Climate Scientists Not Malthusians. You’re Thinking of Michael Moore.

May 24, 2023

Alex Trembath and Vijaya Ramachandran in The Atlantic:

Scolding regular people for contributing to climate change is out of fashion. But scolding people for making new people is, apparently, totally fine. Many climate activists say the worst thing an individual can do, from an emissions perspective, is have kids. The climate-advocacy group Project Drawdown lists “family planning and education,” which are intended to lower fertility rates, as leading solutions to global warming. Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard historian and celebrated climate researcher, published an op-ed in Scientific American this month titled “Eight Billion People in the World Is a Crisis, Not an Achievement.”

In recent years, many climate advocates have emphasized human population itself—as opposed to related factors such as consumption and technology—as the driving force behind environmental destruction. This is, at bottom, a very old idea that can be traced back to the 18th-century cleric Thomas Malthus. It is also analytically unsound and morally objectionable. Critics of overpopulation down through the ages have had a nasty habit of treating people less as individuals with value and agency than as sentient locusts.

Malthus argued against aid to poor Britons on the grounds that they consumed too many of the nation’s resources. In making his case, he semi-accurately described a particular kind of poverty that we still refer to as the “Malthusian trap” today. Agricultural productivity in poor societies is not high enough to support the population without significant labor input, so most people work on small subsistence farms to feed themselves and their families. The inescapably linear growth in the food supply could never outstrip the exponential growth in human populations, he argued.

Michael Mann and Naomi Oreskes response:

In their recent piece in The Atlantic (“The Malthusians are Back”), Alex Trembath and Vijaya Ramanchandran of The Breakthrough Institute deeply misrepresent the views of current-day climate scientists–including the two of us by name–in a character attack that labels us as “neo-Malthusians”.

In the late 18th century, Thomas Malthus was part of a large and consequential debate about a changing system of political economy.  Britain’s emerging capitalist system was driving manufacturing and other innovations that generated substantive wealth, but also left a significant portion of the population desperately poor. Adam Smith had already noticed this in The Wealth of Nations. Factory owners he noted, were “always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform, combination, not to raise the wages of labour,” and sometimes even entered into “particular combinations to sink the wages of labour.” In theory, workers should reject starvation wages, but in practice they often had no alternative. Wages were sometimes so low that workers’ children did starve; the situation was so bad—and so common—that laborers routinely tried to rear “at least four” children in order that two would survive.
In response, a system had developed known as the “poor laws”—an early form of what we call welfare.  But Malthus opposed the system of poor laws because he thought it removed the logical consequences of having children and thus contributed to unsustainable population growth.  Put baldly, effect, he believed that the poor should be left to starve.

Malthus is infamous because of the cruelty of his attitude, but his views are the opposite of what nearly every scientist we know believes. Climate scientists care about the climate crisis because of the threat it represents to human well-being (as well as our co-existence with other species).  The good news is that we do not need coercive practices to address one of the key drivers of environmental damage, which is the pressure of population.  Abundant evidence shows that when women are educated, they tend to have fewer children, in part because they have more choices. Advocating the empowerment of women as a win-win remedy to the Anthropocene crisis bears no meaningful relation to Malthus’s ancient and mean-spirited analysis.
Trembath and Ramanchandran suggest that we should place our faith in growth. But growth as we have known it—both population growth and the economic growth that accompanies and sustain it—have left us with the set of cascading crises that define the Anthropocene. The solution is not to have faith in the practices and habits that have let us to crisis, but to change them.  Empowering women is one of the best means we have to do that, and has nothing to do with Thomas Malthus.

My suggestion for those seeking racist Malthusians, would be check out Michael Moore’s train wreck dumpster fire of a movie attacking clean energy.


9 Responses to “Climate Scientists Not Malthusians. You’re Thinking of Michael Moore.”

  1. jimbills Says:

    Wow. I know you’re super pissed at Moore, and sure he deserves it, but that movie wasn’t his in substance, only in surface. His longtime cinematographer buddy did it as a personal passion project (flailing at it for years as his presumptions and his ‘evidence’ in it grew obsolete). After he considered it completed, Moore attached his name to it to get it distributed because they were friends and because he hadn’t bothered to research the film’s claims. But, he had zero to do with its actual content. Moore is an arse, but saying he’s a racist poor people killer might be a bit far.

    As someone who both cares deeply about humans and humanity, but who also often considers humans in aggregate (not as individuals, with some exceptions like Ted Cruz) to be sentient locusts, I appreciate Mann and Oreskes response, especially this part:

    ‘But growth as we have known it—both population growth and the economic growth that accompanies and sustain it—have left us with the set of cascading crises that define the Anthropocene.’

    • greenman3610 Says:

      here’s how he’s being used by the leading fossil fuel operative in the midwest.
      the average township official does not make the fine distinction you are making.

      • jimbills Says:

        Pretty sure he’s been used on Fox, too. It certainly hasn’t helped that he’s gone completely silent on climate and renewables since the film’s release, too – and that’s 100% on him. He’s also said and done plenty of other stuff that gets gleefully promoted by the far right to support their agenda (while still also having a long and impressive resume of his own support for leftist positions). I’ve never sniffed any racism or ‘starve the poor people’ stuff in either him or the film itself, though.

      • jimbills Says:

        BTW, I hand-typed that apnews link into my browser, because I figured if it was used by the right, and it was almost certainly misused, taken out of context, or deliberately twisted – all common tactics by the right, who care far more about winning power for themselves than telling the actual truth.

        Here are Moore’s quotes in that article:

        ‘“We all want to feel good about something like the electric car, but in the back of your head somewhere you’ve thought, ’Yeah, but where is the electricity coming from? And it’s like, ‘I don’t want to think about that, I’m glad we have electric cars,’” Moore said. “I’ve passed by the windmill farms, and oh it’s so beautiful to see them going, and don’t tell me that we’ve gone too far now and it isn’t going to save us … Well, my feeling is just hit me with everything. I’m like let’s just deal with it now, all at once.”’

        ‘He finds every one ill-prepared to comment on their stance about the biomass process, which the documentary says requires cutting down enormous numbers of trees to produce the woodchips that are converted into energy. Neither Jones nor McKibben responded to request for comment from The Associated Press.

        “I like so many people in the film and I’m one of those people who wanted to believe all of these years that that was the right path,” Moore said. ”(But) I refuse to let us die out. I refuse to let this planet die.”’

        • J4Zonian Says:

          At best Moore was guilty of saying incredibly stupid things while knowing nothing about what he was talking about. Obviously, he was saying stupid things because he knew nothing about it—rather, he knew less than nothing because he didn’t know enough to know everything he was being told—and chose to believe—was complete horseshit. At worst, for some unfathomable reason he was collaborating with the lunatic right wing’s campaign to cause the end of civilization and nature. This is the most important issue in human history and he didn’t bother to find out the facts before he spouted lies?

          Until he corrects that monstrosity with a movie confession & correction of everything wrong in it, he deserves no consideration.

    • jimbills Says:

      error: Jeff Gibbs, the writer/director/cinematographer/editor/star of ‘Planet of the Humans’ is a composer for several of Moore’s films, not a cinematographer, going back to ‘Bowling for Columbine’.

  2. Ron Benenati Says:

    Somehow the idea that human beings are the crowning creation of life on earth seems to lack enough evidence for me to accept on face value.
    That said, it does get old having a myriad of opinions being forced on one another. Education accurately portraying the issues we are facing, making people aware of options available to them and a path toward choice and consensus seems a worthy goal. But getting there does not seem to be our strong point.

  3. mbrysonb Says:

    Most people today (as in Malthus’s time) are focused on their own lives and circumstances, and Malthus’s project (obviously) blamed the victims of a brutally exploitive economic system to justify continuing that system, one that (not incidentally) had made him and his peers very comfortable. His rejection of birth control (as fundamentally immoral) and fair wages (endorsing the capitalist view of labour as just another resource, to be exploited to the maximum possible), reflects the brutal class privilege of the time — now at least somewhat mitigated in most countries….

    But the point Peter made here is very important: the climate crisis is not about numbers of people (the fastest growing populations are also among the poorest, with the smallest of climate footprints). The chief responsibility for emissions, past and present, lies at the feet of first world countries, and especially the industries that have chosen to propagandize against the science while continuing to make massive profits selling products whose continued use is leading to catastrophes– catastrophes which will surely harm the poorest populations of the world the most.

    I’m happy to learn that Moore wasn’t entirely responsible for that awful film. But I think he still deserves criticism for endorsing it….

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