Too Many People? – Too Much Poverty?

One of the most commonly held statements about the world today is that ‘there are too many people’. The population of the world today is 5.7 billion (5,700 million), and increasing by about 250,000 a day. It is expected that it will reach about ten billion by 2050. We are all familiar with talk of the population explosion and graphs showing population soaring almost to infinity.

Population increases because the birth rate is higher than the death rate, and increasing life expectancy. Probably the single biggest change is that, in the past, childbirth was an extremely dangerous time both for women and children, while now fewer women die in childbirth and fewer children die in the first few years of life. In some parts of the world, however, among the poor, this is still a time of high risk, with 450,000 women dying unnecessarily every year around childbirth – 97% of whom are in the neo-colonial world.

The extension of lifespan and the falling death rate is mainly due to improved living conditions rather than expensive and complex hi-tech medicine and surgery. The major developments are due to reduction in infectious disease by the provision of clean water and improvements in food, shelter and hygiene. These are all benefits of modern technology since the industrial revolution. These improvements save people’s lives. However, none of these improvements can be taken for granted. The economic crisis of capitalism is leading to a resurgence of preventable diseases around the world. Those who condemn the alleged consequences of science and technology should look at the huge amount of human suffering it has prevented.

The birth rate has changed more slowly than death rates. Why do people have children? It is not due mainly to ignorance. There is a long history of different methods of birth control, such as prolonged breast feeding. Population follows economic development. It is connected to the security of life of elderly people, methods of cultivation, the opportunities for women and their status in a given society, their right to control their own bodies though contraception, etc.

In many parts of the world there are strong economic reasons for people to have more than two children. Children contribute to meeting the needs of a family by collecting fuel and water, work that can take up to six hours a day. Child labor is increasing in the neo-colonial world because of increased poverty. Big business benefits from the employment of children in conditions reminiscent of slavery and the driving down of the wages of older workers. Children can earn a wage from a young age and also provide the main form of welfare system as some provision against families’ illness and old age.

Birth rate is also affected by the ideology of society, e.g. whether it is considered that women especially, but also men, are really fulfilling their roles if they don’t produce biological offspring.

Many of the world’s people live in terrible poverty. One in four people live in absolute poverty, starving or near starvation and lack clean drinking water or proper healthcare, education and housing.

The ‘expert’ supporters of population control argue that the only way to protect the environment and improve living standards is to stop population growth and even reduce the world’s population.

Paul Erlich, one of these ‘experts’, described a visit to Dehli where he saw the poor in millions and concluded that people were “pollution”. He would have seen as many people in New York. What offended him wasn’t people, but poor people. He popularized the phrase of the “population bomb”, implying it was as great a threat to humanity as nuclear weapons. Garret Hardin, another ‘expert’, argues that we should have a ‘lifeboat ethics’ and aid should not be given to poor people starving in the neo-colonial world.

His comparison is with a lifeboat, the industrialized west, surrounded by victims in the water, the people who are starving. Hardin of course, is in the lifeboat. He claims that the earth has limited supplies and that providing for extra people would increase the costs and reduce supplies and therefore lead to the impoverishment and ultimately the death of all. He seed human life as a cost. Socialists see humans not as “pollution” but as potential contributors to the development of society. Perhaps the person not in the lifeboat can navigate by the stars, or fish, or have another skill that would aid survival.

Malthus the Messiah

These modern experts repeat the arguments of Malthus nearly 200 years ago. The Reverend Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population arguing that human population increased geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, …) while food production only increased arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, …) and therefore there would never be enough food. He wrote his pamphlet to justify not providing an early limited welfare provision for the starving poor of England who were driven off the land by enclosures.

He argued that if the poor had more money and food they would have more children and therefore increase the number of hungry and poor. He opposed the radicals of the time, such as Tom Paine, who argued that starvation was due to social causes. In Malthus’s time the rich who had lots more money and food than the poor generally did not have the largest families. The opposite was the case; they tended to limit the number of children. Exactly the same is true today.

Modern-day birth-controllers repeat Malthus’s claim that more food and money to the poor will only increase population growth. However, they have added a new twist to Malthus’s arguments by claiming that the poor, as well as the starving themselves and their children, will damage the environment and therefore are a threat to all of the world’s population.

These arguments are an attempt to justify poverty by science. Like Malthus they do not see the cause of poverty in the social and economic system, which can be changed. Rather, they argue that the poor are always with us and poverty is due to nature rather than the way the world is run. They do not argue to improve living standards and eradicate inequality. Some believe that the best thing for the planet is to let the poor die of starvation.

Behind much of the argument for population control is a racist argument, of blaming the Blacks, Asians and Hispanics. ‘There are too many’, ‘they are damaging the world’, ‘they should be left to starve’. These claims all accept the present world system and ignore who is responsible for poverty and starvation.

From Malthus, to eugenic theorists of the 1990s, to Nazi Germany, to modern population controllers, there is a common thread of ignoring social and economic factors and blaming the poor for their problems.

Modern population control got a big boost in the 1950s, when the Rockefeller Foundation along with other sections of big business in the USA, launched the Population Council. They were worried that in a rising population with its youthfulness, “impatience to realize rising expectations is likely to be pronounced.” As well as urging population control on the neo-colonial world they argued for policies in the USA to “discourage births among the socially handicapped” – i.e. the working class, especially its poorer sections. 1

The Cause of Poverty – Nature or Capitalism?

It is claimed that the root cause of many environmental problems is that the population has exceeded the world’s carrying capacity. The carrying capacity of an area is the population of a species that can be supported indefinitely. However human population is not influenced by natural resources alone. A simple invention such as preserving food over the winter increases the carrying capacity. The comparison between humans and other species of life ignores the fact that humans are cultural and social animals who have developed technology to increase the productivity of labor and nature.

It is claimed that India is overcrowded and therefore people are poor and go hungry. Yet, Holland has a much higher population density, with over 100 more people per square kilometer than India and only one-fifth as much farmland per person as India. This shows that the carrying capacity isn’t fixed simply by the amount of land available and that poverty is not due to ‘overcrowding’. If overcrowding were the issue, Holland would be one of the world’s poorest countries. Across the world today only 44% of the world’s potential arable land produces food. There is the potential to produce much more food, without cutting down forests.

People per square kilometre Land suitable for agriculture: hectare per person
Holland 363 0.06
India 247 0.3
Bolivia 7 0.63


Three technological revolutions, in the ways humans produced the means of life – the development of tools, agriculture and industry – all lead to an increase in the planet’s carrying capacity, and periods when population increased dramatically and then leveled off.

As countries reach a level of development and living standards, a new stability of population is reached. Many developed countries now have birth rates below two, which in the long run would lead to a fall in population. Japan in 1949 had a fertility rate (average number of children per woman) of 4.5, by 1993 it had dropped to 1.5. Italy and Spain – two of the most supposedly Catholic countries in Europe – have very low birth rates today (both of 1,24). The British birth rate is 1.75. In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, 50% of women use contraception. The population growth rate of many industrialized countries was reduced and is being reduced because women were drawn into the workforce and into education, providing them with a wider role than in previous societies. Birth control was also developed, which allowed them to end their isolation in the home and the constant round of child-bearing, rearing, and ill-health, allowing them to participate fully in movements to further improve their position and change society.

Kerala, a province of southern India, has seen a dramatic change in population compared to most of India. This is because the government, for much of the time Communist Party led, under pressure of mass peasant and worker organizations, has carried out many social reforms. It has one of the highest literacy rates in India, there is a relatively good public health and education program, and basic food is subsidized. Perhaps the two most important changes are that there has been a land reform program with some economic redistribution and changes in the status of women. Women’s literacy is as high as men’s and they have many democratic and social rights. 3

  India Kerala
Life Expectancy (Years) 59 68
Infant Mortality (deaths/1000 born) 91 27
Children/Woman 3.9 1.8

The government, unlike in most neo-colonial countries, has given priority to social development rather than going for capitalist growth by competing for international big business investment on the basis of low wages and public spending cuts. As important as these reforms are, Kerala and India remain capitalist economies. Poverty is widespread, unemployment is near 25% and the reforms themselves are always under threat from big business. These reforms show what is possible, but to ensure full and permanent benefits, the shackles of big business need to be broken.

The Right to Choose

Working-class people have had to fight long and hard for birth control, as part of the battle for control over their own lives. The technology exists to provide world wide safe birth control. 55% of the women in the world now use contraception. It is estimated that to provide contraception to all who want it, would cost $10 billion a year. At present $4.5 billion is spent, often meaning that dangerous or untested methods are used. Contrast that with the debt repayment of the neo-colonial world of $50 billion a year, or the world’s arms expenditure of $800 billion a year. A five-day pause in arms spending would fund the worlds’ contraceptives for a year!

Effective and relatively safe forms of contraception really developed after the second world war. It must be made available to all those who want is – men as well as women. But whether it’s used or not depends on social, economics and cultural factors, like pension provision and the availability of equipment and labor to work the land. Providing oral pills to villagers with little or nothing to eat is as likely to result in them using them to fatten up their chickens as it is to cut down on the number of children who are born – as one UN team found in Bangladesh! The tendency to have larger families is usually not a matter of the choice but is forced on people by economic necessity. People should have the right to decide themselves whether to have large, small or no families, without stigma attached to any choice.

There is a world of difference between enforced population control and people having the choice. Under capitalist society, as we have already seen in earlier eugenic movements, the selection of people not to breed leads to oppressive policies, selecting the poor, ethnic minorities and the ‘inadequate’. In China it has led to the horrors of mass murder of female babies. At the same time, those responsible for the running of society and who take decisions leading to the despoliation of the environment, can breed like rabbits if they want to. Inevitably, as in India after the forced sterilizations under Indira Ghandi, people will revolt against such oppression. This is especially the case when their ability to earn a living or security in old age depends upon the number of children they have, because society does not provide them with agricultural equipment or welfare provisions for pensions, benefits or a living wage.

Compulsory population control must be opposed. General living standards should be raised, and special attention paid especially to the social status of women in education and employment. The overcoming of ideological, religious, and social barriers to birth control, such as those associated with Catholicism and Islam, goes along with the raising of women’s status.

A range of contraceptives should be freely available to women and men, along with the provision of regular health checks, health care and sex education. The right of maternity and paternity care, together with full access to free, 24-hour crèches and nurseries, should parents want to use them, would all enable people to choose freely how many children they want.

Blaming the Poor

Capitalism deliberately creates an impoverished section of people. Today there are 35 million unemployed in the main capitalist countries with billions more in the neo-colonial world on or near starvation. This army of poor, unemployed, or very low paid are used to undermine the waged of those in work. As Engels argued, “The pressure of population is not upon the means of subsistence but upon the means of employment.” In the 1990s workers in the West are told that we must accept wage cuts to compete with ‘low wage economies’. Solidarity of workers across the whole world is needed to stop these blatant attempts to blackmail us into working harder for less. At the same time as there is all the propaganda that ‘over-population’ creates poverty, in some countries with stable populations, claims are made that an aging population is putting unbearable strains on society and the needs of the elderly cannot be met. Combined with the growth of long-term unemployment, this is used as an excuse for cuts in the welfare state. People living longer should be a cause for celebration, not an excuse for cuts in welfare provision. In an expanding economy, with good social provision and full employment, there would be no problems in coping with an increased number of elderly people. The experts of big business use population as a cover for attacking working people. It is an attempt to use so-called ‘natural’ laws to justify their economic system. Environmental problems are not caused by there being ‘too many people’. There is no such thing as a fixed number of people that the planet can ‘carry’ – it depends much more on what those people do, than how many of them there are. The population controllers, who see people s ‘pollution’ or a ‘bomb’, do not even provide a realistic program for the people to be able to choose to practice birth control. They blame the environmental degradation on the poor and ‘nature’ rather than the economic system.


  1. Editors of Ramparts, quoted in Eco-Catastrophe, Weismann, 1970.
  2. United Nations.
  3. Living in the Environment, Miller; Frankie & Chasin in Technology Review, April 1990.