Over-population or over production?
Australian, 10 September 1994.

Would planet Earth be any better off if the Cairo Conference on Population and Development halted human numbers at their present five and a bit billions? No; not unless that limitation became part of bigger changes. Nor would the prop0sects for our species necessarily improve if our number fell by half. The answers lie not in how many of us are born but in rather how some of us live.

Of course, family planning has advantages for mothers and children everywhere when births can be times to suit the availability of care and resources. But it is misleading to extrapolate from that benefit for individuals any impact on the welfare of our species, still less on the health of the global environment.

This view assumes that the objective behind putting limits on population is to hold down pressure on all the Earth’s recourses. However, certain advocates of population control believe that race explains the distribution of poverty among nations. For them, population control is a mask for global ethnic cleansing.

Yet the threat to our survival does not come from the masses of the poor. The 300 million in the United States comprise only 6 per cent of the world’s population, but they use more than a third of the resources consumed a year. The disappearance overnight of the wealthiest half of Americans would have more effect than the disappearance of all the peoples in mainland China.

The wackiest argument about population is that rises in the so-called standard of living make the most persuasive case for birth control. Even if the causal connection ever so straightforward, that cure is, under capitalism, as destructive as the disease.

In terms of sustainability, what will be the advantage of having only two children per family if that pair were to consume more than a dozen who had lived in poverty? Controlling population compounds the harm when it relies on higher consumption levels.

Consider the case of Japan. Between 1890 and 1990, its population rose 300 per cent to 124 million. During the past 20 years, the rate has been slowing until it is now below replacement level. But what benefit will that stagnation bring if those 124 million are driven to expand further their rate of conspicuous consumption?

Every week, the English language Nikkei Weekly publishes a column announcing new products developed by the corporations. The catalogue for the last week in August announced the following treats in department stores: Business people could buy briefcases with an insert for their cellular phones ($400); the elderly could watch television while sitting on a mode concealed in a armchair, complete with steriliser and deodoriser ($900).

But what the world has been waiting for is the cigarette lighter containing a battery-driven sweeper for spilled ash. Marketeers are putting this chrome-and-gold plated plastic emblem of capitalist civilisation within your reach for $100.

Is human life going to be more sustainable when children in Somalia can grow up expecting to charge a talking briefcase, a padded potty and a hand sized vacuum cleaner to their credit cards?

In addition, there are the big-ticket items, notably, the automobile. The post-1945 growth in car registrations has been as destructive as the rise in birth registrations. The ticking noise is not coming from inside a population bomb, but from under the bonnet.

One prime need, therefore, is to redefine standard of living as a sustainable quality of life, and no longer in terms of the quantity of commodities one can throw away.

This problem is endemic in developed economies. Japan is a pertinent example because its corporations are driving up consumer demands at the same time as its birth rate is on the way down. In rate is on the way down. In short, although Japan has achieve what the population control push is demanding from the Cairo conference, the dynamic of its economic system is at least as dangerous as a boost to the number of those consumers would be.

In-vitro fertilisation programs spotlight the conflicts between controlling the population of the poor while at the same time exciting consumer wants within richest societies. Millions of dollars help infertile couples in Australia to have babies. Colouring the argument that every woman has a right to become a biological mother are the values of a market culture that has taught us to covet our neighbours’ goods. How long before parents are being offered designer babies with the most fashionable eye colour?

Biologists might argue that increasing the numbers of one’s own species is what life is al about. Hence, any population will expand until checked by the demands of competing species. The truth is that account does not deal with the non-biological forces at work in expanding the resources used by a privileged niche within our species.

Here, we encounter a social imperative, not a biological one. The threat is not from a self-replicating gene, but thrusts out of a political economy that thrives by promoting selfishness. The logic of capitalism means that it must grow in order to survive. Such expansion to production stimulates a growth in consumption. Hence, even before the total number of consumers can be held constant, capitalism’s solution to its own survival has been to increase the volume being consumed per person.

A conference on production control would be more pertinent than one on controlling population through free-market development.