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   Vol.65/No.29            July 30, 2001 
What's behind the capitalist myth of 'overpopulation'
Printed below is an excerpt from Too Many Babies? The Myth of the Population Explosion by Joseph Hansen. In this pamphlet, the author takes issue with the view that humanity faces a crisis of overpopulation. That argument is still used by defenders of the status quo to blame a range of social problems--from hunger to unemployment to environmental pollution--on working people, especially those living in the semicolonial world, instead of the real cause: the normal workings of the capitalist profit system. Equally reactionary are their proposed solutions, such as the forced sterilization of women or slashing the social gains of working people.

Supporters of the "overpopulation" view frequently draw on the arguments of Thomas Malthus, a 18th century English writer and opponent of the 1789 French revolution. Malthus asserted that human population inevitably increases more rapidly than the available food supply.

These excerpts are taken from the concluding section of the pamphlet. Copyright © 1960 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.


The Malthusian theory reduces man to little more than a gullet and a set of reproductive organs.

Viewing food sources as relatively fixed, the Malthusian sees no way of assuring gullets of the future their wherewithal unless today's reproductive organs are neutered in one way or another. The supply of gullets must be kept in balance with the supply of roast beef and apple pie--otherwise the world will go communist. The Malthusian program can thus be stated in a single sentence:

For the sterilization of human beings, especially the colored ones in colonial areas!

We can see why such a program appeals to those who depend on stocks, bonds, rents, and interest for their livelihood. It comes natural in these circles to agree that parasites must be unintelligent to multiply faster their source of nutrition.

Marxists take a decidedly different view of humanity. They note that man has hands and a brain, the capacity to use tools and an inclination for teamwork. These have made him, in distinction to all other animals, a food producer. This is the secret of mankind's conquest of the earth, a conquest that would remain an impenetrable mystery if we were to confine ourselves to Malthusian concepts. (Where did these expanding numbers get their food?)

In remote antiquity, when human beings were only good gatherers, hunger was to be expected. Even after shifting from hunting to stock raising and culture of plants, famine remained an ever-present threat due to the low technological level. In today's world, hunger is completely abnormal. Humanity can produce all it needs and many times over. Moreover, man's capacity to increase his food supply expands with the increase in population and at an ever-higher rate than population growth. A big population is an asset, not a liability. Failure to see this rather obvious argument is the basic flaw in the Malthusian argument.

The truth is that the world now has at its disposal more than sufficient means to rapidly eliminate the hunger and poverty inherited from past ages. The same means, rationally developed, could soon assure everyone on this planet a decent living. Luxury for all, including abundant leisure time, could be realized within a relatively few years.

These means are not a recent acquisition, like the capacity to make Sputniks, intercontinental rockets, and H-bombs. We have had the means to end hunger since at least 1914, if not some time before.

Does that sound startling? Not so long ago it was considered rather obvious. The years of McCarthyism, of screaming about the "communist menace," of teaching the most sordid careerism and cynicism to our youth have brought a great relapse in social awareness. We have to relearn some painful lessons.

Let's begin with the wealth and manpower wasted in World War I. Imagine those millions of men taken from the trenches and put to work in the plants and mills and farms for peacetime production. Add the efforts of those behind the lines who were turning out guns and bullets and tanks and high explosives. Bring in as shock troops on the peacetime front the millions who lost their lives in the imperialist conflict. On top of this include what could have been done with the means of production that were wiped out.

When you have finished visualizing how those mighty forces could have advanced civilization, please repeat it--on the greater scale of World War II.

Finally add all the wasted effort going into preparation for World War III. Since Truman dropped the first atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the U.S. alone has been spending some $40,000,000,000 a year on "Operation Nuclear Annihilation."  
Destructive character of capitalism
Suppose that the trillions spent in the past half century to destroy the flower of humanity and the wealth accumulated by generations had been wisely invested in schools and hospitals and homes, in mines and mills, farms and factories, highways and railroads, ships and ports, wouldn't ours now be a world of boundless abundance? Who can doubt it!

If you really stop to think about it, considerations as powerful as these are not needed to show that we have the means to end poverty quite rapidly. Simply consider where we would be today had all the factories that were closed down in depressions and recessions in the past half century been run at top capacity. Or consider how much farther ahead we would be if we had eliminated the useless duplication and appalling waste due to blind competition. Or if the billions of dollars spent in idiotic advertisements were put to useful purpose. Consider how much more productive our economy would be if the standing armies were eliminated, the swollen government bureaucracies trimmed down, and the millions of people wasting their lives in these pursuits were given worthwhile occupations.

The parasitic way of life to which our rulers are accustomed is another costly item worth examining, but far more important is their habitual policy of blocking basic industry from running at full capacity. Most injurious of all is the barrier deliberately created by the monopolies to expanding our industries at the rate the needs of the people call for. If our industries were just turned loose, this alone would quickly give us such wealth, provided it were properly distributed, as to make hunger and poverty a thing of the past.

All right, many voices among the younger generation will reply; all this was not our responsibility. Our parents and grandparents failed to meet the obligations of their time. But our generation can correct all this. We can end the capitalist nightmare and assure the victory of socialism. We will do everything in our power to arouse our generation to its great responsibility and its unparalleled opportunity. Still we are not sure about the food supply after we win.

Let us suppose then that America has gone socialist. The victory in the USA was sufficient to knock the pins out from capitalism in the rest of the world; and the Soviet workers carried through the restoration of proletarian democracy in their area. Economic rivalries and national hatreds have been displaced by their opposites--economic collaboration and the brotherhood of man. The best minds of all countries have assembled to work out preliminary plans for a joint effort of all peoples to make this earth really habitable.  
Unleashing productive potential
What about the food supply? We can imagine the delegates from Africa and South America reporting that if only 20 percent of the land reserves in those continents are counted, 900,000,000 more acres are immediately available for cultivation. The delegates from Oceania report another 100,000,000 acres available in their area. The Russians and Canadians might report another 300,000,000 acres available if only 10 percent of their subpolar soils are brought into production. This would increase the world's cultivated area to some 3,000,000,000 acres, leaving another possible 5,000,000,000 acres for further exploration and development.

What would the U.S. delegates say? Perhaps something like this: "Under capitalism we exhausted 100,000,000 acres of virgin soil in less than two centuries. However, our scientists are convinced that we can restore this. Naturally, we're putting back into production the 22,500,000 acres of fertile soil that were withdrawn in the old 'soilbank.' Also, of course, we are making available immediately $9,000,000,000 in corn and wheat and we don't know how much butter and canned stuff, stored in caves by the old government, that may still prove edible. And our farmers are saying that now that they are free to really start farming, they're going to break all the old records in producing food."

On this basis a population of 28,000,000,000--ten times the present figure--could be fed comfortably even on the basis of old techniques.

However, the world's best scientists might bring in a preliminary report on some stirring possibilities. "Since we no longer have to waste our talents on producing fiendish things like H-bombs, nerve gases, and self-guiding rocket missiles, we can now turn our attention to what we have long wanted to do. Already we can see immense potentialities in farming the sea--not to mention extracting minerals and metals from it. In addition we know from rather primitive experiments carried out in capitalist days that hydroponics may prove to be one of our best bets; we can grow bigger, tastier, and more nutritious fruits and vegetables in tanks than in soil, and we can use artificial light. All this, of course, constitutes only transitional measures. The future points to synthetic foods; and laboratory reports already indicate startling gains in this direction."

We can see some of the world's top engineers and technicians impatiently waiting to report on the tools and machines available to mankind. In an advance release they state that it will prove sobering to discover how much of our plant equipment is obsolete but that even here the virtues of rational planning will become evident. Machines that would be junked in the race for profits under capitalism can be saved for many years of almost cost-free service while fully automated plants are built in great complexes.

Will sufficient power be available for such ambitious projects? That will no doubt get a laugh. "Power! That used to be a Malthusian bugaboo. The discovery of atomic power knocked that one out. Besides we have enormous resources in the tides and in solar radiation which remained untapped under capitalism. Even water power is still to be fully developed. We propose to save our fossil fuels for much more fruitful use than burning them up the way they did in the days of capitalist savagery."

Our conservationists will take their place, too, under the batteries of TV cameras as the world listens to this historic conference. They will discuss plans for restoring our streams and lakes to the crystal-line purity that was taken for granted before capitalism converted them into sewers and cesspools. And representatives of the health departments of our great metropolitan centers will discuss the quickest means to end pollution of the air we breathe.

What will be the most important resource of all to be considered? Why, people of course. Our labor force. The active ingredient in the great overall plan to tie the world economy together in a scientific way. Most amazing of all the changes will be the approach to this resource. Under capitalism, the labor force got least consideration of all the components in the factory system. In fact, although it was clearly the source of profits, the capitalists generally approached labor as "the enemy."

"Now this has been completely revolutionized," we can hear them say. "The profitability of an undertaking is approached as a bookkeeping figure, of interest only as it might affect the new aim of production--the welfare of humanity.  
The capacity of working people
"Every aspect of the labor force is now of first concern, from its care in prenatal stage to the days of final achievement in old age. New educational needs, multiplicity of skills and tasks demanded in the next years, health, leisure opportunities, general participation in physical labor, administration, exploration in science, and the development of the arts--all of these topics are to be weighed now in determining the first great goals for all mankind to unite upon."

The conference will not go beyond a preliminary inventory and first approximation of aims, it is true; but what a dividing line it will mark from the past. The mass of humanity will get its first true estimate of itself as a living force. Won't they laugh at such a simple problem as liquidating poverty and hunger? What will really interest them is the mighty challenge of building a truly human civilization on this earth.

Will the size of the labor force be a question of importance? Undoubtedly it will. Most likely when the world pool of manpower is carefully studied, it will be found small in relation to the task of cleaning up the untidy mess left by capitalism; and certainly it will be regarded as only a pioneer band in building the bright new system of socialism, a society that will eventually mobilize the collective efforts of tens of billions of human beings.  
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