Against Malthus

Eleanor Penny

In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1789), the Reverend Thomas Malthus theorised that the human population would grow geometrically, doubling every 25 years. There would be millions of hungry mouths that agricultural production, which grew only arithmetically, could not hope to fill. Like fruit flies or rabbits, he thought, people breed and eat in their ravenous masses, and die the same way. He described the famines, wars and plagues of the 18th century as ‘positive checks’, and opposed the poor laws for only prolonging suffering.

If Malthus was driven by concern for the masses of the future, his sympathy for already existing people seems to have been limited. The temporary suffering of the poor, in Britain and its colonies, was unfortunate but necessary to secure the wellbeing of ‘humanity’ – in whose future they could not be allowed to share. Malthus exhorted rich families to do their civic duty by having fewer children, but didn’t give much weight to the fact that, then as now, the wealthy consume far more than the poor. Or that even without stern clerical rebukes, people tend to have fewer children the richer they get. From a Malthusian perspective, redistribution makes little sense: if there isn’t enough to go round, no system of resource distribution will solve the problem. It’s a convenient view if you happen to be the one with the resources to start with.

In 1805, Malthus took up a post as professor of history and political economy at the East India Company’s college in Hertfordshire, where the sons of merchants and the minor aristocracy were trained for colonial administration. Malthus lectured them on the dangers of overpopulation. The starvation he prophesied to his students was not theoretical. Under British rule, tens of millions of Indians had already died of famine – caused in no small part by the policies of the British East India Company. But Malthus’s students were taught that famine was a natural consequence of overpopulation, a result of the incontinence of the lower classes. The assumption endured at least as long as the empire: in the 1940s, as India’s resources were diverted to the British War effort and millions of its people starved to death, Winston Churchill said that any relief effort would be wasted because ‘Indians breed like rabbits.’

Malthusian ideas are enjoying a revival, perhaps unsurprising in an age of ecological crisis. Across the world, food and water supplies are critically threatened by climate breakdown. Thanks to the combined effects of pollution and extractive agribusiness, the soil in Britain has fewer than a hundred harvests left. You don’t have to look hard to find someone arguing that we are breeding ourselves into oblivion. To the fear that there will not be enough food for earth’s people, Malthus prescribes a beguilingly simple solution: reduce the number of people on earth. Deep ecologists on the left and eco-fascists on the right have long been united in their opposition to the destructive force of humanity. Paul Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb (1968) that ‘the cancer of population growth … must be cut out, by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.’ To save the planet’s biodiversity, David Attenborough has said, ‘population growth has to come to an end.’

Soon after Malthus’s Essay appeared, the Industrial Revolution saw global food production skyrocket. Populations boomed – but they didn’t double every 25 years. Increased access to food didn’t doom populations to fatal over-breeding, but instead mapped onto decreased birth rates. Several countries in the global north are now facing the problem of an ageing population as birth rates drop below replacement levels. People still starve, not because of there are too many of them or not enough food, but because the production and distribution flows of global agribusiness are indifferent to starvation and malnourishment.

Malthus wasn’t a monster. He genuinely regretted the need (as he saw it) for ‘positive checks’. He looked out onto a suffering world and his heart bled. But he was still prepared to leave vulnerable populations exposed to the deadly effects of economic choices that funnelled vast amounts of wealth into the pockets of a few and call it mercy. It may have helped that he believed in a world hereafter where the starving would be fed; it may also have helped that the lives to be sacrificed for the common good were not those of his congregation, his colleagues at Cambridge, or his students at the East India school.

His modern followers follow him in this respect, too. Countries of the global north are responsible for the bulk of historic carbon emissions, but birthrates are higher in the global south. Population Matters, a charity, acknowledges that the rich are more responsible for climate change and suffer fewer of its effects, but still insists that ‘every additional person increases carbon emissions.’ If population is a problem per se, then the effects of climate change, already exposing the global south to more floods, famines and hurricanes, are a blessing in disguise. For the sake of life in general, we must sacrifice some lives in particular: poor ones, racialised ones, ones already deemed disposable. Scarcity must be managed in favour of the – white, wealthy – global north.

A prominent member of Extinction Rebellion has written of the need to ‘rein in immigration’, and the movement’s ‘declaration of rebellion’ cites ‘mass migration’ as a negative consequence of the climate emergency. But this is to redefine those worst affected by climate change as an effect of climate change.

In a time of climate breakdown, it would be easy to call Malthus a prophet – apparently disproved by the startling onset of industrial growth; later vindicated by its disastrous ecological effects. But Malthus isn’t wrong because his sums don’t add up, or because his his hypothesis has been disproved by fresh evidence. He’s wrong because he recast a political problem of production and distribution as a biological problem of reproduction and consumption – distracting from its causes, exculpating its architects and obscuring possible solutions.

Navigating the climate crisis, we have to avoid diagnoses that mistake politics for biology and cruelty for kindness. Climate change is not the original sin of a species doomed to destroy any ecosystem unlucky enough to host it. It’s the result of a carbon-intensive economic system geared towards the accumulation and concentration of wealth. Blaming ‘overpopulation’ for the climate crisis loads the responsibility for environmental disaster not on the companies and carbon industries that have caused it, but on the billions of people trying, on the brink of devastation, to survive.


  • 18 October 2019 at 5:42pm
    Reader says:
    "Deep ecologists on the left and eco-fascists on the right have long been united in their opposition to the destructive force of humanity....David Attenborough has said, ‘population growth has to come to an end.’"

    Just as I had come to rather admire Sir David. Gosh. But I'm not clear whether he is now to be classified with the deep left or the eco-fascists on the right. Could Ms Penny please clarify?

  • 19 October 2019 at 8:24pm
    Geo. says:
    Penny's piece shows that she has a weak understanding of the over-population issue, but a fair grasp of unethical journalistic techniques.

    It is probable that Malthus wasn't wrong, but merely premature. The human population continues to increase, and its demands on the global ecosystem are now not only starting to exceed what that system can provide but also reducing the ability of the system to provide. Think of the reduction in fish stocks due to over-fishing, for example. Or the over-consumption of fresh water in places from India to California that are lowering water tables and causing the salination of supplies. etc. etc.

    Birthrates are indeed higher in the south. But she fails to mention that almost all poorer countres (including especially China and India, the most populous, although perhaps less southern) are committed to improving the standards of living of their people, and who can blame them? A higher standard of living means a greater personal environmental impact, so it is in those poorer countries with their increasing and more consuming populations that the coming increase in impact is especially worrying.

    Immigration from poor countries to rich ones is also a concern, because such immigrants soon adopt the lifestyles of their new homes, which usually also means a substantial increase in their personal impacts.

    Penny's suggestion that Malthus is wrong because he "recast" the problem is nonsense. If the ecosystem can't support us all, politics and redistribution cannot help. If we want to have a situation where everyone has a suitable standard of living, then simple arithmetic shows that there must be fewer of us. The problem isn't industries responding to the demands of people, but the aggregate size of those demands. Everyone's become vegan can't do the job if there are too many vegans.

    And as to her ethics, putting unacceptable positions next to the names of people or organisations strongly suggests that those people and organisations support those positions. Penny does this a couple of times in her piece, and it is hard to believe that's accidental. Another responder has mentioned this with respect to David Attenborough. I will mention her apparent accusation that Population Matters suggests reversing population growth by increasing death rates and welcomes environmental catastrophes as helping this to happen. It does not. It supports only uncoercive contraception to achieve this.

    I hope Penny will study this topic rather more before writing on it again. And when she does, that she will try to do so without smearing.

  • 21 October 2019 at 4:39pm
    Paul Mountain says:
    Where to start? At the beginning I guess:
    "It is probable that Malthus wasn't wrong, but merely premature. The human population continues to increase, and its demands on the global ecosystem are now not only starting to exceed what that system can provide but also reducing the ability of the system to provide."
    This is exactly what Malthus claimed 220 years ago, and he cited symptoms that seemed to him equally alarming as those under discussion, presenting them as natural processes or the fault of ill-educated masses themselves - but were nothing of the sort.
    As regards reductions in fish stocks and pressure on water supplies, you also are describing symptoms, not causes. If the people of China and India (or Ethiopia, or Vietnam, or any other emerging economy for that matter) seek to achieve standards of living and levels of consumption that mimic those of "the north" by adopting developmental models that have given rise to the problem in the first place, then we are indeed sunk. And that is Penny's point.
    Your declaration, "if the ecosystem can't support us all, politics and redistribution cannot help", sums up how you are looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. To answer a pseudo-empirical-analysis with an acknowledgement of a moral imperative: Penny has to be right and you have to be wrong, because when it comes to saving the planet, politics are all we have. In other words, only revolutionary (and non-violent) political change can alter established patterns of individual behaviour and structural development which have locked us into a linear process of exploitation, degradation and exhaustion, and can give us a chance of transitioning to a cyclical process of renewal, distribution and regeneration of resources. And while a steady transition to sustainable development is unlikely to lead to a global population decline, we can hope that the rate of growth will be slowed and, eventually, stabilised.
    Your assertion that "the problem isn't industries responding to the demands of people, but the aggregate size of those demands" is the finest of straw-men: Penny isn’t claiming that this is the problem, although I accept that her identification of the problem as "global agribusinesses' indifference to starvation and malnourishment" is too simplistic, positing a Manichean struggle for salvation. Nevertheless, it clear is that industries (northern, transnational and private) don’t "respond" to the demands of people - they define and shape those demands in the first place. The people of Vietnam didn't suddenly decide in the year 2001 that they wanted or needed high-tar tobacco products - BAT Industries decided to invest millions of dollars persuade them that they did.
    Finally, Penny does not claim that Population Matters consciously wishes catastrophes to befall people, but is merely warning against the consequences of mistaking symptoms for causes. It's your accusation which is false, and your disingenuous insertion of "apparent" indicates that you know it is.

    • 21 October 2019 at 5:18pm
      Alistair Currie says: @ Paul Mountain
      Please do see my comments on behalf of Population Matters below, Paul. As someone who works at PM, I am not quite as sanguine as you are about the sentence with our name it appearing right next to a sentence about poor people dying being a blessing. I'm sure Ms Penny understands the rules of punctuation and paragraphing well enough to have at least been conscious of the inference some would draw. As far as mistaking symptoms for causes goes, I hope my comments below reveal that our analysis is far from as simple minded as might be lazily assumed and I urge you to follow the link and read more.

      Meanwhile, it simply isn't true to say "politics is all we have". What we have is "politics within the planetary boundaries we have" - the principle of doughnut economics admirably posited by Kate Raworth. When, for instance, it comes to food, one doesn't need Malthusian theory, just evidence. Try the most authoritative and comprehensive recent report on the subject, by the resolutely non-Malthusian EAT-Lancet Commission, which states very simply that feeding a population of more than 10bn sustainably (that's the important word) is "increasingly unlikely".

      We can't fix our problems without politics, without economic reform and without a host of changes, big and small. However, fixing our problems with 11bn people on the planet (the UN projection for 2100), is a great deal harder than fixing them with 7bn.

  • 21 October 2019 at 4:50pm
    Alistair Currie says:
    Eleanor Penny rehearses a tired old set of anachronistic and selective arguments here. First, why she wants to pick a fight with a man dead for 200 years whose actual theories have few subscribers these days isn't obvious. The usual reason people do that is as a way of helping to discredit population campaigners today, regardless of whether they are motivated by Malthus or not. She does that in referring to Population Matters (for whom I work) as among his "modern followers". In fact, a search for Malthus on our site (easy enough to do if Ms Penny had been motivated) yields precisely three results, one of which is in the title of a media article we didn't write, and another of which states that Malthus was wrong about starvation. Speaking as the Head of Campaigns and Communications, I've never read him and never intend to. So, not followers of Malthus then.

    Indeed, if she hadn't been trying so hard to torture the facts until they represented her thesis, Ms Penny might have noted that PM goes far beyond "acknowledging" the impact of rich Western emissions but actively calls for multiple actions on climate change among rich nations, (including smaller families to reduce population). We have branded graphics illustrating the enormous disparity in global emissions for that reason, prominently featured on our climate change page and elsewhere. But these have apparently been obscured by sparks from the axe Ms Penny is grinding. Similarly, Population Matters consistently acknowledges the role of inequality, economic systems and global injustice in our unfolding environmental disaster and does not for a second "blame" the climate crisis on overpopulation. It is inarguably true, however, that more emitters produce more carbon and despite Ms Penny's attempt to contextualise that observation as a kind of eco-fascism, we expect most people are clear eyed-enough to recognise that facts are facts, and fair-minded enough to want to see what those who use them have to say about them before leaping to conclusions about what they intend them to mean.

    As people - George Monbiot amongst the most prominent - have always done and continue to do regarding population, setting up a straw man to knock down really isn't difficult - and the Malthus bogeyman has been burned on the bonfire more than most. Forget him - he's dead. Engaging with rational and ethical arguments put forward by enlightened, intelligent and progressive campaigners is always harder, but better for everyone. Those wishing to learn more about the issue and what the population argument is actually about could do worse than starting here

  • 21 October 2019 at 8:17pm
    Mr A J L Cruickshank says:
    I assume it is a typo but the First Essay was 1798 and launched as an anti-utopian argument against Godwin's Political Justice. Malthus's population arithmetic was less of a focus than the basic economic reality linked to his early identification of diminishing return to agriculture. Behind these lie the creation of a post-Smith critical study ofpolitical economy which he, Ricardo, Torrens and a number of others created and which became the subject that turned into the Millian utilitarian strain and that of Marxist economic analysis. Malthus was pilloried by Marx and exhalted by Keynes, but whichever ideology one may consider one belongs to, he made a crucial contribution which like all such contain notions that we find unpalatable and indeed have long been abandoned.

  • 21 October 2019 at 11:31pm
    Paul Mountain says:
    Many thanks Alistair. Having read with interest the PM piece that you've referred me to, I assure you I won’t be devoting any time to reading op-eds by Dominic Lawson. Maybe Eleanor Penny’s phraseology caused unnecessary offence, but I’m quite persuaded that critical causative factor is not population levels, but consumption levels, and the economic forces that underlie the carbon-intensive consumption that “the north” continues (despite protestations to the contrary) to sponsor in “emerging” economies. David Satterthwaite in 2009: “It is not the growth in urban or rural) populations that drives the growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but rather, the growth in consumers and in their levels of consumption. A significant proportion of the world’s urban (and rural) populations have consumption levels that are so low that they contribute little or nothing to such emissions” David Harvey in 2011: “There is always a danger in overemphasising supposed natural limits at the expense of concentrating on the capitalist dynamics that force environmental changes and on the social (particularly class) relations that drive those dynamics in environmentally perverse directions.”

  • 22 October 2019 at 6:58pm
    David Gurr says:
    In the middle of the 1960's I was appalled by the conditions in Haiti, then population 4 million, suffering from after effects of an earthquake and hurricane. Last year, after so many more similar disasters, made even worse by epidemics, population grown to 10 million. In the intervening sixty years aid agencies have tried nonstop to help relieve living conditions. To what end? The Gates Foundation has done heroic work against malaria in Africa, but doesn't accompany it with birth control. It is not Malthusian to think about the effect of that population growth and its accompanying desperate migrations.

  • 22 October 2019 at 8:11pm
    rpavellas says:
    "In a time of climate breakdown..."
    I am not aware that the climate has broken down, or broken in any direction. I would like to see some specificity in making this assertion, something the author has seen, and carefully and measurably assessed over a significant period of time.

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