The Malthusians Are Back

Climate activists who worry that the world has too many people are joining an ugly tradition.

Red-and-white graphic illustration showing the Earth from space, but the continents are crowded with giant people
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

Scolding regular people for contributing to climate change is out of fashion. But scolding people for making new people is, apparently, totally fine. Many climate activists say the worst thing an individual can do, from an emissions perspective, is have kids. The climate-advocacy group Project Drawdown lists “family planning and education,” which are intended to lower fertility rates, as leading solutions to global warming. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian and celebrated climate researcher, published an op-ed in Scientific American this month titled “Eight Billion People in the World Is a Crisis, Not an Achievement.”

In recent years, many climate advocates have emphasized human population itself—as opposed to related factors such as consumption and technology—as the driving force behind environmental destruction. This is, at bottom, a very old idea that can be traced back to the 18th-century cleric Thomas Malthus. It is also analytically unsound and morally objectionable. Critics of overpopulation down through the ages have had a nasty habit of treating people less as individuals with value and agency than as sentient locusts.

Malthus argued against aid to poor Britons on the grounds that they consumed too many of the nation’s resources. In making his case, he semi-accurately described a particular kind of poverty that we still refer to as the “Malthusian trap” today. Agricultural productivity in poor societies is not high enough to support the population without significant labor input, so most people work on small subsistence farms to feed themselves and their families. The inescapably linear growth in the food supply could never outstrip the exponential growth in human populations, he argued.

But human societies have proved repeatedly that they can escape the Malthusian trap. Indeed, agricultural productivity has improved to support a British population seven times larger than in Malthus’s time and a global population eight times larger. As a result of these stubborn facts, most Malthusian imitators haven’t come out and said they’re Malthusians. And instead of focusing on famine, they have tended to emphasize humanity’s destruction of nature.

The Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich has been the world’s leading overpopulation hawk since the publication of his 1968 book, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich did warn about food shortages, but as an entomologist and a conservationist, his primary concern was our influence on the natural world. “The progressive deterioration of our environment may cause more death and misery than the food-population gap,” he wrote.

In a description of a trip to New Delhi, he was vividly forthcoming about his distaste for the living, breathing individuals who make up a population:

People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.

If people, people, people are the primary threat to the natural world, what is the solution? Uncomfortable as it is to say, conservationist and eugenicist theories have long been intertwined. Indeed, in his newly published autobiography, Life: A Journey Through Science and Politics, Ehrlich credits the early-20th-century thinker William Vogt, whom he calls “a liberal conservationist,” as inspiration for his work on population. Here is how Vogt explained his proposal to offer “sterilization bonuses” to the poor:

Since such a bonus would appeal primarily to the world’s shiftless, it would probably have a favorable selective influence. From the point of view of society, it would certainly be preferable to pay permanently indigent individuals, many of whom would be physically and psychologically marginal, $50 or $100 rather than support their hordes of offspring that, by both genetic and social inheritance, would tend to perpetuate the fecklessness.

In the beginning of the previous century, there was simply no contradiction in being a “liberal conservationist” and being a eugenicist. Vogt was the national director for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which has recently reckoned with the eugenicist commitments of its founder, Margaret Sanger. The Sierra Club, which was initially led by a number of avowed eugenicists, commissioned Ehrlich to write The Population Bomb and for decades operated a program focused on ways to reduce fertility and immigration.

Now 90 years old, Ehrlich still takes pride in the work he did turning population growth into a global concern, even though the mass famine and pestilence that he predicted in the ’60s never came to pass.

“I must admit,” he writes in his autobiography, “that in 2019 I was pleased to find an article in a history journal that credited us ‘neo-Malthusians’ with stimulating ‘thinking of the planet as a whole and anticipating its future.’”

And Ehrlich remains a venerated figure. In January of this year, CBS featured Ehrlich on an episode of 60 Minutes on species extinction. The climate scientist Michael Mann called the memoir a “wide-ranging, wondrous, and pleasantly amusing account of his amazing life—as a scientist, thinker, communicator, influencer, and champion for a sustainable world.”

Intellectual descendants of Ehrlich’s in the environmental movement continue to sell old Malthusian wine in new bottles.

Oreskes draws attention to the same problem that Ehrlich did in his day: biodiversity loss associated with high-fertility, low-productivity societies caught in the Malthusian trap. Because subsistence farms have low yields, and because the farmers tend to rely on wood and other biomass for energy, they remain a major driver of deforestation, land-use change, and wildlife extirpation.

In Oreskes’s recent Scientific American op-ed, she acknowledges that her ideas have a tarnished legacy. “Population control is a vexing subject,” she writes, “because in the past it has generally been espoused by rich people (mostly men) instructing people in poor countries (mostly women) on how to behave.” Her workaround is to emphasize educational opportunities as a “reasonable” way to “slow growth.” In an email, Oreskes said that she does not consider herself a Malthusian and that she focuses on education “because we know that it can work, and unlike some other approaches it is good for women, and non-coercive.”

The Overpopulation Project (TOP) also highlights education, arguing that governments in every country should “make population and environmental issues and sex education part of the basic educational curriculum.” Likewise, Population Connection (formerly Zero Population Growth, which Ehrlich co-founded in 1968) develops “K-12 curricula and secondary education materials for teachers and professors so they can easily incorporate population studies into their classes.”

Access to education—in general, or to sex ed and “population studies” in particular—is certainly preferable to Vogt’s forced sterilization. But what about solutions to environmental decline that emphasize better growth instead of slower growth? Solutions such as modern energy infrastructure, high-productivity agriculture, and access to global markets?

Proposals of this sort, which Oreskes refers to derisively as “cornucopianism,” are the alternatives to Malthusianism that have proved effective across history. Rough contemporaries of Malthus, such as the Marquis de Condorcet, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Engels, argued that improvements in economic productivity would allow humans to grow enough food to meet rising population levels, and they were right. Vogt’s pessimism lost out to the ingenuity of, among others, the Nobel Peace Prize–winning agronomist Norman Borlaug, as the historian Charles Mann recounts in his 2018 book, The Wizard and the Prophet. Borlaug’s innovations in wheat and maize cultivation helped stave off the famines Vogt and other eugenicists had predicted. Ehrlich, infamously, lost a bet with the libertarian economist Julian Simon over resource scarcity. (Simon goes completely unmentioned in Ehrlich’s autobiography.) And “cornucopianism” can do more than fend off famine; it can serve conservationist ends. Thanks to innovation and technological decoupling, an average American today is more than twice as wealthy as an average American was the year The Population Bomb was published, yet generates 30 percent fewer carbon emissions and uses 50 percent less land for their diet.

Like Oreskes, the scientists at TOP and Population Connection insist that their proposed solutions to the population “problem” are noncoercive. They just want to nudge people in the direction of fewer people. Another of TOP’s priorities is to “reduce immigration numbers” to developed countries with low fertility rates. Additional ideas include proposals to lower government support for third and fourth children and for medical fertility treatments.

But Ehrlich said the same thing. “I’m against government interference in our lives,” he told an interviewer in 1970. How that sentiment squared with Ehrlich’s demands in The Population Bomb for “compulsory birth regulation” and “sterilizing all Indian males with three or more children” remains unclear. And it didn’t stop powerful institutions from taking his warnings about overpopulation literally as well as seriously. As Betsy Hartmann recounted in her 1987 exposé, Reproductive Rights and Wrongs, the Population Council, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and other organizations funded fertility-reduction programs that, in tandem with sometimes coercive government policies, led to millions of sterilizations in China, India, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere. China’s one-child policy can be directly traced to Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome’s famous Malthusian screed warning of resource shortages and overpopulation.

When the problem is defined as too many carbon emissions, the solutions will be optimized to reduce emissions. When the problem is defined as too little education and bodily autonomy, solutions such as schooling and birth control make intuitive sense. When the problem is defined as too many people, the “solutions” will surely once again go far beyond the gentle, humane approaches that the neo-Malthusians emphasize. As The Atlantic’s Jerusalem Demsas put it, “Enough with the innuendo: If overpopulation is the hill you want to die on, then you’ve got to defend the implications.”

Fortunately, much of civil society has gotten wise to the new, friendly Malthusianism. Ehrlich’s appearance on 60 Minutes was met with widespread condemnation. Last year the Sierra Club shut down its long-standing population-control program, writing, “Contraception and family planning are not climate mitigation measures.”

And these concerns are being raised at a peculiar moment in human history. The total population of human beings on Earth is expected to peak and decline later this century, not because of war, famine, or disease, but because of secularly declining fertility. The challenge that nations including Germany, South Korea, Japan, and even India and China are dealing with today is underpopulation, not overpopulation. Migrants, particularly those who are young and skilled, will be crucial to generating economic growth in these countries. This makes the neo-Malthusian dismissal of technology, infrastructure, and growth particularly troubling. Supporting an aging population will require an economic surplus that has traditionally been supplied by a favorable ratio of younger workers in the labor force to retirees. As that ratio reverses, it is not clear how infrastructure maintenance and social-services financing will fare.

Given that the Malthusian dream—a peak in global population—is already in sight, one might think that single-minded efforts to further suppress population growth would wane. But the old population-control movement is still alive and well today.