Internalising Malthus


Internalising Malthus

How the environmentalist movement rehabilitated some very dark and anti-human thinking.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Long-reads Politics Science & Tech

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Britain isn’t only experiencing an energy crisis. We have a procreation crisis, too. A fear of sprogging up has gripped younger people in particular. There is now even talk of a ‘baby shortage’. Britain’s birth rate is almost half what it was at its most recent historic peak in the 1960s. In England and Wales in 1964, the average number of children per woman was 2.93. In 2020 it was 1.58. In Scotland it was lower still: 1.29. This is far below the 2.1 ‘replacement level’, as experts call it, which is the average number of children per woman we need if we’re going to keep the population stable and balanced. Shorter version: there just aren’t enough kids.

Earlier this month the Social Market Foundation (SMF), in its new report, Baby Bust and Baby Boom: Examining the Liberal Case for Pronatalism, warned that the UK’s ‘baby shortage’ could lead to ‘long-term economic stagnation’. It points out that the flight from procreation has coincided with great successes in sustaining life in the twilight years. So we have more older people and fewer younger people. You don’t need a PhD in demography to know that this could prove problematic. ‘At present, there are a little under three over-65s for every 10 workers, but by the middle of the next decade that ratio will rise to 3.5, and by the 2060s the number will be closing in on four’, the SMF’s report says. It warns that a ‘combination of a lower share of the population in work and a higher share in need of economic support clearly has a negative effect on the productive capacity of the economy’.

So, what is going on with the propagation of our species? Why is there this seeming reluctance to beget new life? We should try not to get sucked into a new kind of population panic, like a liberal inversion of the fears whipped up by anti-natalists in recent decades. Where those population doom-mongers fretted, in an often quite prejudicial and even racist manner, over the fecund antics of certain sections of society, the pro-natalists stir up demographic dread over our lack of fecundity. It will not assist reasoned debate if we replace one hysteria about birth rates with another. Demography is not destiny. And just as our society has the capacity and resources to cope with significantly higher numbers of human beings, despite what the ‘plague on the planet’ lobby says, so we surely have the imagination to manage growing numbers of older people and declining numbers of workers.

And yet there is still a problem with the procreation crisis. It’s what it tells us about the fears and ideologies of the early 21st century that should make us concerned. Of course there will be numerous, swirling factors behind the declining birth rate in the UK and other Western countries. The Social Market Foundation points out that it has become pretty expensive to have kids (British parents spend an average of 22 per cent of their income on full-time childcare, which is more than twice the average spent in other Western nations). The trend for marrying later in life may also be impacting on the number of children people have. In England and Wales the average age at which men and women get married has risen from 27.2 and 24.7 respectively in 1970 to 38 and 35.7 respectively in the late 2010s. And of course there’s lockdown. Some predicted there would be a baby boom during this peculiar era of house arrest, but there wasn’t. It’s now thought the fertility rate for England and Wales in 2021 will be one of the lowest ever recorded. Who knew – a top-down, often ruthlessly enforced culture of control and atomisation does not generate a sense of positivity about the future and about the replenishment of mankind.

But there’s another factor in the ‘baby shortage’, too – the green-tinged fear factor. A palpable anxiety about bringing new life into a world as messed-up as ours allegedly is. Study after study has found that younger adults in particular are cagey about procreating because they think that life as we know it is fast approaching its final act. They think climate change is propelling us towards the heat death of our planet, or at least into situation where vast swathes of the Earth will be uninhabitable, where floods and hurricanes and other forms of ‘weather of mass destruction’ will be more frequent, and where life could become harder, more parched and altogether more unpleasant. And who would want to bring a child into such dystopia? Who would want to risk worsening this dystopic nightmare by creating yet another carbon-producing lifeform?

This worldview, this supposedly environmentalist turn against the propagation of our species, of ourselves, should concern us all. Because it points to an incredibly worrying development in the early 21st century: the internalisation of Malthusian thinking; the mental embrace by growing numbers of people of the kind of anti-humanism that was once loudly pushed by population doom-mongers. Where once the admonition to have fewer children, to stop polluting society and the environment with your pesky, ungrateful offspring, was made from the pulpit by the likes of the Reverend Thomas Malthus in the late 1700s, or from the pages of eugenicist magazines in the interwar period, now people are doing it to themselves. Now people have their very own Malthus in their minds, always, instructing them not to inflict any more humanity on poor Mother Earth.

Earlier this month, a global survey found that growing numbers of young people fear having children. Described as ‘the biggest scientific study yet on climate anxiety and young people’, it found that four in 10 people between the ages of 16 and 25 are concerned about procreation in an era of so-called climate catastrophe. The study, which questioned 10,000 young people in various countries around the world, including the UK, uncovered just how fearful the young now feel about climate change. Three-quarters of respondents agreed with the statement ‘the future is frightening’. Almost six in 10 said they were very worried or extremely worried about climate change. And four in 10, as one headline summed it up, ‘fear having children due to climate crisis’.

Internalising Malthus

The eco-fuelled anxiety about procreation has been gathering pace for years. ‘A growing contingent of young people are refusing to have kids – or are considering having fewer kids – because of climate change’, Vox magazine reports. A movement of British women called Birthstrike is encouraging women not to procreate until our governments get their act together on climate change. These women, many of whom are influenced by the regressive ideologies of Extinction Rebellion, have decided to publicly articulate their decision ‘not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis’.

The left’s favourite icon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has raised questions about how moral it is to have children in an era of climate madness. ‘It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it okay to still have children?’, she asked her millions of followers on Instagram. Green anti-natalism was given a further boost by the left’s favourite royals, too. Harry and Meghan told British Vogue they would have ‘maximum’ two children, partly for environmental reasons. For saying this, they were named as green ‘role models’ by Population Matters, formerly known as the Optimum Population Trust. This is an organisation that has been campaigning for population-control measures for decades. When old-style Malthusians cheer on the internalisation of Malthusian thinking by today’s influencers, it becomes clear that there’s a close relationship between past demands for top-down curbs on procreation and today’s eco-fear of having children.

The fear of starting a family shows how alarmingly successful the climate-change catastrophists have been in convincing the younger generation in particular that we are headed for a Revelations-style showdown with our planet. The green politics of fear appears to have caused a great deal of moral and even psychological disarray among the young. As one of the authors of that large scientific study on climate anxiety says, we now have a ‘horrific picture of widespread climate anxiety in our children and young people’.

And yet, disturbingly, this author describes such distress as a ‘completely rational reaction given the inadequate responses to climate change they are seeing from governments’. In other words, it is our leaders’ failure to act on climate change that is causing all that existential dread among the young. This is thoroughly unconvincing. It is the ideology of climate-change alarmism, not the practical measures – or lack of practical measures – to deal with climate change, that has inculcated in a new generation the almost religious conviction that humankind is a beastly, sinful force that is bringing about the death of the Earth. The profound fear of the future now manifesting in young people, including a fear of bringing children into the world, is entirely a consequence of the campaigns of moral terror and behavioural manipulation launched by greens and governments in recent years.

But there is something else going on, too. Something even more unnerving. The crisis of procreation isn’t only down to concerns that kids born today will have hard lives in the climate-changed future. It isn’t only driven by the AOC view that ‘the lives of our children are going to be very difficult’ as a result of so-called climate catastrophe. There is a more sinister and explicitly Malthusian calculation at play as well. There is the view of new human life as little more than carbon. The view of fresh-born babies as yet more pollutants, alongside the 7.9 billion other pollutants currently blighting this planet. It is this misanthropic reductionism that reveals how ingrained Malthusian thinking has become, and just how dangerously regressive 21st-century environmentalism now is.

As Vox says, there is a widespread belief now that ‘having a child leads to a gargantuan amount of carbon emissions – way, way more than the emissions generated by other lifestyle choices, like driving a car or eating meat’. ‘Want to fight climate change? Have fewer children’, said a headline in the Guardian in 2017. Reporting on a study published by Environmental Research Letters, the Guardian said that ‘the greatest impact individuals can have in fighting climate change is to have one fewer child’. Apparently if you have a kid you are essentially pumping 58.6 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Handily – and not at all creepily – the Guardian produced a pie chart to show the savings we can make in CO2 if we cut out certain forms of behaviour. Sell your car – save 2.4 tonnes of carbon. Switch to a plant-based diet – save 0.8 tonnes of carbon. Wash your clothes in cold water – save 0.25 tonnes of carbon. Best of all, avoid having that child you were thinking of having – save 58.6 tonnes of carbon. Ding, ding, ding. This is clearly the thing to do if you’re serious about saving the planet.

The study the Guardian was reporting on was widely and even warmly covered across the global media. ‘The best way to reduce your carbon footprint is one the government isn’t telling you about’, said Science magazine. It said the reason our leaders don’t tell us just how effective having fewer children can be in terms of reducing the carbon burden on the planet – more than 50 tonnes saved every year for every kid you don’t have! – is because this would be an ‘extreme’ change in lifestyle and most people are only comfortable with making minor tweaks to their daily lives. How long before we see government-information campaigns in which a newborn baby is likened to tonnes and tonnes of pollution and we are all sternly warned, ‘Save the planet – wear a condom’?

This reimagination of human life as merely a conduit for carbon is classic Malthusianism. Like the Malthusianism of old – from Thomas Malthus’s own fears that there wouldn’t be enough food to feed a growing population to the often racially tinged ‘population bomb’ panics of the 1970s and 80s – it sees human beings as little more than consumers. Even worse, as pollutants. All that this human lifeform does, apparently, is take, eat, use, discard, pollute. There seems to be no understanding of human beings as producers. As the makers of things, the creators of food and homes and other comforts, the discoverers of solutions. The narrow Malthusian calculation of the alleged costs of a human life, with no appreciation for the immeasurable benefits of that human life, has clearly been rehabilitated in eco-friendly language.

It is a thoroughly anti-human worldview. To view new life as ‘58.6 tonnes of carbon per year’ is to have completely lost connection with our humanity. Instead of being seen as a moral good in itself – good for its family, good for its community, and good for the future of society – a new life is now seen as toxic, as an emitter of a particular amount of pollution, as something that can be charted alongside driving an electric car or never flying to America as we work out how best to shrink our ‘human footprint’. It is entirely of a piece with the population dread of old, even though it comes parcelled up in more PC terminology. In both cases, the implication is strongly made that humanity is a pox, a grasping, consuming drain, and that having less of this humanity would be a good thing. Only where the doom-mongers of old desired to use pressure or force to curb our destructive fecundity, the hip Malthusians of the 21st century have encouraged people to internalise this depressing worldview and to behave as their very own personal population-controller.

This has led to one of the great ironies of our time. We are continually told that Generation Z is flirting with anti-capitalism, even with Marxism, more than any other generation of recent decades. And yet in reality many of these youngsters have embraced a thoroughly anti-Marxist ideology – Malthusianism. Malthus and Marx are arguably the polar opposites of modern historical political thinking. Not for nothing did Marx describe Malthus’s writings, in particular his 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, as a ‘libel on the human race’. The fundamental difference between Malthusianism and Marxism is that the former viewed problems of poverty and shortages as a consequence of there being too many people, while the latter understood these things as signs that the social system was failing.

The Malthusian worldview naturalises poverty, by understanding it as a consequence of natural limits, of the fact that there is a finite amount of resources and we risk using them all up if we create too many mouths to feed. So the problem is always the existence of too much human life, not our failure to create a social system capable of generating abundance and plenty. The Marxist worldview, in contrast, politicises poverty, understanding that it is a product of our failure, thus far, to create a system of production that can provide everything, and more, that people need and desire.

The Russian revolutionary Isaac Ilyich Rubin articulated this brilliantly in his 1929 work, A History of Economic Thought. The problem with the Malthusian worldview, he argued, is that it considers the ‘true’ cause of poverty to be 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 says, Malthus’s aim was to ‘explain and [even] justify the poverty of the working masses in capitalist society’. In short, one of the great political conflicts of the modern era was between those who thought mankind had no choice but to live according to nature’s limits, and that he had to modify his behaviour and his procreation choices accordingly, and those who believed that mankind might be liberated from these alleged limits through the application of his wisdom, his imagination, his technology and his labour to create a world in which everyone would live free from need.

Internalising Malthus

Today, this historic battle between the natural worldview and the social worldview, essentially between anti-humanists and humanists, still rages. Only now it is so obfuscated, so dolled up in the garb of environmentalism and climate change, that it can be difficult to see the truth of it. Indeed, those on today’s version of the Malthusian side in the clash over humanity’s relationship with nature consider themselves to be on the Marxist side; they consider their rage against capitalism’s eco-destructive tendencies and their conviction that we need a small human footprint on the planet to be radical, even communistic, not realising that they are actually propagating in a new form the worldview of the man Marx considered to be a defamer of the human race. The great folly of modern leftists in embracing environmentalism is that it confirms their abandonment of social understandings of our world, and their adoption instead of naturalistic fatalism, of the determinism of the ‘finite’ worldview, of the belief that man must agree to adhere to nature’s shortcomings. When having a child, and everything else we do, is measured in terms of its carbon output, then we know it’s the Malthusians who have won.

The turn against procreation, the fear of the future, the conviction that we are on the cusp of using up all of nature’s resources – these are the offspring of the depressing and untrue ideology of natural limits. The anti-humanist creed of contemporary environmentalism has brought us to a situation where we are unsure even about propagating humankind, far less radically overhauling society so that we can produce more and potentially accommodate billions and billions more people. We need to liberate the young in particular from the anti-humanism foisted on them via education and popular culture and to restore two things as a matter of urgency: 1) an understanding that the problems facing humankind are ones of society and politics, not nature; and 2) a conviction that we have it within our power and our labours to resolve these problems and to create a world in which, to use Rubin’s phrase, ‘man’s unbounded yearning to multiply’ can truly flourish. As spiked has always put it: ‘Humanity is underrated.’

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

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Topics Long-reads Politics Science & Tech


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