Against populationism

Edward Smith, an advocate of what he calls ‘sustainable population’, has circulated a lengthy critique of my book, Crimes Against Nature. I’m writing this response because his piece exemplifies the populationist methodology, extrapolating from an abstract ‘common sense’ in a fashion entirely impervious to historical or theoretical argument. Further, despite his repeated protestations, his article demonstrates the relationship between populationism and the far right—a relationship centred on a hostility to ordinary people.

‘Population matters,’ Smith says, ‘because the smaller the population, the lower the ecological footprint, all other things being equal. … Eating only as many fish as are spawned is going to be easier with fewer people in the first place.’ The argument appeals because of its childlike simplicity. Why, think of your own home. Does each person there eat a certain quantity of food? Yes? Well, then: if you added a billion or so new folks, where would you get all the fish? QED, natalists! Simple physics alone determines that a material world can hold only so many sweaty physically bodies.

Of course, just as we shouldn’t model economic policy on our personal budgets, we can’t—or, at least, we shouldn’t—develop political theory by scaling up individual experience. The world is not a household writ large and quite different laws govern the behaviour of human societies.

Unfortunately, though Smith praises my book effusively, he clearly hasn’t understood any of it. Crimes Against Nature does not argue that business exerts ‘a malign influence … on public policy’. Rather, it contends that capitalism, a distinctive and relatively new social system, fundamentally changes the human relationship with nature, commodifying our ability to labour so that our interaction with the natural world manifests as a force entirely outside our control.  

That’s the basis of the environmental crisis, a development that can only be understood historically.

Smith posits a straightforward opposition between humanity and nature, so that ‘any population growth at all means more demand for environmental destruction to feed, clothe and house extra people.’ 

His simple binary, taken from nineteenth century biology, misunderstands the relationship between people and the natural world. Humans might be distinct from nature but we’re also part of it. From the dawn of what we call ‘culture’, , we have manipulated the environment to which we belong. The name for this manipulation is labour: to survive, people must secure food, construct shelter, clothe themselves and so on.

Our labour can destroy nature but it can also sustain and foster it. Though racist Europeans once imagined the native populations of Australia and the rest of the ‘New World’ as almost part of nature, we now know that their societies fundamentally reshaped the land on which they lived for thousands of years. Without the commodification of labour power, they could deliberately and consciously alter their surrounds—and they did so, by and large, in ways that generated flourishing, diverse ecosystems.

Contrary to Smith’s schema, the presence of the Indigenous populations did not mean automatic ‘environmental destruction’. On the contrary, animals and plants flourished precisely because of human beings and their labour. We know this because the arrival of the Europeans almost everywhere brought both massive depopulation and ecological crisis.

If, as Smith contends, humans destroy nature just by existing, the huge drop in the Indigenous population after European settlement (some estimates suggest that the number of people in Australia did not reach its pre-1788 figure until the 1850s) should have been good news for the environment. But, of course, that wasn’t the case at all. On the contrary, because colonisation replaced the traditional systems of land management with the logic of capital, the Europeans spurred massive (and ongoing) environmental devastation.

What makes capitalism so uniquely destructive? It’s a system that directs labour (that is, the means by which people interact with nature) to meet the requirements of exchange rather than for immediate and concrete use. Capitalists must create commodities to sell. Competition fosters a relentless and inexorable expansion of value, only tangentially connected to human need and completely divorced from the cycles that govern natural ecosystems. Capital grows with a large population. It also grows with a small population (using techniques like planned obsolescence, conspicuous consumption etc).

Smith grasps none of this. Like most populationists, he attributes the expansion of the economy to the needs of consumers, and so assumes that, by culling the population, he can render the system sustainable. But that entirely reverses the causal sequence. The necessity of economic growth stems from the internal logic of capital, not the requirements of the populace. Quite obviously, capitalism doesn’t respond to human need—for, if it did, the starving, who desperately need sustenance, would be fed.

That’s why the populationist argument is so muddled. The environmental crisis cannot be attributed to kindly capitalists straining every nerve and sinew to keep every new baby fed and housed. On the contrary, the owners of capital ignore the urgent needs of most the world’s people, since the impoverished don’t provide a particularly attractive market.

‘Population matters,’ says Smith, ‘because the smaller the population, the lower the ecological footprint, all other things being equal.’

But, of course, all other things aren’t equal—and never will be. A theory emphasising pure numbers entirely fails to capture the reality of a social order in which Taylor Swift takes a private jet for minor errands while ninety per cent of the world’s population barely flies at all.

‘There is nothing,’ declares Smith, ‘that … anybody … could say that will change the fact that getting the number of fish caught to equal the number spawned will by physically and politically easier if there are fewer people.’ This is an overt declaration of faith, a credo impervious to an actuality in which the impoverished people of the developing world barely see any of the fish harvested by giant corporations. These corporations, in turn, expand year after year not in order to feed the world, but because the logic of competition means that if they don’t accumulate, they’ll go broke.

In Crimes Against Nature, I describe how Thomas Malthus developed populationism not to preserve the environment, but to argue against social welfare (on the basis that it would prevent the poor from starving to death). I also write about how the revival of populationism by environmentalists in the seventies) pushed activists into grotesque alliances with the far right.

Smith objects to what he calls ‘insinuations that concerns about population are a racist, eugenicist, white supremacist plot.’ He also dismisses the history of his movement on the basis that ‘the events detailed … happened before I was even born’.

This is not remotely serious.

As I argue in the book, the association between populationism and the far right is not accidental but stems from an analysis that identifies people themselves as an existential threat, leaching away at the world’s resources merely by being alive. Population theorists look at the teeming masses and say, quite literally: These people should never have been born!

It’s not difficult to grasp the horrific conclusions that might be—and repeatedly have been drawn—from such an argument. If the masses truly threaten the well-being of the planet by their existence, would, say, the emergence of a new and deadly pandemic be such a problem? The more morally squeamish of the populationist crowd might not like to follow that train of thought to its ultimate destination but plenty of others will.

Smith himself provides a good example of how identifying humanity as a curse pushes in a right-wing direction. ‘Australian’s emissions per capita are,’ he tells us, ‘about 17.1 tonnes per person whereas our main sources of migration have much lower emissions (PRC 7.4; India 1.9; UK 5.55; Philippines 1.2; Viet Nam 2.2).’

Now, per capita figures aren’t particularly useful, since they’re predicated on the assumption that emissions are a response to consumers—which simply isn’t true. But, leaving that aside, Smith and his co-thinkers could, in theory, respond to the difference between Australia and other nations by investing in a fleet of ships sufficiently large to transport them, their families and all their friends to a new low-carbon life in the Philippines.

Of course, they don’t. As always, the onus gets placed instead on the less privileged to adapt themselves to inequality.

‘[W]e need,’ Smith says, ‘people to stay in lower emitting countries not because it is fair but because the politics of a lower carbon lifestyle is hardest in high emitting countries. Fewer people with an expectation of a seventeen tonnes of carbon a year lifestyle is useful for the politics of making our planet sustainable.’

Though Smith says he doesn’t oppose refugees, he ends up with the ‘Keep Them Out’ policies familiar across the far right.

He claims to be against coercion, and yet his argument reeks of state paternalism. ‘Our migration program, and so our population policy, is,’ he explains, ‘principally about skilled migrants and New Zealanders—there is nothing wrong with them not migrating. There may even be some benefits as any unfulfilled desires they have in their countries of origin will only add useful pressure to domestic political reform.’

Think about that. If ‘we’—presumably, the Australian state—forcibly prevent migrants from travelling, their resulting unhappiness may add ‘useful pressure’ in their home country to reduce birth ratees.

There’s nothing left-wing about this.  

As a socialist, I’m for providing people with everything they need to control their fertility. But the key word is ‘control’: that is, the exertion of agency by ordinary women and men, rather than limitations on reproduction imposed by misanthropic ideologues.

That’s because the alternative to capitalist environmental crisis lies in socialist planning. The choice isn’t between economic growth or economic degrowth so much as between a system geared to exchange and one dominated by use. If Indigenous societies could direct their labour to improving the natural world, we can do the same, with modern science and technology guiding our interventions.

In that process, people aren’t the problem. On the contrary, they’re the basis on which a new society can be built.


Image: Vincent Van Gogh, The State Lottery Office (or The Poor and Money), 1883.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Great article, and of course you’re right, Capital doesn’t cut it when it comes to environmental protection because it is too much US (the capitalists) v them (the proletariat), and if nature/environment needs to be exploited in the production of capital, tough luck. Sounder environmental history shows that no animal or plant has gone extinct if kept as pets by humans not out to exploit same.

  2. The old left were influenced by Malthus on population and Galton on eugenics, then of the US right a century ago by Madison Grant (who also influenced Hitler), then mainstreamed by fossil fuel (Rockefeller Bros./Exxon) & auto (Ford) foundations, supported ZPG when global warming became apparent.

    Key people were (Oz visitors) Paul Ehrlich & deceased white nationalist John ‘passive eugenics’ Tanton, the muse of Bannon and the alt right, while both have liaised with SPA locally.

    Astroturfing by masquerading as liberal and environmental then blaming humanity or the ‘other’ e.g. immigrants causing population growth (if no immigrants then low income or other types).

    There is now a massive body of research of the alt right in the US also including sources showing the crossover between fossil fueled Atlas (Koch) Network and nativist Tanton Network.

    A general overview can be found in website link describing ZPG &/or Population Connection as ‘troubling’; also influential in both Australia and the UK (after both expanded the UNPD NOM Net Overseas Migration formula in 2006 sweeping up temps e.g. students then spiking population).

    ‘A 1960s population control organization rebranded in 2002. Now it’s recruiting UNC students.’

  3. So many crisis occurring there has been a surge in anti capitalism posts with some arguing for Communism. However all systems suffer from corruption and in our society its not just the brown paper bag variety, its the corruption of economists who have been brain washed into believing growth is not only sustainable but essential and more important that combating climate change.

  4. By coincidence US independent journalist Brooke Binkowski of KPBS has just published an excellent overview of the ‘populationists’ in Unicorn Riot titled:

    ‘Eugenics, Border Wars & Population Control: The Tanton Network….. The increasingly blatant bigotry in immigration discourse is the culmination of decades of targeted influence by an assortment of largely unknown groups known as the Tanton network.

    The Tanton network is, as its name suggests, a criss-crossing mesh of politicians, lobbyists, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, pundits legitimized by op-eds in major newspapers, and billionaire money.’

  5. The ‘degrowth movement’, was inspired by Herman Daly’s ‘steady state economy’ PR concept, masquerading as science & economics, promoted by the fossil fueled/auto Club of Rome in ’70s, is embedded in Tanton Network and promoted in recent years by the alt right Rebel Media; quelle surprise.

    Significant growth is in health care, education and financial transactions e.g. property; should we stop these too?

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