Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism

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V Readings on Population


baby_clock.jpg (19205 bytes) There is one thing that people agree on when they talk about population: it has grown remarkably in the past half-century; in 1950 the global population stood at just over 2,530,000,000.   You can find out what it is right now by clicking here.  However, the questions of why it has grown and what affects it has had on the world are subject to bitter debate.

On the one hand there are the Malthusians or neo-Malthusians who feel that population growth is the most severe problem facing the world; for them population growth is the root cause of hunger, poverty, environmental destruction, disease and social unrest.  Furthermore, it is population growth in the poor nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America that is the greatest threat.

On the other hand, there are those (revisionists is one term used to describe them, Marxists another) who claim that the Malthusians, by blaming or scapegoating the victims of global problems, are masking their real causes, among which is the global  expansion of the culture of capitalism.

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The position one takes is critical for virtually everything else one thinks about global problems. If by reducing population growth we can solve the world's problems, then, obviously we must work at it. However, if population growth is not the major problem, then we must put our energies to finding out their real sources.

In Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism we argue that warnings about the consequences of population growth often mask the more pertinent causes of global problems.    Consequently, while we include articles that reflect different viewpoints, our biases are reflected in the selections.

A. What are the facts about population growth?
While there is vehement disagreement about the relationship between population growth and global problems, we can at least establish some basic facts.   The following selections contain information and data about the rate of population growth globally and in different countries of the world.


Reading 1. Human Population Through History
answer_pad.jpg (2605 bytes) This series of maps from the Demographic, Environmental, and Security Project details the growth of global population from 1 AD to the year 2020.  To get a present-day graphic of global population density, click here.


Reading 2. Population Timeline  (No Longer Available)
This population timeline is part of a special broadcast by KQED on Paul Erlich's book, The Population Bomb.  Good visual of population growth over the past 10,000 years.


Exercise 1. U.S. Census World Data
Excellent source of information for up-to-date world population information.   You can find information on historical trends, present population figures, as well as population projections.  Particularly useful is the International Data Base, a computerized data bank containing statistical tables of demographic, and socio-economic data for all countries of the world. Find out, for example, the population rank of all countries for any year from 1950 to 2050.


Exercise 2: 6 Billion Human Beings: An Interactive Game about Population
This interactive exhibit from the Musee de l’Homme in Paris is the place to learn about some basic principles of population growth.  You provide some personal information, and you can find out what the world was like when you were born and what it may be like as you age.  And it explains why. You will find out how such cultural factors as age at marriage, breastfeeding, and birth control influence fertility rates.   Excellent presentation, but be aware of some biases; for example, the exhibit attributes the rapid population growth of the past century almost entirely to declining death rates.   However, as we discuss in Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, there is evidence that population began to climb rapidly well before modern health practices intervened and that the increase was due to changing economic and social patterns associated with industrialization and colonialism.  Thus population began rapidly increasing in Europe in the eighteenth century and in other areas of the world in the nineteenth century.


B. Malthusian Theory and Its Critics
There is little doubt that the Malthusian position dominates the debate about global population growth.  In his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population Reverend Thomas Malthus outlined his now famous argument that while population "increases in a geometrical ratio," the resources for survival, primarily food, "increases only in an arithmetical ratio."  Consequently, unless "population checks" (war, famine, etc.) kept population growth down, he argued, the world would soon run out of food.  Malthus, of course, was wrong; new agricultural techniques have continued to allow us to produce more food.  But, some claim that we are rapidly running out of time and space, and that the "population explosion," as Paul and Ann Erlich called it, has already resulted in hunger, poverty, environmental devastation, and violent conflict.  Others, however, claim that Malthusians have still got it wrong; that the causes of these problems have little to do with population growth and everything to do with the global expansion of capitalism.   The following readings have been selected to give you some idea about the arguments on both sides.
Reading 3. Principals of Malthusian and Neo-Malthusian Theory
The International Society of Malthus provides an excellent summary of the the major principles and assumptions of Malthusian thought.  Just follow the arrows.   They also provide some links to articles that are responses to critics of Malthusian arguments.  You might want to check out Ronald Bleier's defense of Robert D. Kaplan's essay in the Feb 1994 Atlantic, "The Coming Anarchy: How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet."


Reading 4. World Overpopulation
This report from the Population Institute provides a good summary of a Malthusian position on population growth.  The paper details the present trends in population growth, and concludes that they are alarming, and that they are particularly serious in the poor regions of the world.  It then details the many social, political, and health problems existing in poor areas, clearly implying that these are the results of unbridled population growth. You can also find information on consumption, Endangered Space & Species , Environment and Natural Resources, and Urbanization .


Reading 5. Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb: Forward
There are many articles challenging the Malthusian position, but this one   provides a good introduction.  Steve Weissman begins by chastising both the Malthusian and the Marxist positions on population growth, but ends up offering a concise critique of the Malthusian or neo-Malthusian argument.  He also does an excellent job of revealing the dilemma of Malthusians such as Paul Erlich who, while abandoning their earlier demonizing of the poor and recognizing the role of the wealthy in destroying the environment, still seem to cling to Malthusian rhetoric.


Reading 6. A History of Governmentally Coerced Sterilization: The Plight of Native American Woman
One of the implications of Malthusian theory is that population should be controlled by limiting the reproduction of "undesireable" people.  This idea gave rise to the field of eugenics, the "science" of determining who was worthy of having children.  Francis Galton, who founded eugenics in the late nineteenth century, proposed income as the determining factor, and, throughout the late nineteenth and through through the first half of the twenthieth century eugenics enjoyed popular support throughout our society.  It ceased to be fashionable when Adolf Hitler made eugenics state policy and killed 6-8 million "undesireables."   However eugenic policy remained in force in the form of forced sterilization programs (and is being revived today under the guise of genetic engineering).  This article by Michael Sullivan DeFine examines the history of forced sterilization in the United States and how it was applied to Native American women.


Reading 7. Consumption: the other side of population for development
An excellent piece by Francisco J. Mata and Larry J. Onisto on the effects of consumption on environmental pressures.   Their premise is that to appreciate the impact of people on the environment, population figures must be adjusted according to the consumption rate of the population.  Thus a country with a relatively low population, but with high consumption rates, may have a greater negative impact on the environment than a country with high population, but low consumption rates.  They find, for example, that Canada, with only four percent of the actual population of India, has the same consumption-adjusted population.  And the consumption-adjusted population of the United States is more than twice that of China.


C. The Ideology of Malthusian Concerns
A question that anthropologists and sociologists often ask about beliefs is what social interest or purpose do they serve?  In the case of population arguments, we can ask whether Malthusian arguments mask other concerns or social interests?  After all, population growth was not for Thomas Malthus the primary issue; he was concerned with the rising number of poor and destitute in England, assuming that if people were poor, it was because there were too many of them.  It was the poor who were at fault for their condition, and if the poor stopped reproducing, there would be fewer of them.  Malthus's logic remains at the heart of Malthusian concerns.   But how real are their concerns?  Are people really hungry because there is not enough food, or is it because they simply lack the money to pay for it?  Is it the poor who are destroying the environment, or is it the consumption patterns of the wealthy?  Do people in poor countries lack resources because there are too many of them, or because the wealth of these countries is so unevenly distributed?  Are women poorly educated because they have too many children, or because of the social and economic policies that international financial agencies impose on poor countries?  Those are some of the questions asked in the following articles that address the ideology of Malthusianism.
Reading 8. WHAT IS N.S.S.M. 200...? And why do Western Leaders care so much about population control?
Here we get to one of the primary documents of the population debate,  a summary  of the infamous 1974 National Security Study Memorandum - NSSM 200 - the Nixon-Kissinger, NSC, CIA, Pentagon, USAID guidance document on population control and the U.S. political interests.  This reading provides excepts from the memo; it shows, in brief, that the purpose of pursing a policy of population control was to serve the U.S. strategic, economic, and military interest at the expense of the developing countries.


D. Population Trends
The following readings represent some of latest thinking about population growth.  The debate seems, to some extent, to be moving away from the Malthusian perspective, with more attention being given to specific issues, such as how population growth relates to different segments of the population, and how the global AIDS epidemic is affecting population.  There is even some discussion that there is no longer any "population explosion," and that fertility rates are rapidly declining worldwide; there is even some thought that we may be facing another population problem--too few children.
Reading 9.  State of the World Population-2003
The largest generation of adolescents in history—1.2 billion strong—is preparing to enter adulthood in a rapidly changing world. The State of World Population 2003 report from UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, examines the challenges and risks they face. It finds that investingin young people will yield generous returns, but that their needs continue to be shortchanged.


Reading 10. World Population Prospects
At the United Nations Population Division site you can get estimates for current populations for the world, for regions or for nations for any year from the present to 2050.  The site contains information on the assumptions underlying the estimates.  You can also create a file of the date that you collect.


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