On population, decentralizing power, political labeling, and control of the food supply (thoughts generated while watching and reading RockingMrE)

Thursday night I interacted with RockingMrE in the comment sections of a few of his videos. Some of his arguments I can get behind, but others are problematic for me. One being his use of the term “Cultural Marxism” to describe “leftist” political ideology. I take issue with this term because it isn’t adequately descriptive and, IMO, has very little to do with actual Marxist theory. Wikipedia describes “cultural marxism” as a spin-off of sorts, and I’d say it’s spun off far enough to warrant the application of a new term for the social and political phenomenon it’s intended to describe, for clarity’s sake. But that’s a quibble of my own, wishing that we could clean up the language so as to make it less confusing when sharing and discussing ideas, but undoubtedly few care about my opinion there.

Perhaps instead of labeling this political movement toward collectivism trumping individual rights as “cultural marxism” (as if Karl Marx hasn’t been blamed for enough already, why attach his name to ideas he never even promoted?), we might call it “Godwinism,” in reference to William Godwin. In the book The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1999; 7th ed.) by Robert L. Heilbroner, William Godwin is described as

[…] a minister and pamphleteer, [who] looked at the heartless world about him and shrank back in dismay. But he looked into the future and what he saw was good. In 1793 he published Political Justice, a book that excoriated the present but gave promise of a distant future in which “there will be no war, no crime, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this there will be no disease, anguish, melancholy, or resentment.” What a wonderful vision! It was, of course, highly subversive, for Godwin’s utopia called for complete equality and for the most thoroughgoing anarchic communism: even the property contract of marriage would be abolished.

[Page 77]

What’s funny there is I can see shades of what both anarcho-capitalists (i.e. libertarian anarchists) and optimistic “leftist” or “progressive” utopians are striving for in his vision. But maybe the term “Godwinists” is already in use. *shrugs* Doesn’t matter since undoubtedly there are countless others promoting the fantasy of a technologically-advanced, collectivist utopia to rename the trend after. My gripe is it’s become doggone confusing trying to sort out all the different meanings behind words like “communism,” “socialism,” and “Marxism” to where it would be really helpful if from here on out we applied new terms to whatever we’re aiming to describe rather than drudging back up one of these popular three. Otherwise the language gets so muddy that it’s nearly impossible to track what definition any given person is operating with when tossing around these terms. My quibble, yes.

The second argument from RockingMrE that gives me pause is his claim that overpopulation isn’t a problem worth concerning ourselves with. Having now read his blog post on this subject, his explanation hasn’t assuaged my worries, and I’ll tell you why. First off, what Thomas Robert Malthus put forth isn’t such a radical proposition. As populations increase, this places a burden on the resource supply (and prompts the generation of new resources, if that is even possible). People like to look at this sort of thing from a purely theoretical perspective, arguing that so much land allotted to so many people will prove sufficient to provide for an even greater number of people than presently in existence or that through our technological advancements future humans will discover solutions to whatever may ail us over time. The first argument takes into account physical spaces and physical resources, saying little, or nothing, about people’s psychological well-being, which is a major concern for social beings like ourselves. His argument there is, in my view, unduly optimistic in placing so much faith (yes, that is the correct word to use there) in science to eventually save us from ourselves. Why do we leap to assuming that that will be the likely outcome? Because a couple hundred years of mind-boggling advancement deems it must be so, that technology can only continue to advance unencumbered and automatically to the benefit of humankind? There is not enough evidence to suggest that will indeed be the case. Because something has happened says nothing about whether it will continue to happen. Besides, we live in Western countries with infrastructures heavily dependent on fossil fuels to continue functioning. If ever there comes a day when that supply is diminished or access is jeopardized (for example, if China and/or India wind up cornering that resource to advance their own economies, or if Middle Eastern countries someday succeed in pushing us out), so much of what we take for granted will be dramatically undermined or completely uprooted. Other human beings may carry on, but those who lose out in that contest will likely starve or be forced to migrate elsewhere.

I noticed that RockingMrE is fairly quick to dismiss people who challenge his assertions on this, referring to them as “cultural marxists” (here we go again) while assuming that the only reason anyone would continue to take Robert Malthus’s ideas seriously is because the television has brainwashed them into doing so. Television is a pain in the rear in terms of spreading propaganda for people to parrot, I do agree, yet there are other reasons why people will continue to be critical of his ‘optimistic’ stance that have nothing to do with popular media (or even Malthus necessarily). And for that you can thank books. Yes, some people do still read information for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

And before I go any further, I have to say that the mention of global warming in his blog post irritated me a bit, because that too isn’t universally embraced by anyone and everyone who may be concerned with the effects of overpopulation. I, for one, am not sold on the claim of global warming either way and will remain open to all sides of the argument until enough evidence is available to sway me. Until such time, it’s not a topic I care to discuss much because people do tend to get so excited about whatever they happen to think on the matter, throwing around hyperbolic claims that we are unable to currently prove or disprove. I personally prefer instead to focus on what is more directly within my locus of control that I might have the ability to change or influence. For me, the emphasis is placed on the social sphere, and my concerns with overpopulation stem from what I’ve come to wonder about in terms of humans’ psychological and social needs for well-being and high quality of life. An increasing population places stress on individuals, partly because of how we’re expected to compete with one another in this new economic frontier, partly because I believe we each need a certain amount of space and tranquility in order to maintain our sanity. Looked at from this angle, concerns over resource depletion are problematic not only because the resources available may actually be in decline but also because these worries induce anxiety that further stresses us.

Now, on to another point RockingMrE made in his blog post, claiming that people who typically take issue with population growth are in favor of implementing some form of top-down population control. As in the State restricting the number of kids people can have (as is the case in China), I assume is what he had in mind there. He is right to be concerned about people looking to the State to solve these dilemmas for us, because unfortunately many people lack the imagination needed to consider other individually-determined alternatives (like the personal option to choose not to create more children, particularly when children already exist who need the loving support of families). It is never my own contention to support the State deciding these matters for the populace — we are capable of deciding and fashioning our own future, and whether we turn out right or wrong in the end, it is best to leave the matter in the hands of people to choose for themselves. That is my belief. If people wind up one day starving because we screwed ourselves by not heeding the writing on the wall, that will still probably be preferable to having the State police our sexual and procreative choices (or, worse yet, the State taking action to reduce the population). So, in short, I am in no way arguing in favor of the State interfering in an effort to control or reduce the human population. I am, however, arguing that we individuals will likely be better off if we take personal action to help reduce the population ourselves. I’ll break down my own view below.

In terms of reducing the number of kids we choose to have, we free up time and energy to focus on the children we’ve already brought into existence and hopefully also to actively engage with others in our own adult lives. That is arguably beneficial for all involved.

In choosing not to create any children, we free ourselves up from a great deal of the economic pressure that typically bears down on parents responsible for caring not only for themselves but also for their dependents. Alleviating economic pressure reduces stress and frees up energy to be directed toward other (hopefully productive) uses of our time. Such as taking time to study and learn and ponder. Or to create art or enhance one’s skill set. Or to try our hands at vegetable gardening so as to reacquaint ourselves with the food production process that has grown so alien to the majority of us born in the last 50 years in Western countries. It’s important that people know how to provide for their essential needs, and we’ve lost the ability to do so, by-and-large, so any effort that seeks to restore what has been lost there I view as worthwhile and necessary if we are to ever break the chains of dependence on Big Ag (a.k.a. massive corporate food production).

Also, when it comes to choosing to live child-free, our resources are freed up to share with other parents and children whom we wish to see prosper. The benefit here is that this could aid in restoring a sense of community, and also it could potentially reduce people’s dependence on the State to provide for their financial needs. In my view, it would be a positive social advancement if we could get to a point where we can work together and reconstruct and support our own communities, thereby reducing the role of the State to interfere in our families and in our financial affairs (which the government is growing determined to scrutinize and attempt to micromanage, something I take great issue with). If we dream for smaller governments restricted in scope and power, then we must take this power into our own hands and determine for ourselves the narrative we’ll willingly subscribe to. There doesn’t appear to be any other alternative than that, which can be more easily understood as breaking down into centralized versus decentralized approaches to managing our lives, which carries over to the communities we take part in. And on that I do not believe there is one right or best way to go about this, so social experimentation across several communities strikes me as ideal in order for people to figure out for themselves what will or won’t work for them. (And these thoughts can lead off on to a lengthy topic all unto itself, but I’m trying to not stray too far in this post.)

Another advantage of focusing one’s life on matters not pertaining to raising kids (which also can apply to people who’ve already successfully raised their children into adulthood) is that time and energy can be freed up to tackle what all we have going on these days, nearly all of which requires serious and diligent consideration. I am arguing that we need adults taking up the challenge of sorting out what’s happening here and why and also to propose ideas on how we might effectively circumvent the status quo or however otherwise bring about productive change. Parents’ involvement is obviously needed in this inquiry as well, but unfortunately many claim to not have much time to spend on it, hence why I direct my talk toward those who aren’t yet parents or are considering not having any more children (or who now have an “empty nest”). Plenty of what we’re faced with today isn’t appropriate for children to take part in, though unfortunately plenty of kids wind up exposed to so much of it anyway (thanks again, TVs and Internet — parental controls do exist, though they don’t do much good if hardly anyone uses them). My point here is that these are adult topics primarily pertaining to adult relations, decided ultimately by adults through learning, voting, exercising purchasing power, raising arguments in the public square to influence the minds of others, or whatever other efforts that might prove useful. Either way, the goal is to free up time and energy so as to be able to take action as needed.

Now, I realize I’ve responded to more than RockingMrE’s one blog post, having watched several of his videos last night, one having been on the topic of anti-natalism. So I’m responding to a mix of what he’s put out into the world, not limited to the topic of overpopulation alone since I see so many of these topics as overlapping and interrelated. But returning to the topic of overpopulation once again, I’d like to invoke the social theory of David Ricardo now.

In that same book by Heilbroner, on page 79, it states:

David Ricardo, an astonishingly successful trader in stocks, was soon to outline a theory of economics which, while less spectacular than Malthus’s inundation of humanity, would be in its own way just as devastating to the prospects of improvement held out by Adam Smith.

For what Ricardo foresaw was the end of a theory of society in which everyone moved together up the escalator of progress. Unlike Smith, Ricardo saw that the escalator worked with different effects on different classes, that some rode triumphantly to the top, while others were carried up a few steps and then were kicked back down to the bottom. Worse yet, those who kept the escalator moving were not those who rose with its motion, and those who got the full benefit of the ride did nothing to earn their reward. And to carry the metaphor one step further, if you looked carefully at those who were ascending to the top, you could see that all was not well here either; there was a furious struggle going on for a secure place on the stairs.

That’s another interesting way to look at so-called “progress.”

Picking back up on page 88 in this chapter concerned with Malthus and Ricardo:

Although Malthus and Ricardo disagreed on almost everything, they did not disagree about what Malthus had to say about population. For in his celebrated Essay in 1798, Malthus seemed not only to elucidate the question once for all but also to shed a great deal of light on the terrible and persistent poverty that haunted the English social scene. Others had vaguely felt that somehow population and poverty were related and a popular if apocryphal story of the day concerned an island off the coast of Chile where one Juan Fernandez landed two goats in case he should later wish to find meat there. On revisiting the island he found that the goats had multiplied beyond reason, so he then landed a pair of dogs who also multiplied and cut down the goats. “Thus,” wrote the author, a Reverend Joseph Townshend, “a new kind of balance was restored. The weakest of both species were the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives.” To which he added: “It is the quantity of food which regulates the number of the human species.”

But while this paradigm recognized the balance that must be struck in nature, it still failed to draw the final devastating conclusions implicit in the problem. This was left for Malthus to do.

He began with a fascination in the sheer numerical possibilities contained in the idea of doubling. His appreciation of the staggering multiplicative powers of reproduction has been amply supported by other, later scholars. One biologist has calculated that a pair of animals, each pair producing ten pairs annually, would at the end of twenty years be responsible for 700,000,000,000,000,000,000 offspring; and Havelock Ellis mentions a minute organism that, if unimpeded in its division, would produce from one single tiny being a mass a million times larger than the sun—in thirty days.

But such examples of the prolific power of nature are meaningless for our purposes. The vital question is: how great is the normal reproductive power of a human being? Malthus made the assumption that the human animal would tend to double its numbers in twenty-five years. In the light of his times this was a relatively modest assumption. It necessitated an average family of six, two of whom were presumed to die before reaching the age of marriage. Turning to America, Malthus pointed out that the population there had in fact doubled itself every twenty-five years for the preceding century and a half, and that in some backwoods areas where life was freer and healthier, it was doubling every fifteen years!

But against the multiplying tendencies of the human race—and it is inconsequential to the argument whether it tended to double in twenty-five years or in fifty—Malthus opposed the obdurate fact that land, unlike people, cannot be multiplied. Land can be added to laboriously, but the rate of progress is slow and hesitant; unlike population, land does not breed. Hence, while the number of mouths grows geometrically, the amount of cultivable land grows only arithmetically.

And the result, of course, is as inevitable as a proposition in logic: the number of people is bound, sooner or later, to outstrip the amount of food. “Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance,” wrote Malthus in his Essay, “. . . the human species would increase in the ratio of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 516, etc. and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10; in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be incalculable.”

Such a dreadful view of the future would be enough to discourage any man: “The view,” Malthus wrote, “has a melancholy hue.” The troubled Reverend was driven to the conclusion that the incorrigible and irreconcilable divergence between mouths and food could have only one result: the larger portion of mankind would forever be subjected to some kind of misery or other. For somehow the huge and ever potentially widening gap must be sealed: population, after all, cannot exist without food. Hence among the primitives such customs as infanticide; hence war, disease, and, above all, poverty.

And if these are not enough: “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to provide subsistence . . . that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. . . . But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success still be incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.”

No wonder poor Godwin complained that Malthus had converted friends of progress into reactionaries. For this is truly the doctrine of despair. Nothing, nothing can rescue mankind from the constant threat of drowning under its own weight but the frail reed of “moral restraint.” And how dependable is moral restraint against the great passion of sex?

. .

Was Malthus right?

As recently as the early 1970s the general outlook for world population growth seemed to confirm the prescience of his expectations, at least in the less developed portions of the world. In those years demographers spoke of a possible world population of 20 billion—five times the population in 1970—if the momentum of population growth went unchecked for another fifty years.

Today the pendulum has swung somewhat to the other side. In fact, thinking on the population problem has always swung between poles of opinion: it is striking that Malthus himself was much more sanguine in a second edition of his famous essay published only five years after the first, pinning his hopes on the belief that the laboring classes would learn to exercise voluntary “restraint” by postponing their age of marriage.

Today’s cautious optimism is based to a large extent on technological breakthroughs, especially the so-called Green Revolution which has raised crop yields dramatically in countries like India. India today produces enough foodstuffs to be a modest exporter. Hence, although agronomists still hold their breath each year until the crops are in, the terrible prospect of global famine, brought about by Malthus’s arithmetic of supply and demand, is no longer regarded as a realistic prognosis. Horrified TV watchers in the 1980s who saw pictures of skeletonlike human beings in Ethiopia and the sub-Saharan belt were not witnessing Malthus’s predictions come true, but the consequences of localized conditions, such as droughts and inadequate transportation networks.

Nonetheless, more is needed to set aside the Malthusian specter than an increase in food production. Even if global famine no longer seems imminent, experts warn that population pressures are still immense. […]

Perhaps more important, we must not forget that Malthus was right in claiming that population growth, proceeding exponentially, inherently has the capability of swamping increases in agricultural productivity. Thus there remains the necessity to master the demand side of the equation as well as the supply side. What is required is control over the production of children as well as food.

Is worldwide population control possible? The answer seems to be a surprising yes. It is surprising because demographers have long doubted that the nations worst afflicted with the population “disease” could surmount the barriers of peasant ignorance, organized religious opposition, and political apathy. Now a more sanguine outlook prevails. During the last years, countries as different as Mexico and China have switched from indifference or outright hostility to an enthusiastic endorsement of birth control. Even India, long the despair of demographers, has made a determined—indeed, at times a ruthless—effort to introduce planned parenthood.

And the effort has begun to pay off. In the years 1970-1975, despite the prevailing gloom, the rate of growth of population slowed down for the first time in history. The growth of population has not yet stopped by any means—U.N. experts predict that today’s world population of some 5 billion may grow to between 9 to 10 billion before it levels off. But at least and at last, the growth rate is slowing down, and the leveling may come sooner than was imaginable only a decade ago. The trouble is that the victory will not be equally shared. In Europe, for example, we already have something close to ZPG—zero population growth, except for immigration. Fifty years hence, the United States own population, today roughly 275 million, may well number over 390 million, including some 800,000 immigrants. This is a total that will surely add to urban crowding, although it is not likely to overstrain total resources.

But in the poorest parts of the world, where food is scarcest, the forecast is not so reassuring. Birthrates are slowly dropping there, too, but more slowly than in the West, and from a higher starting point. The Malthusian specter will not disappear for a long time.

Curiously, Malthus himself did not aim his shafts at those parts of the world where the problem is so severe today. He was concerned about England and the Western world, not about the continents of the East and South.

It’s a good book and was received as gift from a family member a few years back. In it, Heilbroner summarizes the views put forth by several economists, a number of whom I was previously unfamiliar with. At a later date I’d like to transcribe more from it. But for tonight that suits my purposes and provides a glimpse into what Malthus claimed and why. His thoughts were arguably logical, though I realize many people continue to hinge their hopes on future innovations coming to the rescue. And on that note, one thing I find very interesting are unforeseen variables, as in the unintended side effects or consequences that spin off from any and every action, whether positive or negative or a mixed blessing.

One such case that springs to mind pertains to Big Ag’s innovations in pesticides and genetic modification of crops. Or at least that is presumed to be the culprit behind the mysterious die-off of thousands of honeybees relied on to pollinate our nation’s fruits and vegetables. A recent New York Times article (March 28, 2013) shares the latest news and points with suspicion toward the role new neonicotinoids (“the nicotine-derived pesticide that European regulators implicate in bee deaths”) may play in this fiasco. At this juncture the matter isn’t settled, so we can’t say with certainty what’s going on. I merely offer this as one example of how noble scientific advancements can be accompanied by unintended consequences that may themselves prove disastrous (as the honeybee die-off potentially could, especially when compounded with droughts and other factors impacting crop yields).

I remain open to the possibilities, seeing no reason to embrace optimism or pessimism going forward. The situation simply is what it is, right or wrong. My concern lies chiefly with us being able to partake in lives worth living, which in my view involves us taking actions to regain and reclaim control over that which we can reasonably assume greater responsibility for, which I figure will go a long way in mending our social relations by requiring we learn to cooperate (even if that does entail groups separating off and going their own way so as to allow space between those unable or unwilling to find common ground).

The more I’ve considered our economic, political, and social options, the more important does food production appear to be, because in that lies our greatest dependence on State and corporate powers-that-be. When the food supply was severed away from being under the common people’s control, it set in motion a series of events that have culminated in us being rendered no more powerful than pets begging for someone else to provide what we need to get by. The population size becomes especially important in this scenario because modern farming practices have created conditions that allow for population expansion, yet people then become dependent on this new system because, as is commonly stated, we now could not generate enough food through the use of older techniques to be able to sustain this many of us. That sets us up with a circular dilemma that apparently cannot be remedied so long as this many people exist; and if the modern food producing system fails to perform as expected, we all go down with it, having no alternative source of food to turn toward that could sufficiently maintain more than a small percentage of us. That’s quite a stranglehold to wake up and find ourselves in. Welcome to the 21st century, folks.

At least that’s how it’s come to appear from where I sit. And that’s enough typing on here for one evening.

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