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?

Thomas Malthus.
Thomas Malthus

Are there too many of us? The fear that we've overpopulated the planet can drive people to distraction or worse. A few weeks ago, a man named James Jay Lee arrived at the Discovery Channel's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., and took three hostages at gunpoint. He wanted the cable network to make a documentary based on Daniel Quinn's novel My Ishmael, especially a section inviting solutions to our looming ecological crisis. He also wanted "shows that mention the Malthusian sciences about how food production leads to the overpopulation of the Human race."

You wouldn't have pegged My Ishmael as an incitement to violence. Although it has a bold vision—mankind's original sin was, according to Quinn, to have given up hunting and gathering in the agricultural revolution of the Neolithic era—it's basically a neo-Malthusian novel of ideas. In chapter after chapter, a very wise silverback gorilla, Ishmael, converses telepathically with the book's narrator, a 12-year-old girl named Julie. The gorilla says things like: "Population growth is inherently a function of food availability." The girl says things like: "Yes." "I understand." "Yes. That's amazing—an amazing way to look at it."

But then you remember that the most notable meltdown scene in recent fiction also has a Malthusian motor. It's in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, when the main character flips out at his big press conference and rants, "WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET."

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The fact is that Malthusian thought has exerted a disturbing, and sometimes deranging, fascination since Thomas Robert Malthus published his original treatise An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). With what looked like irresistible logic, Malthus argued that population growth, which people had regarded as a sign of human flourishing, was a harbinger of "misery and vice." That's because humans would, unchecked, breed like blowflies, and their "redundant population" would exhaust whatever subsistence was available. There was ample reason to dread what Malthus, courting another sort of redundancy, called "the future fate of mankind."

It followed, as night followed day, that measures to help the "common people," like the poor laws, would only increase their overall distress, even if they "alleviated a little the intensity of individual misfortune." Suddenly, the moral order was turned upside down: Helping people was really hurting them, and vice versa.

The influence of these arguments was galvanic, and as much cultural as political. The fictional responses to Malthus—which shifted from disdain to horror to clinging embrace, and then to something more complicated—amount to a barometer of humanity's own assessment of where it stands in the natural order. What was scarier, the specter of teeming hordes of humans devouring the planet—"actuarial terror" is how a scholar of romanticism aptly characterized Malthus's peculiar power—or the sort of measures that might be taken to prevent this?

It's no surprise that the enlightened literati during Malthus's lifetime arrayed themselves against him. He seemed to be justifying a callous indifference toward the worst off. "Sophisms like those of Mr. Malthus," Shelley thought, were "calculated to lull the oppressors of mankind into a security of everlasting triumph." Then, too, the standard narrative of the 19th-century novel was the so-called marriage plotso it was awkward that, by Malthus's logic, it might be better to burn than to marry.

Novelists of a comic temper responded with mockery. Take Thomas Love Peacock's Melincourt (1817), which, like Quinn's, featuredMalthusian themes and a large, furry primate—in this case an amiable, flute-playing orangutan (touted as "a genuine facsimile of the philosophical Adam" and soon awarded a baronetcy). Peacock has a voluble character deplore the "baleful influence of the poor laws," and assure us that overpopulation is the "sole and fruitful cause of penury, disease, and war, plague, pestilence, and famine." Dickens, more pointedly, has Scrooge refer to prospective deaths among the poor as something that might help "decrease the surplus population."

Malthus' shadow grew darker in the 20th century, overlaid as it was by a growing sense of the malign capabilities of industrialized states. In Huxley's Brave New World(1932), where a chief means of contraception is known as the Malthusian Drill, a character offers the motto "Civilization is Sterilization." In one of Anthony Burgess' own dystopian forays, The Wanting Seed (1962), the state vigorously promotes homosexuality ("It's Sapiens to be Homo"), and a physician finds it natural to console a bereaved mother by telling her how much fertilizer her son's remains will yield.

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."

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.

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