Few names ignite disdain among both liberals and conservatives as much as “Malthus”. The turn-of-the-19th century English philosopher Thomas Robert Malthus is the epitome of fatalism and despair. Malthus predicted that as the population of humankind increased beyond a certain level, the Earth would run out of food supplies, failing to foresee how technology, the energy revolution and the discovery of new agricultural markets would infinitely postpone that dire occurrence.
Malthus revised his theory several times during his lifetime, admitting the flaw in it. But the larger meaning of his lifework, of which his food theory was only a part, is undeniable. For Malthus, humankind inhabits a fragile ecosystem, meaning we are a species existing in nature, and the natural world at extremely high levels of human population will tend to decay. Malthus was the philosopher of limits. Thus, in a spiritual sense, we live in a Malthusian Age.
There is no contradiction between a Malthusian Age and a decline in the rate at which populations grow. In absolute terms, the Earth’s population, now eight billion, will continue to increase until it levels off somewhere over ten billion. Beginning in the late 21st century, humankind will experience declines in populations that will bring their own challenges. That is not in dispute. But the decades immediately ahead of us will be another story. Indeed, populations are not uniformly greying. The ageing of the population is more apparent in the already developed, high-end economies of North America, Europe and East Asia. In Africa and much of the Global South, the trend is less dramatic and youth bulges will continue to challenge societies for years to come. Never before has the Earth had so many people, and so many young people in the poorest places.
In this Malthusian Age, high levels of population chain-react with (and also help cause) climate change, by polluting the Earth with those fossil fuels that are necessary, in turn, to sustain more and more humanity with its rising living standards. High populations, especially in sprawling, slum-like developments, make floods, hurricanes and earthquakes worse and more terrifying than at any time in history, since people are living in dense concentrations in climatically and seismically fragile zones, where perhaps they were never meant to live in such numbers in the first place.
In recent months there have been floods in north-eastern Libya, an earthquake in Morocco, and wildfires in Hawaii, killing thousands, leaving tens of thousands homeless, all related to the combination of high population, meteorological changes and the normal instability of the Earth. The New Madrid fault zone, overlapping the Missouri and Mississippi river valleys in the heart of the continental United States, experienced earthquakes of 7.0 on the Richter scale in 1811 and 1812, when the population of frontiersmen was negligible. A future earthquake there would devastate millions, demonstrating the lethal mix of how populations, exploding in historical terms, magnify what nature, even absent climate change, may have in store for us.
Climate change, again linked to the demands of population, takes the form of rising temperatures, resulting in drought and groundwater shortages. The upshot is wildfires in northern forests and desertification in the tropics, which leads to air pollution and more dramatic manifestations such as widespread human migration, across both borders and continents. Then there are the food shortages linked to crop failures caused by the loss of soil nutrients from over-cultivation, itself affected by drought and the depletion of groundwater levels.
These environmental factors, together with populations increasing in absolute terms, will provoke the spread of diseases: for as Covid-19 showed, this is another aspect of a more connected world. If all these interrelationships are both too obvious and too overwhelming, bear in mind that I am only describing the natural world and humankind’s direct reaction to its shifts and changes. The real Malthusian effect comes with the indirect reactions of humanity to these shifts and changes, which are by nature political.
Of course, populations do not automatically erupt into violence or disorder because of natural events, be they sudden ones such as floods and hurricanes or slow-moving ones such as intensifying water shortages. But we live in an age of acceleration, in which the array of problems associated with dense populations and climate change become aggravators of existing disputes, often ethnic and sectarian in nature. That makes political leaders in the developing world increasingly desperate and overwhelmed: they have no answers to these issues. This was the theme of my 1994 Atlantic magazine cover story, “The Coming Anarchy”, in which I predicted that the natural environment would constitute “the national security issue” of the 21st century, because of the way that resource scarcity would undermine the stability of societies and make governance itself harder.
Until now, the climate change issue has been employed by those on the left who demonstrate concern for the planet as an excuse for their lack of patriotism, and stigmatised by those on the right who are in denial about what is happening. But having little or no water and poor crops makes people desperate and angry, less likely to compromise, and more willing to back extremist groups. Both the left and the right should realise that the natural environment, beset by climate change, does not necessarily cause political instability, but does make it more likely.
Global warming has caused drought in a number of Middle Eastern countries, shrinking the amount of usable agricultural land and leading to migration to urban areas. This helped to destabilise politics, which in 2011 took the form of the Arab Spring. This, though simplistically labelled a democracy movement, was in a deeper sense a revolt against ineffectual central authority which, in the minds of people living on the margins, was responsible for their awful conditions. That is, drought was a background noise to political upheaval.
In the years prior to the Arab Spring, drought and desertification across the Middle East caused a “decline in agricultural production, falling water levels in rivers, and the erosion of the agrarian revolution, stoking conflicts over resources”, according to the Cairo University lecturer Mohamed Abdallah Youness. The Princeton professor emeritus John Waterbury writes that droughts prior to 2011, the year that the Syrian population revolted against President Bashar al-Assad, destroyed the agricultural land of 800,000 people in eastern Syria, and the death of 85 per cent of their livestock. This led to mass migration to Syrian cities, stoking communal tensions.
In Yemen, groundwater levels were being seriously depleted, made worse by the cultivation of khat, a mild, water-intensive narcotic, affecting farmers throughout the country. This resulted in the toppling of the dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2012 and a subsequent civil war. Conflicts in Darfur and Nigeria, to cite two examples in Africa, were partly caused by environmental degradation and migration. One could go around the developing world in the tropics and sub-tropics, establishing direct and indirect connections between an increasingly hostile natural environment and political upheaval.
Egypt and Bangladesh have populations of 113 and 173 million respectively – the 14th and eighth biggest in the world. They are particularly vulnerable to climate change in the form of rising sea levels, caused by melting glaciers. Sea level rise initially takes the form of increased alkalinity in the soil, as salt water from the Mediterranean and the Bay of Bengal seeps onto the shore. This in turn decreases soil fertility and leads to crop shortages. As sea levels are expected to rise through to 2050, significant parts of the Nile Delta and Bangladesh (to say nothing of some of the low-lying island nations on the planet) will be lost, impacting millions.
Bangladesh will be further affected by the loss of glaciers in Tibet. The Tibetan plateau is referred to by climate scientists as the Earth’s “third pole”, because it is home to the immense Hindu Kush/Himalayan ice sheet. The Tibetan ice sheet is the source for the great rivers of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China, and much of South East Asia, from the Indus and Ganges in the west to the Mekong in the east. By the end of the century, even with agreements to limit global warming, it is expected that a third of the Tibetan ice will be lost, with an incalculable impact on the Indian subcontinent and Indochina, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, quoted by Gaia Vince of The Guardian.
As tens of millions of people have their agricultural livelihoods and their physical security undermined by climate change, we could see more environmentally driven regime changes. The political scientist Thomas F Homer-Dixon told me decades ago this might lead to praetorian regimes that are particularly oppressive because they have no answer to water shortages, poorer soils, and so on. Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria are examples of major countries to watch.
Africa forms the heartbeat of the 21st century in this regard. Currently home to 18 per cent of the world population, the continent will account for a quarter of humanity in 2050, and 40 per cent by 2100. This will change Europe through steady migration, and therefore guarantee the continuance of right-wing European populism. African coups and other forms of instability are driven not only by the Shakespearean dynamics of human agency among political and military elites, good and bad, but by the background noises of climate change. This includes subsistence farmers streaming into slum encampments on the outskirts of African cities, which makes governments that much more desperate and unable to cope.
African elections tend to produce weak democracies that are plagued by a lack of effective bureaucratic institutions and are consequently beset by corruption. In time, populations become desperate and cheer the army officers who suddenly take power, and who themselves become besieged by the same problems.
Then there is China. China’s population is ageing. But it is also true that its 1.4 billion people are depleting its resource base. The Czech-Canadian scientist and policy analyst Vaclav Smil first warned about this in his classic 1993 book, China’s Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development. Though the statistics he used need to be updated, his theory about how such a high population eats away at the resource base was clairvoyant. Last year the University of Washington environmentalist Stevan Harrell wrote that in the course of growing into a wealthy superpower, China had “sacrificed whatever resilience its ecosystems once possessed. It has polluted and poisoned its air, water and soil… it has turned forests into plantations and seen deserts expand, mangroves disappear, and lakes come to resemble green paint.”
Climate change can be expected to cause more droughts and a dwindling water table in some areas of China, and floods in other areas along with greater deforestation. Agricultural production will become more uncertain as a result of higher temperatures and not enough underground water. This will put more pressure on policymakers in a Leninist system where expertise is giving way to bureaucratic rule by communist ideologues. Remember that internal political crises can be ignited by major natural events, such as an earthquake in a highly populated area, when the government is seen not to be responding efficiently.
Following the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the Chinese government has been working hard to improve its response to natural disasters. Nevertheless, while we focus obsessively on the Taiwan issue as the key to China’s present and future politics, the regime might come under greater duress on account of a natural event that lies just ahead of us. Climate change and increasing resource scarcity will make China’s current economic downtown more severe, with possible political effects. China may be where climate change, seismic forces and great-power politics truly intersect.
The US is not immune to any of this. Besides the drought in the American south-west, the wildfires in Hawaii and California, and the increasing power of hurricanes and other natural disturbances that have caused tens of billions of dollars in damage throughout the contiguous 48 states, climate change plays a role in the migration crisis on America’s southern border. The combination of more powerful storms, different precipitation patterns and drought in Central America has uprooted farmers, driving up migration.
The planet has been “toying with humanity”, writes the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016). “We are now in an era that will be defined precisely by events that appear, by our current standards of normalcy, highly improbable: flash floods, hundred-year storms, persistent droughts, spells of unprecedented heat, sudden landslides…” And, Ghosh goes on, “those at the margins are now the first to experience the future that awaits all of us; it is they who confront most directly what Thoreau called ‘vast, Titanic, inhuman nature’.” Indeed, because “those at the margins” now constitute the centre of history, no place – be it the interior of Morocco or north-eastern Libya or the African Sahel – is obscure any more. We are all in this together, as the natural world acts as a trigger for the geopolitical one, and as a planetary, ecological history competes with national histories. In the next few decades, Malthus will be continue to be denounced, even as he becomes increasingly relevant.
[See also: Elon Musk ruined my sex life]
This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland