Malthus and environmental predictions of doom

You’d think that Nazi atrocities would have put the world off eugenics and Malthusian thinking. But it didn’t. The old Malthusian fears had not gone away. For all the millions of deaths it caused, WW2 did not put a dent in the rise of world population. It kept on rising, particularly in the third world.

This led to growing panic among Malthusian scientists and economists as to the consequences. A growing population would surely lead, as Malthus predicted, to ‘misery and vice’, in other words, to famines, pandemics, dictatorships and wars as over-populated countries on an over-crowded planet fought bitterly for diminishing space and resources.

Over-population became one of the great bogey-men of the post-war era. Books like Our Plundered Planet (1948) by Fairfield Osborn Jr, or The Road to Survival (1948) by William Vogt, or The Population Bomb (1968) by Paul Erlich, or Blueprint for Survival (1972) by Edward Goldsmith painted the same terrifying vision of a practically inevitable collapse of civilization because of over-population and famine.

The Huxley brothers helped to spread these Malthusian fears. Julian Huxley was appointed president of UNESCO, part of the new post-war global order designed to try and manage global affairs better. UNESCO was intended to protect culture, but Julian added science to its brief and made population control a central part of its mandate. One of his students, John Boyd-Orr, was made first director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and also warned that the booming human population threatened the world with famine and war. Aldous, meanwhile, warned about the catastrophic consequences of the population boom, from soil erosion to dictatorships to the triumph of moronic mass culture. He dreamt of the spiritual elite retreating to an island, but even in the over-breeding over-consuming masses eventually over-run utopia.

What was the solution to this global problem? The Malthusians still looked to eugenics to control the quantity and quality of humans on the planet. But, after all those Nazi atrocities, it was a little risky to talk about eugenics too openly. Instead, the language of ‘population control’ and ‘birth control’ gave Malthusian eugenicists a new and more acceptable way to frame the problem. CP Blacker, a former student of Julian Huxley’s and, like him, a leading figure in the Eugenics Society, wrote in an internal memo of 1957 that the Eugenics Society ‘should pursue ends by less obvious means, that is, by a policy of crypto-eugenics’.

Post-war eugenicists tried to achieve their aim — reducing the quantity and improving the quality of the human race — through less extreme and more indirect methods than the Nazis.

First, they tried to encourage positive eugenics by getting ‘superior’ men to donate sperm to sperm clinics. One of Julian Huxley’s students, the geneticist Herman Mueller, went so far as to launch a ‘Nobel Prize sperm bank’ in California in the 1950s, though he struggled to find Nobel Prize winners to donate. (It’s not clear if Julian Huxley donated his sperm, but he certainly advocated this sort of measure, as did Aldous, and Julian’s son Francis said he constantly got letters from people who thought Julian was their father!)

Second, Malthusians tried to encourage voluntary sterilization, especially in developing countries where population was rising most quickly, through the United Nations, the World Bank, and through western aid programmes. Why not tie sterilization programmes to financial incentives, Malthusians suggested, both for the individual (through some sort of cash bonus), and for societies, through access to western aid?

This idea — sterilization cash bonuses — was first suggested by Julian Huxley and HG Wells in The Science of Life (1929), in which they warned that humans of low genetic quality were over-proliferating. They speculated: ‘these low types might be bribed or otherwise persuaded to accept voluntary sterilization.’

The idea was taken up by HL Mencken, the highly elitist American columnist — and one of Aldous Huxley’s heroes — who in a 1937 article, ‘Utopia by Sterilization’, argued the US government should ‘sterilize large numbers of American freemen, both white and black, to the end that they could no longer beget their kind’. He added that, this being a democracy, ‘the readiest way’ to induce these ‘pollutants to the race’ to submit to sterilization would be ‘to indemnify them in cash’. Anything from $5 to $100 should suffice for these dim-wits, he suggested.

The idea was taken up by William Vogt in The Road to Survival, and internationalized. Third-world people were over-breeding, and threatened the world with a flood of brown and yellow people. The solution, Vogt said, was to tie US and UN aid to population control: ‘Any aid we give should be made contingent on national programs leading toward population stabilization through voluntary action of the people.’

There could be a racist subtext to their concerns. Here, for example, is the opening passage of Paul Erlich’s Population Bomb, which describes a nightmarish journey by Erlich and his wife through a sea of brown bodies in India:

Not all Malthusians were racist, however — HG Wells, a Malthusian eugenicist, looked forward to a day when the races would intermingle much more, creating a truly global race, while Julian Huxley supported the publication of the influential UNESCO statement on race, which argued race had no biological basis and it was more helpful to talk about ethnic communities united by culture and language. (Huxley was much happier to discriminate on the basis of class and ‘intelligence’ — indeed, that was the basis of his entire worldview).

In fact, the political elites in developing countries were often only too keen to adopt Malthusian population policies and vigorously impose them onto their own populations, often guided by their own classist or racist biases.

In India, in 1975, the government of Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties and took the opportunity to launch an aggressive de-population campaign, supported by tens of millions of dollars in aid from the UN, the World Bank, and the Swedish government. 6.2 million men were sterilized in a year, mainly from the dalit or untouchable caste. Some were offered financial incentives, like a radio, but many were forcibly herded by police into ‘sterilization camps’ where they were forced to undergo painful and dangerous operations. At least 2000 died as a result. The campaign was certainly promoted by western Malthusians, but it was led by the Indian elite, with its own millennia-old caste prejudices. It was supposed to be voluntary, but there is a big difference between what scientists euphemistically suggested in UN meetings and what actually takes place on the ground.

Worth a read

Perhaps even more brutal was China’s one child policy, introduced in the late 1970s after a Chinese scientist read Teddy Goldsmith’s Blueprint for Survival. The Communist Party set population targets which every region and local authority had to meet. That led to awful human rights abuses: forced abortions, state murder of new-borns, parents killing baby daughters or giving them up for adoption (a huge market arose for adoptions from China), families becoming non-people for exceeding the one-child limit, and all the massive social consequences of one-child families, from ‘little emperor’ sons to 30 million more men than women — this in turn led to a booming economy in trafficked women from neighbouring Asian countries.

These programmes blighted the lives of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. Yet the Chinese programme is still sometimes applauded by population planners. In fact, studies suggest the programmes did little to slow population growth. What actually slowed population growth in China was improved education of women, and access to birth control.

Julian Huxley, HG Wells and other Neo-Malthusians dreamt of a global scientific elite running a world government and efficiently managing all natural resources, including humans. It was a hubristic dream of them as ‘masters of the universe’, captains of ‘Spaceship Earth’. In fact, as Alison Bashford writes:

Even the feminist dream of universal birth control had unintended side effects. Women around the world now use ultra-sound technology to pre-screen their fetuses, and abort them if they’re girls. There’s a global femicide taking place, as educated women choose to have sons. And birth control has perhaps been successful, from a national point of view, with populations declining and ageing all over the world.

And — this is the main point — the great famines, plagues, world wars and incipient collapse of civilization predicted by Aldous Huxley, Paul Erlich, William Vogt and other Malthusians in the 1940s — 1970s . The prophets of doom were wrong. Instead, new technologies increased the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth, billions of people came out of poverty, got educated, supported democratic transition, and led good lives.

The fourth wave of Malthusians: 1990s to the present day

So we can see that Malthusian thinking has had a huge, and largely negative, impact on global politics since the late 18th century. First-wave Malthusianism helped inspire a non-interventionist response to famines in India and Ireland in the 19th century. Second-wave Neo-Malthusianism inspired a host of cruel eugenic policies in the 1920s and 30s, culminating in the Nazis’ murder of millions of ‘unfit’ humans. And third-wave ‘crypto-eugenic’ Malthusians after WW2 supported huge, cruel and largely ineffective population control campaigns in countries around the world.

Again, given this record, you’d think Malthusianism would be debunked. But it keeps coming back. And it’s still very much with us today, especially in the environmental movement, which warns that the human population is far too big for the planet’s carrying capacity, that our excessive consumption is causing a sixth mass extinction of other species, that its driving global warming, which will make the world so hot large parts of it will become uninhabitable, leading to the collapse of agricultural systems, hordes of climate migrants, famine, war, pandemics and the end of civilization.

Some Malthusians even look forward to this apparently inevitable mega-death with a certain grim relish. Humans are a cancer, a pollutant, they say. Gaia will teach us a lesson, will beat some humility into us. The global population will experience a ‘correction’ and fall from nine billion to around one billion (if any of us survive at all). You see strains of this sort of Malthusian thinking in environmentalists like James Lovelock, David Attenborough, Jonathan Porritt, and others — mainly educated middle-class white men.

There can be many varieties of Malthusianism. Sometimes it can lead to support for one-world-government (as in HG Wells or Julian Huxley), sometimes it can lead to a hyper-localism and protectionist nationalism. James Lovelock, for example, has spoken of human life surviving on a few islands, like the UK, New Zealand and Ireland, which will need to protect their borders from migrants to preserve their ‘carrying capacity’. They will be the ‘lifeboats for humanity’. This ominous phrase recalls the idea of ‘lifeboat ethics’, put forward by racist eugenicist Garrett Hardin, a friend of the Huxleys. He argued island nations would need to make tough decisions about who to let survive.

This sort of localist protectionist Malthusianism is apparent in a certain type of right-wing environmentalist, like Teddy Goldsmith — author of and uncle of Zak Goldsmith, minister for the environmentand Stanley Johnson, the prime minister’s father, who has written several books warning about rising global population, even while having six children himself — one rule for the elite, another for the masses.

I wonder if, somewhere behind Brexit, is this sort of Malthusian protectionist thinking. The world is getting warmer, the global population keeps growing, so it’s time to withdraw to ‘Lifeboat Britain’, protect the borders, and think about how to enhance our genetic quality.

Now, as it happens, I have been personally influenced by Malthusian thinking — its part of the deep code I took for granted. When I first wrote about climate change, back in 2013, it was right after reading Cormac McCarthy’s , which terrified me with its vision of a civilization that has collapsed and degenerated to war-lords and cannibalism. (How deep Malthus has influenced dystopian visions of the future, including Zombie apocalypses where cities are over-run by hordes of the undead.)

And just because Malthusianism was wrong and very harmful in its last three manifestations, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong now. The sixth mass extinction of species is real. So is global warming — I write this on the hottest day ever experienced in the UK, 39 degrees centigrade. Extreme weather events happen more and more often — a third of Bangladesh is currently flooded, the Chinese Three Gorges Dam could collapse, while wild fires have started again in the Amazon. And climate models predict the climate will warm by at least two degrees more in the next few decades. So I think the prophets of doom , this time.

However, given the dark history of Malthusianism and environmentalism, we should remember these points:

1) White westerners caused this crisis, and still responsible for higher emissions per capita than people in developing countries. Blaming global warming on over-breeding people of colour is wrong, racist, and hugely unjust.

2) We should beware bringing a Puritan Malthusian lens to climate catastrophe (or, indeed, to the COVID pandemic), where nature is ‘teaching us a lesson’ and mass death is a moral correction to be welcomed — it’s that kind of thinking that let British politicians do nothing when millions of Irish or Indians starved in the 19th century.

3) We should be open to surprises, including technological advances. The situation looks very dire right now, but the prophets of doom were wrong in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, and there is a chance they are wrong now. That does mean we do nothing — it is the threat of catastrophe that spurs technological innovation.

4) There is some risk on the other side — of ‘population collapse’, with ageing and rapidly declining populations.

5) We should remember the shadow side of environmental thinking. You sometimes hear environmentalists suggesting the solution for all the world’s social and emotional problems is a shift to a more holistic and interconnected ecological model, in which humans are not separate species but part of the whole. I happen to agree. But that vision was shared by many racist environmentalists, from Jan Smuts (architect of South Africa’s apartheid regime) to Madison Grant (American environmentalist and leading scientific racist of the 1920s) to the Nazis. Holistic ecological thinking is by no means essentially racist or fascist…but that worldview has also been held by racists and fascists, so it’s not a magic pill.

6) Finally, although I very much share the idea that some problems require global governance solutions — from pandemics to atomic energy to climate change — we also need some humility. Julian Huxley’s dream of humans as the rational captains of Spaceship Earth hasn’t worked very well. That’s the thing about complex ecosystems. No one is in control.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions. www.philosophyforlife.org.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store