Peoplequake. Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash, by Fred Pearce, (Eden Project Books, 2010) pp.342

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We’re used to hearing that population is a problem. It’s been forty years since Paul Ehrlich predicted that overpopulation would lead to vast famines, killing hundreds of millions of people, but the argument is still around. Fred Pearce here takes on this conventional wisdom to argue that the population bomb has been defused. He points out that birth rates are falling, not just in the first world but in the developing world as well, and we may soon be seeing an absolute decline in world population.

That this is said at all is an important correction to the often rather hysterical discussions about population.

There is much that is valuable here. Pearce is at his best where he’s setting out the harm done to ordinary people by ‘population bomb’ policies, whether it’s the thousands killed by botched compulsory sterilization operations in India in the 1970s, or those on the receiving end of racist immigration policies. The section on the neo-Malthusian and eugenics movements will also be an excellent place to start for anyone wanting to investigate the history of the population arguments.

It’s notable, however, that some of the best sections, like that on migration, don’t really contribute to the main argument, while aspects of that main argument could have been developed in more depth. On the reasons for the population decline, for example, Pearce argues that the birth rate is falling because of female choice: ‘Women are giving up on constant childbirth for the simple reason that, for the first time in history, they can.’ and that the key change is the defeat of patriarchy: ‘This is not the slow diffusion of a new idea or the success of a cold-war policy cooked up in Washington, nor a mechanistic response to aid workers handing out condoms. This is the breaking of a logjam. The logjam of a patriarchy that has suddenly lost its purpose.’ (p.149)

This is an interesting and important argument, but Pearce does not go remotely far enough to support it – the entire section on ‘The Reproductive Revolution’ only takes 50 pages in fairly generous sized type. That patriarchy has been defeated and women worldwide (except for a few places ‘where men still rule’) have control over their own fertility is a bold assertion which can’t stand on its own without considerable argument to back it up. The caveat that the ‘feminist revolution…still has a long way to go’ does not get Pearce out of the need to consider the ongoing struggles of women around the world. Nor does he address the assumption underlying his argument that men have no role in decisions to limit fertility, and will always want to force on their partners as many children as physically possible.

Pearce’s discussion of population and the environment is similarly problematic. For Pearce, the question of our use of the world’s resources is a strictly individual one; the wastefulness and destructiveness inherent in the structure of capitalism doesn’t enter into it. The problem doesn’t happen to be the numbers of people in the Third World, as they are defusing that bomb, but it is individual consumption in the First World. One advantage of an ageing population, Pearce suggests, might be to make us less selfish and acquisitive: ‘fit, frugal and just fine’ (p.291).

This is reminiscent of the language used by many environmentalists who do believe that population is a problem, demonstrating perhaps that it isn’t as simple to separate the question of population from individual consumption as Pearce appears to believe. It also leaves the door open to some of the most openly racist population control arguments, particularly in the US, which hold that all immigration to the First World should be banned, on the grounds that poor immigrants to wealthy countries will have much higher consumption, and higher carbon footprints, than if they stayed in the developing world.

The publisher’s blurb describes the book as ‘heretical’ for its arguments against the population establishment, but he doesn’t end up disagreeing with them as much as you might expect. The problem with Malthus isn’t simply that he didn’t believe that the poor could or would restrict their fertility. It’s that his arguments were an attack on the very existence of working people, attacks which some can now justify by reference to climate change as well as to impending famine. Pearce is clearly on the side of the working people, and the best bits of this book are where that anger at oppression shines through. I just wish he’d given himself more space to develop the important arguments here. Being heretical may be a virtue; but so is following arguments through.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.