Overpopulation, Climate Change and Capitalism

Podcast available here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/39-overpopulation-climate-change-and-capitalism

Life appears to become more convenient. Life expectancy is getting longer. AI use in medicine is likely to add more years to life. Polio is essentially eliminated thanks to concerted efforts by governments and NGOs. People are becoming more educated, even in the less developed countries, and with more education unjustifiable superstition is declining (people may still retain a baseline spirituality, but they are likely to attribute personal problems to what they observe in the world rather than some higher force). Despite bad news on authoritarian-populist leaders on the rise, a global trade war and automation of jobs on the horizon, cheap technological conveniences like Netflix or Amazon Prime can wonderfully distract and entertain us.

Nonetheless, at the macro-level there are three challenges for which policies are not easy to come by: overpopulation, climate change and capitalism.

Human population has rapidly increased in the last 200 years. The basis of the population explosion is always the same: because of better technology, medicine, nutrition and public health measures (like immunization and sanitation) mortality rates plummet, yet farmers with a desire to maximize the number of farm hands will continue procreating in huge numbers. It takes about one or two generation for important social changes like industrialization, higher educational and consumption standards in households, rising cost of living and female labor participation to result in reductions in the fertility rate.

In most developed countries, fertility has expanded in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, but has since declined to below replacement levels. In East Asia and Southern Europe, we already see “lowest-low” fertility rate hovering slightly above 1 child per woman. That is not where the population bomb is coming from. They are facing a declining society and economy, as an elderly population is unlikely to consume more. In the western societies, the large immigrant population share is keeping the economy afloat and the pensions funded. On the other hand, growing skepticism about immigration and right-wing populism may change that calculus if fewer migrants are let in. Many migrants will ignore migrant blockades and walls because there are not enough opportunities at home; climate change is destroying their home; or they live in areas filled with warfare and gang violence.

The demographic transition toward lower fertility appears to be happening all over the world, but in sub-Saharan Africa the maximum fertility rate is still around 7 as in Niger. Sub-Saharan Africa is also the first victim of climate change, which is reflected in rising sea levels, tornadoes, sinking groundwater levels which is crucial for agriculture, rising temperature and rising humidity. Once climate change makes agriculture unsustainable, then migration is the only survival method. A rapidly rising population amid increasing land and water scarcity will return Malthusian concerns about overpopulation, which we thought had been solved decades ago.

Most migrants don’t go far and they might encroach on the land of neighbors or nearby nations. This encroachment will result in conflict, violence and civil war. Boko Haram is an Islamist terrorist organization in northeast Nigeria, and their success is strongly correlated with dry land. In Syria, the anti-Assad uprisings coincided with an extreme dry period destroying farmer crops, forcing these farmers to move to overstretched and under-resourced cities, where they became recruits to anti-Assad militant groups.

Overpopulation by itself is not the cause of climate change, because the rich developed countries and rising industrial powers like China (admittedly the most populous nation) are primarily responsible for increasing CO2 output. But as technology, markets and consumption patterns spread to less developed countries this overpopulation becomes a factor reinforcing climate change, which is surely the case in China and to a smaller extent India. Thus, it is capitalism, which is the biggest contributor to climate change.

In western culture it is blasphemy to attack capitalism, because it is the basis for wealth in these societies. But there are several threats to human existence arising from capitalism. The first problem is around social legitimation, i.e. the general belief that the economic system benefits them. For sure, Amazon Prime and smartphones are amazing, but cost of living is rising, including rents, tuition fees, medical bills, while paychecks are pretty much stagnant in the rich countries. This wage stagnation does not come from stagnant productivity across all sectors of the economy. Rather, some sectors have become extremely productive because of automation, which increases output and reduces the labor headcount. Rising profits are pushing up share prices for the big corporations, who use robots, machines and computers. Workers can’t get a bigger piece from the pie, because unionization is low. The 1%, which owns most of the stocks and real estate in the economy, are raking in almost all the net gains. Usually the state would tax rich individuals more to redistribute some of that concentrated gain indirectly by funding public services like education, health or social care or directly by social and tax transfers for the poor, but there is increasing leakage in tax collection, because of tax havens being complicit in hiding the wealth of the rich and corporations.

With declining legitimacy and a largely unresponsive political system (as so-called centrist politicians are firmly in the pockets of their wealthy donors), people become xenophobic and want to erect higher immigration barriers at the same time as devastating climate change makes migration the only survival option for people in poor societies.

The second problem with capitalism is the growth imperative which has programmed in a quantitative increase of resource use and fossil fuel exploitation. Many of the consumer goods we use contain plastics and fossil fuels. The more fossil fuels we use, the more CO2 is released into the atmosphere, and the faster the temperatures increase. Techno-optimists and so-called “green capitalists” argue that a rapid shift to nuclear energy reactors, solar, wind and other renewable sources of energy can satisfy the growth requirements of capitalism and the environmental requirement of eliminating CO2 emissions. Reassuringly, European CO2 emissions have maxed out in the late-2000s and have been declining ever since, but I think the accounting is somewhat erroneous given that the CO2 budget is calculated by the location of production and not the location of consumption. So if the Europeans purchase commodities from China and other low-wage countries, they are not emitting more CO2, yet they are responsible for overall rising CO2 in the countries where the commodities were produced.

Furthermore, given the fast pace of temperature rises, CO2 reductions are no longer sufficient (we are already hitting the 2 degrees celsius limit rise in several locations in the globe), but we need to basically get down to close to zero emissions as soon as possible. Yet, it is quite unlikely to convince people to jump off from existing consumption patterns and behaviors. As Foster and co-authors noted in The Ecological Rift, since the inception of capitalism we are infected by a gold rush like King Midas, whose wish it was to make everything into gold that he touches. The god granted him his wish. He was quite happy for a while turning things into gold until he realized that his food and drink also turned into gold. When he became hungry and thirsty he regretted his wish and wanted it to be undone. Humanity is still in the King Midas trap, and there is no god ready to undo our wish.

The trap of capitalism is spiritual and environmental. I have explained the latter above (climate change), while the former is about the growing alienation and individualization of life. Even when given the chance to live in a big and luxurious condominium we realize that we are no happier than our ancestral hunter and gatherers but we are more lonely, overworked and exhausted.

The rising population is a backdrop to fire up capitalism, because additional people furnish the labor force and the consumer markets at the same time. With the spread of markets any hopes of anti-capitalist resistance will puff up in thin air. Some tribal communities, who resist mining companies taking tribal lands, might be making a last stand against the lure of Midas’ touch. But most will find the conveniences of capitalism too alluring to resist, and true resistance seems futile anyway. There are some escapist young Europeans moving to the Canary islands, enjoying the warm ocean breeze, and earning minimal income playing street music to purchase food, but the mayor of the island wants to get rid of these dirty, un-showered bohemians, who are apparently offending the paying tourists of the island. The institutions of power are quite unambiguous in their conduct. In a liberal society, one cannot be forced to be a pliant worker and consumer, but the powerholders will make it very hard for you not to be one.

The threat to capitalism (and the potential savior from climate change) does not come from human volition (i.e. organized social resistance to capitalism), but from a declining population. So far I pointed to the overpopulation in the less developed countries, who- ravaged by climate change- are going to migrate in larger numbers to the rich countries, where they provide the new fodder for labor and consumption (despite growing anti-immigrant hostility). But this is a medium-term observation. The long-term observation is that once fertility rate has declined anywhere in the world, we have not seen the fertility rate increase by much.

In the US, fertility rate dipped below the replacement rate in the early-1970s, as women joined the labor force, went to college and took the contraceptive pill, but it increased to reach replacement rates in the late-1980s until it declined below replacement rate again since the 2008 financial crisis. The slight upward trend in the late-1980s can be explained by delayed fertility, while the financial crisis and pessimism regarding high student debts, low and insecure work is permanently depressing the fertility rate.

The normative change cannot be underestimated: as more women delay or forego childbearing it becomes less and less stigmatized for a woman to pursue her own career ambitions, and this normative change pushes down the fertility rate further. Post-industrial, urban societies prioritize the needs of presently living individuals (who desire to focus on work, studies or playing games), not a future, unborn generation that has no right to determine whether they shall exist. Peasant societies favor procreation, because labor-intensive farming required more farm hands i.e. children, but even today’s farmers no longer have those beliefs as agriculture is heavily mechanized and automated.

Capitalism might survive if it can convince the shrinking population to consume ever more consumer items. Planned obsolescence is built into the present system. Why are the smartphones slowing down, running out of storage space and the batteries empty out so quickly after two years of usage? For the phonemakers this is a feature, not a bug to be fixed. But even with planned obsolescence, the ultimate fuel to capitalism has been the number of human beings participating in the system.

Japan is a shrinking society, where economic growth has been artificially contrived with a real estate bubble followed by unneeded infrastructure-building stimulus funded by central bank monetary interventions and giant household savings. With a shrinking population, the labor force has been shrinking from the late-1990s until about 2012, when government policies pushed more women into paid work, but even that rise has stopped since about 2017. Given the female-hostile workplace, one can expect that female labor participation comes at the cost of continuing depressed fertility. Japanese capitalism is like a patient on endless life support, although it is true that one can survive this condition for quite a long time.

Regarding population, capitalism and climate change, we have three difficult balls up in the air. If I had to venture a guess, climate change is the most intractable. Overpopulation can be brought under control by industrialization and capitalism. Capitalist growth limits are bridged by new technology and new sources of energy, including renewables. Getting rid of capitalism altogether is an admittedly harder proposition as there is no central world government powerful enough to impose it. For mitigating climate change, even reducing to zero CO2 emissions will not suffice and as long as there are more people and more consumption we are drifting further away from it. In the eleventh hour, humans might refine carbon capture and global cooling techniques or make life in the outer space viable, but I admit these are no more than straws of hope at the moment.

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