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Malthus and vice

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 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 bogey man 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 superabundance 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 labourer 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 Engels declared Malthus’ Law of Population to be the “most open declaration of war of the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat.”

Marx and Engels put their faith in technology and believed that progress would continually expand agricultural production, mooting the issue of population growth. While they thought Darwin’s use of the Law of Population to explain evolution had some validity, they insisted that humans were exempt. Animals were only “collectors” of nature’s bounty, but humans were “producers” and masters of their own destiny.

Indeed, Malthus might have earned more respect for his Law of Population if he hadn’t proposed it just at the moment when human production first tapped into the coal seams and oil streams that fueled the industrial expansion. It is only today, when those resources have peaked, that we are revealed to be much more like the other animals than we thought – “collectors” of ancient sunlight, our fossil fuel inheritance, and not the all powerful “producers” we thought we were.

As a progressive, I want to believe that humanity can control our destiny. But as an ecologist, I have to accept the Law of Population. Is there no way out? Yes there is. But it requires us to embrace what Malthus called “vice.”

Malthus saw three ways to control population growth: abstinence, misery and vice. Abstinence was too challenging for most. Misery included starvation, disease and death. That left vice: a category that included prostitution, abortion and infanticide, but also “promiscuous intercourse, unnatural passions, violations of the marriage bed, and improper arts to conceal the consequence of irregular connexions.”

Blinders imposed by the Church and centuries of violent repression of women healers and midwives had so deeply branded contraception as an “improper art” that even a revolutionary like William Godwin could not advocate it. He could only insist that redistribution of wealth would result in more “moral restraint.” Malthus found this laughable:

I do not know that any writer has supposed that on this earth man will ultimately be able to live without food. But Mr. Godwin has conjectured that the passion between the sexes may in time be extinguished… the best arguments for the perfectibility of man, are drawn from a contemplation of the great progress that he has already made from the savage state, and the difficulty of saying where he is to stop. But towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes, no progress whatever has hitherto been made.

When the radical Francis Place publicly advocated birth control in the 1820s, he was condemned for promoting vice by church, state and even his fellow working men in the labor unions he helped to found. Nearly a century later, Margaret Sanger finally opened her first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, and contraception was only fully legalized in the United States in 1965. The definition of “vice” evolved very slowly.

Malthus’ list of vices included infanticide, which today stands well apart from birth control, abortion, prostitution and homosexuality. And yet, throughout history and pre-history, infanticide was probably the most widely used method of curtailing population growth, mostly because the contraception and abortion methods of the past were either ineffective or dangerous to women. Before the fossil fuel era, the need to prevent famine often dictated infanticide, especially female infanticide, which relieved population pressure by reducing the number of breeding females. It is good to know this bit of history, because it gives us the proper context for updating the definition of “vice.”

Still, there are conservatives who would prefer to see famine and misery rather than condone contraceptives, abortion and homosexuality. Among them is Pope Benedict, leader of the world’s largest religious organization, who has just condemned untold numbers of Africans to death by opposing condoms for prevention of AIDS because it might lead to “vice.”

There are also still progressives who insist that population growth is not a problem. They should go back and read Engels, who hated Malthus and thought the idea of population outstripping resources was ludicrous, but still said this:

"There is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the production of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty… it is for the people in the communist society themselves to decide whether, when and how this is to be done, and what means they wish to employ to the purpose."

We are those people and many of us now understand that the real vices are found in war, injustice and repression. Increasingly we realize that we must work together for humane and liberating solutions to the problem of human overpopulation, as we build a new, non-growth, steady-state economy that provides for all.

Kelpie Wilson is an environmental writer and journalist. She is the author of Primal Tears, a novel about a human-bonobo hybrid girl who saves the planet from human overpopulation.

Editorial Notes: Published with permission of the author. Originally published at AlterNet under the title: Have We Hit the Limits of Human Population?. Kelpie is a long-time contributor to Energy Bulletin. Other stories by Kelpie Wilson at AlterNet. -BA UPDATE (April 13) Kelpie argues her position further in the comments at the Alternet article: I agree that consumption is a problem. As you imply, the industrialized world could drive the world into catastrophic climate change all by itself, without any help from the poor. But you are not right about the limits of food. Yes we do have more than enough food to feed everyone today. But the spectre of famine looms and it is likely that we have reached Peak Food. See my article: Why More Food Is Not the Answer I agree that it is a crime that Capital chooses to allow millions to starve. The most effective thing we can do to reduce population growth is to feed everyone and provide health care and education to women. But at the same time we have to demolish the patriarchal mindset that takes reproductive decisions away from women and we must provide women with the contraceptive technologies that will work for them. We have not been doing that. The movement for development encompasses a spectrum from Communists to Catholics, but the movement for birth control is limited to feminists and ecologists. There are vast diffences in power and resources between these two coalitions. The problem with the Progessive Left is that it has not been willing (for understandable historical reasons, as outlined in my article) to focus on progressive measures to stop population growth. The Left has only been willing to approach the problem indirectly by advocating for women's rights and for equal distribution of wealth. Indeed, if we could achieve these two things, we would be well on the way to solving the problem. But the Left lacks a fully developed ecological consciousness and doesn't attach enough urgency to the problem of overpopulation. If we don't grasp the nettle and begin to address population growth directly, there won't be much wealth left to redistribute. We do not have "a generation or two" wait for population to "level off." There lots of ways to engage progressively with the population issue. Here are a few of them: ...

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