We are being told that a growing world population is not a real problem, and that we can really feed and maintain more people. When I have a conversation with my brother he would always run the line that humans are really the most superior being on earth, and that we should, therefore, have the right and the ability to expand our sphere. What better evidence for that is there than a growing world population? Those that argue that there are no real limitations to population growth are generally also critics of Malthus’ theory of population growth. Malthus had essentially argued that food production only grows linearly, while the population grows exponentially so that population growth outstrips the growth in food supply, so soon there is going to be a major famine, resource scarcity and war, which will decimate the human population. Well, we have had plenty of famines and plenty of devastating wars in our past, but none of it has really altered the long-term trajectory of social development, namely the consistent growth in the total population. The current estimate is that we are at 7.1 billion people having reached the 7 billion threshold in late-2011 or early-2012, depending on which estimate may be trusted. With rapid industrialization we can see an expansion in the world population within a roughly 200 year time span. World population reached 1 billion around 1804, 2 billion on 1927, 3 billion in 1960, 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999 and finally 7 billion most recently. These statistics do speak to the enormous advances in technology, capitalism and the human capability to produce more and better outcomes for more people. It is a testament to what we can do as humans, and so my agreement with my optimistic brother largely holds. Malthus is wrong. At least so far.
However, there are several problems that the rapidly rising population are producing, and they are coming down our way. They include: resource scarcity in the form of realizing greater difficulty in finding oil, gas, and other fossil fuels on which our modern, industrial lifestyle depends on. (I will comment on the prospects of fracking and solar/alternative energy a little later.), or fresh water, on which our life depends on; global climate change, which is the direct result of the expansion in the global population and global consumption, the expansion of the industrial lifestyle from the advanced, industrial countries to the less industrial countries and emerging countries, like Brazil or China, and more immediately the increase in fossil fuel burning (mostly in factories, industries, transportation and households) and trapping of CO2 in the atmosphere, which also traps more solar insolation and heat energy. Resource scarcity will certainly increase distributional struggles and warfare among nations and groups, which threatens social stability and our civilization. Global climate change will make our existence on the planet much more insecure. Humans tend to have this idea about their invulnerability, but from a long-term historical viewpoint, this idea is entirely unreasonable. One human lifespan, though it is longer on average than ever before, is no more than 80 years, in some cases more or less (in poorer countries the tendency is less). Human existence on earth is no more than 1.5 to 2 million year, while earth’s existence is closer to 4.5 billion years, which indicates that our time horizon is fairly short, and, therefore, our ability to accurately predict our survival chances are equally small.
As I will argue, the combined challenges of global climate change and resource scarcity pose tremendous challenges to human survival and modern civilization, and I also think that they are in large part connected to uncontrolled population growth and a capitalist system that knows no boundaries. Historically, it has been easy to dismiss both Marx and Malthus, but I think it may be time to re-examine their current relevance. For the rest of the paper, I will proceed with outlining the causes of the enormous population growth, and the causes for the drop in fertility in advanced industrial countries, noting that this might also be a positive opportunity for humans. I will then proceed with describing and explaining the conundrum that different population trajectories form with regard to the logic in the capitalist system and the logic of our eco-system, i.e. more population growth is good for capitalism but bad for the eco-system, and less population growth is bad for capitalism but good for the eco-system. Based on these population trajectories I will outline some of the prospects for our future under different population growth scenarios. I will also respond to the pro-capitalist response that these goals may not at all be conflictual, and that more or less population growth within the framework of capitalism may not be a problem at all for the eco-system, especially with respect to new technology in the energy sector. I will conclude the paper with a solution to the population growth problem, and will also concede some of the weaknesses of my solutions, which will leave the reader with some big and difficult, yet not impossible questions to ponder. I argue that without challenging current capitalism and tackling population growth, we can not really contemplate saving our eco-system, on which we depend for our survival.
The cause of the enormous population growth over the last 200 years, and really especially the last 70 years is industrialization coupled with advances in medicine and agriculture. Each will be explained in part. Industrialization means to use technology to first raise agricultural productivity. Raising agricultural productivity is often the very first goal of any nation that is trying to advance economically. This means that one can produce more food with fewer people, which essentially allows a greater amount of division of labor. If we have more teachers and scientists, we can then scale industrialization further by applying productivity advances into industrial production, which increases the conveniences in life. But for the purposes of my own analysis, stating that industrialization improves agricultural productivity is the most important factor for an increase in population. More food means more people. Malthus was scared that agricultural productivity would only grow very slowly relative to our rate of reproduction, but luckily he had been wrong so far. Being able to feed more people was correlated with an increase in population, and that was true particularly for the most advanced countries perhaps into the mid-twentieth century. The more economically backward countries were not so lucky, and high birth rates were often coupled with at least equally high death rates. Food is only one part of what is required for a growing world population. Another major part is available medicine. Here humans have proved to be enormously inventive again, having developed penicillin, morphine and, yes, hygiene in hospitals and medical facilities. Surgeries became more sophisticated, and different drugs and injections were developed to eradicate diseases like polio, diphteria or tubercolosis (which still exists in some parts of the world, but I speak about improvement in relative terms). Medicine, initially, was an advantage that belonged to the advanced, industrial countries, and was not spread to the developing countries until the end of WW II. And now comes the interesting part: as the war ended, the less developed countries now received medicine and various types of food and grain support from the West. There was a so-called Green revolution in the 1970s (another agricultural innovation), which staved off potential starvation in population-rich countries like India. The result is predictably a dramatic increase in population.
The purely technological account of population growth now needs to be combined with cultural factors. Introducing a new technology does not immediately change cultural notions of having a large family, which is considered as ideal among the people in the poor countries. This may be individually justifiable due to the heavy dependence on agriculture as a means of livelihood for many of those people. Requiring much child labor for personal maintenance and survival gives cultural justification for having more children in the family. But this is an insufficient explanation. And that is because the ideology among people to have so many children also prevailed, because so many children were dying at child birth or in the early years of life, and so it was not uncommon for a woman to bear 10, 15 or in some cases even 20 children throughout her life-time (imagine that!), because only half of those children will make it into adulthood. But if we change the calculus by cutting down infant mortality dramatically with an increase in medicine and food supplies, then the picture changes. Effective methods of birth control now become relevant, because having twice as many children is certainly not worth the stress (yes, I say this as a Westerner), and from an aggregate view, it has straining consequences on resources and the environment as outlined above. The World Bank and various non-profits are trying to preach greater use of contraceptives and sex education in the less developed countries, and I absolutely support that effort, though in the absence of larger education and economic development campaigns, a contraception-only policy will remain, obviously, ineffective.
I will now turn to more positive population developments in the advanced, industrial countries, and even in the large emerging country, China. In most Western countries, birth rates had been consistently dropping. In many European countries, like in Austria, Italy or Germany, the fertility rate has dipped below the replacement rate (2 children per woman). In Japan, a low fertility rate is combined with virtually no immigration, a rapid population aging, and a declining population and economy. I will turn to this point a little later. The US actually holds up with a fertility rate of about 2.1, which is largely thanks to the huge immigration from other countries. The cause for the population stabilization in the West (not counting in immigration, which is another thorny subject) is that industrialization fundamentally altered the meaning and circumstances for having children. My own parents had five or six siblings as they grew up in India, but I only have one older brother, and we were both born in Austria, a western country. My mother has often complained about the difficulty of raising even just two children in a western country, where it was difficult to raise two children when both parents are working, and where children are an expensive expenditure (e.g. education) that would not reap any benefits for the parents in the immediate future (and where the public retirement system divorces the immediate link between parents and children by socializing the cost of retirement across the whole society, though from the aggregate perspective such distinction makes only very little sense, because not every old person can refrain from having children and expect the retirement system to have enough contributors for their own pension). My mother’s complaint is well taken. Both parents are working, there are more nuclear families and rarely extended family living in the same household, so no grandparents are there to raise the grandchildren, and limited time can be devoted to child-rearing. The cost of living is very high. Women are better educated, and focus on their careers rather than children. Children do not produce immediate economic returns to their parents. The disincentives for child-rearing are huge in advanced, industrial countries, and this might, in fact, be a good thing, because one merely needs to imagine what it would mean for resource consumption and the environment if the most developed countries would still reproduce like the people in less developed countries!
But the conundrum for capitalist countries are as follows: in the industrialized countries a growing population is necessary in order to continuously grow the economy as previously. To express it differently, if there is no population growth the economy will not expand as quickly or at all. Japan serves here as a case in point. Due to their very strict immigration laws, and due to their declining and aging population, the country has a problem in attracting more capital investments because consumption becomes limited. In the past, Japan has built its wealth due to the export of its product into western developed countries, but the avenue for export growth is restricted due to economic problems in the developed countries, but more importantly due to rising competition with China and other emerging countries. Japan is an example of where limited population growth is beginning to adversely affect economic development. And that is very pernicious from a capitalist viewpoint, because without growth there will be a lack of investment and jobs, which will produce all sorts of social crises. On the other hand, more immigration in Europe and North America can avert the growth crisis for longer, but more multiculturalism is usually not welcomed by the native population, and more ethnic tensions are unavoidable. (Though I consider this to be a more or less solvable problem, because the younger generation tends to be more tolerant and less racist than the previous generation. The more serious social tension arises from the lack of integration of immigrants into the national labor market.)
At the same time for the less developed countries, continuous population growth has produced a surplus population with only limited employment opportunities. Traditionally, the surplus population has been absorbed into the farm, where more labor hands are always required, but as of lately, the many land expropriations and increasing use of wage labor does alter the economic position of the vast majority of the people in currently less developed countries. In addition, the consequences of global climate change tend to be the most problematic in the less developed countries. One may be reminded of the typhoon in the Philippines or Indonesia, and the drought in Somalia. The number of climate refugees are expected to increase in the medium and long-term. The pressure for emigration into the wealthier countries, therefore, becomes the inevitable outcome. Resource scarcity is also hitting the least developed countries the most, because the developed countries can use their existing political clout to concentrate the global resources in their own hands. The fact that strong emerging powers like China or India may also join the game (the two most population-rich countries) is not necessarily better, because the resource conflict will only increase as people’s living standard is increasing and requiring more resources to support.
Generally, the prospects for humanity are two-fold: more or less population growth. More population growth is good for capitalism, because more people implies more consumer demand, but this will merely accelerate the crisis in our eco-system in the form of rising sea levels, rising temperatures, increases in flood occurrences and other weather intensities, restrictions to freshwater resources and agricultural/food production. It is certainly nice to have more people approach western living standards, but it will also demand more resources than currently, which will create more ecological problems and resource scarcity, which will yield in conflict, warfare and a potential destruction of our modern civilization. It seems very likely, trusting current population trajectories, that the world population will continue to increase at the rate of 1 billion every 13 years or so, which means that this scenario is the most likely. On the other hand, less population growth may have a stabilizing impact on our eco-system, because among a smaller population rising real wealth is less problematic than among a larger population. Since we supposedly need not more resources, we can live longer with it, and CO2 production can be limited, so we can also reduce anthropogenic impacts on global climate change. But this prospect is overshadowed by a severe crisis in capitalism. Without persistent population growth, the ability to expand markets will become limited, and without growth, there are not enough profits, and capitalism can no longer persist. So we will have more unemployment, more economic insecurity among the masses, and conflict and warfare might continue to increase in the absence of macro-regulations that distribute resources more equitably and coordinate functions in the economy. Some people might object to the last point in that even a constant population may still advance capitalism, because the average person will simply consume more. It is certainly true that the average person in a rich country today consumes more goods and services than the average person 100 years ago. But there are certainly limitations to consumption expansion, especially in the most developed countries. And even if a constant population does not immediately conflict with economic growth and capitalism, it would still adversely affect the eco-system, and it would then require a solution, which more directly confronts the problem of unrestricted economic growth.
Another pro-capitalist response is that more or less population growth does not eventually matter, because with the innovation of new technologies we can find new ways of harnessing energy, maintain our advanced lifestyle, increase consumption and economic growth, while not fearing more strains on the eco-system by depleting current fossil fuel resources and emitting more CO2 into the atmosphere. This is a fairly serious argument, and requires some closer consideration. I will certainly admit that if this argument is factually correct then my whole thesis in this article will collapse, and I am wrong. And I wish I will be wrong, because the problems that I describe are of such magnitude that being wrong with pessimistic scenarios mean a blessing for humanity, and prove our continuing existence as the leading animals of the earth. But before I give myself up to surrender, I will add a few notes of caution. So far, solar and wind technology were advanced as new forms of energy production, which will reduce the strain in the eco-system, yet can power our houses and our cars, which will help us maintain our current standard of living. But this technology has not yet been scaled to an extent that we can actually reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The price of a barrel of oil still dominates current economic thinking in terms of how many investments we can foreseeably plan. But if we consumed more, and the population still continues to push upward, because the cultural changes toward a lower birthrate are rather slow, the strain on resources will still become felt at one point. The human footprint will still remain large, and we will still remain in uncertain terrains from the standpoint of the eco-system. Delaying the population challenge is not the same thing as solving it.
The hardest part of the paper are the solutions. My brother has argued that while my solutions may produce long-term stability, they will cause a massive change in the status quo, which itself produces instability. There is a real risk involved in changing human behavior, especially on such a large scale. But because the problems discussed in this paper are big enough, so shall be the ideas to deal with them. First, I think that the capitalist system needs to be phased out, which implies that the unhampered growth paradigm needs to stop. As long as this remains the logic, there will be further impetus for drawing in more resources, which will accelerate scarcity in resources, also more population, which serve as workers and consumers. This can obviously only work if it is possible to draw in all parts of the world economy to coordinate with each other about how to allocate resources the best and with the least damaging environmental impact.
Second, there needs to be a radical redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. At first sight this prospect might accelerate resource scarcity and global climate change, and in the short term it certainly will, because the standard of living of the poorer parts of the world population will increase quite substantially. But this policy of income redistribution has other objectives in mind as well: as long as wealth is distributed unequally across different parts of the world, it is difficult to convince the poor countries to accept a freezing of economic growth, which will freeze their economic relations with the wealthier countries. The level of resentment this unequal status will create will threaten social stability world-wide, and migration waves northward will continue with the predictable challenges of how to integrate more people in the same polity. Another implication of uplifting the poor is that the culture will also shift significantly toward smaller families, such as in the current advanced industrialized countries. The secret is also to spread the labor market broadly by including more people into the labor market, and thus reducing the incentive for people to maximize the number of their offspring. That was effective in all developed countries. Affluence does tend to reduce fertility rates, though the key explanatory factor is certainly the extent of integration into the labor market, for both men and women, and the extent to which especially women are educated. (Otherwise, more wealthy and unemployed people might still produce a large number of offspring, unless self-centered individualism becomes a greater cultural trait.) And this leads to the more pragmatic solution to curb population growth: expand women’s education, which is a serious factor hampering development in the poorer countries of the world. Contraception and sex education should be made more widely available. The objective will be to stabilize the global population to around 7 billion as exist currently. Finally, with regard to the climate the treaties that regulate the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, these treaties have to be expanded in scope, and the world has to cooperate more intently on this subject if it wants to avoid further climate disasters.
I will conclude this paper with conceding to some problems with my solutions. Large problems require large solutions, and these solutions are then more prone to critiques, which I will simply accept as they stand. First, how can we abolish capitalism? The only systematic attempt to get rid of capitalism once it appeared were in most of the communist countries, and that was mainly successful because the bourgeoisie in those countries had been relatively weak (especially in Russia and China). I can see the advantages of a capitalist system, namely the ability to coordinate economic growth and development on a large scale with the least amount of political coercion. Now, this is an ideal-type, of course, because there are other more politicized forms of capitalism, such as in East Asia, where the state has played an important role in economic development (and so does official corruption). Saudi Arabia is a capitalist country, but with a great degree of coercion and little democratic participation thanks to its great oil wealth that makes the country independent from developing the human capital of its nation’s residents. Capitalism is good for creating a lot of economic growth, which very immediately raises people’s standard of living and certainly has allowed me to write papers and read books rather than to sow seeds and grow food. And capitalism leads to an informalization in society, which tends to increase individual liberties. Even Marx, the most severe critic of capitalism, was able to receive refugee status in the most capitalist country at that time, Great Britain. Even left-wing socialists can sell their books in the book stores of capitalist countries, because pecunia non olet (money does not stink). Social scientists have framed the push toward more informalization in developed countries in terms of urbanization and the move away from the rural countryside, which allows the individual to live more anonymously and pursue personal passions of a peculiar and unique sort more freely. Try to find open homosexuals in small, rural villages! I don’t see why we should not be able to link urbanization with capitalist development, because wherever we have seen urbanization we have seen more complex and more large-scale web of economic relations often geared toward profit, growth, technological development and fast-pace change. On the other hand, the major alternative was socialism, which meant the freezing to a relatively low standard of living for the masses, production inefficiency in the form of bottlenecks for low-demand goods and scarcity of high-demand goods, waste of resources, and the control of private aspects of life to ensure no suspicious, “right-leaning”, “bourgeois capitalist” activity among the population. It is certainly true that this prospect of socialism is not really attractive to anybody, but it is wrong to suggest that this is the only possible form of socialism. The challenge in the twenty-first century will be to continue to find a way to transcend the endless growth machine without having to resort to coercion and terror.
Second, how does one redistribute wealth equitably? That is another major challenge, which contains the crucial assumption of political power and how that is distributed across different individuals and groups in society. The people that have the most political power tend to have the most wealth. This relationship is not neat and uniform across all times and all societies, but still an important predictor of wealth. So who has the most political power? The global oligarchy, which consists of a tiny majority of the world population, which holds most of the global wealth. I am very much afraid that recent changes in the political economy have increased the power and the wealth of the oligarchs. These changes include neoliberal reforms, privatization of public services, cuts in social services, austerity policies, outsourcing of work from high-income to low-income countries, automation of production and work, financialization of the economy, an increase in public and private sector indebtedness, central bank low-interest rate policies to benefit primarily financial institutions and investors, government bailouts for banks, freedom of capital movement etc. Breaking up or at least weakening this global oligarchy requires a significant amount of political mobilization from the middle and lower classes, and the uneven development may complicate this process of creating greater solidarity.
Third, how can one bring all nations on one table to address global climate change? This seems to be a no-brainer, because all countries of the world are affected by global climate change, but people acting in large groups are not always perfectly rational and perfectly calculating. This means that it would be in the common interest of all countries to work together to reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions, but the political leaders do not have the long-term interests of their constituency in mind, but only short-term interests. They need to deliver economic growth, jobs and wealth to their constituency now, and if that means that the planet is less habitable in the future, then so be it. Another problem is that not all countries are equally affected. The rich countries like the US or Canada want to maximize the exploitation of tar sands and fracking without any consideration for the environment and future generations, but if the weather events become more extreme, then it is the poor countries that have to take the greatest hit, because they have less resources to build themselves protections, like flood levees against floods, or weather tracking systems for predicting hurricanes/cyclones/typhoons and major storm systems etc.
Finally, how can one convince most people in the less developed countries that having less babies is the best thing for long-term human survival? There is an important cultural component to it, as I have outlined previously. But I do not believe in campaigns of just delivering more public information about contraception to people and hand out free condoms. There are many initiatives by private foundations that do precisely that, but that is not structural change, and it will not work on a large scale. The ultimate solution requires more education for women and increased job opportunities for most people, which will create more disincentives for child-rearing. And here I am fairly optimistic that this might actually work, though not at a fast enough pace so that it actually matters.
There are no easy solutions to difficult problems, but we have to find them in order to create long-term stability in population, economic and ecological development. So far, Malthus was wrong about his theory of population, and Marx was wrong about the downfall of capitalism, but that can not be said over the long term. And as I had said previously, I hope I am wrong.