The Misanthropic Reality Behind Degrowth Ideology

A report from the US Census Bureau in April indicated that population growth rates and birthrates in the US during the last decade have reached their lowest point since the 1930s. Most analyses of this phenomenon indicate that this trend has accelerated ever since the economic crisis of 2008-2009. The decline in economic productivity after the Great Recession, itself arguably the culmination of a long trend of neoliberalization and globalization, has resulted in scores of young people putting off marriage and childbearing. This seems to be common sense: when economic growth slows down, birth rates tend to decline as well. 

The Washington Post has speculated that this decline in the birth rate portends the waning of the American Dream. Americans are understandably troubled by this news—the rise of populist politicians in recent years on both the right and the left can largely be explained as a reaction to an increasing sense of despair about the future, and the mortal effects it is having upon the country.

None of this should be particularly surprising. What might be more troubling, however, is the apparent complicity of most of our political and corporate elites with both economic and demographic decline. In fact, these phenomena can arguably be traced back to the decisions made by those same elites. If that is the case, then our national and even global leaders have criminally shirked their ethical obligations to the communities under their charge. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, financial deregulation and the formation of the World Trade Organization allowed major American manufacturers to move production to other countries (most notably China), while domestic companies increasingly underwent a process of financialization. Consequently, the middle and lower classes were robbed of stable employment opportunities and forced en masse into the service sector and “gig economy,” where their wages stagnated, while the upper-middle class of managers and shareholders were enriched at an accelerated rate. Profits famously soared for the super wealthy. 

If these economic trends were the result of conscious decisions made by the wealthy elite and the political class, one might naturally begin to wonder just how much of it was not only foreseen but deliberately calculated.

Economics has often been the central motivation behind efforts at population control. An economy designed to deliver high profits to shareholders without any of the risks typically associated with real productive innovation will inevitably be unable to care for a growing population. For the class responsible for such an economy, falling birth rates are something to be celebrated—they would much prefer a population to dwindle than prioritize high productivity and high wages over high profits.

“Population control, whether implemented by the left or the right, neglects the moral imperative to take care of people.”

Ironically, degrowth and population control—often advocated by left-leaning proponents of “socialism”—have been best put into practice by the capitalist elite and their political puppets who govern the country. The stagnation of domestic manufacturing in the US during the neoliberal era (exacerbated during the long period of lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic) might be described as its own form of degrowth. The decline of population growth that has attended it is nothing short of a political experiment in population management. 

The left wing of the neoliberal elite typically justifies this experiment by appealing to environmental justice—fewer people, after all, means a smaller impact on the environment. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has long provided taxpayer funded “family planning and reproductive health programs” to foreign countries worldwide, with the explicit intention of “[mitigating] the impact of population dynamics on natural resources and state stability.” Billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates have likewise promoted the use of birth control technologies as a tool of population management, particularly in Africa, but disguised in the veil of humanitarian jargon. The Malthusian undertones of such commitments are difficult to ignore.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the right-wing elite has sought to avoid an increase in population size by tightening controls on immigration, and—while doing little to promote domestic economic growth—cutting taxes on corporations and imposing tariffs on Chinese imports. Indeed, neoliberalism’s right wing has contributed to a mirror-ideology of degrowth in its opposition to welfare and social assistance programs, which limit consumption and chip away at the demand for growth. 

Karl Marx long ago identified the mechanisms by which capitalism creates a “reserve army of labor” via a “surplus population” that could depress the wages of the working population. A deliberate surplus in labor power creates the illusion of organic overpopulation and incentivizes various political factions to clamp down on it. In the words of David Harvey, “whenever a theory of overpopulation seizes hold in a society dominated by an elite, then the non-elite invariably experience some form of political, economic, and social repression.” Population control, in its many forms (from racial genocide to euthanasia, from immigration restriction to abortion), is a form of oppression that springs from the Malthusian conviction that economic growth cannot keep pace with a growing population. Whether it happens on the left or the right wings of the neoliberal program, it is essentially the same thing: a predictable historical dynamic of capitalism itself. 

A more ethical program would be to take for granted that most people want to have babies and create families, and build an economy that will facilitate them doing so. As Leigh Phillips argues in Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts, growth is an ethical and political imperative. Degrowth and population control, whether implemented by the left or the right, neglect the moral imperative, incumbent upon our governing elites, to take care of people. The liberal right and left elite embrace programs that subordinate the good of people into something impersonal and of secondary value: either the market (on the right) or the environment (on the left), in order to protect its own wealth. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with either the market or the environment in themselves. Commerce, production, and consumption are good things to be promoted; and environmental justice is indeed a value that must be upheld by society. But an ethical concern for the good of all human beings, especially the neediest among us, demands that the economy and environment be subordinated to it, and not the other way around.

It is only after accepting this fundamental order of operations that economic planners and regulators can work out how to address undesirable externalities. It is good, for example, that scientists and innovators are experimenting with and refining energy technologies capable of balancing a very high level of productivity with a minimal environmental impact (see: nuclear power). 

Such broad-mindedness is needed to negate the illusory problem of increasing population levels. Growth that actually benefits everybody requires better central planning, not to mention much stronger oversight over the interests of the wealthy. It is imperative that we muster the political will to shift these priorities.