Updated: Jul 16, 2020

Malthusianism, Neo-Malthusians and the Weight of History

Keywords: Overpopulation; History; Politics; Social Movements; Contraception

(Part One of Two)


"If you don't know history you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree."

- Michael Crichton

The German language happens to be gifted with several words that have no direct translation to English, namely, Schadenfreude, Wanderlust, Doppelgänger or Kindergarten. Genchichtsmüde falls into this exotic category. It means to be "weary of history" (Power, 2017).

Certainly, almost anyone who has grasped the reality of our increasing numbers and its many collateral implications has realized the hardship of communicating the issue. Interestingly enough, it isn't just because it is inherently a delicate and misinterpreted subject, "because it involves sex, reproduction, cultures, religion and severe inequities around the world," as Martha Campell wrote (2012, p. 42), but also due to a confused, and misapprehended past, which has created a sort of cordon sanitaire around the subject. As a result, any contemporary preoccupation or concern with the issue carries a sort of 'radioactive marking' for those that dare to venture into these murky waters.

At any cost, there is immense value in apprehending the former days of the population movement, as well as the key players that propelled the views and ideas forward to our days, so let us dive in.

Reconstructing historical events can be an arduous task (Adeoti & Adeyeri, 2012). In effect, researching the emergence of the activist sphere around population issues fits that profile. One of the main reasons for this might be that this association of activists never developed into a fully-fledged organized grass-roots movement, having remained instead ‘coordinated’ as several disjointed branches spread throughout the Western world. One of the noticeable consequences was that the population movement remained in the shadows of the modern environmental movement (Beck & Kolankiewicz, 2000), thus, never attaining its emancipation. This, I would argue, has made the task of reconstructing history, much more difficult.

Comparatively, to uncover the motivations and intents which gave rise to this campaign is in itself a convoluted exercise, as these are regularly shrouded in misconceptions and disavowal often depicting a one-sided and distorted version of events (Normandin & Valles, 2015).

Indeed, the dominant historical narrative wraps in accusations of misogyny, eugenics, nativism, and racism (Normandin & Valles, 2015; Huang, 2008; Connelly, 2009; Hartmann, 2004; Angus, Butler & Hartmann, 2011; Robbins, 2012; Fletcher, Breitling & Puleo, 2014; White, 1994; Pearce, 2010; Monbiot, 2009; Coole, 2013) any attempt to have a meaningful discussion or action regarding restrictions on immigration and population management, which were pioneered by conservationists and environmentalists concerned with the deterioration of the natural world.

As an illustration, Betsy Hartmann asserts this by conflating nature conservation with racism via naming her research ‘Conserving Racism: The Greening of Hate at Home and Abroad’ (2004).

As a result of this related chronicle of events, the ethicists Frances Kissling and Peter Singer as well as the director of Uganda’s National Population Council, Jotham Musinguzi argue in their fittingly titled piece (2018) that ‘Talking about overpopulation is still taboo. That has to change,’ while Kopnina and Washington (2016) retrace the reasons why the subject of population is excluded from discussions of sustainability.

With this in mind, it might become a worthy endeavour to backtrack the development of this social movement - even if it a recognizably fractured one – as to better be able to recognize the attitudes, behaviours and choices as well as the values, practices and structures shaping this activist sphere (Shove, 2010; Smolka, 2001; Choudry, 2013; Dougherty, 2004). In the first place, any examination of the topic of Malthusian Restrictionism (Chapman, 2006), the Malthusian trap (Bacci, 2017) or Neo-Malthusian theory (Schlosser, 2009; D’Alisa, Demaria & Kallis, 2014) demands a reference to the Reverend Thomas Malthus.

At the edge of the nineteenth century, Malthus contemplated the logic of natural limits and challenged the orthodoxy of his age, affirming that while the means of subsistence were produced linearly, human population would grow exponentially. He envisioned that as the population would increase at a faster rate than food production, human numbers would overtake the available supply and people would reap the woes of famine, disease and war (Malthus, 1826). As a result, either population had thenceforth be reduced through rational means, notably by sexual abstinence (herein lies the main difference to Neo-Malthusianism, which supports the use of contraceptive methods that Malthus condemned Schlosser, 2009)), or, if these ‘preventive checks’ failed, more painful ‘positive checks’ would transpire as the unsustainable excess falls victim to famine, disease or war, whence restoring equilibrium (Malthus, 1826).

Although Malthus’s theory found detractors in essentially every school of thought, made up of free market devotees and libertarians (Simon, 1980), Marxists (Weissman, 2000), socialists (Commoner, 1972, p. 17), social conservatives (Johnson, 2009), feminists (Knudsen, 2006) and human rights advocates, who outlined its applications as misanthropic or inhumane (Hodgson & Watkins, 1997; Hartmann, 1995) (the ecologist Garrett Hardin (1988) provides a more detailed revision of the criticisms directed at Malthus), it also had a wide-ranging and indelible influence on “intellectual history,” as H.G. Wells wrote (1902). To be sure, both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace’s thesis of life following a model of evolution by natural selection, was tremendously shaped by Malthus (Quammen, 1996, p. 109; Kuhlemann, 2019), to say nothing of his influence in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and other intellectuals (WTTE, 2018).

To analyze the current activist sphere around population issues, I deem it vital to understand the first people to have been intrigued enough by Malthus’ ideas as to act with a social intent on them. By all means, as F.H. Micklewright argues in The Rise and Decline of English Neo-Malthusianism (1961) the thesis of Malthus had become so widespread in the 19th century that it had “become a generally accepted principle of the secularist philosophy,” leading to the emergence of significant adherents.

To demonstrate, Francis Place might be the initial key figure of this treatise (Simkin, 1997; Thale, 2008). Place’s book Illustrations and proofs of the principle of population (1822) was conceivably, the first popular and successful linkage of Malthusianism with contraception, which spawned countless debates in Europe and beyond (Micklewright, 1961), while nevertheless giving rise to the English birth-control movement (history also suggests that Jeremy Bentham might have been the intellectual father of Place by preceding him on this connection (Himes, 1936)). Shortly after, Robert Dale Owen pioneered the introduction of Neo-Malthusianism in the United States (Himes, 1930) with his book Moral Physiology, Or A Brief and Plain Treatise on the Population Question (1842).

John Stuart Mill was counted among those early enthusiasts (Himes, 1928; 1929; Mill, 1963; Stack, 1998 p. 29), although the subject if Mill was a Malthusian or Neo-Malthusian is still a very fresh topic of contention (Stack, 2018). Still, there is unequivocal evidence that Mill embraced Malthus’ ideas, considering them the perfect opportunity for policy interventions to encourage family size limitation to improve the lives of many (Kuhlemann, 2019). In Mill’s Autobiography (1873, chapter IV):

“Malthus’ population principle was quite as much a banner, and a point of union among us, as any opinion specially belonging to Bentham. This great doctrine, originally brought forward as an argument against the infinite improvability of human affairs, we took up with ardent zeal in the contrary sense, as indicating the sole means of realizing that improvability by securing full employment at high wages to the whole laboring population through a voluntary restriction of the increase of their numbers.”

Other decisive figures of the 19th century who followed in the footsteps of Malthus were George Drysdale, Charles Bradlaugh, and Annie Besant (Micklewright, 1961), with the trio eventually forming the Malthusian League in 1877 (Nunez-Eddy, 2017). The League was focused on the relationship between large families and poverty and problems of overcrowding, while coaxing for the use of contraception as a countermeasure (Micklewright, 1961). Brian Dolan writes in Malthus, Medicine & Morality: ‘Malthusianism’ After 1798 (2000, p. 166) that:

“The members of the Leagues, revised the master’s message; according to them, it was futile to expect wide-scale abstinence, and therefore only by a conscious restriction of family size could the working class hope to assure its prosperity. The League thus sought to fuse its socially conservative economic views with a popular appeal for fertility control.”

Regardless, the objectives of the League (Micklewright, 1961) are reproduced here in detail, revealing with an uncanny impression how almost 150 years after its materialization, present-day population activists are still campaigning for essentially literatim, whilst likely being unaware of the League’s role and existence:

  1. To agitate for the abolition of all penalties on the public discussion of the “Population Question”, and to obtain such a statutory definition as shall render it impossible, in the future, to bring such discussions within the scope of the common law as a misdemeanor.

  2. To spread among the people, by all practicable means, a knowledge of the law of population, of its consequences, and of its bearing upon human conduct and morals.

  3. To aid the Malthusian League in its crusade against poverty and the accompanying evils by obtaining the co-operation of qualified medical practitioners, both British and foreign.

  4. To obtain a body of scientific opinion on points of sexual physiology and pathology, involved in the “Population Question ", and which can only be discussed by those possessed of scientific knowledge.

  5. To agitate for a free and open discussion of the “Population Question” in all its aspects in the medical press, and thus to obtain a recognition of the scientific basis and the absolute necessity of neo-Malthusianism.”

Modern population activists, as a part of the hereupon suggested acronym SPM (Sustainable Population Movement), ought to be mindful of the ideological roots of the values they uphold as to better perceive the reasons, as Kopnina and Washington (2016) assert, ‘Discussing why population growth is still ignored or denied.’

With this in mind, comprehending the rise and fall of Neo-Malthusianism in the late 19th and 20th centuries becomes a crucial stepping stone to better understand the current struggles and obstacles in the way of the flourishing of SPM.

Picking up from the League’s early successes during the eighteen-seventies, that bonanza was sadly short-lived, due to a concoction of complex social and economic factors (Dolan, 2000; Miclkewright, 1961; Nunez-Eddy, 2017; Stack, 1998, p. 23-33) that mostly go beyond the scope of this work (although the League managed to spread Neo-Malthusianism throughout Europe and beyond, with Martinez-Alier and Masjuan, (2005) providing a compelling recapitulation of those events). Nevertheless, I’ll attempt to reproduce here my crude and condensed understanding of these historical forces.

David Stack writes (1998 p. 28) that:

“Malthusianism and political economy were synonymous. Both were built around a view of Nature that was inimical to radicalism. Both located evil in the inevitable laws of nature, as expressed in the population principle and thus rendered the central tenet of radicalism, the attribution of misery and suffering to a political source, invalid.”

It certainly becomes interesting to connect Stack’s layout with Dolan’s (2000 p. 167) take on The Malthusian League:

“It was doomed to failure. It was hardly surprising that the English working classes, at whom its veiled appeals for fertility control were aimed, found repugnant a doctrine which asserted that the poverty they endured was due not to the failings of the social system but to their own fecklessness.”

Comparatively, Nunez-Eddy (2017) explains that:

“Socialists disagreed with the Malthusian principles of unchecked population growth as the cause of poverty. Socialists argued that poverty was caused by an ineffective organization of a society’s infrastructure, and that it existed because society rewarded the wealthier class rather than focusing on assisting the working class. By the 1920s, Socialist ideas, in addition to the theories of evolutionary biologists Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, began to prevail over Malthus’ theories. Darwin noted that when a species reproduces beyond its means, the fittest traits that allow for survival become favorable through natural selection.”

Given these points, Micklewright (1961) offers a more detailed and intricate proposition attesting to the changes taking place at the time:

“The eighteen-eighties witnessed the economic results of the free trade movement; communication and trade had improved enormously, and a prosperous period came about which alleviated in some measure the distress of the ‘seventies. As a result there was a gradual rise in living standards […] A situation gradually came about that did not permit to the full neo-Malthusian argument and exclusive position within the English scene. Whatever might be thought of large families, references to contraception tended to be related to other issues such as the health of the mother rather than to the economic question of poverty as an isolated factor […] After the eighteen-seventies, the birth rate declined [and] issues of overpopulation were certainly growing less pressing than they had been in the earlier part of the century.”

Moreover, Micklewright (1961) supplements that:

A further cause must be found in the decline of the secularism from which the neo-Malthusians had drawn most of their strength. The peak point of this movement lay between 1850 and 1890 […] Many of the secularists were attracted by a new gospel which put their secular views into a wider economic and social perspective […] With the passing of the older secularism neo-Malthusianism lost its main source of public support and its day as a popular theory influencing and deter- mining the political and economic views of the advanced radicals in their assessment of the population question was over […] The death of Bradlaugh in January, 1891 […] marked the end of an era. The neo-Malthusianism which Francis Place had seen as arising from the political economy of Malthus and the ethical sociology of Bentham had done its work and was now making way for new approaches defined by fresh conditions and by growing technical knowledge.”

Besides all of the factors already pointing to a depreciation of Neo-Malthusianism and the Population Question, there is also the subject of coinciding shared values with the eugenics movement during the early 20th century, which continue to be hurled as contemporary accusations, leading to no progress in the debate of important matters (Coole, 2013). As Bashford and Levine write in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (2010, p. 98-104):

“Early eugenicists typically disagreed with neo-Malthusianism on the question of fertility restriction. Indeed, the first generation of English eugenicists advocated positive eugenics, meaning population growth among select groups […] By contrast, Drysdale, long-serving president of the League, declared in 1909 that neo-Malthusians did not agree with positive eugenics, since their objective was an overall decline of population growth rates, irrespective of class […] Drysdale began subscribing to eugenic ideas and to view neo-Malthusianism and eugenics as mutually compatible. By 1912 he considered a general reduction in the birth rate a necessary pre-condition for successful eugenics: “at the very outset of the neo-Malthusian propaganda it was predicted that a movement in favour of rational selection would arise as soon as the birth-rate was sufficiently reduced, and the Eugenics movement has justified this prophecy.”

Subsequently, the birth control movement and its main proponents, such as Margaret Sanger, began associating with eugenicists diplomatically to achieve their common goals. Kolson Schlosser in Malthus at mid-century: neo-Malthusianism as bio-political governance in the post-WWII United States (2009):

“Malthusianism and neo-Malthusianism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were often deployed in competing claims about the moral conditions of society with respect to reproduction. Many of these claims were made in debates about birth control in the 1920s, which were brought to the public consciousness largely by American Birth Control League (ABCL) founder Margaret Sanger. Sanger’s public advocation of birth control, by most accounts, developed out of the radical left, though eventually she allied with the hyper-conservative eugenics movement (for reasons which are to this day a matter of debate (Gordon, 2002; Franks, 2005)).

Together with this, Bashford and Levine (2010 p. 101-102) add that:

“Sanger herself was instrumental in linking neo-Malthusianism with eugenics. With her long-standing interest in social issues like poverty and pacifism, in addition to her fundamental concern for women’s health, Sanger was early influenced by the arguments of British Malthusians […] Historical interpretations of her career have tended to minimize the neo-Malthusian connection […] but the themes of reproduction, poverty, and population growth remained intimately intertwined in Sanger’s political economy (as they did for most other advocates of birth control) […] Starting in the 1920s, Sanger […] sought an alliance with the eugenics movement. By 1933, the American Eugenics Society endorsed Margaret Sanger’s birth-control campaign announcing in 1940 that “these two great movements [eugenics and birth control] have now come to such a thorough understanding and have drawn so close together as to be almost indistinguishable.”

Nonetheless, it should be remembered as Alexander Sanger affirms in Eugenics, Race, and Margaret Sanger Revisited: Reproductive Freedom for All? (2007) that:

“Eugenics in its infancy was seen as a tool for societal and human improvement. Reformers saw it as a way to enlist science, biology, and genetics in service of healthy human reproduction and outcomes and thereby to improve the health and quality of all children being born. At its least offensive, eugenics called for improved prenatal care. At its most offensive, it called for involuntary sterilization.”

Still and all, “population control ideas were dominated by eugenics and marred by racism and nativism in the United States” (Gordon, 1974), and there is no shortness of literature attesting to the ideas emerging at the time, such as those of ‘race-suicide’ (Pearl, 1925), class eugenics (Grant, 1916), or race and IQ (East, 1923). All of these factors (and others such direct and indirect implications from Nazi Germany. For example, in the latter category, Neo-Malthusianism’s advocacy for population control sparked revolts in France, whose citizens blamed the propaganda for weakening its demographic compared to Germany (Martinez-Alier & Masjuan, 2005)) led to gradual withdrawing of the Population Question in intellectual, social and economic circles[1].

Under these circumstances, the League officially suspended its activities in 1927 (maintaining an unofficial existence for more than three decades thenceforth). Only after World War II, did the population issue began re-emerging, and at that time the son of Drysdale, Vickery-Drysdale, shared the remaining money between organizations with similar objectives and values, with a noticeable one being the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) (Nunez-Eddy, 2017).

The IPPF was founded by the aforementioned Margaret Sanger and Lady Rama Rau in 1952 (Claeys, 2010). Sanger had opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S in 1916 and in 1921 she established the American Birth Control League, which altered its name to Planned Parenthood in 1942 (Cullen-DuPont, 2014 p.202). Planned Parenthood continues to have a crucial role in our days by promoting sexual and reproductive health as well as advocating for individuals to be able to make their own choices in family planning (Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2015), however, I mention it here to introduce another crucial figure of the post-war period, William Vogt[2].

In 1948, William Vogt published his book The Road to Survival: A Discussion of Food in Relation to the Problem of Growing Population (1948), and as well as being one of the central personalities in the revival of the population question (Linnér, 2003), Vogt also acted as the director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1951 to 1964, having a decisive role as a delegate for IPPF and being instrumental in the enactment of population policies in American foreign policy (Schlosser, 2009).

Vogt has also been credited with outlining the groundwork for the modern environmental movement. Particularly, he founded what the population researcher Betsy Hartmann has labelled “apocalyptic environmentalism” - the notion that unless humanity profoundly curtails consumption and limits population, it will devastate global ecosystem cohesion and disrupt its biological continuity (Mann, 2018).

The solution, Vogt argued, should emanate from the ecological knowledge to get smaller. Alternatively to growing more grain to produce more meat, humankind should, as his present-day proponents state, “eat lower on the food chain,” to mitigate the strain on Earth’s ecosystems. In effect, this is where Vogt ran counter to his predecessor, Robert Malthus, who argued that humanity would exhaust the finite availability of food because of too high fertility rates. Vogt, shifting the argument, upheld that there was a possibility of growing all that food, but it would be at the cost of wreck