You are here

A real Ecosocialist review of that cornucopian book, Too Many People

Alan Thornett, an ecosocialist, amazes positively in this thoughtful review of yet another pseudo-environmental book. Simon Butler and Ian Angus's Too Many People predictably attempts to stifle linking population numbers to ecological survival. (Simon Butler is co-editor of the Australian publication Green Left Weekly.) "Unfortunately it is the authors themselves who continue to draw false lessons from the past: i.e. that the left should leave this subject alone, keep out of the debates, and insist that there is nothing to discuss. The problem with this is that it is not just wrong but dangerous. If socialists have nothing to say about the population of the planet the field is left open to the reactionaries, and they will be very pleased to fill it. And one thing the authors are certainly right about is that there are plenty of such people out there with some very nasty solutions indeed." Even more surprisingly, this article was first published by a British Trotskyist organisation.

Introduction to this review:

Candobetter Editor: wants to believe that there is a socialist organisation out there that is in favour of free speech, science, and rich ecology. One of our tests for this is sound environmental thinking on human population numbers and ecology. The review below, published by Socialist Resistance, demonstrates sound thinking, in our view on ecology and on democracy. Socialist Resistance describes itself as "the ecosocialist magazine in Britain, has relaunched itself as the British section of the Fourth International, the worldwide socialist organisation. A national conference on July 4 completed a regroupment process begun a year earlier." But, one swallow does not a summer make, and Trotskyist organisations (i.e. socialist organisations aligned with the Fourth International) have notoriously been infiltrated by the establishment, and push growth by aggressively opposing the anti-growth lobby, thereby defending the growth lobby and the kinds of planners, developers and governments, who are destroying democracy, abrogating land-rights, and placing whole populations in precarity all over the world. We are therefore keeping our fingers crossed about the Socialist Resistance, but not holding our breaths.

Too many people? A review

First published here:

imageAlan Thornett reviews Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler published by Haymarket at £13.99.

As a long-time comrade of Ian Angus, a fellow ecosocialist, and an admirer of his work on Marxism and ecology, I am disappointed by the tone he has adopted in his new book on population Too Many People?—which he has authored jointly with Simon Butler, co-editor of the Australian publication Green Left Weekly.

The thesis they advance is that the population of the planet is irrelevant to its ecology, and that even discussing it is a dangerous or even reactionary diversion—a taboo subject. They even argue that such discussion is divisive and detrimental environmental campaigning. [page 97]

The book appears to be a response to Laurie Mazur’s very useful book published last year A Pivotal Moment— Population, Justice and the environmental challenge. This was reviewed by Sheila Malone in SR (July 2010), as part of a debate on the issue.

Mazur argues that it is not a matter of choosing between reactionary policies from the past but that “we can fight for population policies that are firmly grounded in human rights and social justice”. I agree with her on this point, though not with everything in her book.

I didn’t expect to agree with Ian’s book as such, since I have differed with him on this issue for some time. I did expect, however, an objective presentation of the debates without the ideas of fellow ecosocialists being lumped together with those of reactionaries and despots.

What we have is the branding (in heavy polemical tones) of anyone with a contrary view to the authors as ‘Malthusianist’—i.e. supporters of the 18th century population theorist the Reverend Thomas Malthus who advocated starving the poor to stop them breeding—or more precisely as ‘populationist’, by which the authors mean neo-Malthusianist.

They explain it this way: “Throughout the book we use the term ‘populationism‘ to refer to ideologies that attribute social and ecological ills to human numbers and ‘populationist’ to people who support such ideas.” They go on: “We prefer those terms to the more traditional Malthusianism and Malthusian, for two reasons”. The first is because not everyone is familiar with Malthus and the second is because most of their protagonists don’t actually agree with what he wrote. The “more traditional term”, however, never goes away. [page XX1]

This leaves the book stuck in the past, more concerned with rehashing the polarised conflicts of the last 200 years than engaging with the contemporary debates.

The authors are right to say that population is not the root cause of the environmental problems of the planet. It is capitalism. They are also right to say that stabilising the population would not in itself resolve them. But they are wrong to say that it is irrelevant. The fact is that current rate of increase is unsustainable were it to continue—and whether it will continue or for how long no one knows. What we do know it that it has almost tripled in just over 60 years—from 2.5bn in 1950 to the recently reached figure of 7bn.

According to UN figures it will reach between 8bn and 11bn (with 9.5bn as the median figure) by 2050. After that it could begin to stabilise—possibly doing so by the end of the 21st century. Even this, however, is highly speculative. Long-term population predictions, as the authors themselves acknowledge, are notoriously inaccurate. Meanwhile nearly half the current world population is under 25—which is a huge base for further growth.

Yet throughout the book the charge of ‘Malthusianism’ or ‘populationism’ is aggressively leveled against anyone who suggests that rising population is a legitimate, let alone important, subject for discussion. These range from those who do indeed see population as the primary cause of the ecological crisis to those who blame capitalism for it but see population as an important issue to be addressed within that.

This is reinforced by a sleight of hand by the authors over the term population ‘control’. They refuse to draw any distinction between control and empowerment and then brand those they polemicise against—including fellow ecosocialists who advocate empowerment—as being in favour of population ‘control’. This allows them to create a highly objectionable amalgam between every reactionary advocate of population control they can find—and there is no shortage of them including Malthusians—and those who are opposed to such control. This is then referred to throughout the book as “the populationist establishment”.

My own views would certainly fall within this so-called establishment. Yet I am opposed to population control and support policies based on empowerment—policies based on human rights and social justice, socially progressive in and of themselves, which can at the same time start to stabilise the population of the planet.

Such policies involve lifting people out of poverty in the poorest parts of the globe. They involve enabling women to control their own fertility through the provision of contraception and abortion services. It means challenging the influence of religion and other conservative influences such as patriarchal pressure. They involve giving women in impoverished communities access to education.

These are major strategic objectives in their own right, with the issue of rising population giving them an additional urgency. Yet the book dismisses them as secondary, as issues already dealt with! This reflects the fact that the book has nothing at all to say on the substantive (and huge) issue of women and population.

Some important progress towards empowerment policies was made at the UN conference on population and development held in Cairo in 1994. This, for the first time, pointed to the stabilisation of the global population through the elimination of poverty, the empowerment of women, and the effective implementation of basic human rights. That its proposals were sidelined by a vicious pro-life backlash and the arrival of George W Bush on the world stage does not invalidate the contribution it made.

The above approach, however, along with the Cairo Conference, is heavily slapped down in the book. In fact this is one of the author’s principal preoccupations. Empowerment is presented as the slippery slope to not only population control but “at its most extreme” to programs, human rights abuses, enforced or coercive sterilization, sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, and even to ethnic cleansing! [page 94]

The authors put it this way:

“Most supporters of population control today say that it is meant as a kindness — a benevolent measure that can empower women, help climate change, and lift people out of poverty, hunger, and underdevelopment. But population control has a dark past that must be taken into account by anyone seeking solutions to the ecological crisis.”(page 83) They go on: “…At its most extreme, this logic has led to sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ or ethnic cleansing. But even family planning could be a form of population control when the proponents aim to plan other people’s families.” [page 84]

The term population ‘control’ is again perversely attributed to anyone with contrary views and we are again warned of the ‘dark past’ of population debates and the dangers of engaging in them—and anything can be abused, of course, including family planning. But only enforced contraception, which we all oppose, could rationally be seen population control—not the extension to women of the ability to control their own fertility.

Equally mistaken is the crass assertion that to raise the issue of population under conditions where fertility levels are highest in the global south and declining in the north is in some way to target the women of the south and to blame them for the situation. For Fred Pearce, who endorses the book, makes advocates of empowerment into “people haters”: “How did apparently progressive greens and defenders of the underprivileged turn into people-haters, convinced of the evils of overbreeding amongst the world’s poor”.

What the empowerment approach actually targets, of course, is the appalling conditions under which women of the global south are forced to live and the denial basic human rights to which they are subjected. It demands that they have the same opportunities and resources as the women of the global north.

Even more confused is the allegation that the provision of contraception to women in the global south is in some way an attack on their reproductive rights; an attempt to stop them having the family size they would otherwise want — a view which appears to be endorsed in the Socialist Review review of the book. If that were the case, of course, it would not be the right to choose but enforced contraception.

In any case the proposition that most women in the global south, given genuine choice, would choose to have the large families of today is not supported by the evidence. Over 200m women in the global south are currently denied such services and there are between 70m and 80m unintended pregnancies a year—of which 46m end in abortions. 74,000 women die every year as a result of failed back-street abortions—a disproportionate number of these in the global south.

After attacking empowerment from every conceivable angle the authors then appear to accept at least the possibility that not all of us who think population is an important issue to discuss support enforced sterilisation and human rights abuses:

“We are not suggesting that everyone who thinks population growth is an ecological issue would support compulsory sterilisation or human rights abuses. Most modern-day populationists reject the coercive programmes of the 20th century, but that does not mean that they have drawn the necessary lessons from those experiences.” [page 95]

Unfortunately it is the authors themselves who continue to draw false lessons from the past: i.e. that the left should leave this subject alone, keep out of the debates, and insist that there is nothing to discuss.

The problem with this is that it is not just wrong but dangerous. If socialists have nothing to say about the population of the planet the field is left open to the reactionaries, and they will be very pleased to fill it. And one thing the authors are certainly right about is that there are plenty of such people out there with some very nasty solutions indeed.

Image icon alan-thornett.jpg5.57 KB


One regularly sees claims put out by the growth lobby that Australia suffers a terrible shortage of workers, and that only high immigration is keeping the country afloat. This has long been a lie, and now Crispin Hull, former editor of The Canberra Times, has nailed it. In reality Australia suffers increasingly high unemployment.

Why is the claim of labour shortage made? Perhaps because it suits the vested interests of employers generally. They know that if they can persuade the government to provide them with a surplus of workers, the market price of labour will fall, and they can keep wages down. Also, many employers need skilled workers but don't want to pay the world market price for skilled labour (or the cost of apprenticeships).

Imported workers often come pre-trained, and because they are getting into a richer or safer or less over-crowded country (Australia) these workers are prepared initially to work for less. Also, since they can't access the dole for two years, they have little choice but to take what employers offer.

Throw in those businesses that profit in other ways from population growth (e.g. developers, property speculators, and major retailers who benefit simply by having more customers) and you have a powerful array of vested interests to fund various fronts and "foundations" that regularly spruik the need to increase our labour force.

However they do not offer to cover the infrastructure costs of these extra people -- at least $250,000 per person. Those costs they pass on to the public, along with the cost of paying the social security of the marginally less skilled or attractive Australian worker whom they sack or fail to employ because they can get a recent immigrant to work marginally harder or for a little less money.

Little wonder Hull comments, "More fuss should be made over the way big industry promotes immigration and high population for short-term gains."

Australia's banks could be facing a massive new class action over allegations that their mortgage lending practices have put thousands of families in severe financial stress or at risk of losing their homes.

Housing is a basic human need, and access to it is a basic human right. Up to 300,000 mortgage holders would be eligible to participate in the class action, which is expected to focus on first home buyers and lower-income households who accepted loans since the onset of the global financial crisis.

They are now under severe financial hardship due to because they have been lent too much money. They are under mortgage stress.

Not only should the banks be facing allegations of corruption and abuse of profiting from a housing rort, but the whole pro-growth pushing capitalists. This includes the land speculators, developers, State government agencies that profit from growth, and the economists who promote their theories of perpetual growth and prosperity. Housing has been extorted as a prime economic commodity instead of primarily a provision for families and communities.

Australia's status of the "Lucky Country" and high rate of home ownership and affordable housing has been exploited and sold overseas to the fullest extent. We now have the highest cost housing in the world, yet the growth pushers are still planning 30 more years of insidious growth. In one generation we have descended from the "Lucky Country" to one of great debt due to cannibalistic policies. Now housing is over and above the ability of average workers to pay for.

These authors seem to think that we humans can transcend ecological and environmental limits with impunity. Protection and conservation of our planet's natural resources, ecological functions, integrity, biodiversity and all it's generous services in supporting human populations must over-ride the concerns of its dependents. While we have overpopulation, food shortages, lack of fresh water, growth beyond economic benefits, territorial conflicts, land degradation and species extinctions, "social justice" and "human rights" can't be assured. Once humanity becomes a teaming mass and a plague of numbers, we descend into mayhem and confusion and anarchy. Each person has less rights, and less political power.
Human rights will only decline and be compromised by human overpopulation. It will mean increasing wars, conflict, clashes of ideologies, increased predatory grabs for land and natural resources, and individual human lives will have less importance.
Nations and communities and the economies that support them are a sub-set of ecological functions and environmental integrity. Poverty and overpopulation go hand in hand. The smallest nations are generally the most affluent, and have the highest standards of living. They are able to plan for their future instead of descending into perpetual debt and be forced to cope with continual "shortages" and the impediments of perpetual growth. This is due to good resource management, investment in knowledge and innovation, and strong traditions and patriotism.