The old nostrum that the solution to these problems lies in stemming population growth has again become fashionable discourse among bourgeois and petty-bourgeois liberals in Europe and North America. Under the rubric of population control as a panacea for reducing poverty, charitable programs are providing needed contraception to toilers in underdeveloped and devastated parts of the world.
On Earth Day 2009, the website Science Daily asserted in its headline, “Worst Environmental Problem? Overpopulation, Experts Say.” It quoted ecologist Charles Hall saying, “Overpopulation is the only problem. If we had 100 million people on Earth—or better, 10 million—no others would be a problem.”
On the occasion of this year’s World Population Day, July 11, the Italian-based nongovernmental organization Inter Press Service featured an article titled, “Women’s Inequality Linked to Soaring Population.”
“Though the World Bank has reported progress [in reducing poverty] since the 1980s, it still may not be enough to counter the surge in population and the resulting problems that will stem from it,” the article said. “Family planning is one of the most successful development interventions and one of the strongest and most cost-effective investments available. It reduces poverty, and it allows governments to invest in infrastructure, schooling, and healthcare.”
The same assumptions were at the heart of the highly publicized London Family Planning Summit held that same day under the auspices of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK Department for International Development, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations Population Fund.
Gates herself committed $560 million for such a program launched at the summit “alongside pledges totaling $4.3 billion from the British government and leaders from African nations wrestling with the health and social problems brought on by high rates of unplanned pregnancy.”
The case of NigeriaThe New York Times published an article in April titled “Nigeria Tested by Rapid Rise in Population” that is typical of this trend.
“In a quarter-century,” it said, “at the rate Nigeria is growing, 300 million people—a population about as big as that of the present-day United States—will live in a country roughly the size of Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. In this commercial hub … living standards for many are falling.” With a population of 167 million, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and the sixth most populous in the world.
The article described working-class families in Lagos living in 7-by-11-foot rooms in apartment blocks where up to 50 people share a kitchen, toilet and sink. It mentioned a primary school where students sat two to a desk. And it added, “Nigeria’s unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent for people in urban areas ages 15 to 24—driving crime and discontent.”
Then the Times made the connections. “Last October, the United Nations announced the global population has breached seven billion and would expand rapidly for decades, taxing natural resources if countries cannot better manage the growth.
“Nearly all of the increase is in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population rise far outstrips economic expansion. Of the roughly 20 countries where women average more than five children, almost all are in the region.” According to the Times, women of childbearing age had 5.5 children on average last year.
The article reported approvingly that “Nigeria made contraceptives free last year, and officials are promoting smaller families as a key to economic salvation.” It quoted demographer Peter Ogunjuyigbe as saying, “If you don’t take care of population, schools can’t cope, hospitals can’t cope, there’s not enough housing—there’s nothing you can do to have economic development.”
The mantra that population growth is “outstripping economic expansion” serves as a convenient way to sidestep the worldwide contraction of capitalist production and trade—which has nothing to do with population growth and which is bearing down with double force on the semicolonial world.
It ignores the fact that “economic expansion” is a product of human labor. And it avoids confronting capitalism, which puts profits before human needs, as well as unequal trade relations and outright plunder by the imperialist nations. All this, with the blessing of self-enriching “African leaders” who are “wrestling” with growing social crises and discontent.
Class-conscious workers support increased access to contraceptive devices as a prerequisite for women to be able to decide when and if to bear children, thus gaining more control over their lives. For the same reason, they completely reject any “population policy”—either aimed at increasing or decreasing it—with governments telling women what they should do with their bodies for “the well-being of the nation.”
Overpopulation mythThe idea that overpopulation is the source of scarcity and poverty was initially promoted by British economist Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) as a reaction against the ideals of “liberty, equality, fraternity” put forward by the bourgeois 1789 French Revolution against outlived feudal social relations in Europe.
The problems working people face, said Malthus, are not the result of an exploitive society that needs to be changed. They come from the fact that there are too many human beings. The world’s population at the time had just reached the 1 billion mark.
Malthus’ “theories” proved to be wrong as the production of food exploded worldwide with the mechanization of agriculture and the application of science to it under capitalism—a system which in its early stages provided impetus to expanding production, but which today is increasingly incapable of providing the majority of toiling humanity with the most basic needs.
The truth is that some of the most densely populated regions of the globe are located in the wealthiest, most advanced imperialist countries in Europe as well as Japan. There is no cause and effect relation between population density and production of wealth.
But that doesn’t prevent a regurgitation of Malthus’ ideas as the propertied rulers look for one more way to pin the blame on workers, not capitalist social relations of exploitation and oppression, for the abysmal working and living conditions created by capitalism.
The Times article is no exception. It didn’t mention that what is Nigeria today had been for centuries one of the main sources of bonded labor in Africa for the bloody slave trade that helped jump-start capitalism in Europe. It failed to mention that the country was directly pillaged by British capital until it won independence in 1960. And that this legacy of underdevelopment continues today as a result of unequal trade and financial relations with the imperialist world.
The Times article said in passing that today’s Nigeria is “rich with oil.” In fact, Nigeria is the 10th largest oil-producing and the ninth oil-exporting country in the world. But most of this wealth fills the coffers of foreign-owned oil giants—with Shell, Chevron Texaco, Exxon Mobil, Total and Agip accounting for more than 95 percent of Nigeria’s oil and gas production. Nigeria had a gross domestic product of $1,670 per capita in 2006.
Revolutionary legacy of Sankara“I assert that Africa remains an underpopulated continent,” said Thomas Sankara in 1986. This remains true today, with Africa having a population density less than half of Europe’s and a third of Asia’s.
Sankara was the central leader of the 1983-87 revolution in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in the world. Instead of seeing working people as objects to be controlled, the revolutionary government Sankara led mobilized the toilers of city and countryside to begin confronting and solving their most pressing needs, transforming themselves and laying the foundation for social relations based on human needs and solidarity, not profit for a tiny minority.
Through their mass organizations, peasants, workers, craftsmen, women and youth carried out literacy and immunization drives. They sank wells, planted trees, built dams and erected housing. They fought the oppression of women and began transforming exploitative relations on the land. As they were freeing themselves from the imperialist yoke, they extended the hand of solidarity to others engaged in that fight internationally.
Sankara was killed and the Burkinabè revolution overthrown in a murderous coup in 1987. But the revolutionary course he led remains to this day an example that points the only way forward for working people in Africa—and the rest of the world.
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