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Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse

Kamran Nayeri

The following essay by Richard Smith appeared in Common Dreams on November 21, 2017. It takes on the current discussions about climate change and the planetary crisis that do not point to capitalism as the source of the crisis and argues that the only solution is through transcending ever-growing capitalist system in the direction of an ecological socialist society.

As Smith urges, "If we don’t change the conversation if we don’t deal with the systemic problems of capitalism and come up with a viable alternative, our goose is cooked." Here is the link to the full text of the essay.

Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse

Kamran Nayeri

Richard's essay ends with an invitation to discussion.

Note from the moderator, Kamran Nayeri: Saral Sarkar, the author of Eco-Socialism or Eco-capitalism: A Critical Analysis of Humanity's Fundamental Choices (1999) has responded to Richard's sending it for publication in Our Place in the World. Below please find a link to it. As the editor of OPITW, I would be happy to publish other substantial contributions to this discussion. But I urge the reader to consider posting all contributions, small or large, in this thread as well. Here is the link to Sarkar's contribution:

For Saving the Earth We Need to Tell the Whole Truth: An Ecosocialist's Response to Richard Smith

Ted F

I hope Richard and others will deal with Saral Sarkar's serious effort to respond to the major points in Richard's article. I would like to point out what I believe is one fallacy in his response. Disputing Richard's view that population is not the cause of our ecological crisis, Saral says:
The whole truth is succinctly stated in the equation:

I = P x T x A

where I stands for ecological impact (we can also call it ecological destruction), P for population, T for Technology and A for affluence. All these three factors are highly variable.
This is a tautology, not the truth. Treating population as if all people on the planet or in any given polity have equivalent relationships to technology or affluence is an obvious error. The homeless person sleeping under a freeway overpass and Donald Trump do not have access to the same technology or share the same affluence. The equation assumes that there are independent measures of technology and affluence that can be reasonably plugged into this equation.

It would help if Saral would provide some real examples of the units he is plugging into the equation. In reality, the only variable in his formula that has any recognized measure is population. Dividing both sides of his equation by P, we learn that he is basically arguing that ecological impact per person equals affluence times technology. (One would think that a higher value for technology would correspond to lower ecological impact, but I suspect that T is a circularly defined variable that cannot actually be measured so it doesn't really matter.) What is affluence in this equation? Does affluence include the United States military budget? Is the ecological destruction caused by the United States war machine quantifiable as the product of the U.S. population (including Bill Gates and prisoner No. 342437 in the Ohio State Penitentiary?), some measure of our technology that makes destruction greater as technology improves, and some ill-defined measure of United States affluence (measured by the consumption by all of us including Bill Gates and prisoner No. 342437 in the Ohio State Penitentiary?)

The equation explains nothing. It just represents a bald assertion that ecological impact is directly proportional to population as well as some variables--technology and affluence--that Saral argues are independent of capitalism. In the real world, they are not. In the real world, it is possible for people to lead richer lives without consuming more stuff (including those nuclear bombs being maintained in our name) and it is possible to use technology to reduce ecological impact as well as increase it. I assume Saral would not disagree, but then what is the point of the formula except to advance the claim that ecological damage of every society is directly proportional to population--a claim that fits in equally well with the right-wing passion to "exterminate the brutes" as our ecological vision. We fight the equation of overpopulation and ecological damage because it distracts from the real solutions that need to be undertaken--not the least of which are the increased education of girls and social, economic, and political equality for women, proven population control measures that are based on democratic principles.

David Klein

Ted made important points but he was not critical enough about what was presented as science in Saral Sarkar's piece, especially this "equation":

"The whole truth is succinctly stated in the equation:

I = P x T x A

where I stands for ecological impact (we can also call it ecological destruction), P for population, T for Technology and A for affluence. All these three factors are highly variable."--- Saral Sarkar​

This so-called equation is utterly meaningless unless units are specified. The unit of population P is no doubt people. The unit of affluence A could be reasonably be dollars per person or perhaps dollars per person spent per unit time. But what are the units of technology T? And what are the units ecological impact I? An "equation" like this might have some poetic value, but it is scientifically vacuous.

Sarkar also writes,

"..."renewable energies" are neither clean nor renewable, and 100 percent recycling is impossible because the Entropy Law also applies to matter."​

Again this is pseudo-science. Until the emergence of humans on this planet there was 100 percent recycling between animals and plants and the environment, but by Sarkar's logic this could not have been possible because it would violate the "Entropy Law" (i.e. the second law of thermodynamics). It doesn't. The highly ordered state of this planet (including the presence of life!) is thermodynamically possible because of the low entropy radiation coming in from the sun and the high entropy of infrared radiation emitted by Earth into space. Essentially a high degree of disorder is emitted out to space through that radiation. This not only makes life possible, it even orders the climate system. The entropy of the universe as a whole is increasing, but this does not apply to all parts of the universe, including Earth. There is a substantial scientific literature about this. See for example some of the chapters and references in this MS thesis: Entropy production of the earth system, by Suanne Oh. There are no doubt practical limits to recycling, but the cause is not entropy.

Sarkar is right that perpetual population growth on a finite planet is impossible, and that the human population must be limited for survival of the biosphere. Infinite expansion on a finite planet is imposssible. He also acknowledged that capitalism has contributed to population growth in this passage:

"No doubt, capitalism-together with the development of technologies, especially agricultural and medical technologies – has largely enabled the huge growth of human numbers in the last two hundred years. But human population growth has been occurring even in pre-capitalist and pre-medieval eras, albeit at a slower rate. Parallel to this, also environmental destruction has been occurring and growing in these eras."​

But this does not go nearly far enough. It is capitalism that drives both climate change and environmental destruction, and it drives population growth. The highest population growth rates in human history coincide with the capitalist era as the table on page 111 of my book shows. The dramatic increases in growth rates appear starting in 1500, about the time that modern capitalism emerged. It should be noted that many factors affect population growth, not just economic systems. For example, as resources to sustain growth reach planetary limits, population growth rates will likely decrease and may eventually become negative, even with capitalism.

It is hardly surprising that capitalism should spur population growth. Effciencies and growth of food production naturally lead to population increases. Capitalism also tends to benefit from an increasing population because markets expand with population, and so does the labor pool. An expanding labor pool lowers the cost of labor thus increasing profits, and that engenders economic growth. In addition, capitalism invariably leads to highly concentrated wealth and widespread poverty, and the highest birth rates are correlated with poverty.

If the population stopped growing, there would, for example, be little demand for new housing, and with fewer new households, purchases of furniture and appliances would plummet. The construction industry would collapse and pull down numerous other industries with it. Unemployment would soar. Population growth and capitalism constitute a positive feedback loop, reinforcing each other.

Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, analyzes how the long term concentration of wealth in capitalist societies depends on population growth. The basic idea stems from a comparison of the rate r of the return on capital to the rate g of growth of the economy as a whole. If r > g for an extended period of time in a capitalist society (the most important example being the entire world), then Piketty's analysis shows that wealth can become so concentrated that the society becomes unstable and prone to revolution [Piketty, pg 263].

Mathematically, the rate g is a sum of two terms: the per capita output growth rate and the population growth rate. In any capitalist economy, as Piketty explains, economic “growth always includes a purely demographic component” [Piketty, pg 72]. Thus, r is likely to be much larger than g when there is zero or negative population growth, and capitalism becomes more unstable because of excessive concentration of wealth.

According to United Nations projections, the global population growth rate is expected to fall to 0.4% by 2030 and decrease further to 0.1% in the 2070s. Under these circumstances, Piketty estimates a global growth rate g between 1% and 1.5% and a rate of return r on capital of 4% or 5%, so that r will be much larger than g. The conclusion is that without intervention against the mechanisms of the free market, wealth concentration will reach unprecedented levels and destabilize the global capitalist system. That is indeed an ominous scenario. If humanity permits capitalism to continue, the destruction of the environment and the biosphere will be catastrophic.

David Klein
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Bill Burgess

New Member
Not to pile on, but I think the 1995 statement below by Donella Meadows, lead author of the famous 1972 Limits to Growth report is particularly compelling because it comes from someone whose work had been deeply rooted in IPAT logic:
"...I didn’t realize how politically correct this formula had become, until a few months ago when I watched a panel of five women challenge it and enrage an auditorium full of environmentalists, including me.

IPAT is a bloodless, misleading, cop-out explanation for the world’s ills, they said. It points the finger of blame at all the wrong places. It leads one to hold poor women responsible for population growth without asking who is putting what pressures on those women to cause them to have so many babies. It lays a guilt trip on Western consumers, while ignoring the forces that whip up their desire for ever more consumption. It implies that the people of the East, who were oppressed by totalitarian leaders for generations, now somehow have to clean up those leaders’ messes.

As I listened to this argument, I got mad. IPAT was the lens through which I saw the environmental situation. It’s neat and simple. I didn’t want to see any other way.

IPAT is just what you would expect from physical scientists said one of the critics, Patricia Hynes of the Institute on Women and Technology in North Amherst, Massachusetts. It counts what is countable. It makes rational sense. But it ignores the manipulation, the oppression, the profits. It ignores a factor that scientists have a hard time quantifying and therefore don’t like to talk about: economic and political POWER. IPAT may be physically indisputable. But it is politically naive.

I was shifting uneasily in my seat.

There are no AGENTS in the IPAT equation, said Patricia Hynes, no identifiable ACTORS, no genders, colors, motivations. Population growth and consumption and technology don’t just happen. Particular people make them happen, people who shape and respond to rewards and punishments, people who may be acting out of desperation or love or greed or ambition or fear.

Unfortunately, I said to myself, I agree with this.

Suppose we wrote the environmental impact equation a different way, said the annoying panel at the front of the auditorium. Suppose, for example, we put in a term for the military sector, which, though its Population is not high, commands a lot of Affluence and Technology. Military reactors generate 97 percent of the high-level nuclear waste of the U.S. Global military operations are estimated to cause 20 percent of all environmental degradation. The Worldwatch Institute says that “the world’s armed forces are quite likely the single largest polluter on earth.”

Suppose we added another term for the 200 largest corporations, which employ only 0.5 percent of all workers but generate 25 percent of the Gross World Product — and something like 25 percent of the pollution. Perhaps, if we had the statistics, we would find that small businesses, where most of the jobs are, produce far less than their share of environmental impact.

Suppose we separate government consumption from household consumption, and distinguish between household consumption for subsistence and for luxury, for show, for making us feel better about ourselves. If we had reliable numbers, which we don’t, we might be able to calculate how much of the damage we do to the earth comes from necessity, and how much from vanity.

An equation was beginning to form in my head:

Impact equals Military plus Large Business plus Small Business plus Government plus Luxury Consumption plus Subsistence Consumption

Each of those term has its own P and A and T. Very messy. Probably some double counting and some terms left out. But no more right or wrong, really, than IPAT.

Use a different lens and you see different things, you ask different questions, you find different answers. What you see through any lens is in fact there, though it is never all that is there. It’s important to remember, whatever lens you use, that it lets you see some things, but it prevents you from seeing others."
Saral misreads my statement. He says "Richard writes, "Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary ecological collapse … .". It sounds like an echo of statements from old-Marxist-socialism. It is not serious. Is Richard telling us that, while we are fighting a long-drawn-out battle against capitalism in order to overcome it, we can allow the population to continuously grow without risking any further destruction of the environment? Should we then think that a world population of ten billion by 2050 would not be any problem?"

By emphasizing population in bold italics he distorts my meaning. What I said was that "Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary collapse. . . " -- that is, the MAIN driver, not the ONLY driver. Though I've never written about this topic at length, I've never claimed that population growth is no problem at all. Saral's right that some Marxists claim that the whole problem is capitalism, that there is no population problem, that the human population could grow more or less ad infinitum. They're mostly responding to Malthusians who contend that overpopulation is the whole problem, not capitalism. I understand where they're coming from. But both approaches seem simple-minded to me. Of course overpopulation is a problem, a huge problem. Look around. I live in one of the most crowded pieces of real-estate in the world, in the middle of Manhattan. Sometimes the sidewalks are so full I have to walk along on the street to get by the crowds of people. By any rational measure there are just way too many people here. There are way too many people in Holland, also one of the most densely populated countries. The only way they've managed is to build ever-higher dykes. But in the end that will be a losing strategy. There are 163,000,000 million people living in Bangladesh -- half the population of the United States -- and they all live on a land area the size of the state of Illinois. How crazy is that? How could that ever be sustainable? Is there room for anything else to live there except people? I suppose, if we really wanted to, we could level the last forests, fish out the last fish, consume the last megafauna and thereby feed another few billion people. But why? Do we really want to live in a world of wall-to-wall people, with no room for other life forms except the ones we eat? What kind of world is that? Saral's right about that: an endlessly growing population is not sustainable even if they live like peasants.

That said, overpopulation is not, in my view, the main driver of planetary collapse. The MAIN driver is capitalism. The human population has roughly tripled since WWII. But our consumption of resources has multiplied many many times greater than population growth: We use something like 6 times as much steel as in 1950, 15 times as much aluminum, thousands of times more plastic and on and on. That ravenous overconsumption of resources, and its associated pollution, is driven mainly by the requirements of capitalist reproduction, not by human reproduction. Yes we need to reduce the human population, if only to give other life forms some space and resources. But there are easy ways to do so without using force like the Chinese government. Instead of building grandiose blingfrastructure and space shots to glorify the Communist Party, China's so-called communists could have prevented their current problems of massive overpopulation if they had spent that money on providing adequate old age pensions and social security so that peasant farmers don't have to have multiple kids in the hopes that one or two will survive to support them in their old age.

So overpopulation is a real problem. But if we don't overthrow capitalism, Mother Nature is going to solve the overpopulation problem in a hurry, and in a most unpleasant manner. That's why I don't concern myself much with the population problem. I don't mean to ignore it. But I think its very much a secondary driver compared to capitalism.
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Kamran Nayeri

I am glad Richard intervened clarifying his own position. I have written to Saral informing him that there is an interest in and a discussion of his contribution. I also provided him with information he needs to "register" for the Forum and the link to this page. He has not responded to me or posted a response here.

Although some of the issues raised in this thread about the "IPAT equation" have some validity (e.g., it has been abused by some) it is not Saral's creation and it makes intuitive sense. There is no doubt that all three factors, human population (think about population density), the degree of affluence (think about consumption per capita), and technology (think about fossil fuel use per capita) have an impact of the "environment." Further, Saral has not argued that capitalism is not a problem but that human population growth is itself an ecological problem.

The IPAT equation is widely used in teaching about ecology. An MIT instructional educational slide describes it as follows (see the PDF file) http://web.mit.edu/2.813/www/Class Slides 2008/IPAT Eq.pdf

The same slide cites these two sources for the IPAT equation:

Ehrlich, P.R. and J.P. Holdren, 1972. "Critique: One Dimensional Ecology." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 28(5): 16, 18-27. Commoner, Barry. "The Environmental Cost of Economic Growth" in Population, Resources and the Environment. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office Pp. 339-63, 1972.

Human population growth has been cited by ecological biologists, conservationists, and other scientists to have been a factor in the rise in the extinction rate of other species for thousands of years. I have documented this in my essay about the Sixth Extinction: Kamran Nayeri's Writings: How to Stop the Sixth Extinction: A Critical Assessment of E. O. Wilson’s Half-Earth

For a recent discussion of the impact of human population and the Sixth Extinction see:
"The interaction of human population, food production, and biodiversity protection" by Eileen Crist, Camilo Mora, Robert Engelman. Science Magazine, April 21, 2-17.

There can be no doubt that any ecological socialist future would require a much smaller human population that produces far few "things" in an eco-social mode of production that would flourish life on Earth, not degrade it.

I have more to say on this thread but must find sufficient time to compose them succinctly.

Thank you for your contributions and hopefully, Saral will find his way into this discussion in due time.

David Klein

Thanks, Kamran, for the references. Another important one is Barry Commoner's Response to the Erhlich/Holdren article entitled, "on 'The Closing Circle' Response," published in the May 1972 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in which I think he does a good job of rebutting some of the assertions of Ehrlich and Holdren.

But perhaps better still is an article entitled, "Mathematics as Propaganda" by Neal Koblitz, a mathematician at the University of Washington, in which he unmasks as propaganda essentially the same equation as I=PAT (but which combines the A and T and uses different letters). He makes a similar point as Ted's earlier post. Here is the relevant part of Koblitz' article, "Mathematics as Propaganda":

Mathematics as Propaganda
Koblitz N. (1981) Mathematics as Propaganda. In: Steen L.A. (eds) Mathematics Tomorrow. Springer, New York, NY

Mathematics as Propaganda

Neal Koblitz

One night several years ago while watching TV, I was surprised to see a mathematical equation make an appearance on the Tonight Show. The occasion was an interview with Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and popularizer of population control as a solution to the world's problems. At that time the ecology movement had just started to capture the attention of the public, and Mr. Ehrlich was arguing that the solution, as always, was in population control.

Johnny Carson was in top form, but the show could have bogged down if his guest had delved into subtleties or overly serious discussion. However, Ehrlich had the perfect solution. He took a piece of posterboard and wrote in large letters for the TV audience:


In this equation," he explained, "D stands for damage to the environment, N stands for the number of people, and I stands for the impact of each person on the environment. This equation shows that the more people, the more pollution. We cannot control pollution without controlling the number of people."
Johnny Carson looked at the equation, scratched his head, made a remark about never having been good at math, and commented that it all looked quite impressive.

Who can argue with an equation? An equation is always exact, indisputable. Challenging someone who can support his claims with an equation is as pointless as arguing with your high school math teacher. How many of Johnny Carson's viewers had the sophistication necessary to question Ehrlich's equation? Is Ehrlich saying that the "I" for the president of Hooker Chemicals (of Love Canal notoriety) is the same as the "I" for you and me? Preposterous, isn't it? But what if the viewer is too intimidated by a mathematical equation to apply some common sense? Ehrlich knew how to use his time on the show well.

Neal Koblitz is Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Washington in Seattle. After receiving his B.A. degree from Harvard in 1969, he studied algebraic geometry and number theory at Princeton where he received his Ph.D. in 1974. In 1974-75 and again in 1978 Koblitz studied at Moscow University. From 1975 .to 1979 he was a Benjamin Peirce Instructor at Harvard University. He is the author of two books and several research articles on algebraic number theory and arithmetic algebraic geometry.

L. A. Steen (ed.), Mathematics Tomorrow © Springer-Verlag New York Inc. 1981
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Dear Richard,

Thanks for your response to Saral. I very much agree with your general framing of the population issue. However, I disagree with your conclusion that, because capitalism is the main driver, therefore we should not concern ourselves with the population problem. Why cant we build a global movement with a broad platform that includes rejecting capitalism and promoting a socio-economic alternative AND ALSO acknowledging the need for stabilization and, ultimately, phased reduction of the global population? I don't see why we can't do both. Indeed, I think it follows from your acknowledgment that population is part of the problem, that we absolutely need to do both i.e we will fail to bring about a sustainable world order if we don' similtaneously deal with capitalism and the population problem (and indeed over-consumption!). Of course, this leads to my next thought which is that the real debate re population is - or at least should be - not whether or not it is a problem (as you say, it really should be obvious that it over-population is part of the problem), but, rather, what exactly we should do about it. The policy debate is the hard part in my opinion. I won't elaborate on that, but Saral has written essays on it, even though I am not totally convinced by his policy recommendations.

The other thing that I wanted to say about your response is that it does not address some of the other important points Saral raised i.e about the viability of large scale participatory democratic planning - at least in the near term, as opposed to the distant future (he shares your vision for the future, but I think is raising the issue of whether this will be viable in the transitional period, which needs to happen pretty soon, given the urgency). Also, the fact that a reduction in the work week may not be viable in a (genuine) ECO-socialist framework, given we will have to move towards more labour intensive forms of work and technology, given the need to reduce the resource-energy etc embedded in much high technology.

Thanks for your great essays, which I have always shared widely.


David J

I think Jonathan's question: "what do we do about it" ( over population) is so often avoided because it is fraught with authoritarian, if not totalitarian insinuations, so often leading to charges of Big Brother/State control, Chinese Communist Party, etc, etc...which socialists already have to contend with. In my experience, those calling for population control are too often focused only on numbers, which either explicitly or implicitly means black and brown people. I feel it is more just to look at ecological footprint : P x (wealth + power ) = I. The population that needs to be controlled are the highest consumers.

As for large scale democratic planning, it certainly would require a revolutionary cultural shift which won't happen over night. But information technology makes it more possible today than it would have been twenty years ago and what is the alternative? Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have laid out a semi-detailed description of planning process in their book Parecon, which I find a good starting point for more discussion. Could we envision an increase in leisure time through elimination of waste and excess? How many hours a week would you be willing to spend planning if you had more leisure time? How many hours would a citizen of ancient Greece spend legislating? Will human desire always thwart such vision?

David J

One other thought: population growth is not only about more being born but also people living longer. I propose a system of planned death, a contractual agreement with the state whereby one arranges a death day. This allows the person to retire earlier, plan better, have better health to the end and make room for the next generation. Statistically, 80 is a pretty good age to leave gracefully. This idea has met mixed reaction with friends and colleagues but the more I think about it, the more I like it.


New Member
Hi everyone

A bit pressed for time so pasting something written in response to an earlier debate with Saral and others. since the IPAT thingy came up, it may be said this is about the T part, and only so since this has been neglected in this discussion so far:

Seems to me that the techno-industrial system, the prime mover behind the ecological crises, is now driven by technology itself, at least as much as the interlinked motives of profit and power [ie capitalism, competition between nation states, and by extension, societal needs and wants]. ie, technological advancement increasingly seems divorced from any recognisable human motive - including profit and power, and seems to be acquiring a logic and momentum all of its own. we are riding a tiger, and even the elites seem increasingly unable to influence the pace or direction of technological change, and only seek to benefit from it to the extent they can.

why, even pointing to a doomsday scenario - human survival and the survival of life itself - does not seem to cut much ice. this is what seems to be happening in the case of climate science, for eg. only humans [economists included] can be persuaded, and humans have less and less to do with the way the system works. If that is indeed the case, any efforts to control – including political efforts - short of the physical destruction of the apparatus is unlikely to work?

among others Dmitry Orlov has written extensively on it. his theory is that the 'Technosphere' is a parasite on the Biosphere, and do not care if it kills the host so long as it can help it expand [to other planets?!], with or without us: ClubOrlov: Shrinking the Technosphere, Part I

would appreciate your thoughts on this


Saral Sarkar

New Member
What Can Be Done Today?

by Saral Sarkar

Richard has clarified his position. In the concluding paragraph, there is this clear statement: Overpopulation is a real problem, which he does not mean to ignore. But it is for him very much "a secondary driver" of planetary ecological collapse. That is why he does not concern himself much with the population problem. His priority is to "overthrow capitalism", the primary driver ….. . This is his analysis and his decision. We have to take cognizance of this. But is it a good decision? Should other eco-socialists follow it? Allow me to say a few words on this question.
To me, it seems Richard is saying that the two – overthrowing capitalism and stopping population growth – are somehow separate tasks. First we must overthrow capitalism, then ….. . But, firstly they are not separate tasks. (Below, I shall try to show how they are connected.) And secondly, it is not easy to overthrow capitalism and then start de-industrializing the country? Richard himself has shown with the example of the jobs question how difficult it is. Since the mid-19th century, beginning with Marx and Engels, generations of all kinds of socialists/communists have been trying to overthrow or overcome capitalism. But it was "socialism" that was overthrown in the USSR and Eastern Europe in just a span of two years (1989–1991) – both concretely and ideologically, by the very people who had been its champions. In China the process had began a decade earlier.
This is not the place to explain how overthrowing socialism became possible. I have done that elsewhere, in detail. Here I want to give two part-answers to the other question, namely why it has been (and still is) so difficult to overthrow capitalism. Here we shall see the connection between the two drivers of planetary ecological collapse and that between our two tasks.
India is a good place to see these two connections. In the early 1990s (or late 1980s???), the country was in the midst of a serious financial and economic crisis. It had to take a big credit from the IMF. India got it, but under the usual IMF conditions, namely opening up of the until then semi-socialist economy for neoliberal-globalist policies. To make the story short, this policy change led to a long economic boom. India is today a big economic power house. But at the same time, the population continued to grow as ever. These two trends, economic and demographic, were complementary to each other, the demographic sector (children producing industry) supplying all the cheap laborers, and a huge reserve army of the same, needed in the economic sector. Today, the population of the country (1.3 billion) is growing at the rate of some 16 million (1.25 percent) per annum. The economic elite are rejoicing at the two growth rates. The population growth is being called "our demographic dividend", growing at a compound interest rate. Today, almost every Indian is using a handi, and, at the same time, the air in the cities is becoming unbreathable. Everybody is worshipping the God capitalism, and the influence of the communist parties are rapidly vanishing.
The working class is no longer a threat to capital, because more people lead to more struggle for survival, more competition for jobs, less solidarity among workers, more fights of national and ethnic groups of workers against each other. The trade unions are the strongest opponents of the Greens and Ecos. Even in rich Western capitalist countries with zero natural population growth, it is easy to get strike-breakers, because they can be imported from Eastern Europe or Mexico and Central America. The Great Crisis of capitalism of the year 2008 came and passed over again to business as usual. All the celebrated movements in the West brought nothing but yet another social-democratic party. In Spain we got the PODEMOS, in Greece SYRIZA; and in the USA, Occupy Wall Street fizzled out soon enough.
I am at a loss to know how, through which concrete praxis, my US-American eco-socialist comrades are going to overthrow capitalism soon. Carrying banners and shouting radical slogans we have been doing for more than a century, but the desired results failed to materialize. I myself cannot suggest any strategy for that yet. I do not see anywhere any revolutionary class, agents or party who are preparing to do this. This state of the world today reminds me of a quote from Schumpeter, from his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. He wrote there: "The capitalist or any other order of things may evidently break down – or economic and social evolution may outgrow it – and yet the socialist phoenix may fail to rise from the ashes." (1943: 56f.)
I think, today, it is infinitely easier to convince couples in the problem countries that limiting the number of progeny to two is a good thing – for themselves, for their children, the future generations, and for the environment. Let us start with what is easier to do at present. But let us also wish those comrades much success who are right now fighting to overthrow capitalism.


The following essay by Richard Smith appeared in Common Dreams on November 21, 2017. It takes on the current discussions about climate change and the planetary crisis that do not point to capitalism as the source of the crisis and argues that the only solution is through transcending ever-growing capitalist system in the direction of an ecological socialist society.

As Smith urges, "If we don’t change the conversation if we don’t deal with the systemic problems of capitalism and come up with a viable alternative, our goose is cooked." Here is the link to the full text of the essay.

Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse
This is a response to both Richard Smith and Saral Sarkar.

Neither of these essays, by Richard Smith and Saral Sarkar are useful in providing a strategy for SCNCC.

There have been good responses on population control from others already, (Ted F, David Klein, Ian Angus and others) I will just say that SCNCC should tread lightly on it. It is, unfortunately, so clear to people when they first glance at the issue of consumption of the world’s blessings that the (wrong) solution is obvious: fewer people. Nothing about different classes doing different amounts of consumption, nor about what the consumption consists of. The political problem for SCNCC in discussing population control as a response to climate change is the dark shadow of Eugenics and racism that hangs over it. It doesn’t help that Saral Sarkar ends his argument for population control by aiming it at the less developed countries. He says:
There is not much use talking to ourselves, the already converted. We need to start work, immediately and all over the world, especially in those countries where poverty and unemployment are very high. We know that, generally, these countries are also those where population growth is very high. People from the rich countries cannot simply tell their people, sorry, we have to close down many factories and we cannot further invest in industrializing your countries. But the former can tell the latter that they can help them in controlling population growth. The latter will understand easily that it is an immediately effective way to reduce poverty and unemployment. A massive educative campaign will, of course, be necessary, in addition to concrete monetary and technical help.

’ll come back to the penultimate sentence in that paragraph to make a different point in a moment.

Smith offers an impassioned plea to shut down polluting industries but beyond the passion for drastic change, (which most of us share) his policy favors crashing the economy, throwing millions into unemployment and poverty. Worse, if SCNCC were to make shutting down industries — take oil refining as an example — we would create instant enemies in the hundreds of thousands. Think for a moment the USA with oil refineries shut down. All cars and trucks would become close to worthless. Workers owing three, four, or five more years of payments to banks and other lenders on their trucks or SUVs would stop making the payments. The paper titles the financial institutions listed as assets would be worthless and banks would be severely limited in making loans to others. In short, an economic collapse. Lots of enemies. Bill McKibben in his famous Rolling Stone essay of several years ago said “a cause needs an enemy.” No, Bill McKibben, a cause needs friends, our cause needs friends. Abruptly shutting down polluting industries would (if it happened) make us millions of enemies and few friends.

A separate troubling thing about Smith’s passion for planning a massive shutdown — and perhaps I read more into the essay then he intends — is the authoritarian nature of the design, not to say totalitarian. If SCNCC is about anything it must be about democracy and equality. We must begin in our plans as we intend to continue in the ensuing society.

I’ll finish by noting a fundamental problem that Smith and Sarkar share. the belief that telling people they will like what is recommended will convince them.
In the quoted passage from Sarkar above, he says, about people in countries where poverty and unemployment is very high, that if the rich countries will provide help on population control, they “ … will understand easily that it is an immediately effective way to reduce poverty and unemployment.” That claim is not believable.

Smith, ends his item number 6 with this: “ … redefine the meaning of the standard of living to connote a way of life that is actually richer, while consuming less, to realize the fullest potential of every human being. This is the emancipatory promise of ecosocialism.”

We can’t simply redefine the meaning of the standard of living. We have to demonstrate how a richer and happier life will follow what we propose. People have to see it, learn of and understand it, before they move to accept our policy proposal.

David J

I suspect this is precisely the discussion Gramsci was describing when he wrote : "I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will." There is also a great deal of truth in the unattributed quote ;It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. So that to call oneself a revolutionary is to exist in this tension between the necessary and the improbable. We ask; what are the conditions of possibility, what conditions exist in this historical moment that did not exist prior, and how do they affect the crisis? ( because only a profound crisis will lead to profound change)

I think Richard shares my faith (despite the lack of empirical basis) that "the humans" can be made to recognize the current crisis on both an emotional and intellectual level and sacrifice some of their own material well-being for the sake of their progeny. Maybe this is crazy? But I find it condescending to think workers of all socio-economic strata cannot sense this crisis and do not agonize over the future. Yes, they operate at the level of disavowal; knowing but acting as if they do not. But colonization is never total. Saying there will be no pain, no disruption, no drop in consumption levels is dishonest. Ecosocialists must argue that the pain is short-lived and distributed in a just, egalitarian fashion.

My own thesis is that our historical moment is a unique conjuncture of three crises; the economic, the ecological and the spiritual. And here, in response to Gene, I don't know that we can "demonstrate" the life that follows revolution. Some examples exist of course; the Zapatistas, Marinaleda, Spain, Rohava, perhaps, but these are all culturally contingent and specific to their space. The sixties tried to "demonstrate" counter-cultural autonomy, but never really threatened capital. The fact is, I don't see any contradiction between Richard's "redefine" and Gene's "see, learn, understand". They all need to happen.

Strategically, I think mass civil disobedience with clear, unified messaging is still viable. But the message must be radical, undermining market logic while proposing democratic planning.

Ted F

Gene said:
A separate troubling thing about Smith’s passion for planning a massive shutdown — and perhaps I read more into the essay then he intends — is the authoritarian nature of the design, not to say totalitarian. If SCNCC is about anything it must be about democracy and equality. We must begin in our plans as we intend to continue in the ensuing society.
I've read enough of Richard Smith's writings to know that he is very much an advocate of bottom-up democratic action to achieve his vision of managed deindustrialization. I think we who are concerned with democracy and equality are the ones who are going to have to figure out how to bring to life the political project of "managed deindustrialization" or "degrowth."

Kamran Nayeri

Earlier in this thread, I wrote as the moderator to urge focusing attention on what Richard's essay was written to address. Also, I expressed my own interest to add some ideas to those raised by Richard's essay. I did not get to do the latter because I was writing the review essay now posted as a new thread on China Miéville's book on the Russian revolutions of 1917, "October." But before I turn to writing on the substance of this discussion, I need to again say a few words about the conversation we are having.

As we all know the planetary crisis is real and we face three existential threats to the humanity and much of life in Earth: Climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and a nuclear war that the Trump administration has been threatening against North Korea. There is a sense of urgency. Time is of the essence. Our discussion can help clear the path to more common understanding of the problems we must tackle, in this thread it is the strategy and tactics for the ecosocialist movement. We engage in the discussion in order build more of a consensus, and when we disagree we state our difference as clearly as possible.

The central argument in Richard's essay is to build on Prof. Fong's op-ed piece in the New York Times, "It Is Capitalism, Stupid," which generated considerable interest in the mainstream media. Richard's essay builds on the recent flurry of statements from ecological and scientific groups, to restate his argument that an ecosocialism with a rather massive deindustrialization is an idea to consider. Saral Sarkar's response was that Richard has left out the exponentially growing human population. The discussion since has focused on the population question even though Richard added a comment to express his view that, yes, the population is a problem. Perhaps he feels it is less urgent than Saral feels. But he does not deny that any ecosocialist solution to the crisis requires a smaller human population (it is actually implied in any argument for deindustrialization on the scale that he is talking about).

If anyone feels we need a thorough discussion of the population question there is nothing to stop you from writing your position up (for or against) and start a new thread. In the earlier comment, I posted, I asserted that in the science of ecology a rapid growth of the population of any species can have a serious effect on the ecosystem and urged the reader to take a look at my essay on the Sixth Extinction where I have reviewed and document the scientific consensus on the impact of human population growth on biodiversity from 70,000 years ago. I also gave a link to an April Science magazine research article that demonstrates the negative effect of human population growth on biodiversity. On questions that science can answer we ecosocialists need not invent our own view. The role of population growth in the ecological crisis is one of them.

The same is true of some policy prescription. Saral ends his last comment with such a policy prescription: "I think, today, it is infinitely easier to convince couples in the problem countries that limiting the number of pregnancy to two is a good thing – for themselves, for their children, the future generations, and for the environment." There are two problems with this suggestion. First, it is based on what Saral "thinks" not on any demographic research. The highest fertility rates in the world are in countries where patriarchal relations are strongest. Demographers suggest something else: empowering and educating women (and educating men), democratic family planning, and availability of contraception and abortion. An important gain of the Cuban revolution for women has been exactly these. Population in Cuba is not growing; in fact, there is a slow decline that worried the economic planners. (Still, there is a problem with teenage pregnancy in Cuba, but that is a separate issue). Again, as ecological socialists, we understand that this either is a long-term proposition (think about how long it has taken for the empowerment of the women in the advanced capitalist countries, a process far from complete) or it requires a social revolution. Also, Saral seems to forget that a few thousands of ecosocialists worldwide are not able to "convince" hundreds of millions of couples in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to have fewer children.

In my next comment, I hope to return to Richard argument that is typical in the ecological movement, that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. I think we could present a deeper understanding of this problem framed in terms of Limits to Growth by the movement up to this point.

Saral Sarkar

New Member
I request the moderator to give me just one more opportunity to explain the points I have earlier made on this forum. I promise I will try to be as short as possible.

On the Value of the Equation I = P x T x A (or I = P x A x T, as some people write)

Ted F. writes inter alia:

" … what is the point of the formula except to advance the claim that ecological damage of every society is directly proportional to population--a claim that fits in equally well with the right-wing passion to "exterminate the brutes" as our ecological vision."

The point of the formula is to make clear that three factors (not just one, namely population, as Ted F. alleges) are involved in ecological destruction (and resource use, I should add). As in the case of most equations (formulae), it says that if T and A would remain unchanged, ecological destruction and resource use would rise if population rises and fall if population falls. This is easy to understand. Isn't it? This kind of general equations are used in every walk of life to make things clear. Nobody quantifies a factor at this generalized level. If one would quantify all the factors (e.g. 2 x 2x 2 = 8), then indeed it would be a tautology, totally useless in any general discussion. But since all the factors here as well as the result are variable and unknown in our discussion, it is better to use this general equation.
Why I have brought it in into our discussion? Because in my long life as a political activist, I have made the experience that leftists, especially radical leftists, Marxists, feminists, liberals and 3rd world solidarity people, scrupulously avoid the P-word. Why? Because they are afraid of being abused by people from the 3rd world, for whom the word "overpopulation" is like a red rag to a bull. I have often made the experience (in Germany, Europe, and also in India) of being abused as a fascist, once even as a racist, although I come from India and have a dark-brown complexion.

Look at the part-sentence of Ted F. quoted above: "… a claim that fits in equally well with the right-wing passion to "exterminate the brutes" …. ." Is this style helpful for our cause? Is it helpful for our cause to suppress part of the truth? I don't think so. Thank god, Richard is above this kind of political correctness.

Fallacy of One World

Many participants in such discussions say: more than enough food is being produced in the world to satisfy the hunger of all the 7.5 billion humans in the world. Correct! But (1) is that any reason to let the world population go on rising? To 10 billion by 2050? After all, hunger is not the only problem in this world, but also our ecological footprint. Isn't it? (2) Moreover, is it not totally useless, because at present unrealistic, to think that the farmers (or farming companies) of the few countries where surplus food grains are being produced should gift away their surplus to the poor people of the least developed countries? And (3) isn't "food sovereignty" a very good idea for all peoples of the world? The planet Earth is one, but the world (of humans) is not one. One world, our ideal, has not yet been realized.

On the Agency Question

I think, most leftists in Canada and USA (the continent of origin of SCNCC), but partly also in Europe, have no real knowledge of the consciousness of the really living proletariat of today. That is why one can find such delusive sentences on the opening page of the Website:

"SCNCC believes the climate justice movement will unite with the labor movement … to create an alternative."

"I am inspired ... to join hands with the working class in China to save the planet."

Inspiration is absolutely necessary for having any cause, but it is better to mix it with a good dose of knowledge of the whole truth.

My position on the agency question can be summarized as follows: There are "only two camps: those who care and those who don't care." (Erich Fromm, a great interpreter of the best in Marx, wrote that in 1979).

Kamran Nayeri

On the limits to growth mantra...

In this comment, I like to focus on the mantra of the ecological movement also shared by ecological socialists as cited in Richard's essay. He writes concerning unceasing drive for capitalist accumulation, hence universal commitment to economic growth: "The problem is, we live in an economy built on perpetual growth but we on a finite planet with limited resources and sinks." An obvious problem with this generally accepted view is that different currents in the ecological movement interpret it differently. For example, Saral Sarkar's view of the problem is the Club of Rome Limits to Growth argument. For Saral (and I have discussed this in some detailed elsewhere), the social and ecological crisis is caused by natural resources limits to growth. In my critique of Saral, I concluded with these arguments:

"Saral and others have talked about natural limits to growth as a paradigm shift. In a sense it is. Socialist and most other radical traditions have focused on social and economic issues. The growth paradigm has become part of these traditions as critical as they are of the capitalist system. Natural limits to growth offer a new way to think about contradictions of class societies. I say this being fully aware that Saral and other supporters of limits to growth perspective mostly or exclusively focus of industrial societies. But if one accepts the fact of ecological/environmental cause for the decline and disappearance of pre-industrial civilizations then it becomes clear the limits to growth has operated throughout human history and, in some instances, even prehistory. Its impact in the earlier times was local or regional. Under the industrial globalized capitalist system, its impacts is planetary.

"Therefore, without denying the specificity of natural limits to growth in an industrial global capitalist economy, it is clear that the problem is common to all civilizations since the dawn of agriculture. At issue is nothing less than our species relation with the rest of nature. But limits to growth does not provide us with a philosophy of nature or anything about who we are, where we come from and where we are going. Thus, Limits to Growth of the Club of Rome, if taken as a paradigm, may offer a technical approach to nature the as provider of “resources" and “services” but not an ethical perspective for a good society." ("Limits of the Limits to Growth Perspective: A Discussion of Saral Sarkar's Explanation of the Great Recession, 2014)
Almost all Marxist ecological socialists (of various hue) agree that a rational ecological management of the planet is the way to move forward. My question for them is as follows:

"For all who argue for a scaled-back “sustainable” communal human society, the key question is how scaled back and what such sustainability entails for the lives of other species? Would that be defined simply by technical requirements to maintain a sustainable stock of other species and some balance in ecosystems to meet our needs for food, shelter, and fun or by adhering to a philosophy of nature that affords similar rights to all species to live their full natural potential?"​

The problem is not academic. Consider the following from Haydn Washington (2013) focusing on his discussion of energy flow and food chain.

"Ultimately, all species live off energy that arrives on Earth via sunshine. Through photosynthesis green plants (primary producers) convert solar energy into sugars. They consume about half of it for their own livelihood. What remains is called Net Primary Productivity (NPP). The NPP is the basis for all animal life. Herbivores eat plants to gain energy for their livelihood (primary consumers). Finally, some carnivores live off herbivores (secondary consumers). Some omnivores eat secondary consumers (tertiary consumers). The final link in the food chain is the decomposers that live off the organic matter of plants, herbivores and carnivores. In each step in the food chain, about 90% of the energy is lost."​

Washington citing Boyden (2004) writes:

"The human species is now using about 12,000 times more as much energy per day as was the case when farming started; 90 per cent of this is a result of industrialization, 10 per cent to our huge growth in numbers.... The NPP of the land amounts to about 132 billion tonnes dry weight of organic matter in 1986. (Vitousek et al, 1986) Of these the then human population of 5.7 billion humans consumed directly just over 1 billion tonnes as food. In addition humans co-opted 43 billion tonnes (32 per cent) of total NPP in the form of wasted food, forest products, crop and forestry residues, pastures and so on. Vitiusek et al. (1986) conclude:

"We estimate that organic material equivalent to about 40% of the present net primary product in terrestrial ecosystems is being coopted by human beings each year. People use this material directly or indirectly, it flows to different consumers and decomposers than it otherwise would, or it is lost because of human-caused changes in land use. People and the associated organisms use this organic material largely, but not entirely, at human direction, and the vast majority of other species must subsist on the reminder. An equivalent concentration of resources into one species and its satellites has probably not occured since land plants first diversified.’

"They also note that ‘humans also affect much of the other 60% of terrestrial NPP, often heavily’, thus our impact is not just limited to the 40 per cent of NPP we co-opt directly. The estimates in this classic 1986 study are conservative, and we are now 25 years further down the path of expanding population and impacts. However, other scholars use different methodologies and come up with different figures.... Whichever figure one uses, this remains a huge percentage of the net primary productivity of the planet that humans are appropriating. Of course this appropriation is also increasing as population, and possibly more importantly per capita consumption , continues to increase. The high and increasing appropriation of NPP by humanity is clearly a fundamental stress on ecosystem health. NPP is the foundation of all ecosystems, so if we pull out too many blocks from the foundation to put on the ‘human pile’ eventually other structures (natural ecosystems) collapse. And indeed they are..." (Washington 2013, p. 12-13).
Thus, as far back as the 1980s, human society (of course, there are billions who hardly get by, but here were are concerned with species relations in the ecosystem) has been depriving much of the rest of nature of food and energy to survive. Has this not contributed to the Sixth Extinction?

Thus, ecological socialism needs a philosophy of nature and an ethics of our relationship with the rest of nature. That is why I think only an ecocentric ecological socialism can save the world. As I have documented, for 300,000 years, save the last 10,000 years when farming was invented and established as the basis of human (class-based) civilization, our ancestors have been ecocentric in their view of nature, and followed a naturalist ethics that included who we are, where we come from, and where we go (Economics, Socialism, and Ecology: A Critical Outline, Part 2, 2013).

David J

"How scaled back?" is as much a spiritual and cultural question as scientific or political and the dialectics of how a society "views nature" are certainly complex. In my view, the theology of Christianity in the last two thousand years has impacted those ethics alongside modes of production and philosophy.
But I think the vision of a new social order where people have more time for contemplation and direct experience of "the rest of nature", as Kamran puts it, is key. The pace of capitalist life is alienating. Where and when "everything solid melts into air" it is impossible to be grounded in an ecological perspective.