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7 billion people – don’t panic, organise!

Humanity has passed the 7 billion mark, according to the UN, and the usual concerns about ‘over population’ filled the media. But, as Kady Tait argues, the problem is not numbers but an economy where wealth and opportunities are not evenly distributed

The population of the world has reached 7 billion people (give or take a few). A landmark which has received mixed reactions in the world’s media, ranging from predictions of a catastrophic decline in food security to saner reflections on the unequal consumption of resources between the Global north and south, between the 7  per cent who account for 50  per cent of energy usage and the majority existing hand-to-mouth in a world of abundance.
Since 1950 the world’s population has more than doubled, increasing by 4.5 billion people, 1 billion of whom were born in the last decade alone. It is not surprising therefore that much of the coverage of the United Nation’s announcement of the 7 billionth birth has concentrated on the consequences which such an explosion places on the world’s ability to sustain an exponentially increasing population.
Any number of demographic studies have shown that population size is directly linked to poverty – the poorer the population, the higher the rate of births. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, despite the medical advances in the West which have eradicated most of the causes of childhood mortality, the overwhelming majority of the world’s population continues to suffer from high infant mortality, mainly from preventable diseases and malnutrition. This leads to high birth rates to ensure a sufficient number of children reach adulthood, thus providing the extra family income and provision for old age.
The second factor is access to education. The destruction of universal education provision in developing countries as a result of the privatisation policies of international finance institutions, and the lack of access to reproductive health and family planning services means that poor countries are mired in a high birth rate/high infant mortality cycle.
This vicious circle weighs most heavily on women. High unemployment and sexist values make it unprofitable for many families to education their female children, even where such provision exists. This is often accompanied by bans on abortion and contraception, denying women control over their own bodies. These policies find their ultimate expression in the millions of aborted female foetuses in India where daughters carry a financial burden that poor families cannot afford.
Much of the writing surrounding this population explosion has focused on the question of “overpopulation”, rooted in the 19th century ideas of Thomas Malthus who claimed that population size is determined by natural limits imposed by disease and resource scarcity.
Being an Anglican vicar, Malthus saw it as his duty to promote “virtuous” lifestyles – knowing your place in society and not having too many children. And he was writing in the early 1800s, a period of failed harvests, European wars and protectionist laws which brought huge profits to Britain’s capitalists, while pricing staple foods out of the reach of landless agricultural workers and the urban working class. Therefore a social theory which blamed the starvation and malnutrition provoked by capitalist production on the vices of the poor and above all, on a “natural” method of population control was eagerly adopted by Britain’s new professional and ruling classes.

Late capitalism
Yet 2011 is not 1811. The advances in production, fertilisation and transport have heralded a food revolution in the same way that they enabled a population explosion. Not least, the driving forces of capitalist expansion – mechanisation, specialisation and modernisation – reduced the amount of the population necessary for food production from 70-80  per cent to less than 10 per cent in the West.
So why has this landmark been met with miles of newsprint forecasting a catastrophic slump in living standards (in the West), predictions of wars over resources and general wailing about an inexorable collapse of human civilisation?
Partly it is because it is true that conflicts over resources will intensify; the devastating consequences of super-exploitation of raw materials in Africa, or localised conflicts over access to water sources are well documented. But mainly it’s because we live in a global system which is incapable of dealing with the situation it creates. The dynamism and progress of early capitalism has long been superseded by the rise of imperialism.
As the Credit Crunch of 2008, and the latest descent into chaos demonstrates, the capitalist economy is incapable of self-regulation, and governments are powerless before the international bond markets and ratings agencies which dictate the limits of democracy to people whose countries are stripped bare of assets and material wealth.
So in a sense, those who argue that the world cannot sustain a population which is forecast to increase by one third again in the next decade or so are right. But they are wrong to say that it is because the resources of the world are finite. Obviously they are not; the natural wealth of the world is continuously replenished. The problem is one of unequal distribution.
A system based on profit, which is ruled by the iron logic of financial vehicles created to deliver the maximum profits in the minimum time, is incapable of planning sustainable production. This is why vast tracts of fertile farmland are destroyed in a few years – earning super-profits for the owners, but storing up disaster for the children of those working the land or forced off it into slum cities.
While we can be sure that the world we live in is not organised in a fit way to provide for all 7 billion people, we can be equally certain that the bountiful resources of the earth are more than capable of providing a decent quality of life for each of us.
Our struggle is to overcome the rule of the 1  per cent – the elite of capitalists who by virtue of their ownership of the world’s natural resources derive obscene profits for themselves at the expense of poverty for billions. The natural wealth of the world is our common birthright; the division and competition amongst different people is an artificial construct which serves only to preserve the control over our food, energy and water by a parasitic minority.

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