Eco-malthusianism: the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists
I.  Yesterday, over fifteen thousand scientists issued a declaration, a warning to the world, about major threats to the viability of the human species. This was timed to coincide with the global climate summit in Bonn, where the Trump administration undertook the extraordinary step of lobbying for coal.

It follows a similar statement from a quarter of a century ago, when 1,700 scientists signed a major declaration warning humanity about major threats to a habitable planet

In 1992, the threats included deforestation, water shortages, atmospheric pollution, ozone depletion and the mass extinction of species. Human interference with a complex "web of life" was leading to disaster. Crucially, the declaration highlighted population growth as a major threat, taxing increasingly scarce resources: "even at this moment," the declaration notes, "one person in five lives in absolute poverty without enough to eat, and one in ten suffers serious malnutrition."

The "second notice", as it has been called, contains a great deal of compelling, but utterly grim information about patterns of deforestation, carbonisation, depletion of water reserves, and the wipe-out of vertebrate species (of which there is now just 40 per cent of the abundance that existed in 1970). And, of course, the increase in the human population.

A lot has changed since 1992, in terms of how we understand climate change, its causes, costs and consequences. But the key points have not, and the emphasis on population growth as absolutely commonplace in science publications. In this view, human agriculture is blamed for most problems, putting unbearable pressure on ecological resources As the Scientific American puts it: 

"There isn't that much land available. At most, we might be able to add 100 million hectares to the 4.3 billion already under cultivation worldwide."

II.  This is, straightforwardly, eco-Malthusianism. And the interesting thing about this is that, even in conventional ideological terms, eco-Malthusianism looks completely unsustainable. World population growth over the last two hundred years has been unprecedented. Food consistently become more abundant, and cheaper. 

Eco-Malthusianism has one major virtue, and that is its attention to absolute limits on resources. Not all limits are relative to the state of technological development. For those thinking with ideas about 'peak oil', for example, it has some advantages. 

But by disaggregating population from production, eco-Malthusianism does not grasp the relationship between the two. The capitalist mode of production, by imposing the imperatives of competitive accumulation, demonstrated the ability to improve agricultural productivity. And potentially -- or so it seemed -- feed an ever-growing population.

But now it seems the era of cheap, abundant food may be coming to an end. Climate change is likely to reduce crop production just as populations continue to increase, while continued urbanisation of the workforce means there will be an agricultural work shortage.

There would remain, even if we have reached a global limit on food production, huge problems with eco-Malthusianism. Most obviously, there is a huge imbalance in the amount of resources consumed across the planet. 

Starting with energy, if the average person uses twenty energy servants per day (that is, uses twenty times the amount of energy that a single person generates), the average person in the industrialised countries uses far closer to one hundred energy servants. Further, within industrial societies, the asymmetries are just as great. And much of the energy that is used, is deployed for capitalist production that is arguably of little social benefit. 

A similar imbalance occurs in the case of food consumption. Eco-Malthusianism is therefore an unavailing and politically perverse optic if, as is the case, the countries with the highest population growth also tend (on account of their relative global subordination) to use less energy and eat less food.

III.  In the past, capitalism has generally been able to resolve its food crises by deploying new techniques of production and accumulation. The question is, can that be done again? For example, can new agricultural techniques, provided by biotech industries, once more increase global production in a sustainable way?

Jason W Moore has attempted to answer this question on the terms of the capitalist system itself. Cheap food arises where the "value composition" of food, the amount of waged labour necessary to produce each food item, is reduced "below the systemwide average for all commodities". If you can produce more calories with less socially-necessary labour-time, food becomes cheaper. That means, "cheap food" is a relative term, immanent to the capitalist system of values itself. It can therefore be obtained through productivity increases, or through slave labour, or other means to externalise the costs of reproduction so that they don't appear on the balance sheets of profit and loss.

That is the political economy. There is also what Moore calls the "political ecology", wherein the effects of capitalism on "agroecosystems" have long-term effects on labour productivity. Capitalist agriculture's short-term productivity gains depend on appropriating unpaid work and energy into the circuit of capital accumulation. 

This unpaid work and energy is what Moore calls "cheap nature". That includes the work carried out by nonhuman natures, such as insects and bees, where decreasing biomass therefore represents a threat to accumulation. But historically, it has also included locating huge new territories and labour forces and subjecting them, through political struggles to capitalist property relations. 

For example, the British colonisation of North America was an essential precondition for globalising capitalism. The genocide against Native Americans cleared the territory for appropriation and rationalisation along capitalist lines, while the invention of race and the institutions of chattel slavery founded the creation of a new capitalist republic. This enabled the 'bread basket' of an incipient global capitalism to shift from to the United States of America just as agricultural productivity in England was falling.

Capitalist production also works on a temporality different from that of ecological systems, rapidly intensifying extraction and appropriation. Over time exhaust land and resources, thus reducing productivity gains, and have to seek new frontiers. Insofar as capitalism has consistently resolved its food problems, it has evaded the 'natural limits' of production by locating or producing new 'cheap natures' to appropriate.

IV.  This is where we have to take global relationships, structured by imperialism, into account. For example, in many countries of the global South, food consumption is suppressed by production for export. You can have a situation where national and multinational firms operating in Brazil produce corn, sugar, soybeans, beef and coffee for export, while the price of basic foods like tomatoes goes sky-high

Here, a 'cheap nature' is partly appropriated in the form of Brazilian 'natural resources', and partly produced through deforestation, in order to sustain the flow of cheap food to advanced capitalist countries where working class wages have been suppressed for decades. This is a common enough story in the history of capitalist imperialism, even to the extent of producing famines in colonial India, while annual grain exports reached new heights.

Arguably, the pivot of imperialism today has shifted from the tanks to the banks. That is, the US Treasury, Federal Reserve and Wall Street are more important to the American empire than the Pentagon. The US Trade Representative is, from this point of view, a crucial imperial missionary, by reinforcing a liberal global order of property rights. 

Thus, for example, the state-supported spread of patented hybrid seeds in US farming beginning in the 1930s put an end to long, efficient traditions of saving seeds from each new generation of crops. Now, on a global level, the World Trade Organisation enforces Trade Related Intellectual Property agreements which outlaws the saving of seeds, thus increasing costs of production for the mainly small farmers who produce 70% of the global food supply.

This productive inefficiency is generalised across the agricultural system. World agricultural productivity has fallen. And with the growing reliance on fertilizers and pesticides, more energy goes into actually producing the food we eat. Moore argues that if it took 2.5 calories of energy to deliver a single calorie of food in the 1930s US, by the 21st century, it took 15-20 calories to deliver one calorie of food from farm to table. Those costs have simply been externalised.

V.  What does climate change add to this situation? In Moore's terms, the answer is "negative value". This is where the externalised costs of production begin to act as limits on the accumulation of surplus value. The destabilising effects of climate change combine with increasing production costs to eat into future profitability, and threaten to undermine the effective capitalisation of nature.

These "socioecological" effects are beginning to be understood as a major problem by the majority of large capitalist enterprises, and most national states. In the absence of a new frontier, a new seam of value to mine, ecological chaos represents a problem for existing capital accumulation and, continuously provokes a new set of politicisations which challenge the framework of liberal globalisation. The institutions of globalisation have therefore been increasingly coordinating to find "market-friendly", technologically-driven solutions. Even fossil fuel industries no longer overtly deny climate change -- rather, denial is increasingly implicatory, focused on limiting our conception of what might need to be done about the problem.

However, even if cap-and-trade and similar mechanisms were likely to control the problem of carbonisation and global warming, which the prevailing evidence says it cannot, it is just one of many fall-outs from approximately five hundred years of capitalism. Biomass depletion, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, deforestation and so on are all aspects of the ecological and biological blowback, the accumulated externalities rebounding on the system.

As the scientists put it in 1992, the Earth's capacity to support the "web of life" was being gravely endangered. The problem, as implied in the 'anthropocene' concept, and as explicated in the eco-Malthusian concern with 'population control', was people. The 2017 version reiterates the same concern. This is a manifestation of the "spontaneous philosophy of the scientists": in the interests of avoiding politicisation and sticking to what is seemingly objective, they have alighted upon a necessarily contentious and contested idea, avoiding the obvious and pressing facts of profit, property and their unsustainable effects.

Become a patron to

Unlock 184 exclusive posts
Listen anywhere
Connect via private message