Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet, by Robert J. Mayhew

Niall O’Flaherty on a penetrating and nuanced account of Malthus’ insights and the consequent responses

May 22, 2014

The untimely prophecy of Robert Mayhew’s title, first articulated by Thomas Malthus in his An Essay on the Principle of Population of 1798, was a contribution to the ideologically charged debates of the day about human perfectibility. He claimed to have discovered a mighty law of nature that precluded the possibility that mankind would ever bask in the communal bliss that utopians such as William Godwin believed was our destiny: always and everywhere, population growth tended to outstrip man’s ability to increase the food supply, condemning even the most advanced states to suffer perpetual oscillations between happiness and misery. Their tendency to make love, and not hay enough, when the sun shone, meant the poor bore the brunt of the so-called “positive checks” to population: high child mortality and general ill-health resulting from poor nutrition.

What made this an epochal moment in the history of ideas, argues Mayhew, was that it was the first systematic analysis of the entwinement of population, environment and economy. And because so many of our own problems revolve around this nexus, a fresh account of Malthus’ insights and of the myriad responses they gave rise to, was sorely needed.

The book’s analysis unfolds in two stages. Its first half focuses on the prophecy and its immediate reception, situating Malthus’ ideas in their intellectual and social contexts to recover the complex “conversations” he was engaging in; but it is the wide range of techniques it interweaves to recreate the unique fabric of Malthus’ intellectual life – including comparative biography, comparative literature and the study of contemporary journals – that make this a singularly rich portrait. The author makes a convincing case for his (anachronistic but helpful) description of Malthus as a proto-“environmental economist”. Malthus’ preference for applied over abstract mathematics as an undergraduate and his rigorous treatment of social statistics testify to his unyielding disdain for abstraction and simplification; and the ceaseless musings on crops, climate and fertility patterns that fill his travel diaries to the holistic character of his economic mindset.

Mayhew eschews the moralising characterisation of the clash between Malthus and the Romantics (à la Jonathan Bate) as prefiguring current-day struggles between bulldozing free-marketeers and eco-warriors, asserting that “the genealogy of our attitudes to nature and the economy is not merely comprised of two motorways leading us to the promised land or off a cliff”. The exploration of the multifarious afterlives of these standpoints in the second half of the book bears this out emphatically, showing, for example, how in the 1980s it was the new Malthusians who pushed the environmentalist agenda in the teeth of strident opposition from “a neo-conservative populist anti-Malthusianism”.

The durability of the idiom is fascinating in itself. Each time the spectre of Malthus seems set to vanish into oblivion, it is once more summoned: on the one hand, by those for whom his insights seemed to contain a fundamental truth about the world (including John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin and John Maynard Keynes); but just as often, ironically, by his furious detractors, many of whom viewed the prophecy as a ruse to deflect attention from the true cause of want, the greed of the propertied classes (the Romantics, Karl Marx, etc.).

Covering a wide temporal span (1798-2012), Mayhew explores these legacies with extraordinary penetration and nuance, as his treatment of the darker side of this bequest amply demonstrates. Malthus believed that the great value of his political economy lay in its ability to penetrate beneath the surface of economic life, revealing the true causes of poverty so we might tackle it more effectively. But in less conscientious hands, it could provide a vocabulary for the worst kind of self-justificatory euphemism, such as Winston Churchill’s glossing of Bengali famine victims as “superfluous” population or the Nazis’ couching of “the Jewish question” in terms of “mass population policy”. Of course, Malthus cannot be blamed for such gross abuses of his prophecy, but nor, insists Mayhew, can historians shirk the responsibility of facing that reception head-on.

He is surely right that an attention to the complexities of Malthus’ ideas and legacies will better equip us to deal with our present environmental challenges than will simplistic, self-edifying binaries.

Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet

By Robert J. Mayhew
Harvard University Press, 304pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780674728714 and 4419407 (e-book)
Published 24 April 2014

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