Friday, January 21, 2011

Can you control the Population of Malthusians when Ideas have Sex?

Brendan O’Neill recently posted "The definitive guide to modern-day Malthusians"

Malthusians are multiplying like rabbits. They’re everywhere. In respectable Western society you can’t swing a bat without hitting a Malthus-inspired misery guts. Yet while many of them are happy to talk openly about the plague of people making Gaia sick, some don’t consider themselves Malthusians at all. There are old-style Malthusians who doom-monger about frenzied fecundity in the dusty Over There, and newer Malthusians-in-denial who never, ever use the words ‘population’ and ‘control’ in succession, yet who still claim that humanity’s consumption habits threaten to bring about eco-doom.

Either way, the Malthusian attitude – the idea that every problem we face is a product of our temerity to try to live beyond nature’s means – is rampant today, whether it labels itself Malthusianism or something less likely to get people’s backs up. So to help you spot Malthusian thinking in its many guises in the year ahead, as we welcome the seven billionth human being, spiked offers this guide to the myriad of modern-day Malthusians.

The article then goes on to describe a variety of different flavors of Malthusianism: Unreconstructed, celebrity, psycho, feminist and green (complete with cute photos caricaturing the various categories).

Andrew Revkin, in Deconstructing a Bestiary of Malthusian ‘Miserabilists’, delivers an email Q and A which reveals to O'Neil to be considerably more sensible than the populist characterization one constructs from the article. More interesting, to me, however, was Revkin's take on the significance of a particular type of person -- an educated and networked individual -- over population in general in recasting the cornucopian viewpoint.

What’s your take on my recent dissection of Julian Simon’s “ultimate resource” thesis?

I don’t argue against more minds = more innovation and a faster route out of poverty.

But I also see no implicit “need” for more people (again, I’m not a Malthusian, just noting a potentially extraneous element of the “cornucopian” argument).

What’s needed is more minds that are educated and — in the sense Matt Ridley describes so well — networked.

I’m cheering for more education and access to information, not more (or less) babies except by choices made ideally by informed, educated [couples].

Well, I am not pro-natalist; I don’t think the Earth needs a certain number of people. I am simply opposed to any controls or coercion whatsoever in the realm of reproductive choice. Often the flip side to Malthusianism is natalism, the idea that we need more people in order to do A, B and C. Both of these outlooks are based on a demographic obsession, and my belief is that we should move away from understanding our problems as demographic towards appreciating that they are social.

For those interested, here is Matt Ridley's TED Talk 'When Ideas have Sex'


  1. Still a cornucopian huh? Here's a clue. Only a tiny, almost infinitesimal percentage of people get to do anything with their ideas. Because almost all the resources are controlled by elites.

    Joe Bob's idea for a super-efficient, straw bale house do him no good when the banks control all the house-building money. My ideas for neighbhorhood geothermal heating districts aren't going anywhere because I don't have the $100K to go to engineering school and the other $2 million to develop a prototype.

    Ideas are nothing without access to resources.

  2. Nope, not a cornucopian -- never have been, never will be. But, by the same light, I wouldn't call myself a straight-up neo-Malthusian either.

    The world is more complex than either position admits and until people stop thinking ideologically, reductively and simplistically (like Tetlock's hedgehogs, see ) we're not going to make much progress in addressing our real problems.