It’s Time for Malthus to Die

Humanity now knows more than ever. Today’s highschool students are better versed in the facts of the world than Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci and John Stewart Mill combined. Yet all three of these men vie for a title that is out of reach to even the smartest people of today: the last man to know everything. As education has proliferated, so has the need for specialization. You can no longer be at the forefront of science, economics and social theory as these men were in their time. Hell, you can’t even be at the forefront of all research on spiders. There is now more information in the world than one person could learn in a lifetime. And that forces people to prioritize their learning. For some, this reality that we cannot be expected to know everything acts to absolve them of any feeling of responsibility to connect ones opinion to knowledge. Thus leading to a world where people no longer feel the need to learn anything about a subject to have an opinion on it. Some call it laziness, some call it necessity, but either way a pithy argument will earn you more ears than a comprehensive review of the situation.

It’s well documented that human beings are biased against any view that makes them feel guilty. And that bias—combined with our contemporary intellectual laziness—explains why neo-Malthusian thought continues to be prevalent in the general population, and even many environmental circles. Malthusianism has such a simple solution for the unsustainability of our world: it is not our practices that cause this unsustainability, but, rather, it is our people. Neo-Malthusians see the problem of unconstrained growth in a finite world, but they think that if there were just a few billion less people, then all would be solved.

To this, I have only one response; no. Just no.

Blaming our environmental problems on increased population is like blaming your messy room on your roommate who knits too much. Should your roommate knit fewer hats? Perhaps. Will their knitting habits impact the cleanliness of your room? Almost certainly not. Sure, you might have more space in the rest of the house to spread your things around—if the hat epidemic were solved. But in the end, your room will be messy until you clean it, period. And this brings us to the first of three reasons why neo-Malthusianism must die.

1) It’s passing the buck: Neo-Malthusianism purports that the main problem that faces this world is not those of us who live in developed countries. For the birth rates in developed countries have been falling for some time. Rather, it’s those who live in the the developing world, where populations are booming, who are to blame. Now, I am sure there are some neo-Malthusians out there who feel that we are equally at fault, if not more, for the situation of the world. But regardless of whom you blame, the Neo-Malthusians are still passing the buck: changing our lives here and now, and joining the push towards a completely sustainable world is something that almost all of the privileged billion could do. And they could start today. But slowing world population growth? That is another thing all together, and action towards solving this perceived problem is something that is certainly outside of the realm of possibility for your average person. It thereby absolves us of any responsibility, not only as individuals, but as an entire, unsustainable society.

2) It ignores underlying issues: Ending population growth alone will not solve the crisis that our environment faces, nor should it even be our main concern. Our entire economic system relies on consumption, whether that consumption comes in the form of purchasing an organic pear, a tank of gas or an e-book. Unfortunately, a vast majority of our consumption is unsustainable. In 2008 it was estimated that 90% of energy created in the world came from non-renewable aka unsustainable sources. And that is only for energy, anything that cannot be  fully recycled, re-used or decomposed, is, in a finite world, unsustainable. Barring a complete overhaul in how our system works, it does not matter how many people are doing the consuming because it is the consumption itself that is the problem. This fact will remain regardless of population and currently is a far greater obstacle to sustainability than population.

3) It wouldn’t solve the problem: The average American currently requires approximately 7 global hectares to sustain them; there is approximately 12 billion hectares of land available for use. This means that a world of Americans could only be sustainable if it held, at most, 1.7 billion people—just under a quarter of todays population. In light of these facts, neo-Malthusians cannot simply argue that population growth must be stopped, for even today’s population cannot live with the excess that currently thrives in the developed world. They must either argue that the privileged few deserve to remain privileged and the rest can deal with what is left. Or they must argue that the world’s population must be dramatically decreased. Neither of these options are acceptable, so what does that say about neo-Malthusianism in general?

So the TL;DR version of all this is that neo-Malthusianism blames others for a problem we created, it ignores the main reason why these issues persist, and even if the neo-Malthusian dream was realized our ecological crisis would not be solved. Blaming our world’s difficulties on population growth will only serve to slow real successful changes and actions and frankly, we cannot afford that.


By: Stefan Hostetter