Thomas Maltus: Ecological destruction through overpopulation

Greenism and neo-Malthusian pseudo-science

In the first of three articles Jack Conrad argues that the global ecological crisis cannot be explained by crude overpopulation theories. Each social formation has its own laws, including laws of population

Even in this age of computers, robots, space travel, nanotechnology and bioengineering, it is impossible to rationally discuss human society and nature as if they were two entirely separate magisteriums. Humanity is engaged in a constant struggle to alter nature - and yet humanity belongs to and relies upon nature.

The Pentateuch conveniently has Yahweh telling men and women to be "fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have domination over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every other living thing that moves upon the earth" (Genesis i:28). Written for the Jewish people by their theocratic exploiters, this fantastic story gives a sacred blessing to the sordid reality of patriarchal exploitation of nature. And, of course, the catholic church readily, effortlessly, adopted this Jewish dualism. Socrates, Aristotle and the loathsome Cicero had already greased the philosophical tracks.

So the medieval mind did not conceive of humanity as embedded in the natural order. Of all god's creations, the work of the sixth day alone possesses a soul and therefore spiritually exists outside nature. Sons of Adam and daughters of Eve face an ultimate choice between heaven and hell. Meantime, the divine plan gives them - while they remain flesh and blood - the go-ahead to use and 'improve' upon nature as they feel compelled or happen to fancy.

This anthropocentric and thoroughly myopic arrogance - admittedly secularised and shorn of biblical justifications - was blinkeredly, militantly, ramped forward by Adam Smith (1723-90) in his Wealth of nations and by other founding fathers of classical political economy, and in the 20th century by the liberal John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), by social democrats, by Stalinites and by every other advocate of technological Prometheanism. Nature, they pronounced in perfect unison, can be ruthlessly exploited in the hallowed name of production, and be constantly fashioned and refashioned as if it were nothing but putty in our hands.

Yet humanity does not exist outside nature. Nor is nature here simply for our benefit. We are merely one of nature's many interweaving threads. Hence what we do to planet earth inevitably brings consequences for us.

Nature and humanity must be considered dialectically: as interpenetrated opposites and a contradictory unity which is constantly changing, quantitatively and qualitatively. Needless to say, there can be no doubting that we are special. Humans are uniquely that part of nature which is conscious of itself. Other species slowly adapt to nature. Humanity transforms nature through the process of labour, always performed according to some preconceived aim, notion or blueprint. As the productive power of this self-transforming species grows, so does its effect. Today no part of the planet remains untouched, unmodified, as a result of our activities (intended or otherwise). Nature has, to one degree or another, become socialised.

Human society in general is an abstraction. Likewise labour and production in general. There are specific modes of production and social formations: primitive communism, ancient Greek-Roman slavery, Germanic warlordism, Arab mercantilism, Asiatic statism, European and Japanese feudalism, capitalist wage labour, Soviet bureaucratic allocation, etc. Hence it logically follows that the effect humanity has upon nature is also an abstraction. Necessarily one must specify the mode of production or particular social formation.

We have already touched upon the degradation of nature and explained in categorical terms why capitalism as a system is inherently damaging to the environment. Capital affords nature no value. The riches of nature need only to be located, seized and ripped away. Booty. Manna from heaven. Drilling, felling, ploughing, mining, capture, butchery, transportation and processing cost "¦ and only such moments of labour give value, as far as capital is concerned.

That the products of nature have use-value - including in their virgin state - is irrelevant or entirely secondary in importance. Capital is interested in use-value only to the extent that it serves to further the accumulation of exchange value (the general form being money). Commodities have to be sold to a consumer who, to one degree or another, is convinced of their potential use-value "¦ and at a profit. The capitalist metabolism allows little or no choice in the matter. One capital must overcome another. Capital is compelled to accumulate and accumulate again and again, endlessly, cycle after cycle. It is that or death (takeover, bankruptcy, liquidation).

Capital therefore drives forward not only the extraction of surplus value from living labour, but, as a direct concomitant, the plunder of nature - on an ever greater scale and to an ever greater intensity.


Over the last decade or two, the results of this crazed process of taking, taking, taking have been exhaustively documented (and I shall discuss more fully the horrendous damage wrought by capitalism on another occasion). Quite clearly the ecosystem has been substantially degraded and could perhaps be teetering on the edge of a sudden and cataclysmic qualitative shift.

I will confine myself here to just noting three recent warnings - warnings that I consider more alarming than alarmist.

Because it has so badly mistreated Gaia, contemporary civilisation is "in grave danger." Humanity has had the "ill luck" to start polluting at a time when the "sun is too hot for comfort." We have given Gaia "a fever" and soon her condition will worsen to a "state like a coma." She has been there before and recovered: "but it took more than 100,000 years" for that to happen.

Humanity will suffer dreadful consequences: as the century progresses, temperatures will rise 8ºC in temperate regions and 5ºC in the tropics. Much of the tropical land mass will become "scrub and desert, and will no longer serve for regulation; this adds to the 40% of the earth's surface we have depleted to feed ourselves." Curiously, aerosol pollution of the northern hemisphere "reduces global warming" by "reflecting sunlight back to space". However, this "global dimming" is transient and could disappear in a few days like the "smoke that it is, leaving us fully exposed to the heat of the global greenhouse". We are living in a fool's climate, accidentally kept cool by smoke, and before this century is over "billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable."

Lovelock is deeply pessimistic. He unashamedly calls for more nuclear power. Windfarms and solar panels are dismissed as totally inadequate. Yet even if the British government acts, "sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time", and, as he says, "they are the main source of emissions."  Therefore the worst "will happen" and survivors will have to adapt to "a hell of a climate".

Avoiding dangerous climate change collates evidence presented by scientists at a conference hosted by the United Kingdom meteorological office in February 2005. The fear of the majority of these scientists is that both the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are set to melt; this will lead to a "devastating rise in sea levels."  We face the possibility of "large-scale and irreversible disruption" if temperatures rise by more than 3ºC - well within the range of climate change projections for the century. Climatologists have long predicted that greenhouse gases would raise "global temperatures by between 1.4ºC and 5.8ºC over this century".

The book includes a contribution by the head of the British Antarctic Survey, professor Chris Rapley, who reckons that the huge west Antarctic ice sheet may already be on the verge of disintegration. Such an event "would raise sea levels around the world by almost 5 meters (16 foot)". Rapley suggests that the report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dismissing worries about the ice sheet's stability has to be revised: "The last IPCC report characterised Antarctica as a slumbering giant in terms of climate change. I would say it is now an awakened giant. There is real concern." Avoiding dangerous climate change makes the plea for the EU to introduce far tougher climate change targets. It is committed to preventing global temperatures rising by more than 2ºC; but such a rise could still trigger the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

Warnings such as these are doubtless flawed in this or that respect or detail. But the terrible damage already inflicted on our common environment is impossible to ignore. The question nowadays is not whether there is an ecological crisis. It is 'what is to be done?' Obviously the most influential answers come under a 'green' heading. An influence which is not undeserved and goes far beyond the quite modest electoral support garnered by the Green Party. Green thinkers have produced a whole literature and are able to field coherent answers from the local to the global.

When it comes to ecology, most left groups simply thieve the more easily lifted household items. Bits of green intellectual property turn up tacked onto famished economistic programmes and election manifestos. The most blatant  example of this pirating is what describes itself as red-green politics. But one way or another they are all guilty: Socialist Campaign Group, Respect-Socialist Workers Party, Scottish Socialist Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, Forward Wales, the Morning Star's Communist Party of Britain, etc. In this article, however, the light fingered leftwing monkey will be ignored: I shall deal with the organ grinder.


Essentially, greenism is a disenchanted petty bourgeois flight from technological Prometheanism and capitalism's accelerating despoliation of nature. Yet whatever its good intentions, greenism carries a deadly sting in the tail.

Greenism explains ecological destruction primarily through overpopulation theories of the kind notoriously propounded by the reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). This celibate Church of England parson anonymously published his Essay on the principles of population in 1798. There was nothing particularly original contained between its covers. Marx contemptuously dismissed it as a "superficial plagiary of De Poe, Sir James Steuart, Townsend, Franklin, Wallace, etc". However, in the midst of the excitement, hopes and turmoil unleashed by the 1789 French Revolution, the forces of reaction grabbed hold of Malthus's Essay as a godsend. Dreams of achieving heaven on earth, or even mundane democratic reform, could be smothered with the 'principles' of population.

True, whereas Malthus based his prognosis squarely on the claim that a "geometrically" growing population could not be supported by the "arithmetically" growing means of subsistence, modern greens talk more about the finite carrying capacity of planet earth. But the operative conclusions of Malthus and the neo-Malthusians are barely distinguishable. Demographic growth has to be urgently halted and just as urgently put into reverse.

Malthus's theory accepts that, though humans are part of nature and subject to nature's usual laws, they are, unless checked, destined to increase at an unsupportably fast rate. That check is either moral or physical. Of course, the wretched, uneducated and animal-like masses could never be expected to give up sex-love. Besides drink and tobacco, what else gave their bleak, squalid lives those saving moments of pleasure? So that left the physical check constituted by food production.

Malthus insisted that the means of subsistence could only increase arithmetically. Why not at a faster rate? Malthus never seriously investigated. Suffice to say, for him, the limit on human numbers was reached by the close of 17th century - when the global population neared 600 million. All the evils that swarmed around him - slums, destitution, prostitution, epidemics, crime - he explained as the result of the Pandora's box opened up by an inevitably lagging supply of food in comparison to runaway population growth.

Logically, this 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 population explosion.

Adam and Eve and even Malthus notwithstanding, over the last two centuries there has been rapid population growth. Today there are nearly six billion of us. Clearly, human numbers have grown geometrically - if we take a long enough view. It took around 200,000 years to reach a billion. A figure that seems to have been achieved by about 1825. The next billion was added over the following century. But it took only some 35 years for the total to reach 3 billion and a mere 12 years after that for another billion increase.

Despite this tremendous spurt, there has been an accompanying and, in actual fact, 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 acreage that was organically integrated within the sphere of the capitalist world market was superadded to with the incorporation of New Zealand, Argentina, Australia and the US interior. Eg, 1, 4, 16, 64, etc. Productive technique, but especially science, has proven itself capable of exponential - 1, 8, 64, 512, etc - growth rates.

A few strands of green thought claim to be informed by Marxism. Greenism as a whole is, though, permeated with a nature-worshiping 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 best seller, The population bomb (1968), Paul Ehrlich - a Stanford University biologist - depicts planet earth slowly dying under the hammer blows of: "too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide "¦ too little water, too much carbon dioxide." All traced back to a single cause: "Too many people." Looking forward just a little, to the 1970s and 80s, he apocalyptically announced: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over." Instead of giving alms to the needy and feeding the hungry, responsible states should henceforth put in hand measures designed to dispose of these surplus people on a global scale.

Ehrlich equated this admittedly unpleasant task with cutting out a "cancer". 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". Alas, such misanthropy is by no means eccentric in terms of green thought.

The Optimum Population Trust is fairly typical of the neo-Malthusians. Its website displays a "world population clock" ticking away - presumably towards the final moment of ecological collapse. A respectable pressure group, it makes the case for putting population reduction at the heart of government policy. Britain should, it submits, halve its numbers to 30 million by 2130 - about the same level as 1870. Not so long ago the Green Party prescribed a similar human purgative, except to 20 million.

Towards their noble end, the ladies and gentlemen of OPT advocate tax incentives for childlessness, free contraception and a ratcheting down on immigration. Worthy media greens have lined up to endorse this dismal programme - eg, Jonathan Porritt, David Bellamy and David Attenborough.

Of course, if voluntary methods fail, then inevitably, other, draconian, solutions present themselves; and the danger is that sooner or later they come to pass as common sense. 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." 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 the so-called third world. And, he added, almost as an afterthought, that all men in India with "over three children" should be "forcibly sterilised".10 

Malthus himself recommended famine. Official Britain greeted his odious 'solution' with bouquets, fulsome tributes and with an eye on saving money. Capital was particularly enthusiastic. It is always eager to reduce rates of taxation on its holy of holies - profit. Malthus was proclaimed a genius of the first order who had single-handedly established a new branch of science!

Designed to sweep away supposedly antiquated notions that the poor had a legal right to demand help from parish authorities, Malthusianism actually revealed a social system which wastes human beings. During the 1845-49 Irish potato famine, Whitehall considered it both scientifically advisable and financially prudent to let 'nature' take its course. Amid continued food exports to Britain, between a half and one million Irish people were left to horribly die. Two million more migrated.

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 less 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 deaths as easy as possible. A theory that amounts to criminal culpability. Exactly the same perverted agenda leads mild mannered greens to advise G8 countries to spike the water supplies of African countries with irreversible sterilization drugs. The poor, not the imperialist system, are blamed for their poverty.

Polemical darts

While recognising that the Essay on the principles of population acted as an intellectual stimulus to Charles Darwin and his Origin of the species, Marx summed up Malthus's entire population theory as a "lampoon on the human race!".11  And an almost unbelievably cruel one at that.

Marx directed quite a few well aimed polemical darts against Malthus. Eg, in Capital he included a telling footnote. Publication of Malthus's Essay had caused a sensation, but this "was due solely to party interest. The French Revolution had found passionate defenders in the United Kingdom; the 'principle of population,' slowly worked out in the 18th century, and then, in the midst of a great social crisis, proclaimed with drums and trumpets as the infallible antidote to the teachings of Condorcet, etc, was greeted with jubilance by the English oligarchy as the great destroyer of all hankerings after human development".12 

Theories of surplus value, the fourth volume of Capital, devotes a whole chapter to comprehensively demolishing Malthus and Malthusianism. Marx concludes that the Essay on the principles of population "was an apologia for the poverty of the working classes".13  No-one with an ounce of humanity could disagree. By this time, Marx might also well have had in the back of his mind the Lassallean 'iron law of wages'. It too served to quieten, demobilise and frighten, by giving a 'scientific' veneer to ideological warnings that workers were consigning themselves to the surplus population. In this case, though, not due to libido, rather to pay demands and strikes.

None of this is to imply that Marxism regards nature as an unlimited source of wealth or that population has no effect. Such disastrous notions have nothing in common with Marxism, but reek of technological Prometheanism. Marxism does not in the least deny that population levels play a role in humanity's relationship with nature.

Eg, the land could not sustain the hoplites (heavy infantrymen) of ancient Greece. Their short-termist agricultural techniques quickly exhausted the soil. Deforestation and overgrazing added to the mounting problems. So did heavy winter rains. Year after year, erosion steadily washed away the topsoil. Writing of Attica, Plato bemoaned "that 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, and the mere skeleton of the land being left".14 

The polis of Athens and other 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. What numbers were involved in this chronic overpopulation problem? 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 home to 3.75 million people today.

Population is one of many determinations, but not the most important by a long chalk. We must search out all factors and grasp them as a totality of many determinations and relations. Marxist analysis demands concreteness and therefore a due recognition of  complexity.

By itself population is just as much an abstraction as society and production. Each society possesses its own population laws. In other words the reproduction of the human species takes place within different social formations and under different historical circumstances - something Malthus palpably 'forgot'. His theory of surplus population floats outside a theorised history and therefore took no account of the fundamental distinctions that exist between one society and another. Ancient Greece had significantly different population dynamics compared to ancient Egypt. The same applies, only much more so, to 11th century feudal society and present-day capitalism.

Each peasant family - indeed, broadly speaking, patriarchal production as a system - has an 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 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".15  Female infanticide is still widely practised - a form of post-birth family planning. India and China have noticeably large gender gaps. And it does not stop there. Cursed by 'interesting times' - crop failure, foreign invasion, oppressive taxation - young girls will receive the smallest portions of food. They will even be poisoned or 'accidentally' murdered if things get really dire.

The family is an economic 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 both unpaid labourers and a form of social insurance. Given high infant mortality rates, we can easily appreciate 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 (till factory acts limited working 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 also typically burdened with a brood of young children hanging on to breast and skirts).

What of the present-day proletarian family? It is an economic unit of consumption. With universal primary and secondary education, and around half the school population expected to go on to university, the financial outgoings are considerable.

Prudential, the insurance company, estimates that on average children cost over £40,000 each.16  Even after graduation many mums and dads go on to help out their offspring with mortgages, etc.

Certainly nowadays, for the simple reproduction - not expansion - of the proletarian family, it takes 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). Male workers in Britain now notch up an average 44.8 hours. But the workforce has expanded significantly; not least by drawing in more and more women. The total number employed is now over 30 million. Roughly a threefold increase over the 1930s. At the beginning of the 20th century females made up 29% of the workforce. Now it is 48%. Women workers today do an average 33.9 hours. 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, those who were once domestic slaves of slaves are now directly exploited as wage slaves). In part due to these extra drains and time-limiting pressures, on average women have children later and fewer in number compared with the recent past.

In the year 2000, the average couple in Britain had 1.8 children.17  Down from 2.6 in 1960. What is true of Britain, is true of other capitalist countries. Globally the average shrank from 6.1 in the 1960s to less than 3 in 2005. In Greece, Italy and Spain it now stands between 1.1 and 1.3 children.18  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 between 7.3 and 10.7 billion. After that population should stabilise ... and perhaps start to decrease (though I have read lurid 'projections' of 27 billion by 2150). Despite that, governments in the advanced capitalist countries already worry about a declining workforce in relationship to future pensioners (which, of course, given immigration is a complete non-problem - clearly there is another agenda at play).

Yet simultaneously capital creates a surplus population. Obviously, nowadays, this category has nothing whatsoever to do with food scarcity in the metropolitan capitalist countries. Overpopulation is 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 offices, extractive facilities and factories are commissioned, the latest machinery is installed and more workers recruited. However, profit is always the bottom line. Capital's only aim is to expand capital. Hence loss making enterprises are suddenly closed and workers callously 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 in relation to the needs of capital. There was also "competition of the workers among themselves".19 

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 as if the working day was 15 hours. Under primitive capitalist accumulation, long hours and absolute exploitation went hand in hand with mass unemployment and families who went hungry, whose members suffered the diseases of poverty and who tragically died off prematurely. Without a strong counterpower - trade unions, 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. Not their ecological impact. As already noted above, 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 374 billionaires in the US. Meanwhile 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 in 2004 "going to the top fifth of households".20 

The average CEO in the US takes home a paycheck 431 times that of their average worker. Take just one of them. With their chauffer driven limos, Lear jets, luxury yachts, penthouse suits and ludicrous country mansions, they leave an ecological footprint out of all proportion compared with a US worker, let alone a Chinese peasant. Inverted mountains and molehills.

A twofold conclusion. One, there exists a giant astigmatism in population theories which fail to incorporate gender, national and social inequalities. Two, neo-Malthusianism provides a pseudo-scientific excuse for a class war against surplus workers and other victims of capitalism.