The myth of overpopulation
THAT MANKIND CAN ABOLISH POVERTY, as Socialists assert, has often been challenged by those who claim that poverty is the natural and inevitable condition of mankind. The most notorious exponent of this view was the Rev. Thomas Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, first published in 1798. Malthus, like all the others who have held this view, failed to explain why it was that in every country a privileged minority managed to escape this curse of poverty.
Malthus, as the title of his essay suggests, was arguing against those who said that human society could be improved and, in particular, against William Godwin, an early Utopian socialist Briefly, the 'principle of population' which he laid down stated the obvious fact that population cannot grow beyond the means of subsistence; but went on to claim that population always tended to outstrip the food supply, with the result that periodically its growth was checked by famine, disease and war. Any attempt to improve social conditions would merely bring about an increase in the birth rate and so make matters worse than they were before. This view was meant to be a defence of existing poverty and an argument against social reform. Needless to say, it was at one time very popular amongst apologists for capitalism.
In the second edition of his Essay, published in 1803, Malthus contradicted himself in introducing 'moral restraint' because he conceded that human beings could control their birth rate — which was one of the points at issue. Godwin answered Malthus by making the simple point that every extra human being born brought with him not only an extra mouth but also an extra pair of hands. Marx, too, showed how there was no such thing as a general law of population that applied to all societies and to all times. At times under capitalism there seemed to be overpopulation and at others underpopulation. But this had nothing to do with the birth rate. It was a feature which appeared at the various stages of the business cycle. In depressions there were more people than jobs offered by capitalist industry. In booms, on the other hand, there was a comparative shortage of workers.
What was more effective in refuting Malthus than his own inconsistencies and the arguments of Godwin and Marx, was what in fact happened to population trends in the industrialised countries. After 1880, particularly when birth control propaganda was launched on a large scale, the birth rate began to drop. Malthus had also overlooked that it was not just a question of the number of people and the food supply but that the productivity of man-made machines should also be taken into account. Beginning with the industrial revolution, technical development increased social productivity so that more food was provided for the increasing population.
In recent years, Malthusian ideas have enjoyed something of a revival. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has many times warned that the world's population is increasing at a (slightly) faster rate than the food supply. The FAO itself does not accept Malthusian ideas of course and is fully aware that, with the application of modern technology to food production, there could be more than enough for everyone on this planet. But others argue that because population is increasing faster than the food supply this must always be so. The implication here is that overpopulation would be a barrier to the establishment of Socialism as a society of abundance.
Let us consider this proposition in more detail. Population growth can be controlled, and tbe birth rate has dropped in many countries through the extensive use of birth control. However, birth control is really a red herring: it concentrates attention on the population rather than on food supplies and why they are not being increased at anything like the rate they could. Godwin's point about every extra human being bringing in an extra pair of hands is still valid. The real issue is whether the social system allows those hands to be used to produce the extra wealth. It has long been known that the world can produce more than enough food for all. Lord Boyd-Orr, the first Director-General of the FAO, pointed out:
'There was no difficulty about producing enough food for the present population of the world, or even twice that number, but the problem was, could politics and economics arrange that the food that was produced was dispersed and consumed in the countries that needed it?' (The Times, 22 July 1949).
At the second international agricultural aviation conference in Paris in 1962, Dr. Maan, the director of the International Agricultural Aviation Centre at the Hague, was reported as saying:
'The world's population, now a little over 2,000 million was expected to reach 6,000 million in the not very distant future. It had been calculated that the earth could support a population of 28,000 million if food production were organised on lines now known to be practicable' (The Times, 24 September 1962).
Estimates such as the tripling of world food production by irrigating areas now regarded as deserts are commonplace in the literature on the subject. Sea water can be turned into fresh water for irrigation purposes and indeed the sea itself, as a source of food, has scarcely begun to be exploited.
In discussing food production it is important to grasp that it is not just the farmers and peasants who produce food. Food production is rapidly becoming a social process involving the labour of millions working in industry. With the increasing use of fertilisers, pesticides, modern tools and machines the labour spent in producing these is just as important as the labour of the farmer, also technical advances in these fields allow food production to be increased. Agriculture is now an industry in which scientific methods can be used but there are still vast opportunities for applying such methods.
The technical problem of providing enough for everyone has long been solved. The real problem, pin-pointed by Boyd-Orr, is how can human society be arranged to allow
sufficient to be produced and distributed amongst mankind. The Socialist Party of Great Britain holds that the only social system which will ensure this is one in which wealth is produced solely to meet human needs on the basis of the common ownership of the resources of the world by the whole of mankind.
Today under capitalism, food is not produced to meet human needs and indeed could not be since the resources of the world do not belong to mankind but only to a privileged few. That food is not produced to meet human needs cannot be denied, otherwise there is no sensible reason why, with the possibility of adequately feeding everybody, millions starve and many millions are undernourished. Food is produced to be sold on a market (increasingly the world market) with a view to profit. The starving and undernourished millions of the world do not constitute a market as they cannot pay for the food they need. So they are left to starve.
To a certain extent this is an aspect of the problem of the uneven development we discussed in the previous section. In countries where capitalist social relations embrace nearly the whole population, famine is not a problem. Capitalist industry by and large is able to provide its workers with the food they must have to generate enough energy to work year in year out under modem industrial conditions. Problems arise however from the impact of capitalism on backward pre-indnsmal conditions. For
centuries the people of Asia and Africa survived on what they themselves could produce. Capitalism upset the balance in a number of ways: by destroying home industries through cheap competition; by emcouraging cash crops in place of subsistence farming thus putting the peasants at the mercy of the world market; and by improved medical techniques thus reducing the death rate. The ironic fact that because science has been used to keep human beings alive, but not to provide the food to feed them, many have been saved from death by disease only to
die of starvation. Capitalism does indeed have a food problem here. Because of the restrictions of the profit system, food production is held back while the population
Agriculture is less under the control of man than the production of manufactured articles. Under capitalism this can cause violent price fluctuations. A good harvest one year brings prices tumbling; a bad harvest the next sends them soaring again. Huge amounts of capital are now invested in cash crops by large international corporations and such fluctuations cause them great inconvenience. Hence the attempts to control prices by restricting production to a given amount, divided among the producing countries. This quota system is nothing less than a huge restrictive practice applied to all foodstuffs as well as to agricultural and mineral raw materials — wheat, rice, sugar, coffee, cocoa, sisal, soya beans, rubber, tin, copper, etc.
When things go wrong then we see capitalism at its most vicious. It is then that one reads of a bumper harvest described as a disaster, to hear about 'burdensome surpluses' and the 'problem' of over-population. In a world where many millions need food how can there be a surplus or over-production of food? Yet for the capitalist firms and the peasant farmers engaged in producing crops, to have produced more than the world market can absorb is a problem. Prices fall so that they lose not only the anticipated profit but even some of their original capital. Shareholders have to take a cut in dividends while the small farmers can be ruined.
This is the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty which capitalism solves not by giving the plenty to the poor but by actually destroying the surplus food that has been produced, in order to keep up prices and profits. So we read in the Press of huge surpluses of fruit and vegetables being burnt, ploughed in or just dumped as vast compost heaps; hundreds of tons of tomatoes being jettisoned because of the tomato 'glut'; milk being poured down disused mine shafts; cheese and butter (and even skimmed milk that could easily be transported to famine areas) being fed to pigs. These are regular occurrences in the capitalist world.
The most dramatic examples of capitalism's inability to produce for human needs are the huge bonfires that occur from time to time. Before the second world war Brazil led the way by burning coffee. Here are two examples of the deliberate destruction of food in Africa, where many are starving:
'Sir Tsibu Darku, the Chairman of Ghana's Cocoa Marketing Board, today put the torch to about 500 tons of cocoa which went up in flames near here. He said the bonfire was the first of a series which would go on until they had completely destroyed two per cent of Ghana's basic quota, to give effect to a decision of the alliance of cocoa producing countries' (The Times, 12 December 1964).
'Over 300,000 coffee seedlings were uprooted and burned on a nursery near Nairobi today as the first step in the Agriculture Ministry's plan to restrict coffee production. Mr. G. R. Medforth, the Kenya Coffee Board's chief inspector, who supervised the burning, said about one million — or ,20 per cent — of the plants in nurseries throughout the country were surplus and would be burned. Growers would get compensation' (The Times. 12 May 1967)
In the 1930s the American government evolved a policy which, instead of waiting for the food to be produced and then destroying it, involved paying farmers not to produce it in the first place, The result of course was the same. Food supplies were artificially restricted. This policy which continues to this day was frankly described described by the late President Kennedy as 'planned and subsidised under-production'.
The stark fact is that capitalism is responsible for the starvation of millions of people. Given modern technology, famine is avoidable: wherever it occurs the blame must be laid at the door of the social system that is incapable of meeting human needs. It is not overpopulation that is the problem but the chronic and often planned underproduction that is a built in feature of capitalism. Only when the fetters which capitalism places on production have been removed by establishing the common ownership of the means of life can mankind set about ending the threat of famine.
Not only is capitalism in effect a system of artificial scarcity, it is also a system of organised waste. The most obvious example is the huge amount of wealth used up in
training and keeping armed forces and in developing the most destructive weapons of war. Capitalism also diverts the labour of millions into work that would be useless in a rationally-organised society, namely, the labour of those engaged in commerce and finance; the cashiers, the computer operatives, the accountants, the salesmen, the bank clerks, the ticket collectors and the host of others working in activities concerned with buying and selling.
Socialism, with no built-in drive toward war and therefore with no need for armies and armaments, and with production solely for use instead of for sale on the market, will release the labour and resources at present wasted by capitalism to be used, as necessary, for producing food.
Increases in population are no barrier to the establishment of Socialism. Socialist society will use the resources of the earth to ensure that every man, woman and child is amply fed, clothed and sheltered. Capitalism cannot do this — it does not exist for this purpose!
Population and Resources SPGB educational document
What Causes Famines? and How Many Die of Famine? Socialist Standard 1985 (.pdf)
Enough For All Socialist Standard 2005
Malthus' Essay on Population at Age 200. A Marxian View by John Bellamy Foster
How the Other Half Die by Susan George
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