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Thomas Malthus

Are there too many people? - Population, Hunger, and Environmental Degradation

By Chris Williams - International Socialist Review, January 2010

“COULD FOOD shortages bring down civilization?” This was the title of an article in the May 2009 edition of the magazine Scientific American by Lester R. Brown.1 The article begins: “The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse. Those crises are brought on by ever worsening environmental degradation.”

Brown is no fringe character; he has won numerous environmental awards and authored over 50 books addressing various aspects of the environmental crisis. Until 2000 he was president of the Worldwatch Institute, which publishes the influential and authoritative State of the World annual reports as well as the annual publication Vital Signs. A major preoccupation of Brown for more than three decades has been the idea that the world is perennially on the brink of running out of food because increases in human population are outstripping food supply. Now he is equally concerned that overpopulation is a major driver of ecological devastation. While Brown has been a resource-depletion doomsayer for decades, he is echoed by many others. Neo-Malthusian arguments are resurfacing with a vengeance as explanations for the recent global food crisis and, even more so, among people genuinely concerned by the ongoing, and indeed accelerating, destabilization of planetary ecosystems.

The return of Malthus
A number of liberal writers and publications have raised the specter of growing population as an unpleasant yet necessary topic of conversation. Johan Hari, a writer for the Independent, posed the question in one of his columns last year, “Are there just too many people in the world?” While noting that Malthusian predictions have consistently been wrong and often used as arguments against the poor, he nevertheless concludes that, “After studying the evidence, I am left in a position I didn’t expect. Yes, the argument about overpopulation is distasteful, often discussed inappropriately, and far from being a panacea-solution—but it can’t be dismissed entirely. It will be easier for 6 billion people to cope on a heaving, boiling planet than for nine or 10 billion.”2 An editorial in the Guardian newspaper from March of this year, entitled “The Malthusian question,” even while rejecting the more outrageous population-reduction arguments and overt Malthusianism of organizations such as the Optimum Population Trust, confirms in alarmist terms the relevance of population-based arguments to environmental decay:

Yet human numbers continue to swell, at more than 9,000 an hour, 80 million a year, a rate that threatens a doubling in less than 50 years. Land for cultivation is dwindling. Wind and rain erode fertile soils. Water supplies are increasingly precarious. Once-fertile regions are threatened with sterility. The yield from the oceans has begun to fall. To make matters potentially worse, human numbers threaten the survival of other species of plant and animal. Humans depend not just on what they can extract from the soil, but what they can grow in it, and this yield is driven by an intricate ecological network of organisms. Even at the most conservative estimate, other species are being extinguished at 100 to 1,000 times the background rate observable in the fossil record.”3

The notion that population growth is the foremost cause of environmental degradation and societal destabilization is raised in the Summer 2009 issue of Scientific American’s publication, Earth 3.0—Solutions for Sustainable Progress. The cover article, titled “Population and Sustainability,” by Robert Engelman, vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, poses the question: Can we avoid limiting the number of people? It begins:

In an era of changing climate and sinking economies, Malthusian limits to growth are back—and squeezing us painfully. Whereas more people once meant more ingenuity, more talent and more innovation, today it just seems to mean less for each [emphasis in original].4

Engelman does not believe that coercive population control methods are necessary, primarily because, as he notes, they haven’t worked. Nevertheless, he urges governments, institutions and people to consider how we can best reduce population growth in order to conserve resources, reduce our ecological footprint, and prevent conflict over worsening environmental conditions.

Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, Apocalypse

Iain Boal interviewed by David Martinez - Counterpunch, September 11, 2007

Iain Boal is an Irish social historian of science and technics, associated with Retort, a group of antinomian writers, artisans and artists based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is one of the authors of Retort’s Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2nd edn, Verso, 2006). This chapter is based on a conversation prompted by DAVID MARTINEZ, a San Francisco-based filmmaker and journalist, in late 2005. It also draws on material from a forthcoming book by Iain Boal, entitled The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure.

DAVID MARTINEZ: I’d like to talk with you about "scarcity" and "catastrophe". On the talk shows there is even discussion of an impending collapse of society due to dwindling oil supply. The concepts of scarcity and collapse are hardly new, and obviously the invasion of Iraq brought the issue of oil into sharp focus. Can we start with the sacred cow of scarcity?

Iain Boal:  Sure. With respect to oil, we should begin with the observation that the general problem for the petro-barons has always been glut, or to put it another way, how to keep oil scarce. They’ve done a pretty good job, although all monopolies have to be measured against De Beers, who have the corner on diamonds. They are the world’s masters at constructing scarcity, in this case, of crystalline carbon, which is actually rather common in the earth’s crust. So one thing to make clear is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is not about absolute scarcity.  For sure, the history of oil is complex, and the fluctuations in the supply of oil have an extraordinarily complicated relation to price, demand, and reserves. But in order to understand scarcity – whether of oil in particular or of commodities under capitalism in general – you have to look at the discourses of scarcity and of poverty. And that means you have to look at the historical moment of the institutionalizing of economics – defined in the textbooks as "the study of choice under scarcity" – as the dominant  way of talking about the world, and the relation of these to capitalist modernity.  And that story is indeed interesting.

In order to understand "scarcity" as a sacred cow, we have to go back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Because, no question, we are living in a Malthusian world. By that I mean that Malthus’ way of framing the issue of human welfare has triumphed.  And I think it’s especially important for the Left to understand this. Particularly those who got drawn into politics through concern about the environment, who count themselves as "green". Scratch an environmentalist and probably you’ll find a Malthusian. What do I mean by that? What is it to be Malthusian? Well, it’s to subscribe to the view that the fundamental problems humanity faces have their roots in the scarcity of the resources that sustain life, because the world is finite and we are exhausting those resources and also perhaps because we are polluting them. Notice how this mirrors the basic assumption of modern economics – choice under scarcity. In his notorious essay published in 1798, Malthus argued, or rather asserted, that population growth, especially of poor bastards, would inevitably outrun food supply, unless the propertyless were restrained from breeding. He advocated that poor people be crowded together in unhealthy housing, as a way of checking the growth of population. Remember, this is the world’s very first economist we’re talking about here.

And don’t forget that Malthus was in his own time consciously devising a counter-revolutionary science of economics and demography: his essay was a response to a famous best-seller by the utopian anarchist William Godwin, husband of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley who later wrote Frankenstein as a warning against the hubris of (male) science. Godwin had written An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice during the euphoric period after the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the overthrow of the French monarchy. Godwin’s optimistic, atheist, rationalism was born of the revolutionary events happening across the Channel – "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive", in the indelible line of Wordsworth. But as the counter-revolution set in, Thomas Malthus felt emboldened to compose his Essay on the Principle of Population as an explicit response to Godwin’s vision of an ample life for all. Malthus invented an "iron law of nature" intended, rhetorically, to put a damper on Godwin and the perfectibilians, and in practical political terms to discourage "idling" and illegitimacy and to cut away the existing welfare system which was a safety net for the poor.


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