Numbers have already begun to fall in China, long the world’s most populous country. Last year its population declined for the first time since 1961 and it is set to be overtaken this year by India. China’s birth rate is below that of the UK, despite the ending of the one-child policy. This oppressive attempt to control the population was scrapped seven years ago and the government is now pursuing contrary policies to keep the birth rate up.
The rising world population is not due to the rising birth-rate. This peaked in 1990 and is not expected to hit the same level again. Last year there were 8.5 million fewer births than that peak, despite the total population being significantly higher. Instead, the growing population is a result of people living longer.
Worries about overpopulation are not as widespread as they once were. In 2007, Boris Johnson wrote an article on the subject arguing that the “single biggest challenge is not climate change” but “the reproduction of our species itself”, adding that “you can smell it in the traffic jams of the Middle East”. A wide range of public figures has also described the problem of overpopulation. These arguments miss the point, perhaps deliberately, but there are still some that would make similar claims today.
Of course, there are burning issues of starvation and the overcrowding of some cities, the rapid consumption of the world’s resources, and the impact on climate change. But as a recent article in the Guardian by the prominent social geographer Danny Dorling put it: “Our concerns over food, healthcare, education, and housing should not be our numbers, but instead our inequality, greed and waste. These are the real problems of our time.”
He’s right, but he does not name the cause of these problems – capitalism. The unplanned economy, run for the profit of a tiny minority, leaves billions suffering. Resources are hoarded by the super-rich and squandered due to unnecessary competition. A rational, socialist plan of production would instead allow these resources to provide a decent standard of living for everyone.
Since 2007 a majority of the world’s population has lived in urban areas. The figure is now around 57% and the number living in cities has grown faster than the population in general. Poverty and a lack of planning have forced many of these people to live in cramped and overcrowded conditions. But there is no need for it to be like this. The vast majority of the land on earth is uninhabited. With democratic socialist planning of population distribution, there could easily be enough space for everyone.
The United Nations Environment Programme has written an article titled ‘How to feed ten billion people’. In it, it states clearly in bold type: “There is enough food for everyone.” Yet under the current system, more than 10% of the world’s population goes hungry. This figure has been rising again since 2015. Even in a wealthy country like Britain, increasing numbers are forced to rely on food banks.
One-third of the food produced in the world is lost or wasted before it makes it to people’s plates. That’s 1.3 billion tonnes every year. Capitalist food producers aim to produce large quantities in order to make as much profit as possible, there is no coordinated planning to meet demand. Food is produced for profit, not need; if it can’t be sold profitably then it is destroyed.
In line with capitalism’s general trend towards monopolisation the drive in agriculture has been to ‘get big or get out.’ We’ve seen the growth of huge agribusinesses. Intensive farming methods are employed to try and turn the biggest possible profits in the short term, as the logic of capitalism demands. However, these methods actually undermine the productivity of the land in the longer term. They are incredibly environmentally damaging, causing soil erosion, pollution from agrichemicals, and damaging biodiversity as well as being a net producer of greenhouse gases. Factory farms see animals kept in cramped and cruel conditions and contribute to diseases that are resistant to antibiotics. Yet despite all of this, medium and small farms generally perform better when efficiency is measured in production per unit area.
Across all sectors of the economy, the imperative to make profits at all costs cause enormous waste. Big businesses’ drive to keep us buying more of their products means things are designed to be thrown away rather than mended or reused. Efforts are duplicated by competing firms, wasting resources that could otherwise improve people’s living standards.
The rich are rich because they exploit us. It’s workers that create the wealth but the less the bosses pay us the more profits they can hoard for themselves. Under capitalism, there would be poor living standards at the bottom regardless of how many people there are in the world. Scarcity is a problem of the system and not of the population.
The same is true of climate change. There are environmentalists, including David Attenborough, who have raised concerns about whether the planet can sustain the rising population. Some would argue that more people inevitably means more emissions of greenhouse gases bringing devastating consequences.
However, this ignores the exceptionally unequal distribution of responsibility for climate change. The wealthy have a far bigger ‘carbon footprint’ than poorer people but by far the biggest culprits are big businesses, not individuals. 71% of climate emissions in the last 30 years have been by just 100 companies.
Many of those are fossil fuel firms. The dominant position of these companies and capitalism’s demand for profitable sources of energy have hindered the development of cleaner alternatives. Goods are shipped halfway around the world on polluting container ships because production in low-wage economies means more profits. Big business greed consistently comes before the environment in this system. Yet, by taking the energy firms and other big businesses into public ownership and adopting socialist planning, a rapid shift to a carbon-neutral economy could be achieved, even on the basis of population growth.
Expressing concerns about overpopulation can spill over into suggestions for population control, some of them extremely reactionary. Prince Philip once said: “In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation.” There have been real-life attempts to control population growth by oppressive measures – most notably the one-child policy in China. In 2017 the Tory government limited child benefits to the first two children in a family in most cases.
Socialists fight for the right to decide when and whether to have children. This means opposing any policies that attempt to put a limit on the size of families, and fighting for families to have the resources to be able to provide for their children: free quality childcare, decent housing, decent pay, and so on, on the one hand. On the other hand, we also oppose policies that restrict access to contraception or abortion. That includes the recent overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision in the US Supreme Court.
Population growth is mainly due to increasing life expectancy. People living longer should be a cause for celebration but capitalism cares only about profits, not people. Its representatives often see an ageing population as a problem. If people are no longer productive, which in their eyes means working to make money for a boss, then they’re seen as a burden.
A UK parliament research publication from 2015 entitled ‘Challenges of an ageing population’ says 55% of welfare spending goes to pensioners, with the state pension being the lion’s share of this. That’s despite the UK paying one of the lowest state pensions in Europe, leaving many pensioners in poverty. The Tories’ answer has been to raise the retirement age, making us work longer. Attempts by French president Emmanuel Macron to raise the retirement age have been met with mass protests and strikes through January.
The question of how much of your life is your own and how much of your boss’s is an incredibly significant one for socialists. The length of the working week and the age of retirement have been the subject of the big struggles of the working class. By eliminating the waste and duplication inherent in the anarchic production of capitalism, a socialist society would require people to work fewer hours. This would allow more free time during your working life and the choice of retiring earlier. By planning production to meet needs, everyone could be guaranteed a decent standard of living, even in old age.
Another issue the parliamentary report identifies is the additional pressure on health and care services. MPs have got some cheek! The NHS would be in a far better position to deal with additional demand if it wasn’t for decades of underfunding. There are over 100,000 unfilled positions in the NHS. Successive governments have increased the role of private companies leeching profits out of the service, including saddling NHS trusts with huge debts for Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals.
The care sector is even more burdened by the problem of profiteering. Councils used to be the main provider of care. By 2019, just 3% of care beds were council-owned, and 84% were run for profit by private providers. This often means staff is limited and corners are cut to improve the bottom line, while service users can still pay through the nose.
Public ownership of these services, as part of a socialist society that prioritised people’s health and wellbeing, would ensure decent services for all who need them and be able to plan adequately for improved life expectancy.
Under capitalism, rising life expectancy cannot be taken for granted. With the crisis in the NHS and the growing numbers of people who can’t afford to heat their homes, we may see a rise in excess deaths this winter in the UK, a relatively wealthy country. The long-term effects of the cost-of-living crisis on people’s health due to changing diets and increased stress have yet to be seen. Climate change represents an even bigger threat to human life.
Capitalism is bad for our health as individuals and as a species. There are eight billion reasons why it has to go. Its overthrow and the building of a socialist society to replace it is the most important task facing humanity. Socialist planning can ensure people live in greater harmony with nature and forge a future that provides a good standard of living for all eight billion of us and more.