Specters of Malthus: Scarcity, Poverty, Apocalypse


Iain Boal is an Irish social historian of science and technics, associated with Retort, a group of antinomian writers, artisans and artists based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is one of the authors of Retort’s Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2nd edn, Verso, 2006). This chapter is based on a conversation prompted by DAVID MARTINEZ, a San Francisco-based filmmaker and journalist, in late 2005. It also draws on material from a forthcoming book by Iain Boal, entitled The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure.

DAVID MARTINEZ: I’d like to talk with you about “scarcity” and “catastrophe”. On the talk shows there is even discussion of an impending collapse of society due to dwindling oil supply. The concepts of scarcity and collapse are hardly new, and obviously the invasion of Iraq brought the issue of oil into sharp focus. Can we start with the sacred cow of scarcity?

Iain Boal:  Sure. With respect to oil, we should begin with the observation that the general problem for the petro-barons has always been glut, or to put it another way, how to keep oil scarce. They’ve done a pretty good job, although all monopolies have to be measured against De Beers, who have the corner on diamonds. They are the world’s masters at constructing scarcity, in this case, of crystalline carbon, which is actually rather common in the earth’s crust. So one thing to make clear is that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is not about absolute scarcity.  For sure, the history of oil is complex, and the fluctuations in the supply of oil have an extraordinarily complicated relation to price, demand, and reserves. But in order to understand scarcity – whether of oil in particular or of commodities under capitalism in general – you have to look at the discourses of scarcity and of poverty. And that means you have to look at the historical moment of the institutionalizing of economics – defined in the textbooks as “the study of choice under scarcity” – as the dominant  way of talking about the world, and the relation of these to capitalist modernity.  And that story is indeed interesting.

In order to understand “scarcity” as a sacred cow, we have to go back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Because, no question, we are living in a Malthusian world. By that I mean that Malthus’ way of framing the issue of human welfare has triumphed.  And I think it’s especially important for the Left to understand this. Particularly those who got drawn into politics through concern about the environment, who count themselves as “green”. Scratch an environmentalist and probably you’ll find a Malthusian. What do I mean by that? What is it to be Malthusian? Well, it’s to subscribe to the view that the fundamental problems humanity faces have their roots in the scarcity of the resources that sustain life, because the world is finite and we are exhausting those resources and also perhaps because we are polluting them. Notice how this mirrors the basic assumption of modern economics – choice under scarcity. In his notorious essay published in 1798, Malthus argued, or rather asserted, that population growth, especially of poor bastards, would inevitably outrun food supply, unless the propertyless were restrained from breeding. He advocated that poor people be crowded together in unhealthy housing, as a way of checking the growth of population. Remember, this is the world’s very first economist we’re talking about here.

And don’t forget that Malthus was in his own time consciously devising a counter-revolutionary science of economics and demography: his essay was a response to a famous best-seller by the utopian anarchist William Godwin, husband of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley who later wrote Frankenstein as a warning against the hubris of (male) science. Godwin had written An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice during the euphoric period after the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the overthrow of the French monarchy. Godwin’s optimistic, atheist, rationalism was born of the revolutionary events happening across the Channel – “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, in the indelible line of Wordsworth. But as the counter-revolution set in, Thomas Malthus felt emboldened to compose his Essay on the Principle of Population as an explicit response to Godwin’s vision of an ample life for all. Malthus invented an “iron law of nature” intended, rhetorically, to put a damper on Godwin and the perfectibilians, and in practical political terms to discourage “idling” and illegitimacy and to cut away the existing welfare system which was a safety net for the poor.

DM: So help us understand Thomas Malthus.

IB:  Malthus was born into a well-off family in late 18th century England, and although he was ordained in the Anglican Church, he becomes the world’s first paid economist, in the service of the East India Company.  The company started in 1600 with a charter from Elizabeth 1 to monopolize trade with Asia, and by Malthus’ day agents of the company ruled India, Burma and Hong Kong for the British crown, so that no less than one fifth of the world’s population was under its authority, backed by the company’s own armies, who fought under the English flag of St George.  It’s no coincidence that somebody in Malthus’ position, at that time and place, would be involved in devising a science of “economics”, and its associated discourses of “scarcity”, “laissez faire”, and “poverty”. The English scene that Malthus is born into was in radical transition from a world of custom and common land to one based on the absolutization of private property, in which the actual producers of food are being cut off from the land as a means of livelihood. And that’s a very specific move that the capitalists and landlords in parliament are making.

So here is the essential point: the people of England, I mean the commoners, in 1800 are being literally excluded by fences enclosing the common lands that had sustained them for centuries. They are living the new scarcity that is being produced around them.

This is the same process that is now ruthlessly in train around the globe under the sign of “structural adjustment” and “conditionalities” devised by the IMF and the World Bank, being applied to the global South. But it was first described as long ago as 1515 in a powerful essay by Thomas More called Utopia, because he saw it happening all around him in England five hundred years ago.

George Caffentzis, the philosopher of money, and his colleagues in the Midnight Notes Collective were the first, in the early 1980s, to develop the idea that the neoliberal project is, in its essence, a form of “new enclosures”, taking the tactics of the English enclosures to a planetary level and creating this time a fully globalized proletariat.

Expropriation of the commons was, in other words, not a one-time event at the dawn of capitalism. And Malthus was the economist rationalizing and justifying the cutting off, or another way to put it is the rendering scarce, of the means of subsistence for the laboring poor, in the name of thrift and self-control and the efficiency of private property.

So the “dismal” science of economics is being born at the same time as this process of proletarianization is happening. It would be hard to exaggerate the role of Malthus and the way his assumptions are built not just into economics, but into a whole range of modern forms of knowledge, for example, biology, genetics, demography. These disciplines all bear the stamp of Malthus.

In the same way, it’s no coincidence that the sixties counterculture, which was to some extent a gift economy and had a kind of primitivist strain, could inspire a book like Stone Age Economics, written by the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins to combat the projection of capitalist scarcity back onto all of human history.  It’s an interesting counter-myth, that conjures a neolithic world of abundance rather than scarcity. Nevertheless, if you look at the impulses behind the environmental movement of the sixties and events like Earth Day, or back-to-the-landers and their bible The Whole Earth Catalog, you will find the spectres of Malthus – scarcity, overpopulation, famine. The same goes for the Berkeley bumper-sticker “Live Simply, That Others May Simply Live.” Or the countercultural manifesto for vegetarians, Diet For A Small Planet.  Francis Moore Lappe’s book was enormously popular in the 1970s, and it begins with a discussion about “reaching the very limits of the earth’s capacity to produce food” and how a vegetarian diet was a way out of the “the earth’s natural limitations”.

DM: So how do you answer the question of carrying capacity? Are you saying that the earth’s resources are infinite? That we’re just going to go on and on and on?

IB: No, not at all.  I want to make this very clear: I am not in any way saying that the earth’s resources should be used up willy-nilly, that societies shouldn’t concern themselves with how to live on the planet in the most sane and sustainable way possible.  But it’s always – historically – an empirical, local, question: How much water is available? How much grazing will a pasture allow? Who’s encroaching? How much mast for the pigs or firewood is X entitled to? Will we have to send Y away to work in the city?

What I’m trying to say here is that the vulgar error made by modern Malthusians is to assume that the human story hasn’t in fact been about dealing with this problem of the carrying capacity, if you want to put it that way, of particular patches of land. There’s a word for it. It’s called stinting.  Commoners have “use-rights” – say, to pasture animals, to take fodder, to gather firewood, to harvest fruits and berries and nuts – but only if you live there, and only certain amounts, depending on the ecological, historical knowledge of the local community about what would stretch it too far.  Action informed by local knowledge, typically, is not going to cause ecocide. I’m not saying ecological destruction hasn’t occurred in the human past – the deforestation of the coastal areas around the Mediterranean sea is a classic case, caused by centuries of Imperial Roman overfarming – but it tends to be by non-locals and elites. Let’s call it the state. The major culprit in modern times is capitalist farming in private hands.

Despite this reality, the blame is laid at the door of the world’s commoners. Take for example Garrett Hardin’s famous 1968 essay, “The tragedy of the commons”, published in the journal Science. This was an enormously influential text by a Texan zoologist, based on no sociological research whatsoever, and in profound ignorance of the actual history of commoning. Hardin asserted that all common resources (such as pasture, a favorite example) will inevitably end in ruin because of over-exploitation by selfish individuals. Hardin’s fable was taken up by the gathering forces of neo-liberal reaction in the 1970s, and his essay became the “scientific” foundation of World Bank and IMF policies, viz. enclosure of commons and privatization of public property. The plausibility of Hardin’s Malthusian claims doesn’t survive a moment’s scrutiny. Ask yourself – was the disaster of the Dust Bowl a tragedy of the commons or of capitalist agriculture under private ownership?

But the historical facts are irrelevant. The case is an ideological one, and Hardin was holding up a mirror to modern homo economicus. The message is clear: we must never treat the earth as a “common treasury”. We must be ruthless and greedy or else we will perish.

Carrying capacity is now very hard to discuss in a context of extensive agriculture under a capitalist regime which by any accounting (by anyone other than a capitalist economist) is extremely inefficient. It is not well known, for example, that by a unilateral act of Congress the navy seized dozens of small islands around the world in the late 19th century to secure supplies of guano, in order to fertilize the US continental soil which was being ruthlessly depleted by the Western farmers. Today instead we are dependent on fossil fuels, and that too goes along with vast subsidies, price fixing, tax breaks, and hidden costs. What would the price of a gallon of gasoline be if you factored in the cost of the Sixth Fleet and all military bases around the world?

So there’s no denying that capitalism is now threatening the basis of life on earth. Certainly that’s true. But I refuse to cave in to Malthusian assumptions. Why is it not possible to imagine a reorganization of agriculture, and I don’t mean some new technofix from Monsanto. It will surely mean agrarian revolutions, though the content of those revolutions would be contested, to say the least. Marxists have always thrilled to the sight of really big tractors. They don’t much like to hear about watersheds and foodmiles and small Kropotkinian communes. I will guess that among the non-negotiable requirements will be a transvaluation of soil (stripped, by the way, of any fascist metaphysic), along with a revolution in biology which will need to find new roots in microbial ecology, while at the same time reviving the disparaged arts of the naturalist.

DM: It seems that a lot of naturalists, by which I mean natural scientists, biologists, and such, tend to weigh in on these debates. They always appear to stand outside or above the realm of politics and economics. They are merely talking about Nature, of which humans are just a part. I’m thinking of Jared Diamond, and how popular he is at the moment.

IB:Yes, Diamond is another good example, a tropical ornithologist turned historian of the fate of human societies. He must be discussed alongside Garrett Hardin, as well as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich and the entomologist E.O. Wilson – they all wrote hugely popular books. Crucially, all of these men see themselves as students of Charles Darwin, himself a brilliant naturalist. Darwin admitted that it was none other than Malthus the economist who provided the final, essential piece to Darwin’s picture of the workings of Nature. He sat up one night, so the story goes, when he was reading Malthus’ Essay on Population and he says that he realized “It’s Malthus! That’s how I can explain evolution!” Now evolution was not the invention of Darwin, actually his grandfather Erasmus had been a kind of evolutionist. What was new was his conception of the mechanism, the engine that drives evolution which leads to the formation of new species and the staggering variety of life-forms, in all their beauty and bizarreness. That’s what he called “natural selection”. The basic, Malthus-style, argument is simple: overpopulation creates competition for the resources available, and favors those offspring better adapted to exploit local conditions and resources. So this is the scenario on which economics and Darwin’s account of natural history are founded – a kind of anti-Eden, with too many organisms locked in a war of all against all. So Darwin was projecting Malthus onto the realm of nature.

In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond rehearses, without knowing it, an old 18th century argument using the accidents of geography to explain, and in fact justify, the colonization of the planet by European powers. The only difference is that he clothes the narrative in anti-racist drag. His conclusion is a (neo)Malthusian message: life is a struggle for survival in a world of scarcity. True enough for millions for people, but not because of any “iron law of nature”.  Diamond’s latest book, Collapse, rams home the same Malthusian message in a series of historical horror-stories of resource exhaustion and societal catastrophe.

One Long Catastrophe

DM: I’d like to talk about why so many Americans, steeped in Judeo-Christian ideology, are attracted to catastrophism in the first place.  It seems to me the underlying ideology is ultimately passive, it takes the world out of our control because it’s all going to end and there’s nothing we can do. But things continue on, and that’s a much more difficult problem to deal with.

I think here of Derrick Jensen, who seems to witness the first signs of extreme environmental destruction around him and therefore prophesies the end of civilization. Would that it were that simple! In fact, societies tend to survive catastrophe and persevere, though the result may not be pretty or comfortable.

IB:  Again, no one is saying that we aren’t facing serious, extremely grave problems. What we are questioning is the millenarianism, the endism, you could call it, which is only part of a general ideology of “catastrophism”. This is the idea that the human drama is played out on a finite terrestrial stage. There is an abrupt beginning and an abrupt end, the whole affair lasting in one version just six thousand years. Darwin had to abandon his Christian catastrophism and for that he depended upon the great geologist Lyell who posited the very unbiblical idea of “deep time”, and immensely slow, gradual, change. Since Darwin’s time, for a hundred a fifty years or so, the predominant view in science has been gradualism.

The politics of gradualism are very important here. Conservative in many ways, and certainly non-revolutionary. a Darwinian world is a natural meritocracy, in which of course only the deserving survive.  Perhaps you can see why secularizing Victorian gentlemen – imperialists, really – would believe that competition produces progress and the survival of the superior races of animals and, of course, men.

So for more than a hundred years the earth sciences tended to discount catastrophes, but towards the end of the 20th century, catastrophism begins coming back, big time. Let’s call it neo-catastrophism. Part of the explanation is no doubt due to the rising political power of apocalyptic Christians and evangelicals in the United States. But at least as important, in my view, is the catastrophe of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the building of a weapon that scientists began to believe could produce the end of everything. Omnicide.

I would say there’s been half a century of preparation for what is now a full-blown ideological sea change, from a slow, gradual view of the world to a universe of large scale, rapid changes that shape everything.

DM: But don’t both make a certain sense? Gradualism and catastrophism? Long, slow change and rapid dramatic change?

IB: Of course it’s both! Both are true, but I’m talking about ideology here. For sure, when you’re trying to understand the natural history of earth, you have to have consider sudden violent events as well as wind erosion.

DM: Asteroids hit the planet every once in a while?

IB: Just so. Take the major extinction event at the K/T, the Cretaceous-Tertiary, boundary. Most in the field of earth science now believe there was an impact in the Yucatan 65 million years ago which doomed the dinosaurs, and produced a kind of nuclear winter effect.

DM: And produced the Gulf of Mexico?

IB: And a tsunami which was maybe a mile and a half high. An unimaginably large event. This is not so appealing to the settled Victorian imagination of Darwin, who preferred to contemplate the action of water, and the slow scrutiny of a Malthusian god, selecting out the fitter organisms. Now, as I’ve said, I take it that we have to investigate the world and our condition, and our history, by examining the reality of catastrophes and extinctions together with those gradualist principles also being at work at the same time.

But one question we must ask is:  Why are we so obsessed with catastrophe and “endism” right now?

DM: I propose that it is a symptom of a state in which people in the First World, in the global North, are finally seeing some of the dire results of five centuries of capitalist exploitation. The past five hundred years have seen cataclysmic disasters like famines, plagues, etc. all over the Third World.  Now the denizens of the overdeveloped countries are seeing oil wars, which of course are nothing new, and mass extinctions, nothing new either. But it is all causing folks like Jensen to claim that civilization is about to end.

It seems like a book that helps us to understand this is Mike Davis’s Late Victorian Holocausts. Prior to that period there had been famine, but nothing on the scale of what happened in the 19th century, in previously healthy societies. The famines in India, and the famines in Africa, were produced by British colonialism. And the landscape there looked like the Apocalypse: Plague, War, Death…

IB:  That’s a really important point.  And Amartya Sen, the sociologist of famine, comes to same conclusion from a different angle. Sen’s striking claim is that you don’t get famine, really, where there’s “democratic” entitlement to food. When you examine starvation in 19th India and Ireland, yes, they have to do more with the history of colonialism. It is also helpful in thinking about contemporary “natural disasters”, so-called – I’m thinking about the huge loss of life in earthquakes in the South, and the tsunami that drowned so many Achenese, or closer to home, to contrast post-Katrina New Orleans with the firestorms of Malibu, where state subsidies rountinely rebuild the houses of Hollywood executives.

So what we’re saying here is: it’s important to notice the ideological move that naturalizes events which are the result of human decisions. It turns disasters that have as much to do with human agency and decision into natural and inevitable events.

DM: The problem is that people confuse states with peoples, empires with humanity. Capitalism is poisoning the earth, no one is disputing that, but the ecological Malthusians see this and claim that the species as a whole is destroying the earth.

IB:  Well, I can’t say it too clearly. In my critique of scarcity, I’m not saying that there isn’t scarcity. But we have to understand why and how scarcity is produced, and it’s crucial, I think, to do the work of unpacking the ideology behind scarcity and neo-catastrophism. For one thing, it’s interesting to ask: “Why all this talk of scarcity and collapse now?” After all, catastrophes are a permanent feature of history. So when you hear someone say, “The world’s food supply is going to run out in such and such a year”, well, excuse me! Forty thousand children die each day from the effects of malnutrition. Or perhaps I should say – from the causes of malnutrition. For these souls it’s already too late. And there are millions of people – the so-called precariat – for whom catastrophe is always looming. This isn’t the future we’re talking about. It’s tonight, it’s happening right now. So it seems a bit naive for Northern environmentalists to be proclaiming apocalypse at this point.

In other words, if we look at the history of the world under five hundred years of capitalism, we should be talking catastrophe. Of course we should. It’s been one long catastrophe. But we should refuse to do so in Malthusian terms, blaming the state of affairs on overpopulation, poverty, or lack of restraint in the slums of the world. And we should be aware that catastrophism and apocalypse talk are especially congenial to fundamentalists.

DM: Let’s talk about how all of this relates to intervention, by which I mean the perceived need for the West to come to the rescue, with food and medicines, of the starving people of the world, particularly Africa. I think here of the recent calls for international aid to Darfur. It’s always a call for intervention very late in the game, with no analysis of the systems that got us here. Isn’t Africa as a continent still a net exporter of food, to this day?

IB: Indeed it is. In the global division of labor, Africa’s role is to be a source of raw materials, mineral and vegetable; value is added elsewhere. It is true there are a few high value cash crops; for instance, jet airliners full of refrigerated cut flowers fly out of Harare every day bound for Europe, while millions of food-insecure Zimbabweans go to bed hungry. You’re right, of course – intervention happens way too far downstream. It only confirms Africa as a hopeless basket case.

DM: And this same tone, this same kind of call, we now hear coming from Al Gore and company, for the world to “do something” about climate change. Again, we must do something, anything, except of course address the causes of what got us here in the first place!

I have an idea to help with climate change: let’s start with a global moratorium on highway construction. If this winds up hurting any local economies, Toyota and British Petroleum will gladly pay the costs, as they want to help out with the challenge to stop global warming, right?

IB: Quite typically, BP has just offered a half billion dollars over the next decade to the University of California and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (whose raison d’etre is to design nuclear weapons) to develop GM crops to make alcohol to replace fossil fuel. At one stroke this is supposed to combat global warming and to address the purported scarcity of oil.

What is so poignant is that things could be otherwise. We don’t in fact live in a world of Malthusian scarcity. Far from it. Even Malthus himself acknowledged this when he spoke of “nature’s mighty feast”.  And yet the history of modernity is the history of enclosure, of the cutting off of people from access to land, to the common treasury and to the fruits of our own labour. Excluded by fire and sword and now  “structural adjustment”. Everywhere you look, there nothing much natural about it, this kind of scarcity. It’s a story of artifice and force. No wonder the fables offered us by modernity’s clerisy are the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons. The premises of the science of economics are a disgrace, and so are all the proliferating offspring of Malthus. Our first task is to kill these sacred cows of capitalist modernity.

Iain Boal can be reached at boal@sonic.net