There is a zombie in our midst. His name is Bob. He lurches into view mere moments into almost every heated discussion of population growth.
Rational discourse ends as soon as the zombie shows up.
Long before he joined the ranks of the undead, Bob was an affable early 19th century professor and Anglican clergyman, known as "Pop" to his students.
"Pop" was short for "Population," since Reverend Bob authored a famous and still hugely controversial essay on that very topic. His given name was Thomas Robert, though he preferred "Bob." His last name, Malthus, may be derived from a type of tavern known as a "malt house." That's fitting, because conversations featuring Zombie Bob are likely to drive one to drink:
"You're a Malthusian!"
"Maybe so, but you're an ostrich! You're ignoring the facts! Besides, I'm really more of a neo-Malthusian."
And on it goes, ad nauseam.
Now that it's Halloween -- and there's no shortage of other zombies on the streets -- perhaps we could allow dear, decayed old Bob to finally rest in peace. Here's how:
First, before arguing about what he wrote, perhaps folks could read some of it. I realize that's a big lift since "An Essay on the Principle of Population," first published in 1798, runs some 125 pages. Malthus published the first edition anonymously. When it proved popular, he rewrote the essay. The rewritten version went through six editions, the final one published in 1826.
Second, we might pause to consider that, before he became a zombie, Bob was no simpleton. Some of his notions have withstood the test of time. For example, as another Bob - Bob Engelman of Worldwatch Institute -- points out, having sex is easier and more fun than growing corn. In the absence of effective birth control, that could lead to a corn shortage.
Malthus was never the cartoonish figure depicted by his opponents, and even some of his supporters. Nor was he an uncaring sort. He was keenly aware of human suffering. As he wrote: "The rich, by unfair combinations, contribute frequently to prolong a season of distress among the poor."
One might even say that Malthus really wasn't all that much of a "Malthusian" since that has come to connote pessimism. If anything, he was a forward-looking optimist: "The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals is the means of his support -- the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means."
Malthus is considered a founder of the field of economics, and no less than Charles Darwin was inspired by some of Malthus's writings. So perhaps the gentle Anglican can be forgiven for not having considered the implications of climate change -- an issue little understood until more than a century after his death -- if not his departure.
The most common rejoinder offered by the No Worries Crowd is that the production of food has kept up with population growth, a fact contrary to Malthus's postulations. But here's the rub: That's only happened because we now use massive quantities of fossil fuels to produce all of that food.
Since the time of Malthus, human population has increased sevenfold. But fossil fuel emissions are nearly 10,000 times higher. If that's not the sort of geometric growth Malthus warned about, I don't know what is.
People can learn from Malthus -- and from some of those who have taken serious issue with what he actually wrote. But I think it's time we banished the decayed, distorted figure of Zombie Bob from our earthly realm.
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