A Third Way Between Human and Bugger Malthusianism
Religion & Liberty Online

A Third Way Between Human and Bugger Malthusianism

I and Jordan Ballor have already commented on Ender’s Game this week (here and here), but the story is literally packed with insightful themes, many of which touch upon issues relevant to Acton’s core principles. Another such issue is that of the problems with Neo-Malthusianism, the belief that overpopulation poses such a serious threat to civilization and the environment that population control measures become ethical imperatives.

Such a perspective tends to rely on one or both of the following fallacies: a zero-sum conception of economics ignorant of the last 200 years of sustained economic growth, which have allowed humankind to escape the Mathusian trap; or a belief that people are the problem when it comes to poverty.

In Ender’s Game, the story begins (more obviously in the book) with the fact that Ender Wiggen (Asa Butterfield) is a “Third,” a third-born child in a time when the international government of Earth had adopted a two-child policy. His parents had received special permission to have a Third because their first two children, Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and Valentine (Abigail Breslin), had shown so much promise. Unfortunately, Peter had proven too aggressive and Valentine too compassionate. The government hoped that Ender would be a happy middle.

Thus, in a time when worry over using up the Earth’s scarce resources brings humanity to globally adopt population control measures, their best hope for the hero commander they need happens to come only at the defiance of that policy. Earth had to implicitly admit the integral worth of the human person, and our capacity through innovation to supply for our needs despite scarce resources, in order to have the human capital that it needed to survive.

At the same time, later on in the story viewers learn that the Buggers, the insect-like species that had attacked Earth 50 years prior, are building a massive fleet. The explanation given is that they have maximized the capacity of their home world and must colonize another. Thus, overpopulation drives their aggression, or that, at least, is what Earth’s military believes.

The story, then, can be understood as a clash of two Neo-Malthusian societies. Indeed, Malthus himself commented in his work The Principle of Population that “vicious customs with respect to women, great cities, unwholesome manufactures, luxury, pestilence, and war” (emphasis mine) were some of the typical historical checks on overpopulation. He did not, however, advocate these (he was a minister, in fact), and his analysis actually holds true for the zero-sum, agrarian economy of the time. Nevertheless, he acknowledged a rather obvious fact: war tends to reduce the number of people on the planet. Thus, the war itself in Ender’s Game can be understood, whether intentionally or not, as another means of population control.

Ender’s sister, Valentine, does not share the prevalent view, however. Writing online under the pseudonym Demosthenes, she had become a major influence on public political opinion. After being talked into encouraging Ender not to quit his training during a time of (understandable) frustration and feeling like she had betrayed him, the book records the following:

That night Demosthenes published a scathing denunciation of the population limitation laws. People should be allowed to have as many children as they like, and the surplus population should be sent to other worlds, to spread mankind so far across the galaxy that no disaster, no invasion could ever threaten the human race with annihilation. “The most noble title any child can have,” Demosthenes wrote, “is Third.”

For you, Ender, she said to herself as she wrote.

Peter laughed in delight when he read it. “That’ll make them sit up and take notice. Third! A noble title! Oh, you have a wicked streak.”

While Peter sees it as manipulation in a grand political game, Valentine writes out of love for Ender and remorse for manipulating him. For Valentine people are not the problem but the solution. Human persons are the most valuable resource we have for human flourishing, and the only scarcity we have to fear is scarcity of human beings.

In the world of Ender’s Game, humanity has the capability of colonizing and cultivating other worlds. Our material resources are as vast as the universe itself. While we currently are a bit more limited on space, we have shown ourselves more than able to adapt. It is impossible for everyone to have their own little homestead today, but many truly love urban life, where limitations of space are shown to be a matter of two-dimensional thinking. We can always build up, and in the last 200 years we have successfully managed to increase food production far beyond the arithmetic lines that Malthus had predicted as well.

While this, unfortunately, is lost on many today (see, e.g., China), Christians ought to be confident that the God who made us to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) will always providentially work to supply our needs through the gifts he has given people to create new ways to sustain their lives.

In the end of Ender’s Game, Ender, the boy who had been derided by his classmates for being a Third, shines through not only as the commander that humanity needs to defeat their enemies, but the only one who carries a different perspective on the supposed Malthusian inevitability of intergalactic war. What happens in the end (and beyond), however, I will leave unspoiled.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.