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How to take into account, politically, the world demographic problems, to inscribe them in a holistic vision of the major crisis of the economic, social and ecological system, while avoiding partial, simplistic, moralizing, even selfish answers? 

This is a far cry from the apocalyptic outlook, based on extrapolations of trends, that prevailed during the 1960s, when world population growth was at an all-time high of 2.2 percent per year. They envisioned more than 20 billion people on Earth in 2050. We will be more like 9.6 billion by then, with a stabilization towards the end of the 21st century. 

This does not mean that the demographic question has lost its relevance, quite the contrary, but it can only be examined in a historical and systemic framework. The questions of overcrowding, population optimum or growth rate (excessive, … or even insufficient in the countries of the center according to some economists!) have no meaning in absolute terms, but only in relation to the potentialities and logics of a given socio-economic system. Each social system determines its own population laws and demographic regimes, which obviously does not exclude crises that may result, under specific conditions, from the limits and contradictions generated by the system itself, both as a result of endogenous factors and under the impact of exogenous influences. Nor can these contradictions lead to the collapse of the system. 

In the long times of the past, we have known demographic crises. They corresponded to the inability of productive systems, at different times, to exceed population density thresholds, thus generating major ecological, political and nutritional crises. These may have led to population decreases, on more or less vast areas. We can thus evoke a crisis at the end of the Paleolithic period, the hunting and gathering economy having reached its limits; another at the end of the Neolithic period; a crisis, at least in the Western world, at the end of the Roman Empire, corresponding to the exhaustion of the growth capacities of a political and agricultural system that was extensive and had recourse to slavery; the great crisis at the end of the Late Middle Ages in Europe, following a maximum extension of land clearing, leading to an exacerbation of feudal conflicts against a background of increased erosion, aggravated by the effects of a Little Ice Age. The way out of the medieval European systemic crisis will be through the strengthening of central royal powers. They will allow the development of the colonial system, bringing new plants and resources, but leading in turn to a major demographic crisis in America, confronted with European colonization, and in Africa, with a reinforcement of the magnitude of the slave trade. It was not until the agricultural revolution, which began in the middle of the 18th century, followed by the industrial revolution, that the extensive responses took over and allowed the beginning of the strongest population growth phase that humanity has ever known, with an exceptional peak during the second half of the 20th century. 

Before examining the contemporary world demographic situation and insisting on what is undoubtedly a new major systemic crisis, marking the end of the period of growth that began in the 18th century under the aegis of industrial capitalism, let us put two opposing demographic doctrines back to back, each of which claims to be « scientific », but is in fact only scientistic and a‑historical, even though they were obviously born in very concrete historical, political and ideological contexts 

The first is Malthusianism, with its later variations, the second is populationism. 


In 1798, Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he argued that population grows at a geometric rate, while resources, agricultural, would only increase at an arithmetic rate. That Malthus’s predictions were not verified is less important than the analysis of the context in which they were made: England had then entered the initial phase of the demographic transition, which is manifested by a drop in mortality, while the birth rate had not yet moved. The agricultural revolution had already been underway in England for nearly half a century, but its impacts were not yet clearly visible to contemporaries and agricultural imports had not yet taken on the massive character that they would acquire during the 19th century. Malthus was thus expressing the political concerns of a part of the wealthy classes, in particular the rural gentry. The answer Malthus proposed was the obligation of sexual abstinence and chastity for the poor. But these concerns were not shared by the industrial bourgeoisie, which saw, on the contrary, in the growing influx of people to the working-class cities the opportunity of abundant resources of cheap labor. 

A first neo-Malthusianism developed at the end of the 19th century. Relying on progressive segments of the bourgeoisie, but also on a part of the labor movement, he advocated the reduction of the birth rate as a tool to improve the working class condition, and even, for the most radical, the « strike of the wombs » as a means of pressure on the employers. 

A second neo-Malthusianism appeared before and after the Second World War. It first expresses political — and racist — fears of « absolute » overpopulation (the « yellow peril »), and then of the population explosion that amplifies after the Second World War, in a context of scarcity of resources during the first years following it. Politically relayed by the United States, these concerns were expressed in 1949 within the framework of the United Nations Conference on Resource Economics and Utilization: a rapprochement was thus made between the second neo-Malthusianism and the doctrines insisting on resource conservation. 

This second neo-Malthusianism faded somewhat during the 1950s, in a context of triumphant Fordism and the explosion of industrial production and consumption. Those who warned about the problems of hunger in the world and the growth of the world population did so in a much more militant third world context, insisting on the impacts of imposed dependency relationships; this was the case of Josué de Castro with his Geopolitics of Hunger.

Neo-Malthusianism was revived in the second half of the 1960s: in 1972 it led to the Meadows report, supported by part of the world economic establishment(1). This can be explained by a combination of factors: the awareness of the security risks linked to the demographic explosion in the countries of the periphery and the consequences of the widening gap with the rich countries; a last Keynesian-inspired attempt to regulate the economy on a global scale, on the eve of a long cycle reversal; a justification, notwithstanding its social impacts, of the green revolution, controlled by agribusiness multinationals; an implicit legitimization of the rise in oil prices and the halt in the growth of the economy and the standard of living in the developed countries with the crisis of 1973. Some authors have followed this trend in a maximalist manner, being very critical of the potential of the green revolution to resolve the population-resource binomial crisis: this is the case of Ehrlich, with his Population Bomb (1968), which asserts the primacy of the demographic variable. These maximalists are part of a complex dialectic, which may have appeared anti-system to the more conservative parts of the establishment, but at the same time aimed at preserving the system at the cost of an imposed halt in population growth, more ecological behavior and a more equitable sharing of resources. The primacy of the demographic constraint was relayed politically by the United States at the first United Nations Conference on Population in Bucharest in 1974: they claimed to impose a reduction, albeit modest, in fertility on the countries of the periphery, attracting accusations of interference from these countries, first and foremost China. 


Expressions of populationism can already be found before the First World War, at a time when large parts of the colonial world were equated with the idea of a vacuum to be filled, even by reputedly left-wing authors such as Émile Zola. His book Fécondité (1898) is an ode to the « progressive and republican » colonization of Africa and to population growth. 

But populationism is expressed with the most vigor after the bloodletting of the First World War and in the context of the rise of fascism. Paradoxically, these ideologies simultaneously develop the idea of overpopulation and the encouragement of fertility and large families. This paradox can be understood in the context of an ideology that develops an organic vision of the State and its power: like a healthy living body that is cramped in its skin, the strong State must naturally grow and its legitimate expansion must be achieved by relying on more troops, produced by a generous fertility. But the fascist countries did not have a monopoly on populationism: faced with a low secular fertility rate and the fear of a progressive weakening in the face of Germany, traumatized by the loss of human life in 1914–18, France in the 1930s also developed natalist ideologies. Many French demographers will share the Vichy ideas of national revolution, « Work, Family, Homeland ». 

The « vulgar », nationalistic and aggressive populationism will be succeeded by a populationism that reflects an unlimited faith in the self-regulating capacities of social systems and in particular of the capitalist system. Ester Boserup (1910–1999) published The Conditions of Agricultural Growth. The Economics of Agriculture under Population Pressure, in which she argued that population growth generates the technical progress in agriculture that it requires. 

the current world demographic situation 

Today, we are far from the catastrophic population growth forecasts that were made in the 1960s. The average number of children per woman, which was then, globally, 4.9, dropped to 2.5 in 2014. 

The demographic transition, i.e. the passage from low population growth linked to the combination of a high birth rate and a high death rate, to a new low growth rate, combining a low birth rate and a low death rate, with an intermediate phase of high growth linked to a faster and earlier drop in death rate than in birth rate, is now over in the developed countries and in China. If some of these countries are still experiencing a slight increase in population, it is primarily due to improvements in life expectancy at older ages, immigration and its induced effects in terms of age structure and (temporary) fertility support. 

In the peripheral countries, population growth is still often strong, but it is increasingly residual, resulting from the inertia of demographic phenomena, except in Black Africa. Fertility levels per woman have fallen to values of 3.0 in Egypt, 2.7 in India, 2.5 in North Africa and Indonesia, 1.9 in Iran or Brazil (less than in France!). What is most surprising is no longer the strong population growth in the peripheral countries, but rather the astonishing extent and speed of the decline in fertility that is being observed there, which is not at all comparable to what had prevailed in the central countries. It took 120 years to go from 4.5 to 2.5 children per woman in England; 30 years were enough in Latin America and India, 15 in China. This rapid decline in fertility was basically an endogenous phenomenon, resulting from a combination of factors: improvement in public health, reducing the incentive to have many children to compensate for the high risk of losing them at young ages; development of public education, especially the education of girls at the secondary level; difficulties in urban housing, delaying the age of marriage, in countries where sexual relations outside of marriage remain proscribed ; the diffusion of Western cultural and consumer models within the framework of the restricted family; the breakdown of traditional solidarity and the weakening of the extended family model where it once prevailed; the emergence of an urban middle class; and finally, anti-natalist policies. 

Are demographic concerns over? 

Does this mean that these developments make demographic concerns obsolete, especially since the increase in world food production over the past half-century has been much greater than the increase in population, particularly in the peripheral countries? Certainly not, especially since, as has already been said, the inertia of demographic phenomena postpones the impacts of high fertility over a period of more than one generation. But demographic problems must be seen in the context of a fundamental systemic crisis, which results from the contradictions of the globalized capitalist system. 

First of all, the globalized system imposes on the development of emerging countries technologies that have already been developed in central countries, where capital is abundant and labor is expensive. They are transferred to countries where capital is scarcer and labor is cheaper: the result is that these developments impose very high investment rates, much higher than they were in 19th century Europe. This reduces the possibilities of consumption, without putting enough people to work to absorb the population growth. They therefore contribute to the creation of underemployment, to keeping wage levels low and social inequalities high. 

« We would thus have entered a phase of major systemic crisis, as at the end of the Neolithic or the late Middle Ages, but for the first time generalized and synchronized on a global scale. 

More generally, the demographic issue must be placed in the context of sustainable development. The logic and forms of growth imposed by the world capitalist system, including a logic of regular destruction of unrealized value, lead to an exaggerated consumption of non-renewable resources and above all to a consumption of renewable resources which, on a world scale, has exceeded the regenerative capacity of the planet for the last twenty years. This depletion of ecosystems would thus be the manifestation of the final crisis of a globalized capitalist system on a planetary scale, whose possibilities of extensive expansion have been exhausted. We would thus have entered a phase of major systemic crisis, as at the end of the Neolithic or the late Middle Ages, but for the first time generalized and synchronized on a global scale. It should be noted that if population growth can accentuate the effects of this crisis, it is above all linked to the logic of the system: the main contribution to the depletion of resources is above all made by the developed countries, where the demography is low. As for the impact of the countries of the periphery, it is above all the result of the development models and relations of dependence disseminated and imposed by the countries of the center and relayed by the peripheral elites. In a world where inequalities are increasing, the average standard of living (or rather the average consumption model) in the central countries is maintained by a massive transfer of labor value and resources from the poor countries to the rich ones, which obviously maintains poverty levels in the periphery, which in turn contributes to slowing down the decrease in demographic growth (or, even if there is a reduction in poverty, to spreading consumption models that are not very respectful of the resources of the planet). 

Thus, environmental constraints and resource depletion appear much more as the consequences of the system of consumption and growth imposed by the dominant world economy and its logic of profit, expressed in the cult of GDP growth as an objective in itself, than of demography as a primary phenomenon. All the more so as this profit-based growth logic is running on empty: the average satisfaction of the population is no longer increasing in the developed countries in parallel with the growth of the product. 

It seems difficult to blame the peripheral countries for their growth, when the environmental burden remains much lower per capita than in the central countries and, if it is increasing, it is a function of their integration into a system dominated by the center. In the name of what, moreover, if not the worried egoism of the rich, would one have the right to impose demographic policies on these countries? 


The current crisis is not only a more or less deep cyclical crisis, nor even a structural crisis as the capitalist system has experienced from the First to the end of the Second World War. It is a systemic crisis, at once economic, environmental and social, such as humanity has known only a few times in its history. It reflects the fundamental contradictions of a system that for the first time is truly integrated on a global scale, with no new possibilities for extensive overcoming. The originality of this crisis, its exceptional depth, which makes the modalities (or even the possibilities) of its overcoming all the more uncertain, is that it is developing on a global scale, to which no political system or counter-power to the economic system corresponds. The fundamental question is therefore how to build an alternative, « revolutionary » political response on this scale, beyond the speeches based on self-righteous individualist utopias or appeals to charitable and wishful thinking. Yes, the crisis is likely to jeopardize the development, even the survival, of humanity, at a time when the unequal concentration of wealth has never been so great. But the fundamental question is not how to share resources, how to change consumption patterns, how to reduce fertility, but rather what power relations can be built to impose new societal models on a global scale? The answer to these questions does not seem to be emerging (yet?).

In this context, population issues, despite their importance, appear as an epiphenomenon: they are part of the systemic crisis, and it would be futile to try to use demography as a tool to regulate it, even if demographic solutions could be imposed exogenously. 

As for the demographic theories that are in the nature of programmatic pamphlets, not only are their scientific bases non-existent, but above all they must be critically questioned: who holds these discourses, when do they appear, to whom do they benefit, what anxieties do they reflect? Social phenomena cannot with impunity be biologized, nor technicized, nor examined in an a‑historical framework. We must also beware of partial and simplistic answers that are not contextualized: it is not population growth, which is very low, that imposes the unbridled forms of consumption of space in the countries of the center; there is no link, in these same countries, between a lower growth in population (or a limitation of immigration) and a reduction in unemployment; nor, in the countries of the periphery, is there a link between population growth and malnutrition. And the progression of world food production does not necessarily require the use of ecologically and socially destructive technologies imposed by globalized agribusiness. 

Christian Vandermotten

D. in Geographical Sciences and a degree in Urban Planning. He teaches economic, political and urban geography and spatial planning at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. 

Notes et références
  1. Certes, on peut interpréter le rapport Meadows comme un plaidoyer néo-malthusien et un premier avertissement majeur prenant en compte les préoccupations qui deviendront celles de l’écologie politique et du développement durable, puisqu’il pointe l’impossibilité de poursuivre la consommation effrénée des ressources et les modes de croissance qui ont soutendu l’économie mondiale après la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Mais en même temps, ce rapport est ambigu. Ces travaux ont été en partie financés par de grandes firmes internationales et on peut considérer qu’il va contribuer à légitimer la hausse des prix du pétrole en 1974 (décidée certes par les pays de l’OPEP, mais voulue aussi par les Etats-Unis, peut-être dans une moindre ampleur), puisque cette hausse des prix pouvait dès lors apparaître comme une conséquence «naturelle» de la rareté annoncée. Au-delà, il légitimise aussi les limitations de la consommation qui vont suivre en conséquence des politiques néo-libérales (surtout dans les années 80), puisque «la consommation est mauvaise pour la planète». Ceci étant, il ne s’agit évidemment en aucune manière de plaider pour une consommation débridée, mais bien pour une consommation plus équitable, portant sur des biens et des services qui apportent une contribution réelle au bien-être et dans le respect d’un développement durable, ce qui n’est pas le cas pour une grande partie de la croissance de l’économie mondiale depuis lors.

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