Malthusian Catastrophes

Pondering Malthus and Koyaanisqatsi

I was hyper-focused on something the other afternoon, half-listening to a playlist of random ambient music on the sonos when Philip Glass’ soundtrack to the 1982 film, Koyaanisqatsi began to play.

The word means “world out of balance” in the Hopi language (or as my father would have said: ” Fubar.” It’s a beautiful film, especially when it was first released nearly 40 years ago, a stoner flick to be appreciated after a few bong hits in the dorm before heading to the midnight showing at the local art house cinema.

Reflecting on the present pandemic and its politicization as the world crawls out of quarantine into the future, I have to wonder if this and future pandemic threats to our health and social fabric are symptoms of a world out of balance, where geography and the natural barriers of oceans and time have been rendered irrelevant by technology, where natural processes and systems from the climate to gender roles have been turned on their head by genetically modified crops, wide-body jets, and instant communications which can speed both facts and propaganda as well as an infected passenger in the middle seat in aisle 42 into our lives faster than ever before.

Thomas Malthus was the English economist who posited the theory that improvements to productivity are not used to increase our quality of life, but to expand our population in a series of boom/bust cycles that punish the most disadvantaged segments the hardest. Coming out of an era of plague, such as the epidemic of 1666 that ravaged London, Malthusian economics was summed up by its creator thusly:

“Yet in all societies, even those that are most vicious, the tendency to a virtuous attachment [i.e., marriage] is so strong that there is a constant effort towards an increase of population. This constant effort as constantly tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition.”

 Malthus, T. R. 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter II,

Malthus observed a boom and bust cycle of population growth and crashes and came to the conclusion that rather than achieve a balanced equilibrium, progress and society tend to use any gains to expand, not improve. Population growth is the top of mind agenda of three significantly wealthy and wise individuals: Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, George Soros…. all have prioritized population as the focus of their philanthropy. These aren’t cold-hearted eugenicists who advocate sterilizing the poor, or even eating them as Jonathan Swift suggested in his “modest proposal” of 1729.

The COVID-19 crisis is an great example of a Malthusian Catastrophe: an event such as a famine, war, genocide, or epidemic which tend to happen when things seem great but suddenly go out of balance. Famine used to be the great check valve on unbridled population growth, but the Green Revolution that followed World War II and the growing use of pesticides, hybrid strains of grain, and industrial agriculture has diminished the severity of famine save for a few susceptible regions such as the Horn of Africa. It also wiped out the local osprey population until Rachel Carson started the environmental movement with Silent Spring. Now the osprey are back and its nursing home residents who are disappearing.

Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.

— Thomas Malthus, 1798. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Chapter VII

Here is Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the country, COVID-19 has hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods where crowded housing, poor healthcare and nutrition, and other factors particular to the impoverished have caused infection rates to soar far higher than more affluent zip codes. Chelsea, Brockton, Lawrence …. the virus burns hottest for the poorest and thrives on the weakest, the oldest, the sickest. I read last night that 50% of COVID deaths occurred in the counties within 100 miles of New York City. For a person living in North Dakota, where social isolation is the norm, the pandemic is irrelevant. For an elderly Latina with diabetes and COPD in Chelsea, it’s a death sentence.

Immigration didn’t bring the virus to America. During the Ebola scare in the late summer of 2015 conservatives reacted with great paranoia over the “jet age” effects of a single infected person flying from the west coast of Africa to New York, politicizing the disease in their ongoing agenda of restricting free immigration and opening America’s borders. Their calls for a cordon sanitaire then are not being repeated now, as critics of the shutdown ask why governments and public health organizations tanked the economy to avoid a pandemic that seems to pick off the elderly and the poor the most. For a college student in Fort Lauderdale in early March, it was worth sacrificing granny a few years sooner than expected so the wet t-shirt contests could go on.

Society is fracturing into two camps as it comes out of hiding, two camps who have dug in to embrace very different realities. For the conservative segment, the issue is about freedom and free markets as the best system to distribute wealth and regulate society. For the progressive wing, it’s about protecting the weak and sacrificing some growth and profit to improve the lot of the most vulnerable. But in the end the virus doesn’t care, neither does the next crop blight or typhoon. We’re all just passengers on the boom-bust roller coaster and destined to do to ourselves what our ancestors did to themselves — waiting for the next Malthusian catastrophe to remind us our world is indeed, our of balance.