Malthus painted green
Are there too many people? Jack Conrad attacks crude overpopulation theories. They are more than useless: they are extraordinarily dangerous
Scientific opinion is overwhelmingly agreed. The planet is getting hotter and the main cause is increased emissions of greenhouse gasses due to human activity. A catastrophic 2.7℃ is now a looming prospect.1 Unless something is done for real and done for real soon, then Earth will tip over into a new climate system and in the process threaten the “survival of human civilisation”.2
Despite all the evidence, there are still those in denial. Inevitably, they come in a various forms, shades and guises. Some (very well financed) foundations, institutes and think tanks work directly, or indirectly, for fossil fuel corporations and countries such as Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia. They sow confusion, put out half-believable disinformation, all to justify business as usual. Rightwing accelerationists fervently believe that untrammelled free enterprise will solve every problem. Naturally, anything that smacks of socialism is loathed ... and meaningful action on climate change undoubtedly smacks of socialism (even if it is of the bourgeois kind). Then there are the half-crazy egotists, the religious fanatics, the cynical demagogues who dismiss the science as hype, wildly alarmist or simply a hoax concocted by some sinister globalist elite. When elevated to high office, they amount to a suicide cult: Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Jarosław Kaczyński, Viktor Orbán and Jair Bolsonaro.
However, it would be a profound mistake to imagine that it is them versus all the rest of us. That the left should line up behind the United Nations environmental bureaucracy, the ever growing army of greenwashed capitalists, the bloated eco-charity sector and green campaigns, green coalitions and green parties.
True, over the years, green thinkers have produced a whole literature which, often brilliantly, warned of the disastrous effects of rapacious mining, industry and agriculture. Rachel Carson springs to mind! Others have detailed the destruction of rain forests, the loss of animal and plant species, the spread of deserts, the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, the pollution of the air, rivers and seas, the depletion of the ozone layer, acid rain, soil erosion, etc. Governmental complacency and culpability has also been thoroughly exposed. If only by implication, capitalism is shown to be inherently unsustainable.
Certainly, most contemporary left groups have pilfered. Little bits and pieces of green intellectual property turn up tacked onto famished, economistic check-lists, election manifestos and transitional programmes. The most blatant example is what describes itself as red-green politics. But one way or another all are guilty: Momentum, the Labour Representation Committee, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, the Morning Star’s CPB, Anticapitalist Resistance, etc.
However, in class terms, greenism amounts to a petty bourgeois disenchantment with capitalist progress - its crass commercialism, its soulnessness, its heedless despoliation of nature. Yet, despite the transparently good intentions, greenism carries a deadly barb: its denunciations of ecological degradation are joined with assumptions of human “overpopulation” and the limited “carrying capacity” of the planet: “population growth … must be addressed to avoid overpopulation”, says the Green Party in England and Wales.3
According to Rex Weyland, Greenpeace co-founder, “climate conferences are not addressing the real root problem, which is overshoot of the human species on Earth, and they are not doing anything about the one symptom they are addressing, which is climate change.”4 A proposition which inevitably finds its red-green echo: eg, Alan Thornett, of Anticapitalist Resistance and the Campaign against Climate Change. He has exactly the same diagnosis: a “major contributory factor” to the ecological crisis is overpopulation.5 BirthStrike, established by women closely involved with Extinction Rebellion, even vow to go childless in protest against “climate breakdown and civilisation collapse”.6
As everyone knows, the inventor of modern overpopulation theory is the reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). This celibate Church of England parson anonymously published his Essay on the principle of population in 1798. His stated polemical targets were the “speculative” writings of Nicolas de Condorcet and William Godwin - both political radicals and upholders of women’s rights.
There was, however, next to nothing original in the Essay. Marx contemptuously dismissed it as a “superficial plagiary of De Poe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc”.7 Nonetheless, with the thrilling excitement, hopes and turmoil unleashed by the 1789 French Revolution, the forces of reaction grabbed hold of Malthus’s Essay as a godsend. He was proclaimed a genius of the first order, who had single-handedly founded a brand new science. Dreams of achieving ‘perfectibility’ here on Earth, even timid electoral reform, could be smothered with the ‘principle’ of despair.
True, in the original edition(s) of the Essay, the law of diminishing returns from agricultural land is entirely absent. Malthus had to make do with this line of argument: “the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence.”8 When subsistence increases so does population. But humanity’s powers of reproduction greatly exceed its ability to produce the means of subsistence. Population is considered elastic, the means of subsistence inelastic. Therefore, the lot of the greater part of humanity is to live in abject poverty. The annual cull from starvation and disease mercifully kept population numbers within natural limits - all part of god’s magnificent grand design.
Towards the end of his life, in 1830, Malthus did introduce diminishing returns from agricultural land - a theory which can be traced back to the likes of Johann Heinrich von Thünen, Jacques Turgot and Adam Smith. Hence 1830 marked the birth of ‘classical’ Malthusianism: a “geometrically” growing population cannot be supported by the “arithmetically” growing supplies of food, because agriculture is driven by rising population numbers to extend cultivation from land with absolute fertility into marginal, less fertile, land - acre-by-acre output would thereby be expected to fall (hence the theory of differential rent critiqued by Marx).
Whether or not the population was growing “geometrically” is a moot point. It certainly never occurred to Malthus that agricultural production could grow geometrically: eg, through selective breeding of plants and animals, and increasing soil productivity through irrigation, drainage and the application of fertilisers. Malthus’s biology was mentally caged by Linnaean notions of the fixity of species. Only very limited wriggle room was allowed for ‘improvement’.
Whereas late Malthus based his prognosis on the claim that a “geometrically” growing population could not be supported by the “arithmetically” growing supplies of food, modern greens talk about the ecological footprint and the finite carrying capacity of the planet.9 Different words, but the operative conclusion is barely distinguishable: population growth has to be halted and put into reverse as a matter of urgency.
Malthus’s theory accepts that, while humans are part of nature and subject to nature’s usual laws, they are, unless restrained, destined to increase at an unsupportable rate. That restraint is either physical or moral. Of course, the base, instinctive, ignorant masses could never be expected to give up on sexual pleasure. Besides opium, alcohol and tobacco what else gave their miserable, bleak, squalid lives those saving moments? Hence, if the moral restraints of delayed marriage or sexual abstinence failed, hunger and starvation were inescapable … and natural.
Suffice to say, for Malthus, the limit on human numbers had already been reached by the close of 17th century - when the global population is estimated to have topped 600 million. All the evils that swarmed around him - beggary, drunkenness, filth, slums, abandoned children, thievery, prostitution, epidemics, riot and the threat of leveller insurrection - were explained (away) by Malthus as being the result of excessive population.
Logically though, this overpopulation crisis should have begun with Adam’s rib. After all, with god’s creation of woman, the numbers in Edenland instantly doubled. According to Malthus, Adam’s ability to increase food production should have been incapable of matching such a shuddering population increase. Adam and Eve would have been expected to have quickly starved to death.
Adam and Eve (and even Malthus) notwithstanding, there has been a rapid population increase. Today there are over 7.8 billion of us.10 Clearly, human numbers have grown geometrically … if we take a long enough view. It took around 250,000 years to reach a billion. A figure that seems to have been reached in 1825 … or thereabouts. The next billion was added over the following century. But it took only some 35 years after that to reach 3 billion and a mere 12 years for another billion increase.
Despite this tremendous spurt, there has been an accompanying - and in actual fact a higher - increase in the means of subsistence. Our numbers did not expand geometrically - eg, 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc - while food production trailed behind at an arithmetical 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc. During the 19th century the agricultural land that was organically included within the sphere of the capitalist world economy expanded stupendously with the integration of Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia and the vast US interior. Eg, 1, 4, 16, 64. Meanwhile, humanity’s instruments of labour and productive techniques have gone forward in leaps and bounds: eg, railways, telegraphs, tractors, combines, electric power, refrigeration, telephones, airfreight, container shipping, freeze drying, artificial fertilisers, genetic manipulation, computers, gene editing, etc - all spurring and feeding off successive scientific revolutions: ie, 1, 8, 64, 512, etc. In principle the possibilities are limitless.
While some strands of green thought claim to be informed by Marxism, greenism as a whole is permeated with a nature-worshipping idealism, which easily segues into a thoroughly nasty, anti-human irrationalism. People are cast in the role of the problem. The language and choice of metaphor is revealing and on occasion downright chilling.
In his The population bomb (1968), Paul Ehrlich - a Stanford University entomologist - depicts Earth as drowning under “too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticides, multiplying contrails, inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide - all can be traced easily to too many people.”.11 Looking forward just a little to the 1970s and 80s, he apocalyptically announced: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.”12 Instead of giving aid to the needy and feeding the hungry, responsible states should henceforth put in place the harsh population control measures needed.
Ehrlich equated this, admittedly unpleasant, task with cutting out a “cancer”.13 The operation will “demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions. The pain may be intense. But the disease is so far advanced that only with radical surgery does the patient have a chance of survival.”14 Surely a barely concealed call for the mass extermination of the surplus population - considered globally, that means the poor and destitute in the so-called third world. Accusations of unintended racism appear more than justified. Expropriating the kleptocrats, the giant corporations, the parasitic royal houses, the banks, insurance companies and private equity funds never seems to occur.
After a slow burn, Ehrlich’s book not only became a best-seller: it spurred on what became an anti-population growth crusade. Millions were sterilised, often coercively, in countries such as India, Mexico, Peru, Egypt, Tunisia, Indonesia and Bangladesh - all backed, promoted and urged on by the UN, the World Bank and a swathe of NGOs. And, of course, between 1980 and 2015 China imposed its own draconian one-child policy.
Optimum Population Trust was founded in Britain 1991 and rebranded as Population Matters in 2011. Its website displays a “world population clock” ticking away (presumably towards the final moment of ecological collapse).15 A thoroughly respectable pressure group, it makes the case for putting population reduction at the heart of government policy. Britain should, it once submitted, cut its population by 30 million!
Not so long ago the Green Party too prescribed a similar human purgative - except down to 20 million! True, the Green Party’s neo-Malthusianism has been somewhat sugar-pilled; likewise Population Matters. Under the banner of living in harmony with nature, it advocates empowering women and girls, quality education for all, free contraception and reversing the disastrous foreign aid cuts. But the truth will out. In 2013, Population Matters strenuously objected to Syrian refugees being granted asylum in the UK.16 The organisation stands for zero net migration. Nonetheless, worthy public figures have lined up to endorse the organisation - apart from Paul Ehrlich himself, Sir David Attenborough, Jonathon Porritt, Sir Partha Dasgupta, Jane Goodall, John Guillebaud, Leilani Münter, Lionel Shriver and Chris Packham are listed amongst its sponsors.17
Inevitably, however, if voluntary methods fail, then other, draconian solutions present themselves … and the danger is that sooner or later such other methods will come to be accepted as common sense: Population Matters boasts that an international opinion survey conducted in February 2019 found that two thirds of respondents consider “population growth a global catastrophic risk”.18 Clearly, you can fool most of the people some of the time.
In The population bomb, Ehrlich was quite explicit: “We must have population control at home, hopefully through changes in our value system, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”19 He toyed with the idea of lacing food sold in the US with contraceptives. After rejecting this as politically unfeasible, he advocated ending US food aid to countries abroad. And, he added, almost as an afterthought, that all men in India with “over three children” should be “forcibly sterilised”.
Official Britain not only blew trumpets and banged drums for Malthus as an intellectual saviour from the French Revolution and its odious doctrines of liberté, égalité, fraternité. More prosaically, Malthusianism served as a wonderful excuse for dispensing with the horribly antiquated old poor laws: since 1601 anyone without work had the legal right to obtain help from parish authorities. By embracing Malthus and his claim that the inexorable growth of pauperism was the result of the old poor laws, not the inexorable growth of capitalism, large amounts of money could be saved. An all too tempting promise.
The 1834 Poor Law introduced the hated system of workhouses. More than 500 of these ‘pauper bastilles’ were built. The deserving poor were incarcerated in austere, single-sex blocks, the able-bodied being obliged to labour in return for upkeep. Conditions were callously designed to be so off-putting that only the most desperate would present themselves.
Albeit with a heavy heart, Malthus himself positively recommended famine. The frightful results were seen in Ireland during the 1845-49 Great Hunger. The Liberal government in Whitehall considered it both morally right and financially prudent to let nature take its course. Amid continued food exports to Britain, a million Irish people were left to die. Two million more “fled their homeland for the United States, Canada and Britain”.20
Doubtless, finding Christian justification in Matthew xxvi,11 and the stomach-churning saying, “For you will always have the poor with you”, Malthus icily reasoned that mass starvation would at least temporarily result in fewer mouths to feed. As the lower orders seemed to religiously follow the commandment, be “fruitful and multiply”, they would have to pay for their sins. Nothing could be done for them, except to make their death as easy as possible. In other words, his theory excused social murder.
Exactly the same perverted morality leads mild-mannered greens to advise the UN, the World Bank, the G8 countries, etc, to impose sterilisation programmes upon the global south. The poor are blamed for their poverty, not the imperialist system of exploitation.
Though recognising that the Essay acted as an intellectual stimulus - eg, on Charles Darwin - Marx had no hesitation in dismissing Malthus’s entire population theory as a “lampoon on the human race!”21 Needless to say, an almost unbelievably cruel one.
Marx hurled some well-aimed polemical thunderbolts. For instance, in Capital volume one, he included a telling footnote: the publication of Malthus’s Essay had caused a sensation, but this “was greeted with jubilance by the English oligarchy as the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development”.22 Theories of surplus value, the fourth volume of Capital, devotes a whole chapter to comprehensively demolishing Malthus and Malthusianism. Marx concludes that the Essay “was an apologia for the poverty of the working classes”.23 No feeling human being could but agree.
None of this is to imply that Marxism regards planet Earth as an unlimited source of wealth or that population has no effect. No, Marxism urges humanity to treat nature with respect, to act as Earth’s guardian, not its master. As for population, it should not be treated as an abstraction, an unchanging natural law. Population has to be treated in relationship to definite societies and definite classes.
Eg, the land could not sustain the hoplites (heavy infantrymen) of classical Greece. Their short-termist agricultural techniques quickly exhausted the soil. Deforestation and overgrazing added to mounting problems. So did heavy winter rains. The topsoil was washed away. Writing of Attica, Plato sadly observed:
... in comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body, as they may be called, as, in the case of small islands, all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, the mere skeleton of the land being left.24
The polis of Athens, and other similar Greek city states, responded by planting numerous colonies around the coastal rim of the Aegean and the Black Sea, and in Sicily and southern Italy. Surplus citizens were exported. Meanwhile, these colonial outposts acted as slave trawling centres (the human catch being exported to the home city in huge numbers).
What numbers were involved in this chronic problem of citizen overpopulation? Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica had approximately 300,000 inhabitants and 20,000 full citizens. Small beer for us. The same pocket of land is nowadays home to around 3.75 million people.
Each society possesses its own population laws - something that Malthus palpably failed to recognise. His theory of surplus population floats free outside any theorised history and therefore takes no account of the distinctions that exist between one society and another.
Classical Greece, to state the obvious, had significantly different population dynamics compared to ancient Egypt. The same applies, but more so, to 11th century feudal society, 19th century classical capitalism, 20th century bureaucratic socialism or present-day 21st century decadent capitalism.
Take the peasant family - or indeed, broadly speaking, patriarchal production as a system. It has a definite interest in maximising the number of children. Put more accurately, maximising the number of male children. A vital nuance. Sons are treasured because they remain within the patriarchal family and through marriage bring in extra wealth in the form of dowries, wives, inheritance and in due course their own children. Girls leave the family and marrying them off costs a small fortune … their birth is often the cause of mourning in pre-capitalist social formations.
Female infanticide was therefore frequent. Archaeological records indicate that in ancient Greece killing female infants was “so common that among 6,000 families living in Delphi no more than 1% had two daughters” (Sarah Hrdy).25 Female infanticide was widely practised - a form of post-birth family planning. And it did not stop there. Cursed by ‘interesting times’ - crop failure, foreign invasion, oppressive taxation - girls received the smallest portions of food. They were even poisoned or murdered if things got really dire.
Nowadays, India, Pakistan, Vietnam and China have noticeably large gender gaps. Selective abortion has robbed China of 11.9 million females. Even with the abolition of the one-child policy, today there is a 100:112 disparity between the number of girls and boys.26
In peasant society, the family is a unit of production. Boys and girls alike labour in their father’s fields from the age of five or six and, of course, not in return for money wages. Food, clothing and shelter are provided - little more. After the age of 10 it is reckoned that children are fully paying for their upkeep. From then on it is gain. Male heirs are also expected to maintain parents into old age. Children are therefore unpaid labourers and a form of social insurance. Given high infantile mortality rates, it can easily be appreciated why it is a case of the more, the better.
Apart from capitalism’s more primitive, unrestrained and brutal stages or forms, children are an enormous expense for the proletarian family - from the cradle and now well into adulthood. During the industrial revolution, it is true, parents sold their children into work from a tender age. Children of eight or nine did 12- and 14-hour days (until factory acts cut into that ‘freedom’ and limited hours). Families could only survive if all available members brought in some kind of wage package (the wife was frequently pregnant - and, lacking reliable birth control and with the peasant mentality still lingering on, she was typically burdened with a brood of young children hanging on to her breast and skirts). The average woman in 1820 Britain had 5.56 children.27
The proletarian family is a unit of consumption, not a unit of production. And with universal primary and secondary education, and around half the school population expected to go on to university, the financial outgoings are very considerable. Prudential, the insurance company, estimates that on average children cost over £40,000 each nowadays.28 Even after graduation many mums and dads go on to help out their offspring with mortgages, etc.
Certainly, for the simple reproduction - not expansion - of the proletarian family, it requires two adult incomes. Average individual hours might have been forced down - in 1846 parliament passed the first 10-hour act (for what was a five-and-a-half-day week). Fulltime male workers in Britain now notch up an average of 39.2 hours.29 But the workforce has expanded significantly, not least by drawing in more and more women. The total number employed is now over 32 million - roughly a threefold increase over the 1930s. At the beginning of the 20th century females made up 29% of the workforce, but now it is 48%. Women workers today average 34.3 hours per week.30 Add those figures together and what it tells you is that the family unit is more exploited nowadays and is certainly under more psychological pressures (put another way, an intensification of labour and relative exploitation). Not least due to these extra drains and life-limiting pressures, on average women have children later and fewer in number, compared with the recent past.
In 2020 the average woman in Britain had 1.75 children - down from 2.6 in 1960.31 What is true of Britain is also true of other capitalist countries. Globally the average shrank from 6.1 in the 1960s to less than 3 in 2005. In Cyprus, Taiwan, South Korea, Poland and Japan it now stands at between 1.0 and 1.3 children.32 An unmistakably negative ‘growth’ rate.
Global population is expected to carry on increasing simply because of the sheer momentum built up by the disproportionately large numbers of young people born over the last 20 years. By 2050 we could reach 9.8 billion.33 After that population should stabilise ... and perhaps start to decrease (though I have read lurid ‘projections’ of 27 billion by 2150). Despite that, governments - and not only in the advanced capitalist countries, but in China too - already worry about a declining workforce in relationship to future pensioners (which, of course, in western Europe and North America, given mass immigration, is a complete non-problem).
Yet simultaneously capital creates a surplus population. Obviously, nowadays, this category has little or nothing to do with food scarcity in the metropolitan capitalist countries. Overpopulation is entirely due to the changing requirements of capital itself. Labour is both attracted and ejected. Capital constantly strives to accumulate, including by extending the scale of production. New car factories, power stations, chemical plants and oil refineries are commissioned, the latest machinery is installed and workers are recruited. However, profit is always the bottom line. Capital’s aim is to expand capital. Hence loss-making enterprises are quickly closed and surplus workers ruthlessly discarded.
In his 1845 The condition of the working class in England Frederick Engels was the first to coin the phrase, ‘reserve army of labour’. He located capitalism’s surplus population not only to the needs of capital: there was also “competition of the workers among themselves”.34
To safeguard vulnerable livelihoods and, just as crucially, to meet expanding needs and wants, individuals are willing to work endless hours … and that leaves others surplus to requirement. Crudely, if the working day is five hours, then the capitalist will have to hire three times as many people than if the working day was 15 hours. Under conditions of primitive capitalist accumulation long hours and absolute exploitation went hand-in-hand with mass unemployment, and families went hungry, their members suffering the diseases of absolute poverty and tragically dying off well before their allotted three score years and ten. Without a strong counterpower - mass workers’ parties, militant trade unions, cooperatives, provision of social housing, unemployment benefit and other inroads into the logic of capital - competition between workers will always be more fierce than competition for workers.
What of the upper classes? Their numbers are miniscule relative to the overall population. But not their ecological impact. It is common knowledge that the average US citizen has an ecological footprint around six times deeper than the average inhabitant of China, India, Latin America and Africa.
One can only but guess what the ratio would be, once class is introduced into the equation. According to Forbes Magazine, there are 2,755 billionaires globally, 724 of them in the US alone. They include, of course, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, who is worth $177 billion (Elon Musk, the second richest, comes in with a mere $151 billion).35 Meanwhile, as the wealth of the billionaire class steadily climbs, over the last 30 years the mass of Americans have seen living standards stagnate or decline. Officially 45 million live in poverty, and income inequality in the US is now near an all-time high, with over 50% of income “going to the top fifth of households”.
The CEOs of America’s largest companies received salaries worth 312 times that of their average worker.36 With their chauffer-driven limos, Learjet commuting, luxury yachts, penthouse suites, ludicrous country mansions and ‘how to spend it’ lifestyle, they surely leave an ecological footprint out of all proportion, compared with the regular US Joe - let alone a Chinese factory worker, a South African miner or a landless Indian peasant.
A twofold conclusion:
- Theories which stand above history, which fail to incorporate national and social inequalities, are blinkered to the point of blindness.
- Neo-Malthusianism can all too easily provide a pseudo-scientific excuse for waging a war of extermination against the mass of the world’s population.
D Spratt and I Dunlop Existential climate-related security risk: a scenario approach Melbourne 2018, p6.↩︎
A Thornett Facing the apocalypse: arguments for ecosocialism London 2019, pp161-62.↩︎
The Guardian March 12 2019.↩︎
K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p616n.↩︎
TR Malthus An essay on the principle of population Oxford 2004, p61.↩︎
P Ehrlich The population bomb New York 1969, pp66-67, quoted at: citatis.com/a19544/175da7.↩︎
Open Democracy September 23 2016.↩︎
Population Matters Annual report July 2018-June 2019 London 2019, p9.↩︎
P Ehrlich The population bomb New York 1969, pxi.↩︎
S Campbell Bartoletti Black potatoes: the story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 Boston MA 2001, p1.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 20, Moscow 1985, p27.↩︎
K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p616n.↩︎
K Marx Theories of surplus value Part 3, London 1972, p61.↩︎
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 4, London 1975, p380.↩︎
The Guardian August 16 2018.↩︎