Malthusianism for the Twenty-First Century

As the world once again faces its “limits to growth,” calls for population controls resurface.

Thomas Malthus is back.

Ever since the early 1970s, particularly since the Club of Rome postulated its “limits to growth,” the notion that the world is headed for ecological disaster has firmly rooted itself in the Western mindset. The unprecedented economic expansion and population growth, which, by any measure, is only set to accelerate in the decades ahead, is of grave concern to pessimists who fear that we are pillaging our dear planet and imperiling its very survival with our reckless economic policies that are solely concern with profits and growth.

This is hardly a new phenomonon. Not only have alarmists forecast mass famines and resource conflicts as a result of overpopulation when there were still just three billion people in the world; in the early nineteenth century, the British scholar Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was the first serious thinker to postulate that population growth is unsustainable; that disease and war will wreck havoc on the peoples of the world whenever they reproduce too actively.

The specifics may have changed but the basic theory remains the same — that the Earth can only feed so many. Consider Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times column which suggests that we are about to cross a red line of growth, climate, resources and population, “all at once,” in just a few years.

We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.

Friedman endorses a move away from “consumer driven growth” toward a model that is “happiness driven,” based on people “working less and owning less.”

Sound familiar? It should. Ever since the Western world broke out of the Malthusian trap with the Industrial Revolution, there have been naysayers who predicted all sorts of tragedy if we continued down this selfish growth path. They have been telling the world’s billions, rich and poor alike, for generations now that they’re just going to have to make do with less.

And they claim to be “humanitarians” at the same time.

They reality is that they always underestimate the vast amount of natural resources available to us and the ingenuity of human science and industry.

It wasn’t a desire to “work less” that inspired the Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t a desire to “own less” that prompted landless entrepreneurs from across Europe to migrate to the Americas and Australia to buy land, farm and produce. Economic contraction doesn’t lead to investment in technologies that allow more and more people to live in relative comfort compared to the sad state of poverty and dependence which many hundreds of millions still experience. Growth does.

There is nothing noble or humanitarian about population controls and regulations aimed at curtailing growth instead of enhancing it. The human tragedy aside that has been evident in China and India where millions of young girls have probably been murdered in recent history as a consequence of ill-advised demographic policy, the notion that statisticians the employ of the government should be empowered to prevent people from making such basic, personal decisions as whether or not to procreate would be utter epogee of totalitarianism.

The world’s climate is changing and its population will continue to growth. The best way to deal with it is for the human species to continue to evolve, to continue to develop — in a free market — better technologies and products and means of production that will allow us to not only sustain but improve our way of life and that of billions more.

The alternative is stagnation. That’s what the neo-Malthusians like to impose because they don’t recognize man’s capacity to command nature nor trust him to make the right decisions for himself and society as a whole.

As early as 1957, philosopher Ayn Rand warned against this destructive obsession with sustainability instead of growth in her novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). As the greatest of producers of the United States go “on strike,” top level bureaucrat Wesley Mouch is confronted with an economy that has seized to grow. His solution to the problem?

[O]ur sole objective must now be to hold the line. To stand still in order to catch our stride. To achieve total stability. Freedom has been given a chance and has failed. Therefore, more stringent controls are necessary.

Back in 1957, it was still science fiction.