Thursday, March 22, 2012



I am motivated once again to write about the size of the human population. Nothing has really changed about the analysis, but I keep getting comments from friends and comrades who think that nine billion is a really really large number, like Al Gore always points out, implying that we could solve the global warming problem if we only had fewer people in the world.  I’m sure the ExxonMobil person is quite pleased to see the problem focused in this way.

OK, I admit, it is a really big number (although there are bigger ones, I’m told).  Yet the issue is the same as it was many years ago when folks like Ester Boserup and Bill Murdock took up the issue to note how wrongheaded the Malthusian and neo-Malthusian positions were.  There are two independent issues that should be considered: 1) how many people are needed to get a job done and 2) how many people will benefit from that job. I’m not sure what could be more universal when thinking about numbers, whether of ants or people.

As I noted in an earlier post, not that it is in any way an original idea with me, humans live in a socially structured world and the goods and services they need to survive are delivered by that world. There is a certain minimal population size needed to maintain that structure. That is what I have referred to as the “necessary” population.  Yet it is also the case that the operation of that technology can maintain only a certain number of people, what I refer to as the “sustainable” population. It almost seems silly to point out the obvious fact that if the actual population is above the sustainable one we are in trouble. But it is equally true and urgent that if the actual population is below the necessary one, we are also in trouble. Many examples of both problems could be cited.

The political issue here remains as always. The specter of Malthus is brought out to obscure political facts. It is really difficult to worry about how French and US racist Imperialism drove Haiti to the condition it now finds itself. Better to note that if there were just, say, 10% of the current population the scarred landscape could produce enough food for them. Seems obvious. Institutional slavery and its long enduring consequences are irrelevant. No need to concern ourselves that Napoleon’s righteous racism violently turned aside the first true revolution in the Global South and set the stage for horrendous US Imperialism to continue torturing the racially inferior people inhabiting that country. No need to even know who is Aristide, the legitimate president of Haiti, elected through the very “democracy” the white European philosophers hailed so much for themselves but so violently reacted to when lesser human beings tried to use the same rationale. No need to understand why the US led a military coup to oust this leader, then continually pressured the world to keep him, not only out of his own country, but even outside of the hemisphere in which his country was found, so dangerous was the idea of democracy to the Imperial state. No need to understand any of this, because there is a much easier understanding to be had.  Just go to Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” where you will learn that overpopulation is the problem with Haiti. It’s really quite an elegant solution to the problem. One that requires, shall we say, less contact with unpleasant facts.

As I noted in my previous post on this issue, the actual NUMBER of people is an important issue, but not for the reasons the Malthusians say. The economist will say you need MORE people to do more things and provide more services. And he or she is right. The ecologist will say you need FEWER people so the goods and services produced will be sufficient to satisfy them. And he or she is right. You need enough people to make the society work so that it can provide the goods and services to sustain the population. There is a NECESSARY population and a SUSTAINABLE population and they are not the same thing.

The neo-Malthusian position takes its toll as intelligent young scholars are deflected from serious political analysis that incorporates the complexity of the modern world by the simpleminded recipe that there are always too many people. Detroit has half the population it had 50 years ago, so I guess that means that Detroit is much better of now.  Japan with approximately the same land mass as Botswana has over 60 times the population so I guess the Japanese must be massively starving and living in destitution.  The actual size of the population anywhere has little predictive value for anything. And the simple idea that one human generates one ecological footprint so we can just multiply that footprint by the number of people and come up with the overall impact, is daft. The problem is that the 99% in this world are not the ones consuming natural resources at some unsustainable rate. The ecological footprint of the rich and very rich is the elephant in the room and the ghost of Malthus only serves to keep everyone’s eyes diverted.


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