July 11 is World Population Day: My Response To Malthusian Arguments For “Overpopulation”

So, I just got an email from USAID informing me that today is “World Population Day.”  From my cursory reading of the email, I noted that the emphasis was on the provision of contraceptive birth control to women in the “developing world.” “Family planning” sounds rational, but it is hardly a sufficient solution for the greater problems of overcrowding in urban spaces, the impending food crisis in “underdeveloped” nations such as Sudan and India.  The provision of birth control in the developing world strikes me as another exercise in hegemony: the reproductive choices of those in the “underdeveloped” South are policed under the guise of humanitarian aid.

In a world where the poorest 40% account for 5% of total wealth and the richest 20% account for 75% of total wealth, it is easy to simply accept the state of things.  According to UNICEF, 24,000 children die of poverty everyday, and they are concentrated in South Asia and Subsaharan Africa. According to the 2006 UN Human Development Report, 1.1 BILLION people in “developing” countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation [2006 United Nations Human Development Report, pp.6, 7, 35]  Meanwhile, multi-national corporations like CocaCola, PepsiCola, and Unilever {which is the largest retailer and producer in Ghana, accounting for ~40% of its GDP, here’s another great study/paper on Unilever’s involvement in Ghana} contribute to the contamination of water sources used for cooking, drinking and irrigation of agriculture [see: Bangladesh, up to 150 million affected by Arsenic-laced water, 20% of the population is sickened or dying.].  This doesn’t even address the encroachment upon Bangladeshi water rights.

A unilateral approach to the perceived problem of “overpopulation” (I don’t believe it to be the case) is insufficient if it fails to address the inequalities in the food-distribution system that exists today.  Like socialism, capitalism is a system of redistribution.  Instead of the state, the “market” dictates the redistribution of capital in all of its forms (human (human trafficking, anyone?), social, monetary, material).  Capitalism moves capital where effective demand is. And where is that effective demand? Effective demand rests in the hands of the privileged denizens of the industrialized world- who paradoxically have decreased Gross Domestic Products (GDPs) on average due to corporate and government outsourcing of manufacturing and service.  Also, the consumer goods that you buy largely come from nations that lack “effective demand” but possess cheap human capital.

Why do you think that so many of agricultural products sold in the USA are imported from countries in South America, the Caribbeans and Asia?  Multinational corporations like Monsanto have found ways to streamline the production of agricultural products.  Genetically modified single-yield seeds ensure that farmers are dependent on Monsanto for the next year’s batch of seeds, while contributing to the stripping of the soil.  [See also: Monsanto’s recent donation of $4 million in seeds to farmers in Haiti] Soil accustomed to indigenous crops such as manioc, yams and millet may work for North American crops like corn and apples, but the long-term result is that the soil is stripped of nutrients.  This is especial to places like Algeria where the French colonial regime banned traditional slash and burn techniques (also called “swidden” and in favor of Western European practices (swidden is practiced in Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway (Northern and Eastern Europe), and was abandoned centuries ago in what would be modern-day England), which resulted in the erosion of topsoil and the acidification of the soil.  This was in addition to the fact that by 1940, French settlers owned 5.940.000 acres of Algeria’s land, displacing Algerians and forcing them to seek work in urban centers or on settler farms (Africa: Volume 4: The End of Colonial Rule: Nationalism and Decolonization, ed. Toyin Falola, 2002, pg. 67)

First, I'll state that arguments that the "underdeveloped" world is overpopulated are racist, classist and sexist.  At best, these arguments are ahistorical, lacking in context.  The legacy of Thomas Robert Malthus is seemingly inescapable.   The assumed hypersexuality and fecundity of the darker peoples of the world is a myth strengthened by confirmation bias.  While the industrialized/ "western" world may have lower birthrates on average (largely due to the advent of birth control accessibility in the middle and upper classes- birthrates are still higher in the lower/working-classes), members of the "underdeveloped" world are punished for their reproductive choices.  Couple this with relative lack of privilege and impoverishment, and it is more readily evident how inaccessible birth control really is.  The issue is for more complex than simple access, however.  In agrarian societies, it is often an expedient and rational choice to have many children- especially if those children can aid in agricultural production and ensure the profitability of their family farm.  Factor in the continued displacement of indigenous farmers and/or the discouragement of the cultivation of indigenous crops.  The undermining of indigenous peoples' land and rights is also the severe undermining of indigenous autonomy.  The saying goes "give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime."  Well, reverse that: Take away the man's fishing rod and his access to food sources (a metaphorical lake/pond/ocean), and he is utterly dependent on the whims of a global market that dictates the prices of commodities based on consumer (civilian and corporate) demand.  My point is, one cannot address the perceived problem of "overpopulation" without addressing the wider scale problem of the global food distribution system.

See: Infographic entitled “How the Global Food Market Starves the Poor”

I’m reminded of the dilemma of post-colonial nations in the 1960s and 70s: “Do we nationalize our natural and mineral resources for which we have little equipment, or do we allow ourselves to be re-colonized by multi-national corporations?”  Neo-liberalism (the impetus behind the creation of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), globalism and corporate interests have colluded to essentially re-colonize former colonies.  The continued displacement and disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples in a global-political economy is a repeat, on a larger scale, of the creation of colonial metropolis’.  Polarize the rural and the urban, fracture national identities, create an underclass mired in generational poverty and uneducation, and you’ve essentially re-colonized the “developing world.” The tides of immigration to “Western” nations are often met with xenophobic legislation and enforcement (see: USA, Arizona, SB1070).  Also, the relocation to urban centers means far less land wealth among indigenous peoples, and far more wage-slavery and renting of living spaces.

Through most of history, the human population has lived a rural lifestyle, dependent on agriculture and hunting for survival. In 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1900, almost 14 percent were urbanites, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, 30 percent of the world’s population resided in urban centers. The number of cities with over 1 million people had grown to 83. {source: Human Population: Urbanization – Population Reference Bureau}

I think I’ve dug myself into a huge hole here.  I need to address the following issues more fully:

  1. Diasporic histories, displacement of indigenous peoples in the developing world
  2. Urbanization
  3. Corporate undermining of indigenous land and water rights, thus indigenous autonomy
  4. Big Agriculture’s imposed dependence on monocultures leading to farmers’ dependence on a volatiles commodity market
  5. The legacy of colonialism on indigenous farming methods

See also:

A Brief Overview and Criticism of Globalism

Can The Free Market Ensure the Rights of Marginalized Groups?

Globalization And Children’s Healthcare in the Global South

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