Self-limitation is not about constraining, but about defining collectively as societies our limits.
Political ecology ‘has made strong arguments against natural limits’ and is in friction with ‘degrowth’s .. urgency of less’, writes Paul Robbins. Indeed, political ecologists developed the field as a response to 1970s neo-Malthusianism. Nancy Peluso, Lyla Mehta or Betsy Hartmann have exposed the racist, classist and patriarchal underpinnings of neo-Malthusian discourses of environmental degradation, overpopulation, or scarcity.
I am a political ecologist. I love these books. How do I square then this with my defense of limits and degrowth?
It took me sixteen years after my PhD to figure it out. We should distinguish, I always felt, reactionary notions of limits, like the ‘coming anarchy’ of prophets of doom like Robert Kaplan or Garett Hardin; and limits like those defended from activists at places like Standing Rock. Lumping all defenses of limits as Malthusian is analytically sloppy and politically wrong.
I felt this in my skin when, as a late-night twitter intellectual, I was told by fellow travelers that I am a baby-killer and a Malthusian (Me, a Malthusian?!). But the catalyst that got me going was an essay by Gareth Dale, in which I learned that Malthus was actually in favour of growth, not limits.
Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population is one of those classic works that academics feel comfortable citing without taking the trouble to read. I followed Gareth’s lead and sat down to read it again – line by line. And here is the story I have to tell.
First, Malthus was not a Malthusian, he was an economist. Second, radical environmentalism has always been romantic – and romantics were the fiercest critics of Malthus.
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