Malthusian Specter and Collective Action

by Chidem Kurdas

In an article titled “Can Our Species Escape Destruction?” John Terborgh argues that collective restraint is the one hope for stopping overgrown humanity’s devastation of the planet. This is a scientifically-imbued version of a common view. When the United Nations Population Fund announced that on Oct. 31st world population will reach seven billion, news stories referred to the event as a Halloween specter

Malthus’ thesis that exponential population growth cannot be sustained by finite resources is a truism, though it is fashionable to dismiss Malthus, Mr. Terborgh says. In Malthus’ bleak early 19th century  scenario, when population becomes excessive, overcrowding and competition for resources causes famines and wars. Those disasters act as a check on population.

We now know that population growth goes down in response to higher income and better education. In developed countries people have far fewer children than they did in the past. Poorer countries have high birth rates but in most places the growth rate of population is declining—in India, for instance.   If these trends continue, world population will stabilize, albeit at a high level.

Of course, the ecological Armageddon argument is not just about the growing number of people but about the growth of each person’s carbon footprint. We in the developed world consume gargantuan amounts of resources compared to any past society and billions of people in developing countries are fast increasing their consumption.

Mr. Terborgh  sets out the links in a seemingly impeccable chain of reasoning. “Humans compete for resources, living space, mates, social status, and almost everything else,” he points out. But  “competition has a dark side, for a competitive system provides no rewards for restraint; to the contrary, lack of restraint is often rewarded.”

Given that “Without restraint there is nothing to prevent the exhaustion of resources and a global calamity of unprecedented proportions,”  the conclusion follows: “The world needs to impose collective restraints on many fronts, but so far self-interest and competitiveness have trumped most efforts to respond to the needs of the collective whole.”

What entity is to impose worldwide restraints? Mr. Terborgh does not see national governments constraining competitive greed. On the contrary: “The human predicament of overpopulation and overexploitation of resources is fundamentally driven by the primordial impulses … In the contemporary world, these impulses form the self-interest of competitively driven entities, be they individuals, corporations, or nation-states.”

So nation-states can’t get beyond the primordial impulse to compete for more resources.  This suggests a supra-national body. One could envision an amalgamation of the United Nations and the US Environmental Protection Agency writ large, but to possess the authority to impose constraints it would have to be backed by political power. A worldwide political entity, dictating and enforcing rules for the supposed “collective good” of humanity—that could be an international communist party with ecology as its protégé rather than the proletariat.

Truth is, replacing the invisible hand of competitive markets with a visible global boot would  not necessarily protect the planet. On the contrary, past collectivist dictatorships caused great environmental havoc—recall the Soviet Union’s record, from heavily polluting industries to the Chernobyl nuclear plant, all centrally planned, no doubt justified by some notion of the “collective good”. Then there is the issue of what an environmentalist Stalin with global reach would do to our lives and liberties.

Scientists like Mr. Terborgh complain that humanity is not heeding their warnings about the impending ecological crisis. Given the political implications of collective action, you can see why many people prefer to take their chances with overpopulation and resource depletion.

But this issue merits serious discussion, especially as any attempt to use collectivist methods to prevent environmental catastrophe would strengthen authoritarian politics.

24 thoughts on “Malthusian Specter and Collective Action

  1. I find this commentary disappointing, in that it makes no effort to respond the the patently false premise that a greater population is devastating to the planet. Julian Simon demolished the Malthusian case decades ago. Greater production enables greater production, and greater wealth enables better environmental stewardship. The doomsayers will always be there. And they will always be wrong.

  2. Hume: I checked the Scanlon essay and in the very second paragraph the author demonstrates ignorance of how it was government interference that brought on the housing bust, financial meltdown, and subsequent economic slump. So no, contrary to Scanlon, it’s not an example of why things can’t be left to the market, and it would be hard for me to devote more time to that piece.

    Down through history there have always been trends which, if they continued, would lead to undersirable results. For example, if you extrapolated 19th century trends in the number of horses in New York City, how deep would the manure be by now? But the trends don’t continue indefinitely, for reasons that generally don’t have much to do with collectivist policies. NY was saved from its fate by the now-maligned internal combustion engine, and it appears the world population is leveling off as well, certainly in those countries that have been economically most free.

    It’s hard not to succumb to cynicism regarding the motivations of collectivists. Seems they are always scanning the horizon for the next dark cloud, the one that will finally prove that people can’t be allowed to pursue their goals and interact non-coercively.

  3. Terborgh doesn’t seem to have learned anything from Julian Simon when both were at the University of Maryland.

    Nor how Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich made an ass of himself in a famous resource bet with Simon that Ehrlich lost.

    Nor the demise four decades ago, in disgrace, of Aurelio Peccei’s Club of Rome and the Meadows-Forrester Limits to Growth report out of MIT.

    How many times have the prophets of doom predicted that the U.S. was about to exhaust its last BTU of fossil fuel? Then along came offshore fields and Alaska and now shale.

    There are no finite resources, except the brains of scientists who project their fading creativity on the rest of mankind.

    The NY Review of Books has disgraced itself by publishing this warmed-over pro-totalitarian drivel.

  4. Human control (of the many by the few) is doomed to fail (for the many), no matter what.

    That formula might work for the defeat of one group by another, but it will NEVER work for the defeat of nature by ANY group (e.g., “mankind”).

    Ditch it, dump it, reject it – and STRENUOUSLY if you can, for the few are ALWAYS seeking to control the many.

  5. James Pier–
    Re “Julian Simon demolished the Malthusian case decades ago.”
    I think what’s going on now raises issues beyond the Simon-Ehrlich debate. At this stage it is a fact that the rate of population growth is declining. If one worries about ecological sustainability, the growth of consumption per head is probably more of a threat than population growth.

    Re “greater wealth enables better environmental stewardship.” Certainly you can find examples of this. But the global environmental effect is a complicated question.

  6. Hume–
    I’m not sure the article you point to helps resolve the problem. Yes, there is a general notion that collectivist interventions are necessary in various areas but that’s just a beginning point. The obvious question is what an intervention actually does.

  7. I should have prefaced my comment with “This is completely off topic, but I thought you all might find this interesting.”

  8. Re “I think what’s going on now raises issues beyond the Simon-Ehrlich debate.”

    There was much more to Julian Simon than one wager with Ehrlich. For instance, re: “the growth of consumption per head is probably more of a threat than population growth” — I don’t think Simon would have seen the growth of consumption per head as necessarily problematic either.

  9. The growth of consumption per head has been going on since our ancestors climbed down from trees and began tool making and trading. And so must consumption keep growing, unless an intrusive state sabotages the ability of humans to produce more than they consume and invest the surplus in creating or finding new resources.

    It’s no coincidence that Malthus was Keynes’ favorite 19th century economist and that the inspiration for the General Theory was reading Malthus (cf. Keynes’ Essays in Persuasion), or that Keynes was a eugenicist.

  10. What matters as consumption is the satisfaction of wants. This doesn’t necessarily mean using more energy and resources. At some point quality is more important than quantity, and as population levels off one can hope that human impact on the rest of the natural world will remain within limits.

  11. An expanding division of labor requires an expanding population at successively higher material levels of culture. This necessarily means the consumption of greater quantities of energy and resources overall (though not necessarily in particular applications, which can become more resource efficient). Most of our planet, far from being overpopulated, is yet to be developed. Beyond that are other planets and a very large universe. Fossil fuels on earth are plentiful for several centuries. So are fissionable and fusionable materials, not to mention new energy sources likely to lie beyond (dark matter, dark energy).

    At the risk of being doctrinaire, I will say: to the extent one is attracted to a Malthusian outlook of stasis and limits to growth, to that extent one departs from the spirit of Austrian economics and flirts with the camp of its mortal enemies.

  12. The core of Austrian economics is individual choice in the pursuit of goals and purposes. It is not a matter of pure logic that this must result in the consumption of ever greater quantities of energy and resources, at least not on Earth. Even in the purest anarcho-capitalist society, private property could lead to the reservation of substantial areas for non-development. If an expanding division of labor requires an ever-increasing population, this may simply indicate that the division of human labor will not expand indefinitely. Much depends on scientific, technological, and cultural developments that I doubt anyone can predict with certainty, very far down the road.

  13. “The core of Austrian economics is individual choice in the pursuit of goals and purposes.”

    Well, Mr. Walstad, you’re welcome to place your bets on the future planetary dominance of childless hippy communes, ignoring the fact that few of their members seem to be able to dispense with iPhones and iPads to call up recipes for stewing roots for the next communal meal.

    Meanwhile the other seven billion of us, as consumers, will seek to continually improve our material level of culture and that of our progeny, while some of us, as entrepreneurs, will strive to satisfy those desires and needs through innovation.

    Which of us has plumbed deeper the heart of man?

    But I wish you good luck on your project to alter human nature so that it is satisfied with less. I think to succeed with your project you’ll need a very strong state to rectify individual choice in the pursuit of goals and purposes. Suggested model: North Korea.

  14. “Now the greatest accomplishment of reason is the discovery of the advantages of social cooperation, and its corollary, the division of labor.”

    “It is by virtue of the division of labor that man is distinguished from the animals. It is the division of labor that has made feeble man, far inferior to most animals in physical strength, the lord of the earth and the creator of the marvels of technology.”

    “Economic history is the development of the division of labor.”

    “Every expansion of the personal division of labor brings advantages to all who take part in it.”

    Ludwig von Mises, respective sources noted at

  15. RichardSchulman–

    Re “Fossil fuels on earth are plentiful for several centuries.” Even so, other resources could run out. Like top soil, which does seem to be eroding. It is hard not to notice that food stuffs have on the whole have become more expensive, for instance. The US government’s ethanol subsidy and quota, causing the conversion of land to that use, no doubt played a role, but there is also a huge increase in demand.

  16. Re “Meanwhile the other seven billion of us, as consumers, will seek to continually improve our material level of culture and that of our progeny,…”
    Well yes. The issue the neo-Malthusianssraise is whether this is destroying the planet or at least the qualities that make it habitable for human beings.

  17. Mr. Schulman, I had the impression earlier that you were addressing a straw man — which has been confirmed by your more recent comment. Regarding your most recent comment: as convinced as I am of the value of the Austrian paradigm, I do not regard quoting Mises in the manner of scripture as a substitute for rational disputation.

  18. I’ve avoided commenting because I reject all the premises behind the twin arguments of the Malthusians and radical environmentalist (who richly deserve each other’s dour company).

    Each human life is valuable unto itself. More human beings are a positive, not a negative. Malthus’ argument was self-refuting, as Chidem hints at but doesn’t pursue.

    As Adman Smith correctly taught us, consumption is the sole end of an economy. The ability to sustain consumption is the long-run measure of economic well being. God bless the billions of Chinese and Indians; they have attained a level of consumption unimaginable to almost anyone two decades ago.

    Economic devlopment is good, and self-correcting. Again, as Julian Simon taught us, real resource costs fall over time. That reflects the fact that economic devlopment creates rather than uses up resources.

  19. Jerry-

    “Economic development is a good, and self-correcting.”

    In my humble opinion, this is true only in a profit and loss system. Sheldon Richman and others talk of a “freed market,” as opposed to the putatively free market we have now. A freed market would reward prudent use of resources and reduce the likelihood of waste, proving Mr. Terborgh wrong. We don’t have a freed market though, we have a market manipulated by political incentives to squander resources. In this context it is hard for me to dismiss the Malthusian and environmentalist arguments.

  20. @Eric Hosemann:

    As the Solyndra scandal demonstrates, “political incentives to squander resources” these days are mainly being driven by radical environmentalists, e.g., in seeking to suppress proven sources of energy (fossil fuels and nuclear power) in favor of uneconomical, low energy flux-density sources (solar and wind).

    More ominously, throughout the developed world, the main driver toward totalitarian forms of government is no longer communism or Aryan racialism as in the 1930s but rather radical environmentalism. The Terborgh article that prompted Chidem Kurdas to open this thread is an example of argumentation pointing in that direction.

    The greater part of the environmentalist movement today is Malthusian, anti-population-growth, anti-science, anti-human, and proto-fascist. Genuine, not spurious, “tragedies of the common,” can be handled quite unexceptionally by agreements between limited-government constitutional republics — if we can manage to get the community of nations back to that desired state!

  21. Of course, I met economic development under free markets. Is it economic development otherwise?

    Malthus’s argument does not purport to depend on free markets, but represents itself as a law of nature. According to Malthus,the supply of food increases arithmetically but the population increases geometrically.

    Evene were Malthus’ premise true, its conclusion would not follow (a population crisis). If the supply of food increased only arithmetically, then the population would increase only artithmetically. Food production would be the binding constraint. As i said, it is a self-refuting proposition.

    On the evolution of environmentalism, free-market environmentalist John Baden predicted
    this after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The left would wrap itself in the cause of environmentalism as the means to impose totalitarianism. He called them watermelons: green on the oustide, red on the inside.

  22. The Solyndra scandal is a dramatic instance of government industrial policy supposedly seeking environmental ends. It demonstrates that such policy is charade, with the politically influential getting the goodies and of course the rest of us paying.

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