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What’s Wrong With Malthus

In the recently published “Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care,” Giorgos Kallis tackles weighty and expansive topics in merely 156 pages. One cannot help but wonder if his brevity (the soul of wit, after all) was in keeping with the book’s theme—how humanity can live an abundant life within material limits.

Kallis is a research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA), who has made both theoretical and practical contributions to environmentalism. In addition to writing articles in defense of “degrowth,” he worked for the European Parliament’s Science and Technological Options Assessment Unit for the preparation of the EU Water Framework Directive.

“Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong” is a critique of Malthusianism, as put forward in the 1798 “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” It also refutes the “neo-Malthusian” writings of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. Since the Club of Rome issued a report titled “The Limits to Growth” in 1972, one has to wonder why a degrowth advocate would be its critic. The answer is that Malthus and neo-Malthusianism are entirely different animals.

When I first began writing in defense of ecological limits on the Marxism mailing list in the early 90s, I had to put up with the jibes of James Heartfield, who was then part of Frank Furedi’s Living Marxism collective. For Heartfield, nuclear power, GMO crops, DDT, and massive hydroelectric dams were the cutting edge of capitalist progress that could serve the interests of working people but only under socialism. To oppose such questionable technologies marked you as a “neo-Malthusian.” Somewhere along the line, Furedi, Heartfield and company forgot about the possibility of a socialist future and now defend such technology as partisans of the Brexit Party in England. For Kallis, this evolution probably makes sense since he sees the questions of limits as transcending political economy. Toward the end of the chapter “The Limit of Limits,” he writes:

A further problem with the idea that socialism would face no limit is that it reproduces the dream of limitless growth. The need for a culture of limits holds independently of the organization of society. Ancient Athens or the hunter-gatherers were not capitalists, but they did put limits on themselves. No system, socialist or otherwise, can exist without limits; the question is what limits it will have, and how such limits will be set. Those who think they have found the secret to a society of eternal luxury that will know no limits can only be fooling themselves.

I tend to agree.

Malthus had a pretty simple idea, namely that since population growth is geometrical and food production growth is arithmetical, the result is suffering, hunger and death. If we are to avoid such a calamity, we need to have fewer babies. That’s the conventional view, anyhow.

In the first chapter titled “Why Malthus Was Wrong,” Kallis takes the conventional view and smashes it into smithereens. Drawing liberally from Malthus’s “An Essay on the Principle of Population” and citing scholars who have scrutinized it carefully, Kallis builds an air-tight case that Malthus favored population growth. He also saw capitalism as the best way to satisfy its needs.

Despite his reputation, Malthus opposed “artificial modes of checking population…for their tendency to remove a necessary stimulus to growth.” Also, unlike Paul Erlich, who famously bet Julian Simon that resources like metal would grow scarcer, Malthus claimed that “for commodities, the raw materials are in great plenty.” He added that “a demand for these will not fail to create them in as great a quantity as they are wanted.”

Instead of projecting the fears of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome into Malthus’s writings, it makes more sense to ask what they advocated. It turns out that they were a warning against providing aid to the poor who might grow lazy if hunger did not gnaw at them. Despite being an ordained priest, Malthus had much in common with Ayn Rand. Despite her atheism, she was just as hostile to the weak and the defenseless. Furthermore, like today’s neoliberals, he was an advocate of growth. The only way to reduce misery was to grow more food. Yet, the only way to grow more food was to be “industrious” both in factories and in the fields. And what better way to foster industriousness is there than the threat of being fired? Sounding like a Trump administration official cutting off food stamps, Malthus proposed a “total abolition of all the present parish-laws” to “give liberty and freedom of action to the peasantry of England… to be able to settle without interruption, wherever there was a prospect of a greater plenty of work and a higher price for labour.”

This Scrooge-like meanness does not seem to connect with Paul Ehrlich, the author of “The Population Bomb” or the Club of Rome. They did not fret over the shiftless poor. Instead, they theorized a world in which population growth would outstrip food production. Despite being a misreading of Malthus, it was one very much geared to the times when liberals in wealthy countries grew fearful of violent revolutions fueled by hunger. They also feared immigration from such countries since it would jeopardize “Green” values. That is why a small minority of Sierra Club members voted in favor of putting a limit on immigration—the kind of limit at odds with Kallis’s worldview.

To develop this worldview, Kallis draws from a wide variety of sources. Among them are Emma Goldman, Cornelius Castoriadis, Michel Foucault, and two novelists: Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula Le Guin. Such a breadth of knowledge is commendable in a field often dominated by nit-picking whether nuclear power might be part of the solution alongside windmills.

Ultimately, Kallis is in search of a philosophical worldview that can make limits an expression of freedom rather than bondage. Drawing upon his heritage, he holds up the Greek republic as an exemplary model even if you take into account the retrograde treatment of women and slaves. As an analogy, Marx and Engels (as well as Ben Franklin) admired the Iroquois confederacy even as it exhibited the same sort of brutality toward its enemies. What they all had in common was an understanding of the need for equality, living modestly, and having respect for the natural world.

As a discipline, ecosocialist theory tends to face the need for an underlying philosophy since its concerns go to the heart of humanity’s relationship to nature. In his “Justice, Nature & The Geography of Difference”, David Harvey settled on Gottfried Leibniz as the philosopher best equipped to provide the tools for ecosocialist theory. His theory of monads as hubs of living activity suggested a world where everything is always evolving. More recently, Jason Moore, like Harvey, grappled with the world of classical European philosophy. He was in search of an “ontology for understanding and resolving the environmental crisis. The result of that search bore fruit in his “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital”, where he took exception to a Cartesian dualism that divided humanity from nature in the work of Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster.

Should we be searching for answers in Leibniz or Descartes? Can philosophy help arm us against a crisis that might lead to the extinction of the human race? Granted, our disappearance as a species will make understanding its connection to the natural world unnecessary. Given the dynamics of capitalism in decline, the natural world will consist only of cockroaches, rats, pigeons and bedbugs a thousand years from now, after all. So why worry? With that in mind, does Kallis’s identification with the ancient Greeks serve as a useful guide for overcoming the crisis and leading to a more just and freer world?

Kallis makes a case for Hellenic-style moderation in a chapter titled “A Culture of Limits.” Solon, the father of Greek democracy, said there was a need for “a hidden measure (of intelligence) that holds the limits of all things.” For the ancient Greeks, the key was avoiding hubris. This term comes to mind when looking at the lifestyle of the rich and famous today, starting with the occupant of the White House. Unlike other philosophers of the modern era like Leibniz or Descartes, philosophers were often writing guides to living better lives. They even made recommendations about diet and exercise, as well as the best time to have sex. Kallis writes:

If I may be allowed a diversion here, this aspect of Greek ontology and culture has features in common with the egalitarian societies of hunter-gatherers studied by anthropologists. These hunter-gatherers, too, live in a world of limits within limitlessness. They see nature as unlimited, but they respond to it with limits. Like the Greeks, they create institutions to curb the accumulation of resources and power—from reprimanding successful hunters to sharing and consuming all bounty, without allowing themselves to accumulate. Though I may risk overdrawing parallels, they also share an animistic view of the universe. In Greek myth, nature is humanized: gods become animals, copulate with humans, and the like. In older traditional societies, there is no boundary between the human and the nonhuman, a point that we moderns have realized only recently in our theories about the Anthropocene and the end of nature. Interestingly, for the ancients, this unity of the socionatural world was seen not as an invitation to endlessly exploit but as a reason for prudence, given the risk of hubris.

As an exponent of degrowth, Kallis differs from many of his colleagues who harp on ecological limits rather than self-control. For example, in chapter three, titled “The Limits of Environmentalism,” he takes exception to the notion of ecological footprints and planetary boundaries since they put the focus on nature rather than human beings. When he reads statements like humanity using the equivalent of 1.7 Earths, he sees them as concessions to a Malthusian vision of a limited earth. Calling attention to this type of disjunction struck me as being a veiled critique of Jason Hickel, another degrowth advocate, whose articles revolve around statistical analysis about the over-exploitation of natural resources. What differentiates Hickel from Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome is his sharp attack on how imperialism is at fault for such wanton practices in the Amazon rainforest rather than the poor people they victimize.

As made clear in my CounterPunch article “Ecological Limits and the Working Class,” I am a degrowth advocate and even come down on the side of emphasizing footprints and over-exploitation. I cite Hickel’s article “Is it Possible to Achieve a Good Life for All Within Planetary Boundaries?” that violates Kallis’s strictures even though I am deeply sympathetic to his call for returning to the ethos of self-control and moderation.

What worries me, however, about the degrowth literature in totality is its usefulness to a revolutionary movement. Unlike the Green New Deal, what are the political implications of degrowth? What is a possible slogan? Stop building new factories? Or ground all Boeing 737’s, Max or not? Unlike the Green New Deal, degrowth only makes sense in a post-capitalist society. If social and economic equality were universal, it would not generate opposition since a sacrifice would be shared equally. You can see a foreshadowing of such a social compact from an article titled in the December 14th Globe and Mail titled, “The climate crisis is like a world war. So let’s talk about rationing”. Eleanor Boyle, the author of the op-ed, also wrote “High Steaks: Why and How to Eat Less Meat.” Such a book is necessary even if it is mostly irrelevant to people making $8 per hour who can barely afford a Big Mac. Under socialism, we should develop the kind of egalitarian ethic that allows everybody to enjoy a steak as long as it doesn’t compete with land dedicated to quinoa cultivation.

For now, the books and articles of Kallis and Hickel will appeal to those who have already concluded that the capitalist system is an ongoing disaster. With that in mind, within a year or two, their books might be on a NY Times best-seller’s list at the rate things are going.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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