Is the Earth overpopulated?

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Recently I've been facilitating two groups studying global warming. (I will send my annotated 10-book syllabus to anyone who asks for it). Our current discussions are based on Alan Weisman's new book, "Countdown." While the book contains statements indicating it is not so simple, Weisman's main point is that overpopulation is at the core of our environmental problems.

I've also been reading Clive Ponting's "A New Green History of the World." Ponting concludes that: "The current environmental problems in the world can only be understood in the context of the nature of the world economy produced since 1500."

At first glance these points of view appear to restate the old argument between Malthus and Marx. Malthus argued in 1798 that food production could never match population growth, and so, the masses were doomed to starvation. Marx, on the other hand, maintained that there would be enough for everyone if the earth's resources were distributed fairly. He attacked Malthus for placing blame on the victims of capitalist exploitation rather than on the capitalists, who were the real culprits.

Raised by two sets of Old Left parents, and coming of age as a New Left Marxist, I initially rejected all claims that we could eliminate poverty and environmental damage through population control. However, in 1798 when Malthus first staked out his position, there were fewer than one billion people on the planet, and when Marx critiqued him there were no more than 1.5 billion. The world's population has recently topped 7 billion, and is headed for nine or ten billion in the next several decades. Marx was right that when Malthus propounded his theory it was a self-serving defense of inequality, but since then, overpopulation has become a major problem.

I also agree with Ponting that the world's current unequal distribution of resources is responsible for environmentally-devastating first world overconsumption and mass human suffering. But capitalism's love affair with increasing population is a key part of the current global economy. More people equals more workers willing to work for less as they compete with each other. More consumers buy more, generating more profit. A system based on perpetual growth serves its principal beneficiaries when individuals consume more AND there are more individuals doing the consuming. Is it possible that Weisman and Ponting are both correct?

Seven billion people are way too many, and 10 billion will just hasten disaster. Weisman's point is well-taken; we must and can bring down the population through universal education, and government assisted family planning programs, and doing so is a necessary condition of controlling global warming. Weisman, laments that all we lack is the political will to do so. He writes: "why [are] health decisions about Mother Nature ... made by politicians, not by scientists who know how critical her condition is." But as Ponting makes plain, the nature of our global economy means that politicians serving multinational corporate masters will continue to make such decisions. As long as the world's economy is driven by competition, profit and growth, efforts to reduce substantially either our population or consumption will be ineffective.

It is not a question of one or the other. Both are essential and we must address them in conjunction.

This article originally appeared at the Robert Meeropol's blog.

Photo: Tomonari Suzuoki CC

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  • Bravo. It is wonderful to see these two subjects brought up by someone intelligent enough to recognize they are both at play in our growth-addicted world. It's especially astute to recognize that addiction to economic growth drives much public policy and corporate attitude toward population growth. Excellent!

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth
    Founding contributor at Growth Bias Busted

    Posted by Dave Gardner, 03/14/2014 7:00am (11 months ago)

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