WeeklyWorker

06.06.2019
Too many people? Or too much poverty?

Malthus painted green

In the first of four articles Jack Conrad affirms the reality of global warming, along with the pending danger of ecological disaster. But crude overpopulation theories are worse than useless. Each social formation has its own laws, including laws of population

Scientific opinion is overwhelmingly agreed: the earth is getting hotter.1 A recent report by the International Panel on Climate Change projects that warming will continue at the current rate of ~0.2°C per decade and reach the 1.5°C mark around 2040.2 However, the 1.5°C boundary could easily be passed in half that time - in around 2030 - and the 2°C boundary around 2045, due to accelerating anthropogenic emissions, decreased aerosol loading and changing ocean circulation conditions.3 If that happens the probability is that the earth’s climate will reach a tipping point4: the whole ecosystem will shift from one pattern to another and in the process threaten the “survival of human civilisation”.5

Despite all the evidence there are still those in denial. Alternative für Deutschland has recently ramped up attacks on environmental activists. The liberal bourgeoisie’s latest secular saint, Greta Thunberg, is contemptuously dismissed as “mentally challenged” and a fraud.6 Matteo Salvini’s League, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz and Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party are from the same mould. All view action on climate change as a potential barrier to fossil-fuel-led growth.7 Eg, in Poland coal is set to remain king till at least 2030.8

Here in Britain, Nigel Farage downplays the “need for climate change action”.9 He is far from alone. Lord Nigel Lawson, former Tory chancellor of the exchequer under Margaret Thatcher, established the Global Warming Policy Foundation in 2009. It describes anthropogenic climate change as “alarmist” and champions the unrestricted free market. Lord Christopher Monkton, one of Thatcher’s advisors, likewise denies the necessity of combating anthropogenic climate change. Spectator and Telegraph columnist James Delingpole writes of “Climategate hype”. Not to be outdone, the Daily Mail’s David Rose rounds on governments for investing billions in response to “manipulated global warming data”.10

Then there is, of course, Donald Trump. He threatens a US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2020. The 45th president has already rolled back the Obama administration’s environmental protection measures and is on record as saying that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese government in an attempt to damage US industry.11 Understandably, this nonsense finds favour with the oil and gas corporations, the automobile majors, big coal and their apologists in the narrowest forms of trade unionism.

Trump’s version of the big lie can, however, claim theological justification. Here are excerpts from the Southern Baptist Convention’s statement on ‘Environmentalism and evangelicals’:

Whereas some in our culture have completely rejected God the Father in favour of deifying ‘Mother Earth’, made environmentalism into a neo-pagan religion, and elevated animal and plant life to the place of equal - or greater - value with human life; and

Whereas the scientific community is divided on the effects of mankind’s impact on the environment ...

Resolved, that we resist alliances with extreme environmental groups, whose positions contradict biblical principles (2 Chronicles xix:2) and that we oppose solutions based on questionable science, which bar access to natural resources and unnecessarily restrict economic development, resulting in less economic opportunity for our poorest citizens.12

Indeed, the first book of the Pentateuch has Yahweh telling men and women to be “fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have domination over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every other living thing that moves upon the earth”.13 Written for the Jewish people by their theocratic exploiters, this well honed story gives a sacred blessing to the patriarchal exploitation of nature. And, of course, the Catholic church effortlessly adopted this Jewish dualism, which elevated humanity above nature.

So the medieval mind did not conceive of humanity as embedded in the natural order. Of all god’s creations, the work of the sixth day alone possesses a soul and therefore spirituality. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve face an ultimate choice between heaven and hell. Meantime, the divine plan gives them - while they remain flesh and blood - the go-ahead to use and ‘improve’ upon nature, as they need, will or desire.

Humans and nature

Such anthropocentric and short-sighted arrogance - admittedly shorn of biblical justifications - was taken up by Adam Smith (1723-90) in his Wealth of nations … and other founding fathers of classical political economy. Nature, they agreed, was a free resource that could be ruthlessly exploited. Economic growth was in the “public interest.”14

Too many on the left have taken the growth mantra to the point of technological Prometheanism. And it is not only Stalinites, Labourite reformists and Maoists. Leon Trotsky breathlessly writes:

The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests and of seashores cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing ‘on faith’, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them.

Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.15

But humanity does not exist outside nature. Nor is nature here simply to satisfy our aesthetic whims. We are one of nature’s many interdependent life forms. Hence what we do to the planet must bring intended … or unintended consequences.

Nature and humanity ought to be considered dialectically: as interpenetrated opposites and a contradictory unity, which is constantly changing quantitatively and qualitatively. Needless to say, there can be no doubting that we are special. Humans are uniquely that part of nature which is conscious of itself. Other species slowly adapt to nature. Humanity transforms nature through the process of labour, and it does so according to some preconceived aim, notion or plan. As the productive power of this self-transforming species grows, so does its effect. Today no part of the planet remains untouched, unmodified, as a result of our activities (good or bad). Nature has, to one degree or another, become socialised.

Human society in general is an abstraction - likewise labour and production in general. There are specific modes of production and social formations: original communism, classical Greek-Roman slavery, Germanic warlordism, Arab mercantilism, Asiatic statism, European and Japanese feudalism, capitalist wage-labour, Soviet bureaucratic allocation, etc. Hence it logically follows that the effect humanity has upon nature is also an abstraction. Necessarily we must specify the mode of production or particular social formation.

Capitalism affords nature no value. The riches of nature need only to be located, seized and ripped away. Booty. Manna from heaven. A free resource. Drilling, felling, ploughing, mining, capture, butchery, transportation and processing cost … and only such moments of labour give value, as far as capital is concerned.

That the products of nature have use-value - including in their virgin state - is irrelevant or entirely secondary in importance. Capitalism is interested in use-value only to the extent that it serves to further the accumulation of exchange value (the general form being money). Commodities have to be sold to a consumer who to one degree or another is convinced of their potential use-value … and at a profit. The antagonistic capitalist metabolism allows little or no choice in the matter. One capital must overcome another. Capital is compelled to accumulate, and accumulate again and again, endlessly, one cycle after cycle. It is that or death (takeover, bankruptcy, forced sale).

Capitalism therefore drives forward not only the extraction of surplus value from living labour, but, as a direct concomitant, the plunder of nature … and on an ever greater scale and with an ever greater intensity.16

Warnings

Over the last two decades or three, the negative results of this taking, taking and taking from nature have been exhaustively documented. I will confine myself here to citing just three recent examples - examples which I consider alarming, not alarmist.

 The United Nations in 2019: “Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale. Without drastic action today, adapting to these impacts in the future will be more difficult and costly.”17

 Then there is the Union of Concerned Scientists. When it comes to climate change, this august body says the evidence is clear and comes in two kinds: (1) Fingerprints are indicators of the global, long-term warming trend observed in the historical record. They include heat waves, sea-level rise, melting glaciers and the retreat of polar ice caps. (2) Harbingers are events that foreshadow the impacts likely to become more frequent and widespread with continued warming: spreading disease, earlier spring arrival, plant and animal range shifts, coral reef bleaching, downpours, and droughts and fires.18

 The 2018 government-approved - and therefore highly conservative - report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change included these assessments: “[W]e are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes” (Panmao Zhai, co-chair of IPCC working group I). The report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C, or more. For instance, by 2100, the global sea level rise would be 10cm lower, with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70%-90% with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (99%-plus) would be lost with 2°C.

“Every extra bit of warming matters, especially since warming of 1.5°C or higher increases the risk associated with long-lasting or irreversible changes, such as the loss of some ecosystems” (Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of IPCC working group II).19

Warnings such as these are perhaps flawed in this or that respect or detail. But the terrible damage being inflicted on our common environment is impossible to hide. When it comes to serious thought, nowadays the question is not whether there is an ecological crisis. It is: ‘What is to be done?’

Greenism

Obviously the most influential answers come under a ‘green’ heading. An influence which is not undeserved and which, in fact, goes far beyond the relatively impressive support garnered by Green parties in the May 2019 European parliamentary elections. Green thinkers have produced a whole literature which inconvertibly proves the disastrous effects of profit-driven banking, mining, industry, fishing, agriculture and tourism. It details the loss of forest habitat, the spread of deserts, the melting glaciers and ice caps, the pollution of the air, rivers and seas, etc. It exposes the dangers that come from governmental complacency. If only by implication, it shows that capitalism is unsustainable.

When it comes to ecology, what most left groups do amounts to theft of the more easily lifted household items. Bits of green intellectual property turn up tacked onto famished economistic programmes and election manifestos. The most blatant example of this pirating is what describes itself as red-green politics. But, one way or another, they are all guilty: the Labour Representation Committee, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, Socialist Resistance, Left Unity, etc. Hence, in this opening article, the leftwing pilferers can be safely be ignored. Instead let us focus on the green proprietor, beginning with population and overpopulation.

In class terms greenism amounts to a petty bourgeois rebellion against capitalism’s accelerating despoliation of nature. Yet, whatever the good intentions, greenism carries a deadly barb. Its denunciations of ecological destruction are joined with talk of “overpopulation” and the limited “carrying capacity” of the planet: “population growth … must be addressed to avoid overpopulation,” says the Green Party.20

The inventor of overpopulation theory is supposed to be, of course, the reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). This celibate Church of England parson anonymously published his Essay on the principles of population in 1798. There was, however, nothing original contained between its covers. Marx contemptuously dismissed it as a “superficial plagiary of De Foe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc”.21 Nonetheless, in the midst of the thrilling excitement, soaring hopes and political turmoil unleashed by the 1789 French Revolution, the forces of reaction grabbed hold of Malthus’s Essay as a godsend. Dreams of achieving heaven on earth, even modest democratic reform, could be smothered with the ‘principles’ of despair.

True, whereas Malthus based his prognosis squarely on the claim that a “geometrically” growing population could not be supported by “arithmetically” supplying food, modern greens talk about the ecological footprint and the finite carrying capacity of the planet.22 That said, the operative conclusions are barely distinguishable. Population growth has to be urgently halted and put into reverse.

Malthus’s theory accepts that, though humans are part of nature and subject to nature’s usual laws, they are, unless checked, destined to increase at an insupportably fast rate. That check is either moral or physical. Of course, the instinctual, base and ignorant masses could never be expected to give up sex-love. Besides opium, alcohol and tobacco, what else gave their bleak, squalid lives those saving moments of pleasure? So that left the physical check, constituted by food production.

Malthus insisted that the means of subsistence could only increase arithmetically. Why not at a faster rate? Malthus never seriously investigated or explained. Suffice to say, for him the limit on human numbers was reached by the close of 17th century - when the global population topped 600 million. All the evils that surrounded him - hunger, slums, destitution, prostitution, epidemics, crime, child labour - were explained by Malthus as a result of the inevitable lag of food supply in comparison to population growth.

Logically, this crisis should have begun with Adam’s rib. After all, with god’s creation of woman the numbers in Edenland instantly doubled. According to Malthus, Adam’s ability to increase food production should have been incapable of matching such a shuddering population increase.

Adam and Eve and even Malthus notwithstanding, over the last two centuries, there has been a rapid population increase. Today there are over 7.7 billion of us.23 Clearly, human numbers have grown geometrically … if we take a long enough view. It took around 200,000 years to reach a billion - a figure that seems to have been reached in 1825 or thereabouts. The next billion was added over the following century. But it took only some 35 years for the total to reach three billion and a mere 12 years after that for another billion increase.

Despite this tremendous spurt, there has been an accompanying and in actual fact, a higher, increase in the means of subsistence. Our numbers did not expand geometrically - eg, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64 … - while food production trailed behind at an arithmetical 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 ... During the 19th century the agricultural land that was organically included within the sphere of the capitalist world market expanded stupendously, with the integration of Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia and the vast US interior (eg, 1, 4, 16, 64, etc). Productive technique, but especially science, has proven itself capable of more: ie, 1, 8, 64, 512, etc.

Some strands of green thought claim to be informed by Marxism. Greenism as a whole is though permeated with a nature-worshipping idealism, which easily segues into a thoroughly nasty anti-human irrationalism. People are portrayed as the problem. The language and choice of metaphor is revealing and on occasion downright chilling.

In his best-seller, The population bomb (1968), Paul Ehrlich - a Stanford University biologist - depicts planet Earth as slowly dying under the hammer blows of “too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide … too little water, too much carbon dioxide”. This is all traced back to a single cause: “too many people.” Looking forward just a little, to the 1970s and 80s, he apocalyptically announced: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” Instead of giving aid to the needy and feeding the hungry, responsible states should henceforth put in place hard measures designed to dispose of surplus people on a global scale.

Ehrlich equated this, admittedly unpleasant, task with cutting out a “cancer”. The operation will “demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense. But the disease is so far advanced that only with radical surgery does the patient have a chance of survival.”24

Ehrlichism finds instructional expression in the Optimum Population Trust, rebranded as Population Matters. Its website displays a “world population clock” ticking away presumably towards the final moment of ecological collapse.25 This respectable pressure group makes the case for putting population reduction at the heart of government policy. Britain should, it submits, halve its numbers to 30 million by 2130 - about the same level as 1870.

Not so long ago the Green Party too prescribed a similar human purgative - except down to 20 million. True, nowadays, the Green Party’s neo-Malthusianism has been somewhat masked. Nonetheless, towards their noble objectives Population Matters advocates tax incentives for childlessness, free contraception and a ratcheting down on immigration. In 2013, following on from its call for zero net migration, Population Matters objected to Syrian refugees being granted asylum.26 Worthy public figures have lined up to endorse this dismal programme. Apart from Ehrlich himself, listed amongst its sponsors are David Altenburg, Jonathon Porritt, Sir Partha Dasgupta, Jane Goodall, John Guillebaud and Leilani Münter.27

Inevitably, if voluntary methods fail, then other, draconian, solutions present themselves and the danger is that sooner or later they come to pass as common sense. In The population bomb, Ehrlich was quite explicit: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through changes in our value system, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” He toyed with the idea of lacing food sold in the US with contraceptives. After rejecting this as politically unfeasible, he advocated ending US food aid to the so-called third world. And, he added, almost as an afterthought, that all men in India with “over three children” should be “forcibly sterilised”.28

Malthus himself recommended famine. Official Britain greeted his odious ‘solution’ with bouquets, fulsome tributes and an eye to saving money. High representatives of the bourgeoisie were particularly enthusiastic. They were always eager to reduce rates of taxation on capital’s holy of holies - profit. Malthus was proclaimed a genius of the first order, who had single-handedly established a brand new science!

Designed to sweep away supposedly antiquated notions that the poor had a legal right to demand help from parish authorities, Malthusianism actually revealed a social system which wastes human beings. During the 1845-49 Irish potato famine, the government in Whitehall considered it both scientifically advisable and financially prudent to let ‘nature’ take its course. Amid continued food exports to Britain, a million Irish people were left to horribly die. Two million more “fled their homeland for the United States, Canada and Britain”.29

Doubtless, finding Christian justification in Matthew xxvi,11 and the stomach-churning saying, “For you will always have the poor with you”, Malthus icily reasoned that mass starvation would at least temporarily result in fewer mouths to feed. As the lower orders seemed to religiously follow the commandment, be “fruitful and multiply”, they would have to pay for their bodily sins. Nothing could be done for them, except to make their deaths as easy as possible. A theory of criminal culpability.

Exactly the same perverted morality leads mild-mannered greens to advise G8 countries to spike the water supplies of African countries with irreversible sterilisation drugs. The poor are blamed for their poverty - not the imperialist system.

Polemical thunderbolts

Though recognising that the Essay on the principles of population acted as an intellectual stimulus - eg, Charles Darwin and the Origin of the species - Marx displayed no hesitation in dismissing Malthus’s entire population theory as a “lampoon on the human race!”30 Needless to say, a frozen-hearted and almost unbelievably cruel one.

Marx directed well-aimed polemical thunderbolts against Malthus. Eg, in Capital he included a telling footnote. The publication of Malthus’s Essay had caused a sensation, but this “was due solely to party interest”:

The French Revolution had found passionate defenders in the United Kingdom; the ‘principle of population,’ slowly worked out in the 18th century, and then, in the midst of a great social crisis, proclaimed with drums and trumpets as the infallible antidote to the teachings of Condorcet, etc, was greeted with jubilance by the English oligarchy as the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development.31

Theories of surplus value, the fourth volume of Capital, devotes a whole chapter to comprehensively demolishing Malthus and Malthusianism. Marx concludes that the Essay on the principles of population “was an apologia for the poverty of the working classes”.32 No feeling human being could disagree. By this time, Marx might well have also had in the back of his mind the Lassallean ‘iron law of wages’. It too served to quieten, demobilise and frighten by giving a ‘scientific’ veneer to ideological warnings that workers were unknowingly consigning themselves to the pits of the surplus population. In this case though not due to libido: rather pay demands and strikes.

None of this is to imply that Marxism regards nature as an unlimited source of wealth or that population has no effect. Suggestions to the contrary owe everything to technological Prometheanism. Marxism does not in the least deny that population levels play a role in terms of humanity’s relationship with nature.

Eg, the land could not sustain the hoplites (heavy infantrymen) of classical Greece. Their short-termist agricultural techniques quickly exhausted the soil. Deforestation and overgrazing added to the mounting problems. So did heavy winter rains. Year after year, erosion steadily washed away the topsoil. Writing of Attica, Plato bemoaned the fact that “in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left”.33

The polis of Athens and other Greek city-states responded by planting numerous colonies around the coastal rim of the Aegean and the Black Sea, and in Sicily and southern Italy. Surplus citizens were exported. What numbers were involved in this chronic overpopulation problem? Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica had approximately 300,000 inhabitants and 20,000 full citizens. Small beer for us. The same pocket of land is home to around 3.75 million people today.

Population is one of many determinations, but not the most important by a long chalk. We must search out all factors and grasp them as a totality of many determinations and relations. Marxist analysis demands concreteness and therefore a due recognition of complexity.

By itself population is just as much an abstraction as society and production. Each society possesses its own population laws. In other words, the reproduction of the human species takes place within different social formations and under different historical circumstances - something Malthus palpably ‘forgot’. His theory of surplus population floats outside a theorised history and therefore took no account of the fundamental distinctions that exist between one society and another. Classical Greece had significantly different population dynamics, compared to ancient Egypt. The same applies, only much more so, to 11th century feudal society and present-day capitalism.

Each peasant family - indeed broadly speaking patriarchal production as a system - has an interest in maximising the number of children. Put more accurately, in maximising the number of male children - a vital nuance. Sons are treasured because they remain within the family and through marriage bring in extra wealth in the form of dowries, wives, inheritance and in due course their own children. Girls leave the family and marrying them off costs a small fortune … their birth was often the cause of mourning in pre-capitalist social formations.

Female infanticide was therefore frequent. Archaeological records indicate that in ancient Greece killing female infants was “so common that among 6,000 families living in Delphi no more than 1% had two daughters”.34 Female infanticide is still widely practised - a form of post-birth family planning. India and China have noticeably large gender gaps. And it does not stop there. Cursed by ‘interesting times’ - crop failure, foreign invasion, oppressive taxation - young girls will receive the smallest portions of food. They will even be poisoned or murdered if things get really dire.

The family is a unit of production. Boys and girls alike labour in their father’s fields from the age of five or six - and, of course, not in return for money wages. Food, clothing and shelter are provided - little more. After the age of 10 it is reckoned that children are fully paying for their upkeep. From then on it is gain. Male heirs are also expected to maintain parents into old age. Children are therefore unpaid labourers and a form of social insurance. Given high infantile mortality rates, it can easily be appreciated why it is a case of ‘the more, the better’.

Apart from capitalism’s more primitive, unrestrained and brutal stages or forms, children are an enormous expense for the proletarian family - from the cradle and now well into adulthood. During the industrial revolution, it is true, parents sold their children into work from a tender age. Children of eight or nine worked 12 or 14-hour days (until various factory acts limited their hours). Families could only survive if all available members brought in some kind of wage package (the wife was frequently pregnant - and, lacking reliable birth control and with the peasant mentality still lingering on, she was also typically burdened with a brood of young children hanging on to her breasts and skirts).

Proletarian family

What of the present-day proletarian family? It is a unit of consumption. With universal primary and secondary education, and around half the school population expected to go on to university, the financial outgoings are considerable. Prudential, the insurance company, estimate that on average children cost over £40,000 each.35 Even after graduation many mums and dads go on to help out their offspring with mortgages, etc.

Certainly nowadays, for the simple reproduction - not expansion - of the proletarian family, it requires two adult incomes. Average individual hours might have been forced down - in 1846 parliament passed the first 10-hour act (for what was a five-and-a-half-day week). Full-time male workers in Britain now notch up an average 39.2 hours a week.36 But the workforce has expanded significantly, not least by drawing in more and more women. The total number employed is now over 32 million - roughly a threefold increase over the 1930s. At the beginning of the 20th century females made up 29% of the workforce; now it is 48%. Women workers today do an average of 34.3 hours.37 Add the male and female figures together and what it tells you is that the family unit is more exploited nowadays and is certainly under more psychological pressure (put another way, an intensification of labour and relative exploitation). That is due not least to these extra drains and life-limiting pressures; on average women have children later and fewer in number compared with the recent past.

In 2018 the average woman in Britain had 1.7 children38 - down from 2.6 in 1960. What is true of Britain is also true of other capitalist countries. Globally the average shrank from 6.1 in the 1960s to less than 3 in 2005. In Cyprus, Taiwan, South Korea, Poland and Japan it now stands between 1 and 1.3 children39 - an unmistakably negative ‘growth’ rate.

Global population is expected to carry on increasing, simply because of the sheer momentum built up by the disproportionately large numbers of young people born over the last 20 years. By 2050 we could reach 9.8 billion.40 After that population should stabilise … and perhaps start to decrease (though I have read lurid ‘projections’ of 27 billion by 2150). Despite that, governments in the advanced capitalist countries already worry about a declining workforce in relation to future pensioners (which, of course, given immigration, is a complete non-problem - clearly there is another agenda at play).

Yet simultaneously capital creates a surplus population. Obviously, nowadays, this category has nothing whatsoever to do with food scarcity in the metropolitan capitalist countries. Overpopulation is entirely due the changing requirements of capital itself. Capital both attracts and ejects. Capital constantly strives to accumulate, including by extending the scale of production. New offices, extractive facilities and factories are commissioned, the latest machinery is installed and more workers are recruited. However, profit is always the bottom line. Capital’s only aim is to expand capital. Hence loss-making enterprises are quickly closed and surplus workers ruthlessly discarded.

In his 1845 The condition of the working class in England Frederick Engels was the first to coin the phrase, ‘reserve army of labour’. He located capitalism’s surplus population not only as due to the needs of capital: there was also “competition of the workers among themselves”.41

To safeguard vulnerable livelihoods and, just as crucially, to meet expanding needs and wants, individuals are willing to work endless hours … and that leaves others surplus to requirement. Crudely, if the working day is five hours, then the capitalist will have to hire three times as many people as if the working day was 15 hours. Under primitive capitalist accumulation, long hours and absolute exploitation went hand in hand with mass unemployment and families who went hungry, whose members suffered the diseases of absolute poverty and who tragically died prematurely. Without a strong counterpower - mass workers’ parties, militant trade unions, cooperatives, provision of social housing, unemployment benefit and other inroads into the logic of capital - competition between workers will always be more fierce than competition for workers.

What of the upper classes? Their numbers are miniscule relative to the overall population. But not their ecological impact. It is common knowledge that the average US citizen has an ecological footprint around six times deeper than the average inhabitant of China, India, Latin America and Africa. One can only but guess what the ratio would be, once class is introduced into the equation. According to Forbes Magazine, there are 2,153 billionaires in the US.42 Meanwhile, over the last 30 years the mass of Americans have seen living standards stagnate or decline. Officially 45 million live in poverty, and income inequality in the US is now near an all-time high, with over 50% of income “going to the top fifth of households”.43

The CEOs of America’s largest companies received paychecks worth 312 times that of their average worker.44 With their chauffer-driven limos, Learjet commuting, luxury yachts, penthouse suits, ludicrous country mansions and ‘how to spend it’ lifestyle, they surely leave an ecological footprint out of all proportion compared with the regular US Joe - let alone a Chinese factory worker, South African shack-dweller or landless Indian peasant.

A twofold conclusion. One, theories which fail to incorporate national and social inequalities are blinkered to the point of blindness. Two, neo-Malthusianism can easily provide a pseudo-scientific excuse for a class war against the mass of the world’s population.


  1. https://skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus-intermediate.htm.

  2. www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar5.

  3. See Y Xu et al, ‘Global warming will happen faster than we think’ Nature December 2018.

  4. https://climate.nasa.gov/nasa_science/science.

  5. D Spratt and I Dunlop Existential climate-related security risk: a scenario approach Melbourne 2018, p6.

  6. The Guardian May 14 2019.

  7. The Guardian May 21 2019.

  8. J Shotter and E Huber, ‘In too deep?’ Financial Times May 4-5 2019.

  9. The Observer May 19 2019.

  10. Daily Mail February 4 2017.

  11. https://friendsoftheearth.uk/climate-change/what-are-donald-trumps-policies-climate-change-and-other-environmental-issues.

  12. www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2015-06/historical-roots-evangelical-anti-environmentalism.

  13. Genesis i:28.

  14. A Smith Wealth of nations Lausanne 2007, p488.

  15. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/ch08.htm.

  16. www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/ch08.htm.

  17. www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/.

  18. www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/science_and_impacts/impacts/early-warning-signs-of-global.html.

  19. www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments.

  20. https://policy.greenparty.org.uk/pp.html.

  21. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p616n.

  22. https://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/~econ/ugcm/3ll3/malthus/popu.txt.

  23. http://worldpopulationreview.com/continents/world-population.

  24. Quoted in www.overpopulation.com/faq/people/paul_ehrlich.html.

  25. www.optimumpopulation.org.

  26. Open Democracy September 23 2016.

  27. https://populationmatters.org/our-patrons.

  28. Quoted in www.overpopulation.com/faq/people/paul_ehrlich.html.

  29. S Campbell Bartoletti Black potatoes: the story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 Boston MA 2001, p1.

  30. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 20, Moscow 1985, p27.

  31. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p616n.

  32. K Marx Theories of surplus value part 3, London 1972, p61.

  33. classics.mit.edu/Plato/critias.html.

  34. www.gendercide.org/case_infanticide.html.

  35. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4482441.stm.

  36. www.statista.com/statistics/280749/monthly-full-time-weekly-hours-of-work-in-the-uk-by-gender-year-on-year.

  37. Ibid.

  38. www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-46118103.

  39. Ibid.

  40. www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html.

  41. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 4, London 1975, p380.

  42. www.forbes.com/billionaires/#344b5079251c.

  43. www.alternet.org/workplace/27168.

  44. The Guardian August 16 2018.