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Marx and Engels viewed overpopulation is an inconsequential


									            Sociology 251: Readings summary: “Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Resources”
Two polar views concerning population growth:
Malthus: population growth must be curbed.
• Population grows geometrically while the food supply grows arithmetically. We live at the brink of subsistence.
Preventive checks---i.e. moral restraint (e.g. late marriage, celibacy)---can be applied to curb fertility; otherwise, positive
checks---vice and misery (e.g. resource depletion)---will operate to increase mortality and thus reduce the population.
Marx and Engels: viewed overpopulation is an inconsequential factor. Capitalism produces a surplus army of labor
for capitalist exploitation. This is the key use of the “population” concept by Marx (Das Kapital). Unlike Malthus,
Marx did not propose a theory of population dynamics. For Marx (and Engels) human misery results from poverty and
inequitable distribution of wealth and resources. The “population problem” would solve itself if society were restructured
so that wealth and resources were distributed equitably. Human problems can be solved by science and technology (Engels).
Neo-Malthusians: believe, the human population is growing beyond the earth’s capacity to support it; ecological breakdown
is happening and will likely intensify. The planet would be a safer and cleaner place if it had fewer people. Unlike Malthus,
Neo-Malthusians advocate contraception and family planning as a means of reducing fertility and population growth. Neo-
Marxists: believe that focusing on the population problem obscures bigger social issues, especially economic disparities
between and within societies; the population problem will take care of itself once socioeconomic disparities are corrected.
Alternate views exist that are neither neo-Malthusian nor neo-Marxist: E.g., Julian Simon (1996): population growth is
beneficial for humanity. U.S. NRC report (1986): income growth and excessive consumption may be more important
determinants of resource depletion than population growth per se. In many cases population has only an inconsequential
effect, or none at all on ecological and socioeconomic problems.
NATHAN KEYFITZ — “Are There Ecological Limits to Population?”
Keyfitz describes eight axes of difference in the perspectives of biologists and economists on population growth:
Axis 1. Economics deals with growth, steady progress, as against biological contingency: The economic view is that all of
previous history has been a continual upward progression toward contemporary man. To biologists, our biological fate has
been uncertain and unpredictable in the past, and will continue to be so in the future.
Axis 2. Scholars like the subject they study: Studies are not free from value bias. Economists place more importance on
economic growth, with humans’ needs taking precedence above those of other species. Biologists are more concerned with
the natural world, and believe mankind has a duty to consider the needs of other species along with his own.
Axis 3. Economics sees indefinite market-driven substitutability as a result of continued scientific discovery; natural
scientists are skeptical: Economists believe that science and technology, driven by free markets, can always find substitutes
when shortages of resources occur. Natural scientists remain skeptical that sufficient substitutes can be found in all cases,
but believe that there are limits to what science and technology can provide in the face of increasing population.
Axis 4. Economics makes people the exclusive object of terrestrial action; biology takes them as one species among many
in a web of life: Economists feel that human action should be geared toward economic growth. To biologists, human action
should be tempered by its effect on other species, since each species is interdependent with the other species around it.
Axis 5. Economics measures the economy in a time scale of years or decades, far short of the millennia and eons of
biology’s evolutionary time scale: Biologists have a much long time perspective than do economists. They are concerned
that problems we create today can result in major consequences (resource depletion and ecological erosion) over the long
term (generations from now). Economists seldom forecast economic conditions beyond one or two decades.
Axis 6. Economics is concerned with allocation within the economy, biology with absolute size in relation to the
biosphere: Economists tend to neglect scale—the size of the population and economy in relation to the size of the planet and
its components—in favor of allocation of resources (i.e., who gets what in society), even though scale is an important
environmental factor. Biologists are concerned with the potential negative effects on the environment of rapid economic
growth and production.
Axis 7. Economics deals with a truncated part of the commodity cycle, ecology aims at the whole: In economics, a
commodity’s history starts at the beginning of its production and ends once it is sold to consumers. What happens beyond
that point is of little concern to economists. Ecologists view the commodity cycle as being much longer, starting further back
and ending long after the sale of the commodity (e.g., to build a car we need to mine metals that have formed over millennia;
we then process the metals to produce a car; we then sell it; but the car will continue to impact the environment for a long
time: it requires gasoline; it creates pollution, etc). Increasing population multiplies the effects of commodities on the
Axis 8. Both disciplines are empirical, but the data are not totally convincing: Economists and biologists have produced
much empirical evidence on the effect of population, but none of it by itself is conclusive. Economists demonstrate that as
population grows, so does income in society. But which causes which? We are not sure. Biologists/ecologists have not
developed any firm laws about how population growth causes ecological and environmental problems, though they are
convinced there is a strong connection.

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