There is a spectre haunting Britain – of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, an 18th-century cleric whose ideas are back in vogue. His most famous thesis, that population growth will outstrip food supply, has attracted interest in our age of geopolitical insecurity. The pandemic’s disruption of supply chains, Russia weaponising grain and the fight over food resources between the West and the rest seem to confirm Malthus’ pessimistic prediction.
Even the point that food production has more than kept pace with the tenfold increase of the world population from more than 800 million in Malthus’s time to today, does little to dissuade his ardent advocates. They make millennarian prophecies about our impending apocalypse, amid conflict over the shrinking resources of an overloaded planet.
Malthusian influence now takes two forms. One is a certain environmentalist lobby, which claims that growing human populations are the main driver of ecological devastation. At the extreme, this assertion has legitimated forced sterilisation in developing countries, or trying to persuade women in advanced economies not to have children. But it is consumption growth, not population growth, that leads to the pollution and destruction of nature.
Panic about strong demography in the southern hemisphere enables those in the northern hemisphere who are most responsible for reckless consumerism to shift the blame for the climate emergency on to those who often lack the most basic necessities. Malthus’s moralising inspires a bourgeois environmentalism that lectures the rest of the world while refusing to make any fundamental changes to consumption at home. The message is that the climate crisis is best-resolved by wishing other people and their babies away.
The other form of contemporary Malthusian thinking is in geopolitics. With energy and food insecurity, climate emergency, pandemics and new wars, Malthus’s wider point about growing conflict over scarce resources is gaining traction. Authors such as Robert D Kaplan and Geoffrey Parker warn that the arch of modern history, far from bending inexorably towards progress, can tend towards regression.
There were the 17th-century wars of religion that ravaged Europe or the English Civil War that plunged the country into extreme violence. And since 1989 we have witnessed profound shocks, from 9/11 to the global financial crisis, Covid-19 or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
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All this seems to justify Malthus’s gloomy outlook on the prospect of humanity, with a depleted biosphere threatening to create Hobbesian conditions of human life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. To avoid catastrophe and the total collapse of civilisation and nature, we have two options: one is to have faith that technology will produce solutions. But if that itself is human hubris, we must adopt a Malthusian scepticism and become more humble – accepting the inherent limits of resources and space on Earth.
The latter may sound sensible, but it could be dangerous in so far as it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Malthus’s fundamental premise – that human beings are deeply depraved and unable to deal with absolute scarcity – is as flawed as it is dangerous. It implies that as a species we are fundamentally greedy, selfish, distrustful of others, prone to violence and therefore engaged in inevitable conflicts over scarce resources. All these are certainly human vices, on display in every age. But are they more primary than the human capacity for virtue – for generosity, sharing, trust and cooperation?
As Aristotle reminds us, life in society means that we are neither necessarily beast nor god. Yet humans would neither survive nor thrive were it not for the reality of our social, cooperative, creative nature.
So it’s not population growth itself that is the problem, but the fair distribution of food and other basic necessities, combined with strict limits on consumerism. And far from being absolutely scarce, natural resources are plentiful over time thanks to human ingenuity and human labour. We were told by neo-Malthusian economists in the 1970s that the world would run out of gas and oil, and that never happened. Instead, we have increased food production – and developed renewable energy sources.
At the heart of Malthus’s thinking is a myth – the myth of manufactured scarcity – that is entirely complicit with the contemporary capitalist economy. Just as the idea of a fantasised “free market” is politically produced (and aided and abetted by a certain conception of the state), so too economic scarcity is artificially manufactured by monopoly businesses and the presupposition that all desires are equally valid and therefore limitless.
Instead of embracing Malthus’s apocalyptic vision, we should support demographic growth and human creativity as they are the sources of our agency and dignity. In concrete terms, this means supporting everyone who wants children by making childcare cheaper, housing more affordable and work more family-friendly. This is especially important for women, but involves making sure fathers play their full part in child rearing.
We should certainly remove the cap on the two-child benefit, which currently stops families from getting additional means-tested support for their third and their subsequent children, worth more than £3,200 per year. Rejecting Malthus means disavowing the misguided economic argument that absolute scarcity inevitably leads to austerity.
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