A reply to Alan Thornett’s review of “Too Many People?”

We were pleased to learn that Alan Thornett, whose record as working class and socialist leader we respect, had reviewed our book, Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis write Ian Angus and Simon Butler. We didn’t expect him to agree with all of it, but we were looking forward to an open and comradely discussion.

Unfortunately, his review misrepresents our views and issues a sweeping condemnation that ignores most of what we wrote. No one who read only his article would have any idea what the book is about.

As a result, our reply has to focus on setting the record straight, rather than, as we would prefer, on deepening and extending the debate on population and the environment.


Since our book is about population and the environment, we were surprised to read, in the second paragraph of Thornett’s review, that we believe the subject is irrelevant. In fact, the word “irrelevant” appears in regard to population growth only once in our book – in the Foreword by noted ecosocialist Joel Kovel:

“while population is by no means irrelevant, giving it conceptual pride of place not only inflates its explanatory value but also obscures the essential factors that make for ecological degradation and makes it impossible to begin the hard work of overcoming them.” (p. xvi. emphasis added)

That sentence, which says just the opposite of what Thornett claims, concisely sums up our core argument – an argument that Thornett never mentions in his review. We wish that were the only case where he grossly misrepresents our views, but it isn’t.

For example, he accuses us of lumping everyone who disagrees with us – from some ecosocialists to reactionaries and despots – into “a highly objectionable amalgam … referred to throughout the book as ‘the populationist establishment’.”

In fact, we use the term “population [not populationist] establishment” just twice (pp. 98, 103), not “throughout the book.” And contrary to Thornett’s charge, in both cases it refers to the rich Western foundations and agencies that finance Third World population reduction programs, not to environmentalists of any political stripe.

But more important than specific phrases is the fact that in Too Many People? we consistently “distinguish between the reactionaries who promote population control to protect the status quo and the green activists who sincerely view population growth as a cause of environmental problems.” (p. 5) Thornett offers no evidence that we failed to make that important distinction.

We could continue, but even a summary list of his misreadings would require too much space. We’d rather discuss political issues.

Numbers versus social analysis

Thornett’s most important disagreement with our book is evident in his warning that world population “has almost tripled in just over 60 year – 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.” Such growth, he says categorically, is “unsustainable.”

In other words, he agrees with the populationist view that where human numbers are concerned, big is bad and bigger is worse. Although he says that capitalism is the real environmental problem, he accepts an argument that separates population growth from its historical, social, and economic context, reducing humanity’s complex relationship with nature to simple numbers.

We, on the other hand, agree with Mexican feminist and human rights activist Lourdes Arizpe:

“The concept of population as numbers of human bodies is of very limited use in understanding the future of societies in a global context. It is what these bodies do, what they extract and give back to the environment, what use they make of land, trees, and water, and what impact their commerce and industry have on their social and ecological systems that are crucial.” (p.193)

Thornett’s simplistic number-slinging is particularly problematic in a review of a book that explains why such statistics are misleading and unhelpful. Simply re-stating some big is bad numbers, while refusing to respond to or even mention our criticisms and counter-arguments, doesn’t advance the discussion one inch.

Is birth control an environmental issue?

But what seems to upset Thornett most is our criticism of environmentalists who believe it is possible to reverse decades of horrendous experience by combining Third World population reduction programs with respect for human rights. He endorses the argument of liberal feminist Laurie Mazur, that “We can fight for population policies that are firmly grounded in human rights and social justice.”

We, on the contrary, argue that “population policies not only don’t pave the way for progressive social and economic transformation, they raise barriers to it.” (p. 105)

To Thornett, that means that we oppose empowering Third World women, and that we unfairly label supporters of voluntary family planning programs as advocates of “population control.”

In what he seems to think is a challenge to our views, Thornett describes the oppression and restrictions faced by Third World women who want to control their fertility. He insists that ecosocialists must support the provision of contraception and birth control, and oppose any measures or policies that would restrict women’s reproductive rights.

You’d never know from his account that we make the same point several times in Too Many People? Far from considering these, as Thornett claims, “as secondary, as issues already dealt with” our book explicitly includes “ensuring universal availability of high-quality health services, including birth control and abortion” as priority measures that ecosocialists should fight for. (p. 199) Once again, what we actually wrote was the opposite of his charge.

Thornett’s false claim that we oppose empowering Third World women avoids our real argument: that Third World birth control programs are not an appropriate or effective way to fight the environmental crisis.

In the first place, as we show in Too Many People?, Third World population growth is not a significant cause of the environmental crisis – so focusing on population reduction would divert the environmental movement’s limited resources into programs that just won’t work.

And, as supporters of women’s rights, we oppose birth control programs that are motivated by population-reduction goals because they so often undermine the very empowerment they are said to promote. In Chapter 8, we discuss coercive measures found in supposedly voluntary programs around the world, ranging from the crude (denial of financial, medical or social benefits to women who refuse to be sterilized) to the relatively subtle (mandatory attendance at population-reduction lectures as a condition of receiving health care).

A recent article by noted feminist and population expert Betsy Hartmann explained the dangers of population-motivated birth control programs this way:

“Equally troubling about overpopulation propaganda is the way it undermines reproductive rights. While its purveyors claim they support family planning, they view it more as a means to an end – reducing population growth, rather than as a right in and of itself.

“The distinction may seem subtle, but it is not. Family planning programs designed to limit birth rates treat women, especially poor women and women of color, as targets rather than as individuals worthy of respect. Quality of care loses out to an obsession with the quantity of births averted.” (Climate & Capitalism, August 31, 2011)

Sadly, Thornett brushes these important concerns aside, calling them “sleight of hand,” and insisting that the term “population control” only applies when there is “enforced contraception.” That’s an astonishing statement for any supporter of women’s rights to make. Formally speaking, there is no “enforced contraception” in the United States, but, as feminist lawyer Mondana Nikoukari points out, there are “gradations of coercion” that cause women of color to be sterilized twice or even three times as often as white women. (p. 101-2)

Our comment: “If that’s true in the United States, how can we imagine that in countries where legal protections are much weaker, population-environment programs will truly respect women’s rights?” (p. 102)

We don’t doubt the sincerity of those who support what Thornett calls an “empowerment” approach to limiting population growth. We know that they oppose coercive population control. Unfortunately, their sincerity won’t protect poor women from the unintended consequences of the policies they advocate. Nor will it address the real causes of our mounting ecological crises, which – although Thornett doesn’t mention it – are discussed at some length in Too Many People?

Should we discuss population … or adapt to populationism?

In the Introduction to Too Many People?, we explained why we wrote the book:

“Our goal is to promote debate within environmental movements about the real causes of environmental destruction, poverty, food shortages, and resource depletion. To that end, we contribute this ecosocialist response to the new wave of green populationism …” (pp 4-5)

So once more we were surprised to be accused of opposing discussion of population and its relationship to ecology. We clearly call for more debate, but Thornett claims we believe “that even discussing it is a dangerous or even reactionary diversion – a taboo subject,” and that “the left should leave this subject alone, keep out of the debates, and insist that there is nothing to discuss.”

On its face, this is an improbable charge. We have written an entire book and dozens of articles on population and the environment. We have spoken at public meetings, debated populationists in person and on radio, and participated in innumerable online discussions. Would we have done any of that if we thought the left should leave the subject alone?

Only in the very last paragraph of his review does it become clear that he doesn’t really think we oppose discussion. Rather, he wants us to stop criticizing the “too many people” argument – the discussion he wants is not about whether overpopulation is a major environmental problem, but about how to reduce birth rates.

Our failure to do this, he says, is “not only wrong but dangerous,” because “the field is left open to reactionaries” who will use our absence from intra-populationist debates as an opportunity to promote “some very nasty solutions indeed.”

Liberals often urge socialists to moderate their political views, to avoid strengthening the right. We did not expect to hear such an argument from Alan Thornett. In reply, we can only repeat what we said in Too Many People?

“The real danger is that liberal environmentalists and feminists will strengthen the right by lending credibility to reactionary arguments. Adopting the argument that population growth causes global warming endorses the strongest argument the right has against the social and economic changes that are really needed to stop climate change and environmental destruction.

“If environmentalists and others believe that population growth is causing climate change, then our responsibility is to show them why that’s wrong, not to adapt to their errors.” (p. 104)

Ian Angus is editor of climateandcapitalism.com. Simon Butler is co-editor of Green Left Weekly. Their book, Too Many People? Population, Immigration, and the Environmental Crisis (Haymarket, 2011) can be ordered from most booksellers. A free sample chapter is available online at http://links.org.au/node/2520

Other reviews of Too Many People?

· Socialist Review (Britain)

· EcoClub (Greece)

· Socialist Worker (Canada)

· Hot Topic (New Zealand)

· GRIID (United States)

· Ozleft (Australia)

Share this:

23 Comments on A reply to Alan Thornett’s review of “Too Many People?”

  1. shelia malone // 13th January 2012 at 4:34 pm // Reply

    In my first article on population (SR 57), I tried to take a different approach from the old polemics around Malthusianism and population controls by calling it ‘Population growth is a feminist issue’. I still think the key to the issue is women’s empowerment. However ‘Too Many People?’ seems much more in the old mould.

    I agree with the authors that the main cause of social and ecological un-sustainability and inequality is capitalism (although not discounting pre-capitalist systems too). But I also see rapid population growth as a factor exacerbating already existing problems.

    Historically promoted and encouraged by capitalism and its ideologues (because it means more producers, consumers, warriors, believers), high birth rates have nevertheless brought high costs socially and ecologically and have been especially damaging for women – who have mostly struggled against them to control and limit their fertility.

    Maybe some overkill in the Marx/Malthus debates has deterred future Marxists from paying much attention to population. However, when they have taken it up, it has often been one-sidedly, not fully recognising the impact of population policies socially and ecologically [Brenner] In addition they often want to keep women’s rights separate from both demographic and development issues.

    This seems to be TMP’s approach. This means that when they explain the ‘demographic transition’ it is presented as happening more or less automatically. For instance, poverty reduction is seen as necessarily and always resulting in lower fertility rates. Hence ‘development is the best contraceptive’.

    This ignores high birth rates in some wealthy countries (Saudi Arabia), or the continued above replacement level in the USA. Secondly, and pertinently, their one-sidedness leaves out the important role of women’s own struggles in gaining the reproductive rights and resources which have ensured the big drop in fertility levels in the North. Nor do we hear much of women’s movements around these issues in the global South.

    In many countries in the South agriculture and industry has been geared to export and to benefit only local elites. This has created huge social and ecological problems. Nevertheless, women often remain under great pressure from state, religion, culture and clan to have more and more children. This exacerbates existing problems, as rapidly growing families are forced to degrade their own environments to get food, water and fuel just to survive.

    A better understanding of this situation might have led Ian and Simon to a more sympathetic view of the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and the Action Plan resulting from it. This was not a top-down programme, imposed from outside and harking back to coercive population controls, as they imply. On the contrary, Cairo was a response to what women themselves were asking for. As I discuss in my review of Laurie Mazur’s ‘A pivotal Moment’ its approach enabled women to set up centres where they could meet together, discuss and decide on their own needs and aspirations and those of their communities (and out of earshot of sometimes hostile partners)

    Here constant childbearing and rearing was seen by most women as exhausting and as restricting their and their children’s educational and job prospects. So they wanted the rights and means to control their own fertility. In addition gaining skills and a different future through something like small-scale organic farming and trading was seen as a way out from a poverty and high fertility trap, as well as beneficial to the wider community [and the planet!].

    In other words, women themselves linked the issues of population and development.

    I don’t disagree with Ian and Simon’s and their co-thinkers advocacy of ‘a woman’s right to choose’, nor with the sentiments behind the current ‘ecological justice is the best contraceptive’ [Vandana Shiva]. But in some ways bolder but equally pertinent were the old National Abortion Campaign in Britain’s ‘Every child a wanted child’ and ‘Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate’.

    This approach linked women’s individual needs and rights to the wider social issues. But, whichever approach you support, people usually need resources, skills and information to realize their wants and aspirations. These the Cairo programs provided. They are what I would call population policies which empower women. If either international bodies or national governments promote them, then I support this – as have women in countries as varied as Bangladesh and Philipines. Here many women’s wellbeing, status and prospects have greatly improved, as well the birth rate decreasing.

    So, I agree with TMP on the need for an alternative development model to capitalism, one that is socially and ecologically sustainable and just. But this must also address and integrate women’s specific needs, interests and wishes. We can then work out something which is good for women, good for our communities, our societies and good for our planet!

    Sheila Malone 13 January 2012

  2. Sheila seems to think that those who argue that population reduction is not part of the fight against climate change need education about the struggle for women’s rights (in the LDCs especially). I think that if she reads carefully the article immediately above her comment, then her point has already been answered. The authors also reiterate that it is dealt with in their book.

    Sheila’s comment does not provide arguments for her professed belief that population is a crucial issue in the ecological struggle. She discusses the importance of women being able to control their own fertility in the LDCs and comments that women themselves linked issues of population and development. But from the way in which she reports it, it sounds more like an understanding that for them as individuals or a community, breaking from the cycle of child rearing had an impact on their economic circumstances. It is a big jump from that to saying that population control is part of the solution to the ecological crisis.

    In any case, why all the emphasis on the third world women’s rights and fertility in Sheila’s comment? Surely the “fertility of first world women” (plus those in the UAE) is much more of a “problem”, as “their carbon emissions” are much higher?

    Finally, if you make argument for women’s right to control their fertility as part of the “need” to control population growth, what happens to traditional socialist demands that could actually encourage women to have more children, such free as 24-hour childcare, work-sharing with no loss of pay and extended rights for maternity leave?

  3. Sheila Malone wrote re.high birth rates:-
    “Historically promoted and encouraged by capitalism and its ideologues”

    That would seem to be undeniable.

    An important question is whether the development of capitalism actually *caused* rapid population growth.

    There’s quite a lot of evidence that it did during the Industrial revolution
    Increasing agricultural productivity was crucial to creating a capitalist labour force.
    Amongst the means used to achieve this was the use of Nitrate fertilizers.
    Their production soon became a factor in the calculations of rival Imperialist powers.
    In 1913, the Haber-Bosch process was perfected in Germany to produce ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.
    This had a dual purpose; When the First World War started, ammonia production in Germany was switched from making fertilizer, to explosives.
    Almost all the fertilizer now produced by petrol-chemical industry comes from this process.
    It’s been estimated that half of the protein in the world’s population comes from nitrogen produced from it.
    Without it, the world probably couldn’t sustain its current population levels.

    There is also evidence that capitalism led to the rapid growth of population in the developing countries:-

    The “Green Revolution” was sponsored by the US government to defuse social radicalism.
    Between 1950- 2000, wheat yields in the developing countries more than trebled
    Similar increases were achieved for Corn and Rice production.
    This led to a rapid growth of the population and the creation of a new reserve army of labour.
    Under such circumstances, the first generation of migrants to the cities will often have very large families.
    The problem of allocating scarce farming land that exists in many peasant communities is no longer a restraining factor on family size.
    Children tend to be seen as potential wage earners and provide a ready-made social support network.

    The growth of huge mega-cities is encouraged by capitalism:-

    In these swollen centres of administration, based on centralised taxation and finance, people are needed to serve the infrastructure rather then vice versa.
    London is quite a good example of this; It has been fighting a continual battle to retain its population for 80 years.
    This reached its maximum size of 8.6 million in 1939.
    By the 1980’s, it had fallen to 6.8 million.
    While its manuacturing and port facilities were destroyed, the financial sector in the city of London was encouraged.
    Only a frenzied property boom halted the population decline.
    By 2006, it had recovered to 7.6 million.
    Maintaining it at this level helps to repay the capital invested in the infrastructure and keeps the shopping complexes full.
    High population “churn” keeps property prices up, sustains the landlords and the banks.

    There is a correlation between high fertility rates and poverty:-

    While high fertility rates are certainly *not* linked to high CO2 emissions, they do have an undeniable correlation with poverty and underdevelopment. The countries with the highest fertility rates are are Niger, Guinea Bissau, Afghanistan, Burundi, Liberia, Dem Republic of Congo, East Timor, Mali, Sierra Leone and Uganda. Women in these countries, on average, have 6-7 children, compared to the global average of 2.55.
    Fertility rates of 2 or less, tend to be most common in countries where women have the best access to education and contraception.

    Achieving population stability, or even a planned reduction in population on a voluntary basis, may be the only way for the whole world to enjoy high living standards without ecological disaster.
    But it’s not a policy that can be isolated from a whole range of other progressive measures that would need to be adopted.
    When “populationists” try to do this, it always leads to reactionary conclusions.

  4. Alan Thornett // 19th January 2012 at 3:57 pm // Reply

    A re-joiner to Ian Angus and Simon Butler
    Just a comment on Ian Angus and Simon’s claim that I have distorted some of the things they say, since this was not my intention. Having re-read Too Many People?, however, I find it difficult to draw any other conclusions—though the book is not consistent on some of the issues involved. I have tried, therefore, to respond to the main lines of what is said. In the end, however, some of these things are a matter of judgment and other readers will have to draw their own conclusions.
    First the issue of whether the authors are seeking to close down the discussion on population, as I implied, or open it up as they claim. I am aware that the comrades are very keen to disseminate their particular views on the subject far and wide. But I still fail to see how throwing the charge of Malthusianism (even in a slightly modified form), in a highly intimidating way, as is the case in the book, at others in the debate, including those who reject everything Malthus stood for, is the way to promote a discussion. We have to get beyond the 19th century debates and name calling to the dialogue which is taking place today.
    The authors protest that it was not their intention to include socialists or progressive contributors to the debate in their charge of Malthusianism, but that’s not that way the book reads.
    The views I hold, for example, as an ecosocialist: that population increase could be slowed and eventually stabilised by measures which are entirely progressive in and of themselves—the eradication of poverty, the empowerment of women though the provision of education and family planning and countering religious, conservative, and patriarchal pressures for example—are specifically characterised as Malthusian. The precise term used in this case is “populationism lite”. And since populationism, in the author’s definition, is neo-Malthusianism the meaning could hardly be clearer.
    They also object to my point that a basic theme of the book is that the size of the human population of the planet is not, in itself, a threat to its ecology. Again it is hard to read the book any other way—despite various statements to the contrary. In fact you get roundly characterised as a ‘populationist’ if you as much as consider the issue of population one factor of many as far as the ecology of the planet is concerned. You are accused of being one of the ‘big is bad’ brigade—presumably as opposed to either the ‘big is good’ or the ‘size is irrelevant’ brigade. The quotation the authors use from Joel Kovel’s introduction to refute this point is out of kilter with the main line of the book.
    The authors accept (the UN figures) that the human population is likely to reach somewhere between 8bn and 11bn by 2050, and could well continue expanding until the end of this century—though, as they rightly say, long-term populations predictions are notoriously unreliable. They still argue, however, that even to suggest that such expansion could have negative implications for the ecology of the planet is to ‘play the numbers game’, engage in ‘simplistic number slinging’ or to create ‘a reactionary diversion’. Even the precautionary theory would call for more than that.
    I agree with the authors that the relationship between the human population and the ecology of the planet is a complex one. There are huge disparities in carbon footprints across the globe and total population figures are far from the only factor involved. Today the populations of the global south with the highest birth rates have the smallest carbon footprint. But to imply that it is therefore of little consequence whether the population of the planet reaches 8bn or 11bn by 2050, or whether it continues to grow until the end of the century or not is a departure from reality.
    In any case populations which today have a low impact because they are forced to live in poverty and deprivation rightly aspire to change their situation and will hopefully do so. In fact some of the countries which have the lowest carbon footprint today have the highest economic growth rates.
    The authors argue that there is little problem in feeding such numbers if food production and distribution is rationally organised. And they might be right—though climate change itself is increasingly disrupting growing patterns and destroying agricultural land. It is not just the food supply which is involved, however. It is the overall impact of the human population on the planet: climate change, water, energy, waste disposal, pollution, bio-diversity, and the impact on global ecosystems.
    The authors did not to respond to my point that the book is essentially gender neutral on the overall issue of population. Women (whose central role in the issue of population is clear enough) come into the book mainly in the debate as to whether and under what circumstances they should be the recipients (or not as the case may be) of family planning services—not as actors in their own lives. They are not seen as the active agency of change which they represent in this field. Women not only need the ability to control their own fertility but they have historically demanded it and fought for it.
    I accept that the authors are in general terms in favour of the women having access to family planning facilities—there are indeed passages to this effect in the book. But there is a crucial contradiction in the position they present since they are opposed to such provision if one of its effects would be to reduce the birthrate. Yet the provision of family planning services always reduces the birthrate—that’s what they are for.
    Their rationale for this contradiction hangs on their contention that the provision of family planning services, particularly in third world countries, can be usurped by reactionary forces and turned into something compulsory and authoritarian rather than voluntary. It makes such provision of such services, they say, dangerously vulnerable to ‘unintended consequences’.
    This again treats women as a passive factor by assuming that they would simply allow the right to choose to be subverted in that way. The right to control their own fertility is something women have long demanded and fought for, and continue to do so today—including in those parts of the world with the highest birthrates. This fight has always included the fight against reactionary measures such as compulsory sterilisation.
    In any case there are many progressive policies which can be turned into reactionary measures if reactionary forces can get away with it. This could happen with the campaign against climate change if it suited the ruling elites to do so. Some very nasty authoritarian measures could be brought in under the guise of saving the planet from climate change. This does not mean we should not fight to stop climate change. It means that we should warn against such measures and oppose them if they come up.
    In any case opposing family planning services in third world countries today on this basis that they would be a slippery slope to authoritarian solutions would not make such authoritarian measures less likely if the ruling elites turn in that direction.
    The authors refused to accept that the provision of family planning services to women who currently do not have access to them is a win-win situation. It gives women the right to control their own fertility, to have the family size which is right for them, eliminates unwanted pregnancies, and at the same time exerts a downward pressure on the birthrate. One is not dependent on the other but both are progressive and desirable.
    This is not to say that such measures, or reducing the birthrate, are the answer to the environmental crisis, of course not. That will require a massive programme for renewable energy and energy conservation. It will require a serious challenge to the capitalist mode of production and consumption. But the stabilisation of the global population would make the task a lot easier than it would otherwise be.
    Alan Thornett 19th January 2012

  5. Alan misses out the reasons women have large families in the developing world and why, therefore, targeting them for reducing the population is the wrong answer. In countries without a welfare state, pensions, etc. large numbers of children are needed because a) a larger proportion die in infancy and b) to maintain the family’s income/production and c) to look after the older members who can no longer work.
    Until poverty can be overcome women will always have more children in the developing than in the developed world. Once out of poverty women will inevitably have fewer children, but, given the developed world’s larger carbon print, focusing on the developing world is also the wrong target.

  6. Alan Thornett // 23rd January 2012 at 11:33 am // Reply

    Jane is right to point out that infant mortality poverty and insecurity in health and old age are major pressures on women in third world countries to have larger families than they would otherwise choose. There are other such pressures as well, however, which can be equally strong, conservatism, religion, and patriarchy, which mean that family size does not necessarily fall with rising economic conditions. It is certainly not ‘inevitable’. Nor do these pressures mean that there are no unwanted pregnancies or demand for contraception or abortion facilities in such countries, far from it. As I point out in my review there are between 70m and 80m unintended pregnancies a year in the Global South. Globally 74,000 women die every year as a result of failed back-street abortions—a disproportionate number of these are in the South. Nor is it a matter of ‘targeting’ women in such countries, which puts a pejorative twist on it. It is a matter of supporting them in their struggle to gain the access to contraception and abortion facilities to which they are entitled along with women in the North and which they desperately need. Nor have I, by the way, talked about ‘reducing the population’ in the course of this discussion but only about future stabilisation.
    Alan Thornett

  7. Once again, Alan Thornett complains that we insult people who share his views by calling them Malthusians, even though they “reject everything Malthus stood for.” Worse, he says we do it “in a highly intimidating way.”

    Here’s what another reviewer, who is critical of other aspects of the book, wrote:

    “The authors avoid branding modern populationists as Malthusians because in fact most don’t agree with Malthus’s theory.”

    Another reader wrote this comment on the Socialist Resistance website:

    “While I have some disagreements with particular points, I found it an important and convincing contribution to the subject, and scrupulously respectful of greens and socialists who hold opposing views.”

    Too Many People? explains why it is wrong to promote population reduction as a solution to the global environmental crisis. Others have disagreed with us, but only Alan Thornett has found insults and intimidation where none exist.


    Having complained about our supposed name-calling, Thornett goes on to demonstrate his commitment to fruitful discussion by slandering us as opponents of women’s rights.

    Simon Butler and Ian Angus, he says, “are opposed to such provision [of family planning] if one of its effects would be to reduce the birth rate” and are guilty of “opposing family planning services in third world countries today on this basis that they would be a slippery slope to authoritarian solutions.” He even says that for us it is a matter of debate whether women “should be the recipients (or not as the case may be) of family planning services.”

    He offers not one word of proof, because there isn’t any. We don’t think that. We didn’t write that. It is not implied by anything we think or wrote.

    In fact in Too Many People? we repeatedly say just the opposite.

    We wholeheartedly support family planning programs that support women’s right to choose. That includes choosing whether to use birth control. Choosing what kind of birth control to use. Choosing to have fewer children or more children or the same number of children spaced further apart. We defend those fundamental rights unconditionally.

    And, like many feminists and women’s rights activists around the world, we criticize programs that are promoted and implemented as means of reducing birth rates – programs whose aim is to limit the right to choose. We argue that activists in the North should not promote such programs as solutions to the environmental crisis.

    Thornett simply ignores that fundamental issue.

    Once again, as we said of his original review, no one who reads only his comments would have any idea what our book actually says.

    Ian Angus & Simon Butler
    co-authors of Too Many People?

  8. shelia malone // 25th January 2012 at 1:12 pm // Reply

    Just a response to PhilW and Jane.

    In his reply to my comments on Too Many People?, I believe Phil gets entangled in some of the misunderstandings within the book itself around population reduction and control, and inequalities in North and South.

    I am certainly critical of TMP’s inadequate coverage of women’s struggles. But I don’t think this is because the authors ‘ do not see population reduction as part of the fight against climate change’ – as Phil implies. Also, I certainly refer to women’s own linkage of population and development. But I do not conclude from this that ‘Population control is part of the solution to the ecological crisis’. In fact, I have never, anywhere, advocated either population reduction or control and it is wrong to mix me up with those who do.

    Phil’s third paragraph touches on another confused debate about sustainability and inequality. He suggests a need to focus on the rich North, because here we have much larger carbon emissions and carbon footprints than in the poorer South. So discussing rapid population growth in the South is unfair to poor women and, as this view puts it, ‘targets’ them.

    I agree with the need to reduce emissions in the North as a priority. At the same time, I explain that UN-funded centres in the South are run by women themselves, and are in answer to expressed but hitherto unmet needs for reproductive health and family planning, for education and work and for a safe and clean environment. What is the problem in supporting them?

    The other problem with not addressing the South [as TMP and Phil advocate] is that this only works if these countries remain poor- something neither they themselves nor we would want. However, development along the same lines as the capitalist North is leading to social and ecological crises in countries like China and India. China is now the highest carbon emitter globally, with an average footprint approaching that of France. So, we obviously need an alternative, non-capitalist development model in both North and South. But within this, and until we get there, the number of footprints matter as well as their size. Over 11bn [the highest UN prediction for 2050] all still aspiring to live like Americans, would overwhelm our already resource-stretched planet.

    In her comment Jane makes the point that women may have large families for economic reasons. This has certainly been true at various times in both North and South. In 18th and 19th century Britain, children were seen as labour and security, especially in the cottage industries. However, it was also true that each little pair of hands that made the spinning wheels hum was also another mouth to feed.

    This was a poverty and high fertility trap, in some ways similar to that in the poorer countries today. For instance, in the slums of today’s megacities, large and entire families are often employed in similar types of cottage industry. And there is the same pressure for child labour, and the same trap. Getting out of it involves addressing all the aspects of development – poverty reduction, education and jobs, social and ecological sustainability – but linking them to women’s [and children’s] specific interests, such as their well-being, and not just the economic dictates. We should remember how this approach empowered women in the North, as well as celebrate what they are now doing in the South.

    So refusing early marriage or combating exclusion from school because of accidental pregnancy can challenge oppressive norms of state religion and clan. In struggling for their own specific interests, women can also become agents of wider change.

    Finally, Phil’s point about traditional socialist demands such as 24 hour child care is an interesting one’
    But these no more say to women ‘Have more babies’ than family planning clinics say to them’ Have fewer babies’. They are both simply about enabling women to make their own choices and be provided for either way. So I support both.

    Sheila Malone

  9. Sheila and Alan state the importance of population in the ecological struggle, but don’t appear to advocate any specific (different) policies to address the issue. Instead, they support a whole series of measures that would empower women and enable them to control their own fertility: measures which have always been part of the programme for women’s liberation and are better advocated on those grounds.

    Sheila says she doesn’t support population control or reduction, but she refers approvingly to the Cairo programme’s “population policies that empower women”. I wouldn’t be so sanguine about programmes under the auspices of the UN and various national governments. They are not designed for the purpose of increasing women’s rights, even if that is a side effect.

    I’d like to hear of a “population policy” that the comrades advocate that ISN’T part of the women’s liberation programme: otherwise, all this talk about population doesn’t really have any purchase.

    I’m not sure about the approach that argues “11 billion people [can’t live like] like Americans”. The first question to ask when seeing a statement like that is “Which Americans?”

    Capitalism cannot look after the planet with seven billion people living on it. It couldn’t when there were two billion. We can’t take our cue from that. The problem is not that “seven billion people are despoiling the Earth”, but capitalism is, irrespective of how many people there are. A far less wasteful economic system is possible – and could provide for the needs of everyone on the planet (and more) without over-stressing our resources.

  10. Alan Thornett // 27th January 2012 at 5:24 pm // Reply

    Phil says: “I’d like to hear of a “population policy” that the comrades advocate that ISN’T part of the women’s liberation programme: otherwise, all this talk about population doesn’t really have any purchase.”

    How about: lifting people out of poverty (the single most important), education, human rights, social justice and combatting the influence of religion. I have advocated all of these in the course of this discussion.

  11. What would be wrong with having a smaller world population?

    In the 19th century, it might have meant a decline in the forces of production and social regression to pre-industrial conditions.
    But the productivity of Industry and agriculture are vastly greater now.
    As yet, no methods have been found to support the increased human population that don’t involve using fossil fuels and hence, threaten global warming.
    Letting the world population increase will mean continuing to use fossil fuels, until the reserves are exhausted.
    At this point, nuclear power will be expanded to fill the gap.
    It will almost certainly mean the extensive use of genetically modified crops and the spread of industrial-scale farms into the remaining areas left for wildlife.
    We can already see this process happening in Africa, where Western corporations, Arab and Chinese business interests have been purchasing the rights to farmland.

    A smaller world population would allow society to make a transition towards 100% renewable energy and ecologically sustainable farming.
    As long as wealth and resources were equitably redistributed, there would be numerous other benefits;
    More space for housing, less road building, an end to the growth of mega-cities and all the cheap electric power we need.
    The unremitting pressure on other species from the expansion of the human population and extractive industries could be brought under control;
    There would be more nature reserves, more protected fisheries, more sustainable forestry.

    All this could be achieved while the per capita output of society continued to rise.
    Everyone could enjoy a high standard of living, access to the means of communication, an extended education and plenty of leisure time.
    Everyone could explore the world and humanity could continue to explore the planets.
    All without irreversible climate change.

    Of course this could only be achieved as part of a socialist system, where women can make rational choices about their fertility.
    Capitalism has no interest in doing it, because it’s based on private ownership of the means of production.
    It promotes the privatised consumption of disposable goods and waste on a huge scale.
    It’s unable to end the millenia-old competive struggle between rival ethnicities and nation states.
    This perpetuates an ideology that dictates the population of the in-group must always rise to meet the external threat of the “other”.

    We need to move beyond this narrow perspective and look at the interests of humanity as a whole.
    We also need to ensure that these are in keeping with the needs of the wider environoment.

    This may sound somewhat utopian, but if the world’s population is allowed to double again, could we do all this?

  12. OK, Alan: perhaps I phrased my question about a “population policy” incorrectly, but I think what I meant was clear. It is a given that what you say, “lifting people out of poverty (the single most important), education, human rights, social justice and combatting the influence of religion” have for a long time been seen as a necessary part of the struggle for women’s liberation. I was asking for a NEW policy that tackles what you perceive to be a central issue, that isn’t part of the socialist programme.

  13. Sorry: “isn’t part of the “traditional” socialist programme”.

    I’ll give a reply to Prianikoff too: my starting point is that capitalism is such a wasteful system that all humanity could have its basic needs met – food, health, housing, culture – using probably 1/3 of the energy it uses at the moment and with the land currently under cultivation. What is missing, as you rightly say, is socialism. I would say: planning in particular and a challenge to the bourgeois nuclear family.

    You list various consequences of population growth. I agree with what you say, but these are the “consequences” under capitalism – and I’m not sure they are the result of population growth per se: after all, capitalism was no less unequal, rapacious and exploitative when the population was 2 billion (or less) than it is now. It caused two world wars, for example. The optimum population (from a humanitarian point of view) under capitalism is zero, because no-one should be forced to live under such a system!

    So, when you are talking about the alleged positive effects of a lower population, you appear to be still thinking about how capitalism uses resources, not socialism, despite your statements about the wastefulness of the system at the end.

    Of course, it is difficult to visualise exactly how a new system would utilise energy and land, but some ideas can be gained even from studies that do accept capitalism, such and Monbiot’s book “Heat” and Colin Tudge’s book “Sow Shall We Reap”. (That is not to say that capitalism could necessarily implement the measures they advocate – just that they look at waste of energy and land respectively, within current relations of production). Add to their studies getting rid of whole swathes of the economy that serve the system and not people, plus planning, and the savings will be yet greater.

  14. Alan Thornett // 29th January 2012 at 8:37 pm // Reply

    PhilW says: “Sheila and Alan state the importance of population in the ecological struggle, but don’t appear to advocate any specific (different) policies to address the issue. Instead, they support a whole series of measures that would empower women and enable them to control their own fertility: measures which have always been part of the programme for women’s liberation and are better advocated on those grounds.” My point throughout this debate is precisely that these demands should be advocated on both grounds. They are good for women, they are good for society in general, and they are good for the environment because they help to stabilise population growth. They are as I have said earlier win-win policies. The fact that liberating women also helps the environment simply gives it an additional urgency.
    It agree that a world socialist system (I would prefer ecosocialist system) would put us in a better position to defend the environment and cope with rising population—but it is only a better position and not an instant cure. We are not, however, on the verge of socialist revolution despite the stunning revolts of the past year and waiting for it (even whilst working for it) is not an answer to the ecological crisis today.

  15. Comrades may find this article of interest:


    Lacking arguments of their own, anti-immigration groups on three continents have resorted to distributing an article they don’t agree with, by an author who rejects what they stand for – just because it is critical of “Too Many People?”


  16. Sheila Malone // 3rd February 2012 at 6:01 pm // Reply

    Reply to PhilW and TMP
    Both PhilW and TMP want to keep women’s rights (including the right to control their own fertility) separate from population and development issues. But the reason why the Cairo conference agreed on an integrated approach is that this seems to work best for women, society and planet.
    I must stress first that the Cairo Consensus did not advocate population controls, since these violate women’s rights. It recognised, however, that just making contraception available did not adequately answer women’s needs either. In both North and South many women reported that cultural, religious, and family traditions were difficult to overcome. In some African countries, for instance, religious propaganda condemns family planning as an assault on African fertility and culture and as aimed at stopping black African women from having babies. So a minefield of contested rights and traditions had to be negotiated.
    This also applied to girl’s and women’s lack of education, which kept them isolated and lacking in aspirations. In fact, education was found to be as significant a factor as poverty reduction in improving women’s status and prospects and in equipping them to make decisions about when and how many children to have. So Cairo’s Action Plans also include education as a high priority. But, again, this was a contested area.
    Also, as the ecological crisis deepens, great importance was given to sustainability, as opposed to the old growth models. Women in poor countries are only too aware that they are in the front line of a looming catastrophe. And many are aware that ever-expanding families are exacerbating it.
    In this respect what has happened in Bangladesh could be a pointer to the future. Here the government decided to back family planning provision in the 1980s, despite conservative traditions of early marriage and large families. A new generation of young women has taken advantage of the services and gotten themselves education and jobs, instead of a lifetime of childbearing and rearing. Furthermore, the resultant rapid drop in average fertility rates from 5 to 3 children per woman looks set to be permanent. In fact, it is predicted to continue downwards, as many young women are saying they will never go back to the old ways. This is easing pressure in a very densely populated and ecologically stressed country.
    At the same time, the skills and imagination of newly educated women are contributing to solving economic, social, and ecological problems. So, women’s empowerment in all spheres benefits themselves as well as the wider society and the planet.
    However, there is no discussion in TMP of how and why this integrated approach arose. Instead, there is the quite shocking accusation that supporters of the Cairo Consensus “have learned to say ‘population stabilisation’ instead of ‘population control’ and that ‘purely verbal shifts have not changed their underlying assumption that the world’s major problems are caused by poor women having too many babies’”. I am utterly perplexed by this misunderstanding of the whole meaning of Cairo.
    Lastly, all I can say about Ian’s encounter with the reactionaries is that you reap what you sow. If you mix up their ideas with those of Alan (and myself), this mistake may well come back to haunt you, as here. This is a problem of TMP’s own making.
    Sheila Malone.

  17. Sheila Malone calls the criticisms Simom Butler and I made of the Cairo Consensus “shocking.” She is “utterly perplexed” by our “misunderstanding.” Cairo, she said in an earlier comment, “was a response to what women themselves were asking for.” She is in favor of “empowerment” and that’s what Cairo represents.

    Rather than repeat the arguments we’ve made repeatedly in this discussion, in previous articles, and in Too Many People?, I’ll defer to women who are directly familiar with Cairo and with the Third World fertility programs Malone endorses.

    The following passages are from an assessment of the Cairo conference, written by the renowned Indian feminists Vandana Shiva and Mira Shiva.

    “Women’s groups who should have been the ones to raise issues of women’s right to development and right to resources … unwittingly became promoters of the agenda of demographic fundamentalists who believe that all problems — from ecological crisis to ethnic crisis, from poverty to social instability — can be blamed on population growth, and as a corollary population control is a solution to all problems facing humanity.

    “The real gain of the women’s movement over the past three decades has been the rejection of the view women as only sexual objects or as reproductive machinery. Cairo reversed this gain by equating ‘population’ to ‘women’s rights’ and ‘women’s rights’ to ‘reproductive rights’. …”

    They go on to call Cairo a “powerful weapon against Third World women in their struggle for life with dignity.”

    I am utterly perplexed that anyone, let alone a socialist and feminist, can call that “empowerment.”

  18. If you say that population is a factor in the ecological crisis, perhaps what happens in the economies that contribute most to that crisis should be under discussion? I still do not understand why Sheila’s main concern here is with the fertility of women in developing countries.

    On Alan’s point about the demands for women’s empowerment being good for women’s rights, for society in general and for the environment because they help stabilise population: I asked earlier about demands that may not do the latter, such as extended maternity leave, child benefits, 24-hour crèches etc. Fred Pearce claims that, in advanced countries, where population might be considered more of an issue, as “people” do more damage to the environment there, these sorts of measures raise birth rates. He cites the examples of Sweden and Italy (fertility rates of 1.94 and 1.41 respectively).

  19. Even more startling is Iceland, “highest birth rate in Europe + highest divorce rate + highest percentage of women working outside the home = the best country in the world in which to live.” (Until later in 2008, from an article in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/may/18/iceland). The fertility rate in Iceland is (was, before the financial crisis?) above replacement at 2.23.

    • Reply to Ian on TMP, from Sheila Malone
      Ian seems not to understand that feminists and ecosocialists [and others] can disagree with each other. That’s the trouble with his book.
      Having dug himself into a hole with his rigid position on the Cairo conference, he just keeps digging
      -looking for anyone with the same position as himself, alighting on Vandana Shiva. But I am already aware of her views on population, do not agree with them, and do not recognise the Cairo Consensus in her diatribes, before and after the conference.
      So, I am not among the ‘sincere but deluded’ as TMP’s authors like to describe those who do not agree with themselves. I simply have different ideas, and am willing to defend them. However, I don’t want just to repeat my previous criticisms, and it might be best now to just agree to disagree.
      But just to avoid misunderstandings around my final point – on the anti-immigration reactionaries- I’ll reinforce it now.
      The size of the world’s population is not affected by migration, which is about people moving from place to place. Nevertheless, TMP devotes a lot of space to the issue, and sows the same kind of confusion as with population growth and population controls.
      Earlier both Alan and myself refuted the book’s accusation that if you identify rapid population growth as a factor exacerbating social and economic problems, you therefore advocate population controls.
      This refutation is important in relation to migration, because most people and groups who advocate population controls, also support immigration controls. So if you mix up population growth with
      controls, you mix up those who see the stabilisation of rapid growth as related to women’s empowerment [the opposite of controls] with advocates of both population controls and immigration controls. The book does this in statements like: “ ‘Immigration harms the environment’ is just another way of saying ‘Population growth harms the environment’ ” .
      TMP also sows similar confusion about greens. A chapter on migration begins by referring to a ‘Strategy for Survival’, published in 1972 in the British Ecologist’, and containing a section calling for an end to immigration. The book claims the article is ‘often credited as the document that led to the creation of the Ecology Party, later renamed the Green Party’ But there is no discussion of actual, current Green Party policies. Instead, the implication is that greens support a ‘Strategy for Survival’ and are anti-immigration.
      Given this kind of muddle, I guess the immigration controllers couldn’t believe their luck. They’d been handed a chance to claim feminists, greens, ecosocialists and members of the Fourth International as their co-thinkers and supporters.
      This is the, albeit unintended, legacy of TMP.

      Sheila Malone

      • Hi Sheila,

        The issue at hand is not, as you say, that Ian or myself do not appreciate that “feminists and ecosocialists [and others] can disagree with each other”. I cannot explain why you imagine anyone would seriously think we believe otherwise. Despite your protestations, it seems you are not prepared to “defend your position”, but merely say Ian is digging a hole for himself. It’s a transparently weak position.

        Rather than respond to Ian’s point, you switch the argument to immigration. I cannot make out your argument here (i.e. that TMP mixes up population growth and immigration controls … we argue *against* that position, which is common to populationist groups. A summary of our views on the connection between immigration and evironmental decay is here http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/ab250110.html But most of all I would recommend to readers to read book for yourself.

        TMP does not *imply* “greens support a ‘Strategy for Survival’ and are anti-immigration”. This is a very insincere criticism Shiela. Everyone knows there are different positions among Greens members on the population issue.

        Our argument in TMP, put simply, is that people are not pollution. Too many people are not the cause of our ecological problems and programs designed to drive down population levels fast in the global south are a diversion from the most important issues, such as keeping fossil fuels in the ground, sustainable farming, ending poverty, war and imperialism worldwide. We insist, following Barry Commoner, that the ecological crises that plague the Earth begin in the corporate boardroom, not the family bedroom. We urge socialists and environmentalists to focus on dealing with the root causes of this crisis, not its symptoms.

        We also make clear in TMP that women have an inalienable right to control their own fertility and we support all struggles to that end. No ecosocialism is possible without human liberation, and women’s liberation cannot be separated from that.

        We criticise, on the basis of many well-documented failures and abuses, Western-led population control programs in the third world that are not designed to give women more choice, but are designed to restrict women’s choices so they make the “right” decision. We support women’s right to birth control, but we also urge awareness that many foundations inspired by what Shiva calls “demographic fundamentalism” have responded to past feminist criticism by merely *describing* population control programs as *empowerment*. Rather than focus on social change, these groups see women’s use of contraception as a demographic means to an end.

  20. In Climate & Capitalism: a powerful statement by Katie McKie Bryson of the Hampshire Population & Development Program.

    An appeal to some supporters of women’s rights: Please stop promoting the 7 Billion scare

    When you invoke the language of “overpopulation,” of “too many people,” of “can’t feed ‘em, don’t breed em,” you promote programs that profoundly harm women of color, poor women, indigenous women, and women in the global south.


  21. In 2010 the 16th World Congress of the Fourth International outlined the tasks of its members in response to climate change. The third task enumerated was as follows:

    Conduct the ideological fight against green neo-Malthusianism, in defence of the poor and of women’s rights. By its nature as a global problem and by the extent of the catastrophes which it is likely to cause, global warming favours the development of a whole series of ideological currents which, under cover of radical ecology, try to rehabilitate the theses of Malthus by packaging them in an apocalyptic discourse with strong religious accents. These currents find an echo at the highest level in certain sections of the ruling classes, where the disappearance of a few hundred million human beings is easier to imagine than the disappearance of capitalism. Because of this, they represent a potentially serious threat to the poor, particularly to women. The fight against these currents represents an important task, which our organizations must assume, as such and in liaison with the women’s movement. The population level is obviously one parameter of the evolution of the climate, but we have to categorically combat the false idea that population growth is a cause of climate change. The demographic transition is largely underway in the developing countries, and is progressing more quickly than had been envisaged. It is desirable that it continues, but that will be a result of social progress, the development of social security systems, the information that women dispose of and their right to control their own fertility (including the right to abortion in correct conditions). This is obviously a long-term policy. Short of resorting to barbaric methods, no policy of population control makes it possible to respond to climatic urgency. (my italics)

    I much prefer the Fourth International’s position to that expressed by Alan Thornett and Sheila Malone.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.