I recently had occasion and need to write again on the above subject – in a google-group mailing list called Radical Ecological Democracy. I am reproducing the correspondence. The context should be easily clear.
It seems to me that every
generation of thinking young people feel compelled to rediscover simple truths,
actually truisms, and invent the wheel again and again.
That about 90 percent of all resources used by our present-day economies do not grow like trees or fall from the sky like sunshine, and hence must be mined are commonplace knowledge. Even the bronze-age people knew that for making bronze they had to dig the raw materials out of the earth.
That such materials are nonrenewable and hence exhaustible have also become well-known since at least 1972, when the book Limits to Growth was published.
The idea and the knowledge of limits to availability of such resources are known ever since Malthus formulated in the late 18th century his famous population theory.
That our whole industrial way of living inevitably pollutes the environment can be seen even by laypersons with their own eyes, and that since the beginning of the industrial revolution three hundred years ago.
Yet, few drew the necessary conclusions from this knowledge. One big exception was our own Gandhiji, whom I consider to have been the first Green thinker-leader of modern times. Some hundred years ago, he wrote the following:
“The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [the UK] is today
keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would
strip the world bare like locusts.”
When Gandhiji wrote this (1928), India meant the whole British India that
included today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh. The population of this huge
subcontinent has since then swollen from the then 300 million to today’s
ca.1700 million. Yet, not many, not even the NGOs and the environmental
activists of the world are daring to talk about this problem. Politicians and
famous economists of the world, also those of India, are still blabbering about
economic growth, in best cases, about sustainable growth, green growth, Green
New Deal, renewable energy, electric cars etc.
Thankfully, here and there, a few soft voices of reason can be heard. Phrases like “physical limits to economic growth”, “community of monks living on a mountain top” or “a resource efficient population” (Tom Abeles) could be heard in the RED list. But still nobody dares talk about the number of humans that can sustainably live on the earth. In Europe, some two years ago, a group of top economists asked in a petition the EU-leaders to follow an economic policy of de-growth. But even they had no idea of how today’s 8 billion human population growing to 10 billion by 2050 would be able to live sustainably.
In the meantime, we are getting reports of famine from Madagaskar, Yemen and Tigray, in the year 2021. That reminds me of Malthus. But we do hear a lot about biodiversity loss and X’tinction rebellion.
With greetings from
On Sun, 27 Jun 2021, 12:14 Ashish Kothari, <email@example.com> wrote:
as you do raise this issue several times, how about if you told us what you
think is a human population that can be sustainable, and under what conditions.
27.06. – 2.7.2021
I know why
many people are afraid of broaching the issue of population. It is often
precarious to speak of the population problem as a problem of too many humans.
You might be scolded as a “fascist” or “racist” or “misogynic man”.
I have suffered such scolding a few times. A famous Bangladeshi eco-feminist
family friend of ours reproaches (or used to reproach) all who say (said) that
Bangladesh is/was overpopulated for allegedly wanting to “depopulate
old-style socialists routinely say, it is capitalism
and the capitalists that have to be blamed for all the environmental ills, not the “people”. That is too cheap. The poor peasants who are encroaching
into the habitats of wild animals in Africa are
not capitalists. The fishermen and peasants who are occupying the Sunderbans in Southern Bengal too are not capitalists.
But the elephants of Africa and the tigers of the Sunderbans regularly attack
the encroaching humans and destroy their crops and homes. They, in turn, are
also getting decimated.
ideal old-style socialist society (not the
defective Soviet model of the past). Would it do anything differently, if its
human population and its “needs” and “aspirations”
would be growing? And who are enjoying the fruits of continuous
industrialization, only the capitalists? And not also the average people?
Population growth is also the basic cause
of many small-scale wars and conflicts between small states, tribes, and ethnic
groups. In the ultimate analysis, the genocidal massacre of Tutsis by Hutus that took place in Rwanda in 1994 was
caused by shortage of fertile land and jobs for a growing population. Since, in
the Sahel zone of Africa, the amount of fertile land is limited, regular
battles (with massacres) between groups of herders and peasants take place
there. The whole world is afraid that soon a war might break out between
Ethiopia on the one side and Egypt and the Sudan on the other, the bone of
contention will then be the waters of the river Nile. The populations of the
three countries have been growing in the last ten years at the rate of 2.6, 2
and 3 percent respectively.
In the 1970s
– 1980s, in Maharashtra (India), the locals started an agitation for throwing
the internal immigrants (South Indians) back
from their state to South India because the latter were accused of occupying
all the white-collar jobs. Also in the 1990s, we
witnessed the caste conflict between upper caste
Indian Youth and the youth of the other backward castes (OBCs).
agitation has been taking place in Assam (Eastern India) since long – not only
against Bangladeshi illegal immigrants, but also
against immigrants from West Bengal. In the latter case, the immigrants are
mostly Hindus like the Assamese, their skin complexion is the same, i.e. brown,
their mother tongues are very similar. But they are competitors
for the scarce jobs, business opportunities and scarce agricultural
international media report only on illegal migration across
national borders – on Central Americans and Mexicans get-crashing
into the USA, Africans and Muslims from the Middle East get-crashing into
Europe. The conflicts caused by migration within a country generally go
unnoticed, but they are there in almost every country where the population is
fifty years ago, it was not difficult for the surplus population of a country
to emigrate to a relatively sparsely populated or industrially developed
country. Immigrants were even welcome in many countries. But today, the boat is
full. Immigrants are not welcome, they are being pushed back, walls are being
built at borders, xenophobia is growing, fascism
is spreading. If not for anything else, it is for the sake of peace within our own species that we should stop our
own population growth.
(c) I read
about the population theory of Malthus at
college at the age of 17. Our lecturer said, while rejecting the theory, that a
human is not born only with a belly, but also with two
hands. The implication was that a human also produces value (food etc.),
so that population growth was no problem. We however know that not all pairs of
hands find jobs or sufficient fertile land to produce value. There is unemployment in all countries. Moreover, not all young
people are satisfied with finding some job for some food and clothing only,
they want to have good jobs for a good life. But
good jobs are scarce in their own native land. So they get-crash into Europe
and North America.
In 2011, the
educated youth made uprisings in one Arab country after another (the Arab Spring). They also succeeded in many countries.
They overthrew Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gadhafi and Saleh. They had thought they would
henceforth enjoy a good prosperous life in freedom and democracy. But today
they acknowledge their failure. Today, in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq,
they are again agitating, this time against more or less democratically elected
governments they have themselves brought to power. Apparently they knew nothing
about limits to growth.
growth rate of world population is falling and
by 2050 or 2100 or so it will stabilize at ten to eleven billion. So don’t
worry! That is true, and the prognosis for 2050 may also come true. But is that
any consolation? Today’s ca. 8 billion humans are irretrievably consuming so
many nonrenewable resources that even with zero growth of both, that will leave
nothing over for the children who are being born today – i.e. nothing but an
“uninhabitable Earth”* and a moonlike landscape full of huge mining
(b) Often it
is argued that enough food is being produced in the world, it only needs to be distributed fairly. True, if you take
the whole annual world food production and divide it by 8 billion, then you get
enough food per capita. But how much could be produced if the farmers desist
from using chemical fertilizers and pesticides and
herbicides? Don’t ecologists want to ban the use of such chemicals?
And is it
not utterly absurd, utterly starry-eyed to imagine that the farmers of
food-surplus countries – USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia etc. – would invest
their money and labor to produce a surplus only to gift it away to the hungry
poor of the world? They would gladly sell their surplus to whoever pays for it
But how can the hungry of today get the money for that?
Or they would sell their surplus grain to meat producers of rich countries.
Food Program (WFP) buys a lot of the surplus for
feeding the hungry of the world, the money for which comes from the rich
states. So, in an indirect way, the surplus food does get distributed. But does
anybody feel comfortable with this undignified beggar-like
status of a part of humanity?
humans do not want to live by bread alone. It is never enough to have just
sufficient food. Every citizen of even poor countries needs also a roof above
his head, some decent clothing, basic medical care, basic security against
crime, schooling for his children, and an opportunity for earning his and his family’s livelihood (i.e. a job). A functioning
state should be able to provide these. Those that cannot are rightly called failed states. Overpopulation
and high population growth rates are leading today to a growth of the number of
Inevitably, some (e.g. Britt in RED list) come up with the argument that
citizens of the rich North
consume 80 percent of the world’s resources,
while constituting only 20 percent of the
world’s population. Ergo, it is they who are to be blamed for all the ills of
the planet, not the overpopulated countries of the poor
South. Ergo, it is they who must do something for overcoming the
planetary crises, and not speak about overpopulation in the Gobal South.
statistic is, generally speaking, correct. But what is the use of baying at the moon? Old-style Imperialism is history. And what has already happened in history cannot be unhappened. We in the South must ourselves
save our own respective countries from ruin. It is not the task of the North.
And it is not in their interest that the number of low-wage laborers in the
Global South goes down.
Recently, some people are cursing population control and birth control
policies. They argue with the fact of ageing
populations in some rich countries and lack of sufficient number of young people for the labor force. They point at
China’s problems. “India on the other hand is lauded for its enormous
young population which favors economic prosperity” (Mari Marcel). In India, some
people, e.g. former PM Manmohan Singh, have even been talking of “our
This is corporate speak, the contemptuous way the
capitalists and the managerial class speak about human beings. They may think:
“après moi, le déluge “(after us the deluge). But we should not make it our own thought, despite
all good reasons for pessimism. This problem, no doubt, is there and it must
also be solved. But not by encouraging young couples to produce many children
and thus ruining the environment further.
be achieved overnight, activists must therefore work with a transition period plan and the goals set
must be realistic. There is no use
writing down dreams as goals. Even
so, the ultimate goal(s) can/should
be idealistically formulated,
whatever be one’s ideal, so that they can serve as the compass for a long
journey. Unity of purpose is necessary in any group, but in order to achieve
that unity, agreement on analysis of the given situation must also be achieved.
For today, I
am closing this article in this vein. If readers demand it, I can write more on
the subject answering their questions.
Saral Sarkar: Eco-Socialism or
Eco-Capitalism? A critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices (Zed
Books, London. 1999, Orient Longmans, New Delhi, Hyderabad, 2001)
Essays and articles on renewable energies
Saving the Planet, American Style -- A Critical Review, and Some Thoughts and
Once More on the Viability of Renewable Energies
Root Causes of the Cleavages in the Ecological Left
Krugman's Illusion: We Becoming Richer, But Not Damaging The Environment
Thunberg's Problem. A Problem Without A Solution?
The Global Crisis and Role of So-Called Renewable Energies in Solving It
There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch, For Humans. -- Response to Some Comments on My Essay in Insurge-Intelligence
Polemics is Useless
A Proposal For An Eco-socialist Synthesis In The Overpopulation Dispute
Two Different Demographic Crises -- Some Eco-Socialist Reflections
India's Unwelcome Immigrants Problem -- Identity Politics Beats Class Politics
The Refugee-Migrant Crisis of the EU -- Its Deeper Causes and Messages
The Tragedy of Lampedusa -- What to do?
For Saving the Earth We Need to Tell the Whole Truth -- an eco-socialist's response to Richard Smith