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Other Theories of Population Growth

Karl Marx
William Catton
Don Bogue

Karl Marx's Theories on Population

The impact of the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883) on political and economic developments in this century is well known. But Marx also wrote about population. Not only was he one of Malthus's main nineteenth-century critics, but his own "law of population" is interesting in its own right.

Marx did not believe that the growth of human population was controlled by any natural law, as Malthus's theories suggested. His ideas are complex, and since they are related to nineteenth-century capitalism they don't fit today's circumstances very well. Briefly, Marx believed that the creation of a surplus population of unemployed "is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population also becomes, conversely, the lever of capitalist accumulation, indeed it becomes a condition for the existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, which belongs to capital just as absolutely as if the latter had bred it at its own cost." Within the working class, the capitalist system, according to Marx, requires a pool or army of unemployed. This reserve puts pressure on those who are employed by making them submit to over work and a low level of wages. The numbers in this reserve army fluctuate with business or trade cycles. During times when business is depressed, workers are laid off and eventually profits begin to rise again. Thus business (capitalism) benefits by exploiting labour. While wages are kept low everywhere, the members in this surplus labour army are destined to have the lowest wages. Thus the working class produces wealth (capital), but because there is a constant oversupply of labour, it will never share in much of the wealth it produces. Since this means that most working people are kept poor, their birth rates will remain high and the labour surplus will continue to grow.

Thus for Marx, high levels of population growth were not the cause of poverty (as Malthus believed). Rather, it was the other way around. Marx believed that capitalism was an unjust economic system that profited at the expense of those who laboured in it, and by keeping its workers poor also caused high rates of population growth. His answer was revolution, replacing capital- ism with what he believed was a more just economic system.

William Catton and Revolutionary Change

A modern theory to explain our current population predicament was set down by William Catton in his book 'Overshoot:The EcologicaI Basis of Revolutions' As you read the brief summary below, think about how Malthus or Marx might react to these ideas, Catton begins by defining 'carying capacity as the maximum permanently supportable population - that is, the number of people a given environment can support indefinitely. If this number is exceeded, then environmental damage will occur, and this in time will reduce the carrying capacity. A sustainable economic system Is one that does not exceed the carrying capacity.

To explain his theory of the current situation, Catton begins with a historical perspective. According to his view, our population crisis had its origins in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which Catton referred to as "the Age of Exuberance." During this time an attitudinal revolution occurred as a result of the tremendous progress experienced in these times. The earth's carrying capacity grew, largely as a result of Europeans taking over lands that were being used less intensively by aboriginal peoples. Those who benefitted came to believe that their good fortune was a result of the "limitlessness" of the earth's resources, and they saw no reason why this shouldn't go on forever. Catton called this the 'cornucopian myth.

During the Industrial Revolution the earth's carrying capacity underwent a period of even greater growth. This was partly because of the settling of new lands in the Americas and elsewhere and partly because of an increase in the consumption of resources, in particular fossil fuels. This was done by~drawing down ("stealing from the future") from a finite (nonrenewable) reservoir of resources. Thus carrying capacity was greatly enlarged and populations grew. (It should be noted that an increase in carrying capacity presents a choice: the same number of people can live at a higher standard or a larger number can live at previous standards.)

The drawing down of these finite resources has primarily been by the DCs. In these countries the results have been substantial increases in population and standards of living. In the rest of the world, as we have seen, populations have increased dramatically but living standards have not improved much. In the LDCs industrialization and urbanization, together with large-scale resource consumption, did not occur to nearly the same extent as in the DCs. However, these countries did gradually gain access to those innovations that caused death rates to fall; consequently their populations have grown rapidly.

As these developments were unfolding. the technological achievements that have occurred, particularly since the Second World War, have been truly startling. One consequence of this Is that people have come to expect that whatever problems may confront us there will always be new technology to deal with them. This may be a rather dangerous delusion, however. We are gambling; there are no guarantees that technology will come up with the answers. In addition, we are placing great demands on technology for quick solutions to complex problems. In the past, technological breakthroughs contributed to the growth of carrying capacity and population increases followed. But many of these technological breakthroughs created problems of their own, particularly in terms of their impact on the environment. Now population growth is so rapid that it creates a constant need for new technology to help support the additional people. But there is danger in rushing these innovations. Time is needed to assess their impact on people and the environment. Rapid population growth may not permit us to take this time and we may be forced to take terrible risks. Not only are we being deluded that technology will save us but, according to Catton, industrialization and technology have helped us to develop a phantom carrying capacity. By drawing down resources that are largely nonrenewable and damaging our environmental support systems, we have overshot our permanent carrying capacity. We are living beyond our means; our economic systems are not sustainable.

Sooner or later serious failures in our life-support systems will cause a rapid decline, or die-off, of population. While the extent of this die-off cannot be predicted, Catton states that eventually the population will return to a level that can be permanently supported. But because of the environmental damage that has already been done, it will be a much lower population level than existed before the die-off began. While Catton's views may seem pessimistic, he does believe disaster can be averted. In his view the successful survival of our species will require the development of new attitudes that will enable us to see the world differently than we do now. Such new attitudes must begin with the understanding that human life, in the long run, can only proceed if we do not draw down from the earth's stock of life-sustaining resources. We must learn to live in harmony with natural systems, taking only those things that can be replaced and that do not destroy the earth's life-support systems.

Don Bogue - The Theory of Demographic Regulation

A more positive explanation of the nature of population growth is contained in Bogue's theory of demographic regulation. This theory maintains that all societies are capable of regulating their populations and that such regulation is a result of certain social nonus and economic coiidltions. "Every society tends to keep its vital processes in a state of balance such that population will replenish losses from death and grow to an extent deemed desirable by collective norms, These norms are flexible and readjust rather promptly to changes in the ability of the economy to support population."

It is a positive assertion that a society lacing the probability of overpopulation inevitably finds the means of regulating its own increase. If this is not true then we must assume that the regulation 9f population growth can only be achieved by other means - through the actions of government or other agencies or by a Malthusian-type solution.

The demographic transition is an example of the way in which regulation has functioned in the DCs. Of course, as we have noted, there Is no guarantee that the LDCs will follow the same path. However, Bogue believes that it is possible. "It may be presupposed that such a change can be accomplished today in much shorter time than in any previous period, because of the existence of several new factors that were not previously acting." These factors include the widespread awareness of the need for regulation; modern methods of communication that make it possible to circulate new ideas quickly; and advancements in techniques for limiting fertility (contraception).

"Because of the combined action of these forces, it may be supposed that the efficiency and degree of success with which a population can realize its ideals in practice are much greater today than ever before and will increase even more as further advances are made in contraceptive technology and experience in its use. Within our lifetime we may see fertility control become an integral part of the morals and culture, with highly developed social organizations for maintainlng it, in all societies of the world. In other words, the theory of demographic regulation is a positive assertion that nations, when faced with serious overpopulation, will undergo adaptive social change to lower fertility rates and in so doing will invent and adopt a technology of contraception. Moreover, this theory asserts that modern man is able to foresee demographic catastrophe long before it arrives and takes adaptive action long before it is forced on him by the brute forces of nature."


After reading the previous 4 theories by Malthus, Marx, Catton and Bogue, explain which theory or theories best fit your view of the population issue. Please answer in full sentences and send your answer via E-mail.

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