by John Mirisch
Times are evidently rough for our natalist, growthmaniac friends.
More people than ever are questioning their agenda of increasing the planet’s population beyond the current 8 billion people (double the level of less than fifty years ago) in the name of “progress” and profit. Yet the growthmaniacs’ only response to anyone who links human population and ecological overshoot is to scream “Malthus!” at the top of their lungs (although some Marvel fanboy growthmaniacs have been known to respond “Thanos!” instead).
Their latest attempt at climate-change revisionism and denial of ecological overshoot is an article in the neoliberal magazine The Atlantic entitled “The Malthusians are Back.” It takes shots at anyone critical of ongoing population growth, such as Harvard professor and climate researcher Naomi Oreskes, who recently wrote an op-ed in Scientific American with the straightforward title, “Eight Billion People in the World Is a Crisis, Not an Achievement.” Oreskes’s subtitle deftly underscores the point: “More people will not solve the problem of too many people.”
The main thrust of The Atlantic’s swing at the Oreskes op-ed is to assign guilt by association: Bad people, like eugenicists, once railed against overpopulation, so anyone concerned with overpopulation today is “joining an ugly tradition.” Rather than engage with modern, science-based concerns about the environmental impact of overpopulation and the human footprint, the authors seem to take great pleasure in detailing the “ugly tradition,” as if that were enough to dismiss the logic underlying concerns about growth. It’s as if Cargill Meat Solutions were to trash vegetarianism because of its “dark history”: After all, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Charles Manson were all vegetarians.
Shills Gonna Shill
A red flag signaling the growth addicts’ lack of concern with science, and their utter desperation to find a hook, is their quoting of Urban Growth Machine propagandist Jerusalem Demsas as if she were Immanuel Kant: “Enough with the innuendo: If overpopulation is the hill you want to die on, then you’ve got to defend the implications.” What implications? This: If you’re concerned about overpopulation, then you hate people. It’s right there in the title of Demsas’s quoted article, “The people who hate people.” And: If you’re concerned about overpopulation, then you must support eugenics—or worse. The categorical imperative of Demsas and her colleagues at The Atlantic can pretty much be reduced to this: If you like people, then more humans is always a good thing.
Of course, if you support a system of capitalism predicated on the need for growth, “more” is a must. It’s hardly a surprise that Demsas and her neoliberal buddies consistently invoke the WIMBY (Wall St. In My Backyard) credo of “build, build, build,” a corollary, of course, of “grow, grow, grow.” They cite climate change as a pretext for forced density, while ignoring the core cause of climate change—population growth—which itself is a subset of ecological overshoot.
Let’s ignore, for a minute, that the Atlantic authors use “Malthus” as a pejorative; a code word meant to discredit, and thus ignore, the points made by Professor Oreskes and others. Let’s ignore that they are simply wrong in invoking Malthus and in their use of the adjective “Malthusian” (or neo-Malthusian). Let’s move on from the Malthus straw man.
Early in the “Malthusians” article, the authors write, “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.” To suggest we talk about consumption without talking about population—that is, consumers—is absurd. They are two sides of the same coin. We need to talk about the two together because the ingredients of humanity’s environmental impact are two interrelated variables: per capita consumption (or throughput) and the number of consumers (or human beings, i.e., population). To reduce overall consumption (and therefore, environmental impact), you can reduce per capita consumption, the number of consumers, or both.
No Free Lunch
Technological efficiencies can potentially reduce the per capita impact of consumption, but we cannot “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact. In other words, there is no such thing as “guilt-free” energy and there are no free lunches. The authors of the Atlantic article, Alex Trembath and Vijaya Ramachandran, however, would be the last to acknowledge that decoupling is a myth. You see, Trembath and Ramachandran both work for the ecomodernist Breakthrough Institute, whose “manifesto,” according to writer T.J. Demos,
“is basically an apology for nuclear energy that allows its authors to reassert the imperative of economic development, as if such an energy system will have no impact on Earth systems (counter to recent experience in Fukushima). What’s striking is that there’s no mention of social justice and democratic politics in this account, no acknowledgement of the fact that big technologies like nuclear fusion reinforce centralized power, the military-industrial complex, and the inequalities of corporate globalization, rather than the distributed self-sufficient economies and egalitarian local governance that tend to accompany renewable energy paradigms.”
Later in the Atlantic article, Trembath and Ramachandran write that those concerned with overpopulation “have tended to emphasize humanity’s destruction of nature” instead of “focusing on famine” as Malthus and others did, and they note that starvation has been forestalled by advances in agricultural productivity. The implication is that technology will always serve up solutions and that the next “Green Revolution” will stave off the starvation of eight billion people and more. A further implication: As long as human mouths can be fed, “humanity’s destruction of nature” isn’t such a big deal.
For those who value nature and care about humanity’s role in its destruction, these unrepentant human supremacists implicitly posit a Demsasian proposition: If you’re concerned about humanity’s role in the destruction of nature, you think people are pollution, and you’re a person who hates people. Using this logic, climate deniers could similarly argue, “If you think climate change is the result of human activity, you’re a person who hates people.”
So, to clarify: Human beings aren’t “pollution.” But humans cause pollution (in addition to depleting limited resources and destroying other life on the planet). We’d better not ignore the ultimate cause of the problems we’re trying to fix, if we’re serious about fixing them.
On the technology front, the Atlantic ecomodernists, after their reference to the Green Revolution, seem to imply that human technology is up to any challenge, even in defiance of the laws of thermodynamics. Indeed, one can imagine them exclaiming: There are no such things as limits to growth because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder. OK, so it was really Ronald Reagan who said it first, but you get the point. As environmental studies professor Jeremy Caradonna wrote about the ecomodernist manifesto: “Far from being an ecological statement of principles, the Manifesto merely rehashes the naïve belief that technology will save us and that human ingenuity can never fail.”
While the authors acknowledge that global population is “expected to peak and decline later this century,” they see this as a problem, not a course correction or opportunity. In a world of eight billion people, the demographic challenge, they claim, is “underpopulation.” Countries with declining birthrates need more people to generate “economic growth” and support an aging population. If this dynamic isn’t the definition of a Ponzi scheme, I’m not sure what is. And while the likely coming population decline is not due to “war, famine or disease,” as Trembath and Ramachandran admit, neither is it due to eugenics, forced sterilizations, or coercive birth control methods.
Female empowerment and availability of contraception have been key to population stabilization in many countries, but the Atlantic authors are singularly dismissive of it. They write, “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?”
Ah, yes: Let the Ponzi scheme continue. Buttress industrial economies by borrowing ever more deeply from nature, postponing further our reckoning with overshoot. Meanwhile, postponement only worsens the consequences of the inevitable crash. If you care at all about coming generations—if you love people—you should tremble at this future.
Perhaps Trembath and Ramachandran are fans of Louis XV. At any rate, it seems they have never heard of the Jevons paradox. It seems that they deny, with Reaganesque optimism, the reality of limits to growth on a finite planet with depleted resources. It seems they don’t care about other species. It seems they aren’t interested in ensuring that women and families have access to education and contraception and that women decide for themselves the family size that is best for them.
The growthmaniacs frequently cite the Chinese “one-child” policy as a “Malthusian” example of anti-human coercion. Yet China, itself susceptible to the allure of Ponzi schemes, is now panicking and moving toward a “three-child” policy. The incentives and blandishments for women to have more children aren’t really working there, any more than they are in countries like Sweden. Swedish policies make it easier (than in the USA) for families to have children, with benefits such as free preschool, subsidized childcare, direct child subsidies, paid parental leave, and the right to miss work with pay to take care of sick children. These policies allow people greater choice, and with that choice, people are opting for smaller families.
Families have interests beyond making and rearing babies, despite the incentives in countries like Sweden. In attacking groups like Planned Parenthood, the Atlantic’s “anti-Malthusians” seem to be doing little more than making common cause with natalists and anti-abortionists of the American far right. They seem to think you’re a “person who hates people” if you support free access to contraception and if you’re pro-choice.
The Real Eugenicists
Trembath and Ramachandran’s attempts to link those concerned about planetary overpopulation with eugenics is a red herring. The biggest eugenics threat today comes not from those concerned about overpopulation, but from those complaining of underpopulation, especially from an extreme wing of “effective altruists” who have created their own pronatalist movement. Not surprisingly, these modern-day eugenicists, says writer Rachel Donald, come from “Silicon Valley, where upper middle class technologists believe it is their duty to repopulate the planet with more upper middle class white technologists. Simone and Michael Collins are leading the charge, out to have 10 children as quickly as possible, who they will indoctrinate to each have 10 of their own, and so on. They hope that, within 11 generations, their genetic legacy will outnumber the current human population.”
Trembath himself is full of praise for the “effective altruists.” In a series of astonishingly error-filled assertions, he writes:
“Your typical ecomodernist and effective altruist each believe in the liberatory power of science and technology. They are both pro-growth, recognizing the robust relationship between economic growth and human freedom, expanding circles of empathy, democratic governance, improved social and public health outcomes, and even ecological sustainability. Notably, every effective altruist I can recall discussing the matter with is pro-nuclear, or at least not reflexively anti-nuclear. That is usually a litmus test for broader pro-abundance views, which effective altruists and ecomodernists both tend to espouse. Ecomodernists and effective altruists both attempt an evidence-based analytical rigor, in contrast to the more myopic, romantic, and utopian frameworks they are working to displace.”
It’s an interesting image Trembath has of himself and his fellow travelers, and it’s not at all hard to look at his Atlantic piece as a defense of his “effective altruist” buddies’ pronatalist movement. To others, though, their pronatalist movement may not look all that appealing. To Donald: “The movement looks an awful lot like white supremacy dressed up as techno-utopian utilitarianism.” Indeed. It’s fairly easy to understand why Trembath would want to talk about “Malthusian eugenicists” of a half century ago to distract from the fact that “these ‘effective altruists’ are obsessed with saving their skin.” by “panic-breeding white babies.”
Fortunately for humanity, the narcissistic, solipsistic pronatalists, who as Donald writes, “do not believe themselves accountable for the world today,” but “believe themselves to be the gods of tomorrow” seem to be but a fringe cult of sociopaths. As noted, for most of the rest of the world, incentives to coax a return to the bad old days, when women were baby factories, don’t work. If anything, the next step for authoritarian countries like China could be to use coercive policies to get their populations to breed.
Funny, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of concern from the ecomodernist growthmaniacs about coercive natalist policies. I wonder why. I guess if you force people to have more babies, you really are a “person who loves people.” You certainly are a person who loves the idea of more consumers (and perhaps laborers) for a system of expansive authoritarian capitalism that is based on what Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg calls “fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” Keeping fairy tales alive seems to be the main concern of the Atlantic’s consumer lovers, er, “people lovers.”
Respecting the Law
Whether we like it or not, we live in a finite world with limited resources. As the global population increases, more people will consume and shrink the resource pie, no matter how it’s sliced. And whether we like it or not, the laws of thermodynamics apply to economics as well as to the planet.
People who deny ecological overshoot, who refuse to accept the role that human consumption plays in the degradation of our planet, and who knowingly ignore the role of population growth in threatening humanity and the millions of species we share the planet with—these are people who seem entirely indifferent to nature. And they actively advocate staking the future of humanity and our fellow species on Ponzi schemes of growth.
Call me “Malthusian” (or “Thanosian”) if it makes you feel better and if that’s all you’ve got (even if you aren’t sure what Malthusian means). Malthus, schmalthus. Name calling won’t stop me from talking about population or why we need a steady state economy to replace the fairy tales of eternal economic and population growth. Nor should the threat of name calling prevent rational people who care about logic, reason, humanity, and the planet itself from engaging in frank discussions on population and ecological overshoot.
People (as well as dark-money and corporate-funded AstroTurf groups) who claim to “love people” seem to be more in love with corporate profits, ROI, and money than anything else. As indicated by the persistence of growthmaniacs who huckster Ponzi schemes like so many snake-oil salesmen, there may be no limits to greed. But there are very real planetary limits to growth.
Simply stated, Ponzi schemes, whether ecological or economic, can never be the pathway to abundance or sustainability.
John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009 and served three terms as mayor. He now serves as a garden-variety councilmember.