Wednesday 28 July 2021

Once More on Resources and Population – 2021


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

Saral Sarkar


On Sun, 27 Jun 2021, 12:14 Ashish Kothari, <> wrote:

Saralji, 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

 Dear Ashish, Mari Marcel, Britt, Ratheesh and all who have read my intervention of 24/25.6.2021

 I am glad to note that you have reacted to my persistent efforts to direct your attention to the huge problem of overpopulation that mankind has been facing since long. I have been publishing my thoughts on this and related problems since 1983, on the population problem since 1993 – not as an academic, but as an eco-socialist activist. At the end of this contribution I will give some references and links to my relevant publications. Here I want to respond only briefly to your reactions.

    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 Bangladesh”.

 (1) My case for Population Control

 (a) Most of us humans want to defend biodiversity. And we are worried about the ongoing sixth extinction. Yet we are afraid of mentioning the main cause of biodiversity loss: our own omissions and commissions. It is taking place not only because of us inexorably pursuing our own economic interests, but also because of our growing numbers with our ever-growing “basic needs” and “pleasures”. Both factors are constantly goading us into expanding our economic zones and our habitats into territories of other species. Soon there would be “no room for wild animals”. It is a fundamental principle/law of ecology that in any habitat, if one of the species living there grows too much, that is neither good for that particular species nor for the web of life there.

    Some 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.

    Imagine an 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?

    (b) 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).

    A similar 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 land.

    The 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 growing.

    Until about 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.

 (2) Counterarguments

 Wherever I spoke about overpopulation and the necessity of population control, some listeners came up with some standard counterarguments:

    (a) The 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 craters.

    (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.

    The World 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?

    Moreover, 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 failed states.

    (c) 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.

    The 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.

    (d) 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 demographic dividend”.

    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.

 (3) Sustainable Population

 Ashish requests me to tell “what I think is a human population that can be sustainable, and under what conditions.” The answer to this question is, broadly speaking, easy to give. Since, in principle, an economy based mainly on nonrenewable resources is not sustainable, an economy that is to be sustainable must, in principle, be mainly based on renewable resources. That can be easily imagined. The pre-industrial economy of Europe (indeed, of all countries) was sustainable, because it was mainly based on renewable resources: biomass, human and animal muscle power, wind, sunshine and the power of flowing water as sources of energy, and wood and some easily recyclable metals – like bronze, iron and aluminum – as solid material. The optimum population of that period was/is therefore the human population that can be sustainable. Note that I am saying “optimum”, the actual population of that period was more than optimal. That is why they had to migrate and conquer new territories and decimate local populations. That was one reason why so many wars were fought between kingdoms and empires. I guess, the actual world population of that period was about I billion (There are some estimates in the Wikipedia with curves of world population growth through the centuries)

 (4) What we can do. Realism

 It is easy for theorists to say, in principle it is so or basically it should be so. Activists must however try to achieve their solutions in practical terms.

    Nothing can 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.


 My basic theoretical positions can be found in my book:

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)

 David Wallace Wells : The Uninhabitable Earth

 Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas: Technology Assessment. The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy

Essays and articles on renewable energies 

Saving the Planet, American Style -- A Critical Review, and Some Thoughts and Ideas

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

 Essays and article on the overpopulation and unwelcome migrants Problem

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

 The Two Drivers of Ecological Collapse and the Two Tasks

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