Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Did Malthus Say “Catastrophe”? No, That’s Missing the Point

Here’s the original idea behind the book I’m finishing up, Progress Debunked.

Everyone is familiar with the idea of overpopulation, that human numbers are increasing exponentially, endangering our shared resources. Most likely a graph springs to mind, showing how the human population has exploded in the last few centuries, along with an absurd image of an overcrowded earth with too little room to stand. The name Malthus probably accompanies all this, something about a prophetic essay he wrote two hundred years ago warning that humans were breeding too fast and would run out of food.

The truth is, Malthus never used the term “overpopulation” in his “Essay on the Principle of Population” nor did he prophesy that the human population would grow exponentially. He did not believe our resources were in danger nor that we would all starve at some point in the future. He did not predict that the earth would become too crowded. In fact, he was not attempting to predict any future calamity at all.

Ten years ago I took the time to read Reverend Thomas Malthus’s “Essay,” and saw that his point was quite the opposite. According to Malthus, the human population cannot grow exponentially because limited production of food will always keep it in check. He concluded that the population would never greatly exceed the ability of the land to support it. He believed that there must always be a balance between the joy of procreation and the suffering caused by hunger, and that this constant pressure of distress and sorrow was essential to human life, a force that tended to soften and humanize the heart, and lead the mind to greater heights. The concluding paragraph of the “Essay” summarizes his philosophy nicely:

Evil exists in the world, not to create despair, but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest, but the duty of every individual, to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself; and from as large a circle as he can influence; and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are; the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind, and the more completely does he appear to fulfill the will of his Creator.

Malthus’s “Essay” was an attempt to start a philosophical dialogue on the place of suffering in human life, a dialogue that could challenge the worldview that was then forming, and that has now come to dominate Western society: the belief that evil and suffering can be and are being gradually eliminated from the world. That is, the belief in progress.

But the progressive worldview did not give in so easily. Utilitarians such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that population pressures could be eliminated by using birth control. Their ideas became widely implemented after about 1900, when birth rates in Europe and America began to plunge. Since then, prosperity in the West has increased and hunger has declined, and it is generally believed that the main challenge now is to help the rest of the world achieve such progress.

As a result of these apparent gains, most people in our society take progress for granted. We assume that the human condition is improving, and will continue to improve. But perhaps we have been too hasty in celebrating our victory over Malthus’s Principle. The population is still growing, and resources are dwindling. Most of the world remains in dire poverty. The most disconcerting fact is also one of the most famous—it would take six planet earths to support the world population if everyone were to adopt the Western way of life.

Why are we flaunting the wealthiest, most exploitative nations as examples of the possibility of progress? Western civilization is unsustainable. It cannot survive forever in its current form. The fact is that there have been thousands of civilizations over the course of history—and the vast majority have collapsed. Many of these civilizations, including the ancient Greeks and Romans, used birth control. Limiting the population is not, contrary to popular belief, a panacea.

Could it be that Malthus was on track to discovering a law of nature, an essential balance in things that prevents progress from occurring? I would like to argue in my book that he was. I believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution can explain why programs of birth control and other forms of eugenics cannot succeed in the long run in tipping the balance between poverty and prosperity. My aim is to extend Malthus’s Principle of Population rigorously, so that we can develop a quantitative argument with a greater degree of logical strength. I would like us to finally have a clear view of the laws governing populations that keep the game of life fair—that keep it balanced between joy and suffering and maintain the challenges and trials that will always keep life interesting—that prevent, in other words, humankind from achieving some trivial, eternal utopia.

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