Too many people? No, too many Malthusians

Brendan O’Neill

Last week, on 12 November (2009), spiked editor Brendan O’Neill debated Roger Martin, chairman of the Optimum Population Trust, at the Wellcome Collection in London. To kick off spiked’s campaign against neo-Malthusianism and all forms of population control, O’Neill’s speech is published below.

In the year 200 AD, there were approximately 180million human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time a Christian philosopher called Tertullian argued: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’ In other words, there were too many people for the planet to cope with and we were bleeding Mother Nature dry.

Well today, nearly 180million people live in the Eastern Half of the United States alone, in the 26 states that lie to the east of the Mississippi River. And far from facing hunger or destitution, many of these people – especially the 1.7million who live on the tiny island of Manhattan – have quite nice lives.

In the early 1800s, there were approximately 980million human beings on the planet Earth. One of them was the population scaremonger Thomas Malthus, who argued that if too many more people were born then ‘premature death would visit mankind’ – there would be food shortages, ‘epidemics, pestilence and plagues’, which would ‘sweep off tens of thousands [of people]’.

Well today, more than the entire world population of Malthus’s era now lives in China alone: there are 1.3billion human beings in China. And far from facing pestilence, plagues and starvation, the living standards of many Chinese have improved immensely over the past few decades. In 1949 life expectancy in China was 36.5 years; today it is 73.4 years. In 1978 China had 193 cities; today it has 655 cities. Over the past 30 years, China has raised a further 235million of its citizens out of absolute poverty – a remarkable historic leap forward for humanity.

In 1971 there were approximately 3.6billion human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time Paul Ehrlich, a patron of the Optimum Population Trust and author of a book called The Population Bomb, wrote about his ‘shocking’ visit to New Delhi in India. He said: ‘The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, [we wondered] would we ever get to our hotel…?’

You’ll be pleased to know that Paul Ehrlich did make it to his hotel, through the mob of strange brown people shitting in the streets, and he later wrote in his book that as a result of overpopulation ‘hundreds of millions of people will starve to death’. He said India couldn’t possibly feed all its people and would experience some kind of collapse around 1980.

Well today, the world population is almost double what it was in 1971 – then it was 3.6billion, today it is 6.7billion – and while there are still social problems of poverty and malnutrition, hundreds of millions of people are not starving to death. As for India, she is doing quite well for herself. When Ehrlich was writing in 1971 there were 550million people in India; today there are 1.1billion. Yes there’s still poverty, but Indians are not starving; in fact India has made some important economic and social leaps forward and both life expectancy and living standards have improved in that vast nation.

What this potted history of population scaremongering ought to demonstrate is this: Malthusians are always wrong about everything.

The extent of their wrongness cannot be overstated. They have continually claimed that too many people will lead to increased hunger and destitution, yet the precise opposite has happened: world population has risen exponentially over the past 40 years and in the same period a great many people’s living standards and life expectancies have improved enormously. Even in the Third World there has been improvement – not nearly enough, of course, but improvement nonetheless. The lesson of history seems to be that more and more people are a good thing; more and more minds to think and hands to create have made new cities, more resources, more things, and seem to have given rise to healthier and wealthier societies.

Yet despite this evidence, the population scaremongers always draw exactly the opposite conclusion. Never has there been a political movement that has got things so spectacularly wrong time and time again yet which keeps on rearing its ugly head and saying: ‘This time it’s definitely going to happen! This time overpopulation is definitely going to cause social and political breakdown!’

There is a reason Malthusians are always wrong. It isn’t because they’re stupid… well, it might be a little bit because they’re stupid. But more fundamentally it is because, while they present their views as fact-based and scientific, in reality they are driven by a deeply held misanthropy that continually overlooks mankind’s ability to overcome problems and create new worlds.

The language used to justify population scaremongering has changed dramatically over the centuries. In the time of Malthus in the eighteenth century the main concern was with the fecundity of poor people. In the early twentieth century there was a racial and eugenic streak to population-reduction arguments. Today they have adopted environmentalist language to justify their demands for population reduction.

The fact that the presentational arguments can change so fundamentally over time, while the core belief in ‘too many people’ remains the same, really shows that this is a prejudicial outlook in search of a social or scientific justification; it is prejudice looking around for the latest trendy ideas to clothe itself in. And that is why the population scaremongers have been wrong over and over again: because behind the new language they adopt every few decades, they are really driven by narrow-mindedness, by disdain for mankind’s breakthroughs, by wilful ignorance of humanity’s ability to shape its surroundings and its future.

The first mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate how society can change to embrace more and more people. They make the schoolboy scientific error of imagining that population is the only variable, the only thing that grows and grows, while everything else – including society, progress and discovery – stays roughly the same. That is why Malthus was wrong: he thought an overpopulated planet would run out of food because he could not foresee how the industrial revolution would massively transform society and have an historic impact on how we produce and transport food and many other things. Population is not the only variable – mankind’s vision, growth, his ability to rethink and tackle problems: they are variables, too.

The second mistake Malthusians always make is to imagine that resources are fixed, finite things that will inevitably run out. They don’t recognise that what we consider to be a resource changes over time, depending on how advanced society is. That is why the Christian Tertullian was wrong in 200 AD when he said ‘the resources are scarcely adequate for us’. Because back then pretty much the only resources were animals, plants and various metals. Tertullian could not imagine that, in the future, the oceans, oil and uranium would become resources, too. The nature of resources changes as society changes – what we consider to be a resource today might not be one in the future, because other, better, more easily-exploited resources will hopefully be discovered or created. Today’s cult of the finite, the discussion of the planet as a larder of scarce resources that human beings are using up, really speaks to finite thinking, to a lack of future-oriented imagination.

And the third and main mistake Malthusians always make is to underestimate the genius of mankind. Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of ‘plague’ on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history. Malthusians insultingly refer to newborn babies as ‘another mouth to feed’, when in the real world another human being is another mind that can think, another pair of hands that can work, and another person who has needs and desires that ought to be met.

We don’t merely use up finite resources; we create infinite ideas and possibilities. The 6.7billion people on Earth have not raped and destroyed this planet, we have humanised it. And given half a chance – given a serious commitment to overcoming poverty and to pursuing progress – we would humanise it even further. Just as you wouldn’t listen to that guy who wears a placard saying ‘The End of the World is Nigh’ if he walked up to you and said ‘this time it really is nigh’, so you shouldn’t listen to the always-wrong Malthusians. Instead, join spiked in opposing the population panickers.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Thursday 19 November 2009


Нас и Руса 300 милиона!

4 Responses to Too many people? No, too many Malthusians

  1. Varagić Nikola каже:

    The United States of Inequality

    We Can’t Ignore Growing Income Inequality

    By Timothy Noah

    Posted Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010

    The Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal, but we know that isn’t true. George Clooney was created better-looking than me. Stephen Hawking was born smarter, Evander Holyfield stronger, Jon Stewart funnier, and Warren Buffett better able to understand financial markets. All these people have parlayed their exceptional gifts into very high incomes—much higher than mine. Is that so odd? Odder would be if Buffett or Clooney were forced to live on my income, adequate though it might be to a petit-bourgeois journalist. Lest you conclude my equanimity is in any way unique (we Slate writers are known for our contrarianism), Barbara Ehrenreich, in her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, quotes a woman named Colleen, a single mother of two, saying much the same thing about the wealthy families whose floors she scrubs on hands and knees. „I don’t mind, really,“ she says, „because I guess I’m a simple person, and I don’t want what they have. I mean, it’s nothing to me.“

    It is easy to make too much of this, and a few conservatives have done so in seeking to dismiss the importance (or even existence) of the Great Divergence. Let’s look at their arguments.

    Inequality is good. Every year the American Economic Association invites a distinguished economist to deliver at its annual conference the Richard T. Ely Lecture. Ely, a founder of the AEA and a leader in the Progressive movement, would have been horrified by the 1999 lecture that Finis Welch, a professor of economics (now emeritus) at Texas A&M, delivered in his name. Its title was „In Defense of Inequality.“

    Welch began by stating that „all of economics results from inequality. Without inequality of priorities and capabilities, there would be no trade, no specialization, and no surpluses produced by cooperation.“ He invited his audience to consider a world in which skill, effort, and sheer chance played no role whatsoever in what you got paid. The only decision that would affect your wage level would be when to leave school. „After that, the clock ticks, and wages follow the experience path. Nothing else matters. Can you imagine a more horrible, a more deadening existence?“

    But something close to the dystopia Welch envisioned already exists for those toiling in the economy’s lower tiers. Welch should have a chat with his office receptionist. Or he could read Nickel and Dimed, or the 2010 book Catching Out by Dick J. Reavis, a contributing editor at Texas Monthly who went undercover as a day laborer. Waitresses, construction workers, dental assistants, call-center operators—people in these jobs are essentially replaceable, and usually have bosses who don’t distinguish between individual initiative and insubordination. Even experience is of limited value, because it’s often accompanied by diminishing physical vigor.

    Welch said that he believed inequality was destructive only when „the low-wage citizenry views society as unfair, when it views effort as not worthwhile, when upward mobility is impossible or so unlikely that its pursuit is not worthwhile.“ Colleen’s comment would appear to suggest that the first of these conditions has not been met. But that’s only because I omitted what she went on to say: „But what I would like is to be able to take a day off now and then … if I had to … and still be able to buy groceries the next day.“ Colleen may not begrudge the rich the material goods they’ve acquired through skill, effort, and sheer chance, but that doesn’t mean she thinks her own labors secure her an adequate level of economic security. Clearly, they don’t.

    Welch judged the growing financial rewards accruing to those with higher levels of education a good thing insofar as they provided an incentive to go to college or graduate school. But for most of the 20th century, smaller financial incentives attracted enough workers to meet the economy’s growing demand for higher-skilled labor. That demand isn’t being met today, as Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz have shown. Welch also said that both women and blacks made income gains during the Great Divergence (duly noted in our installment on race and gender, though the gains by blacks were so tiny that it’s more accurate to say blacks didn’t lose ground). But that’s hardly evidence that growing income inequality unrelated to gender or race doesn’t matter. Finally, Welch argued that the welfare state has made it too easy not to work at all. But the Great Divergence had a more significant impact on the working middle class than on the destitute.

    Income doesn’t matter. In most contexts, libertarians can fairly be said to place income in very high regard. Tax it to even the slightest degree and they cry foul. If government assistance must be extended, they prefer a cash transaction to the provision of government services. The market is king, and what is the market if not a mighty river of money?

    Bring up the topic of growing income inequality, though, and you’re likely to hear a different tune. Case in point: „Thinking Clearly About Economic Inequality,“ a 2009 Cato Institute paper by Will Wilkinson. Income isn’t what matters, Wilkinson argues; consumption is, and „the weight of the evidence shows that the run-up in consumption inequality has been considerably less dramatic than the rise in income inequality.“ Wilkinson concedes that the available data on consumption are shakier than the available data on income; he might also have mentioned that consumption in excess of income usually means debt—as in, say, subprime mortgages. The thought that the have-nots are compensating for their lower incomes by putting themselves (and the country) in economically ruinous hock is not reassuring.

    Wilkinson further argues that consumption isn’t what matters; what matters is utility gained from consumption. Joe and Sam both own refrigerators. Joe’s is a $350 model from Ikea. Sam’s is an $11,000 state-of-the-art Sub-Zero. Sam gets to consume a lot more than Joe, but whatever added utility he achieves is marginal; Joe’s Ikea fridge „will keep your beer just as cold.“ But if getting rich is only a matter of spending more money on the same stuff you’d buy if you were poor, why bother to climb the greasy pole at all?

    Next Wilkinson decides that utility isn’t what matters; what matters is buying power. Food is cheaper than ever before. Since lower-income people spend their money disproportionately on food, declining food prices, Wilkinson argues, constitute a sort of raise. Never mind that Ehrenreich routinely found, in her travels among the lower middle class, workers who routinely skipped lunch to save money or brought an individual-size pack of junk food and called that lunch. Reavis reports that a day laborer’s typical lunch budget is $3. That won’t buy much. The problem isn’t the cost of food per se but the cost of shelter, which has shot up so high that low-income families don’t have much left over to spend on other essentials.

    Declining food prices constitute a sort of raise for higher-income people too. But Wilkinson writes that the affluent spend a smaller share of their budget on food and a much larger share on psychotherapy and yoga and cleaning services. And since services like these are unaffected by foreign competition or new efficiencies in manufacturing, Wilkinson argues, providers can charge whatever they like.

    Tell it to Colleen! I recently worked out with my new cleaning lady what I would pay her. Here’s how the negotiation went. I told her what I would pay her. She said, „OK.“ According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for a housekeeper is $19,250, which is $2,800 below the poverty line for a family of four.

    A more thoughtful version of the income-doesn’t-matter argument surfaces in my former Slate colleague Mickey Kaus’ 1992 book The End of Equality. Kaus chided „Money Liberals“ for trying to redistribute income when instead they might be working to diminish social inequality by creating or shoring up spheres in which rich and poor are treated the same. Everybody can picnic in the park. Everybody should be able to receive decent health care. Under a compulsory national service program, everybody would be required to perform some civilian or military duty.

    As a theoretical proposition, Kaus’ vision is appealing. Bill Gates will always have lots more money than me, no matter how progressive the tax system becomes. But if he gets called to jury duty he has to show up, just like me. When his driver’s license expires, he’ll be just as likely to have to take a driving test. Why not expand this egalitarian zone to, say, education, by making public schools so good that Gates’ grandchildren will be as likely to attend them as mine or yours?

    But at a practical level, Kaus’ exclusive reliance on social equality is simply inadequate. For one thing, the existing zones of social equality are pretty circumscribed. Neither Gates nor I spend a lot of time hanging around the Department of Motor Vehicles. Rebuilding or creating the more meaningful spheres—say, public education or a truly national health care system—won’t occur overnight. Nurturing the social-equality sphere isn’t likely to pay off for a very long time.

    Kaus would like to separate social equality from income equality, but the two go hand in hand. In theory they don’t have to, but in practice they just do. Among industrialized nations, those that have achieved the greatest social equality are the same ones that have achieved the greatest income equality. France, for example, has a level of income inequality much lower than that of most other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It’s one of the very few places where income inequality has been going down. (Most everywhere else it’s gone up, though nowhere to the degree it has in the United States.) France also enjoys what the World Health Organization calls the world’s finest health care system (by which the WHO means, in large part, the most egalitarian one; this is the famous survey from 2000 in which the U.S. ranked 37th).

    Do France’s high marks on both social equality and income equality really strike you as a coincidence? As incomes become more unequal, a likelier impulse among the rich isn’t to urge or even allow the government to create or expand public institutions where they can mix it up with the proles. It’s to create or expand private institutions that will help them maintain separation from the proles, with whom they have less and less in common. According to Jonathan Rowe, who has written extensively about social equality, that’s exactly what’s happening in the United States. In an essay titled „The Vanishing Commons“ that appeared in Inequality Matters, a 2005 anthology, Rowe notes that Congress has been busy extending copyright terms and patent monopolies and turning over public lands to mining and timber companies for below-market fees.“ In an ‘ownership’ society especially,“ Rowe writes, „we should think about what we own in common, not just what we keep apart.“

    Inequality doesn’t create unhappiness. Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, argued this point in National Review online in June. What drives entrepreneurs, he wrote, is not the desire for money but the desire for earned success. When people feel they deserve their success, they are happy; when they do not, they aren’t. „The money is just the metric of the value that the person is creating.“

    Brooks marshaled very little evidence to support his argument, and what evidence he did muster was less impressive than he thought. He made much of a 1996 survey that asked people how successful they felt, and how happy. Among the 45 percent who counted themselves „completely successful“ or „very successful,“ 39 percent said they were very happy. Among the 55 percent who counted themselves at most „somewhat successful,“ only 20 percent said they were happy. Brooks claimed victory with the finding that successful people were more likely to be happy (or at least to say they were), by 19 percentage points, than less-successful people. More striking, though, was that 61 percent of the successful people—a significant majority—did not say they were „very happy.“ Nowhere in the survey were the successful people asked whether they deserved their happiness.

    Let’s grant Brooks his generalization that people who believe they deserve their success are likelier to be happy than people who believe they don’t. It makes intuitive sense. But Brooks’ claim that money is only a „metric“ does not. Looking at the same survey data, Berkeley sociologist Michael Hout found that from 1973 to 2000 the difference between the affluent and the poor who counted themselves either „very happy“ or „not too happy“ ranged from 19 percentage points to 27. Among the poor, the percentage who felt „very happy“ fell by nearly one-third from 1973 to 1994, then crept up a couple of points during the tight labor market of the late 1990s. Hout also observed that overall happiness dropped a modest 5 percent from 1973 to 2000.

    Quality of life is improving. This argument has been made by too many conservatives to count. Yes, it’s true that an unemployed steelworker living in the 21st century is in many important ways better off than the royals and aristocrats of yesteryear. Living conditions improve over time. But people do not experience life as an interesting moment in the evolution of human societies. They experience it in the present and weigh their own experience against that of the living. Brooks cites (even though it contradicts his argument) a famous 1998 study by economists Sara Solnick (then at the University of Miami, now at the University of Vermont) and David Hemenway of the Harvard School of Public Health. Subjects were asked which they’d prefer: to earn $50,000 while knowing everyone else earned $25,000, or to earn $100,000 while knowing everyone else earned $200,000. Objectively speaking, $100,000 is twice as much as $50,000. Even so, 56 percent chose $50,000 if it meant that would put them on top rather than at the bottom. We are social creatures and establish our expectations relative to others.

    Inequality isn’t increasing. This is the boldest line of conservative attack, challenging a consensus about income trends in the United States that most conservatives accept. (Brooks: „It is factually incorrect to argue that income inequality has not risen in America—it has.“) Alan Reynolds, a senior fellow at Cato, made the case in a January 2007 paper. It was a technical argument hinging largely on a critique of the tax data used by Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty in the groundbreaking paper we looked at in our installment about the superrich. But as Gary Burtless of Brookings noted in a January 2007 reply, Social Security records „tell a simple and similar story.“ A Congressional Budget Office analysis, Burtless wrote, addressed „almost all“ of Reynolds’ objections to Saez and Piketty’s findings, and confirmed „a sizable rise in both pre-tax and after-tax inequality.“ Reynolds’ paper didn’t deny notable increases in top incomes, but he argued that these were because of technical changes in tax law and/or to isolated and unusual financial events. That, Burtless answered, was akin to arguing that, „adjusting for the weather and the season, no homeowner in New Orleans ended up with a wet basement“ after Hurricane Katrina.

    That income inequality very much matters is the thesis of the 2009 book The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, two medical researchers based in Yorkshire. The book has been criticized for overreaching. Wilkinson and Pickett relate income inequality trends not only to mental and physical health, violence, and teenage pregnancy, but also to global warming. But their larger point—that income inequality is bad not only for people on the losing end but also for society at large—seems hard to dispute. „Modern societies,“ they write,

    will depend increasingly on being creative, adaptable, inventive, well-informed and flexible communities, able to respond generously to each other and to needs wherever they arise. These are characteristics not of societies in hock to the rich, in which people are driven by status insecurities, but of populations used to working together and respecting each other as equals.

    The United States’ economy is currently struggling to emerge from a severe recession brought on by the financial crisis of 2008. Was that crisis brought about by income inequality? Some economists are starting to think it may have been. David Moss of Harvard Business School has produced an intriguing chart that shows bank failures tend to coincide with periods of growing income inequality. „I could hardly believe how tight the fit was,“ he told the New York Times. Princeton’s Paul Krugman has similarly been considering whether the Great Divergence helped cause the recession by pushing middle-income Americans into debt. The growth of household debt has followed a pattern strikingly similar to the growth in income inequality (see the final graph). Raghuram G. Rajan, a business school professor at the University of Chicago, recently argued on the New Republic’s Web site that „let them eat credit“ was „the mantra of the political establishment in the go-go years before the crisis.“ Christopher Brown, an economist at Arkansas State University, wrote a paper in 2004 affirming that „inequality can exert a significant drag on effective demand.“ Reducing inequality, he argued, would also reduce consumer debt. Today, Brown’s paper looks prescient.

    Heightened partisanship in Washington and declining trust in government have many causes (and the latter slide predates the Great Divergence). But surely the growing income chasm between the poor and middle class and the rich, between the Sort of Rich and the Rich, and even between the Rich and the Stinking Rich, make it especially difficult to reestablish any spirit of e pluribus unum. Republicans and Democrats compete to show which party more fervently opposes the elite, with each side battling to define what „elite“ means. In a more equal society, the elite would still be resented. But I doubt that opposing it would be an organizing principle of politics to the same extent that it is today.

    I find myself returning to the gut-level feeling expressed at the start of this series: I do not wish to live in a banana republic. There is a reason why, in years past, Americans scorned societies starkly divided into the privileged and the destitute. They were repellent. Is it my imagination, or do we hear less criticism of such societies today in the United States? Might it be harder for Americans to sustain in such discussions the necessary sense of moral superiority?

    What is the ideal distribution of income in society? I couldn’t tell you, and historically much mischief has been accomplished by addressing this question too precisely. But I can tell you this: We’ve been headed in the wrong direction for far too long.

  2. Varagić Nikola каже:

    Consolidation of seed companies leading to corporate domination of world food supply

    Natural News
    July 29, 2011

    Throughout the history of agriculture across the globe, farming has always been a diversified sector of the economy. Small, self-sustaining, family farms were the order of the day in most cultures. Even as small farms grew larger and more specialized over time, many of them still saved seeds or purchased them from other farmers, which kept control of farming in the hands of the people.

    But today everything has changed, as large chemical and agribusiness firms have acquired or merged with seed companies and other agricultural input companies. They have successfully gained a foothold on genetically-modified (GM) crops with transgenic traits.

    Herald Sun
    Wednesday, July 27, 2011

    In a Sydney hotel on Monday night, Czech President Vaclav Klaus, an economist who fought against communism, was warning of the new threats to our freedom he recognises in the doctrine of global warming.

    “I feel threatened now, not by global warming — I don’t see any — (but) by the global warming doctrine, which I consider a new dangerous attempt to control and mastermind my life and our lives, in the name of controlling the climate or temperature.”

    “They don’t care about resources or poverty or pollution.

    “They hate us, the humans. They consider us dangerous and sinful creatures who must be controlled by them.

    “I used to live in a similar world called communism. And I know it led to the worst environmental damage the world has ever experienced.”

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