The doom delusions of central planners and population “experts” are well documented and refuted, ranging from the early pessimism of the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus to the more fanatical predictions of Paul Ehrlich.
Through these lenses, population growth is a driver of poverty, following from a framing of the human person as a strain and a drain on society and the environment. As Michael Mattheson Miller has written, such thinking suffers from a zero-sum mindset wherein the economy (or any web of human relationships) is a fixed pie “with only so much to go around.” “But the economy is not a pie,” he explains, “Economies can grow, and population growth can actually help development. A growing population means more labor, which along with land and capital are the main factors of production.”
Yet even still, despite the range of agricultural and technological innovations, and the worldwide evidence of booming prosperity in highly populated areas like Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, the Malthusians of yesteryear are connecting their cramped imaginations to present-day concerns.
In an article at National Review, Kevin Williamson identifies this wrinkle, noting that the “new new Malthusians” are worried less about human impacts on natural resources and instead worry about the human costs of our own unbounded ingenuity:
The Reverend Malthus worried that natural resources would not keep up with population growth, that there would not be — could not be — sufficient production…The super-neo-reverse Malthusians mainly are concerned with a different commodity: labor. We are getting so good at making things, they say, that there simply won’t be enough jobs in the future. Which is to say, they believe that we are going to make ourselves poor through abundance.
It may be the case that nothing in this world is truly unlimited, but one thing that certainly appears to be close to unlimited is the capacity and variety of human desire. What do we want? More. More and better material things, bigger and broader experiences, more extravagant and rarefied leisure, more more. If I were a betting man, I’d bet on our finding some use for all that energy that’s supposed to be sitting around doing nothing, and for all that labor, too.
What will those jobs look like? Nobody knows, any more than the Reverend Malthus could know what a modern farm would look like. In the 1950s, my father was employed as a butcher. If you could go back in time and explain to him that in 2016 there would be such a thing as a “celebrity butcher,” or that the smart and chic young things in Brooklyn and Los Angeles would spend their generous allowances on a chance to spend an evening with one, he’d have thought you insane. He probably still thinks that’s insane. But in the 21st century, we have a major industry based on the odd fact that men in white-collar jobs like to go home at night and watch men do blue-collar jobs, in automotive shops and pawn brokerages.
Indeed, despite their genuine concern for immediate human needs and welcome divergence from the morbid philosophies of life that often dominate these corners, such fears still stem from a profound doubt in human capacity and potential. On a deeper level, it’s a confusion that strikes to the heart of our identity as persons made in the image of creative, loving God.
But there’s more to this than simply wiggling out of a disaster-weary disposition or a cynical, zero-sum funk.
Williamson notes that we have nothing to fear because “the capacity and variety of human desire” is unlimited, and when it comes to surface-level predictions about GDP and economic growth, that’s probably right. But for Christians, the surface-level stuff comes from someplace else, and thus, our vision of the future can’t rely on the hope of hum-drum hedonism.
At a fundamental level, our optimism about the potential and capacity of humans has to recognize our deeper longing for service and community, for collaboration and risk, for worship and reconciliation — each tied to the reality of who we were created to be: creative and faithful servants in pursuit of God’s glory in all things.
We needn’t agree on all that for us to get on the same page of promoting economic freedom and painting smiley faces on our economic future. But if we do, the fundamentals are sure to get sturdier, and material comfort and human happiness won’t be the only things we’ll reap.