The Marxist Lens: Is Overpopulation a Myth?


Welcome to the Marxist Lens. In today’s video, we will be talking about overpopulation. Is it a looming reality, or a myth? This video is part of a general ecological theme within the Marxist Lens series, which aims to present a Marxist perspective on issues like climate change, sustainability, and resource scarcity. Throughout the discussions, look out for citations and references to texts, that might prove to be informative for you. So, the overpopulation argument comes primarily from the works of Malthus and other thinkers who have been influenced by him. Who was Malthus, and what is his legacy today? Thomas Robert Malthus was a British scholar, who was well known for his population theory. He demonstrated that the rate at which population grows is exponential, whereas the rate of growth for food production is linear, suggesting that at a certain point in time, humanity will experience a massive agricultural crisis due to overpopulation. Furthermore, overpopulation will create poverty, as an increase in the number of poor people will reduce wages for the working class. For Malthus, the problem could mostly be resolved by cutting aid for the poor, who he blamed as the cause of the population crisis and the reason for growing poverty. Malthus argued that propping up the poor would only serve to make the population and poverty problems worse. Only indirect population control through strict austerity could save the world from the inevitability of the crisis Malthus envisioned. You may think that many of Malthus’ point have been disproven over time and that his general argument no longer holds ground in modern discourse. To some extent, that is true. But many of the arguments that depend on a theory of overpopulation still draw from Malthus’ central point: That population itself is at the center of global agricultural and ecological crises. If you’ve ever heard the argument that overpopulation is driving climate change resource scarcity, You’re probably familiar with some strain of neo-Malthusianism. Many Marxists fundamentally disagree with this narrative. Actually, Marx and Engels themselves wrote against the theories of Malthus. The Malthusian argument lends itself to being an overt attack on the poor, justifying contined exploitation and repression, with no regard for the need of the disadvantaged, who, even in the most in the most benign of Malthusian presentations, are seen as a burden to the rest of society. According to Marx and Engels, carrying capacity — or the maximum ecologically sustainable size of a given population — is actually determined for humans by the social material conditions of a given time. Humans possess the ability to change the environment around them in such a way as to affect the threshold of sustainable population. Marx and Engels argued that different social and economic organisations have had different carrying capacities. This is clearly observable across time, with the advent of capitalism being a major point of expansion in human carrying capacity. If you look at the difference in population between pre- and post-industrial societies, you can see that our carrying capacity is very much a factor of our own social and economic structures. It’s not that we do not have the resources to clothe, house, and feed the world’s population: it’s that the existing class divisions do not allow for such an objective to be obtained. According to a number of sources, there’s enough food to feed everyone on the planet today, and in the coming decades. According to some sources, the annual food waste alone could feed up to 2 billion people. What’s more, while some believe that we are set to grow until the 22nd century, others claim that increasing urbanisation and access to education will cause humanity to peak out at around 8 billion people, somewhere in the middle of this century. So if population growth is slowing, and by most accounts we have enough food to feed up to 10 billion people, what’s stopping us? Marxists would say that it’s all about economic paradigms. The market system is simply not built to factor in waste or distribution based on need. Markets distribute based on commodity exchange, which, from the end of the consumer, normally comes in the form of money-to-product transactions. “Don’t have the money to buy food? Sorry, nothing personal, but that’s not the market’s problem.” Similarly, the market does not know what to do with food that isn’t being bought. Since it cannot be sold, and thus no profit can be made, it is often discarded because it has no economic utility. Similarly, some products are discarded outright before they reach a point of exchange, simply because they do not meet an aesthetic quota, and are therefore not likely to be bought by consumers. So if we are to make sense of why we aren’t feeding those 2.5 billion people with our waste, the concise answer is: there’s no money in that. Let’s set the record straight: Most Marxists may very well agree that our current demographic trajectory is not sustainable. A Marxist [may] supports certain policies put forward by Malthusians, such as family planning, women’s rights and autonomy, lifestyle changes, etc. However, Marxists value those goals and policies as components of a greater emancipatory project, especially for women in the case of reproductive rights, and not as part of a vision of large-scale population control. In essence, the Marxist lens refuses to accept the exclusive blame Malthusians place on the people. The Malthusian perspective rests on the assumption that population is the common denominator for resource problems, and subsequently, ecological problems as well. What we are left with is a convenient omission of the responsibility of the ruling class and the capitalist mode of production as the driving mechanisms for resource problems. Marxists stress that issues of scarcity are a function of class society, and not a natural constant as we would be expected to believe by Malthusians. Naturalizing contemporary issues is a very convenient tactic that quite clearly plays out in the favor of the ruling class. In perpetuating this perspective, the elite can present the most severe of concerns as inescapable, and not as a function of their policies. It is, of course, very much in the interests of the ruling class to support the lifestyle change argument, and in extreme cases, population control. Such solutions don’t put into question capitalism, and demand sacrifices from the general public to offset problems that are largely fuelled by mechanisms of the market. We’re going to leave the discussion here for today. Leave your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. Before we go, a quick channel update: You can now support the Marxist project by becoming a patron. The link is in the description below. Thanks for watching, and until next time, remember: “The philosopher’s have only interpreted the world invarious ways; the point is to change it.”