Madeline Weld, B.Sc., M.S., Ph.D., is the President of the Population Institute Canada. She worked for and has retired from Health Canada. She is a Director of Canadian Humanist Publications and an editor of Humanist Perspectives.
Scot Douglas Jacobsen: In terms of the one name known to the fearful, Thomas Malthus, the person behind the phrase, when people use it, of “Malthusian.” Who was Thomas Malthus?
Dr. Madeline Weld: Thank you for bringing up Malthus — a controversial figure who is more often disparaged than studied. When it comes to what he wrote about human population growth and food, the tendency is to mention Malthus only to point out how wrong he was. “Malthusian” is often used as a derogatory term. Google did not even honor Malthus with a “Google doodle” on the 250th anniversary of his birth on February 13, 2016, although many obscure individuals receive Google doodles on their significant anniversaries.
Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834) was English Anglican cleric and academic who is most famous for his book An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798 and re-published in a greatly expanded second edition in 1803. This was followed by four more editions with minor changes from the second edition, the last published in 1826. The crux of Principle of Population is that the human population can grow exponentially, while the food supply can only grow arithmetically. Therefore, Malthus reasoned, whenever the food supply is increased (through improvements in agriculture or the opening of new lands), human numbers will always increase until the abundance is eliminated and the poor are once again clinging to the edge of existence, on the borderline between survival and famine. The human population is prevented from increasing beyond its food supply by what Malthus called “positive checks” that increase mortality and “preventive checks” that reduce fertility. Positive checks include famine, disease, poverty, bad nursing of children, unhealthy occupations and exposure to the elements, war, plagues and the like. Preventive checks include later marriage (“the chaste postponement of marriage”) and contraception. Malthus considered birth control to be a “vice” but perhaps if he were living today he would accept it — at least within marriage.
Malthus wrote the first edition at the urging of his father with whom he discussed the ideas of William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet, among others. Malthus did not share their optimism about the inevitability of human progress. His views were informed by his own observations of his impoverished parishioners (at Oakwood Chapel in Surrey), whose diet consisted mostly of bread and whose children developed late and were stunted in growth. But despite the misery, the number of births Malthus recorded in the parish registry greatly exceeded the number of deaths. Malthus argued that all the benefits of science and human progress would be eaten up by population growth. If more food became available, more of the children of the poor would survive, and the share for each would be reduced to the minimum required for life.
Malthus is criticized for being indifferent to the suffering of the poor because he proposed the gradual abolition of the “poor laws” (i.e., state welfare) by reducing the number of persons qualifying for it, and thought a private charity could help those in dire distress. He thought the poor laws tended to “create the poor which they maintain.” But Malthus also, as John Meyer writes, “called for an end to growth, higher real wages, reductions in inequality and an economic focus on providing material sustenance for the poor rather than luxury goods for the rich. In effect, he proposed more wealth and power to the middle class and a reduction in poverty, all while removing a good part of the means of wealth accumulation for the rich (cheap labor and asset inflation).” Malthus also thought the rich were morally obliged to produce fewer children because if they had large families, the poor would disproportionately suffer material shortages. He questioned the morality of colonization and anticipated and deplored the fate he foresaw for the inhabitants of the New World as settlers claimed their lands. In short, Malthus wanted a better life for people and greater social equality.
Malthus was a student of history and was the first to try to explain historical events in terms of logic and mathematics. Between the first and second edition of his book, he traveled widely within Europe and read extensively, including accounts of the voyages of European explorers, in order to collect data from many societies at various times. He noted that history was replete with population surges and collapses and was the first person to talk about population cycles: “…this oscillation, this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery, has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will forever continue to exist, unless some decided change takes place in the physical constitution of our nature.”
Malthus was limited by the data that was available to him 200 years ago. We now have far more detailed data that stretches back thousands of years and this data supports his concept of population cycles. Given the rate at which we are consuming and depleting resources, while our population is still growing by one billion every 12 years or so, it would be imprudent for us to assume that we are not in a global population cycle.
Jacobsen: Why is his name important in the age of the extensive population of the Earth by humanity?
Weld: As John Meyer argues in his article questioning “Why Malthus is Not a Social Hero Like Darwin,” while “Darwin, da Vinci and Aristotle opened our minds to a world of wonder and progressive change for all…Malthus laid out the principle causes for societies’ failure down through the ages.” Who likes a party pooper?
Malthus got a bum rap because the commercial and political elites of his time saw his concepts as direct threats to their own prosperity and power. They treated his proposals with the same enthusiasm as today’s bankers, media corporations, developers and cheap labor employees view a sustainable, no-growth economy. Then there are the socialists who dismiss Malthus because they are offended by his argument that there can be too many people. The techno-optimists dismiss him because they believe that technology and agricultural advancements such as the high-yielding crops developed during the green revolution and more recently through genetic modifications will be able to feed us all — regardless of how rapidly our population grows.
Since Malthus’ time, the world’s population has increased almost 8-fold, from about one billion to over 7.6 billion today. This is often used as evidence that he was wrong. However, the fact that close to one billion people are hungry and about three billion suffer from nutritional deficiencies that affects the physical and mental development of many supports Malthus’ argument that the human population will grow to meet the food supply such that some people remain impoverished. In fact, it is precisely the countries with the most rapid population growth that are unable to pull themselves out of poverty.
Malthus did not foresee two things that allowed for this massive increase in the number of humans. The first is the advent of the age of oil — the bonanza of energy which has powered our economies for the last 150 years — and the second is the green revolution and other advances in agriculture unimaginable in his day. In addition to allowing the 19-fold expansion of the global economy (“gross world product”) since 1950, oil and other fossil fuels are used as energy in the industrial scale production of fertilizer (Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixation) and to make the pesticides used on the crops that feed our burgeoning population. It is used in the harvesting and transport of food. Without imported food, many local populations would have collapsed long ago.
But our expansion has come at the expense of other life forms as humans take over ever more of the planet’s surface and resources. Malthus has been “proved wrong” — so far at least — at the cost of the depletion of resources and of permanent environmental degradation (at least as far as human lifespans are concerned).
There is a crucial concept outside of Malthus’ ken –overshoot. Many informed people believe that humanity is in overshoot. Overshoot occurs when a species greatly exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of its environment. This can happen when a species encounters a rich and previously unexploited stock of resources (think oil in our case) that promotes its reproduction. Without significant predation or disease (think advances in hygiene and medicine), while large amounts of the stock remain available (“age of oil”), the population of the species can grow many-fold. After a period of time during which the consumption of the stock increases, the stock begins to exhaust and deposits become harder to find (which is why we are now deep sea drilling and fracking). As the remaining stock dwindles, alternative resources of increasingly lower quality are resorted to (which is why we’re going after the tar sands). When the resources run out, most of the population dies, in what ecologists call a population crash or die off. Humans are not only drawing down the one-time bonanza of oil, but also stocks of non-renewable resources essential to our infrastructure and electronics and are consuming renewable resources (such as forests and fish) at an unsustainable rate that prevents their recovery within a timeframe meaningful to our lifespans. The extraction of non-renewable resources and the overexploitation of renewable resources are enabled by oil. The question is, is humanity heading for a population crash?
Malthus thought that the human population would approach a sustainable limit and then hover there, with many people living in poverty and misery. The crash of a human population in overshoot will bring about the death and misery of billions: a catastrophe on a scale far beyond anything that Malthus could have imagined. Therefore, in the words of the late David Delaney, “Malthus was an optimist.”
The reindeer of St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea should serve as a cautionary tale. Reindeer are not native to the island. A total of 29 young reindeer (24 females, 5 males) were released on the island in 1944 by the US Coast Guard as a potential source of food for employees stationed there, but the station on the island was subsequently abandoned. The reindeer faced no predators on the island, and there was an abundance of nutritious lichen for them to eat. In a 1957 survey by wildlife researchers, there were 1,350 reindeer on the island, and in 1963 there were 6000. But in the 1963 survey, the vegetation on the island had been significantly altered and the condition of the reindeer showed major deterioration and there was a greatly reduced percentage of young animals. At the next survey, in 1966, the population had crashed to 42 reindeer with no fawns or yearlings. The curve of the population growth of the reindeer on St. Matthew Island leading up to the crash is eerily similar to that of the human population since Malthus’ time.
Jacobsen: What is legitimate and illegitimate about the fears of overpopulation? Why?
Weld: It would be hard to make the case that there are any illegitimate fears about overpopulation. No one can predict the future, the best we can do is make educated guesses. But our impact on the environment — both the physical environment and its biodiversity — is undeniable. It has been so dramatic that scientists are calling the times we live in the Anthropocene. The techno-optimists point out that we’re wealthier and longer-lived than we ever have been, and they argue that things will only get better. But they ignore the costs, not only in terms of the more crowded, more hectic, more stressful lives that many of us live, while many people remain impoverished and malnourished, but also in terms of the impact, we have had on the planet. For them, the extermination of wildlife and natural spaces is not counted as a loss, and they also don’t seem to understand that we can’t survive on a depleted planet.
Climate change receives the lion’s share of the coverage of our depredations on Earth, in terms of its potential to acidify the oceans, raise sea levels and flood coastal communities, and change rainfall patterns in many areas, including in our vital breadbaskets. But humans have also taken over about one-third of the Earth’s land surface for their own use (and over half the land surface that is habitable). Three-quarters of all land on Earth is now significantly affected by human activities. We are scouring the oceans for fish and other seafood and have depleted several major fisheries; the rest are being fished at or beyond their capacity to replenish themselves. A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund shows that we have wiped out 60% of the mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles since 1970, which the authors consider an emergency that threatens civilization. In the words of Rose Bird, the late former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court: “We have probed the earth, excavated it, burned it, ripped things from it, buried things in it, chopped down its forests, leveled its hills, muddied its waters, and dirtied its air. That does not fit my definition of a good tenant. If we were here on a month-to-month basis, we would have been evicted long ago.” I’m sure the other species on Earth would love to evict us!
There is no reason that we have to be destroying life on Earth. The economic growth-forever dogma which guides our economic and political decisions is suicidal and will have to evolve into something more sustainable. And we cannot keep adding well over 80 million people to the Earth’s population each year; one billion every 12 years. We have a wide range of choices of effective birth control methods and it would be technically possible to supply every reproductive-age person with birth control. We have the capacity to limit the number of children we have. The impediments are sociological, cultural and religious. Of course, I have to disagree with Malthus about birth control being a vice, but this does not diminish his argument about the existence of real limits.
Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution, is almost universally honored, while Thomas Malthus is more often than not dismissed and even vilified. But when Borlaug was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1970 for his achievements, he said in his acceptance speech: “There can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort.” Thomas Robert Malthus would have agreed.
Avery, John Scales. Thomas Robert Malthus, We Need Your Voice Today! Countercurrents. 11 June 2017. https://countercurrents.org/2017/06/11/thomas-robert-malthus-we-need-your-voice-today/
Delaney, David. Overshoot in a nutshell. http://davidmdelaney.com/overshoot-in-a-nutshell.html
Klein, David R. The introduction, increase and crash of reindeer on St. Matthew Island. Journal of Wildlife management, Vol. 32 (2): 350–367, 1968. http://dieoff.org/page80.htm
Meyer, John Erik. Why Malthus is Not a Social Hero Like Darwin. Humanist Perspectives, Issue 198: 16–19, Autumn 2016. https://www.humanistperspectives.org/issue198/05-Article_Meyer-34_pp_16-19.pdf . (Disclosure: I am a co-editor of Humanist Perspectives magazine.)
The Socialist Party of Great Britain. World Poverty and Birth Control: Malthus Was Wrong. November 2018. https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/socialist-standard/1970s/1970/no-792-august-1970/world-poverty-and-birth-control-malthus-was-wrong/
University of Cambridge. The man we love to hate: it’s time to reappraise Thomas Robert Malthus. May 18, 2016. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/the-man-we-love-to-hate-its-time-to-reappraise-thomas-robert-malthus
Weld, Madeline. Sadly, Malthus Was Right — Now What? Montreal Gazette, February 15, 2016. Reprinted in Free Inquiry, June/July 2016, p. 42. https://montrealgazette.com/opinion/columnists/opinion-sadly-malthus-was-right-now-what
Wikipedia. Gross World Product (accessed Nov. 7, 2018). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_world_product
Wikipedia. Thomas Robert Malthus (accessed Nov. 5, 2018). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus
World Wildlife Fund. A Warning Sign From Our Planet: Nature Needs Life Support. October 30, 2018. https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/living-planet-report-2018 See also The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/30/humanity-wiped-out-animals-since-1970-major-report-finds
Scott Douglas Jacobsen founded In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: [email protected]
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Image Credit: Madeline Weld.