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The Coronavirus and Modern Malthusians

(Guglielmo Mangiapane, REUTERS)

One important aspect in controlling the coronavirus and saving patients’ lives will be the use of ventilators in hospitals. How are these produced? They sure as hell cannot be produced in Unabomber-style cabins.”

In a recent edition of Real Time with Bill Maher, Maher and his panel were discussing the coronavirus outbreak. Maher insisted that the situation was getting out of control. One of his guests, columnist Ross Douthat, claimed that this was not yet a pandemic and that “you can’t root…” Maher then spoke in the tone and mannerisms of politicians: “I’m not rooting for it. Let me be clear: I am against the coronavirus. Let me say that I have always been against it. Check my record!” The audience burst into laughter.

Yes, funny. But, is there anybody out there that is actually for the coronavirus? More than thirty years ago, Prince Philip said: “In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation.” The man does have a wicked sense of humor, so perhaps he was saying this tongue-in-cheek. But, ever since, conspiracy theorists have had a field day with this quotation. After all, Prince Philip was a president of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an organization devoted to the preservation of wilderness and the reduction of the human impact on the environment.

A recurring theme in the world of conspiracy theorists is population control. The New World Order, so the conspiracy theorists claim, is keen to get rid of “useless eaters.” So, the powers-that-be put fluoride in water, give out vaccines to make people infertile, spread chemtrails in the sky, and so on. For these conspiracy theorists, the sole purpose of these wicked acts is simply to reduce the size of world population, and coronavirus might just be one more ploy in this endeavor.

These conspiracy theories ultimately go back to Thomas Robert Malthus’ influential 1798 work An Essay on the Principle of Population. In the book, Malthus put forth a simple yet powerful thesis: Populations grow exponentially, whereas sources of food (and resources as a whole) grow arithmetically. Ultimately, when population growth exceeds the ecological capacity to sustain it, wars, pestilences and famines ensue.

Malthus did advocate to reduce population sizes in order to avoid these catastrophes but only through sexual containment. Yet, for conspiracy theorists, the genie was out of the bottle. In the 1960’s, an influential cabal of powerful people founded the Club of Rome. Their agenda was to advance the Malthusian view and work to reduce population size and, more importantly, to contribute to the degrowth of world economy. This all took place under the premise that resources are finite, and the environment cannot sustain growth any longer. In its origins, the Club of Rome was formed by intellectual and political elites, so, naturally, they also came under the suspicions of conspiracy theorists.

Needless to say, most conspiracy theorizing is delusion. But, seriously, are there people who might be rooting for the coronavirus? One consequence of the current coronavirus outbreak is the inevitable contraction of world economy. People are afraid of going out and engaging in daily activities, so they stay home. Businesses all over are harmed. Most of us are naturally worried by this. 

Yet, in one strand of economics, this is actually a good thing. So-called “de-growth economics” seeks precisely to reduce economic production, presumably out of Malthusian concerns. This is the type of economic approach that pleases ecologists; the less we produce, the more we preserve the environment. In their view, we should go back to the simplicity of previous pre-industrial ages, and though not frequently stated, this also implies a reduction in population. 

Now, I am not cheaply claiming that degrowth enthusiasts are rooting for the coronavirus. Degrowthers are not psychopaths. But, I do think that these people do not have their priorities in order. Sometimes, it does appear that, for example, the WWF cares more about rhinoceroses than about people. As such, the organization is happy to use brutal paramilitary forces to hunt down farmers, all in the name of preserving wilderness for big game animals. 

However, this is not just about Prince Philip and the WWF. It is about ecologism as a concept. Little Greta keeps telling us that we must degrow in order to save the planet. Easy enough for a privileged Swedish girl to say. But, for the Senegalese girl who is being poisoned by wood burning in her hut because the village has no electricity, it isn’t so easy. Yes, growth harms the planet. But, growth also saves lives. One important aspect in controlling the coronavirus and saving patients’ lives will be the use of ventilators in hospitals. How are these produced? They sure as hell cannot be produced in Unabomber-style cabins.

So, once again, we come to the conundrum: Do we care more about the planet or about people? Now, economic growth correlates with improved standards of living, but there are diminishing returns. There does come a point when producing more and more does not improve standards of living, and more lives are not necessarily saved. Are we there yet? In the developed world we might be, but we are definitely not there in the developing world. We might think that the solution, then, ought to be for the developing world to grow and for the developed world to degrow. Unfortunately, it does not work that way. The global economy is deeply interconnected, and—as the coronavirus proves—when one country’s economy slows down, other nations’ economies also suffer. Even countries that still report no coronavirus cases will face the consequences of markets coming down.

It is also true that—at some point—if we continue our pattern of growth, the destruction of the planet will come back to bite us. But, is it really worth slowing down? Bjørn Lomborg thinks notand for a very good reason: By the time we reach that point, we will have come up with technological solutions that still produce massive amounts of energy yet also manage to preserve the planet. Do not underestimate the power of human ingenuity. 

In fact, this is exactly what happened with Malthus and the Club of Rome. They predicted major catastrophes if population was not reduced, yet these catastrophes never really came to be. These doomsayers did not consider developments such as the Green Revolution, which allowed populations to grow, while, at the same time, massively producing sources of food that prevented the wars, famines and pestilences of which Malthus warned. Very likely, we will eventually reach a new Green Revolution of sorts, but the way to get there is to keep growing.

This is not to say that Malthus was wrong in everything he wrote. Overpopulation is a problem in many areas of the world, and, certainly, countries such as India and China do need to be more efficient in managing the overcrowding of its cities. (This overcrowding, of course, contributes to problems such as the coronavirus outbreak.) But, with industrialization, economic growth becomes more independent of population growth. So, it is possible to reduce population (via family planning, etc.) without slowing down the economy.    

So, I don’t know if some present-day Malthusians are actually cheerful about what began in Wuhan. I’d suppose they genuinely feel compassion for those affected and want the best for humankind. Yet, regardless, they fail to see that the degrowth they propose  ultimately does far more harm than good.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80

7 thoughts on “The Coronavirus and Modern Malthusians

  1. “but the way to get there is to keep growing.”…….This way of thinking is the real virus that threatens our civilization and the natural world on which we depend. Humans have had some silly ideas over the last 200,000 years (human sacrifice, slavery, burning witches etc.) but the idea that we can keep our economy growing forever is more dangerous than Corona virus and it’s been spreading through our universities for the last 80 years. Can someone please come up with a vaccine for that.

  2. I disagree with much of the explicit and implicit deductions made in this article.

    – “Do we care more about the planet or about people?” It appears such a dichotomy is around 3 – 4 decades out of vogue. It does not hold. We are quite clearly in the anthropocene.

    – It also appears as though your unilateral conception of what ‘growth’ is necessarily obfuscates the huge potential for green transitions… which actually, you do indeed discuss – but only in terms of future technology. We fortunately seemed to be blessed with an enormous amount of that technology now that would allow for sustainable energy – what are you arguing we wait for? ‘By the time we reach that point…’ – how much more evidence does one require to suggest that actually we are very much at that point? Just one more mass migration induced by climate change? One more bout of forest fires destroying thousands of acres? One more cm of sea level rise?

    – Hence, it feels as though your analysis is ultimately constrained with the very sweeping categorisations and simplifications made. Another being your conception of what ‘Little Greta’ stands for (being a patronising figure of the patriarchy is also way out of vogue FYI). You appear to be conflating ‘deep green’ Ecologists with people and organisations who understand that climate change and poverty are wholly inseparable.

  3. The success of the Green Revolution, in the long run, has become a question due to pollution, disease among the local population, and the diminished fertility of the land. I want to agree with your thesis, but I’m afraid that there is no action without a reaction — which are impossible to predict.

    1. When I read, “do we care more about the planet or people?” I was dumbfounded. You cannot select one or the other! If there is no planet, there are no people – thus, in caring for the planet, you are caring for people. The premise that is not being considered is when you say “people” it includes our grandchildren and their children, etc. – it IS NOT JUST ABOUT OUR CURRENT POPULATION. I have told my children that I do not wish to live past 70-75 (based on health). I will gladly allow this life to end, once I have accomplished all that GOD has intended for me. I see no point in holding on to life that will likely include dementia and physical ailment/inabilities – specifically at the cost of my children/grandchildren/great grandchildren having the opportunity to enjoy the life and Earth that I was fortunate enough to enjoy. GREATER PICTURE than just “US” is at play!!!!

      1. Yea this way of thinking is narrow in its scope. A massive,freemarket economy with lobbying to push a certain agenda and no understanding or care about the repercussions is bound to have many deleterious impacts that come back to self-glorified humans. If we had a plan that included quantifying resources and environmental effects of economic activities maybe we could figure sometjing out. But we have a loose cannon system that feeds us all trinkets and short term security. Just like all history an accurate picture won’t be available immediately.

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