imageAlan Thornett reviews Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler published by Haymarket at £13.99.

As a long-time comrade of Ian Angus, a fellow ecosocialist, and an admirer of his work on Marxism and ecology, I am disappointed by the tone he has adopted in his new book on population Too Many People?—which he has authored jointly with Simon Butler, co-editor of the Australian publication Green Left Weekly.

The thesis they advance is that the population of the planet is irrelevant to its ecology, and that even discussing it is a dangerous or even reactionary diversion—a taboo subject. They even argue that such discussion is divisive and detrimental environmental campaigning. [page 97]

The book appears to be a response to Laurie Mazur’s very useful book published last year A Pivotal Moment— Population, Justice and the environmental challenge. This was reviewed by Sheila Malone in SR (July 2010), as part of a debate on the issue.

Mazur argues that it is not a matter of choosing between reactionary policies from the past but that “we can fight for population policies that are firmly grounded in human rights and social justice”. I agree with her on this point, though not with everything in her book.

I didn’t expect to agree with Ian’s book as such, since I have differed with him on this issue for some time. I did expect, however, an objective presentation of the debates without the ideas of fellow ecosocialists being lumped together with those of reactionaries and despots.

What we have is the branding (in heavy polemical tones) of anyone with a contrary view to the authors as ‘Malthusianist’—i.e. supporters of the 18th century population theorist the Reverend Thomas Malthus who advocated starving the poor to stop them breeding—or more precisely as ‘populationist’, by which the authors mean neo-Malthusianist.

They explain it this way: “Throughout the book we use the term ‘populationism‘ to refer to ideologies that attribute social and ecological ills to human numbers and ‘populationist’ to people who support such ideas.” They go on: “We prefer those terms to the more traditional Malthusianism and Malthusian, for two reasons”. The first is because not everyone is familiar with Malthus and the second is because most of their protagonists don’t actually agree with what he wrote. The “more traditional term”, however, never goes away. [page XX1]

This leaves the book stuck in the past, more concerned with rehashing the polarised conflicts of the last 200 years than engaging with the contemporary debates.

The authors are right to say that population is not the root cause of the environmental problems of the planet. It is capitalism. They are also right to say that stabilising the population would not in itself resolve them. But they are wrong to say that it is irrelevant. The fact is that current rate of increase is unsustainable were it to continue—and whether it will continue or for how long no one knows. What we do know it that it has almost tripled in just over 60 years—from 2.5bn in 1950 to the recently reached figure of 7bn.

According to UN figures it will reach between 8bn and 11bn (with 9.5bn as the median figure) by 2050. After that it could begin to stabilise—possibly doing so by the end of the 21st century. Even this, however, is highly speculative. Long-term population predictions, as the authors themselves acknowledge, are notoriously inaccurate. Meanwhile nearly half the current world population is under 25—which is a huge base for further growth.

Yet throughout the book the charge of ‘Malthusianism’ or ‘populationism’ is aggressively leveled against anyone who suggests that rising population is a legitimate, let alone important, subject for discussion. These range from those who do indeed see population as the primary cause of the ecological crisis to those who blame capitalism for it but see population as an important issue to be addressed within that.

This is reinforced by a sleight of hand by the authors over the term population ‘control’. They refuse to draw any distinction between control and empowerment and then brand those they polemicise against—including fellow ecosocialists who advocate empowerment—as being in favour of population ‘control’. This allows them to create a highly objectionable amalgam between every reactionary advocate of population control they can find—and there is no shortage of them including Malthusians—and those who are opposed to such control. This is then referred to throughout the book as “the populationist establishment”.

My own views would certainly fall within this so-called establishment. Yet I am opposed to population control and support policies based on empowerment—policies based on human rights and social justice, socially progressive in and of themselves, which can at the same time start to stabilise the population of the planet.

Such policies involve lifting people out of poverty in the poorest parts of the globe. They involve enabling women to control their own fertility through the provision of contraception and abortion services. It means challenging the influence of religion and other conservative influences such as patriarchal pressure. They involve giving women in impoverished communities access to education.

These are major strategic objectives in their own right, with the issue of rising population giving them an additional urgency. Yet the book dismisses them as secondary, as issues already dealt with! This reflects the fact that the book has nothing at all to say on the substantive (and huge) issue of women and population.

Some important progress towards empowerment policies was made at the UN conference on population and development held in Cairo in 1994. This, for the first time, pointed to the stabilisation of the global population through the elimination of poverty, the empowerment of women, and the effective implementation of basic human rights. That its proposals were sidelined by a vicious pro-life backlash and the arrival of George W Bush on the world stage does not invalidate the contribution it made.

The above approach, however, along with the Cairo Conference, is heavily slapped down in the book. In fact this is one of the author’s principal preoccupations. Empowerment is presented as the slippery slope to not only population control but “at its most extreme” to programs, human rights abuses, enforced or coercive sterilization, sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, and even to ethnic cleansing! [page 94]

The authors put it this way:

“Most supporters of population control today say that it is meant as a kindness — a benevolent measure that can empower women, help climate change, and lift people out of poverty, hunger, and underdevelopment. But population control has a dark past that must be taken into account by anyone seeking solutions to the ecological crisis.”(page 83) They go on: “…At its most extreme, this logic has led to sterilisation of the ‘unfit’ or ethnic cleansing. But even family planning could be a form of population control when the proponents aim to plan other people’s families.” [page 84]

The term population ‘control’ is again perversely attributed to anyone with contrary views and we are again warned of the ‘dark past’ of population debates and the dangers of engaging in them—and anything can be abused, of course, including family planning. But only enforced contraception, which we all oppose, could rationally be seen population control—not the extension to women of the ability to control their own fertility.

Equally mistaken is the crass assertion that to raise the issue of population under conditions where fertility levels are highest in the global south and declining in the north is in some way to target the women of the south and to blame them for the situation. For Fred Pearce, who endorses the book, makes advocates of empowerment into “people haters”: “How did apparently progressive greens and defenders of the underprivileged turn into people-haters, convinced of the evils of overbreeding amongst the world’s poor”.

What the empowerment approach actually targets, of course, is the appalling conditions under which women of the global south are forced to live and the denial basic human rights to which they are subjected. It demands that they have the same opportunities and resources as the women of the global north.

Even more confused is the allegation that the provision of contraception to women in the global south is in some way an attack on their reproductive rights; an attempt to stop them having the family size they would otherwise want — a view which appears to be endorsed in the Socialist Review review of the book. If that were the case, of course, it would not be the right to choose but enforced contraception.

In any case the proposition that most women in the global south, given genuine choice, would choose to have the large families of today is not supported by the evidence. Over 200m women in the global south are currently denied such services and there are between 70m and 80m unintended pregnancies a year—of which 46m end in abortions. 74,000 women die every year as a result of failed back-street abortions—a disproportionate number of these in the global south.

After attacking empowerment from every conceivable angle the authors then appear to accept at least the possibility that not all of us who think population is an important issue to discuss support enforced sterilisation and human rights abuses:

“We are not suggesting that everyone who thinks population growth is an ecological issue would support compulsory sterilisation or human rights abuses. Most modern-day populationists reject the coercive programmes of the 20th century, but that does not mean that they have drawn the necessary lessons from those experiences.” [page 95]

Unfortunately it is the authors themselves who continue to draw false lessons from the past: i.e. that the left should leave this subject alone, keep out of the debates, and insist that there is nothing to discuss.

The problem with this is that it is not just wrong but dangerous. If socialists have nothing to say about the population of the planet the field is left open to the reactionaries, and they will be very pleased to fill it. And one thing the authors are certainly right about is that there are plenty of such people out there with some very nasty solutions indeed.