The Green Party has caused some controversy recently by releasing its Population Policy for New Zealand just prior to the election. The Greens estimate the maximum population that Aotearoa can sustain at 5.7 million. In order that we do not exceed this figure, they propose policies including: “initiatives to raise awareness amongst parents and potential parents regarding the issue of sustainable global population levels.”
They also propose to “regularly review NZ’s immigration policy to ensure that we are retaining capacity to absorb climate change refugees and returning NZ citizens.”
It seems strange that the Greens should have made this an issue in a country that is sparsely populated with an ageing population. But in today’s political discourse, “sustainability” is becoming an essential green veneer to reactionary measures such as immigration controls and restricting working class people’s consumption.
The proposition that population growth is the cause of all manner of social ills is not new. It is worth examining the origin of this idea.
In 1798 the English clergyman Thomas Malthus published an essay entitled An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Effects the Future Improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers. A polemical work, it aimed to counter claims to the possibility of unending human progress made by influential Enlightenment thinkers like William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet in the wake of the French Revolution.
Malthus maintained that the human population, if unchecked, tended to increase at a geometrical rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and so on), while food supply tended to increase only at an arithmetical rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on). This principle represented an insurmountable barrier to the very realisation of a more egalitarian society.
The idea of the arithmetic ratio was quickly disproved by empirical data, but it fitted with the pre-Darwinian view of nature of the time that there was only limited room for “improvement” in plant or animal species.
Malthus wrote that “a man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and in fact, has no business to be where he is.” He attacked the English Poor Laws for providing relief to the destitute, arguing instead for workhouses, which the New Poor Law of 1834 duly provided.
It was in response to Malthus that Friedrich Engels developed the concept of the reserve army of labour. Malthus was “right in his way that there are always too many people in the world; he is wrong only when he asserts that there are more people on hand than can be maintained from the available means of subsistence.” An “unemployed reserve army of workers” existed at all times within industry, fluctuating according to the extent that the market encouraged employment. But the workers, far from actually thinking of themselves as superfluous, “have taken into their heads that they, with their busy hands, are necessary, and the rich capitalists, who do nothing,” constitute “the surplus population.”
Despite being repeatedly discredited, Malthus’s ideas have persisted in one guise or another to defend reactionary projects, including eugenics. Its latest Green incarnation must be exposed as equally fraudulent. The ecological and economic crises of our planet are fundamentally caused not by the level of population, but by the way capitalism controls resources.
Our planet is capable of sustaining the billions, but not the billionaires.