Why Malthus Was Wrong

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chlamor
Posts: 244
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 12:46 am

Why Malthus Was Wrong

Post by chlamor » Sat Nov 02, 2019 1:18 pm

Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care
Posted Oct 31, 2019 by Eds.

This short, readable and stimulating book begins with the author overturning perceived knowledge about the 18th century economist Robert Malthus. Malthus is best know for his extended work An Essay on the Principle of Population, an influential book that has rarely been read by those who claim to extend his ideas. Giorgos Kallis argues that it is important to understand what Malthus was really arguing for, because it is a key statement of a central tenet of modern economics, the idea of limits. In his introduction Kallis says that he aims to “reclaim, refine and defend the notion of limits” and proceeds to do just this with a critical examination of the way that limits have been understood by economists and environmentalists since Malthus’ time.

Kallis writes:

Malthus and other early priests of capitalism constructed a picture whereby unlimited human wants clash with a limited world. Scarcity and growth became an inseparable pair, with limits spurring efforts for growth. My thesis is that it is only when we begin to accept the world as abundant that we can contemplate limiting our wants and delimiting a safe space for our freedom.

How does Malthus fit into this? As I’ve argued elsewhere, and as Kallis points out, Malthus was writing from a particular position in society. In the aftermath of the French Revolution Malthus was aiming to prove that the Utopian dreams of revolutionaries everywhere were doomed to failure. His argument, crudely, was that it would be impossible to provide for everyone’s needs equally because nature is “naturally limited”. As Kallis explains:

Malthus conceives of a world that is naturally limited because the needs of our bodies are naturally unlimited. Here is a conception of nature that lies at the heart of modern economics and, to an extent, environmentalism.

Paradoxically, given how he is remembered, Kallis says that Malthus “did not claim that population growth must be limited”. Instead, Malthus was a “prophet of growth” arguing that a happy nation is one where “population grows”. Helping the poor for Malthus was undesirable because it gave them, according to Kallis, access to “leisure” that they did not deserve as they had not worked for it. I don’t particularly disagree with this reading of Malthus, though I do feel the author doesn’t quite get to the heart of the contempt that Malthus had for the poor. To quote Malthus himself:

With regard to illegitimate children.. they should on no account whatever be allowed to have any claim to parish allowance… The infant is, comparatively speaking, of no value to society, as others will immediately supply its place.

He continues later:

We cannot, in the nature of things, assist the poor, in any way, without enabling them to rear up to manhood a greater number of their children.

It is no wonder then, that Friedrich Engels argued that Malthus’ ideas had become the “pet theory for the genuine English bourgeois… since it is the most specious excuse for them.”

Unfortunately modern environmentalism has become dominated by the bourgeois explanation for the state of the world. The 1960s saw a number of environmental writers, such as Paul Ehrlich, who “retained the idea of a limited world that would clash with exponential growth.” Unlike Malthus though, the limits Ehrlich and friends were concerned with were natural resources, food, drinking water and so on, rather than the nature of people to over-procreate. This Kallis contrasts with the views of some societies that saw natural resources, such as the Yaka people who see the forests they live in as abundant, because their “social relations… do not spur conquest and depletion”.

Here Kallis turns the idea of limits on its head. Instead of being real physical things fixed in nature and physics, limits are the product of particular cultural and social approaches and understandings. He says:

The limit resides in the subject and the intention, not in nature, which is indifferent to our intentions. And it is our intentions that should be limited. A mature, autonomous civilisation would be aware that nature is not a strict mother who imposes limits and tells us what we have to do. But this doesn’t mean we can do whatever pleases us… It is our actions that have consequences that we might or might not like, and which we have to limit with an eye to the consequences of not doing so.

Kallis isn’t setting out a precise approach to limits – indeed he asks rhetorically later, “do I want limits to everything?… clean energy or education?” What he is trying to get the reader to do is to approach the question from a different direction and that is one that arises out of understanding the limits imposed by the nature of society itself. Capitalism is, he points out is one were there is “accumulation-economic growth without limit”. And this is, what needs to be limited.

Such an understanding of capitalism is at the core of Marxist ecological critiques of capitalism. Kallis argues the problem is the accumulation of money in the hands of the few – which is true enough, but the deeper problem is that the accumulation of wealth, for the sake of accumulation arises out of the nature of production under capitalism, particularly the system of competing blocks of capital. So it is right to demand more (unlimited?) democracy and limits on the accumulation of money etc, but we also have to demand an end to the system.

Given the similarities between Kallis’ arguments and some bits of Marx and Engels, I was surprised to see his brief discussion on socialism. Here Kallis summarises Marx and Engels as saying that socialism would be a better system at “setting and sharing limits” and that they followed this up by arguing that “socialism can somehow develop production more rationally than capitalism… Socialism, on this view would supersede the land, resource,or population limits faced by capitalism because it would be rational and superior technologically.”

Kallis points out that if such a system simply wanted to satisfy needs “similar to capitalism” then it doesn’t matter as it would be as destructive. But this is a simplification of Marx and Engels’ work in understanding how and why capitalism destroys the environment and their solution. But the two Communists had a vision of a completely different relationship between humans and the world around them under Communism than under capitalism. The metabolic rift that takes place under capitalism, would need to be healed through the conscious rational management of the metabolic relationship between society and nature. Marx noted that people who develop

their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this, their real existence, their thinking and the productions of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

In building a new world, people will thus transform their understanding of the world and their place within it, and create a new way of approaching society and nature. Revolutionary transformation will create a new, revolutionary, consciousness that is more than simply workers control of factories.

One of the problems with trying to comprehend the nature of the limits we require in the face of environmental catastrophe, is that the current system is so destructive that it obscures what might be. In order to have a rational discussion about the limits (or none) that society needs or must impose, we have to clear away capitalism.

There are important discussions to be had about the type of environmental politics and ecological economics that we need. Kallis points out that history will continue whatever we do, though I’d add that humans might not be there to partake in it. But if humanity is to have a future we need radical thinking, and Giorgos Kallis’ book offers us a thought-provoking approach to an age old debate.

https://mronline.org/2019/10/31/limits- ... ould-care/

chlamor
Posts: 244
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 12:46 am

Re: Why Malthus Was Wrong

Post by chlamor » Sun Nov 03, 2019 2:58 pm

POPULATIONISM NEVER DIES
Ecological Marxism vs. environmental neo-Malthusianism: An old debate continues
Posted on April 30, 2018


Despite being consistently discredited, overpopulation ideology resurfaces with the same predictable regularity as capitalist crises. Only Marxism offers a clear alternative.

Brian Napoletano teaches environmental geography at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. He is a co-author of “Has (even Marxist) political ecology really transcended the metabolic rift?” published in the June 2018 issue of the journal Geoforum.

by Brian M. Napoletano

Despite being consistently discredited, Malthusian ideology continues to resurface — not entirely coincidentally — with the same predictable regularity as crises do in capitalism. This site already contains a number of excellent resources on the debate between Marxists and Malthusians, and many of the points reiterated and elaborated on here have already surfaced elsewhere. The general argument thrust of the argument is that, however much ecosocialism may appear to converge with the more progressive elements of environmental neo-Malthusianism, Marxists have several very good reasons to remain highly critical of this movement and its claims.

Historically, antagonisms between socialism and Malthusianism have existed since Malthus first wrote his essay on population. As he related in the preface to the first (anonymous) edition of this essay, Malthus was inspired to advance his position (which he built largely on the uncredited work of others) as a reaction to Godwin and other Utopian socialists who were gaining popularity at the time. Marx and Engels, in turn, exposed the “false and childish” nature of the arguments of “this baboon”—to use some of the colorful phrases that Marx applied to Malthus and his theories in the Grundrisse.

Understanding the antagonisms between these philosophers requires understanding clearly what exactly the Malthusian position entails. Malthus’ original argument hinged on both empirical and normative claims. The empirical claim was roughly twofold: (1) that poverty and misery is the result of over-population, which (2) itself results from the naturally dictated, exponential growth in the population of the poor. His normative claim then seemed to follow logically, i.e., that that nothing should be done to alleviate human suffering, as it would only encourage the poor to continue breeding, eventually exhausting the means of subsistence for everyone.

Marx and Engels decisively attacked this argument on all three points. On the first, they demonstrated that poverty had more to do with the expropriation of the producers from the means of production than with any nature-induced scarcity. More profoundly, they demonstrated that what constitutes over-population depends as much on the social relations and techniques of production as on natural factors, such that over-population under one mode of production cannot be equated with that of another. On the second point, they demonstrated that reproduction, like the rest of human nature, is not predetermined, and humans regulate their reproduction in accordance with social and natural conditions when other social factors (including the subjugation of women) do not prevent them from doing so (see Marx’s discussion of these points in the Grundrisse).

Finally, Marx and Engels demonstrated that a very different normative conclusion follows from Malthus’ argument than the one he made, arguing that only a communist society could establish the democratic conditions in which humanity can consciously regulate its numbers (see Engels’ 1 February 1881 letter to Karl Kautsky).

As Engels noted in the same letter, however, refutation of Malthus’ original arguments does not preclude the “abstract possibility that mankind will increase numerically to such an extent that its propagation will have to be kept within bounds.” This left open the door for the neo-Malthusians to seize on the emerging environmental movement in the 1960’s and 1970’s and claim that this time, humanity really had reached its limits. One of the innovative aspects that emerged from this resurgence was the linking of neo-Malthusianism with “the tragedy of the commons” (see Garrett Hardin’s essay by the same name), such that claims of over-population also helped justify claims that ecological conditions must be privatized to be preserved.

As with Malthus’ original arguments, the empirical claims of neo-Malthusianism are hotly contested. Generally, neo-Malthusians have two points in their favor:

the tautological argument that a finite resource base can only support a finite population, and
a positive correlation between population growth and environmental change at the global level.
The first point has led to widespread efforts to establish a carrying capacity for the human population. As it turns out, however, this is not an easy task, as it goes back to Marx and Engels’ point that what constitutes over-population cannot be divorced from the social relations of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption. After reviewing twenty six different attempts to define the planetary carrying capacity for humans, the mathematical biologist Joel E. Cohen identified eleven factors that must be included in any attempt to seriously estimate the planetary carrying capacity for humans in his 1995 article in The Sciences, titled (aptly enough) “How many people can the Earth support?,” including the distribution of wealth and its underlying social and political institutions.

The main lesson of this and other discussions is that carrying capacity is as much a social and political variable as a biophysical one, raising questions about the validity of any claims that humans have overshot our carrying capacity in our present authoritarian and class-divided system.

The second point, regarding the positive correlation between global population growth and environmental change, is less helpful to the neo-Malthusian case than some of their arguments would suggest. All it really tells us is that the human population and most indicators of environmental change have both increased over the last few centuries. Attempting to infer a causal relationship from a correlation such as this requires that underlying factors that could reasonably be expected to produce a spurious correlation are taken into account.

In the case of global population and environmental change, the fact that the last few centuries have also been characterized by a mode of production predicated on perpetual expansion constitutes a rather glaring example of a factor likely to produce a spurious correlation. Notably, Barry Commoner, Michael Corr, and Paul J. Stamler, in a 1971 essay titled “The causes of pollution,” pointed out this problem with regard to Paul Ehrlich’s claims of a population bomb. Staying within the boundaries established by Ehrlich’s arguments, they demonstrated that the primary factor responsible for humanity’s increasing environmental impact was not population or even per-capita consumption, but growing environmental impacts from the technologies used to reduce the prices of production and boost profits.

Contemporary neo-Malthusians have refined their arguments somewhat to overcome these empirical shortcomings, mainly by bringing the issue of overconsumption in the global North into their program, thereby circumventing criticisms that they unfairly shift the blame for environmental problems onto the global South, as well as by turning around the fact that population cannot be separated from its politico-economic context to argue that the politico-economic drivers of environmental change cannot be discussed without considering population, and that population amplifies the effects of other factors.

Given these concessions, Marxists could likewise cede some ground, and acknowledge that the current population of roughly seven billion exceeds the planetary carrying capacity under the capitalist mode of production. However, this should be immediately followed by pointing out — as the anarchist social ecologist Murray Bookchin did in his essay on “The population myth” — that even a population of two billion, one billion or any other number one cares to select would also exceed the planetary carrying capacity under the capitalist mode of production, given the metabolic rifts produced by capital’s anti-ecological method of valuing nature as a means to achieve profits on production and its need to constantly expand in order to ensure those profits are realized.

A failure to recognize this fundamental feature of capitalism can lead to undue optimism on the part of neo-Malthusians regarding the prospects of sustainability under capitalism, such as the ecologist E.O. Wilson in his 2002 The Future of Life implies when he posits that humanity is passing through a bottleneck. Although he does not explicitly contend that pressures on the environment will stabilize with (or, more accurately, after) population, this is the logical conclusion to be drawn from his choice of a bottleneck rather than a funnel as his metaphor.

Wilson, however, is not so naïve as to suggest that population stabilization would necessarily stabilize our ecological crises. Rather, he and most other neo-Malthusians argue simply that environmental problems would be easier to resolve with a smaller population. Despite its intuitive appeal, this claim still rests on the false assumption that a smaller population would somehow exercise a smaller environmental impact. Neo-Malthusians are correct to point out that the planet is incapable of supporting seven billion people at the per-capita level of consumption of the USA, but what they tend to ignore is that under capitalism not even in the USA does anyone consume resources at the per-capita level. This goes beyond the (important) issue of structurally driven inequality in the distribution of wealth and the profligate consumption that this enables among the capitalist classes to implicate the entire system of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption under capitalism.

This also touches on the criticism made by some neo-Malthusians that Marxists tend to ignore the extent to which population growth serves capital by ensuring market expansion (see, for instance, Helen Kopnina’s 2016 article, “Half the earth for people (or more)?”). Such criticisms are inappropriate for two main reasons.

The first is, as the Marxist geographer David Harvey has noted in his 2014 Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, that the extent to which capitalism requires constant population growth is debatable at best, and capital could easily resort to a number of alternative strategies to expand its markets, at least in the short to midterm.

More importantly, the second reason is that, even if we grant the necessity of population growth to capital for the sake of argument, this does not suggest a viable political strategy. Rather, attempting to intentionally induce a crisis of accumulation by halting further population growth would likely achieve little more than earn socialists the enmity of workers as well as capitalists.

Importantly, this does not mean that the question of human over-population is entirely irrelevant to Marxists. The Marxist sociologist Martha E. Gimenez cautioned in a 1977 article in Latin American Perspectives that population growth may become a profound structural problem in the transition from capitalism to socialism, owing to the latter’s commitment to the satisfaction of every person’s needs. While the means to accomplish this without further disruptions to the Biosphere may eventually be established, the organizational and productive technologies bequeathed by capitalism would likely play a more dominant role in satisfying such needs in the initial phases of such a transition.

In advancing this argument, which Gimenez concedes is somewhat hypothetical insofar as the actual conditions of such a transition are difficult to know in advance, she carefully distinguishes this point from the ideological uses to which population growth is put under capitalism. Rather, her main point is that Marxists should not encourage population growth with the hopes of provoking resource shortages that could incite a revolution, pointing again to the obvious conclusion that attempting to deliberately provoke an accumulation crisis is not generally a sound socialist strategy.

Furthermore, Gimenez also argues that family planning is not necessarily incompatible with socialist political objectives, but cautions that Marxist support for access to family planning should be distinguished from the instrumental logic of neo-Malthusianism. Her argument here closely parallels the position articulated by Lenin in his 1913 Pravda article, “The working class and neoMalthusianism” that the struggle for women’s right to abortion and contraception is part of the “protection of the elementary democratic rights of citizens, men and women,” that should in no way be conflated with the “reactionary and cowardly theory” of neo-Malthusianism.

This distinction is particularly important with respect to environmental neo-Malthusianism, given the ways in which the capitalist class generally displaces the costs of addressing capitalism’s environmental problems onto the working class. The history of eugenics has already shown how readily neo-Malthusian arguments can be used to justify regressive measures such as forced sterilization and infanticide. Nor can such practices be legitimately dismissed by neo-Malthusians as a “distant memory” of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Forced and coerced sterilization of women with HIV continues to be reported in several countries of Latin America. Here, international programs emphasizing voluntary consent could easily lead to the opposite if they incentivize reductions in fertility, or if governments were to be persuaded by neo-Malthusian arguments that fertility reductions could help resolve their social and ecological problems.

In the USA, calls for population stabilization resonate uncomfortably well with reactionary anti-immigration sentiments expressed. Well before Trump’s reactionary administration turned the scapegoating of Mexicans into a national pastime, the Center for New Community reported in 2010 on an anti-immigrant environmentalist network that had been operating since the mid-1990’s, and in 2006 converged to form a group named Apply The Brakes, which openly attempts to pressure environmental organizations into adopting anti-immigrant platforms. If Dave Foreman’s rant on the 2013 Senate immigration bill in Earth Island Journal even partially reflects their perspective, Apply The Brakes and Trump share several fundamental assumptions regarding immigration (Ian Angus has commented on Foreman’s virulent anti-immigrant sentiment in his review of Foreman’s 2011 Man Swarm and the Killing of Wildlife).

Although they stopped short of calling for a ban on immigration, the Ehrlichs argued in their 2004 One With Nineveh that immigration into the USA could be problematic insofar as immigrants are able to adopt the high-consumption lifestyles of (some) US natives, and insofar as it allows the sending countries to avoid dealing with their population problems.

To their credit, many neo-Malthusians have explicitly stated that they vehemently oppose forced sterilization, not just because its efficacy at slowing population growth has been questionable, but because such practices constitute a violation of the reproductive rights of women. Many are also probably similarly appalled by the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and the reactionary forces that support it. Nonetheless, this depends more on the ethical positions of individual neo-Malthusians rather than the orientation of the movement, which has a highly reactionary history.

In this sense, the examples here merely illustrate some of the latent dangers of politicizing women’s reproductive rights as a solution, however partial, to humanity’s current social and ecological crises under capitalism. In contrast, Marx and Engels’ solution offers a preferable alternative. Capitalism’s ecological crises will not be automatically resolved by the socialist abolition of capital, but such revolutionary change is the necessary precondition to viable, long-term, and socially just solutions to such crises. This includes the prospects of keeping the human population below its absolute bisopheric limits, “for” (to quote Engels again) “only this transformation, only the education of the masses which it provides, makes possible that moral restraint of the propagative instinct which Malthus himself presents as the most effective and easiest remedy for over-population.”

https://climateandcapitalism.com/2018/0 ... husianism/

chlamor
Posts: 244
Joined: Tue Jul 18, 2017 12:46 am

Re: Why Malthus Was Wrong

Post by chlamor » Sun Nov 03, 2019 3:05 pm

Are there too many people?
Population, hunger, and environmental degradation
By Chris Williams
Issue #68: Features

“COULD FOOD shortages bring down civilization?” This was the title of an article in the May 2009 edition of the magazine Scientific American by Lester R. Brown.1 The article begins: “The biggest threat to global stability is the potential for food crises in poor countries to cause government collapse. Those crises are brought on by ever worsening environmental degradation.”

Brown is no fringe character; he has won numerous environmental awards and authored over 50 books addressing various aspects of the environmental crisis. Until 2000 he was president of the Worldwatch Institute, which publishes the influential and authoritative State of the World annual reports as well as the annual publication Vital Signs. A major preoccupation of Brown for more than three decades has been the idea that the world is perennially on the brink of running out of food because increases in human population are outstripping food supply. Now he is equally concerned that overpopulation is a major driver of ecological devastation. While Brown has been a resource-depletion doomsayer for decades, he is echoed by many others. Neo-Malthusian arguments are resurfacing with a vengeance as explanations for the recent global food crisis and, even more so, among people genuinely concerned by the ongoing, and indeed accelerating, destabilization of planetary ecosystems.

The return of Malthus
A number of liberal writers and publications have raised the specter of growing population as an unpleasant yet necessary topic of conversation. Johan Hari, a writer for the Independent, posed the question in one of his columns last year, “Are there just too many people in the world?” While noting that Malthusian predictions have consistently been wrong and often used as arguments against the poor, he nevertheless concludes that, “After studying the evidence, I am left in a position I didn’t expect. Yes, the argument about overpopulation is distasteful, often discussed inappropriately, and far from being a panacea-solution—but it can’t be dismissed entirely. It will be easier for 6 billion people to cope on a heaving, boiling planet than for nine or 10 billion.”2 An editorial in the Guardian newspaper from March of this year, entitled “The Malthusian question,” even while rejecting the more outrageous population-reduction arguments and overt Malthusianism of organizations such as the Optimum Population Trust, confirms in alarmist terms the relevance of population-based arguments to environmental decay:

Yet human numbers continue to swell, at more than 9,000 an hour, 80 million a year, a rate that threatens a doubling in less than 50 years. Land for cultivation is dwindling. Wind and rain erode fertile soils. Water supplies are increasingly precarious. Once-fertile regions are threatened with sterility. The yield from the oceans has begun to fall. To make matters potentially worse, human numbers threaten the survival of other species of plant and animal. Humans depend not just on what they can extract from the soil, but what they can grow in it, and this yield is driven by an intricate ecological network of organisms. Even at the most conservative estimate, other species are being extinguished at 100 to 1,000 times the background rate observable in the fossil record.”3

The notion that population growth is the foremost cause of environmental degradation and societal destabilization is raised in the Summer 2009 issue of Scientific American’s publication, Earth 3.0—Solutions for Sustainable Progress. The cover article, titled “Population and Sustainability,” by Robert Engelman, vice president for programs at the Worldwatch Institute, poses the question: Can we avoid limiting the number of people? It begins:

In an era of changing climate and sinking economies, Malthusian limits to growth are back—and squeezing us painfully. Whereas more people once meant more ingenuity, more talent and more innovation, today it just seems to mean less for each [emphasis in original].4

Engelman does not believe that coercive population control methods are necessary, primarily because, as he notes, they haven’t worked. Nevertheless, he urges governments, institutions and people to consider how we can best reduce population growth in order to conserve resources, reduce our ecological footprint, and prevent conflict over worsening environmental conditions.

His solution to this problem, which is the same as Hari’s and Brown’s, is to ensure women control their lives and bodies through access to reproductive healthcare, education, and employment opportunities. These measures are to be welcomed and fought for—including in the United States. All empirical evidence points to the fact that socially and financially empowered women, as part of the general economic development of a country, are the key to population stabilization.

But as Frances Moore Lappé notes, the overpopulation leading to hunger argument has it backwards. Higher population growth rates are a product of hunger, not its cause:

Despite the evidence, many people see high birth rates and hunger in the Global South and arrive at what seems like commonsense: just too many mouths to feed. But scanning the globe, no correlation between people density and undernourishment is to be found. High birth rates are best understood not as a cause of hunger but as a symptom. Along with hunger, they are a symptom of powerlessness, especially of women denied control over their fertility. Mounting evidence from around the world suggests that as people, especially women, gain education and income, fertility rates decline.5

Fighting for women’s emancipation is a worthy goal in its own right, as is global poverty reduction. The question must be asked: why does women’s emancipation have to be linked to population control? This is similar to the way in which fighting climate change is argued for on the basis of national security—to “reduce our dependence on foreign oil.” In this schema, fighting for women’s rights or combating climate change are not in and of themselves desirable societal aspirations, but rather they conform to other objectives held by ruling elites.

In relation to the argument about population growth, the more fundamental questions that need to be answered are twofold: first, does population growth explain food shortages; and second, can population growth explain environmental degradation. Whether population growth is outpacing food production and causing widespread famine or running up against the “natural” ecological limits of the earth are critical ones to answer for three interrelated reasons.

First, many people committed to fighting for a better world answer these questions with an unequivocal “yes.” It seems commonsense that more people must mean more resource use, therefore fewer resources for everyone and concomitantly greater demands placed on ecological limits. Second, if the answer is yes, all of us committed to fighting for a more humane world need to adopt radically different emphases for our activism. If population growth is the main danger, then the solution is to pour resources and activism into tackling it as the single most important task to avoid many millions more people descending into starvation and unleashing further environmental damage on the planet. This leads to the third important reason for taking up the question of population: by arguing that population growth is the main cause of mass starvation and environmental ruin we play into the hands of ruling elites who want to blame the victims; logic that has historically led to some highly unsavory arguments and policy decisions.

Historical origins of the overpopulation argument
The argument that population always outstrips, or is about to outstrip, food supply has a long and inglorious history stretching back to the late 1700s when world population was a small fraction—around one-twelfth—of what it is today. Most often it is an argument labeled Malthusian, after Thomas Malthus who published his first Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798 that was substantially revised in his more influentialSecond Essay published in 1803.

Malthus supplied no supportive data for his claim, but this didn’t stop him from asserting that population always grows geometrically, whereas the food supply only increases arithmetically. Rather than arguing for the eradication of poverty, Malthus argued against any and all social services to the poor. To provide support of any kind would only encourage the poor and indigent to breed faster, which would keep a constant pressure on food supply and thereby undermine the food required by the middle class and the wealthy. Checks to population growth such as starvation, disease, low wages, and draconian tightening of the English Poor Laws were therefore recommended to ensure a relatively stable working population. To quote a particularly notorious passage from the 1803 edition:

A man who is born into a world possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if society do not want his labor, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work on the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favor.… The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity.…The guests learn too late their error, in counter-acting the strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.6

In other words, helping the poor not only hurts them, but also threatens to drag the well-fed down to their subsistence level. Under this credo, no sharing is permitted, as it will only generalize starvation to the entire population because there is only so much to go around. Despite his progressive ideas on how to deal with population growth, Engelman explicitly resurrects this argument in his opening sentence quoted above that “more people today just seems to mean less for each.”

Marx and Engels were scathing in their condemnation of Malthus, whom they considered to be an ideological servant of the ruling class rather than a disinterested scientist. Blaming the poor for their poverty and finding a “theory” that purported to show that aiding the poor was harmful to society fit perfectly with the needs of capital at the birth of the Industrial Revolution, when the whip of poverty was useful to dragoon displaced peasants and artisans into factory wage labor. As to Malthus’ method, Marx considered his population theory to be both unhistorical and unsupported by facts. As Marx writes in theGrundrisse,

Malthus’s theory…is significant in two respects: (1) because he gives brutal expression to the brutal viewpoint of capital; (2) because he asserted the fact of overpopulation in all forms of society. Proved it he has not…he regardsoverpopulation as being of the same kind in all the different historic phases of economic development; does not understand their specific difference…he transforms the historically distinct relations into an abstract numerical relation, which he has fished purely out of thin air, and which rests neither on natural nor on historical laws…overpopulation is likewise a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by limits posited rather by specific conditions of production.… How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!

Marx argues that what level of population is sustainable is dependent on how people procure their subsistence:

The overpopulation e.g. among hunting peoples, which shows itself in the warfare between the tribes, proves not that the earth could not support their small numbers, but rather that the condition of their reproduction required a great amount of territory for few people.7

There can be no absolute criterion for what constitutes overpopulation if it can exist in societies consisting of thousands of people and those consisting of hundreds of millions. From a Marxist viewpoint therefore, what constitutes overpopulation varies according to the material level of development and operative social relations; both of which are historically determined and therefore must be contextually examined as such.

The modern biological concept of the “carrying capacity” for the earth, K, as it is often presented in connection to humans, has more than an element of Malthusian thought to it. From a biological perspective, carrying capacity is the population of a species that can exist within its ecosystem over a long period of time without degrading it. Written differently, the long-term equilibrium population a particular stable ecosystem will support, whereby birth rates equal death rates. However, applied to humans, it is obvious that as we are the unitary example of a species that can consciously modify its environment, the number of humans a local or global environment can support depends not on some abstract number “fished out of thin air,” but on the level of economic development and the social relations of tha society. Humans can both grow more food and, given the opportunity, consciously self-limit our reproduction based on rational economic and social considerations. With specific regard to humans therefore, putting this into the relevant social and historical context is the critical point.

The shibboleth of absolute overpopulation obscures the more immediate causes of suffering under capitalism, namely, unemployment. Yet unemployment is not a result of a shortage of means of subsistence (or even of means of production), but as a result of overproduction. The periodic crises that lead to mass layoffs are due not to too little, but too much being produced in terms of what can be sold profitably. Malthus, Marx argues,

relates a specific quantity of people to a specific quantity of necessaries. Ricardo [a bourgeois economist of the time] immediately and correctly confronted him with the fact that the quantity of grain available is completely irrelevant to the worker if he has no employment; that it is therefore the means of employment and not of subsistence which put him in the category of surplus population.8

This is clearly shown today when mainstream economists use the term “effective demand.” If people have money to pay for food, their demand is “effective”; if they are too poor to afford food, then their demand is not effective and they are “surplus”—they must somehow try to survive on less than $2 a day, as two billion people around the world are forced to do. This is a fact noted by the UN: “A stubbornly high share of the world’s population remains in absolute poverty and so lacks the necessary income to translate its needs into effective demand.”9

In other words, historically how many humans the earth can support depends primarily on the level of productivity of the existing population and the social relations within which they are embedded. Despite the resurrection of this old argument, which has been continually refuted, statistics show conclusively that “carrying-capacity” is as much socially as it is materially determined from the given level of productive development, not some arbitrary measure of what constitutes “too many” people. Moreover, once class societies come into play, is not possible to simplistically extrapolate from the existence of hunger in wildly varying cultures and populations throughout history the common thread of overpopulation as the cause. The existence of hungry people in Malthus’s day had nothing to do with the earth not being able to provide for them with the given level of technological development of society; rather they were hungry because they lived in a class-divided society in which the wealth of the few depended on the poorly-remunerated labor of the many. Poverty and hunger were a product of social relations, not absolute overpopulation. As will be shown below, the same holds true today.

Neo-Malthusianism with a green tinge
In more recent times, overpopulation arguments have been given an ecological hue by some sections of the environmental movement. Most notably, Malthusian arguments connected to environmentalism were resurrected in Garrett Hardin’s infamous 1968 essay “The tragedy of the commons” published in the prestigious Science magazine. In this highly influential essay, again without any empirical data, Hardin, a noted eugenicist,10 argued that people acting rationally would always denude and degrade their environment—defined as a resource and geographically limited “commons”—to the last piece of arable land or last fish. Hardin describes how “rational” herdsmen in a certain area follow behavior that leads inexorably to over-population and environmental degradation:

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.11

Hardin promotes this view of human relations with nature in the same way as Malthus—as a trans-historical fact. Hardin’s argument is that the motive for economizing on resources use disappears when everyone can take from a common pool of resources. But it is only “rational” for these herdsmen to keep expanding if they are operating under capitalist social relations, where land and resources are privately held and exploited for individual gain, rather than shared in common. It is only rational in a competitive, profit-driven system to fish to the last fish and continually expand your means of production, in Hardin’s example this is cattle and land. But the problem is not overpopulation; it is that under capitalist social relations people are pushed to rapidly expand production for the market to realize a profit. Entirely missing from Hardin’s account is why herdsmen would consider it rational to over-exploit their local environment. The truth is that this is the very thing that traditional herdsmen and peasants sharing “common” lands historically avoid.12

Nevertheless, his conclusion was that all public land and water should be privatized in order to protect the environment and that coercive restrictions should be placed on the “freedom to breed.” In a 1974 paper, Hardin became much more explicit about exactly whose breeding should be restricted. It is only necessary to quote the title of his paper: “Lifeboat ethics—The case against helping the poor.”13

The arguments about population in the 1960s and 1970s led to the concept of “lifeboat ethics”—that there was only so much to go around and some people (the poor) needed to be kept out and their numbers restricted by ending all aid to developing countries in need of food. This line of reasoning was expanded on in Paul Ehrlich’s similarly influential book, The Population Bomb where he argues in the preface that by the “1970’s and 80’s hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”14

Moving forward to today, we again see the resurfacing of arguments about hunger and environmental decay being presented as the result of overpopulation. These arguments come not just from Brown and Engelman, but also from people such as the eminent biologist and natural historian Sir David Attenborough and environmentalist and former director of Friends of the Earth, Jonathan Porritt. Even Cameron Diaz thinks there are too many people on the planet.15

Are there too many people for the available food supply?
With the cover of Earth 3.0 depicting a fish bowl teeming with goldfish, the symbolism is hard to miss. For many people, the global food crisis that caused huge increases in chronic malnutrition alongside food riots in over 30 countries last year only underlined the fact that there were just too many people and not enough land to feed them. Maybe Malthusian arguments have been repeatedly and self-evidently wrong in the past, but this time is different—humanity has finally reached, exceeded, or will soon exceed, the total number of humans the earth can possibly feed.

Obviously, population is not a completely irrelevant consideration when it comes to food provision. It would be anti-materialist to argue otherwise. But we are not talking about some hypothetical future population number; with almost 1 billion people suffering chronic malnutrition we are talking about whether or not we have exceeded the capacity of the earth to feed everyone right now.

The reality is that overpopulation arguments come at a time when enough food is produced globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), to more than feed everyone. At the beginning of the food crisis in 2007, the world’s farmers produced 2.13 billion tons of grain, which included record or near record levels of rice, wheat, and corn.16 According to a World Bank report,

droughts in Australia and poor crops in the E.U. and Ukraine in 2006 and 2007 were largely offset by good crops and increased exports in other countries and would not, on their own, have had a significant impact on prices. Only a relatively small share of the increase in food production prices (around 15 percent) is due directly to higher energy and fertilizer costs.17

The FAO’s June 2009 Report states that food stocks are back from their lows last year as a result of a bumper food crop: “With the second-highest recorded cereals crop expected this year and stocks replenished, the world food supply looks less vulnerable to shocks than it was during last year’s food crisis.”18 In a quite shocking revelation given the extra tens of millions of people thrust into trying to survive starvation last year, the report states that “even larger crops than originally forecast” were harvested making 2008 the highest production year on record.

The increased global production was sufficient to meet demand for food and other uses but also facilitated a replenishment of global reserves to pre-crisis levels. With the new 2009–10 marketing seasons commencing, prospects continue to be positive, as world cereal production is expected to be the second largest ever, after last year’s record.19

Even at the height of the food crisis last year when the number of seriously malnourished people rose to 963 million, from 923 million in 2007, according to the UN—?almost one in every seven people on the planet—there was more than enough food available to give every single person 2800 kilocalories per day, enough to make every person on the planet overweight. By 2030, with population growth continuing to decline and agricultural output predicted to rise, the UN forecasts enough food will be grown worldwide, despite a global estimated population of 8.3 billion, to give everyone 3050 kilocalories per day.20

Contrary to those who argue population continues to grow exponentially or geometrically, the rate of population growth peaked in the 1960s and has been declining ever since. The rate is set to decline further from the 1.7 percent it has been over the last 30 years to 1.1 percent. World population, rather than increasing exponentially, is predicted to continue to slowly rise through this century before leveling off at around 9 billion.21 In fact, according to the latest report from the U.S Census Bureau, “An Aging World: 2008,” the fastest growing segment of world population is the over 65 age bracket. For the first time in human history, the over 65 demographic is predicted to outnumber children under five within ten years.22

As a side point, it is noteworthy that in all the debates about curtailing population growth, there is no campaign against the French and Australian governments paying women to have a third child in order to avert national population decline, even though both countries have far higher per capita environmental impacts than any developing country. It is also noticeable that these governments would rather pay women to procreate than relax ever-stricter immigration controls and allow in more workers to offset the decline.

The reason that food reserves have declined over the last 15 years is not because there is not enough land to grow crops for the extra people. The problem comes down once again to social relations. Under neoliberal deregulation, developing countries were pressured by the IMF and the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programs to move away from food self-sufficiency and assured that the market would take care of any shortfalls. In order to keep up with their debt payments to Western financial institutions, countries of the Global South were told that they had to grow certain crops—ones that earned cash but couldn’t be eaten such as coffee and flowers—that held a “comparative advantage” for them on the world market.

This meant that they could drop all their trade barriers and, in theory, still be able to compete on the world market while earning the capital to develop and pay off their debt. Quite the opposite happened. Local farmers were driven out of business and off the land into burgeoning city slums, land degradation expanded because the crops now being grown were not suited to the soil, and farmers were pushed onto more marginal land, thereby accelerating soil erosion. The farmers who remained were now in debt due to the amounts of fertilizer and pesticide they had to use (and the IMF-forced conditions for the suspension of fertilizer subsidies), and water use for the necessary irrigation of high water-demand crops shot through the roof. Some of this is documented in the excellent film Life and Debt, which focuses on the effects of “free trade” arriving in the Caribbean and the devastating effects on local agricultural production.

Since the 1980s, IMF- and World Bank-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) have been imposed on 90 developing and transitional economies. It is impossible to explain how the home of corn domestication, Mexico, could have become a net importer of U.S. corn without looking at the role of the coercively imposed SAPs and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which drove 15 million Mexican farmers from the land.23

Ghanaian government policies of support for agriculture were reversed in the 1980s and import tariffs on food were drastically reduced on conditions set by the IMF and World Bank in exchange for development loans. The result was that Ghana, which had sufficient rice output in the 1970s for all its needs, by 2002 was importing 64 percent of its domestic supply as local farmers were unable to compete with subsidized U.S. imports. By 2003, when the U.S. government gave out $1.3 billion in rice subsidies, mostly to large U.S. agribusiness, the U.S. exported 111,000 tons of rice to Ghana.24 By 2003, 90 percent of Ghana’s local poultry production had been wiped out by poultry imports from the United States, the European Union, and Brazil.25 The decimation of local food production made Ghana dependent on food aid while subjecting the country’s remaining farmers to the vicious gyrations of international food commodity markets, a situation replicated in country after country.26 Today, Ghana ranks 142 out of 179 in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Without political change, therefore, it is undoubtedly true that there will be more hungry people even if there were no more people added. As FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem said in presenting the organization’s world hunger report in 2008, “For millions of people in developing countries, eating a minimum amount of food every day to live an active and healthy life is a distant dream. The structural problems of hunger, like the lack of access to land, credit and employment, combined with high food prices remain a dire reality.”27 Taken together, there is neither a shortage of food nor too many mouths to feed; there is merely a shortage of means or will to distribute the food that is already produced to those that need it.

Within individual countries, moreover, there is no direct relationship between population density and malnutrition. Japan is the third most densely populated country on the planet and, unlike Africa, has no natural energy or mineral resources to speak of; yet the Japanese do not suffer from mass starvation. In contrast, Brazil is the fourth largest food exporter but that doesn’t prevent millions of Brazilians from living with food insecurity and malnourishment.

In the United States, enough food is produced for everyone to eat eight full plates of food per day—yet almost 40 million Americans struggle to put food on the table and are classified as “food insecure.”28 The recent massive increase in allocation of land for the growing of agrifuel crops, including 30 percent of corn production in the U.S. going to ethanol manufacture, was, according to a World Bank report leaked to theGuardian newspaper, the major cause of the spike in food prices in 2008.29 The other reasons were financial speculation, deliberate reduction of strategic regional and local food stores, and “just-in-time” production.30

Even having a job isn’t enough to stave off hunger in the world’s richest country; “‘Having a (low wage) job isn’t enough anymore. Having two or three jobs isn’t enough anymore,’ said Marcia Paulson, spokeswoman for Great Plains Food Bank in North Dakota, where nearly half the households receiving food stamp benefits have one or more working adults.”31

At no point in the last thirty years, as hunger has increased, has world population growth exceeded growth in food production. Population growth, rather than exploding out of control, is slowing as the world goes through a “demographic transition” (i.e. low birth rates come to equilibrate with low death rates). Those regions that are still experiencing high birth rates are precisely those places described in the Francis Moore Lappé quote earlier, in which poverty itself is one of the causes of population increase.

The policies of neoliberalism that are the real root cause of the food crisis, poverty, and hunger. The unremitting capitalist hostility to small farmers must be rolled back by reintroducing state-sponsored farm subsidies at the point of production; instituting massive land reallocation to those that actually farm the land; eliminating “third world” debt and U.S. and EU subsidies to large agribusinesses responsible for food dumping; increasing investment in sustainable agriculture research, and restructuring international trade relations and aid to benefit developing countries rather than Western banks and giant corporations such as Cargill and ADM.

Is ecological degradation caused by overpopulation?
It is undoubtedly true that environmental decline, loss of biodiversity, plunging fish stocks, global climate change, and deforestation continue unabated despite the world being warned of escalating ecological and human damage as far back as 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson’s pathbreaking socio-ecological work, Silent Spring.32 It is also true that since that time, world population has more than doubled. It might seem logical, therefore, to put the two together. In one sense, more people do necessarily mean greater use of resources. But what matters is not so much the number of people, as what resources are produced, how those resources are produced, and what they are used for. How else could we explain the fact that population is falling in Europe—the EU is predicted to have 50 million less people by 2050—while carbon emissions and resource and energy use are nevertheless rising? As John Bellamy Foster notes, “Where threats to the integrity of the biosphere as we know it are concerned, it is well to remember that it is not the areas of the world that have the highest rate of population growth but the areas of the world that have the highest accumulation of capital, and where economic and ecological waste has become a way of life, that constitute the greatest danger.”33

Carson herself was clear that the primary blame for destruction of the natural world lay with the “gods of profit and production” as the world lived “in an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at any cost is seldom challenged.”34 Capitalism is a system predicated on continual expansion with an ever-increasing throughput of energy and resources—hence generating ever more, and increasingly toxic, waste. For those corporations that do act to reduce their energy or resource use, the purpose is not to decrease their impact on the environment, however much money they spend touting their newfound green awareness. Rather, the objective is to lower production costs so as to maximize profit in order to reinvest in expansion of production to corner market share, thereby negating the original reduction.

We see today with the economic crisis that if the economy is not permanently expanding at around 2–3 percent, the whole system goes into a tailspin of layoffs, budget cuts, and mass unemployment. This expansion is unrelated to whether population is growing, as is evident in Europe, Russia, Australia, and Japan, where economic growth is still required despite falling populations. Capitalist crises are not caused by shortages of food or overpopulation. As mentioned earlier, capitalist crises are crises of overproduction.

Because of its inherent short-termism, its unrelenting obeisance to the profit motive, and inter-imperial conflict, capitalism, in contrast to all other modes of production, has a historically unprecedented tendency toward planetary biospheric crisis, regardless of the total number of humans living on earth. Neoliberal globalization has been the accelerating force behind the vast economic expansion of the last three decades that has brought us to the cusp of environmental catastrophe. The German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s comment that ever-expanding capitalism “ransacks the whole world” is even truer today than when she wrote it almost 100 years ago.35

Contrary to all claims of capitalist efficiency, the amount of senseless waste and pollution under capitalism is enormous. This includes not only the toxic byproducts of the production process that are routinely dumped into the surrounding environment, but also the production and distribution of useless products, the preponderance of inefficient transportation systems based on cars rather than effective public transportation, the wasted labor and materials spent on military spending, the explosion of redundant bureaucracy, and the creation of mounting piles of garbage as a result of planned obsolescence and single-use products.

According to a recent report, at the various stages of production, transportation, retail, and consumption, 50 percent of all food is wasted.35 As 70 percent of fresh water goes to crop irrigation, this corresponds to wasting an enormous quantity of water. In the U.S., up to 30 percent of food, worth $48.3 billion, is discarded. This is equivalent to pouring away 40 trillion liters of water; enough to meet the household needs of 500 million people.36

Because industrialized cows are fed a high protein diet of grain and soya for faster growth to maximize profit, they produce far more methane burps—a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2—than if they were eating what they were evolutionarily adapted to eat, grass and clover. Nevertheless, such is the overriding drive for profit that rather than switch them back to eating what their bodies can cope with, research is underway to make them more “environmentally friendly” by adding other supplements to their feed such as garlic pills to cut down on their greenhouse gas emissions.

Intensively farmed industrial cows, milked three times daily rather than two, are virtually at the end of their physiological capacity when kept in conditions of maximum productivity: they spend 50 percent of their time inside being force fed, artificially inseminated and relentlessly milked. This massive increase in per cow milk productivity breaks the machine-cow down within two to three lactation cycles rather than the nine to ten traditionally raised cows live. European dairy cows are now so genetically different to cows raised for beef that they are unsuitable to be slaughtered for meat. The result is that when a dairy cow gives birth to a male calf, something that occurs 50 percent of the time, the calf is considered worthless and is usually destroyed at birth, often to be cannibalistically fed back to their female brethren. Subsidies averaged across all the OECD countries in the year 2000 accounted for half the cost of milk, allowing for large scale dumping of over-production in developing countries and immense profits for the large producers and retailers at the expense of small farmers, consumers, the environment, and the cows.37

For a final example of how degraded our food system has become nutritionally and environmentally, while creating new and more virulent diseases as a result of it being controlled by multinational corporations, one only needs to look at the pork industry.

Smithfield Foods is a notoriously anti-union company convicted on multiple counts of health and safety violations. Its massive lagoons full to overflowing with pig shit have repeatedly burst, inundating surrounding rivers and water courses with millions of gallons of highly toxic drug-infested fecal matter. The largest spill to date, in 1995, was more than twice as big as the Exxon Valdez oil spill; the toxic brew killed every living creature downriver on its way to the ocean. Smithfield was subject to one of the largest EPA fines in history for thousands of violations, $12.6 million, yet this still only amounted to 0.035 percent of sales. The company slaughters more than 26 million pigs a year that produce enough pig slurry to fill more than 90,000 swimming pools. According to Jeff Tietz, writing in Rolling Stone, industrial pig waste

contains a host of other toxic substances: ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog shit can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria.39

As of 2006, Smithfield controlled a quarter of the U.S. hog market, had operating profits of $421 million, and last year a turnover of over $11 billion. The company has been expanding into Eastern Europe where low wages and fewer environmental restrictions augment its profit margins.40 According to the New York Times, since Smithfield has moved into Eastern Europe, the number of hog farmers in Romania has plunged by 90 percent to 52,100 in 2007 from 477,030 in 2003. This mirrors a long-term drop in hog farmers in the U.S. where the number of American hog farms dropped 90 percent to 67,000 in 2005 from 667,000 in 1980. It is clear that no worker, north or south, let alone the consumer or the environment, benefits from the corporate control of agriculture.

In western Romania, where Smithfield has numerous large-scale industrial pig farms and is the leading source of air and soil pollution, the company has built enormous metal manure containers to inject the massive amounts of waste it produces into the soil. Because of EU subsidies, Smithfield can afford to export pork scraps as far away as Africa—with all of the attendant transportation pollution—and still undercut and drive local African pig farmers out of business. In Ivory Coast, fresh local pork sells for under $2.50 a kilo while Smithfield’s frozen offal can be had for a mere $1.40.41 In line with other manufacturers, Smithfield would far rather sell processed products—after “value” has been added—rather than fresh ones, because profits are always higher. This explains the disease-laden shift to high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, nutritionally dubious processed foods prevalent in the west.

Planetary destruction is not limited to land; the oceans too are deteriorating. At current rates of exploitation there will be no wild fish left by 2050. This is not because fish stocks couldn’t be regenerated to cope with world demand and fished sustainably. Rather it is due to the hugely destructive, unsustainable, and wasteful manner in which fish are caught in order to maximize profit. Huge factory ships do all the processing, freezing, and canning at sea so that they can stay out for weeks at a time. The fine mesh of massive strings of gill nets, which can be left in the water for several weeks, often see half to three quarters of their catch unusable by the time the boats return to port. Bottom trawlers with enormous nets that scour the ocean floor typically throw out 20 kilograms of “by-kill” for every kilogram of desired catch. In the process, 55 percent of coral (i.e., fish breeding grounds and coastal defense systems) and 67 percent of sponges are destroyed in a single tow. The seafloor that has been “altered” by U.S. trawlers alone is equal to the surface area of the state of California.42

Cod caught off Norway is shipped to China where labor is cheap, only to be turned into filets and shipped back to Norway for sale. Britain imports—and exports—15,000 tons of waffles a year, and exchanges 20 tons of bottled water with Australia.43 The average food product—it’s hard to describe much of what we eat today as food—travels a distance of 1,500 miles to get to a grocery store.44 Eighty percent of fish sold in Europe is caught in non-EU waters because fish stocks in the EU have already gone into precipitous decline. West Africa has become a favorite hunting ground for fleets of European ships out-competing local fishermen, which drives them to privation or piracy. Huge prawn trawlers in this region throw away 10 kilograms of by-catch for every kilogram of prawns they catch.45

The capitalist answer to wild fish stock depletion is not to put in place meaningful regulations to rejuvenate stocks but to invent an even more pollution-intensive industry that is nutritionally inferior and leads to a host of negative side-effects: the fish farming industry. Farmed fish have lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids and other compounds connected to improvements in human physical and mental health, produce huge quantities of concentrated fish waste, have to be repeatedly doused with pesticides to prevent outbreaks of disease and to keep parasites in check, and continually escape in large numbers to breed with wild fish where they negatively impact the genetic stock of wild populations.
None of this stupendous waste of resources, with its attendant destruction of ecosystems and voluminous waste production, is related to an increase in the number of people. It is simply the most profitable method of operation for a social system based on profit maximization.

Acceptance of the imperial status quo
In a more progressive set of objectives, Lester Brown does argue for a massive effort to cut carbon emissions, eradicate poverty, and restore forests, soils, and aquifers. However, it is impossible to see how these things could happen without a radical transformation of the geopolitical status quo, something Brown refuses to acknowledge.

Brown argues that governmental collapse in developing countries increasingly prone to water and food shortages as a result of overpopulation and climate change will lead to more “failed states” that will then become leading exporters of “refugees, terrorism, disease, illicit drugs and weapons” thereby destabilizing the whole of world civilization. Brown states:

Unable to buy grain or grow their own, hungry people take to the streets. Indeed, even before the steep climb in grain prices in 2008, the number of failing states was expanding. Many of their problems stem from a failure to slow the growth of their populations. But if the food situation continues to deteriorate, entire nations will break down at an ever increasing rate. We have entered a new era in geopolitics. In the 20th century the main threat to international security was superpower conflict; today it is failing states. It is not the concentration of power but its absence that puts us at risk.

Thus he shifts the blame for environmental crisis from the leading economic and military powers to regions that are the victims of these powers’ policies. Even a cursory glance at U.S. foreign policy shows that it is not so-called “failed states” that are responsible for exporting terrorism, disease, weapons, refugees, and illicit drugs. The United States is by far the biggest arms supplier as well as the largest market for illicit drugs in the world. It spends more on arms than all other countries combined and happily sells them to any state with enough cash in order to maintain its geopolitical dominance. Moreover, as already noted, the neoliberal policies driven by Washington are responsible for destroying subsistence farming in poor countries and creating the food insecurity that so alarms Brown.

By invading, occupying, and decimating first Afghanistan and then Iraq (two countries Brown highlights as failed states), the U.S. has been integral to the creation of “failed states” that have become a breeding ground for poverty, disease, soaring drug production, racial tensions, and the resentment that can lead directly to terroristic acts. Are we meant to take seriously the idea that Afghanistan and Iraq became “failed states” because they suddenly became vastly overpopulated? And how can we not classify dropping 500-pound bombs on villages in Pakistan—a supposed U.S. ally—as “terrorism”?

With the U.S. responsible for 25 percent of global emissions of climate-changing gases, and the West more generally almost exclusively responsible for their build-up over the last hundred years, Western countries are by extension responsible for the growing number of climate refugees.

Brown writes, “Our global civilization depends on a functioning network of politically healthy nation-states to control the spread of infectious disease, to manage the international monetary system, to control international terrorism and to reach scores of other common goals.” In short, his assumptions are those of the dominant world imperialist powers, who claim to represent world “civilization” and the needs of humanity, but whose activities are in fact responsible for destroying it.

Conclusion
It should be clear from all of the above examples that it isn’t population growth that is causing food scarcity or is primarily responsible for the many accelerating global environmental crises. Even if population growth were to end today, worsening rates of starvation, the growth of slums, and ecosystem collapse would continue more or less unabated. Food production continues to outstrip population growth, and therefore cannot be considered the cause of hunger.

Clearly, there are very serious planetary problems of soil erosion, overfishing, deforestation, and waste disposal, to name only a few, which are putting pressure on the sustainability of food production over the long haul. However, these are all inextricably bound to questions of power and a system run in the interest of a small minority where profit continually outweighs issues of hunger, waste, energy use, or environmental destruction. Concentrating on population confuses symptoms with causes while simultaneously validating apologists for the system—and in some cases actively updating and perpetuating Malthusian anti-poor, nationalist, and racist arguments.

Brown and others’ continual emphasis on population growth dovetails with the ideological needs of the system rather than challenging them and is the primary reason that they receive so much publicity. It is completely acceptable to capitalism to place the blame for hunger and ecological crises on the number of people rather than on capitalism.

A central concept within the ideological armory of capitalism is the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. Hence we are confronted with the idea that there isn’t enough food, aren’t enough jobs, isn’t enough housing, or aren’t enough university places because there is a certain fixed amount of all these things. We then compete in the “free market” where the victory of one person necessarily comes at the expense of someone else. This is the implicit framework that progressives adopt when they acquiesce to the specter of Malthus haunting their thoughts. Such reasoning is wrong, however, because it is precisely the impressive developing of the productive capacity of humankind under capitalist social relations that creates the conditions for ending privation and inequality, as Engels recognized so many years ago:

It is precisely this industrial revolution which has raised the productive power of human labor to such a high level that—for the first time in the history of humanity—the possibility exists, given a rational division of labor among all, to produce not only enough for the plentiful consumption of all members of society and for an abundant reserve fund, but also to leave each individual sufficient leisure so that what is really worth preserving in historically inherited culture—science, art, human relations—is not only preserved, but converted from a monopoly of the ruling class into the common property of the whole of society, and further developed.46

Those committed to fighting for a better world should focus their attention not on curbing population growth, but on the real cause of mass starvation and ecological crises: the capitalist system itself. Doing this necessitates a fight against inequality, exploitation, poverty, environmental degradation, racism, and the oppression of women.
Socially just, sustainable agriculture is not only far less destructive to the environment, but, contrary to common perception, produces higher yields than corporate monocultures.47 If we got rid of the warped priorities of capitalist accumulation with all its gargantuan waste of resources, the environmental “footprint” of humanity, even with nine billion of us, would be far less than it currently is with six.48 Accomplishing this would bring down population and reassert the integrity of the earth for the benefit of future generations while advancing rather than attacking the interests of workers and peasants from all countries.

The fact that people have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands around the globe to demand that their governments provide what should be regarded as a human right—access to food—should be welcomed, not fretted over. Fighting for a reduction in the extreme levels of poverty that exist in the Global South as well as the hunger that exists in the North, means fighting alongside the workers and peasants of the developing world to confront the entrenched corporate power of the multinationals and their paid enablers in government that exploit and oppress all of us.

Rather than seeing the poor as some kind of demographic threat, as neo-Malthusians such as Brown do today, we should recognize them as our allies in struggle. Indeed, some of the most inspiring struggles to preserve livelihoods, decent jobs, environmental integrity, and indigenous cultures over the last 15 years have come from peasants and workers in the developing world fighting against water privatization, deforestation, and the strip-mining of local resources and food supplies by Western multinationals and financial institutions. We need to categorically reject the argument that population growth is at the heart of world hunger or that people in the developing world are not producers of wealth as well as consumers—that they are somehow not part of the struggle for a better world. To do otherwise is to accept that the division of rich and poor is an eternal law of nature, whereby there are always destined to be “too many” poor. To quote Engels, Malthus claims that:

the earth is perennially over-populated, whence poverty, misery, distress, and immorality must prevail; that it is the lot, the eternal destiny of mankind, to exist in too great numbers, and therefore in diverse classes, of which some are rich, educated, and moral, and others more or less poor, distressed, ignorant, and immoral.…The problem is not to make the “surplus population” useful, to transform it into available population, but merely to let it starve to death in the least objectionable way and to prevent its having too many children, this, of course, is simple enough, provided the surplus population perceives its own superfluousness and takes kindly to starvation. There is, however, in spite of the violent exertions of the humane bourgeoisie, no immediate prospect of its succeeding in bringing about such a disposition among the workers. The workers have taken it into their heads that they, with their busy hands, are the necessary, and the rich capitalists, who do nothing, the surplus population.49

https://isreview.org/issue/68/are-there-too-many-people

chlamor
Posts: 244
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Re: Why Malthus Was Wrong

Post by chlamor » Sun Nov 03, 2019 3:09 pm

Malthus’ Essay on Population at Age 200
A Marxian View
by John Bellamy Foster
(Dec 01, 1998)
Topics: Marxism

John Bellamy Foster is associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. He is the author of Marx’s Ecology (2000), and The Vulnerable Planet (1999, 2nd ed.). He is co-editor of Hungry for Profit (2000), Capitalism and the Information Age (1998), and In Defense of History (1996).
Since it was first published 200 years ago in 1798, no other single work has constituted such a bastion of bourgeois thought as Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population. No other work was more hated by the English working class, nor so strongly criticized by Marx and Engels. Although the Malthusian principle of population in its classical form was largely vanquished intellectually by the mid-nineteenth century, it continued to reemerge in new forms. In the late nineteenth century it took on new life as a result of the Darwinian revolution and the rise of social Darwinism. And in the late twentieth century Malthusianism reemerged once again in the form of neo-Malthusian ecology.

Today Malthus is commonly presented as an ecological thinker—counterposed to a classical Marxist tradition which (in large part because of its opposition to Malthus himself) is branded as anti-ecological. Hence, even some ecological socialists, such as Ted Benton, have gone so far as to argue that Marx and Engels were guilty of “a Utopian overreaction to Malthusian epistemic conservatism” which led them to downplay (or deny) “any ultimate natural limits to population” and indeed natural limits in general. Faced with Malthusian natural limits, we are told, Marx and Engels responded with “Prometheanism”—a blind faith in the capacity of technology to overcome all ecological barriers.1

It therefore seems appropriate, on the bicentennial of Malthus’ Essay on Population, to reconsider what Malthus stood for, the nature of Marx’s and Engels’ response, and the relation of this to contemporary debates about ecology and society. Contrary to most interpretations, Malthus’ theory was not about the threat of “overpopulation” which may come about at some future date. Instead, it was his contention that there is a constant pressure of population against food supply which has always applied and will always apply. This means that there is effectively no such thing as “overpopulation” in the conventional sense. Engels was perfectly correct when he wrote in 1844 that according to the logic of Malthus’ theory “the earth was already over-populated when only one man existed.” Far from being an ecological contribution Malthus’ argument was profoundly non-ecological (even anti-ecological) in nature, taking its fundamental import from an attempt to prove that future improvements in the condition of society, and more fundamentally in the condition of the poor, were impossible.

Malthus’ Essay on Population went through six editions in his lifetime (1798, 1803, 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826). The 1803 edition was almost four times as long as the first edition while excluding large sections of the former. It also had a new title and represented a shift in argument. It was therefore in reality a new book. In the subsequent editions, after 1803, the changes in the text were relatively minor. Hence, the 1798 edition of his essay is commonly known as the First Essay on population, and the 1803 edition (together with the editions of 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826) is known as the Second Essay. In order to understand Malthus’ overall argument it is necessary to see how his position changed from the First Essay to the Second Essay.

The First Essay
The full title of the First Essay was An Essay on the Principle of Population as it Effects the Future Improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers. As the title indicates it was an attempt to intervene in a debate on the question of the future improvement of society. The specific controversy in question can be traced back to the publication in 1761 of a work entitled Various Prospects for Mankind, Nature, and Providence by Robert Wallace, an Edinburgh minister. Wallace, who in his earlier writings had demonstrated that human population if unchecked tended to increase exponentially, doubling every few decades, made a case in Various Prospects that while the creation of a “perfect government,” organized on an egalitarian basis was conceivable, it would be at best temporary, since under these circumstances “mankind, would increase so prodigiously that the earth would be left overstocked and become unable to support its inhabitants.” Eventually, there would come a time “when our globe, by the most diligent culture, could not produce what was sufficient to nourish its numerous inhabitants.” Wallace went on to suggest that it would be preferable if the human vices, by reducing population pressures, should prevent the emergence of a government not compatible with the “circumstances of Mankind upon the Earth.”

Wallace’s argument was strongly opposed by William Godwin in his Enlightenment utopian argument for a more egalitarian society, which he enunciated in his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness. First published in 1793, it was followed by a second edition in 1795 and a third edition in 1797 (the year before Malthus’ essay appeared). In answer to Wallace, who had claimed that excessive population would result eventually from any perfect government, thus undermining its existence, Godwin contended that human population “will perhaps never be found in the ordinary course of affairs, greatly to increase, beyond the facility of subsistence.” Population tended to be regulated in human society in accordance with conditions of wealth and wages. “It is impossible where the price of labour is greatly reduced, and an added population threatens still further reduction, that men should not be considerably under the influence of fear, respecting an early marriage, and a numerous family.” For Godwin there were “various methods, by the practice of which population may be checked; by the exposing of children, as among the ancients, and, at this day, in China; by the art of procuring abortion, as it is said to subsist in the island of Ceylon…or lastly, by a systematical abstinence such as must be supposed, in some degree, to prevail in monasteries of either sex.” But even without such extreme practices and institutions, “the encouragement or discouragement that arises from the general state of a community,” he insisted, “will probably be found to be all-powerful in its operation.”

Malthus set out to overturn Godwin’s argument by changing the terrain of debate; rather than contending, like Wallace before him, that a “perfect government” would eventually be undermined by the overstocking of the earth with human inhabitants, Malthus insisted that there was a constant tendency toward equilibrium between population and food supply. Nevertheless, population tended naturally when unchecked to increase at a geometrical rate (1, 2, 4, 8, 16), while food supply increased at best at an arithmetical rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Under these circumstances attention needed to be given to the checks that ensured that population stayed in equilibrium (apart from minor fluctuations) with the limited means of subsistence. These checks, Malthus argued, were all reducible to vice and misery, taking such forms as promiscuity before marriage, which limited fecundity (a common assumption in Malthus’ time), sickness, plagues, and—ultimately, if all other checks fell short, the dreaded scourge of famine. Since such misery and vice was necessary at all times to keep population in line with subsistence any future improvement of society, as envisioned by thinkers like Godwin and Condorcet, he contended, was impossible.

Malthus himself did not use the term “overpopulation” in advancing his argument—though it was used from the outset by his critics.2 Natural checks on population were so effective, in Malthus’ late-eighteenth-century perspective, that overpopulation, in the sense of the eventual overstocking of the globe with human inhabitants, was not the thing to be feared. The problem of an “overcharged population” existed not at “a great distance” (as Godwin had said), but rather was always operative, even at a time when most of the earth was uncultivated. In response to Condorcet he wrote “M. Condorcet thinks that it [the possibility of a period arising when the world’s population has reached the limits of its subsistence] cannot .. be applicable but at an era extremely distant. If the proportion between the natural increase of population and food which I have given be in any degree near the truth, it will appear, on the contrary, that the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence [in later editions this was changed to “easy means of subsistence”—see note 2 above] has arrived, and that this necessary oscillation, this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery, has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind.” In the 1803 edition of his work on population he wrote, “Other persons, besides Mr. Godwin, have imagined that I looked to certain periods in the future when population would exceed the means of subsistence in a much greater degree than at present, and that the evils arising from the principle of population were rather in contemplation than in existence; but this is a total misconception of the argument.”

For Malthus, relatively low or stagnant population growth was taken as a sign of population pressing on the means of subsistence; while high population growth was an indication that a country was underpopulated. “In examining the principal states of modern Europe,” he wrote, “we shall find that though they have increased very considerably in population since they were nations of shepherds, yet that at present their progress is but slow, and instead of doubling their numbers every twenty-five years they require three or four hundred years, or more, for that purpose.” Nothing else, in Malthus’ terms, so clearly demonstrated the reality of a population that had reached its limits of subsistence.

Malthus’ only original idea in his population theory, as Marx emphasized, was his arithmetical ratio. But for this he had little or no evidence. He merely espoused it on the basis that it conformed to what, he claimed, any knowledgeable observer of the state of agriculture would be forced to admit. Indeed, if there was a basis at all for Malthus’ arithmetical ratio it could be found in his pre-Darwinian understanding of the natural world (as represented in his time by the work of thinkers such as Carolus Linnaeus and William Paley), in which he assumed that there was only limited room for “improvement” in plant and animal species.

Later on, it is true, it became common to see the so-called law of diminishing returns to land of classical economics as the basis for Malthus’ arithmetical ratio. But that theory—outside of the work of the gentleman farmer and political economist James Anderson, one of Malthus’ most formidable opponents—did not exist even in nascent form before the end of the Napoleonic wars and does not appear except in vague suggestions in any of the six editions of Malthus’ Essay. It therefore cannot be seen as the foundation for Malthus’ argument. As the great conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter remarked, “The ‘law’ of diminishing returns from land…was entirely absent from Malthus’ Essay.”

Malthus’ Essay on Population also appeared some four decades before the emergence of modern soil science in the work of Justus von Liebig and others. Hence, along with his great contemporary David Ricardo, he saw the fertility of the soil as subject to only very limited improvement. Nor was soil degradation an issue, as Marx, following Liebig, was later to argue. For Malthus, the properties of the soil were not subject to historical change, but were simply “gifts of nature to man” and, as Ricardo said, “indestructible.”

The fact that Malthus offered no basis for his arithmetical ratio, as well as the admission that he was forced to make in the course of his argument that there were occasions in which food had increased geometrically to match a geometric rise in population (as in North America)—thereby falsifying his own thesis—did not pass by Malthus’ contemporary critics, who were unsparing in their denunciations of his doctrine. In the Second Essay (1806 edition) Malthus therefore resorted to sheer bombast in place of argument. As he put it, “It has been said that I have written a quarto volume to prove that population increases in a geometrical, and food in an arithmetical ratio; but this is not quite true. The first of these propositions I considered as proved the moment the American increase was related, and the second proposition as soon as it was enunciated.” As one of his contemporary critics responded, “These phrases, if they mean any thing, must mean that the geometrical ratio was admitted on very slight proofs, the arithmetical ratio was asserted on no evidence at all.”

All of this meant that the First Essay was a failure in that the argument was clearly insupportable. The logic of the argument (even if one accepted Malthus’ ratios) required that virtuous restraint from marriage either of a temporary or a permanent nature (and not attended by sexual liaisons of another sort) was an impossibility; and that virtuous limits to procreation within marriage were also impossible (Malthus never gave up his opposition to all forms of contraception). Such an argument could not stand in the face of reality, contradicting as it did the marriage pattern of the propertied classes in the England of that day. Hence, Malthus was eventually forced to concede in response to criticisms that some form of moral restraint (especially among the upper classes) was indeed possible—a moral restraint that he was nevertheless to define in extremely restrictive terms as “temporary or final abstinence from marriage on prudential considerations [usually having to do with property], with strict chastity during the single state.” For Malthus, the operation of such narrowly defined moral restraint was “not very powerful.” Still, once this was admitted his whole argument against Godwin and Condorcet lost most of its force.

The Second Essay
For this reason Malthus’ Second Essay, in which he admitted to the possibility of moral restraint, is a very different work from the First Essay. Reflecting this the title itself changed to: An Essay on the Principle of Population; or a View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils which it Occasions. No more is there any reference in the title to the question of “the future improvement of society” or to Godwin or Condorcet. The main thrust of the work in the Second Essay is an attack on the English Poor Laws, a theme which only played a subordinate role in the First Essay.

According to the great Malthus-scholar Patricia James (editor of the variorum edition of his Essay on Population), “it was the 1803 essay [the earliest edition of the Second Essay] which made the greatest impression on contemporary thought.” This was because of the severity of the attack on the poor to be found in that work. Although Malthus said in the preface to the Second Essay that he had “endeavoured to soften some of the harshest conclusions of the first essay” this related mainly to his introduction of the possibility of moral restraint (applicable chiefly to the upper classes). In relation to the poor (who, he believed, were incapable of such moral restraint) his essay was even harsher than before. And it is here, particularly in the 1803 edition, that the most notorious passages are to be found. Thus he wrote that, “With regard to illegitimate children, after the proper notice has been given, they should on no account whatever be allowed to have any claim to parish allowance…. The infant is, comparatively speaking, of no value to the society, as others will immediately supply its place.” In the same callous vein he wrote:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he do not work on the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour…. The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity…. The guests learn too late their error, in counteracting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all her guests should have plenty, and knowing that she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full.

This infamous passage, like the one quoted before it, was removed from later editions of the Essay. But the basic idea that it reflected—the claim that the poor were not entitled to the smallest portion of relief, and that any attempt to invite them to the “mighty feast” against the will of its “mistress” (who represented natural law) would only come to grief—remained the central ideological thrust of the Second Essay throughout its numerous editions. “We cannot, in the nature of things, “ Malthus wrote, “assist the poor, in any way, without enabling them to rear up to manhood a greater number of their children.” The essence of the Malthusian doctrine, Marx observed in 1844, was that “charity…itself fostered social evils.” The very poverty that “formerly was attributed to a deficiency of charity was now ascribed to the superabundance of charity.”

One of the harsher implications of Malthus’ argument from its inception was that since there were limits to the means of subsistence for maintaining workers in any given period, any attempt to raise wages in general would only result in a rise of prices for this limited stock of provisions—it could not procure for the workers a larger portion of the necessities of life. This erroneous doctrine—which in its more sophisticated versions became known as the “wages fund doctrine”—was then used to argue that improvement in the general conditions of workers by such means as trade union organization was impossible.

Marx was therefore perfectly justified when he wrote that “what characterises Malthus is the fundamental meanness of his outlook.” Moreover, for Marx this meanness had a definite source. Fighting on behalf of the working classes against Malthusianism and its attacks on the poor, William Cobbett leveled the fiery accusation of “Parson!” against Malthus in 1819—an accusation of both class domination and narrow-minded moralistic subservience to the doctrine of the established Protestant church. In Cobbett’s own words, “I have, during my life, detested many men; but never any one so much as you…. No assemblage of words can give an appropriate designation of you; and, therefore, as being the single word which best suits the character of such a man, I call you Parson, which amongst other meanings, includes that of Borough-monger Tool.” Marx in Capital was later to pick up this criticism, pointing out that discussions of population in Britain had come to be dominated by Protestant parsons or “reverend scribblers,” such as Robert Wallace, Joseph Townsend, Thomas Chalmers and Malthus himself. It was the recognized task of such “parson naturalists” in the days before Darwin to provide natural law justifications for the established order. Malthus, as Marx observed, was lauded by an English oligarchy frightened by the revolutionary stirrings on the Continent, for his role as “the great destroyer of all hankerings after a progressive development of humanity.”

Nowhere perhaps were these narrow, parsonian values more evident than in Malthus’ view of women’s indiscretions. Thus he sought to justify the double standard imposed on women who were “driven from society for an offence [‘A breach of chastity’ outside of marriage, especially if resulting in an illegitimate birth] which men commit nearly with impunity” on the grounds that it was “the most obvious and effectual method of preventing the frequent recurrence of a serious inconvenience to the community.”

In attacking the English Poor Laws Malthus argued that while limitations in the growth of food impeded the growth of population, society could exist under either low equilibrium, relatively egalitarian conditions, as in China, where population had been “forced” to such an extent that virtually everyone was reduced to near starvation, or it could exist under high equilibrium conditions, such as pertained in England, where the aristocracy, gentry and middle class were able to enjoy nature’s “mighty feast”—though only if the poor were kept away—and where checks short of universal famine (and short of such practices as “exposure of infants”) kept population down. His greatest fear—which he helped to instill in the oligarchy of Britain—was that as a result of excessive population growth combined with egalitarian notions “the middle classes of society would…be blended with the poor.”

Such Malthusian fears (and the capitalist need to maintain a high rate of exploitation, i.e., the relative impoverishment of the masses) lay behind the eventual passage of the New Poor Law of 1834, which was aimed at ensuring that workers and the poor would look on exploitation in the workplace and even the prospect of slow starvation as in many ways preferable to seeking relief through the Poor Laws. Malthus responded to the issue of hunger and destitution in Ireland by arguing in a letter to Ricardo in August 1817 that the first object should not be provisions for the relief of the poor but the dispossession of the peasantry: “the Land in Ireland is infinitely more populated than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns.”

One reason for the hatred that Cobbett and working class radicals directed against Malthus had to do with the fact that Malthus’ influence was so pervasive that it was not simply confined to middle-class reformers like John Stuart Mill, but even extended into the ranks of working-class thinkers and activists such as Francis Place. For Place, who adopted the Malthusian wages fund theory, birth control became a kind of substitute for class organization—though this was conceived by Place as being not in the interests of capital, but, in his misguided way, in the interests of the working class. The Malthusian ideology thus served from the first to disorganize the working-class opposition to capital.

It was because of this ideological service for the prevailing interests that, as Schumpeter said, “the teaching of Malthus’ Essay became firmly entrenched in the system of economic orthodoxy of the time in spite of the fact that it should have been, and in a sense was, recognized as fundamentally untenable or worthless by 1803 and that further reasons for so considering it were speedily forthcoming.” With the acknowledgement of moral restraint as a factor Malthus did not so much improve his theory, as Schumpeter further noted, as carry out an “orderly retreat with the artillery lost.”

More and more it was recognized that, as Marx stated, “overpopulation is…a historically determined relation, in no way determined by abstract numbers or by the absolute limit of the productivity of the necessaries of life, but by the limits posited rather by specific conditions of production…. How small do the numbers which meant overpopulation for the Athenians appear to us!” For Marx, it was “the historic laws of the movement of population, which are indeed the history of the nature of humanity, the natural laws, but natural laws of humanity only at a specific historic development” which were relevant. In contrast, “Malthusian man, abstracted from historically determined man, exists only in his brain.” As Paul Burkett has shown, Marx’s own political-economic analysis was to point to an inverse relation between workers’ wages and living conditions, on the one hand, and population growth, on the other—underscoring the kinds of relations that are now associated with demographic transition theory.

Social Darwinism
But while Malthus’ doctrine became increasingly insupportable on rational and empirical grounds, it received an added boost in 1859 as a result of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. In chapter three of his book, entitled “The Struggle for Existence,” Darwin wrote,

A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase. Every being which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life. It is the doctrine of Malthus applied with manifold force to the whole animal and vegetable kingdoms; for in this case there can be no artificial increase of food, and no prudential restraint from marriage.

Shortly after returning from his memorable five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle, Darwin, in 1837, had opened up his first notebook on what was then called the “transmutation of species.” In October 1838, as he later recounted in his Autobiography,

I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.

Darwin’s claim to have derived inspiration from Malthus’ Essay on Population in developing the crucial notion of the “struggle for existence,” which was to underlie his theory of natural selection, was not missed by contemporary social theorists. For Marx it was significant that Darwin had himself (unknowingly) refuted Malthus by means of natural history. Thus in Theories of Surplus Value Marx wrote: “In his splendid work, Darwin did not realise that by discovering the ‘geometrical’ progression in the animal and plant kingdom, he overthrew Malthus’s theory. Malthus’s theory is based on the fact that he set Wallace’s geometrical progression of man against the chimerical ‘arithmetical’ progression of animals and plants.” A year later Marx wrote in a letter to Engels:

As regards Darwin, whom I have looked at again, it amuses me that he says he applies the “Malthusian” theory also to plants and animals, as if Malthus’s whole point did not consist in the fact that his theory is applied not to plants and animals but only to human beings—in geometrical progression—as opposed to plants and animals. It is remarkable that Darwin recognises among brutes and plants his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, “inventions” and Malthusian “struggle for existence.” It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes.

Marx himself did not dispute the general accuracy of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but clearly relished the irony of Darwin’s discovery of bourgeois society “among brutes and plants.” What was illegitimate from a Marxist standpoint was the attempt, as Engels wrote in the Dialectics of Nature, “to transfer these theories back again from natural history to the history of society…as eternal natural laws of society.”

This, however, is exactly what happened with the advent of the broad group of eclectic “theories” that we commonly classify as “social Darwinist”—but which had little in fact to do with Darwinism. These theories drew directly on Malthus, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer, and various nineteenth-century racist thinkers (whose views were anathemas to Darwinism properly understood). In the United States the leading academic social Darwinist was William Graham Sumner who argued that, “The millionaires are a product of natural selection.” This was simply Malthus, refurbished with the help of the Darwinian-Spencerian lexicon, and used to justify race and class inequality. Needless to say, this view was extremely attractive to the likes of such robber barons as John D. Rockefeller, James J. Hill and Andrew Carnegie. Rockefeller told a Sunday school class that “the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest…merely the working out of a law of nature and a law of God.” Internationally social Darwinism was used to justify the imperialist policy of mass violence and annihilation succinctly summed by Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—“exterminate all the brutes.”3

This general type of outlook is still prevalent within mainstream ideology, evident in the work of such influential establishment defenders as sociologist Charles Murray, author of the influential Reaganite tract, Losing Ground (a Malthusian-style attack on the welfare state), and coauthor (together with Richard Hernstein) of the no less influential work The Bell Curve (a psudoscientific, racist attempt to resurrect the old idea of a racial hierarchy in mental capacity—in order to attack affirmative action programs). What Marx called the “fundamental meanness” of Malthus’ doctrine has thus been carried forward into the present, and given a more racial overtone.

Neo-Malthusianism
But it is in the wider realm of ecological theory—linked to a strategy of international domination—that Malthus has his greatest and most direct impact today. In the late 1940s Malthus’ long-dormant population theory was resurrected as part of new hegemonic ideology of imperial control—central to both the Cold War and the Green Revolution. A key role here was played by the wealthy Osborn family in the United States. Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History was one of the leading proponents of scientific racism and eugenics in the United States in the early part of the century. His nephew, financier Frederick Osborn, subsidized the International Congress on Eugenics (when his uncle was president), and was a key figure in the development of modern demographic policy, in conjunction with his wealthy colleagues in the Rockefeller Foundation and Milibank Fund. By the late 1940s open advocacy of racist views and eugenics lost much of its respectability as a result of the Holocaust. Nevertheless the general outlook persisted in more circumspect form, and was given renewed respectability by the likes of Henry Fairfield Osborn’s son, Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr., who wrote under the name of Fairfield Osborn, and who authored the best-selling ecological study Our Plundered Planet (1948). Fairfield Osborn rejected the explicit scientific racism of his father, turning instead directly to Malthus (with his more innocuous attacks on the poor and overpopulating masses). “Shades of Dr. Malthus! He was not so far wrong,” Osborn wrote in neo-Malthusian rather than classical Malthusian terms, “when he postulated that the increase in population tends to exceed the ability of the earth to support it.” Fairfield Osborn’s close associate, William Vogt, head of the Conservation Section of the Pan American Union, and author of the neo-Malthusian tract The Road to Survival (1948), was more explicit. Vogt argued that “one of the greatest national assets of Chile, perhaps the greatest asset, is its high death rate.” And in an infamous passage entitled “The Dangerous Doctor” he declared:

The modern medical profession, still framing its ethics on the dubious statements of an ignorant man [Hippocrates] who lived more than two thousand years ago…continues to believe it has a duty to keep alive as many people as possible. In many parts of the world doctors apply their intelligence to one aspect of man’s welfare—survival—and deny their moral right to apply it to the problem as a whole. Through medical care and improved sanitation they are responsible for more millions living more years in increasing misery. Their refusal to consider their responsibility in these matters does not seem to them to compromise their intellectual integrity…. They set the stage for disaster; then, like Pilate, they wash their hands of the consequences.

Through the Rockefeller Foundation and later the Ford Foundation, as Eric Ross has explained, neo-Malthusianism was integrated into U.S. policy, first in response to the Chinese revolution, and then as part of a more deliberate policy of counterrevolution in the countryside (a new period of primitive accumulation) under the rubric of the Green revolution.4 In 1948, Princeton’s neo-Malthusian ideologue Frank Notestein, who had been patronized by Frederick Osborn, was sent to China (where the Rockefeller family had extensive business interests) on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation. He reported back that overpopulation was the chief reason for the revolution, which could be combated more effectively through contraception than land reform. It was quickly recognized, however, that a more drastic approach was needed. And during the years that Robert McNamara was president of the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation launched the Green Revolution, the commercialization of land in the third world using the model of U.S. agribusiness—a ruthless form of “land reform” (i.e., land expropriation) which was legitimated by reference to Malthusian population tendencies.

By the late 1960s, with the development of the ecological movement, this emphasis on overpopulation came to be the main explanation for not only hunger in the third world, but all ecological problems (in a manner prefigured by Osborn and Vogt). Paul Ehrlich, the author of the best selling Population Bomb (1968), was to credit Vogt as the initial source for his interest in the population issue. The eugenicist Garrett Hardin, who became renowned within contemporary environmentalism for his article “The Tragedy of the Commons” and for his advocacy of “Lifeboat Ethics,” penned a piece “To Malthus” in 1969 in which he wrote,

Malthus! Thou shouldst be living in this hour:The world hath need for thee: getting and begetting,We soil fair Nature’s bounty

This resurrection of Malthus as an ecologist was an attempt to give ecology a conservative, pro-capitalist rather than revolutionary character, and required that Malthus’ actual argument be ignored. This was the same Malthus who had made a point of emphasizing that his argument did not have to do with the eventual overstocking of the earth with inhabitants but rather with the constant pressure of population on food supply (true throughout history); who had avoided the term “overpopulation” which made no sense within his strict equilibrium model; who was adamantly opposed to the use of contraceptives; who was the principal advocate within classical economics of the idea that the earth or soil was a “gift of nature to man” who in contrast to James Anderson in his own day had made no mention of the degradation of the soil; who subscribed to the view (enunciated by David Ricardo) that the powers of the soil were “indestructible” and who said that the peasantry should be “swept from the soil.” In spite (or in ignorance) of all of this Malthus was gradually converted, in neo-Malthusian thought, into an “ecological” thinker—the fountainhead of all wisdom in relation to the earth.

Malthus, we are frequently told, emphasized the scarcity of resources on earth and the limitations of human carrying capacity throughout his argument. Yet this flies in the face of the arguments of the real Malthus who wrote in his Essay on Population that “raw materials” in contrast to food “are in great plenty” and “a demand…will not fail to create them in as great a quantity as they are wanted.” Malthus, in contrast to Marx, had failed to take note of Lucretius’ materialist maxim “nil posse creari de nihilo,” out of nothing, nothing can be created. Nor did Malthus escape the pre-Darwinian notion that the capacity of organic life to change and “improve” was extremely limited. As Loren Eisely observed: “It is perhaps worth noting, since the biological observations of Malthus are little commented upon, that he recognized like so many others, the effects of selective breeding in altering the appearance of plants and animals, but regarded such alterations of form as occurring within admittedly ill-defined limits.”

There can be little doubt that the real aim of this neo-Malthusian resurrection of Malthus, then, was to resurrect what was after all the chief thrust of the Malthusian ideology from the outset: that all of the crucial problems of bourgeois society and indeed of the world could be traced to overprocreation on the part of the poor, and that attempts to aid the poor directly would, given their innate tendency to vice and misery, only make things worse. As Hardin put it in his essay, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor,” any attempt to open up international granaries to the world population or to relax immigration restrictions in the rich countries would only create a situation where: “The less provident and less able will multiply at the expense of the abler and more provident, bringing eventual ruin upon all who share in the commons.” Charity for the poor would not help the poor, he argued, but would only hurt the rich.

For neo-Malthusians of this sort, like Malthus before them, the future improvement of society was therefore impossible, except in the form of the accumulation of wealth among the well-to-do. Malthus—himself an eighteenth-century Parson—would have fully understood the Vicar of Wakefield’s observation that, “the very laws of a country may contribute to the accumulation of wealth; as when those natural ties that bind the rich and poor together are divided.” But he would have disagreed with the Vicar’s (i.e., Goldsmith’s) anti-acquisitive and paternalistic philosophy, believing instead that the rich and poor are naturally opposed, and that the rich ought to concern themselves simply with their own aggrandizement. Over the last 200 years Malthusianism has thus always served the interests of those who represented the most barbaric tendencies within bourgeois society.

All of this is not to deny that there are radical, even revolutionary ecologists who have drawn inspiration from Malthus (though in this respect they are well-deceived). Nor is it to deny that population growth is one of the most serious problems of the contemporary age. But demographic change cannot be treated in natural law terms but only in relation to changing historical conditions. The demographic transition theory, which emphasizes the way in which population growth depends on economic and social well-being, is therefore a more reliable guide to these issues than Malthusianism. Even famines cannot be explained in terms of a shortage of food in relation to population, as Amartya Sen has definitively demonstrated, but in each and every case arises as a result of differential “entitlement” emanating from the nature of the capitalist market economy. Where threats to the integrity of the biosphere as we know it are concerned, it is well to remember that it is not the areas of the world that have the highest rate of population growth but the areas of the world that have the highest accumulation of capital, and where economic and ecological waste has become a way of life, that constitute the greatest danger.

The Necessity of Malthus
As Marx wrote, “The hatred of the English working class for Malthus—the ‘mountebank-parson,’ as Cobbett rudely called him…—was thus fully justified and the people’s instinct was correct here, in that they felt that he was no man of science, but a bought advocate of their opponents, a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes.” Although Marx has been criticized for the intemperance of his remarks with respect to Malthus, a close examination of both Malthus’ ideas and the subsequent development of Malthusianism in both its social Darwinist and neo-Malthusian phases can hardly produce any other conclusion. (It is no doubt for this reason that supporters of Malthus rarely examine his ideas closely—at least in public). Malthus represents the class morality (and the race and gender morality) of the capitalist system and in this sense Malthusianism is a historic necessity of capitalism. To censure Malthus, then, is not enough; it is also necessary to censure the system which brought him into being and which, through its own actions, perpetuates his memory.

Notes
Most citations contained in the original text of this article have been removed. For a complete set of notes please contact Vicki Larson at Monthly Review.

Ted Benton, “Marxism and Natural Limits,” New Left Review, no. 178 (November-December 1989), pp. 58-59, 82. In referring to Malthus as an “epistemic conservative” Benton accepts at his word Malthus’ early rhetorical claim that he found the utopian visions of society offered by Condorcet and Godwin attractive, but was forced to reject them as incompatible with the human condition on earth (a rhetorical device common in Malthus’ time). Given the nature of Malthus’ class alliances and the character of his work as a whole it is clear that Malthus was being disingenuous here. He was an early ideologue of capitalism, not a disappointed representative of revolutionary Enlightenment thinking. For a critique of Benton see Paul Burkett, “A Critique of Neo-Malthusian Marxism: Society, Nature and Population,” Historical Materialism, no. 2 (Summer 1998), pp. 118-42. For a reply to the charge of Prometheanism see John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Environment,” in Ellen Meiksins Wood and John Bellamy Foster, ed., In Defense of History (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1997), pp. 149-62.
Malthus was very consistent in avoiding references to the overpopulation of the earth in the modern sense, even correcting those few passages in his work where he had inadvertently left the impression that human population had surpassed the means of subsistence, changing this to “easy means of subsistence.” See Edwin Cannan, A History of Theories of Production and Distribution in English Political Economy from 1776 to 1848 (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1917), p. 108.
See Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes (New York: The New Press, 1996).
Eric B. Ross, “Malthusianism, Counter-revolution and the Green Revolution,” Organization & Environment, vol. 12, no. 1 (December 1998), pp. 446-450.

https://monthlyreview.org/1998/12/01/ma ... t-age-200/

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