Book review – Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care

6-minute read

Despite its purposefully provocative title, Limits is not a pro-growth book that panders to the illusion of endless economic growth. Starting with a thought-provoking re-reading of Malthus, ecological economist and political ecologist Giorgos Kallis examines how his ideas have influenced economics and have been misinterpreted by environmentalists, before ending with a call to collective self-limitation. Along the way, there is a healthy dollop of reflection and pre-emptive defence of his arguments. Though I have some points of criticism, Limits by and large concisely formulates ideas that I have found myself gravitating towards more and more lately.


Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care, written by Giorgos Kallis, published by Stanford University Press in August 2019 (paperback, 168 pages)

Despite having reviewed both the 1803 edition of Malthus’s essay and Mayhew’s biography, Kallis’s take on his work was an eye-opener for me. I can see at least three reasons why we continue to disagree over how best to interpret classical authors such as Malthus: concepts, aims, and language.

Malthus is best remembered for his argument that, if left unchecked, population growth would outstrip food supply. What he is not remembered for is his pro-growth attitude. He believed that food production could expand without limit. What hat he pulled that absurd assumption out of is another question, but the point that Kallis makes is that the concept of economic growth we think of today did not exist in Malthus’s time.

On the other side, neo-Malthusians have drawn on his work to argue for birth control, and to warn of resource exploitation and population overshoot. But birth control was something he never advocated, seeing it as one of the “species of misery or vice”. Malthus had different aims. Writes Kallis: “Remember, Malthus was not a demographer; he was a priest and a philosopher arguing for the impossibility of a classless society” (p. 23), and “Malthus was not an advocate of limits, but someone who invoked the specter of limit to justify inequality and call for growth” (p. 16).

Add Malthus’s flowery and verbose prose that is often ambiguous, and you can see why we still argue over his words. For example, a popular critique of Malthus today is that he did not foresee technical and scientific developments that led to e.g. the Green Revolution. But, Kenneth Binnmore’s contribution to the Yale reprint of the essay also points out that upon careful reading you find that he made allowance for future technological developments.

“Malthus is best remembered for his argument that, if left unchecked, population growth would outstrip food supply. What he is not remembered for is his pro-growth attitude.”

Both economists and environmentalists get Malthus wrong, claims Kallis here. In his opinion, Malthus was wrong because he could not or did not want to entertain the idea that we could voluntarily limit our numbers and still be happy. Or, to put it more explicitly, that recreational sex is an option.

There is another principle that has gone almost unremarked in discussions of his work, writes Kallis. By observing that population had the potential to grow much faster than food supply, Malthus introduced the concept of scarcity. And without realising it, many environmentalists have embodied this concept. For them, limits are external, our environment is precious and scarce. Calls for limits to growth seem driven more by a desire to stave off collapse than a desire to change how we behave. Bar radical fringes, mainstream environmentalism is still framed in terms of growth; think of self-contradictory concepts such as “green growth” or “sustainable development”. Environmentalists seem to think that if only we do this right, we can keep this show on the road. Rarely do they have the timefulness and deep time reckoning to extrapolate their forecasts beyond the immediate future and ask “sure, but for how long?”

Kallis puts his finger on a sore spot when writing that: “Our world is limited because our wants are unlimited” (p. 35). As he clarifies, the aim of this book is not to continue the debate over the when and how of growth and collapse, but to question the debate’s framing. Yes, Kallis acknowledges, there are hard limits out there, but many are a matter of choice (take for instance the widely adopted aim to limit the rise in global warming to 1.5°C). This might seem mere semantics, but, as highlighted in Abundant Earth, language powerfully shapes our perception. By talking of nature as being limited we conveniently side-step discussing how we should change our behaviour: nature is the problem, not us. He then proceeds to give five very good reasons why this narrative is dangerous and counterproductive. The remainder of Limits is a call for practising and reclaiming a culture of self-limitation, taking the Ancient Greeks as an example of a culture that did so, as well as some pre-emptive responses to criticism of his argument.

“By talking of nature as being limited we conveniently side-step discussing how we should change our behaviour: nature is the problem, not us.”

Especially the second half of Limits articulates ideas I have found myself gravitating towards more and more. My problem with much environmentalist discourse is the clamour to “do something” without ever going a step further and taking responsibility for our problems by asking “what are we willing to sacrifice?” Or, seeing I just said that language shapes our perception, maybe we should think of them as adjustments. In that sense, I disagree with Kallis’s criticism of the ecological footprint and planetary boundary concepts. He writes that they perpetuate the idea of external limits being the problem. That may be. But I think they are helpful to quantify the necessary behavioural adjustments and make explicit what a culture of self-limitation would actually look like. Planetary Accounting, which I review next, explores this idea much further. My hope is that quantification will bring about more meaningful action. My fear is that we will not like what we hear and rebel. But, as Kallis pleas in defence of self-limitation: “the truth or ethical value of an argument does not rest on whether it is politically correct or viable” (p. 101).

Although I was impressed overall with the thought-provoking arguments put forward in Limits, I am going to call Kallis out on a few things. How radically do we have to reimagine our way of living to make this self-limitation possible and what would the consequences be? Probably there was not the space to explore this here and I should turn to his other books about degrowth. But the bigger miss, especially in a book that discusses Malthus, is to not bring up overpopulation. If we are talking about practising self-limitation, the questions of whether we should control world population, what population size is optimal for the planet, and how many children to have (if any) are the big ones.

Whether you are interested in Malthus, growth and its limits, or issues of sustainability, I recommend Limits as a pleasantly concise and thought-provoking book that is sure to stimulate discussion.


Other recommended books mentioned in this review:







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