The root of the climate crisis is capitalism, not demographics

Michael Friedman
people in a sardine can

Growing concerns about climate change and other environmental trends have set off the next round of old Malthusian diagnoses and solutions.

As a case in point, ecological economist William E. Rees recently wrote in the Canadian alternative magazine The Tyee (“Staving Off the Coming Global Collapse” July 17, 2017):

The “competitive displacement” of other species is an inevitable byproduct of continuous growth on a finite planet. The expansion of humans and their artifacts necessarily means the contraction of everything else. (Politicians’ protests notwithstanding, there is a fundamental contradiction between population/economic growth and protecting the “environment.”)

As a first sweep, one might assert that “common sense” would dictate that as a population increases, so does pressure on resources, all else being equal. This is the logic behind the ecological concept of the “carrying capacity” of an ecosystem. It is the basis for the old Club of Rome report, “Limits to Growth.” And it is also associated with some versions of the “planetary boundaries” concept.

All else is not equal.

Capital accumulation drives environmental destruction

In a capitalist society natural resources are appropriated by capitalists as exchange values, not use values. That is, it is not their need, utility, aesthetics, etc., but their monetary worth upon exchange, that drives their extraction and subsequent use all the way down the commodity chain to the consumer.

Human labor creates exchange value, including the value of inputs and wages, and a surplus value component that comprises profits. Driven by competition, the employer seeks to maximize profits, while reducing inputs and wages. For entrepreneurs, the goal of the consummation of profitable sales is reinvestment in an ever-expanding process of capital accumulation: of growth.

This competition-stimulated thirst to unceasingly grow capital is what drives natural resource extraction and use. Ever-increasing amounts of iron ore or oil are stripped from the ground, ever greater expanses of forest are cut down, more and more fish are scooped from the sea, not to move, house or feed increasing numbers of people, but in order to exploit yet more oil, iron ore, fish or forests. On the other hand, capitalists are only interested in those resources that will turn a profit. These are disarticulated from their environmental matrix and exploited. The rest of that matrix is considered disposable, whatever its importance to our health or the biosphere.

It is important to underline that society is divided into fundamental and conflicting classes whose power to invest or purchase, and exploit natural resources, is dramatically unequal and determined by their position in the production process – whether they own capital and employ labor, or merely own their ability to labor. There is a reason why 71% of global greenhouse gases are emitted by just 100 corporations, according to recent reports.

Thus, it is incorrect to say that demographics drives resource use. Simple demographics ceased to play a dominant role in resource use when capitalist production became generalized. In fact, one could argue that demographics ceased to be the single major determinant when societies divided into classes based on unequal division of the social surplus product.

Both consumption of goods and population growth are over-determined and mediated by capitalism. In other words, multiple and reciprocal causality characterize the relationship between capitalist production, consumption and population growth.

Consumption, a function of effective demand

And what of our role as consumers? Don’t we determine what we consume and how we do so? Aren’t we the protagonists of rampant consumerism? Access to and consumption of resources is generally determined by the market: not by need, but by effective demand (monetary purchasing power), whether the purchaser of a resource/commodity is another capitalist or a worker.

However, both as individuals and social classes, capitalists and workers share neither equal command of effective demand, nor equal institutional access to resources. The laboring classes ultimately only command their ability to work — even a basic wage is not guaranteed. For their part, ownership gives capitalists command of capital and production. And, beyond the capital, itself, they command the institutional and legal structures of the state, giving them the means, say, to force Central American campesinos off land to which the latter hold title, or to build oil pipelines across Native American reservation land.

While it is true that capitalists require consumers of their goods, and consumers’ aggregate demand plays a role in determining product offerings, the aforementioned institutional inequality between a mass of atomized or even organized, mostly working class consumers, and businesses means that production under capitalism dominates consumption, rather than the other way around. This inequality originates in the historic origins of the mass capitalist market in the dissolution of the feudal fiefdoms and enclosure of commons, together with repressive legislation, that deprived tens of thousands of serfs and peasants of their means of subsistence and drove them into the arms of manufacturers and merchants as workers and dependent consumers, a process that is still replicated, today, in the developing nations.

In both industrialized and developing economies the market is all-pervasive and its hegemony virtually complete. Even peasant farmers in the most remote villages in the global south are held in its grip. We are socialized in its tenets from cradle-to-grave and in all social spaces, whether at home, in school, at places of worship, or in cultural venues. We embody its expectations. It generates and conditions our needs, even our identities. Neither hippie communes nor consumer cooperatives can provide escape from it. It encompasses increasing masses of commodities, including indispensable and non-renewable natural resources. And, under capitalism the great majority of us cannot survive outside of it.

Capitalists engage in a variety of types of competition in order to capture market share and a multitude of practices to assure product sales, (all the while constantly seeking to lower costs of production and wages). These include price wars, constant bombardment by massive ad campaigns (particularly directed at specific, vulnerable populations), creation of artificial needs and desires, manipulation of biologically hard-wired urges, adulteration and shoddy production, disposable items and planned obsolescence, consumer credit, and so on. Entrepreneurs must market increasing masses of goods. Ultimately, they are caught between their compulsion to produce more and more, and a mass of consumers with a relatively or absolutely limited purchasing power.

The final household consumers of useful items do not and cannot absorb all capitalist production. Some goods, of course, are exported, while national producers must compete with imports. But, both the state and capital goods sectors represent effective demand for significant components of the social product. For entrepreneurs who are consumers of capital goods, purchases are put in motion as capital, expected to bring in a profit and contribute to further growth. Effective demand is also supplied by the state, whose purchases include a disproportionate mass of goods destined not for consumption, but for destruction: military goods, in particular. The state is conceived as a purchaser of last resort, destined to stimulate production and accumulation, where the effective demand of individual consumers fails. This was a fundamental role of Keynesian economics.

Profligate waste and casual environmental degradation is a byproduct of such a system in which growth growth’s sake is the goal, increasing masses of goods must be pumped onto the market and all that does not generate profits is considered a freely-given product of nature or an “externality.”

Consumer struggles can induce some changes, even beneficial ones, but only as long as these correspond to the dynamic of commodity production and the logic of the market. We can convince supermarkets to sell organic produce, we can force them to abandon plastic bags, we can demand recycling programs, and even our capitalist states are willing to undertake some measures they claim will address climate change, such as cap-and-trade, which commodifies quotas of greenhouse gases. However, these should all be understood as measures that simultaneously legitimize and even extend commodity production and the market, ironically strengthening consumerism and growth. None of these sorts of measures alter the dynamic of capitalist production and marketing, and hence, they provide no real solutions to the biosphere crises. The hegemony of the market CAN be overthrown, but this requires expropriation of the owners of capital and of the production process, and replacement of the oligarchic state by one democratically representing working people. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” must be replaced by democratic planning of resource use, and production and distribution of goods and services.

Demographics and resources: Cause or effect?

And what about the “population” side of the equation? Surely great population densities and unchecked population growth place pressures on resources, locally if not globally. While this may be true in the abstract and for specific local cases, this cannot be generalized as a “natural law” under capitalism. As noted, the relationships are highly mediated by our social form, with pressure on resources determined by class and geopolitics.

Pressure on resources cannot be said to correspond necessarily either with population density or growth. Within industrialized nations, as consumers, the well-heeled shift their exorbitant carbon and other ecological costs onto the shoulders of the working class majorities, from their industries, estates and luxury suburbs to more densely populated urban and rural working class communities, where actual consumption is relatively limited, per capita.

In addition to the vastly unequal division of incomes among social classes in the production process, unequal ownership establishes power relations that are manifested through the state and institutions of civil society. These relations play out in vastly unequal command over the division of society’s surplus product and hence allocation of resources. Racism and other forms of oppression sustain and widen the disparity. Mechanisms for appropriating the social surplus include fiscal policy, particularly taxes and social expenditures, and urban and regional planning, including zoning laws. Other institutional mechanisms function within civil society, such as bank lending policies.

In turn, these unequal quotas of power translate into differing environmental and health outcomes. The fields of public health and environmental justice have long dealt with “social determinants of health” and “environmental racism,” realized through factors such as provision of ample green spaces in wealthy communities, as opposed to low income communities, or siting of polluting facilities in working class communities of color. Similarly, both greater social power and income facilitate access to a host of “green” innovations, from ready availability of organic produce to greater diversity of energy alternatives, to energy-efficient infrastructure to better public transportation. Taken together, these constitute a sort of regressive ecological taxation imposed by the ruling class on the working class majority. Not all ecological disruption is shifted into more marginalized communities, though: the wealthy do love their golf courses and well-manicured lawns, thought to be net sources of emissions.

In addition, much has been written about “unequal ecological exchange” between the global north and south, by which ecological costs, such as deforestation or biodiversity decline, accrue to the south, while the products of ecological disruption are exported to the north. (See James Rice, “Ecological unequal exchange: Consumption, equity, and unsustainable structural relationships within the global economy,” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48, vol. 1 (2007): 43-72)

Thus, hypothetically, if we were to control for disparities in consumption, unequal ecological exchange and regressive ecological taxation, in terms of per capita resource consumption, Scarsdale, and not Bombay’s slums or Kenya’s plains, would boast the more exorbitant carbon footprint and should be considered “overpopulated.”

Population density may, in fact, be inversely correlated with carbon footprint. For example, a Boston University study found that densely populated urban areas produce fewer emissions than suburbs or more sprawling urban areas as a result of proximity or availability of public transportation or the carbon costs of maintaining those neat lawns.

Globally, the highest population growth rates are associated with poverty, hardly conducive to rampant consumerism. For many of the world’s high demographic growth regions, in fact, chronic malnutrition is the norm, a product not of demographics, but of lack of “effective demand.” Studies beginning with sociologist Mahmood Mamdani’s 1970s study of an Indian farming villageconsistently demonstrate that development, gender equality and improving security and quality of life lead to a decline in birth rate, a phenomenon known as a “demographic transition”. Healthcare, education, women’s reproductive rights and social equality, steady employment at a living wage, and a full stomach reduce the need for large families to hedge against an uncertain future, and empower women to limit family size.

Which brings up a final point. The drive for profits at the root of the capitalist economy represents a fundamental barrier to improvements in social wellbeing for the world’s working class majority. The vicissitudes of existential struggle between ordinary people and owners of capital determines the division of wealth both in the factory and in society at large. It is within the class struggle that we find the heart of the “population problem” under capitalism.

In Volume I of Capital, Marx argued that capitalist accumulation inevitably engenders a reserve army of the unemployed. In the core capitalist countries, this process began with the aforementioned enclosure and privatization of the commons and the dissolution of the feudal demesnes, a process that created a capital stock, on the one hand, and an impoverished mass of workers for developing industries. Capital accumulation continuously regenerates the reserve army through the normal operation of the business cycle, as well as through secular growth in productivity or decline in the profit rate.

In the colonies, shortages of labor were met with enslavement of indigenous and African peoples and indenture. In the U.S., emancipation was met with resurgent racism, which contributed to the constitution of the reserve army in urban, industrial areas, and which, together with oppression of the capitalist periphery, has been instrumental to the present day in domesticating the U.S. labor movement and intensifying extraction of surplus labor and the accumulation process.

With the global expansion of capitalism and the domination and pillage of much of the capitalist world by a small number of wealthy nations, this reserve army was significantly displaced to the “underdeveloped” nations, a process whose tempo has increased in the neoliberal epoch, with the massive increase of rural to urban migrations providing cheap labor for global sweatshops, under the impetus of structural adjustments and free trade agreements, foisted on developing nations by international financial institutions and industrialized nations. In recent years, the World Bank has facilitated a massive land-grab in the developing nations by transnational corporations. Kenya is a case in point. A recent Sunday New York Times piece by Jeffrey Gettleman (“Loss of Fertile Land Fuels ‘Looming Crisis’ Across Africa”) placed the violent land disputes shaking that country in a Malthusian framework. Nevertheless, a recent report on Kenya by the Oakland Institute noted that,

the influx of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country grew from $729 million to $3.53 billion between 2007 and 2013 and has fueled the government’s swift acquisition of land to sell to overseas firms, creating land conflicts and dispossessing thousands of families of their ancestral homes.

It was the reserve army, the mass of unproductive, largely urban poor that lacks the wherewithal to “productively” consume, and which represents a threat to the system if not tightly controlled, that was the concern of the Reverend Robert Thomas Malthus. Malthus considered the masses of urban poor in English cities, employed and unemployed, to be the ”dangerous classes”: abhorrent in their poverty and criminality and prone to unpredictable social explosions. With them in mind, Malthus formulated his famous warning that human reproduction inevitably proceeds at a geometric rate, while resources can increase, at most, arithmetically, inevitably leading to a collision, unless measures are taken to reign in the procreativity of those “dangerous classes.”

And so, we find that the “population problem” is an ideological and social control, rather than a demographic, issue under capitalism. Fears of a demographic explosion among the impoverished and oppressed, resulting from fecundity and migration, often attributed to “feeble-mindedness,” cultural backwardness or genetics, led to the proliferation of eugenic theories, laws and measures. Nor are such ideas relics of a bygone past, as recurrent reported incidents of sterilization abuse directed at Puerto Rican women, indigenous Guatemalan women, African American men and women, and other oppressed groups attest. Most recently, the ideology re-emerged in reports that a Tennessee judge offered reduced sentencesfor inmates who agree to vasectomies and Nexplanon implants. In recent years, nativists have also dusted off overpopulation arguments to justify immigration control. Lest we think that such reasoning is far-fetched, it behooves us to recall that similar logic resulted in the draconian Immigration Act of 1924.

Addressing the epistemologically and ideologically related arguments of biological determinism, biologist Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out that,

The same bad arguments recur every few years with a predictable and depressing regularity.

No mystery attends the reason for these recurrences. They are not manifestations of some underlying cyclicity, obeying a natural law that might be captured in a mathematical formula as convenient as IQ; nor do these episodes represent any hot item of new data or some previously unconsidered novel twist in argument. (“The Politics of Biological Determinism,” Rethinking Schools 14, no 2 [1999-2000])

Rather, Gould affirmed, the recurrence of these ideologies is “sociopolitical”: they “correlate with episodes of political retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government spending on social programs, or at times of fear among ruling elites, when disadvantaged groups sow serious social unrest or even threaten to usurp power.” Such is the existential threat to the capitalist order posed by current ecological crises.

‪On the other hand, in a world governed by principles of ecological integration, human well-being, and participatory democracy, rather that profitability, growth and “the invisible hand,” demographic criteria might well become meaningful for rational planning of resource conservation and use.