Neomalthusianism and Question Time

Once again the ugly spectre of Malthusianism slithered its way into the mainstream on an episode of the BBC show, Question Time, which over the last few months has shown itself rapidly losing any illusion it might have had of speaking to, or representing, the needs of the public writ large and instead has rapidly been transitioning into a bizarrely hyperreal circus and a conduit for an ever more divisive and populist message. From the rumours of Fiona Bruce prepping the crowd with information to unfairly bias them against certain members of the panel, to the continued inclusion of political activists posing as members of the general public. It’s clear that Question Time is far from being a simple forum for members of the public to put questions to political figures, entertainers and experts. In the last episode of Question Time, a panel consisting of Green Party Leader, Caroline Lucas, Actor John Rhys-Davies,  Conservative Party MP Victoria Atkins, Labour Party MP Jon Ashworth and Liberal Democrats MP Vince Cable responded to a question regarding the 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thurnberg on whether it was embarrassing that she had raised more awareness surrounding the catastrophic effects of climate change than any of the political parties so far.

Most of the panellists talked about the various incremental changes they had so far proposed. Unfortunately, no-one went quite as far as George Monbiot in laying blame directly on the current mode of production although Lucas refreshingly began her response by conceding the point that yes Thurnberg had to some extent managed to create an effect that had pushed climate change to the forefront of the agenda in a way her party had not and curiously Atkins suggested that it was Margret Thatcher that had been one of the first world leaders to put climate change on the agenda which is somewhat contentious. However, Rhys-Davies took a rather different tack and in doing so revisited the age-old claims of the 18th Century cleric Thomas Malthus in suggesting that a substantial part of the problem could be attributed to overpopulation.

John Rhys-Davies: Obviously we should be custodians of the planet, but I do not believe that there is any chance that renewables can meet our energy needs because they flucuate so much the sun only shines a certain number of hours a day the wind only blows a certain number of hours a year and when you need electricity you need it now you have to have power stations now what I find difficult with the green policy and frankly with the policy of these other parties is no-one is prepared to actually say we need nuclear power, we do need nuclear power. The second thing, the second point is this you’re only looking at one element in a huge and complicated er, climate change problem and the real elephant in the room is population if we had fewer people we would have fewer, less pollution

Fiona Bruce: So what are you proposing John?

John Rhys Davies: Well, what I’m saying, what I’m saying is that the people who are advocates of absolutely reducing our carbon footprint should also be aware that carbon actually is life if you get down to 140 parts per billion, per million rather you don’t have any plant life on the planet the guys growing wacky tobaccy in California at the moment are creating artificial atmosphere with 1,400 parts per million because the plants are flourishing of course man has an impact on his environment but the population of Africa, for instance, doubles between now and 2050 from 1.2 billion to 2.5 billion it doubles again almost before the end of the century.

There are several things that could be pointed out here, one that only one country in Africa is in the top 20 countries for carbon dioxide emissions and that country emits less than a twentieth of the emissions that the top-rated country does. It could also be mentioned that the per capita CO2 emissions among most Africa citizens are relatively minuscule compared to most other countries, particularly those which are broadly speaking in the global north, with again per capita CO2 footprints ranging from about 10% of their northern equivalents. But what I think is perhaps more interesting is looking at why almost 230 years after he first began publishing essays Malthus’s ideas continue to be so persistent.

Malthus initially began writing in response to the events of The French Revolution where it seemed, for a window of time like a more radically egalitarian society might be possible. However, Malthus had other ideas: 

Man cannot live in the midst of plenty. All cannot share alike the bounties of nature. Were there no established administration of property, every man would be obliged to guard with force his little store. Selfishness would be triumphant. The subjects of contention would be perpetual. Every individual mind would be under a constant anxiety about corporal support, and not a single intellect would be left free to expatiate in the field of thought.

Essentially Malthus believed that the inherent selfishness of people made a system of private property necessary to rain in the excesses of population and more equal society, or rather a society where each person would have free access to articles of consumption would be doomed to failure largely because he believed population growth was an exponential process in the presence of abundant resources. The inability for food production to scale appropriately meant, for Malthus such a population growth would inevitably lead to mass starvation. 
At the heart of Malthus’s ideas is a disdain for the poor, which can be seen in his writings on charityIt may at first appear strange, but I believe it is true, that I cannot by means of money raise a poor man and enable him to live much better than he did before, without proportionably depressing others in the same class.

Additionally, whilst Rhys-Davies might talk authoritatively there’s actually no evidence for the idea that populations grow at  a geometric rate when unchecked, outstripping food production which grows at an arithmetical rate: 


But crucially what I think is more evident within the rhetoric of Rhys-Davies and the writing of Malthus is who exactly benefits from this conception of poverty and consumption and the answer can quite clearly be seen as those who’s existence benefits from maintaining the status quo or as Engels put it in the ‘Conditions of the Working Class’ in England:

Malthus declares in plain English that the right to live, a right previously asserted in favour of every man in the world, is nonsense. He quotes the words of a poet, that the poor man comes to the feast of Nature and finds no cover laid for him, and adds that “she bids him begone”, for he did not before his birth ask of society whether or not he is welcome. This is now the pet theory of all genuine English bourgeois, and very naturally, since it is the most specious excuse for them

Placing the blame for pollution not on the moneyed classes but instead on the shoulders of the impoverished benefits all those looking for a reason to avoid assuming responsibility for their own role in the continuing catastrophe. In taking up a version of Malthus’s ideology Rhys-Davies is assuming a position that eschews addressing the root problems of climate change and the structural changes that are involved in working towards its mitigation, which involves, among other things looking at specifically why land is being underutilized for food production, habitation and reforestation but also a position that entrenches further the assumptions that protect hierarchies of class society and its beneficiaries.


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