Burying Malthus to save Malthusianism

The so-called ‘progressive greens’ challenging the overpopulation thesis are really only interested in making Malthusian thinking more PC.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Science & Tech

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This article is republished from the March 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

In recent years, a few environmentalist thinkers have started to criticise the narrow Malthusianism of their fellow contemporary greens.Peoplequake by Fred Pearce is the latest attack by a greenie on the Reverend Thomas Malthus, the original population scaremonger, and his slavish followers in today’s population-control lobby. With its quips about the weird, harelipped reverend’s hatred of poor people, its critique of the deeply misanthropic eugenics movement, and its challenge to the idea that Africa is overpopulated, Pearce’s book might even look to some like a refreshing defence of rational thinking against the hysteria of the human-hating, womb-fearing lobby. It is no such thing. Pearce, like other influential green thinkers, is burying Malthus only to save Malthusianism.

Peoplequake is the literary equivalent of reaching into the steaming pile of historic bullshit that is Malthusian thought in a bid to salvage some pellets of prejudice that might be applied to today’s world. Pearce, like the Guardian’s George Monbiot, Andrew Simms of the New Economics Forum and other leading proponents of climate-change alarmism, is simply made deeply uncomfortable by the fact that so many contemporary greens have been inspired by Malthus, a man who, not to put too fine a point on it, was the scum of the Earth, who thought poor people should be deprived charity and healthcare and if they died as a result, well good, since they have ‘no claim of right to the smallest portion of food’. Disconcerted about being associated with such foul elitism, and conscious of the fact that the scaremongering claims of every single Malthusian since Malthus himself have been contradicted by humanity’s leaps forward, Pearce and others are keen to create a new kind of outlook: what we might call post-Malthus Malthusianism.

Malthus (1766-1834) was a nasty piece of work. A reverend in Surrey, England, he became world-famous following the publication of his Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798. As Pearce summarises, Malthus argued that ‘overpopulation was a looming threat because the toiling masses were on a treadmill of sex and procreation’. There wouldn’t be enough food to feed the dirt-poor scavengers produced by all this copulation/fornication and thus they would die, said Malthus, culled by hunger and disease.

His vision was ‘simple, bleak and devastating’, argues Pearce, and it had a disastrous impact on the working classes and poor people around the world. Employed in 1805 by the East India Company, the capitalist giant which ran large parts of India on behalf of the British Empire, Malthus, in Pearce’s words, ‘taught future administrators of the British Empire about the perils of overpopulation and the pointlessness of charity’. As the Australian demographer Jack Caldwell puts it, ‘Malthus ensured that generations of British officials and scholars saw [the world] in Malthusian terms’ – that is, as a cesspit of overbreeding poor people who, in Malthus’s words, have no place ‘at nature’s mighty feast’ and if they must die from hunger and disease, well, they must die from hunger and disease.

Here in Britain, Malthus’s arguments were like a sucker punch to the poor. In the 1830s, there were numerous bad harvests and industrialists were laying off hundreds of thousands of workers, meaning that a full tenth of Britain’s population became reliant on Poor Law handouts. But what gives man the right, asked Malthus, to create a law that challenges nature’s laws? If nature had its way there would be an inevitable and probably quite welcome cull of poor people. He loudly backed the Poor Law Amendment, passed in 1834, which greatly reduced relief to poor people and made workhouses ‘as like prisons as possible’. One parliamentarian said the amendment ‘forced the poor to emigrate, to work for lower wages, [or] live on a coarser sort of food’. The masses, recognising the poisonous ideology that drove this latest imposition of hardship from on high, referred to the amended law as ‘Malthus’s Law’. William Hazlitt, the humanist essayist, accused Malthus of ‘starving the children of the poor to feed the horses of the rich’.

Apologist for capitalism

Pearce puts Malthus in a little bit of historical context, pointing out that he wrote his miserabilist tract in response to two revolutions, the Industrial and the French, particularly in response to the latter, with its promise of freedom and equality and other ‘libertarian babble’ (as Malthus saw it). Of course he doesn’t historicise Malthus anywhere near as well or profoundly as the Russian Marxist revolutionary Isaac Ilyich Rubin did in his 1929 work, A History of Economic Thought. It is significant that Malthus was a member of the landed gentry, that class of society that was deeply agitated not only by the growth of an increasingly urban working class, but also by the daring ideas of the radical bourgeoisie. In particular, the gentry were alarmed by the Jacobins, who were determined to make the bourgeois promise of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ a reality by overturning all old forms of privilege and authority. In the decade that Malthus wrote his essay on population, the Jacobins had seized power in revolutionary France and their sympathisers in England were being arrested for distributing inflammatory pamphlets. Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man was being banned and even burned in Britain. Malthus’s essay was, in Rubin’s words, ‘a response to the bourgeois Enlightenment’ and in particular to ‘the socio-political radicalism that closed the eighteenth century’ (1). Malthus was launching an anti-humanist counterattack against burgeoning radical humanism.

The service Malthus played for the emerging capitalist class, which was keen to shake off the more radical bourgeoisie and also to control the threatening new proletariat, was to present poverty and unemployment as natural rather than social problems, as products of nature’s limits rather than of the failure of society to develop and progress the forces of production. In Rubin’s words, Malthus thought the ‘true’ cause of poverty was not the inadequacy of the social system, but the ‘natural, inexorable contradiction between man’s unbounded yearning to multiply and the limits to the increase in the means of subsistence’. As Rubin notes, Malthus’s aim was to ‘explain and [even] justify the poverty of the working masses in capitalist society’ (2). Marx, who had a special loathing for Malthus’s ideas, described Malthus as ‘a professional sycophant of the landed aristocracy’ who was intent on ‘building the capitalist case for the inevitability of poverty’ (3). In the Malthusian worldview, poverty and destitution were not social problems that might be rectified through human action, whether reform or revolution – they were the natural order of things, inevitable, and best left to play out. No wonder the capitalist class embraced him tightly.

It is striking that Pearce doesn’t venture very far into the broader context of Malthus’s work, instead contenting himself with stories about his harelip, his possible sexual hang-ups, his cruel streak, his hatred of the poor and, yes, the fact that he was Wrong with a capital W – mankind did find solutions, some brilliant ones, to the practical problem of producing and distributing more food for growing numbers of people. Pearce’s focus on Malthus’s own misanthropy and stupidity reveals the main motivation of Peoplequake: to bury Malthus the man rather than his entire message, and to leave intact Malthus’s fundamental re-presentation of social problems as natural ones, which is also the overarching outlook of contemporary environmentalism.

Having hated and slated Malthus, Pearce moves on to explore how Malthus’s ideas had a devastating impact on later generations. He looks at how the Irish Famine of 1845-1852, in which one million people starved to death, was explained away by Malthus’s disciples as the inevitable product of overpopulation, of the fact that, in one Malthusian thinker’s words, ‘The careless, squalid, un-aspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits’. Once again, a social problem – the poverty and repression wrought by Ireland’s subordinate colonial relationship with Britain – was re-explained as a natural phenomenon. Pearce examines how Malthus’s thinking inspired the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some of whose followers opposed the development of vaccines and other medical breakthroughs since they ‘stopped nature weeding out people vulnerable to its diseases’.

He traces Malthus’s ideas forward to William Vogt, the granddaddy of contemporary environmentalism whose green and Malthusian Road to Survival was published in 1948. Vogt also instinctively opposed medical breakthroughs and agricultural or industrial leaps forward, on the basis that they allowed people to carry on breeding. For example in India, said Vogt, ‘building irrigation works, providing means of food storage and importing food during periods of starvation [has only allowed Indians to continue in] their accustomed way, breeding with the irresponsibility of codfish’. Pearce takes us up to today’s Optimum Population Trust (OPT), an old-style Malthusian outfit, which says we must reduce the human population to three billion or face ‘nature’s brutal population policies… increasing the death rate by famines and disease’. The OPT sees the whole globe, but especially Africa and Asia, as a hotbed of potential chaos and slaughter. One of its former chairmen has argued that ‘for the whole planet to avoid the fate of Rwanda, Malthusian thinking needs rehabilitation’. Pearce points out that it simply isn’t true that Africa is overpopulated: ‘The continent contains 11 of the world’s 20 least densely populated nations and only one of the 20 most densely populated.’

Refashioning Malthusianism

Yet the driving motivation of Pearce’s demolition job on Malthus and his unreconstructed apostles is not to put the case for understanding humanity’s problems as social rather than natural and to challenge the backward idea that we live on a finite planet which will forever thwart ‘man’s unbounded yearning to multiply’. No, Pearce’s motivation is to rescue those backward ideas from their sullied association with misanthropic, racist, deeply reactionary movements of the past 200 years and from the inconvenient fact that they originated with a mad, harelipped reverend who hated the poor. Pearce wants to kill Malthus, but also preserve the very essence of Malthusian thinking.

Pearce seems to imagine that he is making a radical new contribution to the debate about people, the planet and resources when he argues that the decisive factor in humanity’s impact on its surroundings is consumption rather than population. In a chapter titled ‘Footprints on a finite planet’, which comes after 238 pages of Pearce’s attacks on old-fashioned Malthusians, Pearce finally confesses his own overpopulation concerns: ‘The quadrupling of global population during the twentieth century helped bring us to the edge of the abyss… Our sheer numbers have clearly been crucial to what has happened, but they are only part of the story.’

The main part of the story, he says, is not simply the fact of humans being born, but how much they then go on to consume. ‘Rising consumption is now a much bigger cause of our growing impact on the planet. It is responsible for almost all our increased ecological footprint in the past 30 years, the period in which the footprint analysts say we have “overshot” the planet’s carrying capacity.’ So, says Pearce, it is not those large but poor families in Africa that are ‘wrecking many of the Earth’s life-support systems’, it is wealthier Westerners: ‘The average citizen of the US has an ecological footprint of 9.5 hectares of the planet – that is, the amount of the planet’s surface needed to provide for him or her to soak up their pollution. Meanwhile, Australians and Canadians require about seven hectares, Europeans and Japanese four to five hectares, the Chinese 2.1 hectares, and Indians and most Africans one hectare or less.’

Leaving aside the fact that this talk of ecological footprints and metaphorical hectares is ‘science’ of such a dumbed-down, naive and laughable nature that it is enough to make the claims of the earlier eugenicists look airtight by comparison, the fact is that Pearce’s focus on the destructive consumption habits of human beings is itself deeply Malthusian. The idea of problematic consumption – of human beings depleting finite resources – goes right back to Malthus himself. It was a key component of Malthus’s ideology. The essence of traditional Malthusianism was not simply that there were ‘too many people’, for that would raise the question: too many people for what? No, traditional Malthusianism promoted the idea that ‘too many people’ would deplete resources, which were naturally limited, and thus give rise to hunger and disease. Pearce has merely updated this ideology so that certain people, the relatively well-off, are depicted as being more depletory than other people, the poor, and so that the impact of their depletory behaviour is not defined as ‘hunger and disease’ but the ‘wrecking of the Earth’s life-support systems’.

Pearce is explicitly updating and refashioning the arguments of Paul Ehrlich, one of the twentieth century’s most prolific neo-Malthusians, who (wrongly, of course) wrote in his 1971 book The Population Bomb that ‘hundreds of millions of people will starve to death’ as a result of overpopulation (4). Ehrlich himself updated traditional Malthusianism, arguing that humanity’s destructive impact is determined by three things: the number of individuals, the consumption of each individual, and the resources needed to satisfy that consumption. And now Pearce is updating Ehrlich, giving rise to what we might call ‘third-generation Malthusianism’, by arguing that ‘Ehrlich’s second factor in humanity’s impact on the planet [consumption] has come to the fore’. Population growth is actually slowing, says Pearce, so ignore the OPT and other unreconstructed Malthusians and focus instead on the main problem: the consumption habits of existing human beings rather than the projected number of future human beings.

Over the past 200 years, Malthusianism has continually reinvented itself. It has had to, since so many of its predictions have been contradicted by human experience, in particular the key claim of Malthus’s Essay: that it would be impossible for food production to keep up with population growth. Generations of Malthusians have dealt with this by arguing that some ‘unforeseen development’ has merely provided a ‘temporary respite’ from the fundamental Malthusian dilemma, and while Malthus may have been wrong on some of the facts he was right on the fundamentals. Pearce simply goes one step further, arguing not only that Malthus was wrong on some of the facts but that he was a rotten piece of work with some very dodgy beliefs. Yet although he doesn’t say it out loud, Pearce, too, believes Malthus was right on the fundamentals.

For the Malthusian fundamentals inform all of Pearce’s arguments. The Malthusian idea that human beings are depleting nature’s limited resources is here. ‘An inventory of the state of nature’s bounty makes a sobering read’, says Pearce. The Malthusian idea that the planet is limited and finite is here, too. Pearce describes Earth as a ‘finite planet’ and bizarrely claims that we are ‘consuming 30 per cent more resources each year than the planet produces’. This overlooks the fact – recognised by true humanists – that there is nothing fundamentally finite about Earth or its resources, since what we consider to be, and use as, a resource changes as society itself develops. The Malthusian idea that nature’s limits mean people must inevitably live in poverty is here. ‘It is of course true that poor people with small ecological footprints may grow rich… eventually assuming footprints as great as ours. If they do that, it is hard to see anything other than disaster ahead’, says Pearce.

Most importantly, the central Malthusian idea, as noted by Marx and later by Rubin, is here too, as it is throughout the contemporary environmentalist movement: the idea that social problems are actually natural ones, brought about not by society’s failings but by the shrinking of ‘nature’s bounty’. Pearce might not be lobbying for tough new Poor Laws, as Malthus did, but he and the rest of the green movement implicitly and explicitly naturalise social phenomena such as poverty and inequality, so that the entire focus of contemporary politics is now not on human action that might remake society and liberate mankind from need, but on liberating nature (or ‘biodiversity’ as they prefer these days) from mankind’s consumption habits and rampant depletionist tendencies. For me, the Malthusian understanding of man as brute consumer rather than creator, as destroyer rather than producer, is no more palatable when it is dressed up in Pearce’s ridiculous metaphorical hectares of destruction than when it is wrapped up in the Reverend Malthus’s pulpit warnings about sex-made hunger and disease.

Pearce and some other leading greens would have us believe there is a profound debate in the environmentalist movement between old-style Malthusians on one side and progressive greens on the other. There isn’t. Instead there’s a petty clash of Malthusianisms, a disagreement over how to present anti-human arguments today: to use old-style lingo and run the risk of being labelled ‘racist’, or use new-style lingo that might go down better in our PC era. Radical humanists, those who see themselves in the tradition of Marx and Rubin rather than Malthus and Ehrlich, should reject both sides, but should reject Pearce’s side most vociferously – for there is nothing more deceitful than rehabilitating Malthusian thought under the guise of a war against Malthus.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

This article is republished from the March 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Peoplequake, by Fred Pearce, is published by Eden Project Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the March 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

(1) A History of Economic Thought, Rubin, 1929, published by Pluto Press 1989

(2) A History of Economic Thought, Rubin, 1929, published by Pluto Press 1989

(3) Quoted in The Popularization of Malthus in Early Nineteenth-Century England, James P Huzel, Ashgate Publishing, 2006

(4) See Too many people? No, too many Malthusians, by Brendan O’Neill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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