Thomas Malthus was wrong that population growth would lead to famine, so why are his ideas still popular?by Clive James / May 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
Apocalyptic warnings about climate change are attention grabbing, but are they overblown? © Jean-Marie Hullot
In 1798 the cleric, scholar and political theorist Thomas Robert Malthus became famous for enunciating a single principle: since the population increases geometrically but its food supply increases only arithmetically, famine is inevitable. As a consequence, any period of apparent prosperity would lead to a breakdown because of limited resources: human progress was “condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery.” Later on, as Robert J Mayhew relates in the first part of his new book, Malthus elaborated his position with some subtlety, but people had already heard from him all that they thought they needed to hear. They had heard about imminent disaster.
In all shades of millenarianism since the year dot, imminent disaster had featured as a theme. But this time the prediction was scientific, or sounded that way. The mere sound was enough. With what we now call the mass media already growing, there was an appetite for stories about catastrophe; and the advantage of a catastrophe that lay in the future, instead of the present, was that there was no reason ever to stop reporting the news. If a volcano, such as Krakatoa, were to blow its top, there was only so much that the news media could say. But if civilisation was due to destroy itself in some apocalyptic event, you could start telling the story before it happened and burble on until it did. Underneath this perception lurked the assumption that it never would, but nobody wanted to hear about that. Normality is never news.
Malthus’s principle only ever held true locally. Globally, the population kept on going up, and in the course of not too much time it became apparent that he had been quite wrong about the food supply being limited. Successful experimentation with new crops ensured that there would be plenty of food if it could be fairly distributed. Famines and wars might arise out of the failure to do that—famine, indeed, has several times been deliberately employed as a political weapon—but in principle, as it were, there was no longer any Malthusian principle worth talking about. Nevertheless the talk has gone on, and is especially fervent today, when all the statistics agree that the main crops will be abundant for years to come. The statistics might say so but the mass media would rather say that the world will starve. It’s a more interesting story, even though it’s not really a story at all; it’s only a conjecture.
Mayhew is not very good on the technicalities of food production. As a professor of historical geography and intellectual history, he knows something about economics in general, or he would never have dared to start his book, but he seems not to know much about farming. A pity, because farming is science in its raw form. I hasten to say that I have no qualifications in science myself. What I know something about is the use and abuse of language; and I know quite a lot about the mass media, having worked in that area all my life. In my experience, when people with a shaky grasp of the language come to write about something scientific, they will have a shaky grasp of that too. For example, in the countless press articles and official statements on the subject of climate change, anyone who calls carbon dioxide “carbon” plainly knows nothing about either language or science.
But let me commend Mayhew for his outline of how the famous writers of the 19th century reacted to Malthus’s big idea. William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey and Lord Byron despised it. Of all the famous writers, William Hazlitt attacked Malthus hardest. On page 90 of his book, Mayhew gives a summary of Hazlitt’s “arguments that it was political organisation, not nature, that limited population size, and that there were still large tracts of land that were all but uninhabited.” This summary belongs in a better book, and is enough to make you sorry that Hazlitt is not alive now, so that he might construct a verbal pillory for Al Gore.
Charles Dickens incarnated his opinion of Malthus in the figure of Scrooge. William Cobbett denounced as criminal the Malthusian idea that the poor should not be helped. In Sartor Resartus, Thomas Carlyle called Malthusianism “a madness”; and although he was talking about something else when he called economics “the dismal science,” he certainly called Malthus dismal, as well as dreary and stolid.
On the whole, the great names found something hard to stomach in Malthus’s picture of the future. It seems fair to guess that what they found wrong with it was its futurology. To present conjectures as facts is to hoist language automatically into the realm of the abstract. Precise writing and large projections about what might one day happen do not mix. It has to be admitted that Charles Darwin thought highly of Malthus, but Darwin was probably glad to have the support of an economic theory that seemed to favour the concept of the survival of the fittest, a term devised by Herbert Spencer, but for which Darwin became famous. Since Darwin undoubtedly represented science, it was perhaps not surprising that Malthus emerged into the reputation he enjoys today as somehow having been an explicator and prophet of the planet’s terminal crisis.
In the 20th century, HG Wells was in favour of (his words) “the euthanasia of the weak and the sensual.” George Bernard Shaw, even more shamefully—because Shaw, unlike Wells, was not entirely a prancing enthusiast—thought along the same lines. Both lived long enough to find out that Hitler had been thinking along the same lines as well. Aldous Huxley was ardently in favour of population control. John Maynard Keynes, unfortunately, endorsed Malthus to the extent of regretting that the population would increase. Keynes being so bright, the fact that he had time for Malthus made it look as if Malthus might have had a point.
From then on, public intellectuals much less bright than Keynes have felt free to canoodle with the idea that the world is burdened with too many people and must therefore face catastrophe. Malthus’s big idea has become so firmly ingrained that Malthus scarcely needs to be mentioned anymore. And indeed his name scarcely showed up in either Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 headline-creating book The Population Bomb or in the 1972 Club of Rome manifesto, The Limits to Growth. But Malthus was there in the background of both those deliciously apocalyptic documents, which assumed that the world had scarcely room enough for anyone except you and me. In the mortal prose of Mayhew, Malthus was “hidden behind the door hinges of intellectual history.” I think he means hidden behind the door.
To say that Ehrlich was less smart than a man like Keynes should have been to state the obvious. Ehrlich was clearly fit only to anchor small-town television commercials from a used-car lot. But he dominated the media through the relentless fluency with which he could warn the world about oncoming mass death. He started off inveighing against the threat of cold. Lately he prates about the threat of heat. Common to both these views is his alarmism. I can remember how, more than 40 years ago, he was on a BBC Two television programme telling us that the world would soon run out of copper. Also appearing was a quietly spoken, unspectacular expert on metal trading who said that copper could never run out, because of the price mechanism. We never heard from the metal trader again, but we kept on hearing every night from Ehrlich.
The mass media, whose operatives quite possibly didn’t believe Ehrlich’s spiel for a minute, thought that he talked a good game. Some of us language experts thought that he actually talked bad English. But he was great on camera. The deplorable final sections of Mayhew’s book weakly concede that Ehrlich and his many successors in the climate change business might just have something. For the layman informed by nothing except the media drum-beat, it is hard to believe that they haven’t. And in fact quite a few scientists, especially if they are being asked to comment outside their special field of expertise, are likely to reveal that they view the world through what Mayhew calls “the new lens of climate change.”
They might be right. There are scientists among my immediate acquaintance who are still convinced about catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and I wouldn’t want to insult either their expertise or their sincerity. Only a few years ago, when, in a family context, I speculated aloud that the famous 97 per cent consensus among scientists was perhaps only a consensus among climate scientists, there were several people close to me who were prompt to point out that my views endangered the planet’s future. Among people I didn’t know, the reaction was even sharper. On the few occasions when, in the face of heavy editorial trepidations, I managed to question the existence of such a consensus in a BBC Radio 4 Point of View broadcast, several professional environment experts in the newspapers said that I was “denying the science.” One of them said that the only reason I could hold such callous opinions was that I was an old man who would soon die.
But lately there seems to have been a change of tone. While the publicists for a dire future continue to be vocal, the actual scientific part of climate science is making much less noise about its predictive powers. Even the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which since the beginning of the fad has been an unfailing source of alarmist propaganda, has now issued a report that softens and even nullifies many of its previous claims about what damage global warming might currently be causing, and will therefore soon cause even more of.
Stuck in its ways, the IPCC launched this new report with the usual clamour about the approaching inferno, but for anyone who actually looked inside the report—there were even some operators in the mass media who did so—the emphasis had clearly shifted from mitigation to adaptation. This shift counts as a relief to all of us who thought that replacing power sources that work with other power sources that only might work was a dangerous plan and perhaps even ruinous, although we could see how the idea of ruin might be attractive to anyone who thought that the world had too many people.
Mayhew seems not really to believe in the concept of global overpopulation. When you read between the lines of his book, he is not much of a Malthusian. But, like the science itself, he has been infected by the cheap glamour of media sensationalism, so he can’t help sticking with the current bloodcurdling prophecy—current for now, at least—that if climate change is allowed to rage unchecked, somewhere between “200m and one billion people” could be “displaced” by 2050.
The last time the UN warned us about a flood of climate refugees—it was back in 2005, and there were supposed to be 50m of them by the end of the decade—none of the refugees turned up. But who knows? The next flood might. While we’re waiting, we can perhaps consider the lonely heroism of the climate scientist Tommy Wils, who said, in the most resonant of all the Climategate emails of 2007: “What if climate change appears to be just mainly a multidecadal natural fluctuation? They’ll kill us, probably.”
No, they won’t, but they are unlikely to forget just how confidently some of the prophets announced a timetable. Gordon Brown, in the brief lull between his lowering of the value of our pensions and his being replaced as Prime Minister, said that there were only 50 days left for mankind to agree on the action that would save the planet from doom. Though the hundred months allowed us by Prince Charles to ward off the planet’s appointment with catastrophe are still ticking away, an elementary computation on one’s fingers reveals that there is not much time left before his Aston Martin will have to be hauled by a team of horses, if the human world really does face certain death. It seems more likely, however, that what we face is uncertainty: the thing that scares so many clever people into sharing Malthus’s fondness for a nice big imminent disaster we can blame somebody for, even if it has to be us.