Population. Excerpt from Diana Coole

Population in Modern Political Economics

populationHere’s a helpful review of the background for the refusal of political leaders to recognize the massive population problem and to propose solutions.  The refusal has a lot to do with grow-or-die economics (my term).  For more insight to the consequences of population, you might also take a look at this book:  Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot.

The following is from Joe Bish, Director of Issue Advocacy, Population Media Center.

“I have been meaning for several weeks now to recommend you read the latest from Diana Coole, Professor of Political and Social Theory at Birkbeck University of London. You may (or may not) recall the PMC Daily Email of September 7th, 2013, wherein I shared Professor Coole’s outstanding effort titled “Too many bodies? The return and disavowal of the population question“. (PDF)

“Her latest effort is published in the Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory, and echoes many of the themes of found in “Too Many Bodies.” In other words, she starts by stating that “It would seem a logical inference that global ecologies would be more sustainable with a stable population and that population growth, especially when combined with rising living standards, is a significant factor in deteriorating environmental indicators,” — and then proceeds to map out why this obvious truth is continually fought tooth-and-nail by various ideologues and those with vested interests in the growth paradigm. In doing so, she provides a good history of population politics.

“Below, I have excerpted a few passages that should give you a sense of the chapter. Certainly, it is good to see this content in the Oxford Handbook, and hats off to Professor Coole for her important work.”–Joe Bish, Population Media Center


Population, Environmental Discourse, and Sustainability

“…The aims of this chapter are to present some of the arguments that have been made in favor of stable or declining numbers, to explain some of the reasons the issue has become so toxic, and to suggest some of the areas where it does seem pertinent to revisit this matter in the context of twentieth-first century conditions despite the significant obstacles to doing so.

“…If demographic remedies are rarely included among contemporary responses to scarcity (“insecurity”), another perspective that is noticeable for its absence from most policy reports is one that John Stuart Mill, another classical economist, introduced in the mid-nineteenth century. Mill blamed over-population for depressing working class wages but drawing on romantic poets like Wordsworth, he also articulated more explicitly ecological concerns about the detrimental existential, aesthetic, and affective effects of growth on everyday experience. In his Principles of Political Economy (1848) he acknowledged that there may be no fixed threshold beyond which numbers become unsupportable, but he also questioned the benefits of continued population and economic growth for their own sake.
“…The concept of limits to growth was popularized by the title of the book published by scientists at MIT and commissioned by the Club of Rome. Feeding data of current trends into their World3 computer model and interpreting their findings from the perspective of systems theory, the authors warned of positive feedback loops and system overload in a finite planet. The only sustainable scenario to emerge was a steady-state economy and stable population; even with optimistic technological possibilities factored in, continued growth overwhelmed the planet’s homeostatic mechanisms. The political problem was that modern Western culture “has evolved around the principle of fighting against limits rather than learning to live with them.” (Meadows and Meadows 1972: 150) This last observation was borne out by the derision with which limits-to-growth discourses were treated.  Clearly their principal thesis offended pro-growth economic ideologies, but the question remains why an argument that briefly prevailed in the mid-twentieth century when world population was half its current total has been so comprehensively reviled since.
“…In addition, as feminist attention shifted during the 1980s from gender equality to sexual difference women’s nurturing capacities were revalorized: a position that was not exactly pro-natalist but that did reject the former anti-natalism. The old Left remained suspicious of arguments that attributed social problems to population rather than over-consumption or maldistribution and, as attention shifted to developing countries, postcolonialists judged neoMalthusianism indelibly racist. (Hardt and Negri 2004: 165-9)  This equation, which renders it shameful to ascribe blame for social or environmental  ills to overpopulation, has arguably been the most potent reason for deterring critical thinkers and publics from engaging with population matters. (Coole, 2013) Critics invariably ask who is being judged excessive and thus blamed; usually, they answer, it is the poor, especially those from the global South. The New Left, meanwhile, suffered a common fate with other radical ecological and limits-to-growth exponents as their positions were dismissed by an ascendant New Right.
“…In particular, though, it was the emergence of anti-Malthusian demographic and economic arguments, for which population and economic growth are mutually and positively reinforcing and the promise of equilibrium is embedded in a teleological modernization narrative, that had the greatest transformative effect in disavowing a population issue. Several interlocking strands of this still hegemonic discourse may be identified.
“…Meanwhile, the prospect of stabilization is being actively challenged from the perspective of a fifth argument that is more explicitly pro-growth and unhappy with the idea of completing [demographic] transition. Transitional stages affect age structure and toward the end, fertility decline plus longer life expectancy result in population aging. Because this means a shrinking labour force and higher dependency ratio it presents an acute, albeit temporary, fiscal challenge for developed economies. Nations that compete to increase GDP growth in a competitive global economy, while also striving to balance their budgets, are responding by trying to rejuvenate their populations. (Coole 2012b) Their motivation is encapsulated in the concept of a “demographic dividend”: a temporary feature of low-dependency cultures as they pass through a stage where fertility has declined but the population has not yet aged, thus yielding a disproportionately large working-age population. Countries whose dividend is passing are understandably reluctant to abandon this productive advantage and therefore strive to avoid the stable or even reduced numbers that transition entails. Pronatalism and net migration are their main strategies. (Grant and Hoorens 2006) The first is usually promoted in the form of family-friendly policies but the second has quickly become immersed in the circuits of racist politics that are a legacy of earlier hostilities. Suffice it to say that policies designed to expand the populations of post-transitional, affluent regions run contrary to suggestions that this is where falling numbers could be most environmentally beneficial.
“…One factor remains incontrovertible: world population increased massively during the twentieth century and although the growth rate has slowed considerably, barring some unforeseen catastrophe the number of bodies that planet Earth must sustain on a daily basis by 2100 will be immense, at three to four billion more than currently according to the latest estimates. Worldwide, this will require huge changes in political and economic capacity. It will also place enormous demands on the biophysical world, whose contribution we have become used to rendering as “natural capital” or “ecosystem services” and whose deficits are increasingly framed in terms of securitization or business opportunities. The environmental areas most vulnerable to this spread of humanity are probably biodiversity, especially inasmuch as it defies or fails to contribute to economic reckoning, and, related to its loss, a gradual aesthetic-existential impoverishment of everyday experience as the presence of nonhuman otherness is attenuated. Inhabiting more crowded, congested spaces and coping with infrastructural deficits yields some economies of scale and metropolitan exhilaration, but beyond a certain threshold it simply makes ordinary life more difficult, unpleasant, and competitive for most humans, especially poor ones, as well as for other species.
“…In any case, population projections give little succor to complacency. The last two UN world revisions (in 2010 and 2012) both revised totals upward. The difference between low and high variant projections is 2.5 billion people in 2050 and ten billion by 2100: disparities that rest on an average of merely one child more or fewer per woman. (UN 2013a) The implication is that while transition to a stable population cannot be guaranteed, there is scope to hasten it and thereby also to reduce the level at which it occurs. In its 2012-Revision the UN is explicit that an eleven billion peak (its medium projection) is contingent on taking urgent action: “without further reductions of fertility, the world population by 2100 could increase by nearly six times as much as currently expected”. Were 2005-10 fertility rates to be sustained then closer to 28 billion could be the tally.
“…But even if stabilizing or reducing numbers were endorsed, could this feasibly be achieved without coercive methods or the framework of population control associated with them? During the mid-1990s, macro-level demographic concern was reframed as primarily an issue of women’s reproductive health rather than in terms of resource shortages and environmental harm, thus helping to foreclose what was now defined as a “numbers game” antithetical to couples’ right to choose their family size. (Campbell, 2007) An indication of how this issue might be renegotiated appears in Return of the Population Growth Factor. Its Impact upon the Millennium Development Goals, a report issued by Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. In hoping that “we will find a way to speak, from a human rights perspective, about both the importance of population stabilisation and the importance of supporting the rights of individuals to reproductive freedom.”
“…Ultimately, whether a world with fewer people is more sustainable and more conducive to equality, social justice, and quality of life is not a question that can be settled solely by statistics, computer models, and objective calculations of capacity. It requires a sustained critical analysis of interests invested in population/economic growth and a holistic appraisal of its existential costs at the level of everyday lives and ecosystems. It invites normative reflection on the good life: a task for which political theorists are especially well-equipped. If they can construct a compelling, congenial vision of desirable lifestyles existing within realistic constraints under twenty-first century conditions, then today’s theorists might rescue overpopulation concerns from assumptions that they are solely the currency of pessimists, racists, and misogynists.  Or it may be the case that the conundrum mentioned at the start is simply irresolvable at present, especially as energetic migration flows vie with fertility as the main driver of population growth in developed regions and race combines with gender in new ways to render the topic unspeakable. In which case, Malthus might belatedly prove to have been right all along.”

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