“Population Talk”
A review The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development by Eric B. Ross

by Sarah Sexton

first published 1 June 2000

Summary

Mention the word “population” almost anywhere in the world and it is women’s (not men’s) fertility that comes under the spotlight. Or, rather, women’s over-fertility: “population” usually stands for “over-population”, and if there are too many people, it must be because too many babies have been born. Thus The Malthus Factor, a book on poverty and population, is a singular achievement because it does not mention the numbers of people nor the various influences on the number of children women raise. It makes a significant contribution to breaking out of the population framework, paving the way for a wider and potentially more fruitful exploration of poverty, development, deforestation, pollution, national security, social stability -- and of women’s self-determination in their lives in general, not just their fertility.

This review of The Malthus Factor: Poverty, Politics and Population in Capitalist Development by Eric B. Ross, published by Zed Books, London in 1998 first appeared in Monthly Review, New York, Vol. 52, No. 2, June, 2000.

 

Review

Mention the word "population" almost anywhere in the world and it is women's (not men's) fertility that comes under the spotlight. Or, rather, women's over-fertility: "population" usually stands for "over-population", and if there are too many people, it must be because too many babies have been born. Of all the development, economic, environment or social policies devised by think-tanks, implemented by governments and funded by multilateral agencies, population policies tend to be the only ones which focus on women from the outset rather than tacking on women- or gender-oriented amendments later under pressure from women's movements. The goal of national and international population policies today is usually to reduce the number of children women bear and raise, a goal to be achieved either directly through increasing rates of (women's) contraceptive use or indirectly through improved education, employment and empowerment for women.

Many women's groups and movements have been able to take advantage of these policies, especially those expressed in terms of women's rights, so as to gain access to contraception, particularly in contexts where influential institutional forces, such as those of church or state, limit women's self-determination.

Nonetheless, such access is still predicated on an assumption that there are too many people in the world; that unless some action is taken by external forces, there will be even more "too many people" in the future; and that these too many are causing local, national and global problems of deforestation, pollution, hunger, urbanization, crime, wars and social instability. Querying these assumptions is often taken as tantamount to asserting that the numbers of people in any given locality or on the planet as a whole can continue to increase indefinitely, unproblematically, even beneficially -- to claiming, for instance, that more people equals more economic productivity.

In "population" talk, therefore, disagreements almost invariably seem to be about numbers -- How many people can the earth support? Is the population growth rate slowing fast enough? What is the optimum carrying capacity of Rwanda? -- or about how "population" compares to "other factors" in environmental degradation and resource depletion. Population policies, meanwhile, whether intended to increase or reduce the numbers in a country, usually target women -- and target them as wombs. Trying to participate in the "population" debate without donning this conceptual straitjacket is next to impossible,

Thus The Malthus Factor, a book on poverty and population, is a singular achievement just because it does not mention the numbers of people. And given that women tend to be mentioned in the population discourse only as instruments to be influenced in order to bring the numbers down, it is a relief, irony of ironies, that this book barely mentions women at all. By not disputing the population statistics or the various influences on the number of children women raise, The Malthus Factor makes a significant contribution to breaking out of the population framework, paving the way for a wider and potentially more fruitful exploration of poverty, development, deforestation, pollution, national security, social stability -- and of women's self-determination in their lives in general, not just their fertility.

Eric Ross spends little time arguing the truth or otherwise of the theory, posited as a law of nature 200 years ago by English clergyman (and crucially economist) Thomas Malthus, that, because the increase in human numbers will always outstrip the increase in agricultural production, "positive checks" on the numbers of people, such as disease or starvation, are inevitable.

Instead, his book concentrates on exploring the various political and economic interests which have found Malthusianism and its subtle contemporary variants useful over the past two centuries. In particular, it examines how explanations of poverty and environmental degradation as "products of human population pressure on resources" have rationalised or obscured "the aims and contradictions of capitalist development".

Malthus's initial aim was not to reduce the numbers of poor people, or the numbers of people living in poverty, in England or Ireland or the other English colonies in the 18th century; instead, he aimed to reduce "the material obligation of the rich to mitigate the human misery caused by chronic or periodic unemployment". As Ross points out, Malthus was writing at a time of intense upheaval in England: the country was in the midst of an agricultural revolution, on the verge of an industrial one, and waging war against France. As Malthus refined his theory over 30 years or so, his "central and unrelenting" aim became clearer still: "to justify and affirm the established order of inequality".

By arguing that poverty was the "natural" product of the fertility of the poor (the number of children produced by the rich didn't seem to follow his law), rather than of the social or economic system, Malthus's "law of population" absolved and acquitted the property-owning class of any accountabiliy or responsibility for the poor or for poverty. The solution, therefore, was a matter of individual responsibility which had nothing to do with wider institutional structures and contexts. Indeed, Ross concludes that:

"while Malthus is remembered chiefly as the originator of a theoretical perspective which has left us with an unremitting anxiety about 'over-population', his greatest achievement, in fact, was to devise such an enduring argument for the prevention of social and economic change".

It is this enduring aspect of Malthusian theory that Ross explores in the bulk of his book. Overpopulation was first invoked as an explanation of famine and death in supposedly "resource-poor" Ireland in the 18th century, obscuring English colonial underdevelopment and the export of Irish grain and meat to feed England and its other colonies. Years later, overpopulation justified another kind of commercial agriculture, the Green Revolution, and the displacement of yet more peasant farmers. It also came in handy to contain movements demanding land reform. Before, during and after the Second World War, meanwhile, it legitimised efforts to contain socialist and communist threats to Western capitalist power, first in the Soviet Union and then throughout the world.

Today, it explains away conflicts in Africa and "surplus labor" immigration from third world to first. It is called up against proposals to cut carbon emissions in the West so as to reduce global warming (cut the numbers of certain groups of people instead, comes the counter-proposal). And it is again being used to justify yet another "advance" in agriculture: genetic engineering.

Time and again, particularly with the inclusion of birth control in its "practical armoury", contends Ross, "the Malthusian vision ... has proven to be a perspective which, in its compelling simplicity and practical application, could give the cover of legitimacy to Western interests."

Ross maintains that no other explanation of poverty has managed to overwhelm reasoned debate about alternative explanations so consistently as has that which cites over-population as the root cause of most human ills, backed up by apocalyptic forecasts of starvation (or, more recently, "anarchy") and says:

"The fear of pending famine has systematically distracted attention from the fact that it is not the reproductive habits of the poor, but the contradictions and motives of capitalist development ... that are the principal source of most of the misuse or waste of the world's human and material resources."

The parallels between the uses to which Malthusianism has been put in the past and the uses to which it is put today are extraordinary. The so-called "free market" was argued for in the 18th century in much the same terms that are used today. Arguments for the workhouse in the 19th century, meanwhile, closely match those used by conteporary welfare-to-work proponents in Britain and the United States. Condemnation of "feckless" women 200 years ago mirrors the recent suggestion of a British government minister that single (poor) mothers should put up their children for adoption.

Ross draws out some of these comparison on his tour -- "Ireland pioneered that pattern that dominates the late twentieth century, when capitalist agriculture, with its diminishing need for human labour, is forcing millions of people to seek a living far from home" -- but I'm sure many readers can contribute more from their own knowledge and experience.

The fact that Malthusian arguments against the mitigation of economic or social injustice have endured over two centuries "underscores how little fundamentally has changed between his time and our own," concludes Ross. Its most consistent feature "is its resolute defence of inequality".

But how has Malthusianism managed to be so influential in the past 200 years? Ross doesn't use the phrase "revolving door" to describe how government ministers become influential corporate players and then leaders of political think-tanks. Instead, he consistently lists the pedigrees and multiple connections of key supporters of Malthusianism - John Smith wrote a book on A, while he was a lecturer at B university, having been a general in C army; his cousin was on the board of X think-tank, used to work for Y company, and went on to work for Z government commission. In this way, he builds up an interconnecting nexus of government, companies, philanthropic organisations and think-tanks.

Different parts of the jigsaw fall into place when one learns that the Rockefellers supported not only intellectual theorising about overpopulation and contraceptive development but also dissemination of Green Revolution agriculture (which was reliant on chemical fertilisers and pesticides derived from oil extracted by a major oil company, Standard Oil - a Rockefeller company).

Some connections are more disturbing than others. Ross details how the Standard Oil company worked in close cooperation in the 1930s with various German chemical companies, which were, in turn, actively in alliance with the Nazis. What are now agro-chemicals were initially developed for weapons; after the Second World War, new uses of the chemicals to be found. Within four decades, such companies had become global giants in the field of agro-chemicals: "Much of the world's food production could be linked to the activities of companies whose idea of corporate responsibility had been demonstrated at ... Auschwitz."

Challenging the extent of the impact of human numbers qua numbers on the world's resources can certainly counter the hegemony of Malthusian thinking to a certain extent, as can bringing other factors into the population-impact equation, (indicting Northern consumption, for instance, or highlighting the fact that agricultural output has outstripped population growth, or invoking power relationships between different groups in society). Despite these challenges and refutations, however, Malthusianism still has immense commonsense appeal and a great hold over many people's thinking, including well-intentioned individuals and groups who really believe they are doing what's best for people and planet.

A catalogue of the links between the various individuals, institutions, interests and movements which have found Malthusianism useful to promote their own particular goals - not just the rich and privileged, who have always regarded "over-population" as shorthand for "the majority", but also eugenicists and environentalists - begins to explain, at least in part, why Malthusianism has gained such a foothold.

The Malthus Factor should prove immensly useful to a range of movements wanting to delink their concerns from a population framework - including those involved with women's health. Those with grave concerns about anti-fertility vaccines, for instance, because they believe the contraceptives are being developed within a population framework may find arguments to support their case even beyond those documenting how birth control became an instrument of Western foreign policy after the Second World War. As Ross argues, "The proper context ... for understanding the contemporary circumstances of any developing country ... is that of global political economy, not local reproductive habits."