Overpopulation Theories Being Dredged Up Again


World Population Passes 5 Billion Mark
Overpopulation Theories Being Dredged Up Again
Class Rule Is Main Problem

from The People August 15, 1987 Page 5

The world's estimated population passed the 5-billion mark last month. The occasion was marked by the usual expressions of concern from ruling-class officials, editorialists, professors and other smug ideologues about the problems of "overpopulation." Some even sought to exhume the discredited theories of Rev. Thomas Malthus.

"The burden of the world's population weighs heavily on its politics, its economy and its quality of life," the San Francisco Chronicle observed editorially. No sane person can deny that the world is beset by numerous problems that are attributed to "overpopulation" - hunger, poverty, pollution, depletion of natural resources, slow economic growth, wars, etc.

But is the real cause of these problems overpopulation, and is the solution to restrict population?

Malthus said yes, contending in his 1798 Essay on the Principles of Population that poverty, starvation and the threat of famine were due to the natural inclination of the human race to reproduce faster than nature's ability to increase the means of subsistence.


Malthus's views have been called a "rational view of population dynamics" by Garrett Hardin, professor emeritus of human ecology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, whom The New York Times described as "the renowned ecologist, biologist and author."

The Times reported:

"Implicit in Malthusian thinking, Dr. Hardin suggested, is an understanding of the modern cybernetic principle of negative, or corrective, feedback. Population is maintained at a certain level much the same way as the thermostat controls the temperature of a room at a set point. The set point in population is determined by the 'nature of things.' Thus, according to Malthus as interpreted by Dr. Hardin, any improvement in the production of food would soon be nullified by the resultant growth of population, and vice versa."

In an effort to explain why the global population today is more than five times as great as when Malthus produced his notorious essay, Hardin maintains that Malthus neglected to recognize the importance of technology in raising the set point. Nonetheless, Hardin contends, technology cannot keep raising that point forever, assuring endless resources.

In other words, Hardin is caught in a contradiction. The so-called set point is determined not by the "nature of things," but by social progress in advancing the level of the means of production.


Hardin, however, pursues his convoluted reasoning to its inhumane conclusion, arguing, for example, that food aid to Ethiopia during the famine was a mistake: "Since Ethiopia has far too many people for its resources, if you give food and save lives and thus increase the number of people, you increase suffering and ultimately increase the loss of life."

Hardin, of course, would see Ethiopia's having "too many people for its resources" as being in the nature of things, not in the nature of class rule and the global system of imperialism.

Ethiopia escaped the direct colonization that befell most of Africa, being occupied by fascist Italy for only a brief period of time. However, it could not escape -- and has not escaped -- being incorporated into the imperialist system that has fostered economic underdevelopment in Third World Countries while plundering their resources, capturing their markets and exploiting their labor.

One indication of this -- that also exposes the error of assuming that "too many people, not enough food" is the problem - is the fact that Ethiopia continued to export fruits and vegetables for sale even as it received aid to feed its starving population during the famine.


World hunger toDay is a product or the production of food as a commodity for sale with a view toward profit. Like the production of any other commodity, the production of food is governed basically by the narrow, antisocial decisions of the capitalist owners of industry, and by the constraints of market demand - which is determined by income, not human need.

According to Edouard Saouma, director general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, global stocks of grain, sugar and butter are at record levels and are likely to increase. Even in lesser developed countries food production is increasing faster than the population. All told, enough grain alone is produced in the world today to provide every human being with a fattening 3,600 calories per day.

Yet, the number of hungry people is growing at a quickening pace, with 512 million people "chronically deprived of the food needed to enjoy an active, healthy life," according to a spokesperson for the World Food Council, an FAO agency. And an estimated 40,000 children die every day of hunger-related causes.


Malthusian theory cannot explain such facts. But Marxian theory can, showing them to be the consequences of the basic economic laws of capitalism and of other forms of class rule.

In much of the Third World, millions of peasants have been displaced from subsistence agriculture as landlords have consolidated huge tracts of land to produce cash crops for export. These economies are left underdeveloped by the predatory practices of companies from the developed nations, which gain control of resources and exploit labor at a high rate. Such economies cannot grow fast enough to absorb the displaced peasants and natural increases in population.

With unemployment widespread and wages kept incredibly low, people lack the income to purchase the food they need - even as food is left to rot in fields or decay in warehouses to help ensure high prices and profits for agribusinesses.

It is not population growth, but the profit-motivated capitalist system that causes ther eckless squandering and waste of other natural resources as well. The production of weapons, for example, and maintenance of large military forces consume huge quantities of resources from iron ore to petroleum. In a sane society, those resources would be used to improve the quality of life. Capitalism is likewise characterized by the needless duplication of commodities and planned obsolescence.

Similarly, the profit motive gives capitalists no incentive to curb the industrial pollution that is seriously damaging the environment or to rely on renewable sources of energy instead of finite supplies of fossil fuels, whose combustion further pollutes the atmosphere.


In sum, overpopulation is not the immediate problem facing the world. The problem is that class rule and the profit motive stand in the way of the intelligent, environmentally sound production and equitable distribution of the goods and services needed to satisfy human needs and wants.

This is not to say that it will never become necessary or desirable for society to set some limits on population growth. But, it should be noted, first, that population growth tends to slow down on its own as standards of living rise. In fact in some advanced capitalist countries, populations are actually beginning to fall. A socialist society would likely extend the same trend worldwide.

Second, as Engels noted, "if at some stage communist [socialist] society finds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty." For only a society based on economic democracy can ensure that social policies will automatically be based upon the social interest.