of environmental destruction in Thailand…are quite clearly the interests of capital. It is a matter of profit maximization and destruction of nature for the sake of short-term profits.’ Then she reported: ‘In Thailand, there is a People’s Forum in which several NGOs have joined up. In their program, the word “birth planning” does not occur at all; overpopulation is for them no subject for discussion.’ She quoted from the program of People’s Forum:

The economically powerful countries will intensify their efforts to control the resources. They will use all ways and means including international organizations like the World Bank in order to defend their good starting position and to represent their interests. The countries of the Third World have been instrumentalised in this process – ignoring the fact that they have a right to their own development.

Pattberg sums up: ‘What these groups demand is the right to use their own resources’ (Pattberg 1992: 5-6).

This opposition is the result of several confusions, which must be removed.

Malthus – the difference between problem and policy

We must begin with Malthus. We must differentiate between problem and policy. Population policy can be debated, formulated, and accepted or rejected. But the population problem is an objective state of affairs, which cannot be conjured away. Any good ecologist knows that in nature, the population of any species must remain within a certain limit if it is not to upset the delicate ecological balance. Mixing up problem and policy in discussions only creates confusion. The indignation against Malthus is justified. According to him, the poor are themselves to be blamed for their poverty. But the question is whether, for this reason, Malthus’ presentation of the problem is also wrong.

Malthus’ harshest critics have always come from the left. Marx considered Malthus’ essay to be a ‘libel on the human race’. Engels wrote in 1865: ‘economic laws are not eternal laws of nature but historic laws which arise and disappear’. He thought ‘what is tenable in the so-called Malthusian theory’ is valid only for societies ‘based on class rule and class exploitation’. That was no proper refutation. But serious efforts were also made to refute one of Malthus’ two laws. Engels and Lenin rightly thought that his law regarding food production, namely that it increases only in arithmetical progression, is actually based on the law of diminishing returns. But they declared that the limitless advance of science and technology nullifies the law of diminishing returns, which is otherwise valid. (This summary of the views of Marx, Engels and Lenin is based on quotations contained in Meek 1971.)

But science and technology have in the meantime disappointed expectations. Brown shows that between 1950 and 1984 the application of each additional ton of fertilizer boosted grain output by 9 tons. But this ratio started to worsen in 1984. By 1989, it was down to 1.8 tons more grain to each additional ton of fertilizer (Brown 1994: 184-5). The plants are simply not responding to more and more fertilizer. The law of diminishing returns is, therefore, not nullified.

Malthus’ other law – that population grows, if not controlled, in geometrical progression – is more difficult to refute. The only thing that his opponents can do in this respect is to point to the fact that in industrial societies population has stopped growing or is growing very slowly. But that is also no real refutation, as most couples in these countries are using various means to control births. An average healthy couple in an industrial society could, if they used no contraception, produce ten or even more children in 30 years. Clearly, Malthus’ two laws are as good as natural laws. At the least, they are still valid.

Scientific and technological research has not come to an end. So one may still hope that, say, biotechnology might help to solve the problem, or that there might be a breakthrough in the process of photosynthesis, enabling plants to convert solar energy more efficiently into edible energy. Gail Omvedt and Govind Kelkar, two feminists from India, report that S.A. Dabholkar, a farmer-experimenter from western India, has developed methods through which, with the aid of ‘low external inputs’, a family of five could enjoy a middle-class lifestyle by cultivating just one-quarter of an acre of land (1 acre = 0.4046 ha), so that ‘there is at the technological level no real population problem.’ They write: ‘The fact is that the ability of sunlight and soil (which itself can be regenerated and even “made” from bio-waste material) to achieve high productivities has hardly even begun to be tapped. …the “carrying capacity” of the various regions of the earth can be almost indefinitely extended’ (Omvedt & Kelkar 1995: 30; emphasis added). But Dabholkar’s claim and Omvedt’s and Kelkar’s faith in technology sound like faith in a miracle. The authors also report that in India, Dabholkar’s claim is ‘generally taken as exaggerated and even fantastic’ (ibid.). And Brown reports that leading scientists hold out little hope for far-reaching breakthroughs in these areas in the foreseeable future (Brown 1994: 186-7).

How acute is the crisis? How much latitude do we still have?

Let us examine some other well-known arguments against the need for an active population control policy. ‘Development is the best contraceptive’, has been the slogan of many leftists since the world population conference in Bucharest in 1974. This argument is also supported by the theory of demographic transition, which states – on the basis of demographic history of the industrialized European countries – that in a society with a growing population, the birth rate falls with growing prosperity, quasi-automatically, and finally equals the death rate, thus concluding the transition to a stable population. But this theory was formulated before humanity became aware of the limits to growth. Most countries of the Third World would never be able to reach the prosperity level of, say, West Germany in 1972, when that country completed the final phase of demographic transition. Moreover, prosperity alone may not suffice. In Saudi Arabia – for the last two decades one of the richest countries in the world – the birth rate was in 1989 more than 40 per thousand per year (cf. Meadows et al. 1992: 32). [In 2005, the rate of population growth was 2.6%. (Der Fischer Weltalmanach 2008. Frankfurt/M, 2008)].

As a kind of supporting argument to the above, leftists argue that the problem of hunger in the present-day world is no problem at all, that there is enough food, which needs only to be distributed properly. That may be theoretically perfectly true. However, some questions remain:

·               We are concerned not only with the situation today. We must also ask: how long can world food production keep pace with a growing world population? The facts and figures quoted from Brown give no grounds for optimism in this regard. Can we, like believers in a religion, simplistically hope that science and technology will somehow solve all future problems?
·               The negative ecological effects of intensive agriculture are well known. Is it permissible to intensify it still further in order to produce more food for a growing population?
·               Can we expect the peoples of the food-surplus countries to work hard and invest their money in order finally to give away their surplus to the poor of the Third World? The world has not become one communist world yet!
·               The farmers of the food-surplus countries would certainly like to sell their surplus. But from where will the poor countries of the Third World get the foreign exchange to pay for the continuously rising food imports?

An alternative line of argument used against any active population control policy is based on calculations pertaining to the maximum carrying capacity of the Earth. In 1982, an FAO and UNFPA study asserted that there is enough land in the Third World (without China) to feed 33 billion people – but only if every square meter of cultivable land and large quantities of fertilizers and other chemicals are used to produce just a sufficient quantity of vegetarian food (cf. Sadik 1990: 7). There is also a model for the production of sufficient food for 15 billion people with moderate use of chemicals. This model, it is asserted, permits an ecologically careful handling of nature (cf. Simon 1991: 30). It is generally assumed that the world population will stabilize at some point between 2050 and 2100, at 11-14 billion. According to these models, therefore, there is not only enough time and latitude for the demographic transition but also no reason at all for panic.

I have some objections to this line of argument:

(a) If we in the Third World (without China) want to produce enough food for 15 billion people with just a moderate use of fertilizers and other chemicals (because we do not want to damage the environment), then agriculture must become extensive. We would need more cultivated land, and also more land for houses, roads, schools, offices, factories, and so on. But, writes Brown, ‘the reality is that there is simply not much fertile land waiting to be plowed’ (Brown 1994: 187).

There is a difference between land and fertile land. In the wake of the doubling of world grain prices in 1972, the farmers of the world increased the area under grains by 11 per cent. But this was followed by a massive retrenchment. A very large part of this increase took place on land highly liable to erosion and incapable of sustaining cultivation. As a result, in the territory of the former Soviet Union, the grain-harvested area declined from 123 million hectares in 1977 to 99 million ha in 1993. In the USA, between 1985 and 1992, 14 million ha were again converted to grass or trees (ibid: 182).

Brown does not give comparable figures from the Third World. But we know that, in Brazil, agriculture on land previously covered by rain forest is possible for only 3-4 years. Such land is fast eroded. There may still be a lot of such land in the world that can be brought under the plough. But, according to one estimate made in 1991, 6 million ha of cultivated land is being lost every year through erosion, salination and so on (Stiftung Entwicklung and Frieden 1991: 237-8). According to Friends of the Earth Netherlands, ‘current production methods will lead to a decrease in the amount of potentially arable land by about 16 million ha per year’ (Brakel & Zagema 1994: 16). As far as the Third World is concerned, Sandra Postel writes that since 1945, in Asia, Africa and South America, land degradation induced by humans amounted to 20, 22, and 14 per cent respectively of the total vegetated land (Postel 1994: 10).

Let us suppose that by means of great effort and a proper mix of correct policies, this trend can be stopped. Even then, feeding 15 billion people by means of extensive agriculture would mean that a large portion of the remaining forests would be lost. Of course, the demands of luxury industries could be rejected. But even satisfying the basic needs of 15 billion people – firewood, building timber and paper – would lead to the continuous destruction of ever more forest. Moreover, apart from the fact that we humans need there to be a certain proportion of land covered with forests, these forests are the habitats of many other species (which we also need). Does the human species have a right to conquer more living space?

(b) In that case, millions of people would have to migrate into areas that are still thinly populated. But these areas belong to other groups of humans – to the Amerindians, Maoris, Aborigines and other tribes. Should they be pushed out of their land again? Should we wage war against them?

(c) What should the people of the already densely populated countries – such as India, Bangladesh, Egypt – do, if the peoples and rulers of the thinly populated countries do not give them the permission to immigrate? Of what use then are the FAO and UNFPA models?

(d) Land is not the only problem. With only rain-fed agriculture, food production cannot be increased much. Irrigation would be necessary. But from the Worldwatch Institute to the World Bank, everybody knows that in many parts of the world fresh water has already become a scarce resource. There is fear that agriculture and industry as well as humans and nations would fight each other for water. There would be social conflict. The World Bank fears that in the next century, wars may break out between neighboring countries on the question of access to fresh water (Frankfurter Rundschau, 31 December 1996). It is unthinkable to transport fresh water from, say, Canada to India.

(e) Finally, opponents of any population control policy hold that the preconditions to producing enough food for 15 billion people on land in the Third World (excluding China), if it is at all possible, are a sound agricultural policy, egalitarian economic development, a different development strategy, and so on. These would constitute the minimum social conditions under which population growth could slow down gradually.

But it is uncertain whether fulfillment of these social conditions alone would be enough to halt population growth. Moreover, egalitarian economic development is not only a precondition for something but also a constituent goal of an ideal which can be attained only through a long struggle for social change. Also the other preconditions may not be soon fulfilled. If the population continues to grow in the meantime, then the ecological balance will be restored by nature itself – through hunger, war, civil war, social chaos, disease, epidemic – which nobody wants. So an effective and active population control policy is urgently necessary.


From pp. 196-197:

Old wine in green bottle, or new wine?

I am not the first to use the term ‘eco-socialism’. Many leftists have used it to combine their socialism with their recently developed concern for ecological sustainability of the economy. But the integration is often not convincing. In general, it appears that they still refuse to take the first element of the term seriously. But socialists must not close their eyes to facts.

Let me take as the first example David Pepper’s book Eco-Socialism, written in 1992: ‘…the [red-green] project displays potential problems. It tends to accept…the simplistic…limits to growth/overpopulation theses…. However, the socialist contention that there are abundant resources to meet everyone’s needs…has not been convincingly disproved’ (Pepper 1993: 247). He dismisses the overpopulation problem as ‘old Malthusian (third world) “overpopulation” canards’ (ibid: 2). On the resource question, he writes: “The eco-socialist response to resource questions is…that there are no ahistorical limits of immediate significance to human growth as socialist development’ (ibid: 233; emphasis in original). On economic growth, Pepper writes: ‘…an ecological-communist utopia requires the development of productive forces … Eco-socialist growth must be a rational, planned development for everyone’s equal benefit, which would therefore be ecologically benign (ibid: 219).

It must be mentioned to Pepper’s credit that, while speaking of ‘everyone’s needs’, he also reminds us ‘that “needs” are to be divorced from our present market-oriented conception of them’ (ibid: 247). But this does not appear to make any practical difference, for elsewhere he says:

It may or may not be true that absolute amounts of copper oxide or petroleum are declining, but this is not relevant … What we … consume are telecommunication – and this can now be done by means other than copper wires – and automobile travel – where the ‘water’-powered, ‘pollutionless’ electric car could be a future alternative to the internal combustion engine car. (ibid: 100)

Telecommunication and cars appear here to be both ‘market-oriented’ and ‘eco-socialist’ needs.

Enough material is discussed in chapter 4 to see that Pepper is suffering from old illusions….


From pp. 209-210:

In the Third World, during the transition period, social security would have a very strong relevance for a population control policy. It is well known that in most Third World countries, children, especially sons, are the main source of old-age security for poor people. In the micro-economic sense, it therefore appears rational to them to have several children, even if it results in a lower standard of living until the children can start working [often at the age of 10]. In order to have two sons in their old age, a couple, on average, have to have five children.

In the transition period, an eco-socialist government would guarantee old-age security to the poor in return for limiting the number of offsprings to two. Those who are not poor must pay contributions to an old-age security fund. To induce the poor to accept and practice birth control against their obvious private material interest, this strong material incentive would be necessary. An eco-socialist government could not coerce the poor, and it must in any case solve the problem of old-age security. This policy would also be a means of transferring funds from the rich and well-to-do to the poor – a traditional task of socialists.

The minimum age of marriage would be raised by law to, say, 21, in order to prevent 14-15-year old girls producing children. With various methods of contraception made available to teenagers, the satisfaction of youthful sexual desire need not be a problem. Feminists especially will find these three elements of policy – guaranteed old-age security, only two (or fewer) children, and marriage at a really adult age – very welcome as contributions to women’s emancipation.

Unlike imperialists and the propagandists and ideologues of capitalism, eco-socialists do not believe that population growth is the only cause of poverty and environmental degradation. We know that capitalism, imperialism, exploitation, oppression, and over-consumption of resources by the peoples of the North are major causes of both. But unlike many feminists and traditional leftists, eco-socialists do not think that population growth is a negligible factor. The chief objection of feminists against the hitherto implemented population control policies in capitalist and patriarchal societies cannot be raised against the policies of an eco-socialist government, which would never try to stop population growth at the cost of women’s health. It would rather use vasectomy – sterilization of men – as the principal means for the purpose.

Daly’s suggestion of transferable birth licences is conceivable, but only when the transition process is over and the steady state reached. However, in the transition period, the government would have to tell citizens that the long-term goal would be not just stabilization but reduction in the size of the population.


Brakel, Manus van and Bertram Zagema (1994) Sustainable Netherlands, Amsterdam. (This is a summary of Maria Buitenkamp et al. 1992)

Brown, Lester R. (1994) ‘Facing Food Insecurity’, in Brown et al. 1994.

Brown, Lester R. et al. (1994) State of the World 1994, New York and London.

Buitenkamp, Maria et al. (Friends of the Earth Netherlands) (1992) Sustainable Netherlands – Action Plan, Amsterdam.

Frankfurter Rundschau (daily newspaper).

Gandhi, Mahatma (1997) ‘The Quest for Simplicity – My Idea of Swaraj’, in Rahnema and Bawtree 1997.

Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows and Jorgen Randers (1992) Beyond the Limits, London.

Meek, Ronald L. (ed.) (1971) Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb, Berkeley.

Omvedt, Gail and Govind Kelkar (1995) Gender and Technology – Emerging Visions from Asia, Bangkok (AIT).

Pattberg, Ursula (1992) ‘Fallbeispiel Thailand – verfehlte Ressourcenpolitik’, in Informationsbrief (Sonderdienst) Weltwirtschaft & Entwicklung, 29 June.

Pepper, David (1993) Eco-Socialism, London.

Postel, Sandra (1994) ‘Carrying Capacity – Earth’s Bottom Line’, in Brown et al. 1994.

Rahnema, Majid and Victoria Bawtree (1997) The Post-Development Reader, London, New Jersey, Dhaka, Halifax and Cape Town.

Sadik, Nafis (UNFPA) (1990) The State of World Population 1990, New York.

Simon, Gabriela (1991) ‘Wieviel ist zuviel?’, in bl├Ątter des Iz3W, November.

Stiftung Entwicklung und Frieden (1991) Global Trends 1991, Bonn.


Additional comment by Saral Sarkar in an e-mail dated July 4, 2011:

It is also worthwhile to quote the two most important sentences of Malthus' essay:
‘Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.’ The two words ‘when unchecked’ show that Malthus knew that population growth can be checked. It is our duty to add that population need not necessarily be checked through hunger, malnutrition, famine, lack of medical care, war, civil war, etc. It can also be checked in a humane way, i.e. without applying coercion.

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