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John Passant

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Overpopulation, Malthus and Marx

Was Malthus right? Is there overpopulation?  At first blush it seems sensible to say so.  But commonsense flows from and may be a cover (deliberate or not) for the status quo, in this case the existing capitalist social structures and relations.

The overpopulation catch cry used to be: “People are poor because there are too many of us.”   Actually it’s more often: “People are poor because there are to many of them.” Now many seem to be adding a new twist. “Global warming exists because there are too many people.” It’s really just blaming the victim, just as Israel, the US and Australia are doing in Palestine right now.

Over 30 years ago, in response to the revival of Malthusian ideas,  Martha E. Gimenez from the University of Colorado wrote, in The Population Issue: Marx v Malthus (published in Den Ny Verden (Journal of the Institute for Development Research), Copenhagen, Denmark, December 1973) that:

Abstractly considered, the relationship between scarce resources and a continuously increasing population turns the arguments in favor of population control into “self-evident truths” which can only be rejected by the unthinking and the dogmatic. From a Marxist viewpoint, such “self-evident truths” are but reifications of concrete historical, social, political, and economic relations which should be taken into account if the population issue is to be at all understood. Just as in the 18th century the English ruling classes fought the impact of the French Revolution with military and ideological weapons among which Malthus’ “Essay on Population” was perhaps the most important, today the ruling classes are bringing back the Malthusian argument in an effort to increase their control over the growing number of the dispossessed. Like Malthus, contemporary socio-economic theorists view excessive population rather than social institutions and social relations as the main source and barrier to the solution of social problems.


The alternative to Malthus – that the problem is capitalist production and social relations, not population – is to my mind a more cogent one.  So what is it that Malthus said about population?

In 1803 he wrote: “Population when unchecked goes on doubling itself every 25 years. i.e. it increases at a geometric rate, in contrast, food production cannot possibly be made to increase faster than an arithmetic ratio.”

This appears to me to be just plain wrong. Bjorn Lomborg , no friend of the Left, wrote in 2001:

Although there are now twice as many of us as there were in 1961, each of us has more to eat, in both developed and developing countries.”

In fact food production has increased since Malthus’ time at a greater rate than population, even while the population itself has been growing at a geometric rate.  Malthus ignored the inventiveness of humanity and our capacity to increase productivity, including food production.

Not only that but enough is produced today to feed everyone on the planet more than adequately.  The problem is not too many people hence starvation; the problem is not enough money hence starvation.  The way society is currently structured condemns a billion people to starvation.  A rational, planned, democratic society would feed those people immediately.

As an aside the same argument appears true for global warming.  The market, not the fact there are 6.5 bn on the planet,  created the problem.  That’s why I am deeply sceptical about market solutions like an Emissions Trading Scheme actually addressing let alone dealing with the issue. (Let’s leave aside for the moment our Prime Minister’s incredible sellout to business with his pathetic ETS scheme, 5 percent target and free permits for the big polluters.)

Back to Malthus. Marx was scathing about him, and apart from some of his comments being further examples of Marx’s incredible capacity for ridicule and abuse, he did also rebut Malthusian ideas.  For example in Volume 1 of Capital Marx wrote:

But the conservative interests, which Malthus served, prevented him from seeing that an unlimited prolongation of the working-day, combined with an extraordinary development of machinery, and the exploitation of women and children, must inevitably have made a great portion of the working-class “supernumerary,” particularly whenever the war should have ceased, and the monopoly of England in the markets of the world should have come to an end. It was, of course, far more convenient, and much more in conformity with the interests of the ruling classes, whom Malthus adored like a true priest, to explain this “over-population” by the eternal laws of Nature, rather than by the historical laws of capitalist production.

In other words Malthus was turning the problem on its head and developing an iron law which served the interests of the employing class.  If that iron law were correct (which as I have argued, it isn’t) then alternative societies, like Marx’s vision of democratic and planned socialism where production occurs to satisfy human need, could never abolish want.

Some Malthusians take great pride in the fact that Darwin was inspired by the ideas of Malthus and applied them to the natural world. Here’s what Marx wrote in a letter to Engels in 1862 about this:

I’m amused that Darwin, at whom I’ve been taking another look, should say that he also applies the ‘Malthusian’ theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr Malthus’s case the whole thing didn’t lie in its not being applied to plants and animals, but only — with its geometric progression — to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes’ bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an ‘intellectual animal kingdom’, whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.

Today as the neo-Malthusians blame overpopulation for the problems of the world, we on the Left need to respond by saying the problem is not human beings or how many of us there are but the way society is currently organised.



Comment from john tons
Time December 31, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Pity the author does not fully understand exponential growth. Malthus failed to anticipate our capacity to feed the world’s population but that is not really the key concern with population growth. Any population that grows beyond the capacity of its environment to sustain it will be faced with nature’s own solutions to bringing the population back to reasonable numbers. Homo Urbanus is far removed from any sense of the natural world we simply assume we can go on the way we are without any penalty. E M Forster described it rather well in his story The Machine Stops.

Comment from John
Time December 31, 2008 at 12:23 pm

Thanks john tons. Actually I agree we can’t go on the way we are but the momentum of capitalism seems to me to trap us in this do nothing approach. Liz Ross from Socialist Alternative ( )has written about this and her pamphlet Capitalism: It’s costing us the Earth is well worth a read to address the very criticisms you make.)

The real question is have we grown beyond “natural” limits or is the way we organise production creating the problems.

Food is one example of the idea that we have grown beyoond natural limits being wrong becuase of our creativity and innovation. Whtehr that is the case with say gloabl warming I’ll leave to readers to judge and comment. I think Liz’s view is that the current way of producing goods will doom us.

Comment from Arjay
Time January 1, 2009 at 10:22 am

8000 yrs ago New York was under a mile of ice.Global cooling can occur in very short period.Billions would be at risk of starving.An even greater risk would be the wars over reources and energy.
We do have a serious over pop problem,beacuse there are no possible contingency plans we can fall back on with just a a small change in climate.Particularly a mini ice age that they had 300 yrs ago.

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Time April 26, 2009 at 2:20 pm

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Comment from john in scotland
Time June 6, 2009 at 11:49 pm

I have to agree with Jon ton . the emerging predictament of global warming is a qualitative”new” event and not one that I think Marx or Malthus would of contemplated or for seen . What it shows is that though human/social agency comes into the provision of food, there are limits to growth .Once the subtle inter connections are thrown out of balance , then a new reality emerges which affects all systems within the whole .

James Lovelock is worth a look here .

Also I might add that global warming has become a revolutionary question .The need to harmonise and direct international production to transform it is imperative . Sadly many Marxist still seem to chunner on as if a new world of plenty for all is just round the corner ……I dont think so !

Comment from John
Time June 7, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Thank john in scotland. I don’t think Marx or Malthus foresaw global warming.

But I think Marx gave us the tools to understand the nature of the society we live in and its relationship to nature to enable Marxists to have a view about global warming.

I am thinking here of Paul Burkett, John Bellamy Foster and Liz Ross in Australia’s Socialist Alternative for example and some of the thinkers in the British SWP like Jonathan Neale. There is an article of Jonathon’s about green jobs re-posted on this site.

Obviously in the mid 1800s Marx didn’t foresee the exact changes capitalism would wring, but he saw the working class as the harbinger of radical change and with it a new relationship between humanity and nature.

I am not sure about this idea that global warming means there are limits to growth. As I understand it there is more than enough food currently produced to adequately feed everyone in the world. (Future capability I agree is another question). But it seems to me that here and now the problem of feeding the world is one of distribution not production.

Actually I think the world of plenty already exists. But the profit system stops an equitable distribution, and indeed may stop humanity addressing the challenge of global warming.