“Things are harder for our generation than they were for our parents. But in one respect we are luckier than our parents. We have begun to learn and are rapidly learning to fight — and to fight not as individuals, as the best of our parents fought... but for our slogans, the slogans of our class. We are fighting better than our parents did. Our children will fight better than we do, and they will be victorious.”
Lenin, The Working Class and Neo-Malthusianism (1913)
This article takes up from the review of David Attenborough: A Life on This Planet in Solidarity 580.
Fossil fuel — mostly coal — was used for heating before capitalism. Coal is considerably more energy-dense than wood or other alternatives, suiting it as a fuel to be transported into towns and cities. This heating was largely domestic, so fossil fuel use was tied to population size. That population constraint rules out exponential explosion of fossil combustion.
With capitalism, factories developed and expanded as a way of discipling workers and regularising production. Having a single external energy source driving its machines — rather than muscle — enforces a constant pace, and yet greater discipline. Automation, and with it deskilling, helps capitalists to break workers’ industrial power more still. External energy sources become even more profitable.
At crucial points in the development of capitalism, coal-fired steam-power allowed capitalists more freedom to move their factorieswhere they wanted, and run them when they wanted, than otherwise cheaper and better water power.
The freedom to locate factories within densely populated cities gave capitalists access to a greater pool of available workers, already used to factory discipline, and looking for work. This required a much lower investment of fixed capital than building a factory and village for workers at a good location for a water wheel.
The ability to reliably run factories all day, every day, helps capitalists extract the maximum labour from workers, especially when workers won limits on the clock-time they could be compelled to work for.
The introduction and expansion of fossil fuels, as the energy basis of production, was thus largely a manoeuvre by capital in the offensive against labour.
Huge dams and complex systems involving aqueducts could have provided reliable power, located in a wide range of places, and cheaper than steam-power. However, that involved more technical planning, imposed interdependence on competing capitalists, and required big investments of fixed capital. From the start, the fossil economy was fuelled by the peculiarities of capitalist relations of production.
In the last 200 years, global population has grown by a factor of roughly 7.3, while global emissions have grown over 100 times as fast, by a factor of roughly 730. The uncoupling of carbon dioxide emissions from population is precisely the problem. Today, one-sixth of the world population — all low-income people in the global south — make no net contribution to global greenhouse gasses. The global discrepancy in energy use, currently, is significantly higher than 1,000-fold.
Population, contrary to David Attenborough and the Malthusians, is not the problem. “Humanity” as a whole is not to blame for climate change. Capital and the ruling-class, not “us all”, have driven it.
Resource depletion and ecosystem destruction are likewise dependent on how society, production, and consumption are organised, much more than how many people populate that society. Indeed, with more people — in a rationally and democratically organised society — comes greater resources of dynamic human labour, which can apply the latest of science to work on environmental issues.
Short of the overthrow of capitalism, we should approach every new person as a potential political agent in transforming society, not simply another mouth to feed.
That all said, the rate of global population growth peaked some decades ago. Following current trends it is often predicted that global population will peak in around a century. I would critique many such models, for simplistic extrapolation to future population which elides complex social, political, economic factors. That is, capital’s sometimes contradictory quantitative and qualitative demands for labour, combined with reactions and resistance to these drives, shape population. The social complexity involved means that we cannot assume a reliable smooth bell-curve. But such simplistic theories do puncture the even-more simplistic fear of too many people existing, each having too much fun.
Attenborough does not follow some “populationists” in advocate legal restrictions on reproductive rights, such as a “one-child policy”. Even less does he follow Malthus, the original populationist, in accepting deaths by famine, war, or disease as necessary to keep population in check. Instead, he advocates tackling poverty and raising the standard of living across the global south, helping girls to stay in education, and empowering them and their reproductive freedoms.
These positive changes would unarguably be key aims of any workers’ government; and they would additionally slow population growth. Yet tipping blame towards the global south, where population is growing fastest, or the exploited classes, who form the numerical majority of the global population, lets the real culprits off the hook.