List Mania: The Top Five New Malthusians

“The New Malthusians” sounds like the name of a new wave or punk band, but just as new wave is old school, there is never anything new about Malthusianism no matter how many times it gets punked. Only the band members change.

When the world’s population reached the estimated 7 billion mark a few weeks ago, the most famous Malthusian of modern times, Paul Ehrlich, made a few encore appearances for old time’s sake, but for the most part Ehrlich and his generation of Malthusian rock stars, such as Garrett Hardin, Lester Brown, and the Club of Rome, appear about a fresh as Keith Richards after a 7 am wake up call. The old guys really need to be retired (well, actually, Garrett Hardin is long dead anyway), to make room for the new kids. The criteria for making the list are simple: a winner’s Malthusianism has to be essentially unmodulated from the older kind, be relentlessly monotonic, be extremely lucrative, and/or a pretext for increased centralized political power.

The competition is fierce, but herewith the top five “New Malthusians” for a cover tribute band for the early 21st century:


1. James Hansen, NASA’s chief climate scientist. I’ve debated Hansen on a couple of occasions, the most memorable being at the New School in New York in 2006, when he let fly with the comment that his treatment at the hands of the Bush Administration, which monitored his many media interviews, was the kind of thing you expected from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. He’s also called trains carrying coal to power plant’s “death trains to Auschwitz.” And he wonders why people think he’s an “alarmist” about climate change. The guy is a manic depressive, which comes with Malthusian territory I suppose, but as John noted here already, it’s really really lucrative. My pal Chris Horner offers more damning details here. There’s lots here to work with, but for years Hansen has been saying time is running out. The most recent I can find is a 2009 article saying Obama only has four years left to save the planet. Since Obama clearly isn’t going to make it, can we expect Hansen to shut up at the end of next year? Of course not; too many lecture fees and prizes to be had.


2. Bill McKibben, Middlebury College. His big thing these days is climate change—what a surprise—though he did write the quintessentially Malthusian book back in the 1990s entitled Maybe One: A Personal and Environmental Argument for Single Child Families. Like Hansen, he wins all the best prizes and hangs out with all the best people. I am sure the prizes look nice on the mantle. Lately he’s been leading the protests outside the White House against the Keystone pipeline, declaring that if the pipeline is built, it’s “game over” for the climate. But if Canadian oil goes to China instead of us, how would it be different? Don’t ask. That would be an inconvenient question.


3. Achim Steiner, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme. No, I’ve never heard of this fellow either, and after his four-year term as head of the UNEP is up you probably won’t ever hear from him again, unless you blunder into the wrong tavern near UN HQ in New York. But since Malthusianism is the UNEP’s reason for being, the head of it always gets an ex-officio slot on any ranking of contemporary Malthusiasns. If there’s still any lingering doubt about Steiner’s worthiness for the list, however, keep in mind that he is the winner of the Tallberg Foundation’s 2010 Leadership Award for Principled Pragmatism. “Principled Pragmatism”?? Have we slipped into some kind of Deweyite wormhole? I thought the whole idea of pragmatism was not to be bound by any principles.


4. Stephen Hawking, the smartest man on the planet. Hawking’s Malthusianism is so far advanced that he’s already calling for us to plan on abandoning the earth and finding new planets to pillage. He reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers from the 1990s: “Earth First! We’ll Mine the Other Planets Later.” Here’s Hawking:

“Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

Oh great, there goes the (galactic) neighborhood.


5. John Holdren, science adviser to the President of the United States. Holdren is a protégé of Paul Ehrlich, and as such is really a has-been. (Holdren was actually the co-bettor in the famous Simon-Ehrlich bet that Simon won in 1990.) But because of his current job working for the man who commands the sea levels to stop rising, he’s still eligible for the Malthus Bowl Championship Series.  Holdren is a gold mine of current Malthusianism, such as this gem: “It has been concluded that compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society.”  (NB: Holdren has two children!  And five grandchildren!!  Doesn’t he read McKibben’s books?)

As Glenn Reynolds likes to say, the country is in the very best of hands.

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