Fall 2021: Introduction to Population and Environment

Jack Harte

This section focuses on the Malthusian and Deterministic arguments discussed in Chapter 2 of O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitics.  Specifically noted is Thomas Malthus’ correlations between population and the environment.  Malthus was a late 18th century economist who prophesized that increasing population would soon outpace food production.  Malthus saw land as holding an upper limit to production, whereas population appeared to be theoretically unlimited in its growth.  This deficit, he argued, would lead to mass famine, disease, and ultimately a situation in which “premature death […] in some shape or other visit[s] the human race” (Malthus 1798).

This narrative about the threat of overpopulation has become mainstream to the point that we do not question it, but here is where Environmental Geopolitics (O’Lear 2018) becomes particularly useful. The three key questions can be applied to a Malthusian argument to show how its reasoning is based less on fact and more on a political agenda.  We must ask ourselves:

  1. How are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified?
  2. What is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world?
  3. What is the spatial focus of this particular claim?

Malthus centered his environmental focus around the capacities of Great Britain’s food supply.  Why?  Why not focus on how we are consuming, rather than what we are consuming?  Malthus’s view of the environment assumed equal consumption, regardless of economic factors which might influence consumption rates.  In this case, blame was diverted from those who might have fewer children, but higher consumption rates (upper classes) to those who might have many children, but overall lower consumption rates (lower classes).  How does this discrepancy divide the population, and why?

That is to say, what is the role of human agency within this claim?  Malthus had a preoccupation with the behavior of the lower classes.  For context, Malthus theorized his claim during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.  Malthus’s ultimate objective was to dismantle the system of common farmland ownership in Britain, and the welfare system which it co-depended on.

This restructuring was seen as necessary to allow physical mobility of the lower classes throughout the British economy. Mobility was a necessity for an industrializing economy, as it needed all excess farm labor to move to the cities and work in factories.  Out of a desire to end centuries of land ownership policy, Malthus would argue that the lower classes exhibit full and complete agency over a diminishing food supply through their supposed carnal desire to have more children.  Malthus described a threat to everyone’s food supply caused by poorer groups of people expanding their own population, apparently through carelessness or ignorance.

By generalizing a group of people and simplifying their activity, Malthus streamlines how population, specifically the expansion of poor people, is related to food supply without considering a range of other influences and factors. This oversimplification of the issue lends itself to determinist thought through the creation of a seemingly natural relationship between population and food supply.

Determinism not only establishes a relationship between two variables (regardless of any merit the relationship might hold), but also implies that one variable will always determine the outcome of the other, and not the other way around.  In this case, population will always have a direct impact on food supply, even if other variables hold agency within food production and consumption.  Furthermore, by applying this correlation to the birthrates of the poor, Malthus was able to create a divide between “Us” and “Them”, arguing that more of (or for) “Them” results in direct negative impacts on “Us”.  This divide is seen repeatedly in discourse and is brought up throughout the selected podcasts of this chapter.

Malthus placed blame for a looming societal collapse on the lower classes, the welfare they supposedly relied on, and the common ownership of land in Britain.  Malthus argued that these factors would result in an eclipse of food supply by Britain’s consumption.  The solution was found in the enclosure movement, which was an attempt to privatize commonly owned farmland in Britain, and constituted the consolidation of power within the upper classes under the guise of increasing food production.  In the end, Malthus’s predictions regarding population never came to fruition, but he did accomplish his political objectives of moving the rural poor out of common farmlands, off welfare, and into the factory.

However, Malthus’s ideals saw a resurgence in popularity in the mid-to-late 20th century, with the rise of Neo-Malthusian thought. Neo-Malthusianism takes Malthus’s ideas about population, and reapplies them to modern environmental concerns, such as resource scarcity, pollution, and climate change.  Neo-Malthusianism argues that rising population is solely responsible for these forms of environmental destruction. Titles such as Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968) and Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) stirred panic around humankind’s growing population, again dividing the world into “Us” and “Them”.

This time the divide rested between the Western world, with their low birthrates, and the developing populations of the world, the high birthrates of which were presumed to doom us all to resource scarcity and climate catastrophe.  Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” showcases the determinist rhetoric on which Neo-Malthusianism is founded.  Hardin presents a hypothetical in which multiple herders share a common grazing plot.  He argues that it is in each individual herder’s best interests to maximize the head of cattle they own on the common plot, and furthermore that each cow introduced to the plot will decrease the amount of grazeable land towards a finite limit.  When this limit is reached, Hardin argues that the commons will collapse, and so too will the herders and their cattle.  The flaw with “The Tragedy of the Commons” is that it concludes that state-sanctioned privatization and policing of a resource as the only way to prevent its overuse.  Hardin makes the mistake of assuming common-pool resources have zero restrictions, even if the community using the resource might set guidelines for how to use it in a sustainable manner.  And, as we will hear in Megan Smith and Grace Williams’ podcasts, privatization of a resource often yields results far worse than a system with multiple equal shareholders.

Podcast Perspectives

Megan Smith identifies determinist discourse throughout her podcast: “Dupont’s History with PFAS”.  Smith offers a review of Dupont’s usage of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and other polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in their products.  In 2015, DuPont agreed to stop using PFOA in their facilities, but were later found by the EPA to have continued discharging PFOA and PFAS from their facilities in the United States.

The U.S aside, DuPont operates in more than 40 countries around the world, some of which have comparatively relaxed regulations regarding PFAS production compared to the United States.  As such, even if DuPont measurably ceased PFAS emission from their American plants, they would still be able to utilize PFAS in production overseas.  The overseas production using PFAS creates a Malthusian-esque divide, as it is no longer the Western consumers’ fault that PFAS and PFOAS are being released into the environment, but rather it is the fault of the foreign producers which supply “Us”, the consumers.

Suddenly, the blame for DuPont’s PFAS pollution is shifted from the Western consumers who demand these goods to the foreign producers making them.  In this situation, Western agency in consumption is denied by acting as though there is nothing that can be directly changed, given how far away the pollution may seem.  This apparent absolution of blame is especially concerning given that PFAS can be found in most aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, as well as in the bloodstream of virtually every human on the planet.  Such pervasion clearly showcases the failure of a private entity to protect a common resource with which they have been trusted.

Another example of industry’s failure to protect common resources is seen in Grace Williams’s “Environmental Risk in your Backyard (The Discussion of Groundwater Contamination at Farmland in Lawrence, Kansas)”.  Williams highlights narratives surrounding cleanup efforts at Farmland, Inc, a former agricultural chemical plant in Lawrence, KS, now a Superfund site.  After filing for bankruptcy, the site was given to the city of Lawrence in exchange for taking responsibility for all pollutants on the property.  In the wake of this acquisition, the citizens of Lawrence were looking for answers.

Williams analyzes the initial discourse surrounding the site, looking at a claim made in 2010 by Chad Lawhorn in the Lawrence Journal-World that Farmland will soon see a “rebirth”.  This “rebirth” constitutes selling off parcels of Farmland once they are “clean” for commercial use.  Lawhorn cites a city engineer, Matt Bond, in a discussion regarding how the city intends to “clean” the site and prepare it for future use.  Bond reassures readers that contractors have been hired to remove the surface structures of the former chemical plant, allowing the city to focus solely on the almost 30 million gallons of toxic chemical retaining ponds on the site (Lawhorn 2010).  Given the large quantities of chemical waste which still reside on the property, is a “rebirth” possible, and how does a focus on scrapping and salvage change the narrative regarding the future of the site?

Here, Williams begins her analysis.  Williams argues that there is notably little presentation of data, evidence, or discussion of the nitrogen and ammonia levels of the property in Lawhorn and Bond’s claim.  Williams cites her time spent as an environmental intern for the city of Lawrence, during which she took groundwater and stormwater samples in and around Farmland.  She argues that the samples taken show concerning levels of nitrogen and ammonia still in and around the site.  So dangerous, in fact, that bottled water is handed out to citizens living near the site.  While scrapping derelict structures may make the site more visually appealing, Williams argues that the narrative created by the city of an imminent “rebirth” downplays the severity of the issue, allowing Farmland to fade into obscurity, even as the threat of chemical pollution persists.

Malthus, and the Neo-Malthusians, such as Hardin, would make the argument that private corporations should be able to conserve shared resources more effectively than a conglomerate of competing individuals.  By fencing off and handing our shared lands, tributaries, and groundwater reserves to private corporations, we should theoretically see a more sustainable use of said resources, preventing the “Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin 1968) by which shared resources are supposedly plagued.  However, as we have seen, Smith and Williams offer antithetical examples to “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin 1968) through their depictions of private corporations abusing the resources with which they have been entrusted.

Smith highlights how DuPont’s usage of PFAS in their products has resulted in pollutants entering our shared soil and water supplies.  Furthermore, Williams shows how Farmland, Inc, was entrusted with its plot of land, made it unusable for any future uses (barring decontamination), and abandoned the site, leaving the city (and its taxpayers) to clean up its mess.  Do these examples show a sustainable use of the land?  Remember, you, the reader, likely have PFAS in your bloodstream right now because of pollution created in the private sector’s interest. Additionally, those living along the Kansas River and its downstream tributaries are facing danger created by Farmland’s abandonment of its responsibility to the land they polluted.

Another difference to note between Smith and Williams’ podcasts is the contrast in scale.  Smith looks at the global effects of DuPont and PFAS, while Williams takes a more local approach, looking at a polluted site a few hundred acres in size. This contrast shows how the framework of Environmental Geopolitics is applicable across a range of spatial scales. Additionally, this form of analysis draws attention to spatial processes that may shape a political claim about the environment that is not explicit.

David Gardner’s “What’s the Fascination with Home Insulation” discusses the benefits and drawbacks to insulating homes.  The claim Gardner analyzes seems simple on the surface, that home insulation will reduce carbon emissions, and that if we could all just insulate our homes, we could rectify climate change.  However, within this claim lies immense determinist rhetoric.  Namely, once again, that the burden of blame is placed on those who cannot afford, or do not want to insulate their homes.

Yet, environmental groups point to those without insulated homes as a large contributor to climate change, distracting from other issues which might play a larger role.  Could it be that our methods of energy production are carbon inefficient?  If insulation is the solution, why is it the individual’s responsibility?  Gardner argues that if environmental groups wish to proliferate insulation throughout the United Kingdom (and other regions), central government funding for not only insulation efforts, but also education efforts, is necessary.  He argues that without these measures, most homeowners would not spend the $3,000-10,000 necessary to insulate their homes.  Due to insulation’s real effects on carbon emissions, however, the call for mass insulating may grow, and eventually see the benefits proposed by environmental groups.

Until then, and without central government funding, the issue remains that the idea of mass insulation directly averting a climate catastrophe does nothing but further divide the population, showcasing again how variables are linked in a determinist argument regarding the environment.   Furthermore, by focusing on a singular action one can take to mitigate their climate impact, it allows for blame for the climate crisis to be shifted away from those who have insulated their homes to those who have not, even as there exist many other factors relating to one’s carbon output.

Insulation is not a be-all end-all for the climate crisis, but a single mitigation, which could only truly solve the climate crisis in conjunction with many other mitigation strategies. Such a combined effort to reduce home carbon emissions might include new modes of energy production, more efficient appliances, and, of course, international efforts to insulate our homes.  The determinist argument touted by insulation activists, that insulation directly and solely reduces climate change, minimizes other climate strategies, and makes it impossible to find an intersection by which climate change can be mitigated or averted.  Climate change cannot solely be averted by individually funded insulation projects, and the environmentalist movement’s propensity to rely on determinist arguments makes it difficult to change how we consume energy and impact our planet.

Another example of singular mitigations being touted as comprehensive solutions comes from Karis Brown’s “Milk, Moolah, &; Manure: A Geopolitical Analysis,” which forms a critique of biogas recovery systems.  Biogas recovery systems have been proposed as a solution to the increasingly worrying effects of methane emissions output by feedlots and other livestock operations.  Brown specifically looks at the dairy industry.  They conclude that while biogas recovery systems may seem like a promising solution to manure management that enables the continuation of current beef and dairy consumption, the true story, as always, lies behind a critical analysis of the claim.

Brown points out that the argument of “agricultural exceptionalism, or that the importance of food for human survival should entitle the industry to special regulatory privileges, has overridden the EPA’s regulatory power of [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO)]”.  Where is our attention being shifted to by citing biogas recovery as a justification for the continued practices of CAFOs?  If we’ve been told that the population needs this level of dairy production for its survival, who are we to question it?  However, Brown proposes that we should question these practices, revealing that we might not even need these corporate feedlots to fulfill domestic dairy needs, and that the answer might simply lie in consuming less dairy, at the cost of corporate bottom lines.


Ehrlich, Paul R. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hardin, Garrett. 1968. “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Science 162 (3859): 1243–48. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1724745.

Lawhorn, Chad. 2010 “Rebirth at Former Farmland Industries Site Anticipated to Be Soon.” Lawrence Journal-World, November 14, 2010.  https://www2.ljworld.com/news/2010/nov/14/rebirth-former-farmland-industries-site-anticipate/.

‌Malthus, Thomas Robert. 1998. “An Essay on the Principle of Population (London, 1798).” http://www.esp.org/books/malthus/population/malthus.pdf.

<p class=”hanging-indent”>O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. <a href=”https://rowman.com/isbn/9781442265813/environmental-geopolitics” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”><em>Environmental Geopolitics</em>.</a> Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &amp; Littlefield.</p>


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Podcast Perspectives of Environmental Geopolitics Copyright © 2022 by Jack Harte is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book