Socialist Worker

In defence of humans

Famine and environmental crisis aren’t caused by a growing population or its ‘greed’. Instead, it’s people that hold the solution, argues Nick Clark

Issue No. 2459

Pavãozinho Favela

Pavãozinho Favela in Brazil (Pic: P?teris)


We live in a world of enormous inequality—and one that’s edging ever close to environmental disaster. Some 925 million people already don’t have enough food to eat, according to the charity Oxfam.

And human activity is driving climate change and environmental destruction that could make it harder to grow more.

One common sense explanation is to say the world is “filling up” or its resources are “running out”. 

It can seem to make sense to blame ordinary people for consuming too much of the world’s natural resources. A more extreme version is that there are too many people alive today than is sustainable.

That’s what Jonathon Porritt, leading Green Party member and former green adviser to Tony Blair’s government, argued when famine swept the Horn of Africa in 2013.

“Continuing population growth in this region makes periodic famine unavoidable,” he argued. 

“Many of the children saved by the money raised over the next few weeks will inevitably be back again in similar feeding centres with their own children in a few years’ time.”

Barmy

TV presenter David Attenborough agreed. He said the famine was “about too many people for too little piece of land” and that sending food aid to the hungry was “barmy”.

Attenborough has form, having previously described humans as a “plague on the earth”.

It’s true that the world’s population is growing—though that growth is slowing down. World population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, and 10 billion by the end of the century. So in October of last year, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reckoned that food production would need to increase by 60 percent by 2050.

But the prediction that population growth will lead to catastrophe has been made again and again. It goes back to right wing writer reverend Thomas Malthus, who claimed in 1798 that population growth would always outstrip food production.

He blamed this on the inherent selfishness of people. And he used it to justify private property and inequality against those who called for a different sort of society.

“Man cannot live in the midst of plenty,” Malthus wrote. “All cannot share alike the bounties of nature.” His science was as dodgy as his politics. There was no evidence that population and food production grew at the rates he claimed.

The rate of food production has increased faster than population growth for at least the past two decades. 

The World Food Programme points out that there is already enough food produced to feed the world’s population. 

And the FAO’s John Wilmoth pointed out last year that, “Historically, we have managed to expand food production more rapidly than population growth.”

So why do so many people continue to starve in a world of plenty? The answer lies in the way that society is organised—with profit as its highest priority.

Profitable

This turns food and agricultural land into profitable commodities—and keeps them out of the hands of so many people who cannot afford to buy them.

The last global food crisis in 2008 was driven in part by large agricultural businesses stockpiling basic foodstuffs to drive up prices and profits.

Organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had used loans with conditions attached to pressure many poorer countries to impose free market policies.

Poor farmers found themselves priced out by big business—and “cash crops” meant for export to more profitable markets elsewhere took priority over domestic consumption.

There is a long history of devastating famines in places that continue to export food, including both Ireland and West Bengal under the tyranny of the British Empire.

The growth of biofuels—growing crops to create artificial petrol—is taking food away from the hungry today.

Many people recognise the hypocrisy of blaming the starving for starvation. It’s a world of inequality—so why not blame those who consume more?

Even many working class people in the West consume far more than most people in poorer countries. So it can seem like the more progressive argument to say “we” need to change “our” way of life.

There is huge waste in our society, and it’s common to blame “consumerism”. This can mean people throwing away food, or upgrading their phones too often. Companies like to say they are just giving us what we want. But the opposite is true.

They expand production wherever they think they can make a profit—and try and create a market for it if one doesn’t already exist. They use tricks such as advertising, clever pricing schemes and built-in obsolescence of electronics to push up consumption. 

But this line of argument still points the blame at individuals with little say in how the economy is run. And it leads to the conclusion that people—usually poor and working class people—must accept cuts to their living standards and limits to how many children they have.

Meat

There has been alarm on the right about growing middle classes in India and China consuming more meat. But expanding meat production is more about profitable exports.

There’s nothing wrong with people wanting to eat meat. In a rationally planned economy most people could eat better than they do today.

Human activity shapes the environment in a very discernible way. But the form this takes isn’t about individual decisions. It’s about the way our society is organised.

The development of capitalism brought new ways of producing things. It also brought new ways of organising people.

In place of small-scale production, labourers were brought together in collective workforces where they could achieve far more. This also unleashed new technological developments that allow us to produce more with less.

The productive forces created by capitalism make it possible to produce enough for everyone. But it’s also capitalism that holds us back from doing that.

As well as creating hunger and poverty, it damages the environment we rely on. The short term pressure to extract as much profit as possible as quickly as possible gets in the way of making production sustainable.

That’s why some resources are being used up faster than they are renewed—from fisheries and forests to underground water deposits.

And it’s why practices such as burning fossil fuels continue, even though we know it directly causes global warming. Many of the top global companies make their profits directly from fossil fuels. They won’t simply abandon those profits—or the billions of pounds they have invested in the industry.

The problem, again, is capitalism and the drive for profit. 

Society

It is perfectly possible to run society in a planned and organised way to ensure that enough food is produced for everybody—and that it gets to them. 

Resources can be managed in a way doesn’t damage the environment. And renewable energy sources such as the power of the wind, the sun or the tides, have the potential to be harnessed on a far greater scale.

A growing population shouldn’t put a burden on the planet. Because it is people who produce food and other necessary goods, more people means greater collective labour power to help us tap these resources.

This would mean a fundamental reorganisation of society to produce and distribute wealth, food and resources on the basis of need—not profit.

To see how this is possible, we have to look again at how capitalism is organised. Workers are brought together in the workplace to produce commodities such as food or fuel.

This means they have the potential to take control over how those commodities are produced. To do so would require a massive confrontation on a global scale between workers and the ruling class that currently controls production.

And that will only be possible if we reject the arguments that point the blame in the wrong direction.

Read more...

Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler, £13.99

Land and Labour: Marxism, ecology and human history by Martin Empson, £13.99

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein, £8.99

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk


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