Thomas Robert Malthus originated the math and science arm of modern environmentalism when he stated in 1798 that population grows exponentially while resources to feed the population can only grow arithmetically. Therefore, population will inevitably outstrip the food supply. Doom awaits!
Malthus did not believe in philanthropy. “We are bound to disclaim the right of the poor to support.” In the meantime, to get rid of the fast multiplying poor, “we should encourage settlements in unwholesome situations.” Thus the overpopulation threat was used as an excuse to oppress the poor. The British used Malthusian arguments to justify not giving aid to starving Irish during the 19th century potato famine.
Later, in the 20th century, writers like Paul Ehrlich revived the Malthusian argument. In the same vein as the mid-19th century British authorities, Paul Ehrlich stated that if India didn’t control its population, it “will be one of those we must allow to slip down the drain.”
By the late 20th century, not only was civilization going to end under its own weight as per historians like Arnold Toynbee, the environment, essential to our survival, was being destroyed because of too many people. Doom continues as a theme of the environmental movement.
Malthus’ hypothesis was plausible; the math was correct, but what actually happened? World population is now seven times what it was in Malthus’ time, but wealth per person is forty times as high, although it is inequitably distributed. Thanks to Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, the famines Ehrlich predicted never happened.
Since his predictions didn’t come true, there must have been factors Malthus didn’t account for. First, he left out human ingenuity. By 1844, thinkers like Friedrich Engels, coauthor with Karl Marx of The Communist Manifesto, had already asked, “What is impossible for science?” Ideas feed on each other and thus, like population, grow exponentially.
Hence, too small or too dispersed a population has disadvantages. The sparse aboriginal Tasmanians lost technology compared to what their ancestors had brought from Australia. Once the last tool broke and the last person who knew how to repair it or make a new one died, there were no more such tools.
Malthus didn’t foresee fossil fuels’ gift of energy and the ensuing industrial revolution. Also, neither he nor Ehrlich expected the Demographic Transition. With increased wealth, fewer babies die, hence women have fewer of them. They prefer education and careers over motherhood. In the real world, population growth has been slowing down.
Like Malthus, Henry David Thoreau, author of Walden, contributed to modern environmentalist thought. Unlike Malthus, he didn’t see the world as crowded or overpopulated. “Our horizon is never quite at our elbows.”
Thoreau saw nature in spiritual terms: “A field of water betrays the spirit that is in the air.” Unlike Malthus, Thoreau was not of a mathematical mind, though his pronouncements sound like an advance example of mansplaining. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” How did he know? Did he take a survey? He claimed morning air a panacea for all ills. Where’s the evidence? It didn’t cure his tuberculosis. “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us,” meaning we don’t control technology, but it controls us. What was his reasoning?
Malthus’ solution to poverty was to get rid of poor people; Thoreau thought they should just want less. “Simplify, simplify,” says Thoreau, hence workers should be content to live in packing boxes. “. . a large box. . . six feet long by three feet wide . . having drilled a few auger holes in it. . “ while he enjoyed his snug cabin and had a mother a mile away who did his laundry and brought him cookies. Voluntary simplicity for me; abject poverty for thee.
Like Malthus, Thoreau rejected philanthropy. “Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. I saw it would be a greater charity to bestow on me a flannel shirt than a whole slop-shop on him.”
What Thoreau ate was very important to him. He claimed eating meat and more than one meal per day to be self-indulgent. Did he tell that to the Irish during the potato famine occurring during his voluntary Walden sojourn? Is it a surprise he died of tuberculosis (linked to malnutrition) at age 44?
Thoreau loved nature but he didn’t like much of anything else: not communication, not commerce, nor other people. As Steven Pinker explains in The Better Angels of Our Nature 2011, commerce and communication reduce violence because other people become more valuable alive than dead when you can trade your surplus for their surplus to the benefit of both parties. Communication allows people to identify with each other, increasing empathy and reducing violence. Since the Middle Ages, a time of self-sufficient local farmers, homicide rates have fallen a hundredfold.
From Civil Disobedience: “I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’,” yet government keeps people from settling their own disputes in a violent fashion.
Thoreau’s dislike of socializing and his strict routines made me wonder if he suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. I found many hits on Google, suggesting others had had the same suspicion. Hence he can be forgiven for his misanthropic views.
One thing we can take away from Walden is the value of retreats, short term opportunities to examine one’s life. In addition, we learn to appreciate nature. We set aside parklands. In the city, Zen gardens give us the serenity of nature. Thoreau was correct in that spending your life trying to acquire more and more stuff does not bring contentment.
Modern Green climate activists combine ideas from both Malthus and Thoreau. From Malthus derive the use of math and science and the dangers of overpopulation because the fewer the people, the fewer carbon emissions. From Thoreau come asceticism, moralizing food intake, dislike of technology, the love of nature, as well as the penchant for telling other people what they should do.
In the bash-the-poor tradition of Malthus and Thoreau, climate activists favor a carbon tax. Since the poor spend a greater proportion of their income on fuel than the rich, such a tax is more regressive than a sales tax on food. Picture the impact $10 per gallon gasoline would have on the budget of a struggling single mother who drives a gas hog and lives in a poorly insulated trailer miles away from her minimum wage job!