Thomas Malthus hated poor people. An Essay on the Principle of Population is full of recommendations on how to kill them. Malthus argued that while food supplies grow arithmetically, population grows geometrically, leading to a point where population shoots past food supplies, leading to mass starvation and death. He saw this as driven by the stupidity and immorality of the poor, and advised ways to avoid this catastrophe by killing the poor en masse, using methods that we might today refer to as “economic austerity.”
Malthus’s work influenced Darwin’s theory of evolution, as well as the metaphorical bastardization of the concept in social Darwinism. It was foundational to the eugenics movement. Hitler, inspired as he was by social Darwinism and eugenics alike, shared Malthus’s concerns about overpopulation. In Mein Kampf, he considers ways to address the needs of a growing German population and settles on the idea that Germany needs more Lebensraum, and, of course, he never considered any possibility for this besides military conquest. Today we have eco-fascists to carry on this tradition of murderous, far right ideology and its preoccupation with Malthus.
To counter heinous people and movements like these, there are those who argue that overpopulation isn’t a problem at all. Malthus was wrong; he expected to see a Malthusian catastrophe with a global population of less than 2 billion. We’re at 7.8 billion now, and we expect to “level off” somewhere around 10.9 billion.These are people that want to inflict suffering and death in the name of a disproven and discredited ideology.
Stand on Zanzibar
It used to be said that if we all stood upright, shoulder-to-shoulder, the entire human race could fit on the Isle of Wight. Science fiction novelist John Brunner updated that to claim that a population of 7 billion would have to stand on Zanzibar. If we moved everyone on earth to Texas and Oklahoma, those two states would have a population density of 23,039 people per square mile — less than that of New York City. All the cities and urban areas in the world today cover less than 3% of the world’s land area, while providing homes for more than half of our species. Even with 7.8 billion people, most of the earth remains sparsely inhabited by humans. If we’re running out of something, it isn’t space — at least, not in the strictest sense.
Where we really leave our mark is not in the space that we live on, but the space it takes to feed us: about 40% of the earth’s land is used for agriculture. For other species, Malthus’s model formed the starting point of our understanding of how ecologies function. The Lotka-Volterra cycle is little more than simply the ramifications of letting a Malthusian process play out over time. But for the past few millennia, humans seem to have broken free of those cycles. Repeated predictions of Malthusian catastrophe over the centuries since Malthus himself have repeatedly been proven wrong.
As Richard Manning outlined in Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, from the Agricultural Revolution until about 1960, western civilization stayed ahead of a Malthusian catastrophe by spreading out, conquering, and putting new lands to the plow. It was in 1960, with nearly half the earth’s surface turned into farmland, that this strategy finally reached its inevitable end: all the land that could be turned into farmland was. Half the earth’s surface might still remain, but that’s almost exclusively the half that isn’t really suitable for crop production. There was finally nowhere left to go.
Usually, when we talk about Malthusian predictions and how they’ve been proven wrong, we talk about “technological improvements in food production” that have kept pace with population growth. Specifically, that means the Green Revolution. In the 1960s, with the old strategy of expansion reaching its limits, we had to try a different approach. The Green Revolution was a suite of chemical fertilizers, agro-chemicals, and monocrops of high-yield varieties of cereal grains, all engineered to maximize yields. Manning characterized this as figuring out how to farm mountains and deep sea oil reserves. If you’ve already farmed everything that can be farmed, the only move left is to get more out of that land, and that’s precisely what the Green Revolution achieved.
The growing environmental problems that the Green Revolution caused are, at this point, well-known and well-documented. Today, agriculture directly produces a quarter of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases. It’s also one of the biggest drivers behind deforestation and habitat loss — the biggest cause behind our current mass extinction. It’s true that a lot of this is linked directly to how we raise livestock, but it’s also true that livestock is destructive primarily because it is a force multiplier for agriculture. What else but ecological devastation could we really expect, after all, when we appropriate 40% of the planet’s surface for the use of just one species out of millions?
Some people have been trying to develop methods for sustainable — and better, regenerative — agriculture. Sometimes these can even produce yields greater than those provided by modern farms. But these also work precisely because they take advantage of highly specific traits of the places where they grow, things like edges (the fact that the greatest biological activity occurs where two different areas meet). The problem is that if you try to make everything an edge, then nothing is. These methods don’t scale: you can’t take the yield from one plot, multiply it by all of the land available, and expect to attain that yield if you convert everything over.
If we ate lower on the food chain, we’d be removing that force multiplier that livestock applies, and maybe then regenerative practices would be sufficient to meet our food needs. This gets at a critical component of this discussion that is all too often overlooked, a number at least as important as population itself: ecological footprint. We don’t all contribute equally to our ecological problems.
We can calculate the average ecological footprint for people in a given country, as well as that country’s available biocapacity, to come up with a map of each country’s ecological deficit. The two most populous countries in the world, India and China, both have severe ecological deficits, but they’re both eclipsed by the United States, which has a bigger deficit than both of theirs combined. India and China may have much larger populations, but the average U.S. citizen’s ecological footprint is so much heavier that even with a fraction of the population, it is, in actual fact, the United States that is overpopulated.
But on a deeper level, even this approach is deeply flawed, because it assumes that a nation is a sensible unit of measurement. Ultimately, we need to dig all the way down to exactly what we mean by a population in the first place. We can only speak of the population of something. There’s no such thing as an abstract “population” without any referent. It is only possible for the United States to have an ecological deficit because nations are not useful units of measurement. People in the United States are only able to live this way because people in other countries don’t. Wealthy countries are wealthy because poor countries are poor. They’re wealthy because they can exploit those countries. To talk about the population of the United States and the population of Zimbabwe as if they were separate things would be like talking about the population of a medieval lord’s keep and the population of the fields outside as if they were separate things. There is only one, global civilization today, and it’s the population of the world as a whole that we need to address.
Mouths to Feed
We make more than enough food to feed everyone on earth. Not only is physical space to live not a real barrier, neither is the ability to feed everyone. We could feed everyone if we prioritized delivering that food to those in need — in other words, if we were willing to question and change our economic systems. But this brings us to a point much further back than the Green Revolution, all the way back to the Agricultural Revolution.
You’ll often read that the Agricultural Revolution freed people, giving them more leisure time, in which they were able to create art, invent things, indulge in philosophical and scientific inquiries, and so on. But in fact, agriculture is a gruelingly hard way to make a living. It left people with far less leisure time than what they’d had before. The Neolithic Mortality Crisis reflected the enormous negative health impact that the Agricultural Revolution had, as people began to starve to death and suffer epidemic diseases for the first time.
It’s actually quite difficult to find a real advantage that agriculture conferred. It allowed for much larger, more dense populations, but none of the individuals in that population actually benefit from being part of a larger and more dense group. The only real benefit that couldn’t be had much more easily without agriculture is the rise of elites. When people hunt and gather, resources are distributed out in the world. There’s no way for anyone to control them. With agriculture, crops are harvested, and that means that one person can take control and decide who has access to food and who doesn’t. Wealth, power, violence, and coercion can all be employed to shift that control from one person or group to another, but it allows for a hierarchy to exist, regardless of who occupies the various positions within it. For two million years, humans evolved in egalitarian bands, but for the past few millennia, agriculture has allowed for a brief experiment with hierarchical society.
The unequal distribution of food is no mere side-effect of this system. It is its very reason for existence. Agriculture exists so that inequality can exist. Were we to distribute food equally, we would be working far harder, enduring poor health and epidemic diseases, to the benefit of no one at all. For any small group of people, you could get all of the benefits of this system with none of its heavy costs if you abandoned it and ran off to live in the woods, and no matter how much we might try to obfuscate that fact, such truths can never be buried forever. For 10,000 years, we’ve kept people from understanding that (or at least acting on it) by having a self-interested elite with the power to control our attention and our bodies, through a variety of (mostly coercive) means. If we remove those elites, then it would only hold together if we all agreed to coerce one another and ourselves.
The Food Race
Ronald Bailey wrote that Malthusians are wrong because they “cannot let go of the simple but clearly wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction.”
As evidence for this line of reasoning, people point to a well-established trend that when women receive more education, they have fewer children. We can solve the population problem simply by making the world more just and fair, by educating women.
Unfortunately, this overlooks some critical points, like why the women in sub-Saharan Africa that these studies usually focus on have so many children when they don’t receive more education. Namely, if you’re a subsistence farmer in an agrarian society, children are the key to wealth. There’s only a few years when they’re unproductive before they can start helping, after which they continuously increase the household’s wealth. There’s a strong correlation between wealth and number of children in these situations. By comparison, in the WEIRD world, children are a severe economic burden and rarely contribute meaningfully to their parents’ households.
When women in sub-Saharan Africa receive an education, it usually means that they’re moving out of subsistence farming and into something more aligned with WEIRD life, which would make the connection between education and birth rates correlated, but not causal. It’s not that women who are better educated have fewer children, so much as that women, regardless of how well educated they are, do what’s in their best interests, and women who are better educated have different interests.
But that very way of life that women are able to enter into when they’re more highly educated is the one with the deeper ecological footprint, and the one that requires other people to be in poverty in order to exist. This is a means by which an individual can improve her station, but it’s not a solution for the world at large.
If the Global North can only exist because it has a Global South to exploit, then we can’t get rid of one without getting rid of the other. And if the Global South largely operates in such a way that having more children will directly benefit you, we can ask people to have fewer children anyway, but that only makes it even more profitable for anyone to break that accord. It works, so long as everyone is willing to sacrifice for the “greater good.” If anyone is selfish, or if anyone disagrees about what that greater good is, then it fails.
And this is ultimately why Ronald Bailey is wrong: the biggest difference between humans and deer is our ability to rationalize what we wanted to do anyway, not our ability to actually behave any differently as a group. Ultimately, there will always be at least some people who will do what’s in their best interests, so if we create a system where the incentives push us into self-destructive behavior, we will destroy ourselves. Right now, that puts us in what author Daniel Quinn called a “food race,” comparing it to the Cold War arms race. Those who argue that Malthus is wrong because we’ve been able to answer every increase in population with an even greater increase in food supply are, of course, right. But that increased food supply, in turn, increases the population, so we need to increase the food supply. With each iteration, the stakes grow larger, with larger populations and more of the earth’s biomass on the line. We can get out of each catastrophe by raising the stakes for the next iteration. For this to work, we just need to make sure that we’re able to keep going on like this forever.
“If something cannot go on forever…”
We’ve been in the food race for ten thousand years, despite a few moments when it looked like we might falter. We’ve escalated far past local or regional stakes, to a moment of mass extinction and ecological collapse with the entire world on the line, jeopardizing the very survival of life on this planet on a scale previously achieved only by geological forces and cosmic collisions. We’ve gotten so used to this that we’ve even begun to fancy that it’s inevitable: that some solution must always exist, and that we’ll always find it when things get dire enough. Rather than looking at something like fossil fuels as an amazing gift, we expect that as we start to near its peak extraction that we will surely discover something else that will easily replace it, and the assumption that something as energy-dense and useful as fossil fuel must exist goes without saying. It’s like we won the lottery, and so we naturally assumed that meant we’d go on to win the lottery every week for the rest of our lives.
The universe doesn’t owe us a solution just because we strand ourselves in a position where we desperately need one. Sometimes the only thing our intelligence and creativity can offer us is the realization that we’ve gotten ourselves into a corner.
There’s nothing inevitable or natural about this situation. For two million years, humans enjoyed prosperity and abundance that actually made the earth richer for humans and other-than-human creatures alike. We did that by living as hunter-gatherers — a term that covers the vast majority of the ways that humans have lived, perhaps best summarized as everything that isn’t agriculture. It worked well for two million years. Today, it’s found almost exclusively in the most harsh and desolate corners of the earth, where no other way of life is possible at all. It worked well for a world that only had 10 million people, but 7.8 billion people can’t survive by hunting and gathering.
No, it takes agriculture to sustain 7.8 billion people, and as we already discussed, it probably takes industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution. It takes fertilizers made from fossil fuels, and it takes large farming machinery. It takes 40% of the planet’s surface, 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, habitat fragmentation and loss, mass extinction, and ecological collapse. Sustaining a population of 7.8 billion people requires a completely unsustainable system.
Herbert Stein is not the sort of person I would generally turn to for advice. He was a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served on the board of contributors for the Wall Street Journal, and was the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. To me, that’s a list of charges and reasons to hold him under suspicion, but he also formulated a useful maxim that has been dubbed “Stein’s Law” in his honor: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
The word “sustainability” is frequently abused, but Stein’s Law really gets to the heart of it: something that’s unsustainable is simply something that cannot go on forever. Agriculture cannot go on forever. A population of billions of people cannot go on forever.
That means it will stop.
The human population is going to decline. That seems unavoidable, since anything else would require us to sustain something completely unsustainable. Since that’s impossible, it’s not going to happen. In a way, this is just playing out a process that became inevitable the moment the food race began over 10,000 years ago. Even if we do manage to win the lottery again, that will just be another win for the food supply, to be answered with further growth in population, on and on, until, eventually, our luck runs out.
The human population is going to decline. But how that happens is up to us.
This is the true response to eco-fascists: not that overpopulation isn’t real, but that they have utterly failed to understand the problem, and they’ve leapt to the most cruel and awful conclusions purely out of their shocking lack of imagination. Overpopulation is the crisis of civilization itself: of agriculture and the hierarchies and elites it allows for, of the connected systems of exploitation that it is made of. Fascism seeks to create even more of those things, the very things that created the problem in the first place. While the food race goes on, mass murder is just another step along the track. Overpopulation is a problem, perhaps even the problem — and fascism makes it worse.
If there is one thing I agree with Cornucopian futurists on, it is the critical role of imagination in plotting our course for the future. But rather than trying to imagine ways to get the next win in a doomed food race, we need to imagine our ways out of it. We need to imagine a different kind of future, and how we’re going to transition to it.
The perfect path is already unavailable: we can’t transition away from our current state of affairs without any war, violence, or chaos, because so much war, violence, and chaos has already happened. At the same time, the worst possible path is also unavailable, because there are already people who are doing permaculture and regenerative agriculture, there are already people tending the wild, and there are already people trying to ease that transition however they can. So the future will lie somewhere between those two extremes of perfectly gradual and easy transition versus apocalyptic hellscape. That means that every single thing we do will push the outcome closer to one side or the other. Since neither extreme is possible, there is no “win” or “loss” condition. There is only how much you push it towards a gentler, more gradual, less violent outcome.
If you’re alive today, then this is the calling of your life. At no point in the history of our species or any other have there been people who faced a mass extinction and were in a position to do anything about it. No creature has ever faced a calling like ours, because no creature has ever had the capacity to answer it that we now possess.
There are an awful lot of us right now. If we can acknowledge the crisis we’re in, a few billion brilliant imaginations just might be able to save the world.