Environmental Despair Springs EternalPart 2: Malthusianism in the Industrial Age
Read Part 1 here.
Writing 200 years ago, anarchist William Godwin (1756-1836) observed that, before the publication of Thomas Robert Malthus’ (1766-1834) pessimistic Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, most people believed that an increase in population would deliver better days. He saw “something exhilarating and cheerful” in this earlier spirit when humanity believed it could summon “the unlimited power we possess to remedy our evils, and better our condition.” Humans, Godwin observed, felt they “belonged to a world worth living in.” Malthus, on the other hand, saw little but death and ruin in any attempt to escape natural limits. Food supplies, increasing in a linear manner, would not keep up with the unchecked, exponential growth of human population. After an initial increase, every seemingly prosperous human population would hit the ecological limit of the land and crash.
What is less appreciated today, however, is that Malthus became slightly less pessimistic in the second and later editions of his essay as the 1801 census and other data made his original position questionable. Indeed, most political economists had turned against him by the 1830s as did much of the general public after the 1851 Great Exhibition had shown them the wonders of the Industrial Age. As summed up in the November 18 1854 issue of The Economist: “Nobody, except a few mere writers, now troubles himself about Malthus on population… [but his] error may yet indeed linger in the universities, the appropriate depositories for what is obsolete.”
As things turned out, Malthusian and other green ideas were indeed kept alive by academics, public intellectuals, and activists. To give but a few illustrations, the birth control activist Joseph Symes wrote in 1886 in the pages of The Malthusian magazine that, “no matter how large the country, in the absence of deliberate efforts to the contrary the land will be over-stocked with people,” the food supply “too scanty” and “even standing room will soon be wanting.” What was true of any country was “equally true of the world at large, the raft to which we cling in the boundless ocean of space.”
Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) echoed another type of fear in 1899 when he argued that American agriculture was unsustainable because it was “based on robbing the soil which it sooner or later exhausts.”
In an 1902 piece titled “Windmills Must Be the Future Source of Power,” William Thomson (1824-1907), better remembered as Lord Kelvin, commented that to “predict that the world’s industrial progress will one day be halted and then rolled back in primitive methods is not a very daring prophecy when the conditions are studied closely,” by which he meant that the “world’s supply of coal will have been exhausted.”
Ten years later, the eugenicist Edward Isaacson argued that “the time must come when the countries which now export food will be filled up to the point where they will need all they produce for themselves, and can no longer supply the over-populated countries at any price.” Although emigration had acted as a safety valve in the past, this could only be done “so long as there is a place for it; but what then?”
In 1923 the distinguished American plant geneticist and eugenicist, Edward Murray East (1879-1938), opined in his influential Mankind at the Crossroads that the “facts of population growth and the facts of agricultural economics point… to the definite conclusion that the world confronts the fulfillment of the Malthusian prediction here and now.” Humans stood at “the parting of the ways, with the choice of controlling [their] own destiny or of being tossed about until the end of time by the blind forces of the environment in which” they found themselves. There was no comfort in looking at past failed predictions and happy developments, he argued, as the “present age is totally unlike any previous age” with inventions like the telephone, the telegraph, the steamboat, the locomotive and the motor-car. Thanks to such advances, he wrote, “the world as a whole is more of a single entity than were some of the smaller kingdoms of Europe in the fifteenth century” and “the pros and cons of fifty years ago are as obsolete as the spinning-wheel.” Collapse had only been averted by the opening of new lands to modern agricultural production technologies. In short order though, agricultural production wouldn’t keep up and “[f]ood exportation from the younger countries will sink rapidly, as it did in the United States during the decades before the [First World] war, so rapidly that overpopulated countries will have the greatest difficulty in adjusting themselves to the change.”
He also speculated on the state of the world at the end of the twentieth century if population and economic growth remained the order of the day. Describing the result as “not a pretty picture,” he pointed to China and India as an accurate reflection of “the world of to-morrow when the world as a whole reaches the same population status.” As he imagined things, in the late twentieth century:
In an address given the following year, another Harvard eugenicist and Dean of the Graduate School of Education Henry Wyman Holmes (1880-1960), suggested it was the educator’s duty to “favor every wise measure for the conscious control of population” because “[s]tudents of population and the means of subsistence do not hesitate to tell us that the problem is becoming continuously more acute.” Achieving his educational and eugenicist ideal was otherwise impossible “in a society that has not learned to control its own numbers in view of the means available for maintaining its chosen standards of living.”
The New York Times Moscow reporter Walter Duranty (1884-1957), a man now mostly remembered for parroting Soviet propaganda and for denying the Holodomor (the Terror Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s) as it was happening, perhaps best summed up the perspective of many generation of elitist environmentalists when he wrote in the 1930s that “[p]eople upon the worlds, are like maggots upon an apple. All forms of life bred upon the worlds are in the nature of parasites.”
By and large, however, environmentalism remained an elite concern until the end of the Second World War. From then on though, a string of best-selling books and pamphlets would pave the way to the first Earth Day in 1970. This will be the subject of our next column.
Pierre Desrochers, is Associate Professor of Geography, University of Toronto Mississauga.