Global Swarming

By Edward Levy
Volume 2, Number 4 (Summer 1992)
Issue theme: "Twenty years later: a lost opportunity"



By Marvin Harris

Random House

Paperback (1991), $11.00

If more people knew what Marvin Harris does and could see linkages as clearly, more of us would see that population growth has an unmatched history of impelling the collapse of cultures. In this fascinating study of mankind's history, Harris presents cogent evidence, clear reasoning, crisp writing and compelling arguments to support his concept that a culture evolves in response to an area's conditions successful production leads to increased reproduction which forces production to intensify until eventually the resources of that area are depleted. Then, either the culture collapses or it devises a new system of production, with its own forms of exploitation, violence and drudgery.

Marvin Harris, author of Cannibals and Kings, previously chaired the department of anthropology at Columbia University and currently is Graduate Research Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He has been an influential anthropologist and is the author of 16 books, among them Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches as well as America Now Why Nothing Works, and The Sacred Cow and the Abominable Pig.

In his discussions of geography, food sources and population growth Harris notes not that causalities are inevitable, but that similar variables under similar conditions tend toward similar consequences. In the past, population growth has propelled people toward war, subjugation and infanticide (especially of females), widespread pauperism and despotism. A culture's initial success is marked by growth of its population - but a continuation of such growth signals and contributes to its impending failure.

Harris convincingly maintains that once a group has selected a habitat, production and reproduction increase until material and psychological needs are no longer met. Then, further growth forces a choice between intensifying production or limiting further growth. Intensification is by far the first choice. Citing examples as disparate as the Mayans and the Mideast, he shows that the price for the intensification that required, and was required by, a growing population led to the degradation of those areas still seen today.

First, the investment of more soil, water, chemicals, minerals and energy in response to threats against living standards depleted the immediate area; then, the expansion to less efficient and more distant land areas ultimately resulted in people living in misery in a larger, exhausted environment. At some point, then, limiting population became the reluctantly chosen alternative. Since methods like geronticide and the inducing of painful and dangerous abortion are ineffective in the long run, spacing pregnancies was more commonly used. But early people must have used other means, too Harris calculates that, unchecked, the earth's population would have been 600 sextillion (that's 600 and twenty-one zeros) by the end of the 10,000-year Old Stone Age. The most prevalent solutions, then, have been war and infanticide.

Harris asserts that war served ecological and demographic purposes. Animals and plants can thrive in buffer zones between enemies. But since the males who survived the battles could have many wives, war cannot stabilize population; only limiting the number of women can lead to fewer children. Harris concludes that war's consort was female infanticide, and his evidence that this practice was widespread is impressive.

Citing examples from South America, Asia and Europe, Harris says 'Without reproductive pressure, neither warfare nor female infanticide would have become widespread . . . the conjunction of the two represents a savage but uniquely effective solution to the Malthusian dilemma.' Only when children are cost-effective (as in family businesses today, where anti-child labor laws do not apply) have more children been privileged to live longer lives.

The most common method of infanticide, still practiced today, is neglect of female infants. Even in favorable habitats, where women are more valuable because they can do their work and nurse infants, males are prized because they once had a monopoly over primitive war weapons while female infants are neglected. Thus, undue population growth that would otherwise lower the living standards to mere subsistence levels has led to war, to males' dominant role in society, and to female infanticide.

Cannibalism is another cruel solution to the problems of overpopulation and food shortage. Animals which ate what humans did not provided the Old World with a source of protein; but Mexico had no ruminants. Thus, while evidence of human sacrifice has been found from Brazil to Canada, the Aztecs were the most cannibalistic. One spectacle consumed 14,000 victims. Ubiquitous 'chapels' required daily offerings. The Aztecs, therefore, needed perpetual warfare and preferred to take their prisoners alive. Centuries of the cycle of growth, intensification and depletion meant devising ever new means to support ever more people. Moreoever, the growing cost of each new technology eventually required a central authority, which now wanted to retain power. Cannibalism, then, served two purposes at once the state achieved political control by rewarding the selected group with needed nutrition. Thus, while Old World religions could be merciful, the ritual killings of the Aztecs were a cover - feeding the gods was a euphemism for feeding the people. Clearly, only a thoroughly depleted state with a burgeoning population would resort to the religious ruse and the perpetual war that constant cannibalism entailed. In all this, Harris is convincing.


Many early societies developed in large river valleys with most of their people living, after a while, only a notch above pauperism. Agriculture in these valleys required 'clearing' the trees, confining farming to the valleys because the surrounding land was unproductive, and finally, irrigation. Harris shows that the initial successes led, predictably, to population growth and then to ever more dependence on the water project and a person who could order the assembly of people needed for the massive project. This dependence on centralization led (inevitably) to despotism, for the owner of the project now controlled the people. But the irrigation system became more vulnerable to disrepair, and the despotic regime yielded to corruption, until the state itself gave way to rot from within and attack from without.

In Europe, however, water was available to all because rain fell abundantly and everywhere. With no need for large water projects requiring central control, the population could be dispersed and localities could develop on their own. Thus, since form follows function, Europe's large areas had no need to unify. (Rome and Charlemagne created veneers of short-lived unification, but the areas, as we still see today, retained their identities.)

'...ecology cannot be omitted from

consideration as a contributing factor

in the rise of democracies,

which arose in conditions

where abundant resources and low

population density required

no central authority.'

Later, nobles and merchants, looking for more income, allocated land to sheep, giving less and poorer land to crops. At first fertilizer and new seeds increased yields, but population again outran productivity resulting in a pauperized peasantry, faster growth of towns, and more female infanticide. Technology helped the few but degraded the many.

Unlike China, where centralized government inhibited the gains of individuals, in Europe various persons accumulated wealth and thereby contested the power of kings. Whatever other factors obtain here, ecology cannot be omitted from consideration as a contributing factor in the rise of democracies, which arose in conditions where abundant resources and low population density required no central authority.

In democracies, we enjoy a broader allocation of benefits the size of the work force has been limited by anti-child labor laws, compulsory education, and various kinds of insurance. Such factors have also raised the costs and decreased the financial benefits of having children, leading to a decrease in family size in the industrialized countries. But with more costly energy contributing to higher living costs, and with developing countries changing to more intensive technologies, the threats of depletion, pollution and centralized authority become great indeed if population growth continues.

'...perhaps humanity could make

one good, long-term choice

and save itself in the

only sensible way open

limiting our population.'

Like rainfall in Europe, energy sources were once dispersed. Now, centralized control allows the manipulation of supplies that gives despotism a great opportunity. Nuclear power would require even more control due to massive possibilities for misuse; and increased crime, fanatic terrorism and ingrained ethnic strife would be the rationale for more political control. The many who do not share in technology's benefits loom as a threat to stability. Even now, democracies have had a significant middle class only for 150 years, and worker benefits for fewer than that. Reading Harris' evidence, then, raises the question of whether our brief moment in human history is a rise to be followed by another - but this time global - decline; and whether adequate standards of living will ever be achieved by the two-thirds of the world's people who are still ill-fed, ill-housed and oppressed.

Harris' descriptions of cultural evolution will sound familiar to readers of today's newspapers. Similar variables are operating under similar conditions and may very well lead to similar consequences. Short-term conscious decisions have, so far, yielded results exactly opposite to those desired farming and herding turn forests and grasslands into deserts. The long-term, cumulative effects of such cost/benefit choices are too obvious to miss. Yet, nations opt for the wrong course massive intensification to accommodate the ever- burgeoning population despite the evidence that we are again producing grand depletions, deserts, erosion, floods, droughts, destruction of forests, mud slides, scarcities, animal and plant extinctions, and fouling of the very air and water we need to survive.

Losing empires are collapsing while the winners are being sucked into their own morass of overpopulation, ethnic strife and general decay by a blind refusal to see the only reasonable solution population limits, made easy now by access to means of contraception that do not resort to war, female infanticide, or the starvation of children. The precious living standards and valued democracy that have flourished only too briefly and in too few places are threatened.

Yet, there are still those who say that limiting human population is a bad idea. At least this once, perhaps humanity could make one good, long-term choice and save itself in the only sensible way open limiting our population. But, given the notorious thoughtlessness and venality that have plagued our past, the question is will we change in time? or at all?

Harris' book, Cannibals and Kings, and a later one, Our Kind Who We Are, Where We Came From and Where We Are Going (Random House, 1989) covering the same positions but with other material and in a more popular format, merit our serious attention. After reading him, it is difficult to doubt that undue and extended population growth drives us to long-term harm. The evidence is too pervasive and the arguments are too persuasive to ignore. ?

About the author

Edward Levy is a professor of music at Stern College, Yeshiva University in New York City.

He is a long-time activist in population matters and a member of the Advisory Board of FAIR,

the Federation for American Immigration Reform.