Beware Malthusians posing as progressives

Don’t be fooled by the fashionable new crowd of Malthus-bashing greens: they’re as misanthropic as old-style population scaremongers.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

As we approach the Day of Seven Billion, when the seven billionth human being will be born, a debate is raging. On one side, population scaremongers are fretting about the arrival of Child No.7,000,000,000, claiming that he or she will add to a growing human swarm that is heaping pressure on the environment. On the other side, liberal observers slam these Malthusians, claiming that their lament about overpopulation is ‘a mask for misanthropy’. As one headline put it: ‘Welcome baby seven billion – we’ve room for you on Earth.’

Well, that is what it looks like through a casual glance – that a fiery debate is taking place between followers of the Reverend Thomas Malthus on one side and hip questioners of the Malthusian thesis on the other. But this is deceptive. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll see that what’s really unfolding in the countdown to the Day of Seven Billion is a clash of alternative Malthusianisms, an unseemly spat between two sides that are as miserabilist as each other and which both cleave to the notion that humanity’s problems are demographic in nature rather than social.

Of course, with yawn-inducing predictability, the old guard of the population scaremongering lobby is out in force in the run-up to 31 October, the day when the UN predicts that humanity will number seven billion. Those rather fusty adherents to the Malthusian outlook – as first posited by Thomas Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) – may have adopted PC-sounding lingo in recent years, using phrases like ‘climate change’ in place of ‘apocalypse’, but they’re still motored by a misanthropic view of speedily breeding human beings as the authors of society’s downfall. Population Matters (PM), formerly the Optimum Population Trust, is marking 31 October by sticking ads all over the London Underground – ‘in an environment that itself highlights the problem of overpopulation: the overcrowded transport system’.

PM’s belief that overcrowding on the Tube is a result of overpopulation gives a brilliant insight into the narrow-minded, ahistoric thinking of old-world Malthusians. They seem incapable of understanding that squeezed conditions on rush-hour trains are actually down to a failure of infrastructure, a failure to expand and innovate, rather a result of Londoners having too many babies or immigrants coming over here and stealing all our seats. And so it is above ground, too, where global problems like poverty and hunger are a product, not of too many black babies demanding grub we don’t have, but of a social failure to develop all human societies and liberate all human beings from need.

The problem with Malthusian thinking is that it misunderstands social problems as demographic ones. It reinterprets social limits as natural limits, repackaging problems of social development as problems of nature’s shrinking bounty. Malthus fans make the dunderheaded error of imagining that human population is a scary variable, always going up, while everything else, including the amount of natural resources and the level of human ingenuity, remains constant. This profoundly anti-social outlook means they constantly fret about there being too many mouths to feed, when even just a cursory glance at our history will show that we have continually come up with ingenious ways to get more and more from nature in order to feed and clothe more and more people.

But the new Malthusian-bashers aren’t much better. In fact, if anything they’re worse, since they pose as progressives who want to protect Africans and Asians from the hectoring of white population scaremongers yet at the same time they promote the central tenets of the Malthusian outlook. Their rallying cry is effectively, ‘Ignore the right-wing Malthus-loving lobby – the problem today is not overpopulation over there but overconsumption over here’. How blissful is their ignorance – they seem oblivious to the fact that their fashionable fretting about fat whiteys hoovering up scarce resources is every bit as Malthusian as that guy in tweed who worries about Nigerians popping out too many ankle-biters.

So at the Guardian, Lynsey Hanley lays into old-style Malthusians, criticising their ‘moral crusade’ against the poor and the foreign. Yet she then argues that the real crisis facing the world today is overconsumption, calling on Western governments to implore people to ‘reduce their consumption’, especially of ‘petrol, meat, imported fruit and other adoptive “necessities”’. (Yeah, who needs meat?) Revealing that she isn’t on principle opposed to population control, she says that ‘for there to be any significant impact on the environment, [population] decline would have to take place in countries that already consume a far more than sustainable share of the world’s resources’.

This echoes other post-Malthus Malthusians, who likewise imagine that bigging up the ‘real’ problem of overconsumption distinguishes them from those saddos obsessed with human numbers in the Third World. So in his book Peoplequake, Fred Pearce is scathing about Malthus and his modern-day disciples, because ‘rising consumption is now a much bigger cause of our growing impact on the planet [than population]’.

Yet this panic about humanity’s overuse of allegedly scarce resources is entirely in tune with the Malthusian mindset. Trendy thinkers keen to disassociate themselves from the chequered history of Malthusianism may have jettisoned explicit talk about ‘too many babies’, but their concern about ‘too few resources’ is just a different way of saying the same thing: that nature’s bounty is under threat and thus we must be careful how we approach it. Right from its origins in the 1790s through to its rebirth as a green idea in the 1970s, Malthusianism has been fuelled by this very notion of ‘overconsumption’. The original Malthusian idea of ‘too many people’ was based on a concern that these people would deplete resources, which were apparently naturally limited, thus giving rise to scarcity and destitution. Fred Pearce might say that overconsumption has led to a situation where we have ‘overshot the planet’s carrying capacity’, where Malthus was far less PC and claimed that poor people having too many babies threatened to unleash famine, but behind their very divergent lingo the idea promoted by these two thinkers is the same: that mankind’s lifestyles and aspirations should be straitjacketed by so-called natural limits.

The Malthus-haters demanding that we focus on consumption rather than population are rehabilitating the underlying theme of Malthusianism and of the broader conservative, traditionalist, environmentalist outlook of the past 200 years: the notion that the problems facing mankind are natural rather than social. And when you take that view, when you accept the fundamental premise of Malthusianism, your ‘solution’ will always be to shrink human horizons, whether by hectoring African women to stop having babies or mocking American men for eating too much meat, rather than to expand human society. It is this across-the-board naturalisation of social problems, this repackaging of today’s dearth of social imagination as a crisis of natural limits, which must be shot down as we give three cheers for the seven billionth human being. And that is what spiked intends to do.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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