Blame the rich, not the poor

The political economist Thomas Malthus caused a stir in 1798 when he published his controversial work, An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus postulated that unrestrained population growth will result in the increased production of food beyond the capacity of the Earth’s resources to sustain and this, in time, will lead to scarcity.

Malthus offered a bleak, dark and foreboding future for humanity: one filled with disease, war, poverty and evil.
He fingered high fertility and poverty among the lower classes for this, and so recommended more active regulation of family size.

In Malthus’s world view, the evil of sexual imprudence was largely a lower-class (and which, in the colonial era, also came to be identified with the race and culture of the so-called natives) proclivity, and those of “uncivilised” societies. Only strict adherence to marriage and good education could result in the “future improvement of society”, he argued.

Malthus’s propositions were generated in a period in England of mass rural poverty and migration to cities. Efforts were also being made to pass the Poor Laws — designed to divert taxes that supported the welfare of the poor. The new middle and professional classes of the time viewed support for the poor as an incentive for them to “breed” more.

Interestingly, reminiscences of this debate are playing themselves out now in South Africa, as the rich and middle classes claim that social and child welfare grants are encouraging women in poor communities to have more children.

Much of English outlook and attitudes towards the poor — and those of other colonial powers operating in the frontier states — were influenced by Malthus’s ideas.

His arguments swayed the focus of the debate away from issues of food production to an obsessive preoccupation with the reproductive habits of the poor.

The colonial project, in the end, largely dwelled on the question of how to resolve the “restless native problem” by curtailing their numbers. As a result, the Malthusian spectre of the problem of overpopulation found itself influencing early family-planning policies for the Third World, especially in aid-dependent countries after colonialism.

The political logic of overpopulation as a cultural problem finds revival in the age of the “war on terror” in the form of the poisonous portent of the United States right-wing scholar, Samuel Huntington, who argues that the migration of hordes of poor people from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East will lead to the “clash of civilisations” and the dilution of Western culture.

In a recent issue of Foreign Policy (March/April 2004) Huntington caused consternation in the US when he suggested that the country’s Anglo-Protestant culture is being threatened under the wave of Hispanic (largely Mexican) “invasions” and high fertility rates.

Huntington concludes that the US’s white identity and multi-culturalism will, in a few decades, be replaced by a Hispanic cultural milieu that refuses to assimilate into mainstream US culture. Huntington’s reasoning also finds itself in a more nuanced form in Europe, where there are fears of the rapid increase in its Muslim population and its unapologetic adherence to Islamic values.

Malthusianism is revived time and again. If it is not used to attack welfarism or instigate cultural assimilation, it becomes the friend of environmentalists. Neo- Malthusianism on the environmental front can be found in the alarmist works of Paul Ehrlich, who wrote the missive, The Population Bomb (1968) — the undercurrent of which is that increased population growth among the poor is the cause of environmental degradation.

Both Malthus and Ehrlich have been proven wrong — the world’s population is presently six billion (which is steadying), and enough food is being produced without the sudden collapse or upheaval in nature. Malthus and his subsequent followers did not contemplate technological improvements, and the ability of society and nature to adapt.

The thesis that the poor cause environmental degradation has been challenged on a number of occasions. In 1972 the Club of Rome, a European think-tank, released a report titled The Limits to Growth. Also alarmist, it suggested that rapid economic growth will, within a century, lead to the exhaustion of the Earth’s renewable and non-renewable resources.

But what is important about the Club of Rome report — even if it argued that overpopulation is a problem — is that it challenged the exuberance and consumptive habits of the rich. This theme was probably inspired by the seminal work, The Affluent Society (1958), by the economist Kenneth Gailbraith, who famously remarked that “mass deprivation remains the most shocking aberration of modern times” against the overwhelming enjoyment of abundance by the rich.

The Club of Rome document contextualised environmental degradation as not being solely because of the unruly ways of the poor, but also the result of the rapacious exploitation and overconsumption of the rich.

The wealthiest 20% of the world’s population consume 80% of the Earth’s resources. This divide is saturated with contrasting images on the global landscape: the poor look increasingly emaciated, and the rich grow more obese.

The relationship between population growth, social progress and sustainable development is a complex one. Population-growth debates are inevitably a way to legitimise social engineering and, as a result, often reflect class and racial prejudices against the poor.

Even in his day, critics of Malthus questioned the focus on the poor and not on the inherent inequalities of English society.

In the calculus of the world’s cosmopolitan elite, the restless multitude must be tamed — and what is unimpeachable is the social order and patterns of living of the higher classes. But as the historian Arnold Toynbee — who wrote on the rise and fall of civilisations — suggested, the lesson from history is that civilisations failed because of extreme concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and high inequality that is perpetuated by the ruling classes.

Hovering above the heads in all these debates are profound issues about the ethics of development, the nature of wealth creation and our consumptive lifestyles.

The philosopher Peter Singer suggested the provocative postulate that perhaps the way we live (which is the pursuit of those things beyond necessity and largely for the sake of class differentiation and status) may be the cause of the death of others, or at least the source of their pain and deprivation.

If there is anything to be learnt from Malthusianism, it is the close proximity of economic science and ideology. Today Malthus’s ideas resonate in different realms of conflict — class, race, culture and environment — and where a singular theme reigns: the fear that the numeracy of the underprivileged will block the progress of cultural homogeneity and order in the world.

In these circumstances, life with the poor is nothing short of that memorable Hobbesian phrase: “Nasty, brutish and short”.

Saliem Fakir is director of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources: South Africa office

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