Malthus, Marx and the Globalization Debate

Does Malthus or Marx have the best solution for global population growth?

February 28, 2009

Does Malthus or Marx have the best solution for global population growth?

The growing angst about climate change has focused attention on the human and environmental costs of sustained economic growth and of current consumption patterns. Moreover, the current boom in the prices of food, energy and strategic metals has been viewed as “proof” that the world is running into shortages of fossil fuels, food — and, some predict, water.

Two major demographic trends lie behind this concern. First, global population is predicted to grow from 6.5 billion to about nine billion by 2050 — although this represents a sharp slowdown in population growth to less than 0.5% per annum after 2035.

Troubling trends

Almost all of the world’s additional three billion citizens are going to be born in less developed countries — many already suffering adverse effects from population growth, urbanization and congestion.

Second, rising life expectancy and, in particular, the slump in fertility rates, are producing rapidly aging societies. In 1960, when the world population was about three billion, life expectancy was 52 years. Today, the population has more than doubled, and life expectancy has risen to 67.

By 2050, the world population will grow another 50% — and live an additional eight years. To maintain living standards, let alone improve them, you would have to conclude at first glance that either the Earth’s (limited) resources are going to have to be worked a lot harder and differently — or Malthus will have his day in the sun. So who’s right — Malthus or Marx — and is the major problem population or politics?

Not an exact analogy

For the sake of context, let us recall that Marx considered Malthus and his followers to be bourgeois reactionaries. Malthus, after all, was writing at a time when the English ruling class was looking aghast at the consequences of the French Revolution — and, more specifically, the perils of unchecked (working class) population growth.

Marx thought that his antagonist’s reasoning amounted to condemning the poor to eternal misery — and denying them any possibility of changing the world.

This change was precisely what the English ruling class feared. Marx, for his part, was more concerned with the nature and class ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange. To Marx, it wasn’t the pressure of population growth on limited resources that was the issue, but rather how the capitalist mode of production put pressure on population growth.

For Malthus, misery and destitution were caused by excessive population growth. For Marx, they were the result of unjust and class-ridden institutions.

Fast forward to 2008, and we might reasonably ask whether much in the debate has changed. Malthusians think population expansion is taking us to dark places. Aficionados of Marx think those dark places loom not because of population growth — but because of the last 30 years or so of unfettered, laissez-faire globalization that has served to mainly benefit the wealthy.

Population is not the sole factor

It is instructive to ask why, if population growth is little more than 1% per year, are indicators of pollution, power demand, congestion and the use of pesticides rising at six to seven times that rate? And why is there not seemingly an end to the growth not so much of consumption — but of excessive consumerism?

These trends surely have less to do with population growth than with the inadequacies of infrastructure, advertising, marketing, myopic urban planning, built-in obsolescence and so on. In other words, the demographics of the planet alone cannot possibly explain or account for the use or abuse of food, fuel and other resources and the dire consequences that may be visited upon us.

Malthusians and environmentalists are in a panic. They argue we cannot wait for reformed economic systems and new scientific techniques and technology because unchecked economic and population growth is imperilling our survival.

Marxists, and the left in general, have a deep disquiet about the emphasis on population control. They see this as an agent of worldwide conflicts over resources, race and immigration. They claim that it is also to deny the human ingenuity that caught Malthus out in the first place — and to suppress the need for institutional and economic change.

There seems little question that change is afoot, and I hope it continues to tilt away from the neo-Malthusians. The urgency of responses to climate change is increasingly accepted and, importantly, has been embraced and backed by the business sector worldwide.

At the same time, the discontent over the adverse effects of unfettered globalization is spawning both progressive and protectionist responses. Hopefully, the former will prevail.

The credit crunch is going to lead to a regulatory backlash with implications that might spill over to other forms of economic activity. But what’s missing most of all is a network of inclusive and effective multilateral institutions under what must still be U.S. leadership, in which solutions to the planet’s resource and environmental problems can be hammered out and the burdens shared appropriately.

An election issue

Both Barack Obama and John McCain have raised an expectation that the United States might return to the more benign global leadership role of yesteryear.

Moreover, the U.S. National Intelligence Council has completed a report on climate change security in the next 20 years, which urges the United States to lead a vigorous and urgent rebuilding of international institutions.

Malthus was wrong 200 years ago — and still is. The pressure of population growth and of aging societies will certainly present us with unique challenges and not a few threats. But if we restrict our vision and focus to anti-natalist and anti-population concerns, we may well end up perpetuating the problems we have to address.

Granted, Marx didn’t exactly enshrine his predictions in glory either, but at least he asked the right question, even if he came up with the wrong answers. It is surely right to focus on how we must change our social and economic institutions to serve human interests — in both richer and poorer economies.

Economic growth and higher living standards are noble and fundamental aspirations, but we have to look beyond market solutions and mechanisms alone.


For Malthus, misery and destitution were caused by excessive population growth. For Marx, they were the result of unjust, class-ridden institutions.

Why, if population growth is 1% per year, are pollution, power demand, congestion and the use of pesticides rising at six times that rate?

Even if Marx didn't come up with the right answers, at least he asked the right questions.

Either the Earth's (limited) resources are going to be worked harder and differently — or Malthus will have his day in the sun.