Malthus's Zombie

by | Jan 9, 2013

There have been endless pastiches-upon-pastiches of the zombie movie genre in recent years. As far as I can tell, the only significant development in the basic plot is that whereas zombies were once driven by supernatural forces, the contemporary living-dead seem more often to have been rendered flesh-hungry by some kind of virus, typically engineered by some mysterious agenda. What does this revision of an already hackneyed metaphor stand for in today’s world, then? A cautionary tale about our incautious meddling with the natural order perhaps? No. This phenomenon of remakes is not unlike the phenomenon it depicts. The contemporary zombie perfectly mirrors the zombie movie writer. What drives the zombie is the death of his author’s imagination. The future is gone, eaten away by his nihilistic malaise. Unable to author a new story, he drags one out of the past.

Does this remake sound familiar?

Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?

Environmental problems have contributed to numerous collapses of civilizations in the past. Now, for the first time, a global collapse appears likely. Overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich and poor choices of technologies are major drivers; dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.

In this case, however, the authors are re-making their own work. The words belong to Paul and Anne Ehrlich, who brought Malthus back from the dead in the 1968 epic, The Population Bomb.

The Ehrlichs have been claiming that ‘now’ is the ‘first time’ that ‘a global collapse appears likely’ for nearly half a century. Their many failed predictions are well understood, and need no re-telling here. Suffice it to say that the world’s situation is precisely the opposite: there are more people, but there are more resources. There is less suffering, disease and poverty. People are wealthier.

In spite of which, the Ehrlichs drag out that Zombie script…

But today, for the first time, humanity’s global civilization—the worldwide, increasingly interconnected, highly technological society in which we all are to one degree or another, embedded—is threatened with collapse by an array of environmental problems. Humankind finds itself engaged in what Prince Charles described as ‘an act of suicide on a grand scale’ [4], facing what UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor John Beddington called a ‘perfect storm’ of environmental problems [5]. The most serious of these problems show signs of rapidly escalating severity, especially climate disruption. But other elements could potentially also contribute to a collapse: an accelerating extinction of animal and plant populations and species, which could lead to a loss of ecosystem services essential for human survival; land degradation and land-use change; a pole-to-pole spread of toxic compounds; ocean acidification and eutrophication (dead zones); worsening of some aspects of the epidemiological environment (factors that make human populations susceptible to infectious diseases); depletion of increasingly scarce resources [6,7], including especially groundwater, which is being overexploited in many key agricultural areas [8]; and resource wars [9]. These are not separate problems; rather they interact in two gigantic complex adaptive systems: the biosphere system and the human socio-economic system. The negative manifestations of these interactions are often referred to as ‘the human predicament’ [10], and determining how to prevent it from generating a global collapse is perhaps the foremost challenge confronting humanity.

There is nothing new here. Consider this United Nations video from 1972, which features Paul Ehrlich.

Part 1.

Part 2.

This was forty years ago, but it could almost be the most recent UN climate meeting. Zombie protesters. Zombie world leaders. Zombie conference. Zombie ideas. Like the remakes, all that changes is the film stock, the clothes and some of the back story. The United Nations is the longest running zombie movie franchise.

Having their zombie prophecies proven wrong by billions of people every day for nearly half a century has not caused the Ehrlichs to pause and reflect on their failure, much less revised the script.

“What is the likelihood of this set of interconnected predicaments leading to a global collapse in this century?”, they asked, as though the question had never been asked before.

There have been many definitions and much discussion of past ‘collapses’ [1,3,28–31], but a future global collapse does not require a careful definition. It could be triggered by anything from a ‘small’ nuclear war, whose ecological effects could quickly end civilization [32], to a more gradual breakdown because famines, epidemics and resource shortages cause a disintegration of central control within nations, in concert with disruptions of trade and conflicts over increasingly scarce necessities. In either case, regardless of survivors or replacement societies, the world familiar to anyone reading this study and the well-being of the vast majority of people would disappear.

“A future global collapse does not require a careful definition. No, any old careless zombie definition will do. All that is necessary is to say that a catastrophic end of the world is possible. And then, by virtue of it merely being possible, we must take it seriously as a fact and act to stop it. In fact, why not choose the zombie apocalypse to be the definition of a ‘global collapse’? After all, it does seem to be the case that a bunch of people infected with an idea that causes them to be preoccupied with the end of humanity seem the most opposed to the expansion of humanity, its development and prospering. That looks like a zombie apocalypse to me.

One such organisation that has been infected by such a poisonous agent is the Royal Society. As I reported back in April last year, the Royal Society made Paul Ehrlich a fellow, just as they released their report on population, ‘People and planet‘. The report was an attempt by the Royal Society to expand its reach over policy-making on the basis of an immanent global catastrophe. And it is in Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal that Ehrlich’s latest zombie tome is served up.

The Ehrlichs’ essay continues, with the familiar claims about the environment going to hell in a handcart. References to 163 papers seem to make the case that war, pestilence, plague, famine, flood, drought, biodiversity.. and the rest… will overwhelm civilisation. And then we get to the nub of the argument. In order to avert the crisis, there is a ‘need for rapid social/political change’.

Until very recently, our ancestors had no reason to respond genetically or culturally to long-term issues. If the global climate were changing rapidly for Australopithecus or even ancient Romans, then they were not causing it and could do nothing about it. The forces of genetic and cultural selection were not creating brains or institutions capable of looking generations ahead; there would have been no selection pressures in that direction. Indeed, quite the opposite, selection probably favoured mechanisms to keep perception of the environmental background steady so that rapid changes (e.g. leopard approaching) would be obvious [132, pp. 135–136]. But now slow changes in that background are the most lethal threats. Societies have a long history of mobilizing efforts,making sacrifices and changes, to defeat an enemy at the gates, or even just to compete more successfully with a rival. But there is not much evidence of societies mobilizing and making sacrifices to meet
gradually worsening conditions that threaten real disaster for future generations. Yet that is exactly the sort of mobilization, we believe is required to avoid a collapse.

But the Ehrlichs always believed that the ‘mobilization’ they wanted to see was the only thing that could save the world. Like the unlikely heroes at the centre of every implausible zombie film, the Ehrlichs exist in the centre of their own fantasy. The advantage such protagonists enjoy in zombie films is that anyone they might have to negotiate with has already succumbed to the sea of the living dead. Any remaining doubters find that their doubt is the agent of their own demise, except for a handful of doubters, perhaps, one of whom is redeemed at the last moment as the heroes risk their own lives to save him or her. But the real world is neither made out of movie clichés, nor does it revolve around the Ehrlichs.

In most blog posts here, I usually attempt to work out what the argument I am taking issue with is. But the Ehrlichs do not offer one. Like a zombie, the Ehrlich’s essay has no real identity, only an insatiable appetite to devour humanity. There is no serious analysis of society’s systematic failures. There is no real attempt to quantify the actual — much less hypothetical — problems they are referring to. Indeed, they admit that they don’t think they have to identify the issue, they only need to demonstrate that it is plausible. And just as there isn’t any argument, there isn’t any science. There is the environmental litany… A zombie, again, which has plodded on and on in search of flesh since the 1960s. And there is a conclusion — the claim that on the basis that a catastrophe is merely plausible, the institutional apparatus to prevent it is necessary — which has the moral depth of a zombie film’s final moments.

This is what happens when you tell the same story for fifty years, non stop. The Ehrlichs offer no more than banal science fiction. It dominates the scientific establishment — the Royal Society and its journal — just as zombie movies dominate the Sci-Fi section of NetFlix. It’s time to kill the Malthusian franchise.


  1. Richard Drake

    Like a zombie, the Ehrlich’s essay has no real identity, only an insatiable appetite to devour humanity.

    As documented in horrifying detail by Donald Roberts and Richard Tren in their 2010 The Excellent Powder. DDT’s Political and Scientific History Ehrlich’s earliest work was deeply influential in decisions to ban or sideline DDT in the 70s, which led to the unnecessary deaths of countless millions, a vast proportion of them the poorest children in the world. Quite something to have on the CV. But as you say, such a trifling matter isn’t enough to halt the zombie franchise, even in 2013. All strength to this latest, witty but passionate critique.

  2. Norm

    Dearie me, it seems we are killing ourselves because the more of us there are, the faster we consume the natural resources we humans depend upon for our very survival. Morbid pessimism of the Earth’s ability to support its population has always been with us; after all, pessimists always sounds more logical than optimism. In AD200, Tertullian wrote: “We are burdensome to the world; the resources are scarcely adequate for us.”

  3. Richard Drake

    Tertullian has a lot to answer for, including the move away from treating women entirely equally in the church, that the movement following Jesus in the first and second centuries clearly practised. Fear never gets you very far, as Norm implies.

  4. Tony Price

    Given that the world has been hotter, colder, drier, and wetter in the past, it’s surprising is it not, that in this “goldilocks” climate we have, where the human population has reached what just a century ago, would have been thought a “science fiction” figure, that it seems all species, including homo sapiens, are suddenly on the brink of extinction?

    The “Erlichs” of this world see extinction around every corner; coral reefs developed in a much warmer world, yet are “threatened” by a 2-degree rise. Will an increase from 1.9 degrees to 2.1 degrees trigger a “tipping point”? Of course not. Mankind has survived an ice age, yet will “burn up” if the globe warms by over 2 degrees? People survive and prosper in a worldwide temperature range of 50 degrees and more.

    I’m an optimist, not because I choose to be, but because I see the enormous resilience of all living things and rejoice in it. I suspect the Erlichs don’t rejoice in the Earth and all that’s on it and under the oceans, but fear it. They haven’t moved on from from the mental myopia of the ancients.

    That might seem rather pompous, but I don’t apologise for that.

  5. Jeremy Poynton

    Over-population? Or not …

    “This is a counterintuitive notion in the United States, where we’ve heard often and loudly that world population growth is a perilous and perhaps unavoidable threat to our future as a species. But population decline is a very familiar concept in the rest of the developed world, where fertility has long since fallen far below the 2.1 live births per woman required to maintain population equilibrium. In Germany, the birthrate has sunk to just 1.36, worse even than its low-fertility neighbors Spain (1.48) and Italy (1.4). The way things are going, Western Europe as a whole will most likely shrink from 460 million to just 350 million by the end of the century. That’s not so bad compared with Russia and China, each of whose populations could fall by half. As you may not be surprised to learn, the Germans have coined a polysyllabic word for this quandary: Schrumpf-Gessellschaft, or “shrinking society.”

  6. Yan Doodan

    The religion of Scientism generates its own Harold Campings. “The Apocalypse is a certainty. I’ve calculated the exact date.” Then, when the rest of the world cheerfully blasts past the date without slowing down, it’s “I’ve made a slight calculation mistake, but I’ve corrected it and the new date is a dead certainty.” Finally, the date is pushed into the untestable future, or declared to correspond to some “tipping point” in the past.

    The acolytes of Scientism deceive themselves into the belief that they are the opposite of the religious. Instead, they are two sides of a coin. They both embrace Platonic absolutes: God, Creation, Evil on one side; Nature, Environment, Man on the other. God might actually exist for all we know, but Nature is a fiction. It’s just a bunch of stuff. Environment is a subset of that stuff with an arbitrary line drawn around it. (It is fitting that this post-belief religion deifies Stuff.) This religious thinking runs through the Environmental Apocalyptics; remove it, and the Apocalypse disappears.


  7. John Shade

    Another superb post. Zubrin in his book ‘Merchants of Despair’ calls such zombie-thinking ‘anti-humanism’, a clumsy term by which I think he means anti-humanity. From page 252:

    If the idea is accepted that the world’s resources are fixed with only so much to go round, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race or nation.

  8. bernie

    Excellent post. The Ehrlich’s argument is essentially a fascist and utopian argument. There is an ideal society which just happens to coincide with their normative viewpoint and if we follow their lead we will achieve that ideal society which will of course dictate how we all think and act. It is interesting to trace the disciples of the Ehrlichs, who include climate science luminaries like the late Steven Schneider and the ever present Michael Mann.

  9. Stonyground

    These videos are quite fascinating. The fact that this conference claimed to have had such a high profile is interesting as this is the first time that I have heard of it. I was only thirteen at the time, and only mildly interested in current affairs, so maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt.

    The issue that I found interesting was that of polluting drinking water with excrement, this is obviously a bad thing. This is also something that nasty, evil, rich countries no longer do. This is also something that poor, everyone lives in poverty and it is all our fault, countries still do. The fact is, only rich countries have the resources to care for their environment, poor countries just have to scrape a living from their environment.

  10. Jim south London

    Ben there are Zombi films, Zombi environmentalist ,Zombi Politicians and now Zombi Celebrities

    Erlick will have something to say about this.
    Not too many people just too many stupid people.Starting with the White House

  11. Alex Cull

    Talking of things Malthusian:

    “We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so. It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now,” he told the Radio Times.

    There are now upwards of a thousand comments on that article, here’s mine (buried somewhere in the middle of them):

    “We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves – and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case.”

    Taking a charitable view here, Sir David is being a little naive.

    In terms of population density Ethiopia ranks 121st, well behind the United Kingdom, France and Germany. It also has vast areas of fertile arable land.

    Drought and war undoubtedly played a part in Ethiopia’s problems during the 20th century but there’s a strong argument that the famine in 1983-85, for instance, was caused mainly by bad governance, including inflexible Soviet-style central planning (Kenya, by contrast, had worse drought in that period but avoided famine altogether.)

    This has nothing to do with “too many people”.

  12. Andy R

    Let’s look at this logically for a moment:

    (1) Can the world support an infinitely high number of people? No.

    (2) Can the world support a population totalling the mass of the earth? No.

    (3) Can the world support a population where there is one human being for every square metre of the earth? Probably not, and you really wouldn’t want to even if you could.

    The population seems to be doubling every 40 years. At that rate, the situation in (3) would be reached in less than 600 years, and even if we survived that the situation in (2) would occur within 1800 years.

    The rational conclusion is that before that happens, starvation and all other manner of ills will cause massive untimely deaths amongst the population.

    Those smug fools who think the collapse can be warded off indefinitely without population stability are no more in their right mind than someone who looks at our skyscrapers and says “gee, aren’t they getting tall, I bet we’ll have them 200 million light years tall one day”

  13. Ben Pile

    Let’s look at this logically for a moment:

    But what follows isn’t logical…

    (1) Can the world support an infinitely high number of people? No.

    I am wondering what it means to be ‘infinitely high’. Assuming it means height, a number of infinitely high people will be infinitely far away from the planet. Problem solved. If ‘high’ means intoxicated, then there are other problems that infinitely high people and their friends and family face.

    Oh, but of course you meant ‘an infinite number of people’. Fortunately, at any rate of multiplication, it would take an infinite amount of time to reach infinity. So speaking purely logically, even if it is true that the earth cannot support an infinite number of people, it is not a possibility that the world would ever have to face.

    (2) Can the world support a population totalling the mass of the earth? No.

    This is almost as silly. The mass of the planet is 5,972,190,000,000,000,000,000,000 Kg. Assuming the average human being weighs 50Kg, that means 119,443,800,000,000,000,000,000 people – or 1.7 trillion times as many people as there are today.

    (3) Can the world support a population where there is one human being for every square metre of the earth? Probably not, and you really wouldn’t want to even if you could.

    The Earth’s surface is 510,072,000,000,000 square metres. If the Earth’s population was so large that each person really did have only 1 square meter for him or herself, then the entire population would be nearly 73,000 times what it is today.

    The population seems to be doubling every 40 years. At that rate, the situation in (3) would be reached in less than 600 years, and even if we survived that the situation in (2) would occur within 1800 years.

    The reason the population has grown is because people haven’t died. The effect of simple medicines and the reduction in poverty is to extend life — statistically — because so many fewer infants die, and whereas people would die, on average in their 40s, now live into their sixties and beyond. It is misleading to see population as simply ‘doubling’, as though it were a phenomenon itself. The problem is in seeing only the numbers. Exponential growth certainly hasn’t been a problem yet. And there is a long time to wait between now and either infinity, 1800 years, or even 600 years, assuming that humanity multiplies at the rates you seem to believe they will. People don’t behave according to mathematical rules, but even if they did, there remain about 600 years to either build more space upwards and downwards, or outwards. After all, what wasn’t even conceivable in 1200AD is now an everyday occurrence.

    Those smug fools who think the collapse can be warded off indefinitely without population stability are no more in their right mind than someone who looks at our skyscrapers and says “gee, aren’t they getting tall, I bet we’ll have them 200 million light years tall one day”

    It doesn’t help you that you need to use astronomical units to make an argument about population. It only really makes you look silly. The problem is that you use absurdly high numbers to make an argument that a problem must necessarily exist in the nearer future. But this owes nothing to reason whatsoever. I forget who, but somebody recently pointed out the increase in the use of the word ‘sustainable’ since it first started to be used a decade or so. By showing how much more this word had increased since, and projecting into the future, the person worked out that, not so far into the future, language would consist of only this one word.

    To listen to malthusians and environmentalists, it sometimes feels that this terminal point in the history of human language (and ‘logic’, for that matter) has already been reached.

  14. Mooloo

    It was xkcd with “sustainable”

    The population seems to be doubling every 40 years.

    Even a tiny moment’s reflection would show that to be rot. To double at that rate we would all have to be having four children, all of who survived into adulthood and married and had four children. That’s what doubling takes, after all.

    Reduce the rate a bit because the average child is born at age 30, not 40 but increase it because not all people procreate and not all survive, effectively it would require the normal number of children in a family to be a minimum of five. How many people do you know with five children?

    In fact in much of the western world the population is shrinking. Only immigration makes up the difference. That and, as Ben points out, the absolute number is larger as people live longer.

    There are a few small exceptions, but largely the world’s population growth is now limited to Africa. Which isn’t so bad when you realise that Africa is also the least well farmed and has the most room to expand. (Don’t be fooled by Mercator projections which reduce the size of equatorial countries, Africa is large and potentially very fertile.)

  15. John Doyle

    So what’s the consensus here?
    Say if we have a greening planet due to a rise in CO2 and an increase in forestation to counteract the deforestation and desertification also going on, and we have cheap energy supply availability well beyond the 2050 projection of 10 billion population, of whom all have a standard of living that makes having 2 children the norm, the realistic picture will be that this is sustainable into the future beyond 2050?



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