Have We Hit the Limits of Human Population?
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Without growth, there would be no economy as we know it. But modern culture, by and large, doesn't see that it can exist only in the medium of ceaseless growth and expansion, because a fish doesn't see the water it swims in. Only today, in the recent, breathless moments of the greatest economic crash since the Great Depression, do we begin to perceive the waters around us.
Slowly, we are coming to realize that the last 200 years of economic growth have been based on a monumental Ponzi scheme that has pushed the final reckoning ever forward in time, until the future is now. Slowly, we are coming to realize that Thomas Malthus was right.
It was the warrior cry of the radical environmental movement in the 1980s: "Malthus Was Right!" But Malthus, a mumbling country parson with intellectual ambitions, had been transmogrified by capitalists and communists alike into a fearsome bogeyman possessed of "dangerous" ideas.
Environmentalists who invoked his name were invariably corrected by their progressive friends, who told them that excess consumption by the rich was the problem, not the reproductive profligacy of the poor.
Yet, as we drive deeper into the greenhouse world, with its crazy weather, water shortages and general degradation, more and more of us from across the political spectrum are wondering how on earth we will feed the 3 billion more people projected to arrive by 2050, or even the 6 billion or so we already have.
It is worthwhile, therefore, to examine the Malthusian idea, to discover what truths it holds and to see if they can be of any help.
Malthus' big idea, published in 1798 in "An Essay on the Principle of Population," was that human population would always grow exponentially, and that it would always push up against the limits of food production, thus creating a permanent class of poor whose numbers could only be checked by "misery" and "vice."
His Law of Population is based on this simple observation:
"Through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, nature has scattered the seeds of life abroad with the most profuse and liberal hand. She has been comparatively sparing in the room and the nourishment necessary to rear them."
Later, Charles Darwin would base his theory of natural selection on this observation. He saw that a super abundance of progeny allows natural selection to work so that only the fittest survive.
Malthus wrote his essay in response to William Godwin, an outspoken liberal of the day. Godwin wanted to abolish the aristocracy and redistribute the wealth. He believed in the "perfectibility of man." As a member of the landed elite, Malthus felt a need to address the rabble-rouser Godwin and prove that even in a perfect society where the working man received according to his needs, all benefits would soon be wiped out by population growth.
The poor man's "lack of moral restraint" would ensure that his family would continue to grow until they ate him out of house and home. Starvation and disease would then do the job of reducing the population to a supportable size.
Malthus made a big impression on the British upper classes (who had access to concubines and prostitutes and hence no need for moral restraint to curtail family size). Since the poor were destined to continually breed themselves back into poverty anyway, there was no point in improving their condition.
Politicians seized on Malthus' theory to end subsidies for the poor ("a shilling a week to every laborer for each child he has above three") and pass the Poor Law of 1834 that forced those seeking relief into workhouses designed to be as much like prisons as possible. It's no wonder then that Friedrich Engels declared Malthus' Law of Population to be the "most open declaration of war of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat."