Discredited 18th-century economist Thomas Malthus still haunts the environmental debate.
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“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” said climate activist and Time magazine person-of-the-year Greta Thunberg before the United Nations in the summer of 2019. “How dare you!”
Some praised Thunberg’s performance as a stinging rebuke to the rich and powerful for failing to put the survival of the planet above their own needs. Others saw the exploitation of a young woman with emotional problems for propagandistic ends.
There’s no question that Thunberg’s style of environmentalism—strident, urgent, and critical of global capitalism—has gained a strong foothold in contemporary politics.
A 2019 paper from the journal Bioscience, co-signed by more than 11,000 scientists, asserted that Earth’s population “must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced.” And some politicians have questioned the morality of having children at all.
Whether contemporary proponents of these ideas know it or not, they are all the intellectual heirs of the misguided 18th-century thinker Robert Thomas Malthus, who believed that when human population increased, famine and environmental destruction would ensue.
Reason’s science correspondent Ron Bailey, who is the author of the 2015 book The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century, says that Malthus failed to see that as human population increased, so too would livestock and crop populations with the help of ever-improving agricultural technology, which is why food availability steadily increased over the past two centuries, outpacing population growth.
“Basically, the Malthusian prescription turns out to be completely wrong,” says Bailey.
is it really possible that the world could run out of food?
While the International Food Policy Research Institute projects that farmers will have to produce 70 percent more food over the next 30 years to feed everyone on the planet, the technology already exists to accomplish that goal. Agronomist Paul Waggoner calculates that if all farmers became as efficient as today’s U.S. corn growers, the world could feed 10 billion people today on half as much land.
Today’s Malthusians are most concerned about the disruptive effects of climate change. Citing global warming and habitat destruction, documentarian David Attenborough described humanity as a “plague upon the Earth.”
Meanwhile, the Bioscience paper signed by 11,000 scientists projects total societal collapse if population isn’t managed properly.
“I think that there’s a kind of a catastrophizing, apocalyptic undercurrent,” says Ted Nordhaus, founder of the Breakthrough Institute, which advocates technological solutions to environmental problems. He believes the environmental movement has long been hindered by its anti-growth paradigm.
“Conventional environmental ideology posits human development and environmental protection, oppositionally, and I have exactly the opposite view,” he says.
Nordhaus says that the most effective way to deal with climate change is by promoting policies that accelerate economic growth.
And so Nordhaus advocates for greater reliance on clean, abundant energy like nuclear power to fuel advanced economies towards possibly innovating even lower impact alternatives. But the third-world may still need to rely on traditional fossil fuels on its path to prosperity and population stabilization.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by John Osterhoudt, James Lee Marsh, and Meredith Bragg.
Photo credits: Greta Thunberg in train station, Hansson Krister/ZUMA Press/Newscom; David Attenborough at conference, David Perry/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Greta Thunberg and others on stage at UN, Jacques Witt/SIPA/Newscom; Greta Thunberg speaking at UN, JEMAL COUNTESS/UPI/Newscom; Greta Thunberg smiling and listening at UN, Abaca Press/Roses Nicolas/Abaca/Sipa USA/Newscom; Starving baby, Nie Yunpeng Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Starving kids’ hands, Nie Yunpeng Xinhua News Agency/Newscom;