ENVIRONMENT - 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.