Outline of a refutation of Neo-Malthusianism

Neo-Malthusianism: from Grand Funk Railroad to Thanos

For some time now there has been a troubling resurgence of Malthusian thought in public media. The core argument of Malthusianism is, broadly speaking, that in any given society, the capacity to produce food increases linearly as a function of the land area available for food production, while the population increases geometrically (see Figure 1). After the population increases to a certain maximum point afforded by what came to be known as the carrying capacity of the land area available, scarcity of food will result in famine killing off a proportion of the population until a new equilibrium is found.


Figure 1

Opposed to this more rigorous original formulation are the newer, popular Neo-Malthusian concerns about vague analogues of food production such as “resource scarcity”, “population pressure” and “overpopulation”. Variants include resource depletion theories such as those proposed in the famous Limits to Growth study in the 70’s, or popular variants such as peak oil and rare minerals, as well as certain popular discourses on climate change. Some of the organisations promoting these ideas are the Club of Rome, 0 Population growth, and certain environmental organisations. Last time such ideas gathered traction during the 1970’s, it resulted in the “Overpopulation” movement and works such as John Brunner’s sci-fi classic Zanzibar, the film Soylent Green and Grand Funk Railroad’s infamous So you won’t have to die, sporting rather crass, but illustrative lyrics such as:

I’m afraid of overpopulation.

I don’t want to die of suffocation.

The world is full of pollution.

And Jesus is the solution.


Nowadays, this is a discourse increasingly repeated in the media – most notably by the likes of Bill Gates [2], David Attenborough [3], and more recently Prince William [4] and even, regrettably, film director Werner Herzog [5], but most insidiously via the 2017 blockbuster Avengers - Infinity War, where the villain Thanos' stated goal is ensuring greater access to resources through population control by committing genocide at a universal scale. His portrayal as a conflicted, complex and somewhat sympathetic character convinced many people that he “had a point” – thus the abundance of articles and video essays on the subject. But Thanos was completely wrong not only in his methods, but, crucially, in his ideas – and the entirety of the Neo-Malthusian discourse should be firmly refuted, as was the original Malthusian argument by people such as Marx and Engels.

Neo-Malthusianism of this form has so far been useful as a vehicle of the capitalist class to feign compassion for those less fortunate while providing a naturalistic explanation for the staggering iniquities found within the capitalist world-economy. They might argue, for instance, that people are poor because they have too many children (an argument often deployed to explain the conditions of the Roma people in Romania, for instance), or that certain countries are poor due to a large population with access to limited resources. Notice also the implicit racism of these arguments – look at who exactly is their subject – minorities and the poor in the core and semi-periphery, and poor countries in the global South. It is never the rich who are consuming disproportionately – they can have as many children as they want since they can afford them, no [6]?

In any case, the implication is that we could all have a better standard of living if there were more resources to go around (or, more specifically, fewer people to consume them). This is, in fact, such a widespread idea that there are recent discourses discouraging young people from having children in order to decrease their “carbon footprint” (another preposterous falsehood perpetrated by many of the same sources peddling Neo-Malthusian ideologies – to be discussed another time) and thus help stop climate change [7].

In fact, I suspect Neo-Malthusian ideas are being rediscovered and popularised precisely because of the looming climate catastrophe slowly creating conditions of extreme resource imbalance – and since the ruling class is not planning to do anything about it, it is easier to peddle ideological justifications for the injustices perpetrated in response.

And here we are getting to the core of the issue. What the Neo-Malthusian discourse is, in fact, is a cover for Social Darwinism and social engineering in accordance with the interests of capital. Even in its original iteration, as the normative part of his theory, Malthus himself favoured such unsavory policies as culling the poor by witholding education and healthcare, even influencing people such as Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics and one of the founders of “race science”, and Herbert Spencer, the coiner of the phrase “survival of the fittest”, also a proponent of Social Darwinism. He also intimately linked his model of population growth to Christian conceptions of virtue and vice, adding an implicit moral character to the theory.

Fundamentally, the error of Malthus is that in his model, the geometric rate of population growth disregards material and social conditions such as access to healthcare, availability of contraception, education, prevailing attitudes to child-bearing and rearing, family structures; while the linear rate of food production disregards improvements in farming technology, crop development and general agricultural productivity. The global population has indeed exploded during the last century – but this must be qualified by noting there are immense discrepancies depending on geographic location. In the core countries, birth rates have been decreasing for decades, necessitating in some cases immigration to cover labour shortages; in semi-peripheral countries, the population is decreasing dramatically due to plummeting birth rates and migration to core countries; it is only in the periphery, where material conditions have improved massively during the last century, where the population explosion occurred.

If this “excess population” is put in relation with the “reserve army of labour” and the conception of the global economy as a capitalist world-economy, it is then clear that this increase is entirely consistent with the long-term trends within capitalism and the axiological division of labour occuring within said system. More specifically, in the contemporary neoliberal system, low-value-added, low-capital, low-tech, labour-intensive operations are relegated to the masses of the periphery, with wages driven even further down by unemployment; while capital-intensive and/or knowledge work is performed in the core and semi-periphery by a privileged (but still fundamentally unfree) working class with access to a better (but still decreasing) standard of living. This maximises overall short-term profits for the capitalist class of the core and their peripheral enablers.

Moreover, Neo-Malthusians, like Malthus, make the mistake of misunderstanding the nature of surplusses and scarcity under capitalist relations of production. Surplusses are created via the division of labour – a portion of the population, specialised in this role, produce the means of subsistence for themselves as well as everyone else. This surplus is then distributed according to the customs of that society. In capitalism, firms specialised in the production of foodstuffs engage in the production of this surplus, which they then distribute to the rest of society by selling it on the market, in hopes of turning a profit. However, as can be seen from this description, since the distribution of the surplus is mediated by the mechanism of the market, access to resources is not simply a question of production but is rather contingent on an entire array of social relations such as employment, wages, money, etc. Simply put, it is entirely possible for food to go to waste and people to go hungry, if they can’t buy it. Thus a resource is rendered “scarce” due to its mechanism of distribution and the need to turn a profit, rather than its mechanism of production.

Finally, the racist and genocidal undertones of Neo-Malthusianism should be addressed. The great majority of the world’s “excess population” is living in the global South – if normative principles of Malthusian thought are to be applied at a global scale, these already marginalised and disadvantaged populations will be disproportionately targeted. Is this truly a road we are prepared to even consider?

Perhaps then, it is not exaggerated to see Eco-fascism as a fellow-traveller to Neo-Malthusianism. Like the abovementioned “carbon footprint” business and other nonsense, there is a clear discourse being structured among these coordinates. For instance, the now-infamous ridiculously tone-deaf and out of touch video presentation of the WEF, The Great Reset, can perhaps be included. As the continued crises of capitalism, including the COVID crisis and the climate catastrophe, assault the neoliberal business-as-usual state of things from every side, ideological rhetoric will be more and more mobilised to explain away the crises to the general population and defend the increasingly inhuman actions that the capitalist class in the core will have to take in order to keep their power and wealth intact, such as instituting a permanent surveillance society, permanent state of exception where arbitrary rules can be imposed by “experts” backed by “science” without any democratic process, as was done during COVID, or driving off climate or economic “migrants”, as the UK does right now with refugees trying to cross the English Channel.

As the liberal ideological hegemony of individualistic success and social mobility through hard work will become increasingly untenable, challenged by worsening material conditions exacerbated by the coming crises, the Neo-Malthusian alternative might become even more attractive, and easily used as justification for unspeakable acts. We must be prepared with arguments to combat these discredited ideas and show them for what they are: yet another mystification of class relations.


  1. Grand Funk Railroad, So you won’t have to die, Phoenix, 1972, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLuy_UEr2QU
  2. Gates, Bill, TED Talks, Innovating to zero!, https://www.ted.com/talks/bill_gates_innovating_to_zero/transcript
  3. Attenborough, David, Population Matters, https://populationmatters.org/news/2018/10/sir-david-attenborough-we-must-act-population
  4. Webster, Ben, Prince William blames African population pressure for wildlife loss, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/prince-william-blames-african-population-growth-for-wildlife-loss-d7rtjlp3d
  5. Werner Herzog, Werner Herzog on Philosophy of his Films, Cancel Culture, Consumerism & More (minute 1:14:00), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAuwQyLfueE
  6. Here I can but mention in disgust the liberal conception of children as an investment – a vehicle for the reproduction not of mankind but, rather, of capital.
  7. Population Matters, Small families, small planet, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OoqDiwvzcHE