The Lingering Stench of Malthus

Debunking Jeremy Rifkin's beef with cities


The majority of human beings are living in cities for the first time in history. Hurray! As the Renaissance Germans said, "Stadtluft macht frei," or "City air makes you free." But not everyone is pleased. Jeremy Rifkin, the president of the leftist Foundation on Economic Trends, recently wrote an op/ed entitled "The Risks of Too Much City" in the Washington Post. Mostly it's filled with vacuous platitudes about "sustainability," but he does decry the growth of cities. "In the great era of urbanization we have increasingly shut off the human race from the rest of the natural world in the belief that we could conquer, colonize and utilize the riches of the planet to ensure our autonomy without dire consequences to us and future generations," he declares. Of course that's exactly what we've done and it's a good thing too.

Rikfin's concern about humanity's alienation from nature has a long pedigree. The foremost philosophical proponent was Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued that man's natural goodness has been corrupted by civilization, the myth of the "Noble Savage." Romantic poet William Wordsworth penned the lines, "Nature never did betray, The Heart that Loved her." Rifkin himself paints a picture of a prelapsarian idyll. "As long as the human race had to rely on solar flow, the winds and currents, and animal and human power to sustain life, the population remained relatively low to accommodate nature's carrying capacity: the biosphere's ability to recycle waste and replenish resources," he writes.

But let's look behind Rifkin's rhetoric. Why, until a couple of centuries ago, did human population remain, as Rifkin so delicately puts it, "relatively low?" Mostly because of the "positive checks" on population growth identified by economist Thomas Robert Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population, e.g., famine, disease, and war. As a result of these "checks" economic historian Angus Maddison estimates that in 1800 average life expectancy in France was about 30 years and 36 years in Britain. In the 18th century infant mortality was so great in cities that they grew chiefly by means of migration from the countryside. In other words, nature constantly betrayed humanity.

But that began to change in the 19th century. As Karl Marx noted in The Communist Manifesto, bourgeois capitalism fueled the growth of cities and "thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life." History has shown that people prefer the opportunities and excitement of city life to rural idiocy. And the former country idiots are voting with their feet. While some people may be pushed by war or drought, or poverty into cities, most people today are pulled in by the prospect of reinventing themselves, escaping from the narrow strictures of family, class and community, and a shot at really making it.

As humanity has urbanized, we have become ever less subject to nature's vagaries. For instance, a globally interconnected world made possible by the transportation networks between cities means that a crop failure in one place can be overcome by food imports from areas with bumper crops. Similarly resources of all types can be shifted quickly to ameliorate human emergencies caused by the random acts of a brutal insensate nature. Autonomy is just another word for freedom.

The further good news is that the movement of humanity's burgeoning population into the thousand of megacities foreseen that Rifkin is part of a process that ultimately will leave more land for nature. Today cities occupy just 2 percent of the earth's surface, but that will likely double to 4 percent over the next half century. In order to avoid this ostensibly terrible fate Rifkin proclaims, "In the next phase of human history, we will need to find a way to reintegrate ourselves into the rest of the living Earth if we are to preserve our own species and conserve the planet for our fellow creatures." Actually, he's got it completely backwards. Humanity must not reintegrate into nature-that way lays disaster for humanity and nature. Instead we must make ourselves even more autonomous than we already are from her.

Since nothing is more destructive of nature than poverty stricken subsistence farmers, boosting agricultural productivity is the key to the human retreat from wild nature. As Jesse Ausubel, the director for the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, points out: "If the world farmer reaches the average yield of today's US corn grower during the next 70 years, ten billion people eating as people now on average do will need only half of today's cropland. The land spared exceeds Amazonia." Similarly all of the world's industrial wood could be produced on an area that is less than 10 percent of the world's forested area today leaving 90 percent of the world's forests for Nature.

Ausubel argues that the wealth produced by human creativity will spark the Great Restoration of the natural world in this century. As the amount of land and sea needed to supply human needs decreases, both cities and wild nature will expand with nature occupying, or reoccupying, the bulk of the land and sea freed up by human ingenuity. Nature will become an arena for human pleasure and instruction-much as Wordsworth desired–not a source of raw materials.

Ultimately Rifkin is just using vague complaints about urbanization as a stalking horse for "runaway population growth." He thinks that there are just too many people whether they live in cities or not. In other words, Rifkin's just another Malthusian boob with a Gaia-worshiping fetish.

(Disclosure: I grew up on a dairy farm on which my family grew the vast majority of the food I ate before I ran away to college. My first trip to New York City was to see a Picasso exhibition at MOMA in the 1970s. I emerged from the subway at Columbus Circle, looked around, turned to my friends, and said: "I'm home." I eventually had the great pleasure of living and working New York for about 8 years.)

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.