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Ecological Marxism vs. environmental neo-Malthusianism: An old debate continues

By Brian M. Napoletano - Climate and Capitalism, April 30, 2018

Despite being consistently discredited, overpopulation ideology resurfaces with the same predictable regularity as capitalist crises. Only Marxism offers a clear alternative.

Brian Napoletano teaches environmental geography at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He is a co-author of “Has (even Marxist) political ecology really transcended the metabolic rift?” published in the June 2018 issue of the journal Geoforum.

Despite being consistently discredited, Malthusian ideology continues to resurface — not entirely coincidentally — with the same predictable regularity as crises do in capitalism. This site already contains a number of excellent resources on the debate between Marxists and Malthusians, and many of the points reiterated and elaborated on here have already surfaced elsewhere. The general argument thrust of the argument is that, however much ecosocialism may appear to converge with the more progressive elements of environmental neo-Malthusianism, Marxists have several very good reasons to remain highly critical of this movement and its claims.

Historically, antagonisms between socialism and Malthusianism have existed since Malthus first wrote his essay on population. As he related in the preface to the first (anonymous) edition of this essay, Malthus was inspired to advance his position (which he built largely on the uncredited work of others) as a reaction to Godwin and other Utopian socialists who were gaining popularity at the time. Marx and Engels, in turn, exposed the “false and childish” nature of the arguments of “this baboon”—to use some of the colorful phrases that Marx applied to Malthus and his theories in the Grundrisse.

Understanding the antagonisms between these philosophers requires understanding clearly what exactly the Malthusian position entails. Malthus’ original argument hinged on both empirical and normative claims. The empirical claim was roughly twofold: (1) that poverty and misery is the result of over-population, which (2) itself results from the naturally dictated, exponential growth in the population of the poor. His normative claim then seemed to follow logically, i.e., that that nothing should be done to alleviate human suffering, as it would only encourage the poor to continue breeding, eventually exhausting the means of subsistence for everyone.

Marx and Engels decisively attacked this argument on all three points. On the first, they demonstrated that poverty had more to do with the expropriation of the producers from the means of production than with any nature-induced scarcity. More profoundly, they demonstrated that what constitutes over-population depends as much on the social relations and techniques of production as on natural factors, such that over-population under one mode of production cannot be equated with that of another. On the second point, they demonstrated that reproduction, like the rest of human nature, is not predetermined, and humans regulate their reproduction in accordance with social and natural conditions when other social factors (including the subjugation of women) do not prevent them from doing so (see Marx’s discussion of these points in the Grundrisse).

Finally, Marx and Engels demonstrated that a very different normative conclusion follows from Malthus’ argument than the one he made, arguing that only a communist society could establish the democratic conditions in which humanity can consciously regulate its numbers (see Engels’ 1 February 1881 letter to Karl Kautsky).

As Engels noted in the same letter, however, refutation of Malthus’ original arguments does not preclude the “abstract possibility that mankind will increase numerically to such an extent that its propagation will have to be kept within bounds.” This left open the door for the neo-Malthusians to seize on the emerging environmental movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s and claim that this time, humanity really had reached its limits. One of the innovative aspects that emerged from this resurgence was the linking of neo-Malthusianism with “the tragedy of the commons” (see Garrett Hardin’s essay by the same name), such that claims of over-population also helped justify claims that ecological conditions must be privatized to be preserved.

As with Malthus’ original arguments, the empirical claims of neo-Malthusianism are hotly contested. Generally, neo-Malthusians have two points in their favor:

  1. the tautological argument that a finite resource base can only support a finite population, and
  2. a positive correlation between population growth and environmental change at the global level.

The first point has led to widespread efforts to establish a carrying capacity for the human population. As it turns out, however, this is not an easy task, as it goes back to Marx and Engels’ point that what constitutes over-population cannot be divorced from the social relations of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. After reviewing twenty six different attempts to define the planetary carrying capacity for humans, the mathematical biologist Joel E. Cohen identified eleven factors that must be included in any attempt to seriously estimate the planetary carrying capacity for humans in his 1995 article in The Sciences, titled (aptly enough) “How many people can the Earth support?,” including the distribution of wealth and its underlying social and political institutions.

The main lesson of this and other discussions is that carrying capacity is as much a social and political variable as a biophysical one, raising questions about the validity of any claims that humans have overshot our carrying capacity in our present authoritarian and class-divided system.

The second point, regarding the positive correlation between global population growth and environmental change, is less helpful to the neo-Malthusian case than some of their arguments would suggest. All it really tells us is that the human population and most indicators of environmental change have both increased over the last few centuries. Attempting to infer a causal relationship from a correlation such as this requires that underlying factors that could reasonably be expected to produce a spurious correlation are taken into account.

In the case of global population and environmental change, the fact that the last few centuries have also been characterized by a mode of production predicated on perpetual expansion constitutes a rather glaring example of a factor likely to produce a spurious correlation. Notably,  Barry Commoner, Michael Corr, and Paul J. Stamler, in a 1971 essay titled “The causes of pollution,” pointed out this problem with regard to Paul Ehrlich’s claims of a population bomb. Staying within the boundaries established by Ehrlich’s arguments, they demonstrated that the primary factor responsible for humanity’s increasing environmental impact was not population or even per-capita consumption, but growing environmental impacts from the technologies used to reduce the prices of production and boost profits.

Contemporary neo-Malthusians have refined their arguments somewhat to overcome these empirical shortcomings, mainly by bringing the issue of overconsumption in the global North into their program, thereby circumventing criticisms that they unfairly shift the blame for environmental problems onto the global South, as well as by turning around the fact that population cannot be separated from its politico-economic context to argue that the politico-economic drivers of environmental change cannot be discussed without considering population, and that population amplifies the effects of other factors.

Given these concessions, Marxists could likewise cede some ground, and acknowledge that the current population of roughly seven billion exceeds the planetary carrying capacity under the capitalist mode of production. However, this should be immediately followed by pointing out — as the anarchist social ecologist Murray Bookchin did in his essay on “The population myth” — that even a population of two billion, one billion or any other number one cares to select would also exceed the planetary carrying capacity under the capitalist mode of production, given the metabolic rifts produced by capital’s anti-ecological method of valuing nature as a means to achieve profits on production and its need to constantly expand in order to ensure those profits are realized.

A failure to recognize this fundamental feature of capitalism can lead to undue optimism on the part of neo-Malthusians regarding the prospects of sustainability under capitalism, such as the ecologist E.O. Wilson in his 2002 The Future of Life implies when he posits that humanity is passing through a bottleneck. Although he does not explicitly contend that pressures on the environment will stabilize with (or, more accurately, after) population, this is the logical conclusion to be drawn from his choice of a bottleneck rather than a funnel as his metaphor.

Wilson, however, is not so naïve as to suggest that population stabilization would necessarily stabilize our ecological crises. Rather, he and most other neo-Malthusians argue simply that environmental problems would be easier to resolve with a smaller population. Despite its intuitive appeal, this claim still rests on the false assumption that a smaller population would somehow exercise a smaller environmental impact. Neo-Malthusians are correct to point out that the planet is incapable of supporting seven billion people at the per-capita level of consumption of the USA, but what they tend to ignore is that under capitalism not even in the USA does anyone consume resources at the per-capita level. This goes beyond the (important) issue of structurally driven inequality in the distribution of wealth and the profligate consumption that this enables among the capitalist classes to implicate the entire system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption under capitalism.

This also touches on the criticism made by some neo-Malthusians that Marxists tend to ignore the extent to which population growth serves capital by ensuring market expansion (see, for instance, Helen Kopnina’s 2016 article, “Half the earth for people (or more)?”). Such criticisms are inappropriate for two main reasons.

The first is, as the Marxist geographer David Harvey has noted in his 2014 Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, that the extent to which capitalism requires constant population growth is debatable at best, and capital could easily resort to a number of alternative strategies to expand its markets, at least in the short to midterm.

More importantly, the second reason is that, even if we grant the necessity of population growth to capital for the sake of argument, this does not suggest a viable political strategy. Rather, attempting to intentionally induce a crisis of accumulation by halting further population growth would likely achieve little more than earn socialists the enmity of workers as well as capitalists.

Importantly, this does not mean that the question of human over-population is entirely irrelevant to Marxists. The Marxist sociologist Martha E. Gimenez cautioned in a 1977 article in Latin American Perspectives that population growth may become a profound structural problem in the transition from capitalism to socialism, owing to the latter’s commitment to the satisfaction of every person’s needs. While the means to accomplish this without further disruptions to the Biosphere may eventually be established, the organizational and productive technologies bequeathed by capitalism would likely play a more dominant role in satisfying such needs in the initial phases of such a transition.

In advancing this argument, which Gimenez concedes is somewhat hypothetical insofar as the actual conditions of such a transition are difficult to know in advance, she carefully distinguishes this point from the ideological uses to which population growth is put under capitalism. Rather, her main point is that Marxists should not encourage population growth with the hopes of provoking resource shortages that could incite a revolution, pointing again to the obvious conclusion that attempting to deliberately provoke an accumulation crisis is not generally a sound socialist strategy.

Furthermore, Gimenez also argues that family planning is not necessarily incompatible with socialist political objectives, but cautions that Marxist support for access to family planning should be distinguished from the instrumental logic of neo-Malthusianism. Her argument here closely parallels the position articulated by Lenin in his 1913 Pravda article, “The working class and neoMalthusianism” that the struggle for women’s right to abortion and contraception is part of the “protection of the elementary democratic rights of citizens, men and women,” that should in no way be conflated with the “reactionary and cowardly theory” of neo-Malthusianism.

This distinction is particularly important with respect to environmental neo-Malthusianism, given the ways in which the capitalist class generally displaces the costs of addressing capitalism’s  environmental problems onto the working class. The history of eugenics has already shown how readily neo-Malthusian arguments can be used to justify regressive measures such as forced sterilization and infanticide. Nor can such practices be legitimately dismissed by neo-Malthusians as a “distant memory” of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Forced and coerced sterilization of women with HIV continues to be reported in several countries of Latin America. Here, international programs emphasizing voluntary consent could easily lead to the opposite if they incentivize reductions in fertility, or if governments were to be persuaded by neo-Malthusian arguments that fertility reductions could help resolve their social and ecological problems.

In the USA, calls for population stabilization resonate uncomfortably well with reactionary anti-immigration sentiments expressed. Well before Trump’s reactionary administration turned the scapegoating of Mexicans into a national pastime, the Center for New Community reported in 2010 on an anti-immigrant environmentalist network that had been operating since the mid-1990’s, and in 2006 converged to form a group named Apply The Brakes, which openly attempts to pressure environmental organizations into adopting anti-immigrant platforms. If Dave Foreman’s rant on the 2013 Senate immigration bill in Earth Island Journal even partially reflects their perspective, Apply The Brakes and Trump share several fundamental assumptions regarding immigration (Ian Angus has commented on Foreman’s virulent anti-immigrant sentiment in his review of Foreman’s 2011 Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife).

Although they stopped short of calling for a ban on immigration, the Ehrlichs argued in their 2004 One With Nineveh that immigration into the USA could be problematic insofar as immigrants are able to adopt the high-consumption lifestyles of (some) US natives, and insofar as it allows the sending countries to avoid dealing with their population problems.

To their credit, many neo-Malthusians have explicitly stated that they vehemently oppose forced sterilization, not just because its efficacy at slowing population growth has been questionable, but because such practices constitute a violation of the reproductive rights of women. Many are also probably similarly appalled by the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and the reactionary forces that support it. Nonetheless, this depends more on the ethical positions of individual neo-Malthusians rather than the orientation of the movement, which has a highly reactionary history.

In this sense, the examples here merely illustrate some of the latent dangers of politicizing women’s reproductive rights as a solution, however partial, to humanity’s current social and ecological crises under capitalism. In contrast, Marx and Engels’ solution offers a preferable alternative. Capitalism’s ecological crises will not be automatically resolved by the socialist abolition of capital, but such revolutionary change is the necessary precondition to viable, long-term, and socially just solutions to such crises. This includes the prospects of keeping the human population below its absolute bisopheric limits, “for” (to quote Engels again) “only this transformation, only the education of the masses which it provides, makes possible that moral restraint of the propagative instinct which Malthus himself presents as the most effective and easiest remedy for over-population.”

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