Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, January 18, 2021

Eco-fascism and Overpopulation


A post by Jacopo Simonetta


"Eco-fascist" is the usual insult directed at anyone who dares to mention overpopulation. This is funny to me because, as far as I know, fascists are usually concerned with denatality, race purity and similar morbid fantasies, but not with overpopulation who is just about the number of persons and not about skin color and so on.

Here, I will not go back over the purely demographic aspects of the issue to which several posts have already been devoted (on "Effetto Cassandra" and on "Apocalottimismo", both in Italian).  Instead, I would like to talk about this singular cultural taboo, characteristic (though not exclusive) of industrial civilization.

To begin with.

To understand what we are talking about, let us consider that today there are almost 8 billion of us with a growth rate of about 80 million per year, it means 220,000 per day, over 9000 per hour, 75 per second.  This means an estimated human mass of about 400 million tons.  The world's average human population density is 55 people per square kilometer (excluding Antarctica), which means a square of not much over one hundred steps per side per head.  In Italy we are about 200 per square kilometer, which means half a hectare per person, but if we consider only the agricultural surface the square becomes only 40 steps per side (about 2000 square meters).

However, the number of people is only one of the factors involved because we use livestock, fields, industrial structures, buildings and much more to live.  All in all, the 'anthroposphere' (i.e. us with all the trappings) weighs about 40 trillion tons, which is something like 4,000 tons of concrete, metal, plastic, plants, livestock and so on for each of us. On average and very roughly.

But number is not the only element. Since 1800 the population has increased 8 times, but total consumption 140 times, and if it has started to fall in some countries, like ours, it is still growing globally.

The third determining factor, which is related to the other two, is technology, the effects of which are complex, but which, on the whole, makes the most of the remaining resources, but cannot create new ones.  Ultimately therefore, technology increases rather than to reduces both consumption and the degradation of the planet.  A fact already empirically observed by many authors (starting with Jevons as early as 1865) and scientifically demonstrated by Glansdorff and Prigogine in 1971.

The result is that the biomes, i.e. the great ecological systems into which the Biosphere was divided and which maintained climatic and environmental conditions on the planet compatible with life (including our own), no longer exist and today we speak about Anthromes.

Of the 21 anthromes identified, only 3 are considered "wildlands", i.e. deserts, tundra, and the remains of primary tropical forests, for a total of just over 20% of the earth's surface (excluding Antarctica).  

But even these territories are subject to severe and very serious degradation phenomena such as wildfires, melting permafrost, droughts and so on. 

All the rest, about 80% of the dry land, is occupied by totally artificial ecosystems, such as towns and countryside, or heavily modified ones, such as almost all the surviving forests and grasslands.   In the sea it is even worse.

This means that properly 'natural' ecosystems are practically vanished and that what scattered remains of wildlife survives in the interstices of our 'global anthill'.   In fact, it is miraculous that so much life still exists on Earth.

The 'Demographic Transition”

The father of the 'Demographic Transition' was Adolphe Landry, a French politician of the radical left, who was repeatedly member of parliament and minister.   Decidedly in favor of natalist policies and a staunch detractor of Malthus's work, Landry actually espoused his assumptions, but came to the conclusion that there was no need to reduce the birth rate because a large and dynamic population was a nation's main asset.    Instead, economic prosperity should be increased and spread so as to cause a gradual stabilization of the population, but at much higher levels than at the outset.   In other words, compared to Malthus, he reversed cause with effect.

Originating in the early 1900s and then reworked by numerous authors, in a nutshell, this theory maintains that there exists a 'traditional' condition in which misery, disease and war lead to a high mortality rate, compensated by a high birth rate, so that the population remains substantially stable.  Progress and industrialization increase prosperity and reduce mortality, so that the population increases while, at a later stage, the birth rate decreases until a substantial balance is restored, but at a much higher population levels.  Factors such as the availability of resources, the resilience of ecosystems, pollution, etc. have no substantial relevance.

On the basis of the scientific and historical knowledge available until the 1970s, the theory seemed to explain well what had happened in Europe and the USA over the last two centuries, so that it became a reference point for all demographic models.

So far, nothing strange.  The point is, however, that over the last 50 years the best knowledge, especially historical and anthropological, has amply demonstrated that there has never been a something such a 'traditional' state similar to that assumed by the theory.  On the contrary, populations have adopted very different reproductive strategies in different places and at different times.  In very many cases, even in Christian Europe, more or less effective forms of demographic control were practiced, either by limiting the birth rate (with various combinations of infertile ways of having sex, condoms, prolonged breastfeeding, abstinence, abortion, infanticide and abandonment), or by increasing the mortality of the elderly (abandonment and killing).

Those who did not do so earned a place in the history books because they triggered invasions, or died out, crushed by their own numbers.   If anything, it was the very special combination of historical and environmental factors that allowed Capitalism to take hold that created the cultural, social and economic conditions that led to two centuries of unprecedented birth and population growth in Europe and the USA. 

Looking at the rest of the world, it has been amply documented that, almost always, it was European colonization that first led to a demographic decline, sometimes considerable, and then to the frenzied increase that in some cases still lasts today.

In short, the 'demographic transition' began as a political proposal, grew as a scientific hypothesis and finally became a 'pious legend' in the etymological sense of the term.

So what?

So why is this model still used today, not only in school books, but also in the work of the UN and other political bodies, till to a large part of academia?   To put it very brutally: because it suits everyone.

It suits the capitalists because it is an excellent viaticum for claiming that capitalism has done a great deal of good and that economic growth must be pushed to the maximum, "conditio sine qua non" for the definitive solution to human problems.

It suits governments because it exempts them from taking difficult and often unpopular measures.

It suits the "right wing", which is obsessed with denatality and the possible extinction of the hypothetical "white race".  But also the nationalists of every country and ethnic group, because it denies that the high birth rate they hold dear is a harbinger of disaster.

It appeals to the clergy of the dominant religions, all of them more or less misogynistic and more or less obsessed with sexuality, regarded as intrinsically sinful.  The reproductive goal is thus indicated, sometimes openly and sometimes subtly, as the justification for sexual intercourse.  The fact that the consequent burden and risk falls entirely, or almost entirely, on women does not seem to be a problem, if anything the opposite.

It appeals alzo to supporters of left-wing ideologies, such as the aforementioned Landry, because it supports the idea that progress is a natural and irreversible phenomenon, as well as exempting the proletariat from any responsibility for any mishaps.

Western racists like it because it makes them feel they are in the vanguard of progress, and other ethnic racists like it because it promises them revenge.  And it appeals  to militarist and fascists because they like large mass of “cannon fodder”, but like it also to pacifists who don’t want accept that crisis, violence and war are unavoidable parts of human behavior. 

It also appeals to the variegated environmentalist world because it allows them to overlook the most difficult and deadly of our actual predicaments, thinking that it will sort itself out while we deal with renewable energy and recycling.

The advocates of mass immigration like it because it allows them to think that there may be no limits to the number of people living on a given territory, but so do those who oppose it because it allows them to say that the cause of overpopulation is the 10% of people that are coming, rather than the 90% that are already here.

Many feminists even like it, despite the fact that it is women who bear the heavy burden that the lack of anti-natalist policies of governments places on their shoulders.  The Third-Worlders like it too, despite the fact that, among the consequences of colonization, high population growth is the one that, more than any other, has by now condemned many populations to centuries of misery, social unrest, wars, etc.
Yes, because overpopulation means environmental degradation and pollution, unemployment, misery and exploitation, competition and conflict.  It is never the only factor at play, of course, but it just so happens that it has always been one of the main drivers of the most serious crises in human history.  But it is the first time that it has appeared, albeit in different forms, all over the planet at the same time.

Then “Demographic transition theory” suits those who have power and affluence, but at the same time pleases to people sincerely involved with the poor and the weak.  And is very useful for those who want to rise to political power or, more modestly, to please their readers.   Real poor, women and weak pay for all of them, but nobody care, not even themselves because it is very difficult for facts to make people change their minds when it goes against their feelings, identity believes and personal interests.
However, overpopulation it is not an invention of some eccentric eco-fascist  or of a sect of pathological misanthropes, but an objective reality and to have ignored it is, by far, the most formidable obstacle now on the road to a hypothetical transition towards a "sustainable" society in the proper sense, and not just propaganda.

How will it end?  This is one of the few safe forecasts: we don't know how or when, but humanity will come back within the carrying capacity of the planet.  It certainly will, no questions. Just it is a pity that every day that passes, every mouth and every kWh more contribute to reducing this carrying capacity. So the longer we wait, the worse it will be because in a world where there is no space available for new colonization, migration is not either a solution because it only shifts the acme of the crisis from one place to another.

Where the birth rate and consumption do not fall fast enough, mortality will rise and that is all.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)