How come Jonathan Franzen—like many novelists before him—is haunted by Malthus?

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Sept. 23 2010 10:50 AM

Malthusian Madness

How come Jonathan Franzen—like many novelists before him—is haunted by Malthus?

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Burgess' satire came out when global fecundity was nearing its height. A few years later—with a newfound public awareness of pollution and resource depletion—novelists came around to Malthus' side of the argument. The actuarial balance of terror had shifted. Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), a novel of ideas cum police procedural, is set in the year 1999, when New York City has a population of 35 million, and "trembled at the brink of disaster," seething with food riots, water riots, looting. Animals being pretty much extinct, people make do with steaks made of a soybean-and-lentils concoction known as "soylent." (The recipe was changed for the Hollywood version, a few years later. "Soylent Green is … legumes!" presumably didn't test so well.) Naturally, a prickly old-timer is at hand to tell us what went wrong:

I blame the stinking politicians and so-called public leaders who have avoided the issue and covered it up because it was controversial and what the hell, it will be years before it matters….[T]hey just let us overproduce and overconsume, until now the oil is gone, the topsoil depleted and washed away, the trees chopped down, the animals extinct, the earth poisoned, and all we have to show for this is seven billion people fighting over the scraps that are left, living a miserable existence—and still breeding without control.

That theme of political denial runs through John Brunner's odd, Dos Passos-derived novel Stand on Zanzibar (1968), which I recall reading as a worried youngster one summer in Ghana. (Population then: about 7.4 million. Population now: about 24 million.) It's set in 2010 and puts the world population at 7 billion, which is pretty close. A character memorably describes the population explosion as "an event which happened yesterday but which everyone swears won't happen until tomorrow."

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Later novels explored ways of forestalling such cataclysm. The most unsettling of these may be Lionel Shriver's vividly imagined, deeply researched Game Control (1994). Set in present-day Kenya, it features a doomsaying demographer, Calvin Piper, who keeps a monkey named Malthus and who, we learn, lost his job running the USAID's population division when he advocated raising infant mortality in the Third World. Like most latter-day Malthusians, he's not interested in defending Malthus' particular calculations (Malthus thought that while population could increase geometrically, food production could increase only arithmetically; everyone now agrees that food production can sometimes leap forward.) But his core belief is Malthus': "[U]nchecked population growth is deadly." Calvin—who secretly plots to shave Earth's population by 2 billion with the help of a virus—would restore the era of "Homo sapiens as pack animals, huddled around fires, cowering in trees and getting shredded by lions to keep the numbers down. No campaigns for multiparty democracy, no crummy tabloids, no Norwegian water projects. Just life, birth and death in the raw." With few exceptions, human beings in particular have little more appeal to him than human beings en masse. As Shriver herself has remarked, "Demography is a lightning rod for literary reservations about humanity itself."

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom certainly gives every appearance of bearing out this observation. It's almost the culmination of a literary lineage, capturing all the fervor and fear that the Malthusian vision inspires. The novel's main character, Walter Berglund, has a main mission, an "overpopulation initiative," which plugs into the character's alternating currents of idealism and misanthropy. Walter is the nicest guy in Minnesota who has turned into the angriest guy in the world. And he perfectly articulates the tensions at the root of his cause: "Kids have always been the meaning of life," he says. "But the problem now is that more life is still beautiful and meaningful on the individual level, but for the world as a whole it only means more death. ...  What's still 'normal' at the individual level is heinous and unprecedented at the global level."

Yet even that "normal" has in fact taken a dark turn. Beneath Walter's Malthusian convictions is a simmering hell-is-other-people sense of indignity. The rock musician he tries to enlist for his population-control initiative is Walter's friend but also his sexual rival. As Walter is drawn toward his lovely assistant Lalitha, his wife Patty comes to seem a specimen of "redundant population." When Walter bellows that human beings are "A CANCER ON THE PLANET," he means it. But he also means that Richard and Patty are a cancer on his life.

Another indignity is self-inflicted: Falling in love with Lalitha, he can't help fantasizing about the babies they'll have. An agenda bound up in his sense of amour-propre ("what better way to live could there be than to throw himself into the most critical challenge of his time?") suddenly seems "trumped-up and barren." His faith is real, but fragile.  All of which is to say that Walter is a human being, not a silverback sage.

"In reasoning upon this subject," Malthus wrote, "we ought to consider chiefly the mass of mankind and not individual instances." Yet novels are about individual instances; so is human existence. Homo sapiens is the only species that can regret its multiplication, and it often has cause to. Our numbers include scapegraces, scoundrels, and unhinged hostage takers. But also the odd novelist who can tell you something about what it's like to be alive at a particular place and time, how it feels to be riven between closely argued despair and unreasonable happiness. It almost gives you hope for the "future fate of mankind."

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Kwame Anthony Appiah is the author most recently of The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.