Population control: environmentalism or racism?

Australia’s population, currently 22.4 million, is predicted to rise to 35.9 million by 2050, according to the Australian Treasury Department’s Intergenerational Report 2010, released by federal treasurer Wayne Swan on February 1. On April 3, then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Tony Burke as Australia’s first population minister to “help guide the development of policies to meet Australia’s future population needs”. The predicted population growth and the appointment of Burke as population minister elicited commentary from across the political spectrum on the desirability of such growth and the supposed effects it will have.

Not surprisingly, arguments that Australia cannot environmentally or economically “sustain” an increased population figured in the commentary. These arguments have come from everyone from far right fringe groups to the Greens — on March 14, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown called for an inquiry into population growth, calling the Treasury’s projections “worrying”.

Given that immigration is a major driver of population growth in Australia — without it the national population would actually start shrinking by the middle of the century, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics — this “debate” has largely revolved around whether and how to restrict immigration. This has involved the further scapegoating of immigrants for problems caused by big capitalist corporations, imperialist governments, and the environmentally and socially destructive system that they benefit from and defend. Disgustingly — but also not surprisingly in the context of official hostility from both major capitalist political parties towards Afghan, Sri Lankan Tamil, and other refugee “boat people” — some of the most vulnerable and oppressed victims of imperialism have been particularly singled out by this scapegoating.

Populationist ‘environmentalism’

There have long been those who have encouraged population control measures under the banner of environmentalism. Their argument is obvious — that more people means more need for the various things people use and consume. The production of more of these things therefore places more strain on the planet’s ecosystems and creates more pollution. But this argument ignores the fact that a small proportion of the population consumes much more than anyone else and that, under capitalism, a considerable amount of production is devoted to socially unnecessary or destructive products and massive waste is caused by the irrational for-profit ways in which goods and services are produced and distributed.

This populationist “environmentalism” provides “green” cover for all kinds of ultra-rightists and racists. For example, the first of the “primary policies” listed on the website of the ultra-right Australian Protectionist Party is to “Protect our environment … from the ravages of over-population”. The APP also wants to “end Third World … and Muslim immigration”, claims that only immigrants from “traditional sources such as Europe and Britain” can “readily fit into our society”, and on April 11 held an demonstration outside the Villawood detention centre in Sydney calling for refugees to be deported.

There are, of course, less explicitly racist versions of the populationist political view. For example, the Stable Population Party of Australia (SPPA), supported by prominent capitalist Dick Smith, calls for policies to limit Australia’s population to 23 million. It rejects race- or nationality-based immigration policies and calls for maintaining Australia’s current refugee and humanitarian intake. However, it calls for immigration to be reduced to 50,000-80,000 people per year — around half of what it was in 2006-07.

Immigration control

Capitalist governments control immigration to serve capitalists’ needs, whether or not their needs coincide with those of the majority of humanity (which they rarely do). This is true whether these policies increase or decrease population. Thus, the April 3 media release announcing the appointment of Burke as population minister promised that he would “consider, as an early priority, the opportunities a growing population will create for economic growth”.

Burke was indeed “early” in “considering” this “priority”, proposing that immigrants may be forced to live in parts of the country where capitalists “need” them. In an April 7 interview with Alan Jones on radio station 2GB, Burke said: “There’ll be some parts of the country that can take more people, and it is in our economic interests in those parts of the country to be able to let those businesses get the workers they need … There is probably more that we can do than we’ve done in the past in the immigration program in saying, ‘If you’re coming to Australia there are parts of Australia where we need you to get your first job’.”

Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott disagrees with the federal Labor government over how “big” a “big Australia” should be, he does agree that “Immigration has to be in Australia’s national interest”, as he said on ABC television’s Q&A program on April 5. The “national interest” is, of course, the common euphemism for the general interests of Australian capitalists, a tiny proportion of the population of the Australian nation who exploit working people both at home and abroad.

Politics of despair

As much as some populationists like those in the SPPA try to dissociate themselves from the racist right, their proposals still feed into the same nationalist xenophobia — the idea that people from other countries are the main threat to Australian working people. And this xenophobia does nothing to help the protect the environment — it just helps the capitalists obscure their responsibility for environmental destruction. The capitalists control an immense amount of wealth and highly organised productive capacity. If this was put at the service of implementing renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, recycling of industrial waste, pollution reduction, energy efficiency, etc., the world’s environmental problems could be solved.

Blaming population size for pollution obscures the fact that this is fundamentally the result of the way the capitalist class has organised social production and consumption. The patterns of production and consumption created by the capitalist profit system are environmentally destructive . Ignoring this social reality, populationists end up arguing that the only solution is to have less people engaging these destructive patterns. But since capitalism is an inherently expansionary system, even with zero population growth this system’s environmentally destructive patterns of production and consumption would continue to expand in scale and impact.

Inherent unsustainability of capitalism

Capitalism can’t be environmentally sustainable even with a substantially lower population. Capitalist companies are constantly driven to increase profits by selling more products are a profit, necessitating increased production. This inevitably leads to the manufacture of products that are not socially needed. One solution for the capitalists is to artificially create “needs”, through advertising that promotes wasteful lifestyles and by forcing these lifestyles on people through the capitalists control over society’s resources — the under-resourcing and even destruction of public transport to encourage private car use being one of the most obvious examples.

Another way capitalists increase profits is by reducing the costs of production. This means avoiding paying for the costs of the environmental destruction they cause either directly or indirectly (through their governments using tax revenue to address these problems). It also means exploiting natural resources in the cheapest way possible, rather than the most rational. These problems make capitalism unsustainable whether the world population is 1 billion or 10 billion.

Populationism is thus the “environmentalism” of those incapable of imagining that production and consumption can be reorganised sustainably. And it can — if capitalism is discarded. Increased population, and even increased production, does not necessarily mean increased environmental destruction. Between 1990 and 2006, socialist Cuba’s population rose 5.7% and its gross domestic product (GDP) increased by 24%. Over this same period, Cuba’s carbon dioxide emissions were decreased by 10.9%, forest coverage increased 32%, most vegetable production was converted to organic methods, and Cuba became the first country in the world to carry out a mass-transition from incandescent to fluorescent light bulbs. Cuba’s example shows that the environmental impact of production is not determined only, or even primarily, by how much is produced for how many people, but what is produced and how.

Capitalism is based on the alienation of the working majority from control over production and undermines even the inadequate fig-leaf regulations that some capitalist governments implement. As long as the majority of the world’s population is under the control of one or another national capitalist ruling class, immense wealth will continue to be squandered on militaries (to protect each gang of profiteers from each others’ greed) and subsidies to polluting corporations to bump up their profit margins. While ignoring the fact that this wealth could instead be used for better purposes, some defenders of capitalism will continue to blame immigrants for creating an “unsustainable” population.

Populationists warn that ever-accelerating population explosion will lead to some terrible Malthusian crisis of mass starvation, barbaric global war and the collapse of civilisation. Of course, if this were true, it points out the absurdity of trying to prevent this within national borders. If the world goes down this path, Australia would be dragged with it regardless of its immigration policies.

Global population growth

It is undoubtedly true that humanity faces the threat of a descent into barbarism. But this is because of the capitalists’ profit-driven exploitation and degradation of the world’s natural resources, not because of population growth. In fact, global population growth is slowing. After peaking at an annual rate of increase of 2.2% per year in 1963, proportional global population growth slowed to 1.2% in 2004. A 2004 report by the US Census Bureau predicts it will have slowed to 0.42% by 2050.

Even absolute population growth is slowing. It took only 12 years for the world population to increase from 5 billion to 6 billion. But this may have been the fastest billion-person increase in population that will ever occur. The growth from 6 billion to 7 billion will take 12-13 years, according to estimates by the UN Population Division and the US Census Bureau. The next billion after that is likely to take 14 years, and growth from 8 billion to 9 billion is likely to take roughly 20 years, according to both bodies.

This slowing of population growth is a result of a combination of factors — some positive and some negative. In the developed capitalist countries, and some of the wealthier underdeveloped countries, birth rates have declined as reduced infant mortality and increased aged care options for large parts of the population have reduced the pressure on women to have large numbers of children to ensure that some will still be alive to take care of the aged. The increased employment and education options for women — in no small part due to the gains made by the women’s liberation movement — and increased access to contraception has also allowed a larger number of women to control their fertility and not have their lives completely dominated by their traditional role as child-bearers. The irony of the populationists’ failure to challenge capitalism is that capitalists persistently try to undermine the positive gains that have led to these declines in population growth.

A negative factor contributing to the predicted slowing in population growth is the severity of the AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. This has increased death rates and dramatically reduced life expectancy in a range of countries. This genocide-by-neglect, the legacy of imperialism’s institutional global inequality among nations, is the kind of “population control” that the capitalist rulers of the rich nations offer to the world’s poor majority.

In the face of capitalism’s inability to offer anything to address unemployment, poverty or environmental destruction, its defenders turn instead to the scapegoating of its victims and demand even more state control over these victims’ lives. As capitalism destroys the environment, it will create even more refugees. More people will need to move across international borders to survive. The fight for their right to do so and the fight to stop environmental destruction is part of the same struggle. Those who counterpoise the two have nothing progressive to offer humanity.