Josiah Neeley on Malthus at the Movies

Discussing why it is the manufacturers of culture keep on repeating failed and disproven tropes about overpopulation doomsdays.

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  • HornOrSilk

    This is where I will respectively disagree with you. The tropes of “overpopulation” have real value, and the Church has recognized how overpopulation can be a problem and that governments can use legitimate means (read, not abortion, contraception) to help guide populations when they are too large. This is one of the blind-sides I see with many “conservatives” in the US- environmental issues (population is one, global warming is another). Popes and Patriarchs both see these concerns as legitimate. Of course, the secular culture’s response is wrong, but that doesn’t make the problem any less a problem.

    And, while conservatives often speak like this, when dealing with environment, we can see they also believe there are problems with “overpopulation” when they talk about immigration reform!

    • HornOrSilk

      In case people wonder:

      “Finally, in certain parts of the world problems resulting from population growth are generating concern.”

      ” International cooperation is needed today especially for those peoples
      who, besides facing so many other difficulties, likewise undergo pressures due to a rapid increase in population. There is an urgent need to explore, with the full and intense cooperation of all, and especially of the wealthier nations, ways whereby the human necessities of food and a suitable education can be furnished and shared with the entire human community. But some peoples could greatly improve upon the conditions of their life if they would change over from antiquated methods of farming to the new technical methods, applying them with needed prudence according to their own circumstances. Their life would likewise be improved by the establishment of a better social order and by a fairer system for the distribution of land ownership.

      Governments undoubtedly have rights and duties, within the limits of their proper competency, regarding the population problem in their respective countries, for instance, in the line of social and family life legislation, or regarding the migration of country-dwellers to the cities, or with respect to information concerning the condition and needs of the country. Since men today are giving thought to this problem and are so greatly disturbed over it, it is desirable in addition that Catholic specialists, especially in the universities, skillfully pursue and develop studies and projects on all these matters.

      But there are many today who maintain that the increase in world population, or at least the population increase in some countries, must be radically curbed by every means possible and by any kind of intervention on the part of public authority. In view of this contention, the council urges everyone to guard against solutions, whether publicly or privately supported, or at times even imposed, which are contrary to the moral law. For in keeping with man’s inalienable right to marry and generate children, a decision concerning the number of children they will have depends on the right judgment of the parents and it cannot in any way be left to the judgment of public authority. But since the judgment of the parents presupposes a rightly formed conscience, it is of the utmost importance that the way be open for everyone to develop a correct and genuinely human responsibility which respects the divine law and takes into consideration the circumstances of the situation and the time. But sometimes this requires an improvement in educational and social conditions, and, above all, formation in religion or at least a complete moral training. Men should discreetly be informed, furthermore, of scientific advances in exploring methods whereby spouses can be helped in regulating the number of their children and
      whose safeness has been well proven and whose harmony with the moral order has been ascertained.”

      Church in the Modern World.

      Things are not so simple as people want it to be. Again, the Church says regulation through legitimate means are possible, and it has already shown us one: NFP. That’s right, NFP.

      Now, clearly, abortion, contraception, and the like are not acceptable. Just because some have come up with bad means to a legitimate concern does not mean the concern is no longer there. Large populations require more than land to live on, which is what so many forget: it’s not just space for habitation, but space for the production of food and place for waste, which comes from high population, which makes the concern real, especially in places like India. The Church does not neglect this, though sadly, some in America want to.

      • ivan_the_mad

        That’s a very good point that the legitimate concern is not obviated, and that excerpt from Gaudium et Spes bears careful consideration.

    • Overpopulation for all practical cases absent short term emergencies simply does not exist. Correcting societal habits and government rules that limit production raises the environment’s carrying capacity beyond normal population densities.

      If your problem is that you’re banging your head against a wall to the point of headache to get rid of skin cancer, that’s a real problem with a mistaken solution. If, upon closer examination, what you have is a freckle, that is an entirely different order of difficulty.

      While not stating that resource exhaustion can’t happen, it’s pretty obvious that usually what is under discussion is a matter of freckles, not cancer. Any population density that is successfully sustained in one part of the earth is not overpopulation in another part of the earth under similar physical conditions.

      • Correcting societal habits and government rules that limit production

        Doesn’t this cause your point to amount to, essentially, “We weren’t doing anything bad, and, besides, we stopped doing it.”

        • That is not an accurate paraphrase. The problem isn’t too many people. It’s the poor rules and behavior that get in the way of people solving problems that need to be addressed.

          • Man, I sooooo want to agree with you, except you seem to imply that our problem is just “poor rules that get in the way of people solving problems.” Your reply smells of the kind of optimistic libertarianism I was sold during my youth: just get the government out of our way and everything will turn out a-okay.

            • No, not everything will be OK, but we’re likely to add on about 05-1.5% GDP growth per year compounded which is the best anti-poverty program we’ve got and we actually know how to do this.

              Every practical case of humanity overpopulating in the real world that I’ve ever examined always has been associated with dysfunctional economic rules that stopped natural solutions from arising. I don’t say that it’s impossible to have a problem of overpopulation with good rules at the same time but it seems to be the case that good rules make things a great deal better.

  • ivan_the_mad

    Interesting article. I haven’t seen the recent blockbusters he mentions (nor have I been to the theater since There Be Dragons), but I’ll take his word for it. It certainly does seem to be a run of Malthusian pessimism. In a lot of ways, I take this stuff as I do the ever present “prophets” relaying messages about imminent UN takeover, divine retribution, Left Behind-ish stuff, Maria Divine Mercy, i.e. how many times do you have to be wrong before you give up the ghost? As Neeley notes, human ingenuity and adaptability are powerful resources.

    That being said, that’s not to say that overpopulation in some areas is a problem. There is a lot of work to be done by and with a lot of people to ensure the universal predestination of goods.

    I’ll also second Gattaca as an excellent movie.

  • Adolfo

    Really? Wall-E is an example of Hollywood leftist propaganda? He lost me there.

  • What’s interesting is that even secularism in this country is weirdly pre-millennialist.


    In fact, I’m going to add to that. Neeley’s essay isn’t much more than a tired retread of O’Rourke’s All the Trouble in the World (which is hilarious and, in a typically libertarian way, exactly right precisely half the time). You don’t need to posit some kind of liberal “out of touch-ness” and a secret love affair with an Anglican clergyman on the part of Hollywood elites to explain environmental apocalypse movies.

    Fact is, apparently Americans like apocalypse stories, and if those stories have a whiff of plausibility, we like them all the more. The evangelical community in the US got all hepped up about Left Behind, but most Americans don’t believe in the Rapture, so you’ve got to find something else to scare them with, and environmental destruction caused by the hubris of man is a pretty plausible scenario, since we’ve seen it everywhere. You may argue that environmental destruction isn’t that big of a deal or that you, personally, don’t know any birds who have gone extinct, but Americans still hunger for something that could kill us all. Maybe its the corrective to our insane optimism. We like to believe we could handle anything else, up to and including, the Russians and the Chinese together, since we have Chuck Norris and the revivified corpse of Charles Nelson Riley on our side, but perhaps a total environmental breakdown or a big-ass meteor would be enough to destroy us. (Hollywood answer: nope.)

  • kirthigdon

    Gaudium et Spes refers to rapid increase in population growth rather than “over-population”. GeS was published in December 1965 at the very peak of the “population explosion” caused by high birth rates but even more so by drastic decreases in infant mortality and increase in life expectancy, both of the latter very positive developments.

    What has happened since? Birth rates have tanked, beginning with the more developed countries and spreading to the entire world. At the same time increases in life expectancy have slowed down a lot since the low hanging fruit of improved medicine and health has already been picked. In some instances, most notably Russia, life expectancy has even declined. As populations first age, then start to die off, actual depopulation starts to take place as is seen in countries such as Russia, Japan and Germany and will be seen in many more if present trends for ever declining birthrates continue. Whatever problems the GeS authors thought they were dealing with have been solved with a vengeance – and largely by the very methods condemned by the Church. The big problem now is not “over-population” but the impending collective suicide of the human race if present trends are not reversed.

    Kirt Higdon