‘The Overpopulation Argument’ by Professor John McMurtry

The following are excerpts extracted from McMurtry, John. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure. Pluto Press. Kindle Edition that addresses ‘The Overpopulation Argument’.


“The most established general argument for our parlous condition is that the global crisis is led by ‘overpopulation’ – or more precisely, ‘seven billion human beings overloading the carrying capacities of the Earth’. The overloading of the earth’s life-carrying capacities is certainly true, and this study identifies it as a life-capital rundown and waste that is the most fundamental economic disorder of the world, ever. But the crucial point is missed by the ‘overpopulation’ argument. The over-demand on the earth’s resources is the problem, and its cause is not ‘human beings’ – a shallow overgeneralization. The causal mechanism is a deregulated and exponential growth of transnational money-sequences and commodities extracting, polluting, depleting and despoiling the earth ever more widely and deeply at every level with no accountability to any natural capital base. Blaming overpopulation may be equivalent to blaming the poor majority for what is in demonstrable fact runaway looting and pollution by multiplying transnational money-sequences.(My emphasis here).

McMurtry, John. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure (p. 10). Pluto Press. Kindle Edition.


“The Overpopulation Argument (in Chapter 1)

‘Excessive population growth’ has long been a favourite explanation of downward slide of global life-support systems. The initially plausible logic is that rises of human populations have overloaded the life-carrying capacities of the planet. Yet in fact the global rate of population increase has halved since its peak of 2.2 per cent in 1963. It is still too great a load at 1.1 per cent, the answer might be. Yet not one of the degenerate trends identified above is coherently attributable to population rises. Even the rundown of material and energy resources has been led by vast wastes and unneeded uses by multiplying corporate commodity cycles propelled by private money-sequences serving a fraction of the global population. The real and underlying problem is thus concealed. (My emphasis added).

Blaming global population growth for the rising pollution, depredation, depletion and destruction of the planet’s life-support systems is, in short, a fallacy of common cause. In logical form, it is like saying ‘my sore throat caused my headache’ without recognizing flu as the common cause. In committing this fallacy, the overpopulation argument has to blinker out the most basic facts. For while some populations grow fast, others decline: namely societies where women are literate and self-determining. Lack of literacy and self-determination of women is, in turn, typically based in conditions of mass impoverishment. Yet Kerala India has a lower per capita income than most states in India and higher female literacy and a lower birth rate – all supported by state and community programmes. Population growth depends on social conditions, and the most important of these are women’s literacy and decision in child-bearing with social support systems replacing multiple births for family life-security. All of these are elements of civil commons development analysed in the final chapter of this study. This is why developed societies show significant negative endogenous population growth – all of Europe, Russia, Japan, and Canada, for example. What these countries have in common is nearly 100 per cent literacy and social life-support systems and programmes to protect and enable women to exercise informed decision. It is these social conditions which decide whether or not overpopulation is a problem.

Social life-support systems which enable reduction of population and, more deeply, life-coherent demand on resources require social investment and collective regulation – precisely what the reigning system rules out. This is the reason that when endogenous populations decline, the degenerate trends still escalate. The ‘population bomb’ argument blocks out the common cause of these degenerate tends, and that is its ideological function.”

McMurtry, John. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure (pp. 75-76). Pluto Press. Kindle Edition.


“It cannot be the human species per se because over 99 per cent of the species’ time on earth has been free of any such pervasive, systemic pattern of incremental environmental destruction. And it cannot be coherently diagnosed as human overpopulation as we have seen in Chapter 1. In fact we can clearly now see that not only all the 33 degenerate trends defined there follow from the money-sequence cancer as diagnosed, but the three universal bases of human life in the world – sufficient means of life-provision, contributory life-function of individuals, and sustained life-carrying capacities of the planet– are all systematically attacked by the same ruling disorder not yet recognized.”(My emphasis here)

McMurtry, John. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure (p. 171). Pluto Press. Kindle Edition.


“Life-Capital: The Base of the Real Economy and Cure

Once we recognize that real capital is life-capital – the natural and human-made wealth that produces more through time without loss– we re-ground. Private money capital is the opposite to the extent it destroys life-capital. Consider, for example, private money-sequences of mono-crop factory agriculture that destroy the life-capital of the soil as well of biodiverse seed stocks as well as of rivers and waters polluted by their waste and chemical run-offs, as well as farming communities not doing so, and so on. They even produce 25 per cent of the world’s climate-destabilizing carbon gases endangering the lives of billions of the world’s peoples. Here and elsewhere, the ruling money-sequence system is structured to destroy life-bases to extract more money from them. The solution is itself destroyed by elimination of the life-capital bases that carry it – the long sustainable ecological family farms which produce little or none of these ‘externalities’.

Systematically life-destructive money-sequences now plunder all real life-capital we can see – the forests and mangroves and their biodiverse inhabitants, the freshwaters and oceans and their fish stocks, the world’s hydrological cycles and non-renewable energy resources, and societies’ life-support systems themselves. The more this system grows, the more life-capital it despoils and destroys. This is its carcinogenic nature, not human overpopulation – as demonstrated in ‘The Overpopulation Argument’ in Chapter 1. Consider the global pattern. Air, food and water themselves are in a one-way downward trend of degradation. Common aquifers and major rivers have been rapidly polluted or drawn down across the world for private industrial farming, factory sinks and golf courses not to mention new corporate fracking and tar-sand boiling. At the same time billions of people are going short of water and billions more to come in the most important basic shared life-capital of the species. In all, ever more polluting and extraction of natural life-capital free of effective public regulation is the law-like macro pattern.

With the basic forms of human-made life-capital, there is also a downward slide across domains. For example in Africa, the most basic literacy and health care systems collapsed as governments were forced to spend four times more on compounding interest payments to foreign money-debt sequences than on all public health and education combined – even if incurred by elites allied with transnational banks who deposit their stolen money capital in them.32 The outcome is illiteracy and death to millions of children. The reason is public funds reallocated to service private-bank payments.33 Everywhere we look, it seems, the same disorder is on the march into the United States and Europe themselves.”

32Larry Elliott, ‘Why the Poor are Picking Up the Tab’, Guardian Weekly, May 17, 1998, p. 14.

33Maggie O’Kane, ‘A Plague That Kills Millions – The Plague of Debt’, Guardian Weekly, May 17, 1998, p. 1.

McMurtry, John. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism: From Crisis to Cure (p. 199-200). Pluto Press. Kindle Edition.

One thought on “‘The Overpopulation Argument’ by Professor John McMurtry

  1. True arguments, especially the one about literacy.
    The real reason though for the failing monetary system is, it only rewards labor as life support/ in stead of rewarding consumption needs (the mentioned support systems).
    That way you keep overstreching shortages/ or otherwise keep overrewarding unnecessary artificial addictions.
    There is no proof a little more time and patience would not meet demand anymore/ certainly when it at the same time overstretches frustration – and thus creates overpopulation.

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