Malthusian Visions

Whilst living in comfort and security amidst plenty unimaginable to their ancestors, Malthusians of the developed world look at the poverty and suffering caused by kleptocratic governances elsewhere, and cry that this is the result of too many people:

[Malthusianism] is, fundamentally, a failure of understanding. It is to look at the undeniably bad situations and unpleasant regions of the world and say "this is because too many people are using too many resources," rather than to see that in fact it's all due to misallocation of existing resources and the failure to develop new resources - a grand procession of waste, corruption, and the inhumanity with which human beings treat one another. These situations are problems that can be solved through development and tearing down corrupt systems of rulership - they are not immutable facts of life that must lead to the deaths of millions.

Despite the occurrence of localized pits of suffering and poverty that last for decades or lifetimes, our broader human culture has benefited from centuries of sustained, accelerating economic and technological growth. This growth is thanks to the incentives put upon people to profit, compete, build better devices, and access new resources. As early as the 18th century, increased longevity went hand in hand with increased population and increased standards of living. Despite this big picture, each new generation spawns devotees of Malthus, each crying out that the sky is falling, that resources will soon run out, that there are too many people. All past Malthusians were wrong, and the present generation is just as wrong; these are people who do not understand how the world works, how development and growth happens, or how people respond to foreseen shortages. In short, economic development and competition ensures that people work to create new resources and makes old ones far more productive in response to demand.

In the early 1800s, there were approximately 980 million human beings on the planet Earth. One of them was the population scaremonger Thomas Malthus, who argued that if too many more people were born then 'premature death would visit mankind' - there would be food shortages, 'epidemics, pestilence and plagues', which would ‘sweep off tens of thousands [of people]’.


In 1971 there were approximately 3.6billion human beings on the planet Earth. And at that time Paul Ehrlich, a patron of the Optimum Population Trust and author of a book called The Population Bomb ... He said India couldn’t possibly feed all its people and would experience some kind of collapse around 1980.

Over at Reason Magazine, Ronald Bailey recently examined the work of John Davis and Russell Blackford on Malthusian fears and engineered longevity:

"How dare you do this research? The earth is already being raped by too many people, there is so much garbage, so much pollution."

Ten years ago, an anti-aging researcher described this hostile reaction to her work in the pages of The New York Times. Not much has changed since then. The first objection one hears when one advocates radical life extension is that it will produce a Malthusian Hell of overpopulation and resource depletion. Objectors clearly believe it would be immoral to make it possible for lots of people to live to be, say, 150 years old. But is that so? Two newish papers from two controversial philosophers take on that reasoning, and tear it apart - with the help of their pocket calculators.

You should read the article. Sadly, as Bailey notes, Malthusian opposition to engineering greater human longevity thrives in our cultures. It reveals something unpleasant about human nature that so many of us are willing and ready to call for longevity science to be abandoned, and thus force billions of people to suffer and die as a consequence:

And yet, alongside the ethos of human rights and the development of heroic medicine, contemporary society appears estranged from its own humanity. To put it bluntly: it is difficult to celebrate human life in any meaningful way when people - or at least the growth of the number of people - are regarded as the source of the world’s problems. Alongside today’s respect for human life there is the increasingly popular idea that there is too much human life around, and that it is killing the planet. ... today’s Malthusians share all the old prejudices and in addition they harbour a powerful sense of loathing against the human species itself. Is it any surprise, then, that some of them actually celebrate non-existence? The obsession with natural limits distracts society from the far more creative search for solutions to hunger or poverty or lack of resources.

On that topic, and as a footnote, you might consider looking at some of Blackford's past work on the moral imperative to engineer away suffering and death caused by aging.


If the malthusians are serious about dealing with overpopulation, they should be willing to take the first step towards solving the problem by committing suicide.

Posted by: kurt9 at February 9th, 2010 7:43 PM

Thomas Malthus was correct in his statement "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man," from his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. " Man does have his limits and Man does live on a finite planet. Just because we have managed to grow the population thus far does not mean we have reached a sustainable population(ever hear of peak oil or peak resources?). One can agree with Malthus and still support longevity research as there is no reason births could not be restricted once the problem of aging has been resolved. Man cannot continue reproducing at the current rate without running into limits and I do not understand why instead of criticizing Thomas Malthus, you are not criticizing population growth as it stands today!

Posted by: Robert at February 14th, 2010 8:59 PM
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