#1570 The overpopulation debate is more philosophical than empirical (Transcript)

Air Date 7/8/2022

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JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Welcome to this episode of the award-winning Best of the Left podcast, in which we shall take a look at the dubious, ideologically driven debate between overpopulation being a danger to the future of humanity, and it being a dangerous myth obscuring the real issue of overconsumption.

Sources today include; Ideas, The Overpopulation Podcast, WhoWhatWhy, Acclimated, International Marxist Radio, The Rewilding Earth Podcast, and The Wildlife. With an additional members-only clip from The Overpopulation Podcast.

Is Overpopulation Killing the Planet? - Ideas - Air Date 6-12-23

BRUCE LIVESEY: China's One Child policy is estimated to have resulted in 400 million people not being born. Although the country's population continued to climb, and is more than 1.4 billion people today, the One Child policy was rescinded in 2016. As China was facing an aging and declining population. These harsh methods of population control shocked Western environmental [00:01:00] organizations to the point where the term overpopulation became something too freighted to talk about.

THOMAS HOMER DIXON: It fundamentally shifted the debate because a lot of people who were less concerned about population — but very concerned about issues of justice, fairness, equity, and the coercion of less powerful groups within societies, saw exercises at reducing fertility and "population control" as basically forms of state coercion. Population growth has been largely removed from contemporary debates, it's almost a verboten topic.

VANESSA PEREZ-CIRERA: I think we created a Pandora box because we didn't discuss population growth in the right way. Definitely, I did see a tone of racism in those years. The north pointing fingers at the south, which was [00:02:00] growing faster. My name is Vanessa Pérez-Cirera. I'm the global director for the Economic Center at World Resources Institute.

 Of course, the population that was coming, they were having the same aspirations as all. If we have already had the opportunity to have essential needs, plus. Why would any people in the South end world don't aspire for something similar?

So that created a little bit of a Pandora box, when we talk about population. I think now the debate, and the narrative should be around; how to ensure every citizen of the world to have basic needs, and essential needs within the planetary boundaries. That should be the conversation. The conversation should be about over consumption. That should be primarily the conversation.

NAHLAH AYED HOST, IDEAS: Bruce, if the dire warnings about overpopulation haven't actually led to our [00:03:00] demise by now, why should we or anyone be concerned about population now?

BRUCE LIVESEY: There are two reasons. One is that the bill has finally come due on burning fossil fields for nearly 200 years. Secondly, fossil fuels raised expectations among people in populous developing countries that they too can enjoy the same standard of living as those in wealthy countries

Developing nations with large populations, with most people living primarily on the land, produce very low carbon emissions. As countries industrialize and urbanize, their reliance on fossil fuels grows. Our dependence of fossil fuels has a multiplying impact when more, and more people are added to the planet. Overall, the average person on the earth produces four tons of carbon per year.

Yet the size of someone's carbon footprint varies depending on their standard of living, and where they live. Africa has 17% of the [00:04:00] world's population and 1.4 billion people, yet produces — as a continent — only 3.8% of the world's global emissions. A person living in Africa will, on average, produce carbon emissions of one metric ton per annum.

NAHLAH AYED HOST, IDEAS: How's that compared to more developed countries like Canada?

BRUCE LIVESEY: An average Canadian produces about 15 times more than that. More than 15 tons of carbon, the same as an average American. A wealthy person like Bill Gates, who flies around the world on private jets, he produces almost 7,500 tons of carbon every year.

So the disparity in lifestyles between countries like the US and Canada, and those in the developing world, are largely due to our use of fossil fuels. People in developing nations would obviously like to enjoy the benefits accrued by the use of fossil fuels as well.

THOMAS HOMER DIXON: They want the lifestyles and the opportunities that we take for granted in our societies.

Right [00:05:00] now, the only real route for them to get there is to continue mobilizing, capturing, and using a lot of fossil fuel energy. We don't see a clear route for the leapfrogging of these economies, and these large populations, over fossil fuel energy to some new kinds of technologies that are driven by renewable power. Those aren't in place yet, and that's really the fundamental dilemma that we're facing as a species.

BRUCE LIVESEY: Overall, 50% of carbon emissions come from just 10% of the wealthiest global population. While the poorest half are responsible for only 12% of emissions.

ROBIN MAYNARD: Quite rightly, many in the developing world will say; it is you in the developed world who started this revolution in terms of the use of fossil fuels.

So the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, which are causing current climate change, [00:06:00] are the result of the European Industrial Revolution, North American, et cetera. So the industrialized nations are the key cause of that, for sure, but the rest of the world is catching up.

Richard Heinberg: Powering Down | Beyond Growth, Toward Simplicity - The Overpopulation Podcast - Air Date 5-16-23

RICHARD HEINBERG: At the start of the fossil fuel revolution — let's say arbitrary date 1800; 90% of the population in any given agrarian society was working at producing food. So that the other 10% could live in cities, and have specialized occupations as whatever. Writers, printers, soldiers, lawyers, whatever you needed.

So again, 90% of the people working the land, living rurally, growing food, keeping domesticated animals, and so on. So what happens; we use fossil fuels for agriculture every phase of the way. We've developed tractors, and combines, and all sorts of agricultural machinery that enable a few [00:07:00] people to do as much work as it formerly took lots of people.

So today in the United States, typical industrial nation, only 1 or 2% of the population has to work at farming in order to provide enough food for everybody else. So that's an enormous difference. What happened to those other 89% of the population? They didn't just go away. What happened was; over time they moved to cities.

The biggest demographic shift of the last few decades has been urbanization. People moving from the countryside to cities. So people moved to cities and what did they do there? They got jobs. This was a way of organizing people's work that virtually didn't exist before. You can find examples in the literature of people getting paid to do this and that, but it was always a very small minority of the population that had paid employment.

Today we take it for granted that everybody has to have a job, or a profession. So what are some of those professions? There are thousands of professions [00:08:00] and jobs available, and a lot of them have to do with manufacturing, or marketing, or sales. Again, this way of organizing the economy around fossil fuels, and around flows of money from fossil fuels, is very recent.

It's so easy to take it for granted and assume that people have always lived this way. Things have changed, but no, it's a complete game changer. The introduction of fossil fuels altered the way we think about society. They way it works and the economy, nobody talked about the economy in the year 1800.

It wasn't a concept except for very few people who were just beginning to develop the ideas that would ultimately become the discipline of economics for everybody else. It was just daily life of growing food and going to the market once in a while, and that was it. Now the economy is this thing that we all talk about, that we measure using GDP, Gross [00:09:00] Domestic Product.

It's all calculated and measured on a daily and annual basis. It's all based on the assumption of growth. We assume that the economy can always grow because it always has. Always? Since when? Since the industrial Revolution, since we started using fossil fuels. So again, economic growth is another artifact of fossil fuels.

It's changed the way we live, the way we think, our assumptions. We tend to think it's all because human beings just got really smart a couple of hundred years ago and started inventing stuff. All of those inventions were just ways of using energy, ways of leveraging energy. That energy, suddenly, was much more abundant because we had fossil fuels rather than just firewood and draft animals.

ALAN WARE - HOST, THE OVERPOPULATION POCAST : That population and consumption explosion of the last 200 years is on the back of that fossil fuel explosion. As you've gone deeply into looking at how we have to transition to renewable [00:10:00] energies because these are non-renewable resources that took hundreds of millions of years to form; the coal, oil, and natural gas.

We're using the low hanging fruit, so to speak. The oil under natural pressure, going to tar sands, deep sea, and fracking, and things that are much more expensive over time. In a book that you co-authored called, Our Renewable Future, you've outlined the challenges and opportunities of transitioning to renewable energy.

You've mentioned that we should be building out wind and solar now and using these depleting fossil fuels, that we'll need for that build out, while we still have affordable access to them. Could you summarize that huge study that you've done? Some of the challenges we'll face in the transition to renewable energy.

RICHARD HEINBERG: This was a wonderful project. I was able to work with David Fridley, who's on the energy analysis team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. I'm just a writer. I write about technical stuff, but I don't have a lot of technical background in terms of [00:11:00] training, engineering, physics, and so on. David does.

That's his work and that's his profession. So we spent a year together, he did the technical analysis and I wrote the thing up. By the way, the book, Our Renewable Future, is all online. You can access it for free. Just go to ourrenewablefuture.org. So what did we look at? We looked at what the transition from a fossil fueled energy regime, to an all renewable energy regime would look like.

What would be the difficulties? How could they be overcome, and so on. In short, what we found was that all of the challenges can be dealt with, can be overcome in essence, at a laboratory scale. For example; airliners, that's a huge problem for transitioning to renewable energy. Why? Because the power density of jet fuel is so much greater than the power density, pound for pound, kilogram for kilogram, of batteries. [00:12:00] So we take for granted an airliner with 300 people being able to fly for 15 hours, and go from Asia to the Americas. You can't do that with batteries. It's just physically not possible.

 How do you solve that problem? There are various ways you could use renewable electricity to electrolyze water, produce hydrogen. Hydrogen is very hard to store because its volume density is so low. So you could create synthetic jet fuel using hydrogen and combine it with carbon from the atmosphere — plenty of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of all the carbon emissions we've done burning fossil fuels, so why not just capture some of that CO2? We can do that, there are machines that will do that. Then combine it cleverly with the hydrogen from water, and produce synthetic jet fuel.

It's technically possible, you can do it in the laboratory, but that's gonna be very expensive fuel [00:13:00] as compared to current kerosene prices. Kerosene is what we use as jet fuel. There are other instances like that we encountered.

Another one is making cement. Now cement is the key ingredient of concrete, and concrete is literally the foundation of modern industrial civilization. Whether you're talking buildings or highways, even wind turbines have to be anchored in concrete. So we need a lot of concrete. We use a lot of concrete in the billions of tons per year. So cement — how is cement made? It's made in giant kilns that operate at 1500°C 24/7, 365 days a year.

They burn fuels, often natural gas, in order to produce that high temperature. Can you produce temperatures that high using electricity? Yes, theoretically. You could also, once again, produce synthetic fuels using electricity and do the same process. Once again, it would be very expensive. So all these problems can be solved [00:14:00] at laboratory scale. Doing this stuff at the global industrial scale that we're operating at right now, it's gonna be expensive and difficult. It's gonna take time to transition these industries.

Could Everything You Know About Global Population Growth Be Wrong? - WhoWhatWhy's Podcasts - Air Date 4-5-19

JOHN IBBITSON: The United Nations Population Division has a really good track record at predicting population growth. They’ve been doing it since the 1950s and they’ve been doing it well. They predicted that by around now we would be at seven and a half billion people or so, and we are at about seven and a half billion people or so. And they predict that, by the end of this century, we will have gone past 11 billion. There’s every reason to believe that, since the United Nations Population Division got it right in the past, that they’re going to get it right in the future as well. That’s a reasonable assumption.

However, that assumption is flawed. There is another group of demographers who say that United Nations assumptions are wrong, that the population is not going to get to 11 billion, it’s only going to get to 9 billion [00:15:00] sometime around the middle of the century. And then it’s going to start going down and going down quite quickly.

Darrell Bricker, my co-author, and I believe that these dissident demographers are right, that the evidence on the ground suggests that the UN assumptions are out of date and that they should change those assumptions. And if they do, the UN too will start to adjust its numbers to around 9 billion rather than 11 billion.

JEFF SCHECHTMAN - HOST, WHOWHATWHY: What are some of those assumptions that are fundamentally wrong? One certainly, and you talk a lot about this, is the shifting of the population from rural to urban, that that’s really one of the key indicators here.

JOHN IBBITSON: It is absolutely the key indicator. The United Nations fails to understand the pace of urbanization. We are now a mostly urban species. About 55% of humanity lives in cities.

We’ve already seen this happening of course in the developed world, but it is happening at a tremendous clip in the developing world now as well. When people [00:16:00] move from countryside to cityside, four things happen.

First off, a kid stops being an economic asset, another pair of hands to work in the field and becomes a liability, just another mouth to feed.

The second thing that happens, and this is perhaps the most important of all, women, when they move from the countryside to the city, have access to information they didn’t have before. They have education. They have schools. They have media. They have other women who are able to educate each other. As women become better educated, invariably, they begin to demand more autonomy over their lives. As they have obtained more autonomy over their lives, one of their first decisions is to have fewer children than their mother had.

The third influence is one of religion, which is more powerful in the countryside than it is in the city. As the power of religion weakens, the ability of the priest, or whoever, to tell you that you must get married and settle down and have many kids weakens.

And finally, the power of the clan weakens. You have fewer authorities telling you that it’s time for you to get married and settle down and have kids. And your [00:17:00] biggest influences, your coworkers and your friends, who rarely are urging you to have another baby.

So economics, the education of women, the declining power of religion, the declining power of the clan, these all conspire to push down fertility rates once people move from the countryside to the city.

JEFF SCHECHTMAN - HOST, WHOWHATWHY: There is this assumption that has been prevailing for a long time that somehow population decline, and drops in fertility rates, and drops in population replacement, was somehow a negative social indicator. That’s not necessarily true.

JOHN IBBITSON: No, absolutely not. A declining birth rate is everywhere in the world correlative with the increasing education and empowerment of women. Again, the declining fertility rates that we’re seeing in the developing world go along with women in the developing world having more control over their lives than they had in the past.

So yes, as women obtain better education and more autonomy, more ability to decide for [00:18:00] themselves what they want to do with their lives, fertility rates drop. In that sense, population decline is entirely a good thing.

JEFF SCHECHTMAN - HOST, WHOWHATWHY: To what extent are economics and globalization a significant part of what we’re seeing here?

JOHN IBBITSON: The globalization is helping to improve living standards in the developing world, and as living standards improve education improves, fertility rates go down.

We all know that the developed world has been below replacement rate for many years. We have about two dozen countries around the world that are losing population every year right now because they don’t have the 2.1 fertility rate that’s required to keep its population stable.

It’s no surprise that Japan, for example, lost almost 450,000 people last year. That populations are declining in Eastern Europe and in other parts of the developed nations in Eastern Asia as well. But, China is going to start losing [00:19:00] population in the next decade. It’s the world’s most populous country. It’s below replacement rate. It will start losing population in the next decade. India has reached replacement rate. You can no longer look to India as this great source of population growth because they are now at 2.1. Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country, they’re at 1.8. They are well below replacement rate, and they are going to start losing population as well.

As you look around the world, where are the big centers of population growth? Where are the big places where lots and lots of babies are going to be born? Apart from Sub-Saharan Africa, we are running out of places to produce those babies.

JEFF SCHECHTMAN - HOST, WHOWHATWHY: And as the population, the aging population, lives longer and the replacement rate continues to drop, talk about the economic implications of that.

JOHN IBBITSON: They are challenging. Yes, our thesis would be even more evident if longevity weren’t increasing in the very same places where fertility rates are dropping. But they are. [00:20:00] People are living longer everywhere in the world, including in the developing world. But there are two consequences to that.

First of all, when you have fewer young people every year that you had the year before, which is the inevitable result of below replacement fertility rates, then you have fewer young people who are able to pay the taxes needed to sustain all the old people who require healthcare and pensions.

The other impact is on consumption. Economies are driven by consumption. That is the single most important factor in economic growth. Consumption is driven by young people. People who have graduated from school and are buying the first house or the first car. Having their first kid. The stroller that’s needed for the kid. The minivan that replaces the car for the kid.

All of these things that the 20-somethings, and 30-somethings, and 40-somethings, even 50-somethings, acquire over the course of the decade, that drives economic growth. But when there were fewer of those people around, then there are [00:21:00] fewer people to drive and to consume, fewer people to drive growth, and it makes it harder for a society to continue to finance the things that it needs to finance to sustain the lifestyle that people are accustomed to.

JEFF SCHECHTMAN - HOST, WHOWHATWHY: As we look at population historically, is this something that is cyclical or is this something that is more systemic right now?

JOHN IBBITSON: Absolutely systemic. If you look at 1800, an American woman around … a white woman, and unfortunately there’s no data for Native Americans or African Americans, but a white woman in 1800 would have seven babies. A white woman in 1900 would have four. The United States halved its fertility rate in over the course of the 19th century. Then it went down and down and down and then the blip of the baby boom for a couple of decades made it look as though things were changing. But it was just a blip and then it went back to going down and down and down again. It’s, in fact, the latest data shows that the fertility rate in United States is at the lowest level it has ever been.

 [00:22:00] It took the United States more than a century and a half to get its fertility rate down below replacement rate. But this is happening in a generation, in most parts of the developing world. It only goes in one direction, and it’s accelerating.

The Dubious Overpopulation Debate - Acclimated - Air Date 8-12-20

HOST, ACCLIMATED: This topic of overpopulation, the idea that there are just too many people and the population growth is running out of control, it's actually been a consistent part of mainstream discourse to some extent or another for a few decades now. It shows up in pop culture sometimes. It came back into pop culture spotlight a couple years ago, actually, in a very big way with Avengers Infinity War, because the villain in that, Thanos, famously proclaimed his desire to end suffering by killing half of all life in the universe at random.

CLIP FROM AVENGERS ENDGAME: Pretty, isn't it? Perfectly balanced. This whole thing should --

HOST, ACCLIMATED: In his backstory, the idea is that he proposed this idea to I guess his government or whatever on his planet, [00:23:00] and they rejected it. He got exiled for it. And so his response was to just conquer other planets and take care of all that depopulation on his own.

CLIP FROM AVENGERS ENDGAME: Titan was like most planets, too many mounds, not enough to go around. And when we faced extinction, I offered a solution: genocide, but random, dispassionate, fair to rich and poor alike. They called me a madman. And what I predicted came to pass.

HOST, ACCLIMATED: What he means here is that his planet eventually experienced insurmountable tragedy, presumably as a result of the overpopulation he anticipated. So in order to prevent that from happening elsewhere, at least according to his argument, he decides to expedite his plans to depopulate the rest of the universe.

And in infinity where he goes ahead and takes care of this, he collects the Infinity Stones, does what he needs to do, snaps his fingers. [00:24:00] Half of all life is extinguished. And that's that, credit's role.

And so obviously, it's got people talking afterward. Some people a little bit more seriously, some people sort of half joking, whatever. But, over the next few months, a debate played out where people would say, is there merit to this idea that resource scarcity and population are intention? Or is this just a dangerous path to go down, in terms of environmental politics? People online joked that Thanos did nothing wrong, all that sort of stuff.

And so a term that came up often in these conversations was Malthusian, which is a reference to the ideas on population growth set forth by Thomas Malthus back in the late 18th century. And Thanos was apparently a Malthusian. But let's listen to him describe his philosophy in a little bit more detail and see how we think things actually work.

CLIP FROM AVENGERS ENDGAME: No, we were happy on my home planet.

Going to bed hungry, scrounging for scraps? Your planet was on the brink of collapse. [00:25:00] I'm the one who stopped that. Do you know what's happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It's a paradise.

Because you murdered half the planet!

A small price to pay for salvation.

You're insane!

Little one, it's a simple calculus. This universe is finite. It's resource is finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correct --

You don't know that!

I'm the only one who knows that. At least I'm the only one with the will to act on it.

HOST, ACCLIMATED: So in this conversation, he spells out the formula as he sees it. Finite resources means finite people. So if there are too many people around, there won't be enough for everyone. It's pure math. There's no way around it. This kind of, very straightforward mathematic formation of resources versus population is often [00:26:00] associated with Malthus. I will admit, I have referred to these kinds of ideas as Malthusian in my own writing before. It's a very easy shorthand. But it actually isn't exactly what Malthus was talking about, and I think looking at what he and his successors specifically proposed makes it easier to understand the problems with the overpopulation debate as it exists today and as it has existed for the past two centuries.

Overpopulation or overproduction? Marx vs. Malthus - International Marxist Radio - Air Date 5-31-23

ADAM BOOTH: Malthus was a reverend, a clergyman, a man of the church, and he was alive in quite a period of revolution and counter-revolution, we could say, at the end of the 18th and early 19th Century. And I think this period really had an influence on himself and obviously other thinkers and writers at the time. You had the French Revolution towards the end of the 18th Century and other movements that were inspired by it. You had the rise of the working class in countries like Britain. I know in previous episodes you discussed this with Josh Holroyd, for example, about the Peterloo Massacre, the Chartist movement that were as [00:27:00] influential on Marx and Engels as well. And basically all of this was playing out, this class struggle, and actually Marx and Engels made an interesting point, that the class struggle plays out economically and politically, but it also plays out theoretically.

And in this sense, the movements that were taking place, they had their own representatives, theoretically, and their own thinkers. And on the conservative side, on the side of reaction, you had people like Malthus and others, Edmund Burke as well, a famous kind of theoretician of conservatism, if you like. And Malthus and Burke and people, they were responding to, kind of romantic thinkers, utopian thinkers that were around at the time, people who were inspired by the events of the French Revolution. And they were putting forward the idea that, you know, these revolutionary movements showed the potential to break free of feudalism and conservatism and to actually pave the way for kind of utopian future societies where there would be no limits to [00:28:00] human progress. And basically it was this idea, this idea of unlimited progress in society that Malthus was really trying to politicize against with his writings. His famous essay, the full title of which was actually, I got it here, if I can get it all in, it's a bit of a mouthful: An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, Mr. Concordia and Other Writers.

BEN MORKEN - HOST, INTERNATIONAL MARXIST RADIO: Bit of an overpopulated title, really.

ADAM BOOTH: Ooh. Yeah, exactly. It's a bit of a mouthful, as I said. But the people he referenced there at the end, Godwin, Concordia, these were these romantic and utopian thinkers talking about putting forward this idea of human progress. And this was a polemic against that. It was a defense of the status quo effectively. And he wrote it in 1798, which is not coincidentally just a few years after the French Revolution, and also at a time when you had the United Irishman in the British Isles who were also influenced by these events. And this is where he basically first [00:29:00] outlined his argument about overpopulation, which, as you said in your introduction, he blamed for all of society's ills. And he said it was overpopulation, ultimately, that would limit the development of society and I mean that this idea of progress wasn't really possible. I can go into that more, if you'd like.

BEN MORKEN - HOST, INTERNATIONAL MARXIST RADIO: Yeah, please, because the way that he articulates his arguments, and you explained this in your article, is you have a mathematical formula for the growth of human populations and another one for the development of resources. So, what he argued is that without any barriers, humans multiply at a geometric rate - 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 - but the ability of humans to produce food only increases arithmetically, so 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The inevitable outcome of which, he argues, is that you have more people than can be supported with the amount of food the population can produce. [00:30:00] And he claimed to base this argument in empirical evidence. And Marx and Engels, you detail this in some length in your article, basically smash this argument all to pieces. So, if you like, you can go a bit more into what Malthus actually argued specifically, but I also wanted you to talk a little bit about how Marx and Engels dealt with these arguments in their day, before we go on to dealing with the neo-Malthusianisms and how Marxists would respond to them in 2023?

ADAM BOOTH: Yeah, I think, uh, you've outlined in summary what Malthus' argument was. And there's not that much more to it, to be honest. It really all kind of stands or falls on the validity of these two assertions, these two, you know, progressions as you've outlined. The geometric or exponential one of human population growth if it's left, uh, you know, unrestrained, or the growth of the economy, of food, of production, which for some reason Malthus said could only increase at this kind of linear, [00:31:00] gradual rate. And basically the argument that Malthus is putting forward is that we as humans are simply animals. You know, we are just, uh, breeding like bunny rabbits, if you like, if we're not constrained in any way. And actually Malthus didn't just make these assertions and then just leave it at that. He drew very reactionary political conclusions from this. You know, he was actually very influential in his day in arguing for policies that would try and put a limit on human populations and that did blame the poor for being poor, basically and make the poor suffer for their own poverty, if you like, the poverty that was actually in fact imposed upon them by capitalism. So...

BEN MORKEN - HOST, INTERNATIONAL MARXIST RADIO: Sorry to interrupt, but if you read literature from Victorian England, you see these ideas presented and satirized. I can't help but thinking of Charles Dickens, who in a Christmas Carol has Ebenezer Scrooge saying to the charity workers when they say that poor people would [00:32:00] rather die than go to the work houses, which were these brutal institutions where the impoverished were forced to carry out essentially slave labor under terrible conditions, and Scrooge, the mean, horrible capitalist, obviously expressing these Malthusian ideas says, Let them die and make themselves useful by reducing the surplus population.

ADAM BOOTH: That's right. That's right.

BEN MORKEN - HOST, INTERNATIONAL MARXIST RADIO: And it's interesting to me how these ideas are so bound up in the kind of psychological character of British capitalism and British imperialism in particular. And it's not even just at the time that Malthus was writing. Even prior to that, in the very, very, very early stages, I think about Jonathan Swift satirizing the attitude to the suffering of Irish people in the Modest Proposal, where he says, Well, maybe we should just let them all eat their children. And there were some people in British high society who assumed he was being serious because this was close to their attitude. And then of course, the callous response to the potato famine in Ireland, the justification for the Bengal famine and the various famines that broke out in the Indian [00:33:00] Raj. The justification was, basically, this is just natural. These people are just are lazy. They deserve to be poor. Their starvation is the just punishments for their heathen idleness. These ideas are really deeply enmeshed with the psychology of the British ruling class at this time.

An Eye-Opening Discussion On Practical Solutions To Human Overpopulation - Rewilding Earth Podcast - Air Date 7-18-22

NANDITA BAJAJ: It's clear even in the language that we use, we call much of the nonhuman world, resources. Our ultimate goal has been, and is, to dominate the planet with our species. The second piece of how humane education ties into population, is that population growth actually depends on the subjugation of personal and reproductive autonomy. Having children is in the population arena, it's seen as a contentious issue.

If you break it down — you look at having children, when done under [00:34:00] the right circumstances, in a just and sustainable way. As Carter will speak to in a bit, it can be, and is for many, a beautiful, purposeful and joyous thing. One cannot assume that is the case for everyone. Once you start peeling back the layers of what's actually going on, you see that population growth is actually happening on the backs of those with the least personal and reproductive autonomy.

Most of it is happening in countries with oppressive cultural practices; such as low status of women, gender based violence, forced child marriage, etc. It leads to hundreds of millions of people, especially women, into situations of forced pregnancy, unwanted births, etc. Really, when you dissect it, [00:35:00] reproduction has actually become exploited as a tool to keep a lot of power structures alive. Such that young women, and young girls, and women in general are pressured, and often coerced into having children and large families in order to keep the supply of religious followers, workers, taxpayers, soldiers, etc. To keep going.

 From a humane education perspective; human population growth is an issue that impacts people, animals and the rest of the planet, because it relies on unjust practices. Then the growth itself further perpetuates a lot of inequities and unjust practices, and that's the interconnection between human people— sorry people, animals, [00:36:00] and the planet.

CARTER DILLARD: If we wanted to teach children how they should treat other beings, the first thing we have to explain to them is who should we be as a people? To date, that question is largely getting answered in the form of; we should be people that fill a shopping mall, because Gross Domestic Product is God. We should maintain high levels of consumption, low levels of labor cost, and a growing tax base so that we are this big, powerful entity. That's the antithesis of being a free people. If you wanted to be a free people, you would envision yourself not in a shopping mall, but in a town hall. You would have a role in deciding the governance under which you lived.

That would mean participating in the system, that would mean smaller groups of people who actually could have a voice. [00:37:00] Your relationship to other people on the townhall would be one of empathizing with them. You wouldn't be having a commercial relationship where you relied on incentives, backed by state coercion. You would be engaged in negotiations with them, an empathetic political relationship. Empathetic people, smaller populations, living in participatory democracy is the freedom, and the opposite of a shopping mall mentality. That is completely consistent with rewilding, completely consistent with nature.

What's the point of teaching children how they shouldn't be empathetic towards other creatures if those creatures don't exist? If we haven't restored our ecology, and rewilded the earth. The relationship that the children would have to other species is one of empathy and pro social behavior. To Nanda, this point, it's not just about rewilding for nature's value, it's being free — being free people. There's no such thing as a freedom to do whatever you want to do, that's nonsense. There's no concept like [00:38:00] that. Freedom is freedom from other people, and we know that's what nature is. It's also freedom to do, and the way we know what we're allowed to do is by participating in a town hall. It's how we come up with the rules. I see human education as teaching children, this is who we should be. It's consistent with rewilding, women's liberation, empathy, and it's the antithesis of a shopping mall. It's what — I think, what our country's founders had hoped for, but have lost because of the hegemony of economics

JACK HUMPHREY - HOST, REWILDING EARTH PODCAST: Nandita can you discuss your work on making the links between pro-natalism and overpopulation, and also define pro-natalism for us?

NANDITA BAJAJ: I briefly touched upon these pressures that are placed on women, especially to bear children and have large families, as a means to other ends. If you take [00:39:00] more of a 30,000 foot view at pro-natalism, it is the social bias towards having biological children. A good definition from Laura Carroll's book, The Baby Matrix, is:

"Pro-natalism is an attitude or policy that is pro birth, that encourages reproduction, that exalts the role of parenthood. It's the idea that parenthood and raising children should be the central focus of every person's adult life. It's a strong social force, includes a collection of beliefs so embedded, that they've become to be seen as true. It's based on the premise that reproduction is not only normal, but also natural."

For example, it has been debunked that the biological bias — the procreative drive, that we often talk about, to have [00:40:00] children is not a universal drive. The social bias is so strong that we are made to believe that our desire to procreate is natural, but also universal.

So what happens when you mix in these cultural ideas about having children, and that we must all make that a part of our life's journey, with the coercive set of power structures? Like religion, like corporations, political enterprises, and as Carter said, economic pressures to grow the GDP. You get a very toxic mix of pressures that are all pointing to one thing; that everybody must have children. As I briefly mentioned, they show up in the form of religious pressures. [00:41:00] Which are depicted as shame, guilt, fatalism. You start to see an act of restriction of contraceptives, or a ban on family planning services. We're seeing a lot of economy driven pressures showing up in industrialized countries like Canada, US, Australia, etc, through baby bust alarmism. A view that our economy will suffer if we don't keep producing more people.

You see political pressure showing up through child tax credits, or lump sum baby bonuses. Some of them are camouflaged as family friendly, sometimes even feminist friendly. Again, when you dig a little deeper, you come to realize that these incentives don't exist to help people, individual citizens, children, they exist to promote reproduction.

The Dangerous Myth of Overpopulation - The Wild Life - Air Date 4-8-21

DEVON BOKER - THE WILD LIFE: [00:42:00] Malthusian thinking has led to violent population control efforts that unfairly target the poorest and most marginalized people in our societies, many of whom are the least responsible for environmental degradation to begin with. It diverts attention away from the actual causes of that degradation. Malthusian thinking also calls for greater restraints on women, even though it's been shown that expanding women's rights actually slows population growth. More on that in a minute.

Fast forward to 1974, to a pair, Ehrlich and Holdren, and their "I=(PAT)" equation. The two are what you would call neo-Malthusians. They carried many of the same beliefs, but they also wanted to account for how differing lifestyles might also impact, well, impact. And they developed the following equation: I = P x A x T, in which I is the impact of the environment, which is found by taking P (population), [00:43:00] A (a measure of affluence because wealthier folks tend to have a higher impact) times rate of technology use, because technology can reduce environmental impacts. What they determined is that population is still the most important factor in understanding environmental impact, but those impacts may be lessened by affluence in technology. In other words, poor and developing countries were still to blame.

Reality is that development has a widely varying impact on the environment. Initially, the impact is greater as the rate of development is at its highest. But once a country reaches a certain level of wealth, that impact begins to decrease as the country develops regulations, better systems, infrastructure.

And how much impact is too much? The I=PAT can be calculated in different ways to see how much of an impact a certain number of people at a certain standard of living will have on the environment. [00:44:00] Carrying capacity is a population that can be sustained in an area over time. In nature that's super dependent on ecosystem factors, but our technology and lifestyle have had a major impact on any genuine estimations of human carrying capacity. It's simply too variable. One way of considering a locality's capacity might be by looking at a person or a group's ecological footprint. It's something that can be calculated in order to estimate how much of the earth's surface would be required to support a population based on the number of resources needed to sustain that particular lifestyle. If you check the episode notes on this or even the blog post that's connected, there is a link for a website where you can calculate your own ecological footprint.

Then there are the Cornucopian population theorists who see the population itself as a resource and see innovation [00:45:00] as the key. Why? Well, when resources are scarce, people are gonna innovate. At least that's the idea. The more people there are, the more minds are coming up with new ideas to solve the issues. Right? For an example, one could look to the green revolution. Society developed a plethora of agricultural innovations that led to greater yields, therefore more food availability for a growing population. Granted, there was and continue to be great environmental and social cost. The thing is, the population as a resource view ignores some important geographical aspects of population and scarcity: scale.

The scale of food production is not taken into account. Nor is its impacts on local communities in comparison to those of far away places. Just because yields are higher or more food is produced doesn't mean that food is being distributed evenly. Hunger and starvation might still be widespread in a locality, even [00:46:00] if they're producing enough food. The world produces 1.5 times the amount of food needed to feed the entire world, yet an estimated 690 million go to bed hungry every night.

Population growth rates have been declining since the 1960s, moving towards zero population growth in which there's equal numbers of births and deaths, and therefore no net increase in population. What is causing the decline? The demographic transition model, or DTM, is a model of population change that suggests that the population growth and decline is based on the stage of development and type of economic activities. Stage one, you have a high death rate, high birth rate, and lower no population growth. In stage two, your death rate falls, but birth rate stays high, so you have high population growth. Stage [00:47:00] three, death rate's, low birth rate starts to fall, population growth is still high, but it's slowing down. In stage four, the last stage, your death rate is low, your birth rate is low, so you have low or no population growth.

The DTM was based on European patterns of population growth and development from 1800 until the present, but the model's been applied around the world. If we use this model, most countries in the world have actually made it to the final stages of DTM while others are currently in the midst. Currently developed countries on average have taken roughly 80 years to make it through the stages of DTM while others are catching up. In fact, many countries have done so remarkably quickly. Bangladesh, for example, was in stage one during the late sixties, early seventies, but it made it to stage four by 2015. Iran went through all four stages in 10 years. In part this is because as more countries make their way through DTM, the more there are to assist others, [00:48:00] either directly or indirectly, in expediting their DTM journey, whether that's available technology, resources, what have you.

No matter how you look at it, increasing the standard of living in other countries is a win-win-win for the world. In other words, bettering the life of someone on the opposite side of the globe is personally beneficial to you. This is why anti-foreign aid arguments really hold no ground whatsoever. Whether or not your motivation is altruistic and that you want everyone to live a better life, or morally questionable, like you don't want refugees coming into your neck of the woods for whatever reason, helping others is the greatest solution to a better world. World poverty levels are lower than ever, and our growth rate is leveling out. That's a good thing.

What the DTM does not account for is non-economic factors that might affect population growth. Around the world, women's rights, education, and literacy rates are correlated with low fertility rates. [00:49:00] There's some question about whether the low fertility rates lead to higher education and literacy, or if it's the other way around. However, lower fertility rates are also associated with women's empowerment, access to healthcare, and ability to make reproductive decisions on their own. In other words, a higher standard of living is also connected to decline in birth rate and a leveling out of population growth.

Human 12 billion may never, ever be born at all. That's the reality of population growth. A new study projects the world population, which now stands at 7.8 billion to peak in 2064 at 9.7 billion, and then fall to 8.8 billion by 2100. In fact, Many countries will see their populations reduced by as much as half by 2100. That's not because of mass deaths or anything like that. It's simply as a result of a slowing in the birth rate and therefore [00:50:00] the replacement rate of the population. Global overpopulation is largely a myth. It's xenophobic, racist, classist, scare tactics. Think about it. When you hear about overpopulation concerns, you hear reference to Africa as a whole, India, and China. In other words, places where impoverished people of color live. Can localities become overpopulated? Absolutely. Are there problems that come with that? Well, not so much as the cause. Problems associated with overpopulation are a result of systems failure to take care of its people through the distribution of resources. Poverty and hunger are more so the result of greed than an increase in people, and it doesn't have to be that way. Those problems are manmade. They can be solved by humans.

As we develop, our education levels will increase, our standards of living will increase, our birth rates will drop. The fear that's been [00:51:00] instilled in us, a vision of a future that will never come to pass, or at least one that we can avoid now, now that we know how to curve [sic] it. We also have to reconcile that just because our staggeringly large population won't lead to doom doesn't mean we don't and won't have consequences to mitigate. A changing climate, for example.

Naomi Oreskes: How Free-Market Fundamentalism Fuels Overpopulation Denialism & Undermines Democracy - The Overpopulation Podcast - Air Date 6-1-23

NANDITA BAJAJ - HOST, THE OVERPOPULATION PODCAST: Just because there were some nasty people who have done nasty things around population control in the past or even currently, does not mean that anyone who's speaking about population is guilty by association. And that's the battle we are constantly fighting as an anti-oppression, feminist organization fighting for reproductive liberation of billions of women who do not have a say, or young girls who do not have a say in what's happening to them, and to be reduced to this one awful word. I went on to [00:52:00] actually do a Google search on the terms "overpopulation myth", just to see to what degree some of what you've found in your expose of these libertarian think tanks of free market fundamentalism, and the top responses came from some of these institutions that were very similar to the ones you named, Cato, Foundation for Economic Education, Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Enterprise Institute, all of which are American libertarian think tanks. Breakthrough Institute of course we spoke about. And then the other ones, majority of them were Catholic anti-choice groups, including an organization called Population Research Institute, who is reported to have successfully helped lobby the Bush administration to withhold 34 to 40 million per year for seven years from the United Nations Population Fund. And the US was the largest international donor to family planning programs. So of course [00:53:00] there are other environmental organizations that have bought into 'the overpopulation myth". But it's so interesting to see where it's being birthed and then perpetuated.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, exactly. And it's important. Two things. So first of all, We should not use that term because it's not a myth, right? We have huge amounts of evidence that overpopulation is a serious problem on many different levels in terms of social equality, destruction of habitats, destruction of economic opportunities for people across the world, the denial of women's rights, coerced reproduction, so many ways in which overpopulation expresses itself in the modern world. But also what you just said a minute ago about the libertarian organizations is so important. So, if you ask yourself, why is the Cato Institute or the Foundation for Economic Education promoting the idea that population growth is great? Well, these are organizations whose central activities is to try to limit government regulation at the marketplace. If you go to their websites, you almost always find the same expressions or phrases, [00:54:00] sometimes slightly differently, but basically, limited government, low taxation, personal freedom, individual responsibility. These are the mantras. So, why would an organization like that say that overpopulation is a myth? Well, it's because of their relationship to government and governance. They oppose government action in the marketplace on libertarian principles. Now, we could get into an argument about how authentically these views are held or whether they're just shills for regulated industries. I think it's a bit of a mix of both. But we do know that many of these organizations are heavily, heavily funded by Fortune 500 companies, captains of industries, who stand to benefit from weak government regulation. My own personal view is that many of these organizations really don't care at all about population. What they care is this idea about governance. And so if we say population is a serious issue, in part because of the destruction of biodiversity, the destruction of habitat, pushing up against planetary limits, coerced reproduction of many [00:55:00] women across the world, and not just in so-called developing nations, but also in wealthy nations, there's a whole set of issues here that invite a conversation about governance, about the role of governments, and also about governance through NGOs, local institutions, et cetera. And all of these things point to the need for, well, something that they really hate, which is planning, thinking about the future and figuring out what are appropriate responses. They hate planning because they associate planning with socialism. And this is a major, major theme of my new book with Eric Conway. So, it's interesting to me that you mentioned the Foundation for Economic Education because they are under the radar screen of many progressive groups, but they have been absolutely central in the 20th Century in the United States since they were founded in 1946 in promoting libertarian thinking, promoting libertarian writers, books. Leonard Read, who was the original founder, has published 29 books all about freedom, and it's all about using this notion of freedom to push back [00:56:00] against government engagement where our economic systems are failing us. And of course this is hypocritical on so many different levels, but the deepest level that I feel very strongly as a woman is, where is the freedom for women across this planet who would like to have fewer children, who believe it would be better for them and their families to have, you know, only one, two, or maybe no children, and who want the right to decide that for themselves? I mean, being able to decide whether or not to give birth to children is the most fundamental aspect of female freedom that a person can possibly imagine. And the second most fundamental is being able to be educated, which you cannot do if you have children when you're 15 years old. And yet these people who are waving the banner of freedom all the time seem to be conspicuously unconcerned with the freedom of the, what, 4 billion women who live on this planet?

Final comments on the philosophical question behind the overpopulation debate

JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: We've just heard clips today starting with Ideas, discussing the problem of developing countries looking to match the level of consumption that we have. The Overpopulation Podcast explained the connection between the [00:57:00] population and the Industrial Revolution. WhoWhatWhy? reexamined population growth predictions. Acclimated discussed Marvel normalizing Ecoterrorism via The Avengers movie. International Marxist Radio discussed the debunked theories put forward by Thomas Malthus. The Rewilding Podcast looked at a few of the systems that contribute to the social norm of population growth. And The Wild Life looked at some of the darker sides of population control efforts.

That's what everybody heard, but members also heard a bonus clip from The Overpopulation Podcast which unsurprisingly takes the stance that overpopulation isn't a myth, and explained that some of those who say it is are doing so for ideological reasons.

Now to wrap up, I wanna give my thoughts on the connection between population and resource consumption, and to explain the title of the episode. First, what I think is obviously true [00:58:00] is that if people weren't consuming beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, then we wouldn't be concerned about overpopulation. So, no matter where you come down on the overpopulation debate - myth or no myth - we should all agree that, at best, overpopulation is just a stand in for overconsumption, because population isn't a problem on its own. Only when it's coupled with excessive consumption does it become a problem. The second point is that, there's a reasonably good chance that the demographers predicting a slow down and maybe , given an education, an urban living, and a choice, will decide to have dramatically fewer children. So, the population problem might largely solve itself. Not that I'm suggesting it isn't good to help it along. I mean, educating women, providing family planning resources, and abolishing patriarchal systems are good in their own right and help curb population growth. [00:59:00] So, we should keep up on all those things. But even if we did nothing, those trends would probably continue anyway. And also if the population were to stop growing today, that itself wouldn't solve the real issue of overconsumption.

So, as we learned today, part of the foundational premise that Thomas Malthus was working from is that humans procreate geometrically, like mindless animals. We just will have as many kids as resources allow. But we also know that to not be true. It turns out humans seem to actually use their brains. To make decisions about things like having kids as evidenced by the lower birth rates in urban and less oppressive places. So then the question that I think is at the heart of this debate is this, Do humans consume unthinkingly, the way Malthus thought we procreated, or are humans capable of [01:00:00] consuming thoughtfully and decide to consume less, the way we actually decide to have fewer children? This is what I meant in the title of the show about the debate being more philosophical than empirical. I think the debate comes down to how you answer that question.

So, setting all of those who want to control women and perpetuate oppressive systems through pronatalism aside, if you think that humans will always consume unthinkingly, then population growth is a reasonable stand-in for expected consumption, and you will support the idea that overpopulation is a problem. But if you think that humans can be thoughtful enough about their consumption to reduce it to the point of sustainability, then population is a poor stand-in for the real problem. And you'll argue that overpopulation is a myth.

The complicating factor is that, [01:01:00] although people have shown themselves to be able to make the decision to have fewer children, they didn't do that out of concern for overpopulation. It was a reaction to the incentive structures that make up their personal lived reality. The most profound of which that was described today is that new children are an asset on a farm, but a burden in an urban setting. So, we should expect similar dynamics to play out in people's decisions about consumption. People will not stop over consuming unless it is in their own self-interest to do so, and that requires policy, or the overthrow of capitalism that demands infinite growth. But until that happens, we need to start with policy. And since that's such a big idea, we figured we'd make an episode to explore it. So, assuming all goes well with that project, be on the lookout for that topic in the upcoming weeks.

That is gonna be it for today. As always, keep the comments coming in. I would love to hear your thoughts or [01:02:00] questions about this or anything else. You can leave a voicemail or send us a text to 202-999-3991 or simply email me to [email protected].

Thanks to everyone for listening. Thanks to Deon Clark and Erin Clayton for their research work for the show, and participation in our bonus episodes. Thanks to our Transcriptionist Trio, Ken, Brian, and La Wendy, for their volunteer work helping put our transcripts together. Thanks to Amanda Hoffman for all of her work on our social media outlets, activism segments, graphic designing, web mastering, and bonus show co-hosting. And thanks to those who already support the show by becoming a member or purchasing gift memberships at bestoftheleft.com/support. If you'd like to continue the discussion, join us on our Discord community. There's a link to join in the show notes.

So, coming to you from far outside the conventional wisdom of Washington, DC, my name is Jay, and this has been the Best of the Left podcast coming to you twice weekly, thanks entirely to the members and donors to the show from bestoftheleft.com.

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  • Jay Tomlinson
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