by Dr. Lawrence P. Rockwood
What does overpopulation have to do with lowering rates of violence? Apparently everything, if one is loose and free with statistics. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker argues that, because of political liberalism, scientific positivism, the rise of the nation state, and market capitalism, violence in the world has declined. What other historians, such as Eric J. Hobsbawm, called an ‘The Age of Catastrophe’ (1914-50) was just a pimple on the cheek of the goddess of progress and enlightenment, called the modern golden age.
Stalin was attributed with saying “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions a statistic.” Pinker would rephrase it: The death of millions is not a tragedy if it is just a percentage of a greater whole. In fact, the actual increases in actual rates of death and human misery should even be celebrated. Even the 187 million violent deaths by state actions and internal conflicts between 1914 and 1990 are overshadowed by a population growth he portrays as both massive and benign. Just as anti-socialist economist F.A. Hayek admitted, population growth is mandatory for the success of international market capitalism. The modern “overpopulation is a myth” crowd, comprised mostly of academic leftist writers in the West, deny or greatly mitigate the problematic consequences of overpopulation. Pinker’s vision, likewise, demands the same denial of the of the significance of actual real numbers of those subject to violence on this planet, thereby clouding the direct connection between being poor and being subject to violence.
This denial is based on refusing to understand that the impoverished masses of the planet will either not continue to consume resources at the world’s lowest rate of consumption and/or not continue to passively, and non-aggressively accept their position in the lowest level of global resource consumption. The poorest 50 percent of the world’s population, with the highest population growth and the lowest consumption levels (less than 5 percent of global resources consumed annually), will either start consuming global resources at a higher level and/or at times, violently resist their coercively maintained impoverished state.
The problem for the “overpopulation is a myth” crowd is that the world’s poor must stay in their present state for the so-called ‘overpopulation is myth” paradigm to operate. Whether we are addressing right-wing capitalist theorists such as Hayek, the “overpopulation is a myth” crowd of theorists of the academic Left, or liberal market theorists such as Pinker, all run into the fact that overpopulation is neither a myth nor a benefit except from the tenured vantage point of a western university campus or of academic tourism. The major difference is that Pinker uses massive population increases to relativize actual objective increases in the population of those suffering and that are the victims of violence.
During Lincoln’s first inaugural address at the outbreak of a Civil War that would take over 630,000 American lives, Lincoln utilized the phrase “the better angels of our nature” to describe a failed call for “a path not taken,” a path away from violence and toward enlightened reason. By his problematic use of over 800 pages of “convenient” statistics, Pinker claims, not only America, but the entire West has indeed taken such an enlightened path in spite of the Holocaust, the Communist authoritarian collectivizations, the “killing fields” of Cambodia, WWII colonial famines, and Rwanda. Unlike Lincoln, Pinker is not calling for sectional sacrifice to avoid a war. In fact, he is not calling for any type of sacrifice. He is calling on his readers to self-righteously go mall shopping and to feel good about themselves as they consume resources that, by any standard of justice, should go to others.
Going back over 5000 years, Pinker successfully demolishes Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s pacific state of nature thesis by pointing out that every single prehistoric body found of our species, whether dug up out of the bog or chipped out of the ice, met a death by violence. Then he goes off of a campaign of Eurocentric triumphalism celebrating the fact that well-fed modern Englishmen no longer entertain themselves by burning cats as they did during the Tudor era. Then by using numbers drawn from sources as quantitatively unreliable as the Greek historian Herodotus, who loved adding zeros to numbers in much the same one would add exclamation points to words, he claims the An Lushan Revolt in China in the eighth century was a greater atrocity than the genocides of the 20th century based on looking at percentages victims against the total population rather than the total number of actual deaths.
Pinker’s central thesis is this: “(A)cross time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.” He sees no reason to blame the West for any global inequality of wealth, resources, and disparate rates of population growth that might account for this fact. He celebrates, civil rights, women’s rights, cultural rights, and gay rights and lists the violence directed at those committed to these ends. There is no mention those who suffered for labor rights and economic justice. They are not members of his club of “better angels.” For Pinker, they are not the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment.
Pinker places the Westerners and the global poor on different planets and conveniently avoids the discussion of which planetary group kills more of the other, which, if answered, would undermine his claim of Western supremacy in lower levels of violence. Ever since the New Left historian William Appleton Williams, the American academic Left has also placed Westerners and the global poor on different planets. For them, all that is needed is for the West to leave the poorest 50 percent alone and they will be fine with their 5 percent of the earth’s resources, or at least a far, far smaller percentage than is consumed daily by the global poor’s self-proclaimed “anti-imperialist” allies on Western university campuses.
To be fair, it must be remembered that Pinker is not a historian, political scientist, anthropologist, or statistician. He is a self-described cognitive dialectical behavioral scientist. That is someone who tries to sell mentally ill people on the great lie that they live in a “rational” world. Pinker admits to a youthful interest in anarchism until observing a confrontation between protesters and the police drove him to a Hobbesian worship of the nation state.
There is nothing in his work about the West getting a material leg up because of geography that one find’s in Jared Diamond’s 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. If you accept Pinker’s claim that we are on the edge of attaining a statistically non-violent liberal free market utopia, you will be interested in the list of western virtues found in the “five historical forces,” “six trends,” and the “four better angels” that have brought us to this Western liberal capitalist heaven and the “five inner demons” we have to avoid to remain there. But the hundreds of pages describing this thousand-year evolution can be very simply summarized. Pinker’s epic evolutionary tale is simply the old Calvinist conception of the elect: ‘WE are more prosperous and peaceful because WE are more virtuous than THEY are.’
The reverse of an absurdity is no less absurd. In the past few years, many on the Western “academic” Left, such as Katie Mckay Bryson, Betsy Hartmann, and Ian Angus, have put forward the cant: ‘overpopulation is a myth.’ Unlike Pinker who demonizes those living in global poverty, this school infantilizes them. While Hartman rightly critiques the destructive efforts of liberal international NGOs to use birth control practices to control global poverty and, in the process, to compromise women’s rights, she paints a cultural “quaintness” around poverty — that the peasants or the women who make handmade knick-knacks for these “tenured revolutionaries” while they were on their research sabbaticals, whether molas from Panama, Thangkas from Nepal, or handmade jewelry from Bangladesh, seemed content with their level of resource consumption.
It is a tale where the global poor don’t seem to mind that fewer of their children attain adulthood than those of their “enlightened” western guests. Like a global “Uncle Tom,” they are depicted as more angelic and passivist than Westerners, the opposite of Pinker’s claim. This is no different than Antebellum Southerners claiming that African Americans were happy in slavery and were more culturally authentic while in bondage (a claim made by New Left historians like Eugene Genovese). The essentialist alterities first exposed by Edward Said’s Orientalsim, have no place in scholarly discussion, whether we are talking about Pinker on the Right or the so-called “anti-imperialist” and feminist essentialists of the far Left.
It is obvious that the green “racists” and even so-called “malthusian” liberals are making use of the fear of overpopulation for vile ends. That does not make the direct opposite of every statement made by a racist an absolute truth. Rather than being categorically wrong, to associate with the “overpopulation is a myth” cant is a position of extremism.
To claim that a rising headcount has nothing to do with rising consumption, that all agree is a threat to the planet, is as extreme as claiming that there are no other factors in rising consumption other than a rising headcount. A so-called scholar taking such an extreme position to draw attention to a book or a talk is the definition of cynicalism. No one can historically or ethically argue that the rates of population growth and violence in developing countries are not correlated to global poverty. That is because of the simple democratic socialist truth that the maintenance of poverty is economic violence. This is a fact that both tenured liberal market theorists and “tenured revolutionaries” on Western university campuses find very “convenient” to ignore. The answer to global poverty, over-population, and violence is neither free markets, birth control, an indigenous arts and crafts industry, nor cultural or feminist essentialism, it is global resource redistribution from the global rich to the global poor and decentralizing of global resource decision making away from the haves to the have nots.
No fuzzy statistics from theorists of the Left, Right, or Center can deny the common sense fact that you cannot kill or starve someone who was never born. Each additional person born is a potential victim of violence or starvation. Population growth cannot erase human suffering. Rather, it can only operate as an increasing reservoir of life and death on a planet where resources are finite and the environment is rotting.
It is also a reservoir of potential violence and deprivation. To make an inductive argument that a massive population increase has not yet led to a catastrophe, not only in actual hard numbers, but relative percentages, would make the empiricist philosopher David Hume howl. It would be just as logical to argue that a train that can never stop or slow down, but only increase in speed, can never be wrecked on the basis that it has not happened yet. The most absurd version of the “train wrecks can’t happen” thesis was A. F. Hayek’s claim that, regardless of the future, every child that is born is a boon to all those living at the time of the child’s birth. Such perverted utilitarianism would make Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill howl.
Karl Marx would also howl at such absurdities, howl in laughter. Scarcity of resources removes the “human element” of human existence. Marx refuted Malthus’ position that eventually population would exceed food supply as long as there are adjustments made to the way food is produced and distributed. But prior to those adjustments being made, the global poor are only “freely active only in his animal functions — eating, drinking and procreating, or at most also in his personal adornment — while in his human functions he is reduced to an animal.” In our time, this “reserve army of workers” in the global south does not create time for artistic leisure and self-fulfillment, but subsistence existence.
The difference between a Picasso and maker of mola in Panama can be measured in so many ways, childhood mortality rates being just one measure. If the “overpopulation is a myth” crowd is putting forth a so-called “Marxist” position, it is a premature one. Overpopulation must be documented in the world that exists, the ugly status quo. Maybe overpopulation would not be so bad in a just world, but that is not the one I live in. I know of no historian that denies that the population explosion was directly tied to the Industrial Revolution. For the global poor, the interim between the Industrial Revolution and a revolution of social justice is a hell. What greater defense of capitalism could there be than to argue that overpopulation in a world dominated by market capitalism is a tolerable state of affairs.
Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark once remarked that “Americans do not hold the lives of the world’s poor in the same regard as their own.” If we broaden this to the West, this is the source of the disparity of violence and poverty among the world’s populations. “My child, race, class, or nation eats first” is honorable expression for a mere mammal. “Every child born has the same right to safety as material wellbeing as mine” is the cant of a human being.
You do not need to be of a superior character to be a victim. A child does not get to eat or live in safety because of its innocence. Global social justice is not about essentialist virtues or essentialist evils that one group or another may or may not possess; it is about fairness.
When the global poor start consuming their fair share of the earth’s resources, western academics will no longer claim that “overpopulation is a myth” or that Westerners are more conflict adverse than non-Westerners. The former global poor will burn fossil fuel leading to global warming as greedily as Westerners. They are and will neither be more “angelic” nor “demonic” than Westerners when it comes to violence. The only difference between us and them is that they have justice on their side.
Dr. Lawrence P. Rockwood is a former U.S. Army counterintelligence officer with many years of service in the global South. After being court-martialed for defending human rights, he served as a Fellow for Center for International Policy, and as a consultant for the Institute for Policy Studies and ran as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives for the 53rd US Congressional District in California. He has taught American and intellectual history at numerous public universities and colleges. He now serves as Field Organizer and Historian for the Socialist Party of New York City.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of a debate on overpopulation and violence. Articles with other positions will be accepted for The Socialist website.