Politics

Australia and the overpopulation myth

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Is overpopulation just a construct? (Image by Arthimedes, via Shutterstock)

For many, overpopulation is the problem. It can also be code for keeping brown people out.

For many activists, it might be unwitting,but objectively, the overpopulation, anti-people scare campaign sends xenophobic and racist messages.

The consequences can be devastating.

As Ian Angus wrote in Climate and Capitalism:

Overpopulation arguments have been used for decades to oppress the poor and people of color around the world and to justify anti-immigrant campaigns that Betsy Hartmann calls “the greening of hate.”

 

As the noted socialist scholar David Harvey says,

 

“Whenever a theory of overpopulation seizes hold in a society dominated by an elite, then the non-elite invariably experience some form of political, economic, and social repression.” 

According to Green Left Weekly, groups such as Sustainable Population Australia greenwash their arguments. They have built a political Ponzi scheme that is objectively xenophobic and racist, based on population scares.

For these protagonists, 7 billion people are too much for the Earth to sustain. It is a story that overpopulation theorists have been pushing since the expansion of capitalism began. In 1798, when the global population was less than 1 billion, Thomas Malthus warned us that overpopulation would destroy society. He argued that population grew at a geometrical rate of progression, while food production only grew at an arithmetic rateMalthusian catastrophe would be the result of the "fact" that population growth would far outpace food production.

Malthus was wrong then and, as Michael Schemer in Scientific American pointed out in 2016, he and his followers are still wrong today. This is because we are human beings and, under a capitalist system, recognising all its contradictions, we innovate. For example, despite all the warnings of catastrophe from 1798 to today, we produce more than enough food to feed everyone on the planet adequately. The immediate problem is in its distribution, not its production.

If 1 billion was not, in fact, Earth’s natural limit, what makes seven billion the magic figure for our carrying capacity? Nothing, other than the over-populationists continue Malthus’s false logic and 7.7 billion is the current global population.

Human beings are part of nature. Our interactions with nature shape today and tomorrow. However, we do not interact with nature as disembodied human beings. We interact with the natural world as workers or as capitalists involved in the complex processes of capitalism.

It was Marx who first identified the growing divorce between capitalism and the natural world in what Marxists call "the metabolic rift". It is the idea, taken from Marx that there is an ‘irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism.’  This has created a rift between the way capitalism operates and the natural environment. The relationship is antagonistic, not cooperative. In a nutshell, the problem is not people, it is profit and the capitalist system that is built on this drive for more and more money. 

Often the over-populationists completely miss or wilfully ignore this connection. 

As David Suzuki wrote:

I once asked the great ecologist EO Wilson how many people the planet could sustain indefinitely. He responded, “If you want to live like North Americans, 200 million.” North Americans, Europeans, Japanese, and Australians, who make up 20 percent of the world’s population, are consuming more than 80 percent of the world's resources. We are the major predators and despoilers of the planet, and so we blame the problem on overpopulation.

 

Keep in mind, though, that most environmental devastation is not directly caused by individuals or households, but by corporations driven more by profits than human needs.

Take the loss of biodiversity.

As Andreas Malm writes on Verso

Ashley Dawson observes in Extinction: A Radical History, "capital must expand at an ever-increasing rate or go into crisis." As it does so, "it commodifies more and more of the planet, stripping the world of its diversity and fecundity", puncturing holes in the web of life with incalculable consequences: "biologists are only just beginning to understand the cascading, ecosystem-wide impact of the destruction of the megafauna".

Or take climate change. It is real. It is the result of the ways production is organised under capitalism and the use of fossil fuels to supply the energy for production.

It is not ordinary workers like you and me who are warming the planet. It is no accident that since the industrial revolution the planet has begun to warm.

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency puts it:

‘Human activities are responsible for almost all of the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last 150 years.’

It is also no accident that the major capitalist countries or regions – like China, the U.S. and Europe – produce the most greenhouse gas emissions. They burn fossil fuels. 

As the EPA says:

‘The largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States is from burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.’

In Ian Angus and Simon Butler's article, 'Is the environmental crisis caused by the 7 billion or the 1%?’, they point out:

‘The majority of the world’s people don’t destroy forests, don’t wipe out endangered species, don’t pollute rivers and oceans, and emit essentially no greenhouse gases.

Even in the rich countries of the Global North, most environmental destruction is caused not by individuals or households, but by mines, factories, and power plants run by corporations that care more about profit than about humanity’s survival.

It is not workers who killed one million fish in Menindee Lakes and the Darling River, as Sue Arnold wrote recently in IA:

‘According to Mark Merritt at Earthling Studios, who runs the Vanishing River campaign, the Menindee Lakes have been unnaturally and forcibly drained and dried, thus preventing the Darling River from its natural flow.'

The politicians, bureaucrats and big business who benefit from this planned mismanagement and in effect, water theft, will escape any sanction. Workers in the region and more widely will pay the price for this destruction in the form of higher prices, lack of water, disease and loss of jobs.

It was rightwing politicians who destroyed the carbon price in Australia. It is the current Morrison Government, representing the fossil fuel and similar capitalist interests, that is doing nothing about addressing climate change. The situation is so bad that Australia will not even meet its (inadequate) Paris targets.

Australia is a net importer of capital and labour. In part, its skilled immigration program is a substitute for actually spending the money to train workers in Australia. But even if that were to happen, there will continue to be an ongoing need for the bosses to bring in a range of skilled workers, given Australia’s position and role in global capitalism.

Artificial constructs, like the nation state, undermine the struggle for a world in which all 7.7 billion of us can live well, free from climate change and at peace. Capital knows no borders. Labour should have no borders.

When climate change forces tens of millions to flee their homes there can be one of two choices. We can put up a "wall", or we can welcome these climate change refugees. Australia is a rich country that can and should welcome them.

More long term, only a democratic society based on organising production to satisfy human need can overcome the challenges that climate change and environmental destruction produce. Then all 7.7 billion of us – or 10 billion in the years to come – can start to feast at freedom’s table.

You can follow Canberra correspondent John Passant on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformedare available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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