Socialist Worker

Are there just too many mouths to feed?

Issue No. 2234

Predictions of famine and food riots are growing as the price of wheat spirals to its highest ever level.

Billions of people who today can barely feed themselves will suffer the gnawing pain of hunger as staple foods become unaffordable.

Some believe this calamity is the natural result of a rapidly rising population drawing too heavily on the earth’s finite resources.

They argue that the only solution is to reduce the number of people on the planet.

This echoes an argument made over 200 years ago by English clergyman Thomas Malthus.

He predicted that without “moral restraint”, population growth would outstrip food production.

Socialists have always rejected the idea that there are too many people.

First, the argument reverses the relationship between human beings and their means of subsistence.

There is not a fixed amount of food, houses, or healthcare—people produce these things. A rise in population may increase demand, but it also means there are more people to produce the things society needs.

Second, the development of humanity has proved Malthus and his modern-day followers completely wrong.

If Malthus were correct, history would be little more than a list of catastrophes as the world population grew from around 200 million in 1BC to 1,650 million in 1900AD.

Instead humans have, on average, been getting richer, healthier and living longer—which is why the population has grown. This remains true today.

Inhabit

Between 1950 and 2008 the number of people on the planet has grown from around 2.5 billion to 6.7 billion. In the same period world grain production grew from 631 million tons to 6,834 million tons—more than three times faster than the population.

Poor people starve because they can’t afford to buy food, not because there is too little produced.

And just as there is no inevitable link between population and poverty, neither is there one between a how densely populated a country is and its wealth.

For example, a similar number of people inhabit each square mile of both Haiti and Holland—938 and 1,039 respectively. But they are vastly different countries.

In Haiti the GDP per capita—the total amount of goods and services produced divided equally among the population—is £416. GDP per capita in Holland is £30,893.

The reasons for this huge difference are historical.

French forces invaded the island of Saint Domingue, now Haiti, and turned it into a slave colony. Its economy was ravaged.

Holland, by contrast, was a slave-owning power. The rich there made their fortunes from colonial domination.

We have the potential to feed everyone on the planet, now and in the future. But many people believe that to do so will put such a burden on the environment that it would lead to disaster.

This argument repeats the same basic flaw as those that are drawn from Malthus—that there is only so much to go round and that humanity must “live within its means”.

Of course it’s true that some of the earth’s resources are limited. But this does not mean that we are anywhere near exhausting the planet.

Some resources, such as oil, can’t be reproduced and will run out at some point.

But others, such as the power of the wind or tides, can only be harnessed by human labour.

The greater the population, the greater the potential to tap those currently underused resources.

And throughout human history, people have both devised new methods for getting more from the resources we have and created new ones.

The earth is not running out of space or resources to grow food. Vast tracts of arable land are underused.

Many farmers are paid not to grow crops or graze animals in order to prevent gluts that drive down prices.

Increases in the world population do not cause starvation and ecological catastrophe.

These things are bound up with capitalism—a system that exploits the planet’s resources purely in pursuit of profit.

The alternative is socialism—where the workers who produce the wealth wrest control from the rich and run society in a planned and sustainable way to meet the needs of everyone.


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News
Tue 11 Jan 2011, 18:33 GMT
Issue No. 2234
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