Britain - The not-so-new clothes of Thomas Malthus

Sept/Oct 2008

One might have hoped that the ideas of the Reverend Thomas Malthus on the unsustainability of population growth, circa 1798, would be long-forgotten. His theological metaphysics and pessimistic moralism, although not uninfluential in the British establishment at the time, were dismissed by progressive thinkers - and by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in particular, in the mid-nineteenth century. And anyway, they have been resoundingly disproved by history.

But nevertheless, every now and again someone comes along to resurrect Malthus, arguing for population control as a cure for all ills and more often than not, he or she is given a public hearing, or is even, sadly enough, acclaimed. Usually this happens at times of economic crisis - whether real, or perceived - as a means to justify the failings of capitalism and deny the need for social change.

So unsurprisingly, perhaps, the latest attempt at reviving the old reactionary Malthus, launched by the "Optimal Population Trust" invokes the current oil and food price hikes as evidence of absolute "shortages", in order to argue that the planet cannot even sustain the present population, let alone future population growth.

That said, today's neoMalthusians, and this Trust in particular, have already requisitioned the great "global warming" threat, arguing that its main cause is too many people (breathing?) on the planet!

Greens for population control

The Trust's main protagonist for the moment happens to be the highly "respectable" John Guillebaud - who is emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health at London's University College and indeed the established national "guru" of contraceptive practice.

This is probably why he was given such attention by the British media, after his guest editorial entitled "Population growth and climate change", appeared on the British Medical Journal website in July this year. It was apparently meant to coincide with the United Nations "World Population Day" whose slogan is "Family Planning is a right. Let's make it real".

Guillebaud was subsequently interviewed on the Radio 4 Today Programme, BBC 2's Newsnight and editorials and articles on the subject then appeared in the newspapers. What is more, the British Medical Journal published Guillebaud's piece in their print edition on the 2 August, without a word of criticism or caution, nor did it try to distance itself from its views. This, despite the highly dubious "facts" which Guillebaud quotes and despite his conclusion - that "doctors should help bring family size into the arena of environmental ethics, analogous to avoiding patio heaters and high carbon cars." You would think that it would be considered quite offensive in this age of painstaking in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) - especially by a medical journal, to compare the patter of tiny feet to a patio heater!

But to give some other examples of the learned professor's dubious presentation: he begins, "The world's population now exceeds 6700 million, and humankind's consumption of fossil fuels, fresh water, crops, fish and forests exceeds supply." Obviously this is patent nonsense, and it is surprising that any scientific editor allowed it. There are 2 billion people in the world today who under-consume to the point of being on the brink of starvation, not thanks to lack of supply, but due to being denied supply on the grounds of poverty. It is demonstrable that we are living in a world of oversupply and the "scarcity" experienced by many people is artificial, proportional only to their means to pay!

Of course it is a truism to say that we live on a planet with finite natural resources. But while the idea that the earth's oil supply is running out already is obviously wrong, the idea that it might run out "soon" is a matter of opinion, if not geology, because it really appears that the limits are determined by the expense involved in exploiting oil fields in awkward places, and not even in the foreseeable future.

Guillebaud did not speak about a shortage of Coca-Cola, incidently, but emotively chose to mention only a few items, including fish... Now, in Western Europe, we all know that fishermen have overfished cod, but throw away tons of other species of edible fish, because there is no market for it. Perhaps "Pop" Guillebaud has never heard of "markets", or indeed, "sharks"?

But it gets worse: "Every person born adds to greenhouse gas emissions and escaping poverty is impossible without these emissions increasing. Resourcing contraception therefore helps to combat climate change, although it is not a substitute for high emitters reducing their per capita emissions.

So, the only significant effect we all have on this planet (even those escaping poverty) is to produce greenhouse gases. Does that include people who plant trees? And just where are the studies which show that resourcing contraception (which may or may not reduce a birth rate) helps combat climate change? This assumption is not borne out by fact. Where the birth rate is lowest and contraception is used most - in the rich Western countries - apparently we produce 160 times more greenhouse gases per head than people in Ethiopia, where the birth rate is high and contraception use low... a figure which Guillebaud himself likes to quote. In other words birth rate has less than nothing to do with the price of eggs - or, in this case, the amount of carbon emissions...

Professor Guillebaud argues that British couples should have 2 children maximum as the best thing they can do to help prevent climate change. Apparently his own third child arrived before he was convinced of this himself.

Here is another of his arguments to complete the circle: "In 1798 Malthus predicted that as the population increased exponentially, shortfalls in food supply would be unavoidable. A sevenfold increase in the population has led, 210 years later to unprecedented food shortages, escalating prices, and riots. Until these events Borlaug's "green revolution" had seemingly proved Malthus wrong. Yet fertilisers, pesticides, tractors and transport are dependent on fossil fuels, which apart from being in short supply, exacerbate climate change."

The idea that the "proof" that Malthus was "seemingly" wrong lay in the "green revolution" is a little thin. There was no "green revolution" in the 19th century when Malthus was conclusively laid to rest by Marx and Engels. This is really a doom mongering idea. Apparently Guillebaud is not aware of the fact that the recent food riots were mostly due to price hikes, (or strikes over wages in Egypt and Bangladesh), but not shortages. And where there were shortages these were caused by hoarding or deliberate government policy to protect home markets, thus banning imports, for instance. The price rises were initiated and then fuelled thousands of miles away from countries like Haiti and Ivory Coast where people took to the streets to protest them. As should be well-known by now, they were due to speculation on the food and commodity futures' markets - after capital had moved away from the money market where it had got its fingers burnt, when the housing bubble burst.

A slippery slope?

The British media, while having given the Optimum Population Trust a bit too much oxygen of publicity, did at least attempt to provide a few arguments against its ideas.

The Guardian newspaper editorial on 25 July, however, places Marx and Malthus on the same level, without even acknowledging that Marx was an implacable opponent of Malthusianism.

It went as follows: "The preoccupations of an age are often given away by its choice of prophet. In the 90s, Karl Marx came back into vogue, not as the John the Baptist of the class struggle, but as a reliable guide to globalisation and its discontents. Old Whiskers was even the subject of a long New Yorker essay, which argued that Wall Street types had nothing to lose by reading him. Over the last couple of years, it has been Thomas Malthus's turn in the spotlight. The spectre of "Pop" Malthus [...] has hovered over the recent arguments about record food and fuel prices. His warnings about how growing populations would outstrip food supply are often echoed by greens on blogs. And today the British Medical Journal weighs in, with an online opinion piece that is essentially Malthus-lite."

The Guardian editor says that the BMJ authors are "plain wrong", going on to explain that the proper link is not between commodity supply or population growth and greenhouse gases, but between consumption and commodities and between emissions and climate change, adding that, "Anything else is a side issue". In other words, for the Guardian, the proper link is between food and eating and carbon production and global warming? Which says nothing about cause or effect! Apparently unable to refute Malthus on scientific grounds, (perhaps the editor should have taken a look at Marx on the subject?) the Guardian at least says he is "simply wrong" and rightly ridicules the Optimum Population Trust's idea that Britain should have a population of 17m without saying which 17 million can stay...

Guillebaud is clearly a man with a mission, however: to make contraception generally available so that population growth can be curbed and eventually become "optimal". And it seems he is prepared to adopt (and adapt) any argument in the name of his cause, however nonsensical.

It should be said that he is not an advocate of coercion and certainly not an advocate of eugenics (and nor is the Trust he belongs to, not officially, anyway). But they do argue for the population to be reduced to an "optimal" level of under 20 million, claiming that "ecological footprint calculations" indicate that this is "a sustainable UK population size". This means that from 60.7m the population ought to decrease annually by about as much as the population of London for the next 44 years!

Perhaps they hope for an epidemic - as the footnotes "backstory") for another article in response to Guillebaud, by Ian Sample, a Guardian science correspondent, helpfully adds, "But nothing has been as effective in reducing the human population as the flu virus. The 1918 strain is believed to have killed more than 20 million people."

It is the case, however that throughout the history of the so-called "birth control" movement, many of its advocates, from Margaret Sanger to Marie Stopes, have ended up promoting the view that some people should be prevented from having children - whether it be the "lower classes", certain "lesser races", or disabled people. It was a very small leap from this point of view to Hitler's idea of "racial superiority" and his attempted annihilation of what he designated undesirable - on the basis of political views, physical characteristics, sexuality, race or religion.

The immodest proposal

But let us return to Malthus - to recall what he wrote and why he wrote it. In fact he published 6 revisions of his "Essay on the Principle of Population, as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society", between 1798 and 1826, having written the original text in response to the ideas of the French Revolution's theorists, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Condorcet - immediately marking himself out as a philistine and a reactionary.

Malthus was critical of the ideas of the French Revolution, argued against the idea of human progress, against the burgeoning scientific methodology and in favour of fixed and unrelated idealistic laws which governed humanity and the environment.

So, according to him the growth of the population - determined by a so-called "iron law" was exponential (growing as in the series, 1,2 4,8,16, etc.), while the growth of production of food was arithmetic (as in the series, 1,2,3,4, etc.).

As Engels responded: "The difference is obvious, is terrifying; but is it correct? Where has it been proved that the productivity of the land increases in an arithmetical progression? The extent of land is limited. All right! The labour power to be employed on this land surface increases with population. Even if we assume that the increase in yield due to increase in labour does not always rise in proportion to the labour, there still remains a third element which, admittedly, never means anything to the economist - science - whose progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population. What progress does the agriculture of this century owe to chemistry alone - indeed, to two men alone, Sir Humphry Davy and Justus Liebig! But science increases at least as much as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation, science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression. And what is impossible to science? But it is absurd to talk of overpopulation so long as 'there is enough waste land in the valley of the Mississippi for the whole population of Europe to be transplanted there'; so long as no more than one third of the earth can be considered cultivated, and so long as the production of this third itself can be raised sixfold and more by the application of improvements already known."

However, for Malthus, "The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear and with one mighty blow levels the population...".

Marx and Engels took on Malthus head-on in the mid-19th century - in many of their writings, and in particular the "Outline of a critique of political Economy" written by Engels in 1843.

Placing Malthus in the context of his time, he writes "The eighteenth century , the century of revolution, also revolutionised economics. But just as all revolutions of this century were one-sided and bogged down in antitheses - just as abstract materialism was set in opposition to abstract spiritualism, the republic to monarchy, the social contract to divine right - likewise the economic revolution did not get beyond antithesis. The premises remained everywhere in force: materialism did not attack the Christian contempt for and humiliation of Man, merely posited Nature instead of the Christian God as the Absolute confronting Man. In politics, no-one dreamt of examining the premises of the state as such. It did not occur to economics to question the validity of private property. Therefore, the new economics was only half an advance. It was obliged to betray and disavow its own premises, to have recourse to sophistry and hypocrisy so as to cover up the contradictions in which it became entangled, so as to reach the conclusions to which it was driven not by its premises but by the humane spirit of the century. Thus economics took on a philanthropic character. It withdrew its favour from producers and bestowed it on consumers. It affected a solemn abhorrence of the bloody terror of the mercantile system, and proclaimed trade a bond of friendship and union among nations as among individuals. All was pure splendour and magnificence - yet the premises reasserted themselves soon enough, and in contrast to this sham philanthropy produced the Malthusian population theory - the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship. The premises begot and reared the factory system and modern slavery, which yields nothing in inhumanity and cruelty to ancient slavery. Modern economics, the system of free trade based on Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations - reveals itself to be that same hypocrisy, inconsistency and immorality which now confront humanity in every sphere".

But having argued that the population had been controlled through "natural" means through history, and would continue to be thus controlled, Malthus later revised his ideas in the face of the industrial bourgeoisie's fears of the proletarian masses they had "created".

So he incorporated "moral restraint" - in this case, abstinence from sex - on the part of the poorer classes, as a necessary check on population growth. He also joined those who wished to abolish the help given to the poor under the Poor Laws, with the excuse that they gave no incentive to birth control.

Indeed, the ideas of Malthus came at a time when Britain was in the throws of the industrial revolution - ironically just the very time when the immense productivity of human labour was being demonstrated in front of the whole world. But it was the urban concentration of the vast proletariat - which produced the phenomenal accumulation of wealth generated by the power of man and machine, together - which horrified the ruling classes. So whether Malthus made rational sense or not, his ideas were seized upon by those in government - like prime minister William Pitt the Younger, (in office from 1783-1801 and 1804-1806) to justify withdrawing the extension of Poor Relief. It was also Pitt who introduced the first population census (in 1801).

Then 30 years later, again it was the Malthusian justification which was used by the Liberals (Whigs) to introduce the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which gave the poor "bastilles" - that is workhouses akin to prison, with a punitive regime whereby wives and husbands were quartered separately and the hardly edible daily gruel had to be earned - often by forced hard labour.

Malthus did not invent the idea than man struggles for his existence, of course, since this is obvious to anyone. But he is credited with having influenced Darwin, who some claim applied Malthusian theory to arrive at his own theory of natural selection and "the survival of the fittest". Yet this is one of the more misunderstood of Darwin's doctrines. It is often used to justify brutality and warfare, for instance, as somehow innate human characteristics endowed upon us by evolution. However, Darwin's theory is merely a description of the way genetic inheritance is passed on, and has nothing to do with conscious action. If there are behavioural characteristics which have helped mankind survive as a species, these have been, on the contrary, the nurturing of the young, the disabled, the elderly and the sick, whenever this is circumstantially possible.

But there are those who would accuse Malthus of more far-reaching influence. Malthus held a longstanding position as professor of economics at the training college set up by the British East India Company and he remained in this position until his death in 1834. It is suggested that his theories helped determine policy towards India with respect to the recurrent famines which occurred every decade. Official policy was, in fact, so-called "benign neglect". In other words, the authorities regarded the famines as necessary to keep the "excess" population in check. In some cases administrators even banned efforts to transport food into famine stricken areas. Similarly, but on a smaller scale Malthusian theories are said to have influenced British policy during the great Irish potato famine of 1845-49, resulting in the deliberate neglect of relief efforts, on the basis that mass starvation was a natural and inevitable consequence of "overpopulation".

20th Century Malthusians

The 20th century had its share of Malthusians, indeed they were unfortunately not so few and far between. For instance, Julian Huxley, biologist and older brother of Aldous (The author of "Brave New World") was a life-long fellow of the Eugenics Society. This never prevented him from being feted by the British establishment, nor from being made the first director general of UNESCO.

Apparently Huxley's views changed during his lifetime (he died in 1975). In 1936 he had suggested that a way forward for the population was to improve the living standards of the poor, while at the same time promoting policies aimed at encouraging reproduction of the more able and discouraging that of the less able... According to him, at least a level playing field was needed, before an assessment could be made - since all classes contained people of low and high ability - although not necessarily in the same proportions! When he gave a lecture in 1962, he focused on his concern over an increase in genetic defects as a result of people being kept alive by medical advances, long enough to "breed". He also raised the issue of radioactivity resulting in a new "crop of harmful mutations". He said it was necessary to "discourage" this group of people from reproducing.

It is true that coercion did not come into his proposals, but he did advocate graded allowances to allow "more able" parents to have children and sperm banks allowing artificial insemination from sperm donated by eminent men - for example Nobel prize winners!

Acclaimed for his brilliance at the time, the neoMalthusian Paul R Ehrlich, published The Population Bomb in 1968, (it sold 3m copies) predicting that hundreds of millions would die from a coming over-population crisis in the 1970s and that by 1980, life expectancy in the US would be only 42 years. When this didn't materialise, he revised his prophecy in another book called The End of Affluence claiming a billion could die from starvation by the mid-eighties...

Of course famines have been endemic in the poor world and they still occur particularly in north-east Africa. But in the last 30 years, the numbers dying have decreased. The only factor preventing these numbers from decreasing still more, or better still preventing famine completely, is the straitjacket on development - which all the Third World experiences, thanks to the operation of the world market, according to the interests of the capitalist classes of the rich Western imperialist powers. A simple cause even if the solution (getting out of the straitjacket) is not so simple.

The Club of Rome, was a thinktank formed in 1968, which, on the basis of the then oil crisis predicted that economic (and therefore, population) growth could not continue, due to a shortageof natural resources. In 1972, it published these ideas in a Malthusian text called "The limits to growth". But as Lenin had rightly said at the beginning of the 20th century, these kind of ideas are merely "an attempt on the part of the bourgeois ideologists to exonerate capitalism and to prove the inevitability of privation and misery for the working class under any system".

The consequences of this extremely reactionary Malthusian credo were not just crazy predictions and bad books. A catastrophic and inhumane "birth control" policy was implemented in India under the leadership of Indira Ghandi in the mid-1970s. What amounted to forced sterilisation was undertaken (sometimes under the promise of a house, but the usual "reward" was a transistor radio). 2,000 people were listed officially as having died as a result of botched operations. This is probably a gross underestimation, since tens of thousands of sterilisations were carried out on women subjects without anaesthetic in rural clinics.

Then there is probably more notoriously (more well-known), the coercive "one child policy" in China, implemented by the state in 1979 - after the resumption of its trade relations with the US, and with the full support of the US government of the day (under the "liberal" Democrat president Jimmy Carter). Yet the irony is, that the average number of children per family in China had already been declining between 1969 and 1979 from 6.4 to 2.7, through entirely voluntary family planning.

Anti-Malthusians and over-optimism

A particularly succinct answer to Malthus was given by the American agricultural economist, Henry George, who said "Both the jayhawk and the man eat chickens; but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens."

There are of course many prominent anti-Malthusians, such as US economist Julian Simon, who, it must be said, argues a bit like Voltaire's "Candide", that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. He bends the stick so far the other way that he is blind to the problems of poverty and tends to claim that claims that progress is exponential.

Using data collected by economist Richard Easterlin and the demographer Simon Kuznets, Simon seeks to show that while population growth rates varied from country to country and year to year, there was no general correlation with living standards. People do not become poorer as the population expands, but rather as their number multiplies they produce what they need to support themselves "and prosper". He explains how food prices, relative to wages in the US declined historically. Between 1800 and 1980, the price of wheat fell while the population grew from 5 million to 226 million.

Of course the facts do speak for themselves. By the 1980s, the world population was growing by 80m people a year, but along with this, food consumption per head apparently actually increased. But this trend of population increase has been reversed in some of the rich countries and at least slowed in all others. By the beginning of the new millennium, the rate of increase in world population had decreased, even though the average life expectancy is still increasing, as is the food consumption per head.

So of course, none of the doom mongers has been borne out by reality even if it would be wrong to argue that there is optimal sustainability on our planet - there cannot be under this profit system, which relies on labour exploitation and the reserve army of unemployed to keep wages down in order to sustain itself. In fact that is the only sustainability which one could say is sacrosanct in present society - the sustainability of profit!

And of course, contrary to Malthus's predictions, the higher the income people have, the less inclined they are to have a lot of children. Japan will face a declining population when the post WW2 boom generation dies off. The populations of the US and Canada only grow these days thanks to immigration. In Britain, government figures show that average fertility rates were 1.91, meaning that there were 191 children born for every 100 women. So already "British couples" are replacing themselves with less than two children.

The best anti-Malthusian argument is probably simply this: that the total population of the earth was less than one billion in the time of Malthus, not even one sixth that of today's - which is estimated to be 6.7bn. 210 years later, we are all still here.

Last word to Engels

When Engels and Marx struck down Malthusian ideas in the 19th century, they provided arguments which have surprisingly appropriate bearing on the situation today.

Describing the classic economic crisis of overproduction, Engels pointed out that "the economist has never been able to find an explanation for this mad situation. In order to explain it, he invented population theory, which is just as senseless - indeed even more senseless than the contradiction of coexisting wealth and poverty. The economist could not afford to see the truth; he could not afford to admit that this contradiction is a simple consequence of competition; for in that case his entire system would have fallen to bits.

For us the matter is easy to explain. The productive power at mankind's disposal is immeasurable. The productivity of the soil can be increased ad infinitum by the application of capital, labour and science. According to the most able economists and statisticians (cf Alison's 'Principles of population), 'overpopulated' Great Britain can be brought within ten years to produce a corn yield sufficient for a population six times its present size. Capital increases daily; labour power grows with population; and day by day science increasingly makes the forces of nature subject to man. The immeasurable productive capacity, handled consciously and in the interests of all, would soon reduce to a minimum the labour falling to the share of mankind. Left to competition, it does the same, but within a context of antitheses. One part of the land is cultivated in the best possible manner whilst another part - in Great Britain and Ireland - 30m acres of good land lies barren. One part of capital circulates with colossal speed while another lies dead in its chest. One part of the workers works 14 or 16 hours a day, whilst another part stands idle and inactive and starves."

In refuting Malthus, Engels explained that to say that population is always pressing on the means of subsistence, and that as soon as production increases, population increases in the same proportion, thus bringing mankind back to the same point of misery and starvation, is in fact an argument against any population growth at all! But in the arguments of the Malthusians, not everyone has to be disposed of and this is the real point of the argument - which is to dispose of the poor.

While today, scientific advance has potentially (but not yet in 2/3 of the planet!) liberated women - and men - from the oppression of unplanned pregnancies - something which was not possible in the 19th century, it still seems apposite to give the last word on reactionary Malthusianism to Engels: "Am I to go on any longer elaborating this vile, infamous theory, this hideous blasphemy against nature and mankind? Am I to pursue its consequences any further? Here at last we have the immorality of the economist brought to its highest pitch. What are all the wars and horrors of the monopoly system compared with this theory! And it is just this theory which is the keystone of the liberal system of free trade, whose fall entails the downfall of the entire edifice. For if here competition is proved to be the cause of misery, poverty and crime, who then will still dare to speak up for it?

But if it is a fact that every adult produces more than he himself can consume, that children are like trees which give superabundant returns on the outlays invested in them - and these certainly are facts, are they not? - then it must be assumed that each worker ought to be able to produce far more than he needs and that the community, therefore, ought to be very glad to provide him with everything he needs; one must consider a large family to be a very welcome gift for the community. But the economist, with his crude outlook, knows no other equivalent than that which is paid to him in tangible ready cash. He is so firmly set in his antitheses that the most striking facts are of as little concern to him as the most scientific principles."

What better reply to the John Guillebaud's of today?