Malthus and His Discontents

Here’s a review of two books about Thomas Malthus, the man who might well be considered the first “doomer,” as the word is used presently. According to the review, there are three stages of Malthusianism, the last being the current strand of doomers: those who think our population is in overshoot and will exhaust the world’s resources before they’re able to be replenished. Another definition of doomer might be someone who doesn’t believe in infinite growth—or thinks it’s only an illusion anyway, considering that the elite is getting both richer and smaller while a growing majority of people have less stability, less stake in the affairs of their insulated governments, and less viable food and water sources.

The third phase began in the later twentieth century with a new Malthusianism aligned with ecology and the fear that Earth’s resources would soon be outstripped by excess population. A reputation for apocalyptic warnings was earned by Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) – though two other biologists, Georg Borgstrom and Garrett Hardin, engaged more directly in the 1960s in support of Malthus’s arguments. Today, in the continuing debate between “cornucopians” and “doomsters”, some of the more pessimistic academics and commentators mention Malthus by name, but others prefer not to do so: partly because his original mathematical formula – asserting that populations expand geometrically while resources expand only arithmetically – has been shown to be applicable only to agrarian economies, but also, no doubt, because of his popular reputation (according to Mayhew, much exaggerated) for callousness or misanthropy.

I remember being introduced to new members of the editorial collective at Baltimore’s Indypendent Reader as a neo-Malthusian; I took the “popular reputation for callousness and misanthropy” as a compliment.

But is neo-Malthusianism a tool of the elite in the class war? This person seems to think so:

Abstractly considered, the relationship between scarce resources and a continuously increasing population turns the arguments in favor of population control into “self-evident truths” which can only be rejected by the unthinking and the dogmatic. From a Marxist viewpoint, such “self-evident truths” are but reifications of concrete historical, social, political, and economic relations which should be taken into account if the population issue is to be at all understood. Just as in the 18th century the English ruling classes fought the impact of the French Revolution with military and ideological weapons among which Malthus’ “Essay on Population” was perhaps the most important, today the ruling classes are bringing back the Malthusian argument in an effort to increase their control over the growing number of the dispossessed. Like Malthus, contemporary socio-economic theorists view excessive population rather than social institutions and social relations as the main source and barrier to the solution of social problems.

I take the point that solving our current problems, insomuch as they have solutions, isn’t just about population control. But surely unchecked population growth helps governments (which are really proxies for corporations) consolidate power—both by creating scarcity and by fostering unending competition between people with the same class interests. And this isn’t even mentioning the ecological impact of more and more people—and the space, resources, and energy they take up.

Any short-term benefit the corporate-military elite gains from purposeful population decline (i.e. contraception) would be outweighed by the prospect of a livable planet. Even if a leveling off of population somehow leads to more people being forced into wage slavery, it would be good for all other species.

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