Environmental Despair Springs EternalPart 2: Malthusianism in the Industrial Age

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Read part 1 here.

Writing 200 years ago, anarchist William Godwin (1756-1836) observed that before the publication of Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), pessimists Essay on the principle of population in 1798, most people believed that an increase in population would bring better days. He saw “something exhilarating and cheerful” in this prior spirit when humanity believed it could invoke “the limitless power we possess to remedy our ills and improve 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 availability, increasing in a linear fashion, would not keep up with the uncontrolled and exponential growth of the human population. After an initial increase, every seemingly thriving human population would reach the earth’s ecological limit and collapse.

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 initial position questionable. Indeed, most political economists had turned against him by the 1830s, as had much of the general public after the Great Exhibition of 1851 showed them the marvels of the industrial age. As summarized in the November 18, 1854 issue of The Economist“Nobody, except a few simple writers, is now worried about Malthus on the population… [but his] the error may well still persist in the universities, appropriate repositories of what is obsolete.

Ultimately, Malthusian and other green ideas were indeed kept alive by scholars, public intellectuals and activists. To give just a few illustrations, birth control activist Joseph Symes wrote in 1886 in the pages of The Malthusian magazine that “regardless of the size of the country, unless deliberate efforts are made to the contrary, the earth will be overcrowded”, the food supply “too scarce” and “even standing places will soon run out”. What was true of any country was “also true of the world as a whole, the raft we cling to in the endless ocean of space”.

Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) echoed a different kind of fear in 1899 when he argued that American agriculture was unsustainable because it was “based on the theft of the soil that it exhausts sooner or later”.

In a 1902 article entitled “Windmills must be the future source of power”, William Thomson (1824-1907), better known as Lord Kelvin, said that “to predict that world industrial progress will be a day stopped, then brought back”. primitive methods is not a very bold prophecy when the conditions are closely studied”, by which he meant that “the world supply of coal will have been exhausted”.

Ten years later, the eugenicist Edward Isaacson asserted that “the time must come when the countries which now export food will be filled to the point of needing all that they produce for themselves and will no longer be able to supply overpopulated countries at any cost.” Although emigration has acted as a safety valve in the past, it can only happen “as long as there is a place for it; but what then?

In 1923, the distinguished American plant breeder and eugenicist Edward Murray East (1879-1938) expressed himself in his influential Humanity at a Crossroads that the “facts of population growth and the facts of agricultural economics point…to the definitive conclusion that the world faces the fulfillment of the Malthusian prediction here and now”. Humans stood “at a crossroads, with the choice to control [their] their own destiny or to be tossed around 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, because “the present era is totally different from any previous era” with inventions like the telephone, telegraph, the steamboat, the locomotive and the automobile. Thanks to these advances, he writes, “the world as a whole is more of a single entity than some of the smaller kingdoms of Europe were in the fifteenth century” and “the advantages and disadvantages of fifty years are as obsolete as spinning. -the wheel.” The collapse had only been averted by the opening of new lands to modern agricultural production technologies. In a short time however, agricultural production would not follow and “[f]Food exports from young countries will fall rapidly, as was the case in the United States in the decades before the [First World] war, so quickly that overpopulated countries will find it very difficult to adapt to the change.

He also speculated on the state of the world at the end of the 20th century if population and economic growth remained on the agenda. Describing the result as “not a pretty picture”, he pointed to China and India as a true reflection of the “world of tomorrow when the world as a whole reaches the same population status”. As he imagined things, at the end of the 20th century:

[f]Good exporting had ceased about thirty years before, with the exception of the exchange of specialties; all temperate regions had by then reached the era of diminishing returns to agriculture. The tropics are populating as quickly as their subjection to the hand of man allows. A gradual reduction in population increase occurred, due to the intensity of the struggle; yet there are 3 billion people in the world. Migration has ceased; bars have been erected in all countries. Nations where some degree of comfort still exists want to keep it as long as possible. Food is scarce and expensive. The man works from sun to sun. When the crops are good, there are troubles but no rest, there are hardships and hardships; when crops fail, there is mass starvation like the one China and Russia had experienced long before. Agricultural efficiency has increased by 50% over the past half-century under the pressure of dire necessity, but each individual’s food resources are smaller than ever. Where war occurs, it is a war of extermination, for it is only by extermination that the victors can profit; where peace remains, it is under the shadow of a struggle as sinister as war.

In an address the following year, another Harvard eugenicist and dean of the Graduate School of Education, Henry Wyman Holmes (1880-1960), suggested that it was the duty of the educator to “foster every wise measure for the conscious control of the population” because “[s]Students of population and livelihoods are quick to tell us that the problem is becoming more and more acute. The realization of his educational and eugenic ideal was moreover impossible “in a society which has not learned to control its own numbers given the means available to maintain the standard of living it has chosen for itself”.

New York Times Moscow journalist Walter Duranty (1884-1957), a man best remembered for repeating Soviet propaganda and for denying the Holodomor (the terrorist famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s) as it happened, perhaps best summed up the perspective of many generations of elitist environmentalists when he wrote in the 1930s that “[p]the people on the worlds are like maggots on an apple. All forms of life engendered on the worlds are of the nature of parasites.

Overall, however, environmentalism remained an elite concern until the end of World War II. From then on, however, a series of best-selling books and pamphlets would pave the way for 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.

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