Between 10,000 BC and 1700, the world’s population grew roughly from four million to six hundred million, at a rate of 0.04 percent per year; during this period the average life expectancy was less than thirty years. The world’s population has since risen to eight billion and the average global life expectancy is seventy-three years.
Writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the English economist Thomas Malthus took the near-stagnant model which has characterized the majority of human history as indicative of the constraints which demographic growth imposed on economic development. Famously, he argued that population growth increased demand for food and other goods which were themselves constrained by the ecological limits of the earth, such as the declining fertility of the soil and the limited supply of land.
Malthus’s ideas were, however, only true if one assumed that it was not possible to increase the productivity of the economic system. For much of human history this was certainty true. Social relations characterized by the coercive exploitation of peasant producers created few incentives for increasing productivity by means other than force. Even where laborsaving technology did exist, feudal lords with near-absolute control over the lives of their peasants had few incentives to employ it.
But, with the emergence of capitalism in the English countryside came increases in technological investment and the deployment of more efficient labor practices. Population was no longer a limit on production, which could be increased through different forms of societal organization.
Reading responses to the recent news that the world’s population has passed eight billion for the first time, one would easily get the impression that the break with Malthusian logic made possible by the emergence of capitalism centuries ago never took place.
Writing in the Guardian, John Vidal wagged his finger at the news and observed that, “the hard fact is that in an age of climate breakdown, human numbers matter.” Similarly, the prominent activist group Extinction Rebellion menacingly posted the words “8 billion humans” on their Facebook page, which was met with shock and sad emoji responses from their followers. The New York Times also joined in on the action. The paper took the occasion as an opportunity to profile Les Knight, the founder of the Human Extinction Movement, who proclaimed, “look what we did to this planet . . . We’re not a good species.”
Whether it is a good thing that billions of people — who would have previously died in childbirth, as infants, or before reaching middle age — exist is hardly reflected upon in these misanthropic outpourings. Instead, defenders of twenty-first century Malthusianism simply treat the existence of more humans as an implacable problem.
Malthusians less willing to blame all humans have argued that the problem is not all people, just a subset of wealthy individuals. In their mind, the problem is not overpopulation but overconsumption. Population growth in the poorest parts of the world, where environmental impacts are minimal, is not causing environmental breakdown. Rather it is the relatively few wealthy consumers in rich countries who are to blame for the state of the natural environment. Tellingly, this way of thinking emerged alongside the turn to neoliberal austerity in the 1970s, when “excessive” affluence — much of it the product of working-class organization and gains — was seen as the chief problem with capitalism.
An argument which these left-wing Malthusians often make is that, if eight billion humans were to rise to the American standard of living, we would need over four planet Earths to sustain them. The fact that many people living up to an “American standard” skip meals and work multiple jobs is not taken into consideration. One calculation suggests that lifting the poorest parts of the world to only the US poverty line would require doubling the size of the global economy. But, as Linus Blomqvist and Jennifer Bernstein say, “Who wants to argue that the US poverty line — the poverty line! — is too much to ask for?”
Despite their apparent differences, both right-wing and left-wing Malthusianism essentially agree that the limits of production are set by the ecological limits of the Earth and not by the social relations we create. Whereas the right-Malthusians believe that human population will outstrip fixed food production capacities, the left-Malthusians argue that wealthy consumers overload the earth’s supposed “carrying capacity.”
Capitalism’s Social Enforcement of Scarcity
Whereas previous economic systems did face real natural and productive limits, capitalism’s vast expansion of productive capacity creates a particular kind of social production of scarcity. While the system forces capitalists, under the competitive pressure of the market, to increases the productivity of labor, it creates few incentives for equally distributing what is produced. In previous systems, famines were caused by bad harvests and natural scarcity; under capitalism they are caused by the fact that people lack the money to afford to eat.
Left and right Malthusians often ignore the fact that under capitalism people are only able to reproduce their lives by participating in the market. Because of this, Malthusians fail to see the political and economic causes of hunger and poverty. The mass hunger we see around the world has absolutely no relationship to our ecological capacity to produce food — we could feed eight billion humans and many more with our current methods. The simple fact is that inequality and poverty prevent many people from being able to afford the food which our economic system produces more efficiently and at greater quantities than it ever has.
Ultimately, the cause of the scandalous persistence of hunger under capitalism is political, not natural.
Inequality emerges out of structural features of our economic system. What is truly disgraceful about capitalism is that huge swathes of humanity are largely superfluous. Marx argued, “every . . . historic mode of production has its own special laws of population.” For capitalism, he said its value-orientation and technological productivity required a specific kind of population at the ready: “relative surplus populations” or a “reserve army of labor.”
This unlucky group serves two functions. The first is that the existence of this surplus population disciplines the employed workforce by making possible their replacement if they attempt to organize politically. The second function is that, because capitalists during times of economic growth do not simply enjoy their profits but reinvest them to create greater returns, they inevitably require workers to staff their ever-expanding businesses.
The result of these two tendencies is that capitalism requires vast surplus populations whose own poverty and misery make the system run more efficiently. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the last four decades of a neoliberal class offensive have been accompanied by the expansion of what Mike Davis called “surplus humanity”: an immiserated informal proletariat who undergird global wage stagnation.
The Ecological Limits of Capital
While both the left and right Malthusians seem to think we are in a struggle against fixed ecological limits, the true solution to the climate crisis requires overturing the limits of capitalism — not the limits of the natural environment. Despite the productivity gains made possible by our current economic system, the uses to which we put nature and our own labor under it are ultimately constrained by the profit motive. This makes capitalism, from a human standpoint, deeply irrational.
If 2022 has shown us anything, it is that as long as fossil fuels remain wildly profitable, their production will continue. Evidence for this is that the boomtime returns briefly made possible by Russia’s war on Ukraine have even forced supposed green asset managers like BlackRock to retreat from their bold proposals to sever their ties with the fossil fuel industry.
Meanwhile, long-known available solutions to climate change like renewable energy, nuclear power, or direct air capture still haven’t proven sufficiently profitable to investors to rationalize the kind of vast buildout at the speed necessary to avoid climate catastrophe. This just confirms the fact that, as with our broken food system, the market cannot be trusted to distribute goods in a rational, let alone just, way.
Solving climate change would require taking social control over investment — through public ownership and/or worker control — to unleash society’s technological capacities toward decarbonization. This would allow us, for the first time in human history, to finally build a society organized in the rational interests of the majority. Economic planning would allow society to build infrastructure to deliver clean electricity, public housing, and modern water and waste management to the billions of “surplus humanity” capitalism deems superfluous.
Nobody who takes themselves to be interested in creating a fairer world should accept the idea that any human being is superfluous. The aim of an eco-socialist project should be to harness the skills and contributions of all of humanity toward building a democratic economy structured around our social and ecological needs. In advancing this project, the legions of predominately working-class humans living in slums or working in factories are not an obstacle but an asset.