Tom Hanks Endorses 'Malthusian Theory' of Overpopulation

Malthusianism might make a good movie plot, but it is just fiction.



Yes, of course, Tom Hanks is out flogging his latest movie Inferno, the central plot of which involves an evil scientist who attempts to release a virus to kill off the world's excess population. Although both promote delusions about Malthusian overpopulation, the movie plot is even more dire than that of the novel of the same title by Dan Brown on which it is based. (See my colleague Jesse Walker's amusing review of the novel here.)

In any case, Tom Hanks on Today appears to be persuaded by Malthusian population doom prognostications. He told his NBC hosts that he had been taught the word "triage" by a history professor when he was a student at Chabot College. Hanks said that his professor told him that the word "represented the concept that eventually, the world will have too many people in it in order to subsist on its own." He added that that was what Inferno is about—"the quantum physics of overpopulation—in an instant there could be too many people on the earth. And actually the math does add up."

Well, while Malthusianism might make a good movie plot, it has certainly advanced the careers of many false prophets. Foremost among the false prophets of Malthusianism is Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich. In his 1968 screed, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich endorsed the notion of "triage" by which he meant that countries would be ranked by their ability to feed themselves. If they were deemed to be too overpopulated, then food aid would be cut off. For example, Ehrlich stated in 1968 that he agreed with an expert who predicted that India couldn't "possibly feed 200 million more people by 1980." Actually, India's population grew by 170 million between 1968 and 1980 and the country was by then exporting grain to the Soviet Union.

To control the world's burgeoning population Ehrlich proposed the idea that the world's governments might introduce sterilants into supplies of water or staple foods. But he decided the notion was impractical due to "criminal inadequacy of biomedical research in this area." While Ehrlich did not suggest releasing a virus to reduce surplus population, Britain's more bloody-minded Prince Philip did. "In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation," said the consort of the U.K.'s queen in 1988.

With regard to Hanks' odd claim that the "math does add up," I suspect that he may be thinking of Ehrlich's famous lily pad growth analogy. As one contemporary Malthusian explains it: "A farmer's pond had a tiny lily pad that was doubling in size every day. He was warned that it would choke the pond in 30 days. He didn't worry about it for 28 days because it seemed so small. On the 29th day it covered half the pond. He had to solve the problem in one day."

World population was 3.5 billion in 1968 and is now 7.4 billion. Despite the latest rejiggering of the U.N.'s population trend projections, most demographers believe that the world's population will never double again. So much for lily pad analogies.

Hanks is a wonderful actor. He should make it clear that his movie is based on fiction. Otherwise he may mislead his fans about the real and positive prospects for the human future.

For more background on the myths of overpopulation, see Reason TV's interview with filmmaker Jessica Yu about her documentary Misconception below.