October 6, 2019


Channelling the Malthusian Roots of Climate Extremism (Michael Shellenberger, 10/04/19, Quillette)

The most doctrinaire and apocalyptic forms of modern "environmentalism" are simply a repackaging of the ideas of Thomas Malthus, the 19th-century British economist who thought that there were too many poor people out there--particularly poor Irish people--and that the ethical thing to do was let them die. "Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits," he wrote, "and court the return of the plague."

Unlike Swift, Malthus was no satirist. He was making a utilitarian argument: If we let the poor reproduce they would just end up creating more suffering in the future. (Indeed, the British government and media used Malthus' ideas to justify the policies that led to mass starvation in Ireland from 1845 to 1849.) The LaRouchian protestor who spoke at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's thursday event channeled Malthus' horrifying logic faithfully. And in a more polite form, environmentalists channel it themselves when they urge that poor countries shoot themselves in the foot economically so that the world might be a greener place.

After World War II, prominent American progressives drew on Malthus' ideas to oppose development aid and nuclear energy, and promote coerced sterilization. Cheap energy, prominent scientists feared, would lead to overpopulation, deplete scarce resources, and destroy the environment. Humankind "would not rest content until the earth is covered completely, and to a considerable depth, with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots," the chemist Harrison Brown wrote in his 1954 book, The Challenge of Man's Future.

Anti-humanist ideas came full bloom in Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich's 1969 Sierra Club book, The Population Bomb, which depicted poor people in India as animals "screaming...begging...defecating and urinating." Two decades later, the United Nations seemed to embrace elements of neo-Malthusianism in a report called Our Common Future. Rather than move to fossil fuels and nuclear, the UN experts opined, poor nations should instead use wood fuel more sustainably. And "wood-poor nations must organize their agricultural sectors to produce large amounts of wood and other plant fuels." (Ironically, the lead author of Our Common Future was Gro Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway, a nation which just a decade earlier had become fabulously wealthy thanks to its abundant oil and gas reserves.)

Malthusian hysteria has become embedded in all sorts of extremist sects. Indeed, two recent mass shooters--one in El Paso, Texas, and the other in Christchurch, NZ--echoed some version of the apocalyptic rhetoric of Malthusian environmentalists. Yet Malthusian environmentalists are preaching a debunked creed, for their prophet wrongly predicted that famines and resource scarcity would become common features of a densely populated world. Instead, technology has outpaced increases in population and consumption--so that today we face the prospect of reducing the total amount of natural resources (including land) required to sustain us.

Posted by at October 6, 2019 8:00 AM