Inverting #popunation – Deploying the Concept of ‘Real’ Population

We Indians love to say ‘India is like that only’. #popunation is a common cynical response to many systemic problems India faces. In this short extract from a longer essay entitled ‘The Ideology of Overpopulation’, Economist Utsa Patnaik masterfully exposes how ridiculously misguided the use of this hashtag is, and in so doing, allows us to reclaim questions we have been denied the right to think about. In a sense her essay serves a Fanonian purpose. Remember the words of that revolutionary thinker: “The more the people understand, the more watchful they become, and the more they come to realize that finally everything depends on them … To hold a responsible position in an under-developed country is to know that in the end everything depends … on the raising of the level of thought”. 1


“China and India, as everyone knows, have the largest nominal populations in the world: 1205 million and 897 million respectively in 1994, adding up to 2.1 billion or nearly one third of the entire total of the world’s inhabitants. Both countries are habituated to being told, especially by experts from northern countries, that it is highly irresponsible of them to have let their populations grow to such large figures and that there is an imperative need to restrain this rate of growth. China and India are considered to be ‘overpopulated’ countries and apocalyptic pictures are painted of the worsening situation in future. On present trends, it is expected that China’s population (which is growing faster than before in the last fifteen years of Dengist reforms) will be 1540 million by the year 2025 and India’s nearly 1400 million (these projections are by the United Nations Population Fund).


#popunation plays an ideological function. It conveniently masks “important exploitative aspects of international economic relations”.


Population figures are freely used in talking of economics; yet unlike all other variables where real as well as nominal concepts are used, in the case of the population variable only nominal numbers are usually ever talked about.

This is in fact highly misleading and it plays an ideological function of masking certain important exploitative aspects of international economic relations. Looking at nominal population the most populous countries in the world are [indeed] India and China. If the concept of real or effective population is used [however], the most populous countries in the world would turn out to be located in North America, followed by Western Europe and Japan.

By real or effective population is meant the population figure adjusted with respect to its demand on resources. This is the only rational sense in which one can talk of ‘pressure of population’…


Real or effective population “is the only rational sense in which one can talk of ‘pressure of population’ “


[In economics, the numerical value of the wage that one is paid, is named the ‘nominal’ wage. The ‘real’ or actual wage is obtained by adjusting this ‘nominal’ wage for inflation. In other words, the ‘real’ wage is what the ‘nominal’ wage is actually worth when you try to spend it!]

[Therefore economists are] used to adjusting the ‘nominal’ earnings of a person by the change in the index of prices in order to get an accurate idea of the ‘real’ income, or the actual purchasing power of the nominal income. The same rise in food prices for example will lower workers’ income more than an employer’s income, affecting income distribution.2(a) [italicized for emphasis]

[Thus, ‘real’ income (value of income after adjustment) is a better reflection of ‘market pressure’ exerted on the wage earner.]

But when it comes to the question of ‘population pressure’ the discussion even with trained economists nearly always assumes a strange level of naïveté, becomes extremely simplistic in that real or effective population concepts are never used… [Since we use concepts to understand effects in the real world, isn’t it more correct (from the utilitarian perspective) to think of ‘population pressure’ also in terms of its effects?]


The label on the plane would read England or U.S.A if we apply the concept of Real Population. Cartoon from a Chinese Daily. (Source: Quick Take)

[Is] the problem of ‘excessive demand on resources’ a function of nominal population alone? Clearly not. We can have a situation where two populations are exactly the same in nominal terms and with the same resources; but if one has twice the per head income of the other, its demand for resources will be twice as large and we would be correct to think of it as a larger population in real or effective terms, exercising greater pressure on resources. This is precisely the characteristic of [the] world population problem: the greatest ‘real population pressure’ emanates not from China or India, but from the advanced countries… [italicized for emphasis]


if one has twice the per head income of the other, its demand for resources will be twice as large and we would be correct to think of it as a larger population in real or effective terms, exercising greater pressure on resources.


The two Asian giants of population taken together thus account for a mere 1.6 billion real population, compared to a real population of as much as 23.5 billion, or nearly fifteen times higher, in the advanced world.” 2(b)


eCopy, Inc.
PROPAGANDA PAMPHLETS. Following the Second World War, “the First and Second worlds only accounted for a third of the planet’ s people… The First World saw [the Third World] as poor, overly fecund, profligate, and worthless. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb received such tremendous acclaim in the First World because its neo-Malthusian ideas had already become commonplace: that the reason for hunger in the world had more to do with overpopulation than with imperialism; that the survivors of colonialism had only themselves to blame for their starvation.” (Text Source: Prashad 2007. Image Source: Ronald Ladouceur)

British economist Tim Lang wrote in December 2009 in the Journal of Agrarian Relations that: “London, a nineteenth century mega-city, actually uses 48,868,000 global hectares (gha) of land to keep its consumers; that is, 6.63 gha per person living in the city. London’s footprint – its land use – thus far exceeds its actual geography. To make London’s land use more equitable, that land use ought to drop to 1,210,000 gha, 0.16 gha per capita (Lyndhurst and Greater London Authority 2003). In reality, rich cities such as London or New York exert a covert land ‘imperialism’, using land elsewhere without owning it.” 3

‘Population pressure’ the way it is usually deployed, is therefore a neo-colonial concept – it defends the ability of First World consumers to continue consuming the obscene proportion of the planet’s resources that they are by now used to as a ‘right’. In comparison, the Third World exerts a far more sustainable overall pressure on the world’s resources.

This requires a careful explanation. What is the sense in which I deploy the word ‘neo-colonial’? I do not want to use it in a passive cynical sense, but in its fully potent tragic sense. In the writing of Tunisian Philosopher Albert Memmi, we find something very familiar: “At the basis of the entire construction, one finally finds a common motive; the colonizer’s economic and basic needs, which he substitutes for logic, and which shape and explain each of the traits he assigns to the colonized…”4

In our present case, the ‘trait’ that has been assigned to the colonized is something like – “oh these savages, they have bred like rabbits, but now civilization is here to save them (and implicitly our “way of life”) from their base tendencies. “The point is that the colonized means little to the colonizer. Far from wanting to understand him as he really is, the colonizer is preoccupied with making him undergo this urgent change”.5 According to this attitude, no new framework is necessary to understand the unique situation of the colonized. The colonizer and his/her “way of life” remains the center of the universe. This is what we are trying to reject.

And so we arrive at the most difficult part of our (Fanonian) movement to overcome. Memmi tells us that “It is impossible to save the colonized from this myth-a portrait of wretchedness has been indelibly engraved.”6 We will observe this attitude in ourselves. When we ourselves first hear such arguments (as that presented by Professor Patnaik), do we not immediately think: “But is there not a grain of truth in what they say? Have not backward Indians bred like so many rabbits? Otherwise how have we got to this point?”

This is where we must recognize that the colonization is complete. As one whose mind is still colonized I am able to easily adopt notions that posit my own people as animals (even though I explicitly reject this notion, it is effectively true). You must try an experiment. Prove it to yourself. Try taking Patnaik’s clear argument to your most rational friends. Memmi predicts what will happen: “The accusation disturbs him and worries him even more because he admires and fears his powerful accuser. “Is he not partially right ?” he mutters. “Are we not all a little guilty after all ?” As a once colonized people, we each of us have to face these remnants of the colonized within. We must not underestimate this task.

There are two easy responses here, viz: (1) cynicism, or recourse to (2) moralistic sermonizing. But both of these (to my mind) are ways of not-dealing with the situation – of simply sighing and going on with things as they have been, whereas that is not our goal. If we reject both of these options, where are we to turn? This is where we make the second Fanonian movement. We face hopelessness … to find hope. We have to accept the implications of the situation “in whatever form it may be”.

This second Fanonian movement is most clearly articulated by American Philosopher Lewis Gordon: “That Fanon concludes [Chapter 5 of Black Skin, White Masks] by confessing that he wept has not received much attention in the critical literature… The struggle for liberation, for humanization, is thus structurally similar to therapy… “Breakthrough” in therapy often occurs with tears, with catharsis. Fanon wept because he realized that every effort to avoid the truth failed. It was through such catharsis that he was then able to face the implications of his situation, in whatever form it may be.”7 When we reject the cynical attitude as well as the moral high ground to embrace the fully tragic nature of our situation, then we initiate a truly cathartic movement. After this we will be able to deploy an inverted conception of #popunation with no doubts at all.

Professor Patnaik concludes: “… we in the Third World remain mentally and intellectually colonised even when we are politically independent: we do not dare to question the most nonsensical of theories as long as they come from the centres of academic hegemony and power, we do not dare to point out that the Emperor is naked.”8

Professor Patnaik wrote these concluding words in 1999. Look at the calendar. Its getting late.  We must remember that there is a simple hope to be found in really accepting hopelessness.9 NOTE: The conclusion to this post was updated on August 28th, 2017.



  1. Quoted from Page 95 of Fanon (1963).
  2. (a) Say you employ a worker under you, you will be forced to reduce your employee’s ‘nominal’ wage based on your calculated ‘real’ wage. So your employee discovers to her consternation that (because her boss reacted to inflation effects), her purchasing power has been (effectively) impacted more than that of her boss! If she employs another person, that person is affected even more and so on. This effect is amplified as one moves down the wage chain. Inflation hits the poor the hardest. (b) The entire extended quote is from pages 23-24 of ‘The Ideology of Overpopulation’ within Patnaik (2007).
  3. Lang (2010). Available online.
  4. Memmi (2003). Page 127 within the Chapter: Mythical Portrait of the Colonized
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. Page 126.
  7. Gordon (2015). Pages 58-59 within the Chapter: Living Experience, Embodying Possibility
  8. Quote from Page 27 of the essay titled ‘The Costs of Free Trade: The WTO Regime and the Indian Economy’ within Patnaik (2007). Available online.
  9. ‘Courage of Hopelessness’ is a concept formulated by Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Žižek


  • Fanon, Frantz. “The wretched of the earth”. New York: Grove Press, 1963.
  • Gordon, Lewis R. What Fanon said: A philosophical introduction to his life and thought. Just Ideas (Fordham University Press), 2015.
  • Lang, Tim. “Crisis? What crisis? The normality of the current food crisis.” Journal of Agrarian Change 10.1 (2010): 87-97.
  • Memmi, Albert. “The colonizer and the colonized. 1957.” Trans. Howard Greenfeld. UK: Earthscan Publications Limited (2003).
  • Patnaik, Utsa. “The republic of hunger and other essays”. Three Essays Collective, 2007.
  • Prashad, Vijay. “The darker nations: A Biography of the Short-Lived Third World”. The New Press: New York, (2007).

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