The Return of the Mad Malthusian Scaremongers

By O'Neill, Brendan | Conscience, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Return of the Mad Malthusian Scaremongers

O'Neill, Brendan, Conscience


SUDDENLY, SEEMINGLY OUT of the blue, Malthusianism has become fashionable again. The old links between Malthusian thinking and anti-poor people hysteria, racism and the eugenics movement have been glossed over, and now everyone from trendy feminists to green-leaning activists and from edgy newspaper columnists to respectable politicians is happy to spout the gospel according to Malthus. You can hardly open a newspaper or switch on the radio these days without hearing someone arguing that the world is jampacked with Too Many People and "something will have to be done about it."

There are many problems with the return of Malthusianism, with this rearing, once again, of the ugly head of population scaremongering. Firstly, it is based on hysteria rather than facts, and it is as wrongheaded as Thomas Malthus himself was when he claimed in the 1790s that food production wouldn't be able to keep pace with poor people's rampant breeding and therefore tens of thousands of people would starve to death. Secondly, it reveals today's glaring lack of social and political imagination, where our inability to envision new ways of organizing society leads us to see everything as finite and babies as little more than the users of scarce resources. And thirdly, it interferes with women's reproductive choices, morally pressuring and blackmailing them to limit the number of children they have in the name of "saving the planet."

Malthusians have always been wrong about pretty much everything, and they still are today. The predictions of the original population scaremonger--the weird, underclass-fearing Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)--proved to be wildly inaccurate. In his "An Essay on the Principle of Population," which remains the bible of many of today's population panickers, the crazy reverend claimed that if people (especially poor people) didn't stop procreating, then "premature death would visit mankind." The demand for food would outstrip mankind's ability to supply it, he said, leading to "food shortages, epidemics, pestilence and plagues," which would "sweep off tens of thousands" of people.

Wrong. In fact, in the mid-19th century, shortly after Malthus's essays were published, mankind started to devise ingenious new ways of producing and distributing food. Malthus's problem was that, possessed of a downbeat, pessimistic, anti-human outlook, he couldn't foresee something like the Industrial Revolution, which utterly transformed how humanity makes things and transports them around countries and around the world. Humanity put its mind to the "food problem" and came up with some sweeping solutions, leading to a situation where, today, the planet can hold 6.7 billion people--a number that Malthus could only have dreamt (or rather had nightmares) about; in his day, there were a mere 980 million people on Earth. Of course there were famines in the 19th century and there still are occasional famines today. Yet these are caused, not by women's baby-making decisions, but by the failure of human society to spread the benefits of industrialization and modernity to the whole world, not just the Western world. In short, poverty and hunger are social and political problems, and therefore are susceptible to social and political solutions, rather than being some kind of punishment from Gaia dished out to speedily-breeding womankind.

Following in the footsteps of their population idol, contemporary Malthusians are as wrong as Malthus was. In 1971, when there were 3.6 billion people on the planet, the American demographer Paul Ehrlich argued in his book "The Population Bomb" that as a result of overpopulation "hundreds of millions of people will starve to death," leaving Asia and Africa in particular as "wastelands." Thankfully, this scenario remained a mere nightmare in Ehrlich's caliginous brain and never came to pass. A few years ago, Britain's fearmongering Optimum Population Trust, which sinisterly claims that the Earth's carrying capacity is only 2 billion people, warned that "for the whole planet to avoid the fate of Rwanda, Malthusian thinking needs rehabilitation. …

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