Bring Back the Malthusian Trap, or The Return of Paul Erlich

Hi. This is a message from the Evangelical Childfree Movement pre-complaining about any subsequent posts by evangelical vegans. Switching to veganism is only a band-aid solution. It doesn’t solve the problem that we have too many humans on the planet. Climate change is essentially a population problem. Even if all humans become vegans we don’t solve the climate problem.

Now I realise that many countries in Europe and the Americas are trying to solve the population problem by helping COVID to spread, while others are trying to reduce the birth rate by implementing lockdowns that stop new potential breeders from meeting other new potential breeders, but it’s not enough. Aside from a few countries that were already experiencing declining populations pre-COVID (notably Japan), populations continue to increase in spite of COVID. We need to immediately stop all tax-breaks and government subsidies for breeders.

OK. I’ll turn off the hyperbole now.

As others have said, all band-aid solutions can be useful, since they buy time, but that’s only useful if we’re using the extra time to implement long-term solutions. Reducing cow’s methane production can be useful, though I totally agree that the funding source for this particular research means we should be demanding some independent confirmation. Reducing meat consumption per capita can be useful, but we don’t solve the problem until we manage to reduce the number of capits. And I really hope we can do that by making people seriously think about whether they should be having children rather than by the violence that is likely to happen as food, shelter and medical care become constrained.

In 1980s Australia, as the population was in the regions of 20M, environmentalists were trying to estimate sustainable populations level for Australia, and were coming up with numbers in the 6M to 15M range. (Very wide range - the science was and still is difficult.) The models allowed for things like the frequency of “droughts and flooding rains” and the bulk of the land mass having soil so poor that it couldn’t sustain modern scale agriculture. In retrospect, the scary thing is that it assumed continuation of those conditions, so it didn’t allow for effects of climate change.

At a talk by one researcher in this area, who I won’t name since I’m not sure if I’m remembering it right, he suggested the best green charity to donate to was your local family planning association, since the easiest and most cost effective way to delay the climate catastrophe was to reduce the number of unplanned teenage pregnancies. (Based on Australian data. YMMV. And ironically, around the time that the HIV crisis was causing more caution and more condoms, which did reduce unplanned pregnancies.)

The “tax breaks and government subsidies to breeders” perception is a particularly hard nut to crack. The tax breaks and subsidies are obvious. The fact (in Australia, YMMV) that they don’t come anywhere near covering the costs of raising the children isn’t obvious. Cutting those programs inevitably falls hardest on those who are already struggling financially. We need those programs.

Anyway, that’s enough depressing stuff for one post. I’lll stop now.

Please keep in mind that carrying capacity is always a function of technology, as well as environment. It is very likely that given today’s technology level, Earth’s sustainable carrying capacity for humans is much less than the current population, barring massive lifestyle changes. Every technology that improves the efficiency of any agricultural or industrial process or provides a better way to use what are currently waste products increases that carrying capacity.


So. Who do YOU think we should eliminate? Whose lives have value in YOUR opinion and whose do not? What is the “right” number of people, in your estimation? Because that is the actual questions you’re asking. Who has value and who can we “cull” from the population.

But I can’t even with this eugenicist, malthusian garbage… Malthus was whinging about overpopulation (or poor and non-white people) in the late 18th century… he was flat out wrong. We don’t necessarily have a supply problem, as plenty of countries (such as the US) make more than enough food to feed everyone. But since food is a commodity, some people can’t afford it and some people can’t get access to it. We have made the decision that profits are more important than feeding and housing people, and hence we come up with bullshit excuses like “those people breed too much.”

And if you really do want to ensure that we have more even population growth, then you fight to ensure that women are free and able to control their reproduction.


Well, if you’re truly committed - you’re going to be really busy eliminating the surplus population.

Maybe if there were tax credits for each surplus unit removed from the equation? Sure, it’s a stopgap and not a final solution.


It’s just a simple law of putting in the optimal numbers so the optimal people are allowed to live the optimal lives. Isn’t that really the goal of civilization - so that the betters of humanity can thrive! /s

angry kristen wiig GIF


Where’s Napoleon & Ilya when you need them?


Now there’s an interesting blast from the past. I’ve got a vague memory I’ve read it before, maybe soon after it came out over 30 years ago. It certainly captures that uncomfortable aspect of the 1980s environmental movement where the new age mystics seemed to take precedence over the scientists in popular articles.

Any idea who the author is? I originally thought the “list of authors” in the right hand column was intended to apply, but that seems to be a list of authors of recent editions of the newsletters with links to their work, and the “I” in the article suggests a singular author. The author doesn’t seem to be identified on either article. I’m interested in whether the author’s opinions changed since 1989, as the evidence for climate change became clearer.

Wandering off-topic a bit, but given that the author seems to have some knowledge of demography, it seems odd that they seem to want to cast Thomas Malthus in such a bad light. I suggest Malthus’ insistence on clarity in definitions was a great aid to the developing field of demography. Sure - not all his definitions worked well, but there are always going to be errors in the early stages of a new field of study and he was willing to alter definitions in later revisions of his work in response to criticism. The author clearly hates the neo-Malthusians, which seems perfectly reasonable. But hating Malthus because of the views of neo-Malthusians is like hating Adam Smith because of the views of modern day right-wing Chicago school free-market economists who claim Adam Smith as their hero. Chicago school wants a market free of government “interference”. Adam Smith wanted governments to interfere to keep markets free, because he believed without that interference businesses would automatically collude to rip-off customers. Some neo-Malthusians, seem to think that everyone in the “lower” classes WANTS to breed uncontrollably. (I don’t know, but I’m going to guess that in USA the neo-Malthusians are mostly white and they replace “lower” classes by non-white.) Malthus, in spite of being born into a large upper-class family (who may have sided with the neo-Malthusians), seemed to believe the working class feared having lots of children, since the maternal mortality rate for pregnancy/childbirth was horrific amongst the poor, but if they had only 2 children there was a real risk neither would survive childhood. Hence his emphasis on public health issues. (Lack of reliable contraception was of course also an issue but it seems that wasn’t a topic for respectable people to write about at that time.)

(It seems hard to find unfiltered beliefs of the English working class from that era, so we end up talking about what the clergy or the doctors or the demographers thought the beliefs of the working class were. Even the fiction from that era about the working class seems to be predominantly written by those wealthy enough to engage in the high risk occupation of writing.)

Sure. This is all a great response to the first two paragraphs of my post, before I stopped the over-the-top hyperbole and got more serious. I agree with most of what you wrote, though I suspect you are more optimistic than me on the chances of getting rich countries to agree to assist poor countries when it comes to redistributing food.

In Australia, we can point at the wonderful increases in food production and the related technology, but the people who do that tend to ignore the damage to the major waterways from excessive irrigation and algae blooms from fertilizer runoff. That’s the type of damage that the ecologists are trying to assess when they estimate the sustainable population. Sure, we can feed 25M now, but that’s using techniques that are damaging the river ecosystem. How many can we feed long-term without wrecking the place.

So when you say USA makes enough food to feed everyone, is that based on current output, or is it based on an estimate of what can be produced sustainably long-term. (Not intended as a snarky question. I really am clueless about US agriculture.)

With respect to “And if you really do want to ensure that we have more even population growth”, I don’t want population growth. I can’t see a valid reason for population growth.

Sure, I can see that evolution has selected for an imperative desire to have sex. Evolution builds lots of dumb knee-jerk responses into our behaviour. If we want to live in a civilised society we’ve got to use our ability to think to override a lot of selfish behaviours that were selected by evolution. Mostly we do a pretty good job of that. But an evolutionary-selected desire for sex isn’t a good reason to want population growth. And reliable contraception exists, so we should be trying to make it available to all, to break this nexus between desire for sex and population growth.

I can see that people who fear their country will be invaded will want population growth. But surely it’s better to try to avert war than to breed up a sizable army.

And there are economists who assure us that population growth is necessary for GDP growth which seems to miss the point that if population grows faster than GDP (adjusted for inflation), then on average we’re still going backwards. So population growth just makes the target harder to reach. I can’t see any reason in economics for wanting population growth.

And the older half (or so) of the population sometimes want the population to keep growing so there are enough people working to support the older people in their retirement. Well that’s just selfish. It’s like a Ponzi scheme.

So, yeah, I just can’t see why population growth is a good thing. And with climate change it’s increasingly looking look a dumb thing.

Wow. We are so far away from methane production. I’ve got to try to stay focussed.

1 Like

The LITERAL only other option is mass murder. That’s it. Millions of people being killed. I get that they are just abstractions to you, but they are not.

No one said these are easy questions, but if we stopped treating food like a commodity, focused on localized production and getting food where it was more scarce, and continuing on the technological trajectory of improving food, like we’ve been doing for literally thousands of years by now, then I see no reason why we can’t ensure everyone has enough to eat.

And yes, maybe it’s “utopian”, but thinking within the box that already exist does nothing to provide solutions to our collective problems. Humanity has a strange habit of finding workable solutions to our problems. It is, in fact, one of the things that we do best as a species and part of what makes us unique among animals.

Another bullshit idea, that we’re only the sum of evolutionary drives, when we have these imperfect miracle machines sitting on top of our bodies, giving us the ability to bring logic and reason, as well as compassion and empathy to problems. We’re not just driven by sex, because many people, when given the resources, DO limit their reproduction. Give women the tools they need, and they will absolutely do so, for the most part. Because childbirth is some of the most dangerous work that we carry out in our lives, even in the best of circumstances.

But hand wringing over population growth still rests on a racist and classist basis that ignores reality.


No. Just no. For a population to be stable all it needs is for births to match deaths. If we provided access to reliable contraception and somehow counter those parents who want to convince their children that they are failures if they don’t breed - the “Why aren’t you giving me grandchildren?” brigade - then that could well be enough to do it.

I’m getting confused. You seem to be trying to disagree with me, and then you say things I agree with. Yes people are not abstractions. When talking about the possibility of the population declining I’ve already stated: “And I really hope we can do that by making people seriously think about whether they should be having children rather than by the violence that is likely to happen as food, shelter and medical care become constrained.” It’s a real concern that people are already dying from lack of food, exposure and preventable diseases.

Well sure. Arguing about the easy questions is a waste of time. I’d much rather be arguing about the hard stuff. I make more mistakes that way, but I learn more. Definitely keep raising the hard questions.

You’ve said the US can produce enough food to feed the world, (but didn’t respond to my question about sustainability) You hope that we can find a way to distribute food more equitably. I really hope you’re right. Repeating myself, but you’re more optimistic than me on this score. When I see the selfishness of the anti-vaxxers and the white supremacy movement, and so on, I get really pessimistic about this. But I wish you all the luck in the world on your mission. Sorry - I don’t think I can say anything useful to progress this issue.

Sure - traditional thinking tends to lead to gradual incremental improvements. We need big improvements quickly, so we need to think more broadly.

You only quoted the first sentence of that paragraph and omitted the parts where I said pretty much what you’ve said above. Things like “If we want to live in a civilised society we’ve got to use our ability to think to override a lot of selfish behaviours that were selected by evolution.” Yes - we agree that Social Darwinists are wrong. (And it’s really irritating when a movement labels themselves using the name of someone famous who would disagreed with pretty much everything they espouse.)

Still agreeing. I’ll even give that one a “Hell, yes!” In the developed world we’ve massively reduced the pregnancy related mortality rates. Female life expectancy at birth now exceeds the male figure. In the developing world, still a major problem to fix there.

And I disagree on this bit.

Sure there are bigots who will jump onboard the sustainable population research when it suits their purpose. And they’ll jump off again whenever it goes what they regard as the “wrong” way, such as if it says the current population is unsustainable in their OWN country rather than just being unsustainable in, you know, poor countries. But I have met ecologists working in this area who seem genuine to me.

Once we was arguing with a climate change denier who asked something like “If you REALLY believe the planet is doomed why are you still having children?” And I was able to describe a really depressing conversation from a dinner with a bunch of ecology research students where most of them pretty much saying that they were so pessimistic about the future that they weren’t planning on having children. And the kicker was that most of their research supervisors - sort of one generation earlier - didn’t have children either. I mean, it was great that they realised it was THEIR choice and they weren’t going to be pressured by parents. But the disparity between their excitement about all the great research they were doing and the depressing nature of the conclusions they were reaching was jarring. I’m not seeing any bigotry amongst them. Just genuine fear.

But to take this discussion into a less depressing area: I previously conflated two ideas that maybe I should have better separated. One is that I think the research shows my country is over the sustainable population level, and I suspect that’s a problem elsewhere. The second is that I couldn’t see a good reason for wanting the population to increase. While you’ve been responding to most of my points on either issue you’ve been framing your answers as arguments about the first issue. So you’re arguing that we can cope with population growth but not really dealing with whether there’s a good reason to actively PURSUE population growth.

So, pretend there has been a massive technology improvement which we can measure accurately and we know without any doubt that your country can support a population 20% bigger than the current level. Would you support government policies that actively encourage the population to increase by 20%, by any sort of mix of immigration and increased birth rates as you wish? If yes, what are your reasons for wanting the population to increase?

I probably wouldn’t actively encourage population growth. As I stated above, I’m really struggling to find a reason to WANT to increase the population, even if we CAN support it. I can’t see any advantage in encouraging an increase. I’d feel much more comfortable knowing that we’ve got enough spare capacity that we cope with the next drought or local natural disaster, or influx of climate refugees due to an overseas disaster. (NEXT drought? Maybe I shouldn’t say that when some parts of country are starting to wonder if their current drought is permanent.)


I told you how that happens. But if you think the population needs to decrease because we are already past “carrying capacity” (which as others have argued, we are not), then mass murder is the only way forward.

If you want a stable population (which is probably ALWAYS going to be impossible), then you need to make sure women are free. But of course, you also have to erase all social and cultural differences and standardize attitudes towards procreation, which means violent suppression of those differences. After literal centuries of imperialism, slavery, and brutality visited upon the global south, most are not going to embrace yet more western ideas that seeks to control their bodies.

Which is very much a distribution problem, caused by over consumption in the west and the commoditization of food.

No. I didn’t. I said humanity can produce enough food to feed everyone, not that the US produces enough to feed everyone. I do suspect that between the US and China, we possibly could, however.

Ah… I see. I need to be the one who fixes all this shit that has been in the works for the past few centuries. Cool. I’ll get right on that.

We tried “force the rest fo the world to accept Euro-centric models of living and thinking”… how about we stop doing that shit and maybe listen to the rest of the world. Because that’s precisely what imposing “breeding” limits will be.

Yet you are very much pushing their line about carrying capacity.

Too bad. It is.

And why is the reproduction of other humans your concern at all?


I’m a privileged, educated and reasonably intelligent person who decided not to have kids. Sure, I’ll take my cookie for inadvertantly (I’m over 40) reducing my carbon footprint. And sure, my mother still sometimes says it’s a shame I’m not making wonderful mini-me’s and frets about who’ll take care of me in my old age (as if having kids is any guarantee of that). But I’m not going to use any of that as a basis for a prescriptive ideology, especially one based in the outdated notions of Malthus and Paul Erlich and especially one that’s regularly and easily taken up by eugenicists worried that the “right type of people” aren’t reproducing.




Arggh! We’ve been split. Yeah, probably overdue given how far off topic we’ve gone, but given pretty much everyone has stopped reading since the split, I’ll be brief. I’ll ignore all the bits I agree on and all the bits where I know we’re not going to agree.

Well, no, but it does take many years to get much reduction.

I was referring to this bit:

Sounds like you’re saying the US makes enough to feed the whole world, and some other countries also individually make enough to feed the whole world. Since you’re denying that, I’m guessing your intended meaning was that the US makes more than enough to feed everyone in the US.

Now that’s interesting. Limits to carrying capacity is not something I associate with Social Darwinists. They seem to stress competition to justify stealing from those who aren’t like them, even if they already have enough to live on, but they don’t seem to acknowlege any idea that would give them reason to limit their own breeding. But hey, any loose group of believers includes people with diverse views on other issues, so I don’t doubt there will be some Social Darwinists who subscribe to limits to growth.

Stripping out the antagonistic tone, the question seems to be: Why do you find demography interesting?

Because it involves trying to solve practical problems which can quickly lead to improved quality of life. Because it’s an interesting practical problem in applied maths. Because population projections make great teaching examples for matrix mathematics. Because it impacts so many social welfare issues. Because there’s a lot of interesting demographic puzzles that aren’t mathematical at all, so it needs a diverse group of researchers to make sense of anything. Puzzles like how countries with similar culture and wealth levels have such different fertility rates. In demography a single investigation can include issues running the whole gamut from puzzles that can only be understood by interviews at the individual level to puzzles that can only be understood by large scale modelling. And a single issue of a demography journal can have papers spanning the whole range. I wish I had more time to read about it. It’s a fascinating profession.

Also: Because in many countries the bulk of demographic research is publicly funded and the government should not be allowed to lock it away, and the journals should not be allowed to lock it away behind paywalls. If we paid for the research through our taxes, I’ll defend anyone’s right to be interested in it and read it.

1 Like

I’m going to dispute this for one simple reason: we produce more than we consume. If you look at electronic waste which isn’t just old equipment being thrown out (actual iPhones that are brand new have been destroyed by Apple when they can’t sell them at the price they demand) or food and clothes dumping the problem isn’t a factor of how many mouths we have to feed it’s a factor of how many assholes demand their imaginary numbers go up by an imaginary amount. If you abolished absentee ownership and made everything held in common until use then you’d see a massive decline in production. Why? Because most folks would get their needs met. A house, check. Food, check. Healthcare? Check! After that most folks don’t have any kind of yearning to be top dog when you get their essentials covered. Like sure folks would still want to see movies or travel but even those would probably be a fraction of their current top-down industrialized wasteful selves. If you want to solve the problem don’t be a fool and think “it’s just too many people” when in reality humans like all other species despite our technology can and will level up with our resources. It’s the capitalist system that acts as the override for that behavior (see how China’s own population has flat lined despite letting off the one-child policy as an example).




Very much agreed. We keep up modern militaries, too, which are a lot of resources spent on things that do not keep anyone alive or comfortable, save only that they protect them from other modern militaries. And then traditionally the other problem with high populations is it leaves you susceptible to things like plagues…but the present one shows we actually have a pretty good handle on how to deal with them, it’s just a question of doing it.

In other words our problems are almost all self-inflicted. Unfortunately, there are still too many people who are less concerned by the idea of mass death and sometimes even extinction than they are by reigning in capitalism and cooperating with foreigners.


Amusingly, the US Armed Forces are the largest polluter by far in terms of the US govt and possibly the world, but they’ll say it’s a-okay in the name of ‘freedom.’


Further more, the complaint against “tax breaks and government subsidies to breeders” makes a rather huge (and in my view, unsubstantiated) assumption:
Mainly that people have kids because of those subsidies, and would refrain from having children if those subsidies were lacking. I have never seen any evidence that size of (or existence of) tax breaks/subsidies affects peoples willingness/desire to have sex, or that those tax breaks have any effect the use of birth control (other than potentially making birth control more affordable), or that they have any effect on the decision of a woman to carry a child to term or not.

The only effect they have that I am aware of is the ability of the parent(s) to care for the child after it is born (for those parents with low enough incomes that the tax breaks or subsidies are significant enough to matter)