The ‘sixth mass extinction’ is a product of capitalism – not population growth

capitalism killing the planet

‘Every particular mode of production has its own special laws of population, which are historically valid within that particular sphere. An abstract law of population exists only for plants and animals and even then only in the absence of any historical intervention by man’ – Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 25, pp783-784

‘You don’t need to be a scientist to know what’s causing the sixth mass extinction,’ began Professor Paul R Ehrlich in a Guardian article on 11 July. Given the ‘developed’ imperialist world’s throwaway consumerism and the well-documented destruction of the environment by multinational corporations, it should indeed be fairly obvious. Ehrlich however names one main culprit: population growth. His solution? Some unspecified form of ‘humane’ population reduction. Apparently the reason you don’t need to be a scientist is because the pseudo-science of eugenics suffices. Ehrlich must be refuted with science – the science of Marxism. It is capitalism’s need for infinite economic growth that is destroying life on earth. Barnaby Philips reports.

Ehrlich is best known for his 1968 book The Population Boom, which warned that the next two decades would produce mass starvation across the world. He advocated ending US food aid to ‘developing’ capitalist countries, government-imposed population control and enforced sterilisation of fathers of three or more children in India (p151). Time proved Ehrlich wrong, but now he is back with a team of researchers who have announced that earth’s ‘sixth mass extinction is underway’.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal,1 reported a ‘biological annihilation’ of wildlife in recent decades that has been worse than previously feared, representing a ‘frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation’. An analysis of both common and rare species found that a third of the thousands of species losing populations are not currently considered endangered, but that up to 50% of all individual animals have been lost in recent decades. Almost half of land mammals have lost 80% of their range in the last century.

According to the researchers, wildlife is dying out due to habitat destruction, ‘overhunting’, toxic pollution, invasion by alien species and global warming. Yet it concluded that the ‘ultimate factor’ was ‘human population and continued population growth’, although it more accurately added that ‘overconsumption, especially by the rich’ was also to blame.

The study’s release was accompanied by an outbreak of ‘think pieces’ in The Guardian pushing the same neo-Malthusian theory. ‘Was 2017 the year we lost control of the world population surge?’ asked an article sponsored by the Gates Foundation. ‘Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children’ stated another, reporting on a study that said the other most effective ways to reduce your carbon footprint was to ‘sell your car and avoid long flights’. Such individualistic and moralistic solutions are insufficient, and attempt obscure the systemic cause of the crisis.

It begs the question: do liberals oppose US President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the global ‘gag rule’2 because it denies women vital reproductive services or because they want to control populations? French President Emmanuel Macron recently remarked that Africa’s problems are ‘civilizational’ because mothers there are all having ‘seven or eight’ children.3 Nothing to do with the scars of colonialism or the fact that the imperialist nations still drain billions of dollars out of Africa every year.4 That poor parents may choose to have many children to meet the needs of their families and communities, which may not enjoy much, if any, state support, does not come into the equation.

Losing control?

Have ‘we’ ever been under threat from ‘losing control’ of the ‘population surge’? Global population growth in fact peaked the year Ehrlich’s book was published (at 2.1%) and has steadily fallen ever since (to 1.11% today). Global population has indeed doubled from 3.7 billion since then to 7.5 billion now, but declining growth rates mean it will take over 200 years to double again.

Elitist intellectuals expressed fear about population growth throughout the 20th century, when it boomed from 1.65 billion to six billion. Contemporary followers of Reverend Thomas Malthus persist in believing that the number of people on the planet naturally increases faster than the supply of food. That we already overproduce food, enough to feed 10 billion people, while almost 800 million go to bed hungry and up to two billion suffer from malnutrition, does not come into their analysis. The unplanned and parasitic nature of capitalism, or the fact that capital increasingly becomes a fetter on productivity as profitable investment opportunities diminish, goes unquestioned.

Of much greater concern for societies across the ‘developed’ world should be the fact that, with declining state provisions, we are increasingly unable to support ageing populations. The ‘support ratio’ (ie the number of people of working age to the total population) has been falling in Japan since 1990 and in the US and Europe since 2005-10. Japan’s support ratio is now approaching 1.5 workers per older citizen and is expected to reach parity by 2050, with the US and Europe not far behind and China even closer. The crisis in social care is only just beginning. People are living longer but women are having fewer children, partly because they are becoming increasingly expensive to raise under a decaying capitalism.

For capitalists, the ageing population crisis can only be resolved through falling living standards. In 2015, the US death rate – the age-adjusted share of Americans dying – rose slightly for the first time since 1999. According to Bloomberg, over the past two years at least 12 corporations have stated in their annual reports that recent slips in mortality improvement have reduced their pension payouts by a combined $9.7 billion.

The Anthropocene?

Despite the efforts of US and European NGOs, Africa’s population has surged from 477 million in 1980 to 1.2 billion in 2016. Yet its population density remains relatively low, with 20% of the world's land mass but only 15% of its people. While Europe’s population density is 105 people per square kilometre, Africa’s is 65.

But Africa’s population is expected to nearly quadruple by 2100. North America will continue to grow at a slower rate, surpassing South America’s overall population in around 2070. Who though is really to blame for climate change and ecological devastation? It cannot simply be ‘people’, treated as homogenous and monolithic, can it?

The UN says that carbon emissions must fall to two tonnes of CO2 per person by 2050 to avoid severe global warming. But in the US and Australia emissions are currently 16 tonnes per person and seven tonnes in the UK. The US energy consumption rate is 11.4kW per person, while China's is 1.6. To say that ‘humanity’ or the age of ‘the Anthropocene’ is to blame for global warming is lazy and absurd when the average US citizen emits more carbon than 500 citizens of Ethiopia, Chad, Afghanistan, Mali, or Burundi. Clearly consumption is driven not by population growth but by purchasing power. In 1999 the World Resources Institute found that the US, Europe and Japan – comprising 16% of the world’s population – together sucked up 80% of the world’s natural resources. The culprit is capitalism – the Capitalocene – and more precisely imperialism, its highest stage, which must constantly penetrate new territory in a world of finite resources in order to sustain itself.

A study from the University of Valladolid in Spain5 has also shown that there is a direct correlation between the rate of economic growth and the rate in the increase of atmospheric CO2, which evidently falls, for example, when the global economy goes into recession. The study, which took volcanic activity and the ‘El Nino’ effect into account, also found no observable relation between short-term growth of world population and CO2 concentrations.

That imperialism is responsible is surely confirmed by another study,6 also released in July, which shows that just 100 fossil fuel producing companies have been responsible for 71% of all greenhouse gasses – 1 trillion tonnes – since 1988. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are among the highest emitting investor-owned corporations. It is these multinational conglomerates, not simply ‘people’ as Ehrlich would have it, which destroy natural habitats, by pushing small African farmers off their land, for example, to grow processed food with cheap toxic chemicals or to plunder precious resources. The need to shut down or take under public ownership and repurpose such companies is of much greater importance than population growth. Do this and we are halfway towards saving the planet. The private sector may have started investing in green technology but while the upfront costs remain high and risky, and fossil fuels remain profitable, the pace of change will remain too slow. The report warns that if fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate over the next 28 years as they were between 1988 and 2017, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by a cataclysmic 4°C by 2100.

One side of the ruling class, thinking itself immortal, denies the existence of global warming and does not care about the continued destruction of the ecological systems we all depend on. The other recognises the seriousness of the crisis but is prepared to resort to some form of eugenics as the solution. They too are living in denial, clinging to the belief that throwing the poor overboard will keep the Titanic afloat. Saving life on earth requires a level of bravery, selflessness and imagination that only an international revolutionary communist movement can summon. We must follow the example of socialist Cuba.7 By prioritising human need it has, for example: reversed colonial deforestoration; reduced long-distance food transport by developing urban farms; and replaced synthetic pesticides with unique biopesticides to maintain soil fertility. Only by eradicating the fetter that is the profit motive will such a radical reorganisation of society become possible. To survive and progress, humanity must transform its consciousness and fight to replace capitalism with the socialist mode of production.

1. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines

2. See: The ‘Global Gag Rule’: a death sentence for women around the world

3. See: Macron on Africa: denying French imperialism - FRFI 259 August/ September 2017

4. See: Imperialism: draining trillions of dollars out of oppressed nations - FRFI 256 April/May 2017 

5. Climate Change and the world economy: short-run determinants of atmospheric CO₂ 

6. The Carbon Majors Report 

7. See: Socialism is good for the environment