• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The rise and rise of the New Malthusianism

Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, by Matthew Connelly. Harvard University Press, March 2008.

Population is almost always linked to a problem of one kind or another. Historically, most societies regarded people as the source of economic and political power – so for them, the ‘population problem’ was often not having enough people to work on the land and fight against potential enemies. Consequently, most cultures were pro-natalist; they encouraged people to have large families. Since the emergence of modernity, however, such pro-natalism has been undermined by a new view of population growth as something we should dread. In the nineteenth century, the anti-natalist philosophy of Thomas Malthus inspired a powerful movement for curbing population growth.

The central preoccupation of the Malthusian movement was not simply growth itself, but a fear that the wrong kind of people tend to have the highest fertility rates. The problem, apparently, was one of differential fertility rates; Malthusians were haunted by anxiety that families of the wrong class and the wrong colour might overwhelm those who came from the right stock. Not surprisingly, then, they had a very selective attitude towards population control. They were principally concerned with controlling the population growth of ‘other people’. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Malthusian agenda resonated with elites who were concerned about the birth rate of the lower classes. The fear that these classes might outbreed others, and contribute to the degeneration of ‘the race’, fostered a new eugenic outlook. Eugenics was seen as a science that could improve the human stock by promoting superior races over ‘less suitable’ ones.

As Matthew Connelly notes in his new book Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population, there where two distinct - if not always unconnected - strands to eugenics. One strand promoted racially motivated policies such as forced sterilisation, immigration quotas and, in the case of Nazi Germany, physical extermination of people deemed to be unfit. The other strand, which Connelly refers to as ‘reform eugenics’, did not ‘reject the mainline idea that more privileged socioeconomic and racial groups tended to display more desirable characteristics’. However, it ‘simply did not emphasise it’. Instead ‘reform eugenics’ stressed the ‘potential for improved conditions to nurture talent and ability at every social level’.

After the experience of the Second World War, eugenics in its overtly racial form stood discredited. Many of those who had been devoted to pursuing population-growth policies now embraced ‘reform eugenics’ and rebranded themselves as family planners.

Since the end of Second World War, the population-control lobby has carefully presented itself as a benevolent and technocratic movement. It understands that it can no longer publicly air racial concerns about ‘unfit people’. In 1952, William Vogt, a leading figure in the postwar Malthusian movement in America, told his colleagues that ‘it is commonly said in the Orient what we want to cut their population because we are afraid of them’. Yet he insisted that the programme of population control ‘can be sold on the basis of the mother’s health and health of the other children’, and ‘there will be no trouble getting into foreign countries on that basis’. Fatal Misconception provides numerous examples of how the population-control lobby sought to package its mission as an innocuous public health initiative.

Connelly’s book is an excellent work of reference on the history of the population-control movement. It is based on a rigorous and scholarly exploration of key archival sources, and it gives important insights into the emergence and the workings of the population-control lobby. In essence, this is a story about a small group of energetic and determined crusaders who, through their network of contacts, gained significant influence over governments and international organisations. The Malthusian cause has never let principle stand in the way of an opportunity; it has continually redefined its image in order to win favour with the public. In the past 60 years, it has presented population control as a poverty-reduction measure, a ‘development policy’, an instrument of family planning, a precondition for improving the position of women, a way of giving more choice to families, and, more recently, as a necessary measure to save the environment and the planet.

Connelly examines in detail how careful population controllers are in their use of language. In 1968, the population-control movement succeeded in getting a United Nations conference to proclaim that ‘parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children’. In truth, the Malthusian movement was not interested in the human right of families to determine freely to have lots of children. As one American Malthusian told a meeting of officials, ‘in this company it is not necessary to argue that our primary purpose is to reduce the rate of population growth’; he added that human rights were ‘means not ends’. Since the 1960s, the rhetoric of ‘rights’ has become an important part of Malthusianism. However, it interprets the term ‘rights’ selectively indeed, to mean that people should have the smallest family possible.

Yet despite the reams of evidence he uncovers, Connelly is far too uncritical of the rhetoric and agenda of the family-planning movement. He argues that it is ‘important to commemorate the struggle for reproductive rights’ while recognising that the leaders of this struggle were complicit in pursuing a sordid anti-people agenda. He naively assumes that because it no longer uses the term ‘population control’, the movement must no longer be pursuing ‘the same hidden agenda’. Maybe. But today’s reproductive rights professionals are no less prescriptive, and no less inhibited about assuming they have the moral authority to plan other people’s family size, than the old Malthusians were.

New trends in Malthusianism

It is important to point out that anxieties about population growth often emerge independently of real demographic trends. The demographic consciousness is not just about apparently tangible ‘problems’; indeed, quite often fears that have little to do with demography are expressed through the prism of population. As one American author has noted: ‘What is called a demographic problem may better be described as a moral and intellectual problem that takes a demographic form.’ (1) At times, racial and elite anxieties and concern about national security or the environment have been discussed through the idea of demography. One weakness of Fatal Misconception is that it isolates the story about the population-control movement from broader social and historical trends. It observes that ‘world population growth is slowing, and the Heroic Age of population control appears to be over, at least for now’. And yet, ironically, even though population growth has slowed, Malthusianism has never been as influential as it is today.

Connelly is right to argue that the term ‘population control’ has been discredited. However, there has never been a time like now when the advocates for reducing population levels have been so brazen and strident. Of course, their arguments are rarely couched in the language of eugenics or race. The theme of ‘competitive fertility rates’ is only an aside in the contemporary Malthusian narrative: for example, there are still occasional warnings about the rapid growth of Europe’s Muslim population and about ‘too many old people’ weighing down Western societies. Today, most of the warnings about population growth are linked to the campaign to ‘save the planet’ from a rapidly breeding human species.

Where in the nineteenth century Malthusians warned that population growth threatened to cause some people to starve to death, today they denounce people for threatening the planet by consuming too much. Contemporary Malthusianism has taken on an openly anti-human form. In the West, the population control lobby now busily castigates those who have large families as having committed an ‘eco-crime’. Having children, especially lots of children, is treated as an offence on a par with mass pollution. From this viewpoint, another human life is treated as just another amount of carbon emissions. Little wonder that it is seen as preferable for some humans not to exist at all.

‘Humans are too great a threat to life on earth: they should be phased out.’ That is the message of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. As one more mainstream Malthusian argues, ‘a non-existent person has no environmental footprint; the emission “saving” is instant and total’ (2). This obvious preference for the ‘non-existent’ over the ‘existent’ exposes the powerful anti-humanist sentiment in contemporary Malthusianism. It is not only eccentric, isolated misanthropes who celebrate ‘non-existence’ today: rather, this outlook is symptomatic of wider cultural trends that devalue and denigrate human life.

There is evidence that population scares have steadily been gaining influence since the turn of the new millennium. The idea that population growth is the principal threat to the planet is now taken seriously throughout the mainstream media. Giving the BBC’s prestigious Reith Lecture in 2007, the influential economist Jeffrey Sachs argued: ‘Our planet is crowded to an unprecedented degree… [and this is] creating unprecedented pressures on human society and on the physical environment.’ (3) Such pessimistic arguments are rarely challenged in mainstream intellectual and cultural debate today. For most of the twentieth century, Malthusianism was confined to the margins of Western intellectual life – today, it has gone mainstream. Contrary to the argument put forward in this powerful but flawed book, the crusade to control the world’s population levels has never been as influential as it is right now.

Frank Furedi is the author of many books, including Population and Development: A Critical Introduction, published by Polity in 1997. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) See Eberstadt, ‘Population change and national security’, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1991, p.127

(2) A Population-Based Climate Strategy – An Optimum Population Trust Briefing, by David Nicholson-Lord, May 2007

(3) Lecture 1: Bursting at the Seams, Reith Lectures 2007

Contact me

If you want to get in touch or keep updated with my activities, either email me, connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter.