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Amol Rajan

Amol Rajan is Assistant Editor on the Comment desk at The Independent. He was previously a news reporter and Sports News Correspondent, and writes columns for The Liberal and The Salisbury Review.

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Understanding Malthus

Posted by Amol Rajan
  • Tuesday, 24 March 2009 at 01:34 pm
This Guardian leader from Saturday might be an archetype of how to sit on the fence on a difficult issue. 

The issue is overpopulation, and whether or not Thomas Malthus was right to fear it (and, by extension, whether or not it really exists as a threat).  Are there, as Johann once asked, too many people in the world

I'm not clear, reading that leader, where the Guardian stands on this question.  I suspect they are with Malthus but too timid to say so.

By contrast, timidity has never been Johann's thing.   His cogent and comprehensive answer goes some way to explaining why he keeps getting nominated for prestigious awards. 

The assertion "it will be easier for 6 billion people to cope on a heaving, boiling planet than for nine or 10 billion" is the basis of his argument and, I think, fair. 

And yet, as he has the decency to admit, there is something repulsive and instinctively misanthropic about modern neo-Malthusians like Sir Jonathan Porritt, who's popped up again this week

The likes of Porritt use overpopulation as a displacement mechanism, making it the fault of poor people in the developing world who breed too much.  Lodged within their views is a mechanism for numbing human exceptionalism, and destroying the distinction between Homo sapiens ("Homo rapiens", the Malthusian John Gray calls us) and other species.

Anyone who seriously describes famine and high mortality as a "positive check", as Malthus did, should feel ashamed to do so. 

In what I consider the pre-eminent recent refutation of Malthus' central argument, the Economist draws on many of the points raised by Johann.

Malthus, an Anglican clergyman whose views were moulded by a deep faith in Christian teleology, is not read by many of the people who quote him today.  His abiding appeal lies in the simplicity of the graph his theory produces, wherein population grows exponentially but food production rises in a straight line, before tailing off altogether.  It's easy to be scared by it.

But he could not know, even by the time of the second edition of his essay on overpopulation (in 1803), that an industrial revolution was beckoning, let alone a green one a century later.   His demographic predictions, as the Economist notes, were wrong: birth rates fall with rising prosperity, whereas Malthus said they would rise.   

Not only could he not have known the degree to which food production would increase.  He couldn't have known that the age of globalisation would bring products across the world to feed both rich and poor alike, and that collapsing trade barriers (of which there remain too many of the wrong kind) would make it cheap as well as abundant.

There are huge pressures on the production of food, but most of their origins are political failure.  Malthus was wrong in 1798, wrong in 1803, and is wrong today.   

Resource scarcity is an unprecedented and major problem which will require a fundamental re-ordering of how we obtain energy for consumption. 

But asking poor people to breed less, which is really all that Mr Porritt's position amounts too, is both a displacement exercise and a distraction.

Johann's prescription, of focusing on increasing prosperity and giving women control over their own bodies through contraception and abortion - in other words, feminism - is much better.

As the Economist says: "There may be curbs on traditional forms of growth, but there is no limit to human ingenuity". 

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