August 2022 -- Episode V: The Malthusians Strike Back

In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote one of the most influential essays in the history of environmental thinking. In 134 short pages (can you imagine a 134 page article today?), Malthus explained that food production grew linearly with increased acreage, while population grew exponentially, and that this disconnect would inevitably lead to widespread famine. Malthus was, of course, wrong - modern agricultural innovations have meant that more calories are produced per person today than at any time in history, even though the population is 8 times higher than in Malthus' day. Despite that, Malthusian thinking - or the framing that population is fundamentally the driver behind many of our environmental problems - has persisted. Today, popular thinkers like Paul Ehrlich point to population as the key variable that is driving habitat loss, climate change, and other environmental challenges. So far, he too has made something of a career out of being routinely wrong - though famines have occurred since 1970, his prediction of a global, catastrophic famine by 1985 did not materialize, and some of his more objectionable proposals like the end of food aid have been widely derided by governments and scientists globally. 

Instead, writers like Thomas Princen have pointed out that any concerns about population have to be viewed as secondary to concerns about skyrocketing rates of consumption among the wealthy, and others like Michael Maniates have pointed to the power structures that reinforce these consumption habits as the true culprits. Other scholars have pointed to the link between neo-Malthusian thinking and racism in the environmental movement, highlighting that much of the world's population growth today is occuring in the Global South. Despite all this, Malthusian thinking has persisted in the environmental movement, and an article published this month in Biological Conservation brought it once again to the front of the conversation. 


Put simply, Cafaro et al. argue that biodiversity loss globally is a direct consequence of overpopulation. Of course, I am not a biodiversity scholar, so I'll leave it to Hughes et al. to pick apart the science of their argument in their direct response in the same journal. Instead, I want to use this blog post to remind us all of the long, messy history of Malthusian thinking in the environmental movement. Certainly population plays an important role in determining the overall footprint of human populations on the planet. Nonetheless, by focusing only on population in any environmental challenge, we miss key opportunities to examine consumption patterns across populations and to examine the power structures under capitalism that drive this consumption. While population arguments may not be inherently racist or neo-colonial, they certainly open the door to abhorrent alliances between environmentalism and these abhorrent perspectives. Ultimately, the environmental movement must walk and chew gum at the same time - we must simultaneously advocate for conservation methods that support sustainable ecosystems and sustainable communities, while supporting the efforts of groups like the WHO and USAID to make education and birth control (the most effective methods of slowing population growth) more accessible. It is only by acknowledging these uneasy tensions and history of racist thought that we can effectively tackle the complex environmental challenges of today. 

Central articles: 

Cafaro, Philip, Pernilla Hansson, and Frank Götmark. “Overpopulation Is a Major Cause of Biodiversity Loss and Smaller Human Populations Are Necessary to Preserve What Is Left.” Biological Conservation 272 (August 1, 2022): 109646.

Hughes, Alice, Kévin Tougeron, Dominic Martin, Filippo Menga, Bruno H. P. Rosado, Sebastian Villasante, Shweta Madgulkar, et al. “Smaller Human Populations Are Still Not a Necessary Condition for Biodiversity Conservation: A Response to Cafaro et al. (2023).” Biological Conservation, April 18, 2023.

Readings of interest: 

Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. Ballantine Books, 1983.

Malthus, Thomas Robert. “An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798).” The Works of Thomas Robert Malthus, London, Pickering & Chatto Publishers 1 (1986): 1–139.

Maniates, Michael F. “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?” Global Environmental Politics 1, no. 3 (August 1, 2001): 31–52.

Princen, Thomas. “Consumption and Environment: Some Conceptual Issues.” Ecological Economics 31, no. 3 (December 1, 1999): 347–63.