The Polemics of Carrying Capacity

Thomas Malthus and His Legacy of Euphemistic Extermination Programs

We are often told that we’ve exceeded our carrying capacity here on Earth (or are arriving at that calamitous denouement of the story of civilization in no time soon). It is very true that we’ve reached our carrying capacity, this planet cannot healthily sustain so many people living in current arrangements, but anyone who has closely studied the conflation of civilization, production, and capitalism understand well that human population booms are endemic to the aforementioned social formula. If the dominant economic mode were to shift gears, to one that wasn’t defined globally, and predicated upon the funneling of resources to the producer rather than the community; if community-scale projects and strict environmental protection policies were implemented to define our economic behavior, then I’m pretty sure overpopulation would not be as large of a problem as it is today. If overall social arrangements were to manifest Indigenism and parochial isolation, tribal anarchy, small-scale handicraft production and technics, and subsistence economics, then overpopulation would be an obsolete term, hands down.

With regard to a contemporary program, for instance (neo)-Malthusian measures, to solve the “population problem,” such propositional theory put into wholesale praxis would essentially expand and accelerate the genocidal effects of the civilizing process. Sure that sounds like a loaded allegation and indictment upon an archaic Western archetype and his immoral conjectures, but it is true. Not only did Malthus believe that inequality was natural and good, or “at least necessary for avoiding the problem of massive overpopulation and hence starvation;” he also “denounced soup kitchens and early marriages while defending smallpox, slavery, and child murder [sic].” ((R.L. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999). ))

Malthus believed that social inequality and poverty was natural, expunging from the historical record centuries, if not millennia, of social engineering, construction and stratification of a system that manifests inequality and penury by virtue of its own design. In other words, abject poverty, famine and, social stratification that unjustly engenders inequality, are tangents of social arrangements configured by sovereign powers themselves.

These same sovereign powers set up and normalized the city-state lifestyle/culture (i.e., civilization) as a way to enhance and, make more efficient, production at the expense of human and nonhuman resources in order to enhance the luxuries of those positioned at the top of the hierarchy. Surfeit resources, profits and assets, enjoyed by few, are commensurate with expanded efficiency in production and, in turn, so will a population that is organized around growing and perpetuating said social arrangements grow geometrically. In other words, “population growth correlates with economic prosperity.” ((Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (4th Ed.), (Boston: Pearson, 2008), p. 153)) Therefore, overpopulation of humans on this planet is not necessarily a natural phenomenon as much as it is a direct result of the dominant social construct, i.e., overpopulation is moreso anthropogenic than it is organic. So, for starters, Malthus had conveniently designed the theoretical framework for the dominant culture so to fix a problem induced by the dominant culture.

Second on the list of excoriations directed toward Thomas Malthus and his legacy of villainous schemes and those who propound and argue in defense of such machinations, is the hunger fallacy. Despite the fact that the world population is, at the very least, six fold from what it was in 1800, there is still more than enough food produced the world over to support the population. ((Robbins, p. 150.)) Africa alone produces 25 percent of the world’s cereals, but yet it is the most immiserated continent on the planet. This is a direct result of global trade, orchestrated by the world’s richest coterie of individuals (i.e., the WTO, World Bank and IMF, et al.). Africa grows enough food to feed itself, but because its countries have been co-opted, if not coerced at the barrel of a gun by Western trade agents over the centuries, it has to export its very own solution to famine. Those countries who spurn compliance with Western trade agreements are subject to reprehensible sanctions that Arundhati Roy refers to as “New Genocide,” meaning the creation of “conditions [through economic sanctions] that lead to mass death without actually going out and killing people.” ((Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, (Cambridge: South End Press, 2004), p. 88.)) Digression aside, what is transpiring in Africa is not an isolated occurrence. In India, where millions are the victims of starvation and malnutrition, there have been incidences, time and again, in which the government allows immorally imbalanced disbursement of food. One example that Arundhati Roy presents in her book, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire, reports the Indian government allowing 63 million tons of grain to rot in its granaries. ((N.A. Mujumdar, “Eliminate hunger now, poverty later,” Business Line, 8 January 2003.)) Meanwhile, twelve million tons were exported and put on sale at a subsidized price the Indian government refused to offer its country’s impoverished peoples. ((“Foodgrain exports may slow down this fiscal [year],” India Business Insight, 2 June 2003; “India: Agriculture sector: Paradox of plenty,” Business Line, 26 June 2001; Ranjit Devraj, “Farmers protest against globalization,” Inter Press Service, 25 January 2001.)) There is more than enough food to feed people – bottom line.

When exploring the implications of a (neo)-Malthusian program, one must ask, as Richard Robbins advises, “what social interests or purposes might be advanced by their acceptances?” Clearly, Malthus envisioned a world where the elite and upper class decide and act upon population control by advancing measures that materialized from within the very former and latter statuses. It should also be noted that Malthus was not concerned with population growth, he was concerned with the rising number of poor in England at the time and, why they should or should not exist and, “what should be done about them.” ((R.H. Robbins, p. 156.)) Malthus erroneously, and egregiously – might I add, saw poverty not as a consequence of “expanding industrialism, enclosure laws… or the need of manufacturers for a source of inexpensive labor…” but rather as a phenomenon that emerged from “the laws of nature…” ((R.H. Robbins, p. 156.))

The Malthusian premise is one that presumes poverty exists by virtue of overpopulation, which is often postulated as the fault of fundamentally flawed human beings – which is dehumanizing to say the least. And, his theory (and any other theoretical fledglings of similarity) exempts the privileged elite from any accountability for fomenting and perpetuating the framing conditions and social arrangements that engender overpopulation and poverty in the first place.

If there really were something inherently poor and laggard in large populations, then affluent places like London or Manhattan would elicit fear of overpopulation. But the truth is, such sentiment is not directed internally toward ‘civilized’ regions of high densities of people, but rather it is directed externally toward areas and regions that are sought after for resources – areas that need to be ‘managed’ and ‘civilized.’ These are areas that, unlike densely populated areas of developed countries, are impoverished and immiserated on account of sanctions, development projects, foreign debt, illicit purloining of resources, and more, perpetrated and/or effected by foreign institutions – the very institutions that not only wreak tremendous social and ecological havoc, but also castigate such ‘victim’ countries as being ‘poor’ and ‘problematic’ and as ‘jeopardizing’ the globe with overpopulation. This is pathologically depraved behavior.

Furthermore, in today’s economic climate, one who recognizes the limits of economics within an ecological context of invariable finite materials is often referred to as a ‘neo–Malthusian.’ But because one recognizes the intrinsic limits to growth does not also mean that such a realization is concomitant with Malthusian theory, or rather: Just because one recognizes the limits to growth does not mean they are a neo-Malthusian.

The crux is, there are limits to growth. The planet is comprised of finite resources. Any intelligent creature is aware of this unalterable truth. However, these facts do not warrant one group of people to assume a higher positioning over another as a means to decide who lives, who is ‘useful,’ who gets what and when and where. The truth is, as many maintain, the whole carrying capacity discussion is either a.) not discussed honestly, or at all, or b.) it is approached with a narrow set of ‘solutions,’ all of which intend to perpetuate the status quo – which translates into either not solving shit or, solving the problem in a way that keeps those in power in power to enjoy their luxuries and privileges.

More importantly, owing to the fact that overpopulation is commensurate with economic growth (which confers tremendous power and wealth upon economic architects and directors i.e., the state and financial and corporate institutions) – we should, as Derrick Jensen suggests, honestly acknowledge how different our discourse and theoretical solutions would be if we changed the language from ‘overpopulation’ problems to ‘overconsumption’ problems? Here is where we find the fundamental flaws inhered within the ‘panaceas’ that are prescribed to fix this entire conundrum. We can’t address this issue as an ‘overconsumption’ problem because mitigating consumption growth would destroy the capitalist economy. So, unforgivably, we go with ‘overpopulation.’ Does anyone see the fundamental flaw yet? Does anyone else see what’s wrong here?

According to Jensen, “The United States constitutes less than 5 percent of the world’s population yet uses more than one-fourth of the world’s resources and produces one-fourth of the world’s pollution and waste.” And, if you “compare the average U.S. citizen to the average citizen of India, you find that the American uses fifty times more steel, fifty-six times more energy, one hundred and seventy times more synthetic rubber, two hundred and fifty times more motor fuel, and three hundred times more plastic.” Nonetheless, our concepts of overpopulation are usually not comprised of “those who do the most damage, the primary perpetrators (there can’t be too many [middle-class] Americans, can there?), but instead their primary (human) victims.” ((Derrick Jensen, Endgame Volume I: The Problem of Civilization, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006), p. 115.))

There is much absurdity and arrogance, as Jensen asserts, in the call for the poor to stop having children but not minding the rich driving around in SUVs, watching plasma-screen TVs while living sedentary lives in 3500 square foot homes, etc. ad nauseam. Also, to quote Jensen in depth:

…there are those who claim—equally absurdly, and equally arrogantly—that all talk of carrying capacity is racist and classist. To even use the phrase carrying capacity in this crowd is to invite hisses and catcalls, as well as spat epithets of Neo-Malthusian. I suppose the argument is that because some of those who want to protect this exploitative way of living use carrying capacity as a means of social control against the poor—as an American Indian activist friend said to me, “The only problem I have with population control is that you and I both know who is going to do the controlling”—then the notion of carrying capacity itself must be racist and classist. This seems similar to me to suggesting that because Hitler claimed (falsely) that Germany was being attacked by Poland, and that therefore the Germans needed to attack, and that because this same argument has routinely been used (just as falsely) by the United States as well as other imperial powers, that anyone who claims self-defense is lying. These people seem to forget that the misuse of an argument does not invalidate the argument itself. Worse, this argument, that the very concept of carrying capacity is a fabrication designed for social control, as opposed to a simple statement of limits, serves those in power as effectively as does ignoring or de-emphasizing resource consumption when speaking of overshooting carrying capacity, because it goes along with the refusal to acknowledge physical limits (and limits to exploitation) that characterize this culture. What would it take, I’ve heard peace and social justice activists ask, to bring the poor of the world to the fiscal standard of living of the rich? Well, another thirty planets, for one thing. It’s a dangerous—and stupid— question. Within this culture wealth is measured by one’s ability to consume and destroy. This means that attempts to industrialize the poor will further harm the planet. Because industrial production requires the exploitation of resources, the wealth of one group is always based on the impoverishment of another’s landbase, meaning that on a finite planet, the creation of one person’s (fiscal) wealth always comes at the cost of many others’ poverty. Those reasons are why the question is stupid. It’s dangerous because it serves as propaganda to keep both activists and the poor playing a game that doesn’t serve them well, and which they can never win, instead of quitting this game and working to take down the system.” ((D. Jensen, p. 115-116.))

There is a term called lactational amenorrhea, which is the absence of menstruation due to lactation. As long as a mother is nursing her neonate (i.e., infant) each and every time the child wants to feed, fertility is postponed. Basically, the female body temporarily shuts off its procreational facilities because the body is taxed to its limits regarding nutrient allocation for not only the infant but the mother as well. In other words, “If you continue with exclusive breast feeding for your baby’s first six months, your risk of becoming pregnant is less then 2 percent.” ((Katie Singer, The Garden of Fertility: A Guide to Charting Your Fertility Signals to Prevent or Achieve Pregnancy – Naturally – and to Gauge Your Reproductive Health, (New York: Avery, 2004), p.68. ))

Many indigenous mothers would sleep with their infants through the night so that their child would be able to nurse even during sleep. This beautiful communion between mother and child was practiced nightly for upwards of six months, if not more. ((K. Singer, p. 67-70.)) This practice, which is being forever lost in the dominant culture, in tandem with sustainable living practices, conduced to a natural, safe, sane and non-exploitative program of population control.

One must ask, what sort of culture would replace such population control measures with something like the Malthusian model. The answers tell us that only an exploitative culture, hell-bent on production by means of degradation of another’s landbase, thence elevating one’s luxuries on account of another’s impoverishment, would discard sane and sustainable ways of living to achieve prosperous ends.

Frank Smecker is a writer and social-worker from VT. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Frank, or visit Frank's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. lichen said on October 16th, 2009 at 3:25pm #

    This article is typical for not bothering to mention the realities of the natural environment at all, or how many plant and animal species have been and are being pushed beyond extinction by a burgeoning human population. Furthermore, it presents merely a straw man, as those of us who advocate one-child-per couple internationally are thus advocating the same rule for everyone, along with, personally, an egalitarian no-carbon-footprint society. I agree that malthus was a scumbag, and as are people who think that it would somehow be healthy or ok to burn oil and practice other ecocide’s if there were less people.

  2. russell olausen said on October 16th, 2009 at 10:35pm #

    I see the reintroduction of carbon into the atmosphere as a good and natural thing. As a human I have existed off of other living things and in my passing I hope to be a source of energy in my turn. There is no grace in Darwin, Malthus, or humanity in general and therefore the future of humanity is no more a burning question than what is for breakfast. We are on a cosmic bus ride and that takes energy so get over the expense and quit being a hall monitor.

  3. john andrews said on October 17th, 2009 at 12:43am #


    You’re perfectly right to site Britain’s enclosure laws for the lethal and insidious effect they had on Britain’s common people. But there were more, and arguably even more sinister laws to follow, such as the settlement laws, game laws and combination laws – all of which were cynically and intentionally designed to impoverish and enslave workers to the demands of the new lord of the universe – industry.

    It’s also worth adding to the Arundhati Roy story the fact that throughout the infamous Irish famine which completely ravaged the Irish countryside in the early nineteenth century, Ireland was EXPORTING grain and beef to England.

    An ever increasing ‘growth’ of impoverished people is essential to the wheels of industry in order to maintain an enslaved labour force. The so-called ‘growth’ of the world’s economy depends on how we decide to measure ‘growth’ – quite naturally the indicators of choice tend to favour those of big business. If we chose instead to measure the number of people starving to death each day, though we would very definitely still see ‘growth’, it would be a statistic of shame rather than pride; so we tend to ignore it.

    It’s all but impossible to convince the world’s poor that their own big families are the very thing that is oppressing them. The only thing they have of use to big business (which rules the world, obviously), and which therefore ensures their survival, is their labour. By continually increasing that pool of labour they are guaranteeing their continued enslavement.

    Population control is something that every human on the planet should adopt as a personal moral duty to the future.

  4. Don Hawkins said on October 17th, 2009 at 5:12am #

    Updated 50 minutes ago

    An emergency situation has been declared in central Queensland tonight where a large bushfire has damaged properties and forced residents to evacuate, while firefighters in New South Wales and Western Australia are also battling blazes.
    The Queensland Fire and Rescue Service (QFRS) has told residents which back onto bushland in the suburbs of Frenchville, Koongal, Lakes Creek and other areas at Mount Archer, east of Rockhampton, to leave their homes.
    The QFRS says the fire is fast moving and some structures could be lost.
    Rockhampton is now covered by thick smoke and some roads in the city remain closed.
    Fire service commissioner Lee Johnson says it has been a tense afternoon for crews – with the fires behaving erratically.
    “The actual weather itself hasn’t been that bad but unfortunately, due to the extreme dryness of the conditions the fire and the fire’s behaviour, it’s almost creating its own weather patterns if you like,” he said

    New South Wales fire crews will work through the night to contain fires on the state’s far north coast.

    Firefighters from Perth have flown to Broome in Western Australia’s north-west to assist with a bushfire that has been burning all week.

    “It won’t be very long before we have to start thinking of the Arctic as an open sea. Man has taken the lid off the northern end of his planet and we can’t put that lid back on again”. Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics and Head of the Polar Physics Group

    Taking this lid off and in a few years then what on the present path the old way of thinking.

    “Be well this is the people’s radio station. First reports this morning are saying more troops are massing on the Southern boarder of Russia. China has called for calm and trying to get food and water to the estimated 200 million people now on the Northern boarded. Reports out of India are hard to get and the best we know today July 2029 India is still under Marshall law. The fires in California have stopped for now and the central valley is almost uninhabitable and LA still under Marshall law gas in short supply and Long Range Acoustic Devices reported in many part’s of the city. Temperatures in Southern California are expected to reach records again today. The government is asking for calm in Texas and promising more water and food and gas as people move North. Flooding again in the Northeast and more new settlements on the border with Canada. The government and NASA again in talk’s to see if aerosol injection into Earth’s atmosphere can be used. All for now and temperature updates in one hour save energy be well”.

  5. Don Hawkins said on October 17th, 2009 at 5:34am #

    Oh I forgot to say that we can listen to the media or so called policy makers/leaders or the captains of industry a form of strangeness or another way of putting it is that they are nut’s stark raving mad. Think not well let’s watch the Senate the next few months on that stark raving mad part. Do not forget about the man behind the curtain business with cash in hand.

  6. B99 said on October 17th, 2009 at 11:28am #

    John Andrews – The reason the Irish died on roadsides as carts of grains, butter, and vegetables passed them on the way to ships bound for England was not because the Irish had large families but because their country was under British occupation.

    While large families insure that poor people will likely remain poor – large families also insure that the parents will be looked after in old age. Thus, while large families are a liability in the struggle against corporate capitalism – they are viewed as an asset at the family level – a provider of family income.

    Large families began with the rise of agriculture and continued into the industrial age. Yet the birthrate has now been falling all around the world for decades and will likely continue to do so. The problem now is not as much the birthrate in most areas of the world but the large base of population contributing to the sheer numbers. (A million people having 2 children per family results in more children than a hundred thousand people having 4.)

    What is necessary is that women’s options be increased through literacy and continued schooling. This enables women to have a life outside of baby-bearing and a life outside of a repressive home environment. It is largely where women are increasingly taught to read and write and count that birthrates have fallen dramatically. Of course, there is still a long way to go.

  7. lichen said on October 17th, 2009 at 2:12pm #

    Oh yeah, russell, it’s really “natural” to pump toxic black smoke into your lungs and into the atmosphere by burning oil and coal? I guess cancer is natural too… You’re happy that these substances are supposedly “returning” to the atmosphere when they were never there in the first place; they were dead plants and animals, part of the earth, and in the earth they should have stayed. Mining is a crime.

    We do not need ‘energy’ to live–as the entirety of humanity before industrialization proves, and further, we have clean, non-nuclear energy that could be sustainably used for a few tasks. But as for fossil-junkies, prepare for withdrawal if you have any respect whatsoever for the countless animal and plant species, today and tomorrow, of this planet.