Dispelling the modern ‘Malthus myth’

Review: Peoplequake by Fred Pearce
Random House, $32.95

The resurgence in overpopulation fears—the idea that excessive population is the cause of ecological destruction and that we must cut population levels to fight climate change—is extremely dangerous.

This view blames the number of people in the world for environmental destruction, rather than looking deeper at systemic problems that underpin it.

Fred Pearce’s new book Peoplequake is a welcome attempt to do the latter. It follows the history of how overpopulation arguments have been used to justify the status quo and distract from fighting to change society. It reveals the horrific realities of the overpopulation argument—yet it stops short of criticising climate solutions based on changing consumption.

As Pearce explains, the theory of overpopulation began with Thomas Malthus’ 1798 work, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”. Malthus believed the world was in a constant state of overpopulation due to the exponential growth of population outstripping the arithmetic growth of food production. Friedrich Engels summed up the logic of Malthus’ ideas simply: “The earth is perennially overpopulated, whence poverty, misery, distress and immorality must prevail.”

His doctrine was taken up by the British ruling class to justify the persistence of poverty amongst the working class and as a polemic against reform. Malthus later became the first teacher of political economy and “overpopulationism” became a useful rationale for British imperialism. During the 1840s Irish potato famine, his doctrine of overpopulation was used to justify Britain’s failure to intervene. While millions needlessly died of starvation, the British ruling class said that food aid would lead to more breeding by the Irish and allow the famine to continue!

Pearce’s research demonstrates how the entire aid program of the West from the 1960s onwards was shaped by population control—a condition of receiving aid and investment was the implementation of family planning measures. The West saw imposing sterilisation as easier than schemes that could genuinely alleviate poverty, like land reform or adequate service provision.

Production, notpopulationPeoplequake shows how wrong Malthus’ ideas were. Pearce explains that the development of food technology means food production has outstripped population increases. Today, famines are not caused by the insufficient production of food, but the inability of the poor to afford the food produced. UN research states we are now producing enough food for ten billion people.

The UN predicts world population levels will peak at nine to 11 billion in 2050, and then decline rapidly. This is not a triumph of population control policy, rather the result of the economic development of the developing world that has led to smaller family sizes as living standards increase.

Yet the overpopulation argument has persisted. It re-emerged with Paul Elrich’s The Population Bomb in 1968 and later with the Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome. The argument has not gained in sophistication since Malthus’ day. Later commentators make the same mistake that Malthus did—they accept wasteful and destructive production as given.

Yet it is the way things are produced that creates environmental problems. Australia is a prime example. We have the highest emissions per capita in the world and produce 1.28 per cent of the world’s emissions—though we have a much smaller fraction of its population at 22 million.

The world’s poorest three billion are responsible for only seven per cent of emissions. This cannot be explained by consumption—the high level of emissions in Australia are a consequence of reliance on coal for electricity: 70 per cent of Australia’s emissions are from energy production. Changing to solar and wind technology would cut emissions impressively without any reduction in population.

Pearce, however, misses this crucial point and seems to support changes in consumption as the solution.

He claims that “most of us most of us could reduce our carbon footprints by 75 per cent at little inconvenience,” based on Chris Goodall’s book How to live a low carbon life. He also argues that the decline in population growth rates will alleviate some of the ecological problems we are facing. But the main causes of carbon emissions, water usage, and ecological destruction are industrial processes that the consumer has no control over. Reducing emissions by 75 per cent through lifestyle change would be impossible.

Despite this crucial weakness, Pearce should be commended for his attempt to demolish the myth of overpopulation. The collection of facts and statistics provides some useful ammunition for activists in the climate movement who face the task of challenging the ideas of overpopulation.
By Eliot Hoving


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