Malthusianism Is Still With Us

“Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We are the virus.” This tweet and others like it have gone viral over the last few months as the coronavirus pandemic has forced many countries to lock down their economies. These statements, paired with dramatic images of empty city streets and animals roaming freely in urban settings, suggest that pollution and other forms of environmental damage are caused by a large volume of humans engaged in their daily routines of production and consumption. As a result of the lockdown, the earth is apparently returning to its natural state, free from human interference.

The implication here is that because most people are forced to stay inside—no longer commuting to work or engaging in recreational activities—the natural world is flourishing in the absence of our destructive habits. But this line of reasoning is based on appearances, not an analysis of the motive forces at work in our society. It falsely assumes that individual human activity is the main cause of ecological destruction, shifting the blame away from the bourgeoisie’s irresponsible exploitation of natural resources, imperialist wars, and waste dumping in the dominated countries by monopoly corporations.

In reality, the perceived environmental effects of the lockdown—the return of wildlife, clearing up of waterways and canals, reduced air pollution and the healing of the ozone layer, etc.—are mostly misconceptions or temporary effects. The clearing up of Venice’s waterways does not mean that they are cleaner, but that reduced traffic has allowed sediment to settle at the bottom of canals. The ‘return’ of wildlife in some cities is only apparent, hyped up by “social media users mistakenly identifying normal wildlife activity as an abnormal effect of reduced human activity” due to the lockdown.

Regardless of intent, the sentiment in these tweets reinforce a series of problematic and erroneous ideas: That the cause of climate change is individual consumption; that neo-Malthusian population control is the solution to poverty and ecological destruction; and that the elderly, disabled, and marginalized constitute a burden to society and are not fit to survive. These erroneous theories are not based in a scientific analysis of society, but are produced and popularized by viral internet conspiracies, racist political agendas, and flawed logic.

The ideas behind population control can be traced back to Thomas Malthus and his Essay on the Principle of Population, published in 1798. The basic premise of the Essay is that while population grows at an exponential rate, food production can only grow at a constant rate. For Malthus, all social ills could be attributed to “overpopulation”—an unavoidable consequence of the unequal growth of population and food resources. According to this view, phenomena like starvation and disease are just natural and even beneficial corrections to overpopulation. Malthus thus considered improvements in the conditions of the poor to be not only impossible, but also detrimental:

We should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid forms of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.

In order to maintain the population in line with a supposedly linear food supply, Malthus believed that “population checks” were required. However, this model has been proven false as capitalism’s rapid development of agricultural technology allowed food supply to grow along with population, and even surpass it.

In his day, Malthus represented the interests of the feudal aristocracy in opposition to the political economy of the bourgeoisie. However, the bourgeoisie has since revived his aristocratic theories to serve their own moribund class interests. Bourgeois academics to this day frequently point to regions of high density in West Africa, India, and China as prime areas of pollution due to overpopulation, calling for ‘soft’ genocide as a solution. The US government—with the help of private funders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—directly funded a state-run population control program in India, in which hundreds of thousands of men and women were sterilized, including many indigenous Adivasi and lower-caste women.

Under capitalism, the elimination of starvation has become a possibility for the first time in human history. At the same time, however, the realization of this possibility is blocked by capitalist relations of production. More than enough food is produced to feed the entire global population, but 30 percent (or 1.6 billion tons) of that food is destroyed every year because it cannot be sold profitably. 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from chronic undernourishment and 9 million people die from hunger and related diseases annually, with the bulk of these people living in countries dominated by imperialism. The phenomena of food waste and hunger are exacerbated in economic crises like the present ones, where capitalists are compelled to destroy their stocks to keep up prices, and the purchasing power of the working class is slashed as unemployment rises. The theory of overpopulation deliberately obfuscates the inherent inability of capitalism to meet the basic needs of society, blaming the poor for their own hunger.

Malthus’s work has been promoted by prominent bourgeois figures like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Henry F. Osborn—one of the leading proponents of scientific racism and eugenics in the United States. Throughout the 20th century, neo-Malthusian advocates resurrected Malthus as an ecologist, with best-selling books like Our Plundered Planet (1948) and Population Bomb (1968) dominating ecological debates. In fact, eugenicist thought (more or less covert) is typical of bourgeois ecology. The capitalist class cannot admit that the mass starvation of the global poor is its own fault, so it must necessarily shift the blame with theories like Malthusian overpopulation. The theory of overpopulation is even evident in today’s mainstream discussions of climate change. Only a few months ago, liberal academic Jane Goodall claimed, “All these [environmental] things we talk about wouldn’t be a problem if there was the size of population that there was 500 years ago,” repeating Malthus’ doctrine in blaming overpopulation for ecological problems. No matter that the richest 1 percent are responsible for 30 times the amount of carbon emissions by the poorest 50 percent of the world population!

Similarly, the bourgeoisie cannot admit that the high death toll of COVID is its own fault, even as it abandons the elderly, disabled people, oppressed nationalities, and ethnic minorities to the virus. In the US, some states are even denying emergency medical care to COVID patients on the basis of disability. Alabama’s pandemic plan, for example, states that “persons with severe mental retardation, advanced dementia or severe traumatic brain injury may be poor candidates for ventilator support.” In a private nursing home in Queens, employees have reported “shortages of gloves, hand sanitizer, stethoscopes, and, most concerningly, medication. When they can’t locate a certain pill, [employees are] told to note that a resident refused it, rather than record it as out of stock.” Oppressed nationalities and ethnic minorities are also being disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Despite only representing 6 percent of the population in Wisconsin, Black people make up around 40 percent of total coronavirus fatalities in the state. Black and Latino New Yorkers are dying at twice the rate of their white peers, despite making up a much smaller portion of the population. The reason for this is no secret—Black and Latino people are more likely than their white counterparts to be uninsured, more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, more likely to work low-wage “essential” jobs, and less likely to be able to work from home.

The bourgeoisie and its political lackeys wring their hands about the widespread shortages of ventilators, personal protective equipment, and medication that have compounded the death toll of the coronavirus but claim there is nothing they can do about it. This is true insofar as the capitalist class cannot help but value profit over human lives. The imperatives of capital accumulation compel the bourgeoisie to hoard its wealth rather than fund increased production of medical supplies to cope with the pandemic. In times of crisis, capitalists are fine with allowing the death of 3-5% of the world population, especially if they are mostly “unproductive” people, so long as its wealth and profits are not harmed. The Telegraph has helpfully published the honest thoughts of the bourgeoisie on this matter: “From an entirely disinterested economic perspective, COVID-19 might even prove mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents.” Even from a disinterested economic perspective, however, it is entirely false that the capacity to produce more medical supplies does not exist. We must not accept that the deaths of those whom capitalists see as worthless—the elderly, the disabled, the undocumented, etc.—as necessary.

The authors of the tweets mentioned earlier may have been unaware of their eugenicist implications. Regardless of intention, however, they share the same Malthusian logic as this Telegraph quote. Malthusianism and eugenics are consistent trends in bourgeois thought. Today, the bourgeoisie is using these ideas to justify its callous neglect of medical care for the elderly, disabled, and vulnerable, falsely claiming that their deaths are not only a necessary consequence of the pandemic, but even beneficial for the planet and the economy. These ideas are firmly stamped with a bourgeois class character and primarily serve to distract the masses from the fact that capitalism is directly responsible for the high death toll of the coronavirus, as well as climate change, mass starvation, and a whole host of other phenomena.