Population, Resources, and Human Idealism

April 30, 2006

Urinetown is a funny, smart, Tony Award-winning musical. Its action takes place in a city of the future where, as the result of severe and ongoing water shortages, private toilets have been banned. A giant corporation, the Urine Good Company (UGC for short), is in charge of all pay-per-pee services. The gradually escalating price is still affordable to a well-off few, but teeming masses of poor have to scrape together piles of spare change every day in order to take care of their private business. This, announces policeman-narrator Officer Lockstock, is “the central conceit of the show.”

The cast includes a greedy villain (Caldwell B. Cladwell, the CEO of UGC), a courageous hero (Bobby Strong, a poor lad who works for UGC collecting fees at a down-scale public toilet), and a big-hearted heroine (Hope, Cladwell’s daughter). Bobby and Hope fall in love; Strong leads a rebellion against UGC; the “terrorists” take Hope hostage. She sings the uplifting “Follow Your Heart,” assuring herself and everyone else that love will win the day, but every line is tongue-in-cheek. Though Bobby is soon killed by UGC minions, Hope manages to gain ultimate power, disposing of her father and telling her followers that the time of deprivation is over. In the last scene, she sings the fervent anthem “I See a River,” envisioning a new era when all can pee as much as they like, whenever they like, wherever they like. However, by the end of the scene the entire cast—excepting the narrator—has perished in an ecological catastrophe. Officer Lockstock’s epilogue tells the sorry tale:

Of course, it wasn’t long before the water became silty, brackish, and then dried up altogether. Cruel as Caldwell B. Cladwell was, his measures effectively regulated water consumption. . . . Hope, however, chose to ignore the warning signs, choosing instead to bask in the people’s love as long as it lasted. Hope eventually joined her father in a manner not quite so gentle. As for the people of this town? Well, they did the best they could. But they were prepared for the world they inherited . . . . For when the water dried up, they recognized their town for the first time for what it really was. What it was always waiting to be . . .

The Chorus sings: “This is Urinetown! Always it’s been Urinetown! This place it’s called Urinetown!” And with their unison cry of “Hail Malthus!”, the curtain falls.

The entire play is a send-up of the musical comedy genre, and the audience goes home laughing at gags and humming memorable tunes. Many reviewers have emphasized the infectious zaniness of the play, seemingly missing its explicit message (that idealism and good intentions are insufficient responses to problems of population pressure and resource depletion). Maybe that’s just as well: Urinetown succeeds so well as comedy and theater that even people utterly immune to its insights still have a good time; thus more people are drawn to see it, including those who do “get it.”

So what’s the significance of the play’s last line, “Hail Malthus”?

* * *

Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) was a British political economist who theorized that unchecked population growth must eventually outstrip increases in food production. His most famous writing was the Essay on Population (1798), in which he explained in simple terms the connection between population pressure and human misery. The following passage from “The History of Economic Thought” website () summarizes his ideas succinctly:

Actual (checked) population growth is kept in line with food supply growth by “positive checks” (starvation, disease and the like, elevating the death rate) and “preventive checks” (i.e. postponement of marriage, etc. that keep down the birthrate), both of which are characterized by “misery and vice.” Malthus’s hypothesis implied that actual population always has a tendency to push above the food supply. Because of this tendency, any attempt to ameliorate the condition of the lower classes by increasing their incomes or improving agricultural productivity would be fruitless, as the extra means of subsistence would be completely absorbed by an induced boost in population. As long as this tendency remains, Malthus argued, the “perfectibility” of society will always be out of reach.

No wonder the term Malthusian almost always has negative connotations. Indeed, Malthus became anathema to utopians of the left and right, who envision a world with no limits. He has been reviled as a “hard-hearted monster,” a “prophet of doom,” and an “enemy of the working class.”

The summary goes on:

In his much-expanded and revised 1803 edition of the Essay, Malthus concentrated on bringing empirical evidence to bear (much of it acquired on his extensive travels to Germany, Russia and Scandinavia). He also introduced the possibility of “moral restraint” (voluntary abstinence which leads to neither misery nor vice) bringing the unchecked population growth rate down to a point where the tendency is gone. In practical policy terms, this meant inculcating the lower classes with middle-class virtues. He believed this could be done with the introduction of universal suffrage, state-run education for the poor and, more controversially, the elimination of the Poor Laws and the establishment of an unfettered nation-wide labor market. He also argued that once the poor had a taste for luxury, then they would demand a higher standard of living for themselves before starting a family. Thus . . . Malthus is suggesting the possibility of “demographic transition,” i.e. that sufficiently high incomes may be enough by themselves to reduce fertility.

Malthus believed that a general famine would occur in the near future unless his policies were implemented; in this he was clearly wrong. There have indeed been localized famines in the decades since his death (e.g., in Ireland, the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Ethiopia), but these have provided only a minor brake on global population—which has surged by over 500 percent in the interim. This failure of prediction is the main cudgel wielded by generations of Malthus-bashers, who attribute the growth of world food production over the past century-and-a-half primarily to human ingenuity. As knowledge expands, so does our ability to sustain more people.

But increased knowledge and cleverness can account for only a portion of the added global human carrying capacity. The main factor has been the use of fossil fuels for clearing land, pumping irrigation water, fueling tractors and other farm equipment, fertilizing soils, killing pests, and transporting produce ever further distances to support people in remote urban centers who would otherwise be unable to sustain themselves. Malthus could hardly have foreseen the contributions of fossil fuels to economic expansion and population growth during the past two centuries. And so, taking into account the inevitable, now-commencing winding down of that brief, incomparably opulent fossil-fuel fiesta, it may be better to say that Malthus wasn’t wrong, he was just ahead of his time.

But if the depletion and decline of fossil fuels proves Malthus to have been ultimately correct in his forecast of human dieoff, what does that say for the rest of his message—his calls to abolish the Poor Laws and thus end “welfare as we know it,” and his implicit view that the “perfectibility of society will always be out of reach”?

* * *

William Stanton is a retired geologist and contemporary author who has taken up Malthus’s mantle in a well-researched but grim and controversial book, The Rapid Growth of Human Populations, 1750–2000. In it, he compiles population data on virtually every nation: each page features a country chart accompanied by a paragraph or two describing the unique historical circumstances that caused the line on the graph to assume its particular shape. Want to know the population history of the Maldives? The chart and explanatory paragraphs are on page 196. This typically takes up about half of each page; the other half is devoted to the running text, a sometimes highly opinionated discussion of population and resources.

As a thorough and proud Malthusian, Stanton takes an uncompromising stance toward multiculturalism, the welfare state, and immigration: he considers conventional liberal attitudes toward these subjects forms of “sentimentality” that only make humanity’s problems worse. Here are some representative passages from pages 73–74:

Compassion is a luxury available to people enjoying peace and plenty, who are confident of their place in society. . . . They apply it to the hungry, needy, or oppressed. It makes them feel virtuous—until the needy try to take advantage of the givers. . . . Human ‘rights’ often conflict with each other. For example, if a couple insists on their ‘right’ to have lots of babies, the family that results may lose its ‘right’ to enjoy a comfortable standard of living. . . .

In a more recent essay, “Oil and People,” published in the ASPO newsletter #55 (July 2005) , Stanton writes:

So the population reduction scenario with the best chance of success has to be Darwinian in all its aspects, with none of the sentimentality that shrouded the second half of the 20th Century in a dense fog of political correctness. . . . The Darwinian approach, in this planned population reduction scenario, is to maximise the well-being of the UK as a nation-state. Individual citizens, and aliens, must expect to be seriously inconvenienced by the single-minded drive to reduce population ahead of resource shortage. The consolation is that the alternative, letting Nature take its course, would be so much worse.

The scenario is: Immigration is banned. Unauthorised arrives are treated as criminals. Every woman is entitled to raise one healthy child. No religious or cultural exceptions can be made, but entitlements can be traded. Abortion or infanticide is compulsory if the fetus or baby proves to be handicapped (Darwinian selection weeds out the unfit). When, through old age, accident or disease, an individual becomes more of a burden than a benefit to society, his or her life is humanely ended. Voluntary euthanasia is legal and made easy. Imprisonment is rare, replaced by corporal punishment for lesser offences and painless capital punishment for greater.

In a reply comment, also posted on the website under the title “Triumph of the Will(iam),” writer “guamanian” opines:

William Stanton’s Essay “Öl und Volk” is best read in the original, preferably out loud in a shrill Austrian accent with suitable stiff-armed gestures and much goose-stepping. . . . Invoking Victorian-parlour Social Darwinism, and railing against “the Western world’s unintelligent devotion to . . . human rights and the sanctity of human life,” Stanton presents as a solution to energy descent the classic Fascist (or Corporatist) State, in which the powerless individual serves the homeland, for the greater good of, if not all, then at least of some.

Other readers offered similar comments. Colin Campbell had the last word in the discussion:

I think [Stanton] was proposing some sort of managed decline (as for example by hanging criminals) rather than just letting Nature take its course in which the strong eat the weak. I think he was simply suggesting how Britain might react and achieve in isolation the reduction imposed by Nature. I don’t think there was anything particularly xenophobic: the Nigerians would be equally free to solve their same problem however they might. . . .

* * *

Al Bartlett, retired professor of physics at the University of Colorado, developed a lecture in the early 1970s that he has since delivered over 2000 times. Titled Arithmetic, Population, and Energy, the talk takes his audience along on an exploration of the meaning of steady growth (so many percent per year)—which is of course the sacred basis of all modern economies. As Bartlett makes clear, no steady rate of growth in population or resource consumption is sustainable.

During the course of the lecture, he asks, “Well, what can we do about this? What makes the population problem worse, and what reduces it?” On the screen he projects a slide with two columns of words. On the left-hand column are the principal factors leading to population growth; on the right, factors leading to a decrease of population.

Table of Options

Increase populations Decrease Populations
Procreation Abstention
Motherhood Contraception/Abortion
Large Families Small families
Immigration Stopping Immigration
Public Health
Peace War
Law and Order Murder/Violence
Scientific Agriculture Famine
Accident Prevention Accidents
Clean Air Pollution (Smoking)

Ignorance of the Problem

Bartlett notes that population growth will cease at some point: the mathematics assures us of that (otherwise, in just a few centuries, the entire surface of the planet would be covered with humans). Moreover, we need not do anything to solve the population problem: nature will take care of that for us. Sooner or later, from the right-hand column nature will choose some method or methods of limiting human numbers. But the options chosen may not be to our liking. The only way we can avoid having to live with (or die by) nature’s choices is to proactively choose for ourselves which options from the right-hand column we would prefer voluntarily to implement. Hesitating in our choice, or failing to implement it, leads us directly back to nature’s options.

* * *

Toward the end of his lecture, Bartlett quotes Isaac Asimov, from an interview with Bill Moyers recorded in 1989. Moyers asked Asimov, “What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?” Asimov replied:

It will be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor: if two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want to stay as long as you want for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom; it should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, Aren’t you through yet? and so on. In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive [overpopulation]. Convenience and decency cannot survive [overpopulation]. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters.

Urinetown, indeed.

* * *

All of this is dreary and distressing, and that’s why most people prefer simply to avoid the topic. None of us wants to have to choose anything from Bartlett’s second column. Even the most agreeable items (abstention, abortion, contraception, and small families) are controversial, especially if proposed as anything other than individual, voluntary options. Stopping immigration is enormously controversial, as immigrants already often face discrimination in many forms. In each case, one or another group would object that human rights are being sacrificed. Yet nature does not negotiate: the Earth is a bounded sphere, and human population growth and consumption growth will be reined in. So it appears we must give up at least some human rights if we are to avoid nature’s choices—which have traditionally consisted of famine, disease, and war.

Should we then throw human rights to the wind, as Stanton seems to do? Capital punishment, corporal punishment, compulsory infanticide or abortion—wouldn’t adopting these as policy be equivalent to rolling back two or more centuries of gains in humanitarian thinking and social practice? And could such policies ever gain hold in a truly democratic society, or does the avoidance of demographic collapse thus also imply authoritarian governance?

I don’t think it has to. And I’m not about to give up on humanitarianism. But there is an essential lesson here. If we want peace, democracy, and human rights, we must work to create the ecological condition essential for these things to exist: i.e., a stable human population at—or slightly less than—the environment’s long-term carrying capacity.

This is a lesson that ancient humans internalized, to one degree or another. But during the first half of the fossil-fuel era we could afford to forget it: we were creating new temporary carrying capacity left and right. We could dream of “freedom of the bathroom”—human rights to food, education, health care, housing, and so on—no matter how many of us there were. Now, as that phantom carrying capacity is set to disappear, and as the human population is overshooting the natural limits of topsoil, water, fish, and fuels, the ideals we have come to hold are being threatened.

I do not advocate an absolute ecological determinism (as Stanton comes very close to doing): even given population pressure and resource depletion, some societies do better than others (at least temporarily) at maintaining a humane social environment. Peak Oil doesn’t necessarily lead to Soylent Green—unless we ignore the lesson.

To do so—to think that we can advocate for human rights, peace, and social justice while ignoring their necessary ecological basis—is both intellectually dishonest and ultimately self-defeating.

The longer we put off choosing the nicer methods of achieving demographic stability, the more likely the nasty ones become, whether imposed by nature or by some fascistic regime. Urine Good Company might represent a mild version of what could actually be in store if we let the marketplace, corporations, and secretive, militaristic governments come up with eugenic solutions to our population dilemma.

The proponents of fascistic “solutions” (I’m not suggesting that Stanton is in that category, by the way) are likely to justify their calls for war and ethnic cleansing with an appeal to human nature: we must abandon our recently acquired squeamishness and sentimentality and do what any self-respecting cave-man would have done when faced with a resource crisis—make sure that it is they who starve or are exterminated, and that it is our genes that are passed along.

Human nature does indeed contain the potential for demographic competition, even to the point of genocide. But it is important to remember that the real “cave men”—our hunter-gatherer ancestors—lived by sharing and enjoyed a gift economy. Our modern “sentimentality,” in the form of concerns for equity and the welfare of those who would otherwise be left behind, is rooted in ancient sensibilities.

Yet while hunter-gatherers embodied the egalitarian ideal, we must remember that their ethic also included the imperative to hew to ecological limits. Infanticide was the last resort when contraception and the suppression of fertility through extended lactation and maintenance of low levels of body fat failed.

An ethic of human rights, of sharing, and of equity without a practically expressed awareness of ecological limits is a setup for disaster. But demographic competition by way of fascism, as a response to population-resource crises, is an admission of failure; and it is less an expression of human nature than of the ugly habits formed through the past few thousand civilized years of extreme inequality, hierarchy, and authoritarianism.

The longer we wait, the fewer our options. Social liberals and progressives who fail to talk about population and resource issues and propose workable solutions are merely helping to create their own worst nightmare.

Richard Heinberg

Richard is Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost advocates for a shift away from our current reliance on fossil fuels. He is the author of fourteen books, including some of the seminal works on society’s current energy and environmental sustainability crisis. He has authored hundreds of essays and articles that have appeared in such journals as Nature and The... Read more.

Tags: Overshoot