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Debate on Richard Heinberg's Why Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem

Brad H

From the SCNCC Listserve: Bill H shares an article published today in Resilience.org:
Why Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us
By Richard Heinberg, originally published by Post Carbon Institute
• August 17, 2017 Why Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us - Resilience


Gene C replies:
I have been following Richard Heinberg’s postings for about 12 or 15 years. For two or three years I attended monthly meetings of a Bay Area “Peak Oil” group. I’d worked where I learned a lot about the oil industry and didn’t believe in peak oil, but I wanted to understand the interest. I won’t describe those meetings in any detail. I was shocked by the participants at the beginning, thinking I’d fallen in with a group of survivalists. As I became familiar with the regular attendees I became more comfortable. Individuals drawn to the group due to concern about climate change, as I was, with the understanding that fossil fuel consumption played a major part in that, gradually drifted away. I stayed as the others left. The main thrust was that climate change was a concern for 2090 and beyond, while oil was about to run out — the various dates have come and gone — and civilization would fall into chaos when the peak occured. "100 million Americans will have to die” was often expressed, and population control was the hidden heart of analysis.

As I read today’s version of Richard Heinberg I see he has two two recommendations to save the environment. 1. Voluntary Simplicity. It is clear that voluntary simplicity has and will produce close to nothing for the environment. If the system is forcing us to be consumers, how can we voluntarily not be?

Heinberg’s second recommendation is: 2. population control. He has become more forthright about expressing this recently. Population control is non-threatening to the system, for it will be applied to others.

I’ve followed Heinberg’s analysis through “peak oil” — then, beginning with and for a few years after the 2008 financial crash, "peak debt”. The world was running out of debt, according to Heinberg! Peak oil was plausible but peak debt is laughable.

I agree with him that technology won’t save us. But he offers instead numbers 1. and 2. above, nothing else.

I’ve been cautioned by John Horan about criticizing Heinberg. I’m disappointed, nevertheless, that such a shallow thinker is held up, again and again, as expressing useful ideas.

Notice that I am nor criticizing Resilience, though Heinberg unfortunately looms large in that baliwick.



Kamran replies:

Let me add my two cents. The Overshoot argument is valid insofar as it does describe what has been happening from a systems theory perspective. Thus, Heinberg's opening paragraph is valid insofar as it goes.

But systems theory applies to all historical situations. We know there have been other ecological overshoots as civilizations have collapsed in the past beginning with the first, the Sumer civilization that collapsed due to salination of the soil which provided it with its livelihood. The question is what specificity of the socioeconomic formation is that leads to the ecological crisis and (possible) collapse. The systems theorists pay no attention to this crucial question. Why Heiberg does not cite capitalism as the culprit is unknown to me. Other Overshoot and Limits to Growth thinkers, like Ted Trainer, clearly argue that capitalism is responsible for the crisis.

Like Heinberg, I have also advocated voluntary simplicity and population control. But as an eco-centric ecological socialist, I have taken pains to explain why these can only be achieved in an all-out struggle against the anthropocentric industrial capitalist world economy. That is the elephant in the room that must be acknowledged as the problem if we can have any hope in our fight to save the world.

For the Earth,


PS. Heinberg and I live within 8-10 miles of each other. I am hoping we can meet over coffee so I can learn about his views on questions raised above. We must engage each other, build unity in action, and work together as soon as possible. The world cannot wait.


Richard Smith replies:

1. You’re right. Voluntary simplicity under capitalism = mass unemployment. A great solution (If he’d read my “Beyond growth or beyond capitalism” article he couldn’t make such a dumb argument).

2. Population. He’s right. There are way too many people, obviously (especially in my neighborhood in Manhattan). But populations are already collapsing in Africa with four simultaneous famines going on right now and as the planet heats up food production is going to collapse not only in South East and South Asia and vast swathes of Africa but in parts of the United States and not in the next century but in the next decades. That will “solve” the population problem but it won’t get us a viable sustainable economy. For that we have to replace capitalism.

So let’s debate this guy.



Bill H replies:

Good idea to get together with Heinberg - this is what needs to happen on a broader scale if we are to have the consilience diagnosis now required. Take a look at the Lotka-Volterra model of predator and prey interactions and consider limits to growth and overshoot. And I'll reiterate that capitalism is but one strand of the process behind our two centuries of exponential growth. Plus we will need to harness the innovation/investment engine to mitigate climate without collapse..


Richard Smith replies:

Dear Bill,
With all due respect, and I know it’s really difficult to let go of the tech fetishism of capitalism that we’ve all been raised in and lived in, but the fact is, I don’t think we need to invent much more of anything. We don’t need new tech solutions or much new investment. What we need to do for a start is stop the economic growth machine not replace it with a “green” growth machine based around new tech miracles, new innovations, new investments to bring them to market, and so on. We need to just stop growth and shut down much of our industrial economy. If we had suppressed emissions and resource consumption decades ago we wouldn’t be facing the climate emergency we face now. But we didn’t and haven’t and so now we have no choice but to slam on the brakes from here to China, substantiall deindustrialize, and figure out how to reorganize a viable sustainable society.
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Brad H

An earlier thread prompted a similar discussion. William Rees (one of the two people that coined "small footprint") wrote an article that was re-published on the SCNCC website: Staving Off the Coming Global Collapse

Micheal Friedman a few days later published an article on MROnline that was republished on the SCNCC website: The root of the climate crisis is capitalism, not demographics and enjoined in some conversation on Facebook: System Change Not Climate Change; the Ecosocialist Coalition

Some key ecosocialist principles arise from these conversations. In answer to a question on FB: How can an ecosocialist believe that there is no upper bound to human population or development, as there is for all other species?

Friedman replies: Never said there is "no upper bound," nor is that the issue under capitalism. Read the article a little more carefully. And don't assume our current social order has always existed or will always exist. Even the concept of carrying capacity is problematic, as many ecologists will tell you. First, create a society in which production and consumption is democratically planned and transparent, in which development is guided by human need and ecological integration. Then we can talk realistically about demographic "upper bounds."


The point being, I think, that we can't talk about Rees's "population problem" or Heinburg's "systems approach" to understanding crisis, and the problem of growth in abstraction. What's necessary is to acknowledge the driver's of growth in the imperatives of our socio-economic system. This was massively theorized within a long, healthy, tradition of Western social science culimating in the Marx/Engel's analysis of capitalism, and further theorized by an impressive line of ecosocialist thinkers including the likes of John Bellamy Foster. The question is: Why do authors such as Rees and Heinberg studiously ignore such peak moments in the development of western political/economic theory in the service of deciphering what is going on today?
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Kamran Nayeri

Dear Howard:

I think you are mixing up two different discussions about human population. The first in historical order is what is referred to as the Malthusian position on the human population. A really nice essay on this by John Bellamy Foster, "Malthus' Essay on Population at Age 200" (1998) deals with the intellectual roots of it, as well as Marxian response, and the more recent neo-Malthusian views. As Martha E. Gimenez has argued in “The Population Issue: Marx vs. Malthus” (Den Ny Verden, Journal of the Institute for Development Research, Copenhagen, Denmark, December 1973), Marx’s and Engels’ criticism of Malthus’ theory of population fall into two categories. First, they argued that Malthus’ theory reified the existing problem of poverty in England. Second, for Marx and Engels development of human history is subject to historical laws influenced by its dominant modes of production. The size and rate of growth of human population are subject to this historical process of development. There is no general theory of human population good for all times.

The second discussion about human population is ecological, about whether and how human population growth has contributed to species extinction and undermining of ecosystems on which species depend. If you wish to engage the discussion about the Sixth Extinction, for example, you cannot avoid this discussion. And confusing this discussion with the Malthusian or neo-Malthusian or "populationist" arguments is mixing the point. There is no doubt in the literature in ecology and conservation biology that human population growth has undermined the web of life on the planet.

For a detailed discussion of these issues please see my On the Population Question: Malthus, Marx and Beyond which is part of my critique of the neo-Malthusian, Limits to Growth ecosocialist, Saral Sarkar's views.

For my discussion of the population growth and the Sixth Extinction, see, "How to Stop the Sixth Extinction: A Critical Assessment of E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth."

Thus, it is unhelpful to mark Richard Heinberg's use of "population control" as Malthusian, or colonialist or imperialist, etc. Yes, in a planned economy we must have a plan for human population growth but as your example of Cuba shows, it can be achieved through empowering women.

There is no advantage for the humanity to have 7.6 billion of us, half of it is need of basic requirement of life while we also are undermining the life-support systems of the planet. Would not be more prudent to have a much smaller human population, arrived at with empowerment of women and through democratic planning, in an ecocentric ecological socialist world in which all are afforded the means of human development living in harmony with the rest of nature?

Hasta la Victoria Siempre!


On Sat, Aug 19, 2017 at 9:51 AM, Howard Ehrman <hehrman@uic.edu> wrote:
Friends and Comrades,

I hope some women on this list speak up about these issues on this current topic

I have lots to say but have to go soon

Population Control is a colonialist/imperialist term, concept and practice that has been used as part of the genocidal destruction of the Global South and people of Color and other minorities (i.e. Native Americans, Jews & Romas by the Nazis, etc.) in the North since the small time bankers made a big time Loan to Queen Isabela and Ferdinand to finance the 3 ships of Colon in 1492 and to justify slavery

To survive as a species in the next several decades hundreds of millions need real incentives and training to go back to the very depopulated rural areas in every continent of the world to build sustainable farms based on Agroecology and food sovereignty of 100 hectares or less that can out produce the industrial farms of thousands of hectares they need to replace

This will help out folks like Richard and have the positive effect of less hot, sweaty bodies on Manhattan’s subways that are delayed every day

Population Control is being done every day in this country and around the world with forced and unknowing (by women) sterilization, testing of every kind of birth control method invented, especially on women of color

I would encourage all of you to see Birthright” A War Story that debuts this week in Chicago and other cities

Birthright Film – A War Story

As comrades who say we believe in socialism I would also request you look at what has happened in the only socialist country left in the world: Revolutionary Cuba

Unlike China where the state (selectively) actively enforced 1 child (mostly in urban areas) until recently

Cuba has done what every country needs to do:

1. Educate women: in many areas of study up through doctorate programs women are the majority

2. Elect and appoint women to power: women make up almost half of all government elected and appointed positions including the Cuban Ambassador to the UN

3. Create 100% access to all forms of family planning Cuba can afford (i.e. the US blockade makes hormonal implants too expensive)

4. Create one of the safest environments at home, in the community, in birthing centers and hospitals that has resulted in The WHO verified spectacular statistics: no maternal deaths among 11 million people in the last 2 years

An infant mortality rate of 4, that is 33% less than the US and the best in the Global South,etc, etc

What has been the result of all this comrades:

The Cubans are now worried because they have an aging population with zero population growth as the majority of women are now having only one child

Campaigns are beginning and new laws and rules are being put in place to pay women their same salary and not lose their jobs if they stay home 3-6 months after having a baby

There is lots more we have to say, but please investigate this more including looking at some UN policies, the actual practice of what happened originally in the Soviet Union right after the Revolution and in China and in Eastern Europe which was filled with contradictions

Even the NYT has something to say about this

Feel free to read the NYT “Red Century” series including why women had better sex in Eastern Europe

Red Century

Whether it was Malthus, Guttenmacher, Rockefeller or Mr. Population Bomb-Paul Ehrlich they are consciously (Malthus) or unconsciously Colonialists and Imperialists and promote their ideas, policies and plans among millions

All of which make the Fascists and other Imperialists of the world smile and say

"Thanks for doing some of our work for us"

Hasta la Victoria Siempre!

Howard Ehrman MD, MPH
University of Illinois Chicago
Assistant Professor
College of Medicine
School of Public Health

Kamran Nayeri

Dear Howard:

Thank you very much for your response and for sharing Ian Rappel's 2015 article from International Socialism. I have read it quickly and like to take a closer look at it as soon as I have more time to spare.

I am glad we are on the same page on the key issues I raised (your first set of three numbered points 1-3).

I must clarify the issue of "mixing up" which I first alluded to. I meant mixing up two separate discussions of the population question. One was a question of defending the working class against the Malthusian assault which blamed poverty on the growing numbers of the working people. Another is the question of the role of human population growth on ecological balance since well before capitalism (see, my essay on the Sixth Extinction for elaboration). These are two different discussions both highly important. However, the one we face today and is relevant to the current thread which began with Bill Henderson's posting of Richard Heinberg essay from the Resilience refers, in so far as I understand it, with the latter question. In my mind, when Heinberg used the term "population control" he was talking about the second problem, not the first, and that he did not offer a "colonial", "imperialist, or "Neo-Malthusian" view of the problem or its solution. I felt it would be in the best interest of everyone not to use such strong terms in a discussion with Heinberg that has not yet begun. (Following a suggestion by Richar Smith, we have contacted Richard Heinberg and he has tentatively agreed to talk to us in a format yet to be decided. Stay tuned).

To his credit, Heinberg is among the few in the ecological movement, who is viewing the climate crisis as part of a larger crisis. My question for Heinberg is, as I wrote earlier on the thread, why not take note of the role of capitalism in this crisis. Since 2013, when I was invited by Philosophers for Change to contribute an essay and I wrote Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: A Critical Outline, Part 1 and Part 2, I have systematically argued the following:

1.Climate crisis is just one aspect of the planetary crisis.
2. The immediate cause of the planetary crisis is the Anthropocene.
3. The Anthropocene has been caused by the anthropocentric industrial capitalist civilization.
4. The Anthropocene would never have been possible without the 10,000-year-old anthropocentric ideology/worldview.
5. To resolve each of the current existential crises: climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and nuclear war, we educate, organize, and mobilize millions of working people, especially in key contributing countries, to transcend the current world system in the direction of eco-centric ecological socialism.

As you can verify, my argument has in accordance to Hegel's and to Marx's view that the truth is on the whole and that the truth is concrete.

I hope this brief explanation would suffice for our current discussion. I would be happy to continue our conversation offline (anyone interested can participate) or in a separate thread if that is what you and the group likes.

One last thing: I also believe that we should undertake any part of our program for an ecocentric ecological socialism as soon as the opportunity presents itself. Empowering women, hence democratic family planning, do not need to wait until the Revolution as some left groups argued in the 1970s.

For the Earth,


On Sun, Aug 20, 2017 at 12:20 AM, Howard Ehrman <hehrman@uic.edu> wrote:

Dear Kamran,
Thank you for your response and emailing us links to your articles which I will read and learn from in the next week
Again, This is another example of a healthy discussion around one of the most important topics for Socialists, Marxists, Ecosocialists

In which we all learn from each other with the goal of comradely identifying points of unity and respectively points upon which we differ

First on what we agree on-
1. I completely agree the 6th extinction is well underway and that human development based on historical materialism is the main, primary cause

2. Absolutely-humans need to collectively, democratically limit our population growth
3. In this context we agree on Marx & Engel’s criticism of Malthus-i.e. "development of human history is subject to historical laws influenced by its dominant modes of production”

However, there is no mixing up of the 1st & 2nd discussions

Where we appear, at this point in our on-going dialogue, to disagree, is your attempt (which is the dominant mode of thought on this issue) to artificially separate an “ecological” discussion of human population from a Marxist view of population
That is the fundamental problem with the western reductionist approach to ecology and the environment which is not based on historical materialism

They are absolutely inseparable in the real world throughout human history

To somehow disconnect the entire organization of our planet, including both the built and natural environment, from at least 525 years of colonialism, slavery, capitalism and imperialism-all of which continue to co-exist today, is to not deal with the necessity to overthrow all forms of capitalism including all those that directly affect human behavior and relations
The question is not primarily whether we agree that we need to limit population growth-which we, the people under socialism democratically and with leadership from the Global South and Women need to do

The question is to use historical materialism of the past and present to create a future in which all of life on Mother Earth lives in harmony

Where we learn through listening to our Indigenous Sisters and Brothers how to “Live Well, not live better"
Another aspect is the fallacy that more humans always = less species/diversity

When in fact throughout human history there are well documented examples, including today, throughout Mother Earth of dense populations living in harmony with all other living species, caring for them, using the natural environment or modifications of them to actually engender other species growth and diversity
The questions are:

1. What are the root causes of population growth
2. How have, over the last 525 years, populations' sizes been manipulated by those in power-consistent genocide but also need for slaves, peasants, indentured servants, workers, etc.

3. How have human populations under whose control interacted with all other living species, especially since 1492
The answers to this are clear and well documented-

Let us just take the case of what happened in the Americas-well before the population of the earth hit 1 Billion at the end of the 19th century when imperialism began-

How many tens of millions of Africans and Native Americans, whose population went from 20 million to less than a million, died directly as a result of Slavery/Colonialism/Genocidal Racism by the English, Spanish, Dutch and French before we had 1 Billion people on Tierra Madre?

Not in the way that Jared Diamond writes about in his books, who ignores a Marxist historical materialist approach and uses a new form of distorted pre-determinism to make white middle class folks in the US & Europe feel good and that completely ignores the role of colonialism, racism, imperialism and hides the intentional use of germs as a weapon over and over again, etc., and the fact that the European conquerers could not have won one battle without the help of Native American allies, etc.
Instead there was intentional genocide and then replacement of populations when that occurred

How many hundreds of millions of acres and living species/biodiversity were displaced and destroyed by European colonialists in the Americas well before the earth’s population reached 1 billion at the end of the 19th century?

We agree that this destruction is happening more rapidly now but it is not just because of increasing population
The increasing destruction of all living species and diversity in rural areas throughout the world on all continents is happening simultaneously with the killing and forcing of hundreds of millions of humans, mostly peasant farmers off the land to push them into the cities and then rip apart Mother Earth where they lived in search of extracting fossil fuels and all natural resources, including water

So rural Earth is being depopulated at the same time species and biodiversity is being destroyed more rapidly than ever as global capitalism develops more earth destroying technology needed fewer people to operate

I worked with coal workers and the United Mine Workers (UMW) throughout the South and in Chicago both politically and medically beginning 50 years ago

Go ask their descendants in West Virginia, Kentucky, etc. what’s happened to their populations, how many jobs are left and how many workers are needed to blow up a mountain top and then dig and transport the coal out (a handful)-a practice far more destructive to a greater geographic area, destroying more species and biodiversity than its destructive predecessor-underground mining

The increased demands of 7+ Billions of people for the world’s resources are real, but are far outweighed by the capitalist/imperialist model of development tied directly to Marx and Engels thesis on Malthus

Are the 40 million folks in California (we can certainly have a valid discussion on why that is too many people) deciding to plant millions of almond trees that disproportionatly suck up the water in the aquifers

Or Did they decide the state should have the greatest concentration of Industrial Agriculture on earth that uses over 80% of its water? And has destroyed most of the biodiversity and species in the Central Valley and beyond

Thank you for the discussion Kamran and friends

I look forward to your response
The next chapter

More Later-

“If there is no Struggle, there is no Progress"

Howard Ehrman MD, MPH

Steve Ongerth

I disagree with something Richard says, specifically: "We don’t need new tech solutions or much new investment. What we need to do for a start is stop the economic growth machine not replace it with a “green” growth machine based around new tech miracles, new innovations, new investments to bring them to market, and so on. We need to just stop growth and shut down much of our industrial economy."

Actually I think that's a mistaken view. In fact we need to keep on inventing green technologies that help us decarbonize our energy system as much as possible. Even if we have to slam the brakes on economic growth entirely and "de-industrialize" (how this is to be done and to what extent specifically, Richard does not specify), the existing energy system, which is carbon based has to be decarbonized, and how we do that without manufacturing more of the existing non-carbon based technology or continuing to invent and deploy newer technologies which help us do that more efficiently is beyond me.

I've had this argument with Richard before and his response is to basically accuse me of being a "techno-optimist", but I would counter by saying I'm a "realist". Just because the problems of climate change can be solved simply by using "green" technologies alone doesn't mean that green technology isn't an essential part of the solution.

David Klein

Richard is right. Current renewable energy technology could, in principle, supply all existing energy needs for all purposes, even under capitalism. Mark Jacobson et al are right about that, despite so-called rebuttals. Even the so-called rebuttals acknowledge that 80% of all current energy needs can be supplied by existing renewable energy sources, so the squabble with Jacobson et al is over the 20%. But Jacobson et al have successfully rebutted the rebuttals for the 20%. So why isn't this happening? Answer: capitalism.

The climate crisis is not a technological problem, it is 100% a political problem. The path to planetary survival, if taken, is to shut down major industries, reorganize agriculture, mass transportation, etc. This is impossible under capitalism, so the only sensible thing to do is militate against capitalism while slamming the breaks on envirnomental destruction insofar as that is possible in the current situation.

Steve Ongerth

Richard is right. Current renewable energy technology could, in principle, supply all existing energy needs for all purposes, even under capitalism. Mark Jacobson et al are right about that, despite so-called rebuttals. Even the so-called rebuttals acknowledge that 80% of all current energy needs can be supplied by existing renewable energy sources, so the squabble with Jacobson et al is over the 20%. But Jacobson et al have successfully rebutted the rebuttals for the 20%. So why isn't this happening? Answer: capitalism.

The climate crisis is not a technological problem, it is 100% a political problem. The path to planetary survival, if taken, is to shut down major industries, reorganize agriculture, mass transportation, etc. This is impossible under capitalism, so the only sensible thing to do is militate against capitalism while slamming the breaks on envirnomental destruction insofar as that is possible in the current situation.
I'm not sure that this contradicts anything I said.

Brad H

Marx made the critical distinction between technology and its socially determined application. Doesn't mean that technology itself is completely neutral/unbiased, because all determinants in themselves are determined. Like all technologies, "alternative energy" and the instruments it powers can be controlled/made to conform to rationally prescribed human ends consistent with ecological survivability, rather than as reified means/mediations of capital accumulation. So you're all right. Answers are radically political, and about social priorities. And, human existence is inconceivable without forms of organization, tools and technologies that take on specific forms and tasks. Choosing or emphasizing radical contraction (Smith) or emphasizing energies that are inherently "more sustainable" (Ongerth) are complementary. In rhetorical terms, the former is a message that Ecosocialists seem to have a unique responsibility to scream out to the world, the latter can get diffused in the productivism of NGO and labour pollyanna, BUT, also important of Ecosocialists to pursue centrally and critically.
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New Member
Dear Kamran,

You state, "there is no doubt in the literature in ecology and conservation biology that human population growth has undermined the web of life on the planet." I disagree with I take to be a reference to human agency in the the so-called "Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions." Aside from folks like Jared Diamond, this is far from accepted among researchers, many of whom assign varying and synergistic roles (see link) to climate change and other environmental factors, as well as, local human population interactions with fauna. My own take, as an evolutionary biologist, is that environmental factors played a predominant role, with human populations pushing some local bottle-necked populations over the brink. A while ago, I wrote a note for C&C on this (Did early humans wipe out most large mammals?):

Kolbert’s writing on mass extinction seems to be based on the Paul Martin/Jared Diamond theory that overkill by early Homo sapiens caused the so-called Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions. I have not read Kolbert’s work, so I’ll limit my response to the Martin/Diamond thesis. Their theory remains controversial, and there have been a number of articles that cast doubt on it.

Most recently, Emily Schwing (2015) reported in Scientific American, that “for at the least the story of the mastodon, we now know for what we call Beringia — Alaska, parts of Yukon and over into northeastern Asia — they were wiped out in those areas for things that had nothing to do with humans, because they all died out before there were humans there.” [“Humans off the Hook for Alaskan Mastodon Extinction”]

The Scientific American report was based on research by Grant D. Zazula et al., published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “American mastodon extirpation in the Arctic and Subarctic predates human colonization and terminal Pleistocene climate change

Donald Grayson and David Meltzer reported in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2002:

“Today, the overkill position is rejected for western Europe but lives on in Australia and North America. The survival of this hypothesis is due almost entirely to Paul Martin, the architect of the first detailed version of it. In North America, archaeologists and paleontologists whose work focuses on the late Pleistocene routinely reject Martin’s position for two prime reasons: there is virtually no evidence that supports it, and there is a remarkably broad set of evidence that strongly suggests that it is wrong. In response, Martin asserts that the overkill model predicts a lack of supporting evidence, thus turning the absence of empirical support into support for his beliefs. We suggest that this feature of the overkill position removes the hypothesis from the realm of science and places it squarely in the realm of faith.” [‘A requiem for North American overkill’]

In 2008, Todd Surovell, who actually tends to support the overkill hypothesis, wrote, in the Encyclopedia of Archaeology

“Although the overkill hypothesis (or variations thereof) applied to oceanic islands extinctions is generally accepted today, whether overkill explains extinctions on continents remains highly controversial. The most serious obstacle to overkill is that in most regions archaeological evidence for human exploitation of extinct taxa is scarce. In North America, for example, although 33 genera of large-bodied mammals suffered extinction during the Late Pleistocene, fewer than five can be shown to have been utilized by humans. If humans caused the extinction of North American species by over-hunting, then they must have killed thousands if not millions of animals, which begs the question, ‘Where is the archaeological evidence?’ Martin has argued that if blitzkrieg-type overkill happened very quickly, little archaeological evidence would be expected. For others, however, this lack of direct evidence has meant that perhaps we should be seeking explanations for extinctions else- where, such as in the dramatic swings in global climate that have occurred during the Quaternary.” [‘Extinctions of Big Game’]

Finally Matthew Boulanger and Lee Lyman, writing in 2014 in Quaternary Science Reviews, note that:

“The overkill hypothesis requires Paleoindians to be contemporaneous with extinct mammalian taxa and this provides a means to evaluate the hypothesis, but contemporaneity does not confirm overkill. Blitzkrieg may produce evidence of contemporaneity but it may not, rendering it difficult to test. Overkill and Blitzkrieg both require large megafaunal populations. Chronological data, Sporormiella abundance, genetics, and paleoclimatic data suggest megafauna populations declined prior to human colonization and people were only briefly contemporaneous with megafauna. Local Paleoindians may have only delivered the coup de grace to small scattered and isolated populations of megafauna.” [‘Northeastern North American Pleistocene megafauna chronologically overlapped minimally with Paleoindians’]

In 2010, Steve Wolverton provided a useful summary of this debate in the journal Diversity and Distributions: “The North American Pleistocene overkill hypothesis and the re-wilding debate.”

I don’t find it implausible that early humans caused the extinction of some populations, and even entire species, particularly island populations or groups that were bottlenecked by environmental change in the late Pleistocene. I do find it implausible and objectionable to attribute to early humans a monocausal role in global mass extinctions, on the basis of sketchy evidence.

Grayson and Meltzer note that “it is easy to show that overkill’s continued popularity is closely related to the political uses to which it can be put.”

“Take, for instance, Peter Ward’s recent discussion of the matter. Ward — a superb paleontologist whose scientific research focuses on fossils that are between about 300 million and 60 million years old — is convinced by Martin’s arguments, concluding that ‘the ravages of hungry people surely were involved in the destruction of many species now extinct.’ In this conclusion, he finds ‘tragic validity for times approaching … the Snake River salmon is virtually extinct … king crab fishing in Alaska has been essentially terminated because the stocks are gone; the great shellfish fisheries of Puget Sound have been halted because the oysters and mussels are too poisoned by industrial wastes to eat.’ For Ward, the overkill position is inextricably linked to modern times and to the homily of ecological ruin.”

They go on: “Our concern here is that both science and environmental concerns are being done a disservice by relying on claims that have virtually no empirical support.”

I would argue that the politics involved are an effort to exculpate capitalist environmental profligacy, either by conscious defenders of the social order or those who do not have a clear understanding of the dynamic of capitalist production and the “metabolic rift” it entails, and thus, the necessary social solutions.

But, beyond this, I believe the deterministic ideologies that have been bandied about since the days of eugenics, most recently in the forms of Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology, are present as a subtext to the overkill argument. These affirm that biology is our destiny and therefore any attempts to alleviate environmental issues by changing society are doomed to failure.

Overkill proponents provide the ad hoc explanation that megafauna in Africa (the cradle of humanity) didn’t become extinct because the large mammals were able to “adapt” to human hunters, which leaves of course begs the questions, why didn’t other megafauna adapt and why is it that now the African megafauna is indeed on the verge of extinction?

Most ecologists would probably acknowledge that the past century has seen an uptick in extinctions and overall reduction of biodiversity. Some will suggest that we are at the precipice of a mass extinction the likes of which haven’t been seen since the K-T event that wiped out the dinosaurs. However, most would attribute it to a variety of factors that are symptomatic of capitalist society, or other things like overpopulation, without actually putting their finger on the dynamic of capital accumulation that drives these symptoms.

There has been a qualitative change in human relations with our environment since the advent of capitalist production, and particularly industrial capitalism. The major causes of biodiversity decline are all related to the commodification and capitalization of natural resources: to expanded reproduction, in Marxist terms. These are habitat destruction, deforestation, factory-type monocrop agricultural and livestock production, overhunting and fishing, pollution, invasive species and the pet trade. Climate change threatens to become another major cause of species extinctions.

I argued in a recent Monthly Review article that,

“Biodiversity runs counter to the very nature of homogenized capitalist production. The dynamics of complex ecosystems are anathema for capitalist producers, who seek absolute control over the production process with the aim of eliminating complicating variables that increase costs of production and decrease marketability.”

Those are the bases for the uptick in mass extinctions. Those are the reason why megafauna in Africa didn’t face extinction until our era (and in this case, we can also add imperialist-fomented wars to the litany of causes).

Contrary to those who seek the answers to destruction of biodiversity in “human nature,” my own experience leads me to the hope that our “nature” lies in the social character and behavioral plasticity of our species, as Stephen Jay Gould argued, and that we can live sustainably in a socialist society.​

Subsequent to this note, a number of other articles appeared in the literature falsifying or minimizing human agency in a number of alleged megafaunal extinction events, such as:

Climate change frames debate over the extinction of megafauna in Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea)
Climate change frames debate over the extinction of megafauna in Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea)
("Mounting evidence points to the loss of most species before the peopling of Sahul (circa 50–45 ka) and a significant role for climate change in the disappearance of the continent’s megafauna.")

Synergistic roles of climate warming and human occupation in Patagonian megafaunal extinctions during the Last Deglaciation
Synergistic roles of climate warming and human occupation in Patagonian megafaunal extinctions during the Last Deglaciation | Science Advances
("The new genetic data are consistent with the hypothesis that human disruption of megafaunal metapopulation processes (for example, long distance dispersal and rescue effects), along with increased hunting pressure associated with decreased habitat range, allowed local population extinctions initiated by environmental change to coalesce into a larger ecosystem-wide alteration, potentially with minimal direct signs of human hunting")

At least 17,000 years of coexistence: Modern humans and megafauna at the Willandra Lakes, South-Eastern Australia
At least 17,000 years of coexistence: Modern humans and megafauna at the Willandra Lakes, South-Eastern Australia - ScienceDirect

The collapse of megafaunal populations in southeastern Brazil
Climate change frames debate over the extinction of megafauna in Sahul (Pleistocene Australia-New Guinea)
("Our data are consistent with climate causing the population collapse, with humans preventing population recovery and inducing extinction.")

In solidarity,
Michael Friedman, M.P.H., Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Biology
American International College of Arts and Sciences of Antigua
P.O. Box W-1451
University Park, Coolidge
St. John's, Antigua and Barbuda

(268) 736-4246

Kamran Nayeri

Dear Mike:

My sincere apology for missing your comment address to me on this thread. As it turns out, one gets an email from the Forum when a new comment is added IF one has signed up for it. I was not signed up to get notices of new comments. Hence missed your very important comment directed to me. I notice it thanks to David Klein who referred to it and gave a hyperlink this afternoon.

Your comment is well done and I am grateful for it. I am delighted that you have added your voice to this Forum and I hope to benefit from it in the future as well.

Just to be clear, I have never believed or intentionally argued that human population growth has been the cause of species extinction. In fact, I generally do not think highly of any mono-causal inferences. As I am not a biologist, conservation biologist, ecologist I can rely solely on experts in the field and I often quote them in my writings or give clear references to their work. In terms of the current Sixth Extinction, I can cite conservation biologists who refer to the main contributing causes as HIPPO: Habitat destruction, Invasive species, Pollution, Population growth, Overhunting (and overfishing. Clearly, the experts agree that human population growth is a key contributing factor, but not the leading one. As ecological socialists, we must add to this list 'economic growth" or "capital accumulation." But it would be a mistake to reduce the crisis simply to "economic growth" or "capital accumulation" because we are then acting as reductionists. Anyone who has studied economic growth or capital accumulation knows that these are themselves determined by a host of factors such as divisions of labor, etc. For my view of the population questions in the ecological socialist debates please see, "On the Population Question: Malthus, Marx and Beyond." Please also see the brief exchange with Ian Angus in the comment section). For my discussion of the Sixth Extinction and critique of E. O. Wilson's proposal please see, "How to Stop the Sixth Extinction: A Critical Assessment of E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth."

As for Sociobiology, I think linking it to eugenics is far-fetched. Nowhere in E. O. Wilson's writings, and I have read most of his books, there is a hint of racism of any kind, quite the contrary. What he argues is for a theory of human nature that is informed by our evolutionary past as well as our cultural development but he does so without benefiting from a theory of society. This makes him vulnerable taking capitalism for granted. For my take on Sociobiology please see "An Ecological Socialist's Reflection on Edward O. Wilson's Sociobiology."

Warm regards,


David J

This may be an example of the "tech fetishism" that Richard speaks of (above). From today's NYTimes economics reporter Eduardo Porter:

"There is no momentum for investing in carbon capture and storage, since it could be seen as condoning the continued use of fossil fuels. Nuclear energy, the only source of low-carbon power ever deployed at the needed scale, is also anathema. Geoengineering, like pumping aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s heat back into space, is another taboo.

But eventually, these options will most likely be on the table, as the consequences of climate change come more sharply into focus. The rosy belief that the world can reduce its carbon dependency over a few decades by relying exclusively on the power of shame, the wind and the sun will give way to a more realistic understanding of possibilities.

Some set of countries will decide to forget Paris and deploy a few jets to pump sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to cool the world temporarily. There will be a race to develop techniques to harvest and store carbon from the atmosphere, and another to build nuclear generators at breakneck speed."

This terrifying perspective is being mainstreamed as we speak. The Times' science writer has been quoting Third Way materials on "negative emissions technologies" and nuclear power as have editorials in the Economist of late. We can assume these people have the ear of policy folks in governments and tech gurus in Silicon Valley as well.
I agree with Heinberg totally. I would remark two things: the population growth control and that the solutions for industrialized nations are not the same as those for underdeveloped ones.