Giorgos Kallis criticises Malthus’ ideas and their modern influence, but sustainability requires structural change to move beyond capitalism, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

Giorgos Kallis, Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care, (Stanford University Press 2019), 154pp.

Thomas Malthus, the late-eighteenth-century author of the Principle of Population is sometimes regarded as a proto-environmentalist, and not only by those who are sold on the idea that an increasing population is bad for the planet. As well as a proponent of population reduction, Malthus is also seen by some as an originator of the idea that nature limits us. In this view, he was the first to engage with the implications of infinite growth on a finite planet.

Malthus’ concern for natural limits has led to his being portrayed as an early supporter of the steady-state theory, as if he would have agreed that capitalism without growth is the answer to the climate crisis. This is, however, as Kallis points out, to make a fundamental misunderstanding of Malthus’ arguments. Malthus was not a critic of capitalism, but of the behaviour of the poor within it. His thesis was that poor people were poor because they allowed themselves to have more children than they could support; in other words, that they outbred the natural resources available for them. The answer, he thought, was for them to exercise ‘prudential restraint’ and to work harder so that they could afford the children they wanted. Any sort of social support was just encouraging shiftlessness. It is for this reason that Engels called Malthus’ work ‘the most open declaration of war of the bourgeoisie on the proletariat.’[1]

Malthus did believe that there were external limits to the resources available to human society, but this was not for him a reason to limit economic growth or consumption by those who could afford it. For him it was simply a natural law that there was not enough to go around.This meant that those who were unhappy with their share should either work harder to increase it or accept their place in the natural order of things. The inequality in society was in fact a necessary spur to industry: ‘only in this way will they [the poor] limit their unlimited drives to what they produce, and work harder to produce more’ (p.41).

This is of course a long way from the position of modern theorists of natural limits. It is not often that you find any modern environmentalist telling an unemployed person to go ahead and starve, as Malthus did: ‘At nature’s mighty feast there is no cover for him. She tells him to begone.’[2] Kallisargues however that while those who look to Malthus’ ideas about natural limits do not really understand his approval of economic growth, they are still stuck within a Malthusian understanding of the external limits to consumption.

Capitalism and natural limits

In Kallis’ view, Malthus and modern green thinkers share a conception of ‘homo economicus’ (economic man): humans under capitalism whose limitless wants can never be satisfied. These unlimited wants are the driver of environmental destruction, which leads to the argument that external limits have to be imposed on these wants for the good of the planet. This however leaves greens appearing as prophets of doom, or at the very least spoilsports. For Kallis, the answer is rather that we should embrace ‘self-limitation’. The alternative to limiting our wants because fulfilling them is environmentally unsustainable is still pursuing limitation, but as a positive development for its own sake.

Kallis is not entirely clear on whether he regards the unlimited wants of modern humans as resulting from capitalism specifically, or as part of the human condition. Would we have limitless wants in any system, or are they a creation of capitalism? The account here of Malthus’ discovery of ‘homo economicus’ implies that this was a development of capitalism, but if so, Kallis does not believe that it would be resolved by overthrowing the system.

Kallis touches on Marx and Engels’ view that a non-capitalist human society could organise production rationally to overcome resource constraints, but concludes that socialism would face the same problems as capitalism does. Socialism, he argues, would still find itself having to fulfil our wants:‘the need for a culture of limits hold independently of the organisation of society’ (p.123). This implies at the very least that once our wants have developed under capitalism, they could not be unlearned even if we were able to move to an entirely different system.

Supply leads demand

Elsewhere, Kallis goes further, to view consumption in the current system as driving capitalist production rather than being shaped by it. The proletariat, he argues, should be willing to embrace self-limitation, since their wants ‘fuel the system of exploitation’ (p.103).He thus appears to view production and consumption as a matter of demand leading supply, whereas a Marxist understanding of capitalist production would put these the other way around. This is particularly the case, interestingly, for the specific examples of consumption given here.Young people’s consumption of Uber and smartphones has not arisen as a result of the market fulfilling a free-floating demand for portable surveillance equipment and a minicab company with an app and terrible employment practices. Both of these product types were launched as solutions looking for a problem: supply leading demand.

It is the way that Kallisstarts with consumer demand when considering capitalist production which enables him to see these same demands being made in a post-capitalist society. This is however to underestimate the extent to which the mode of production shapes not only the economic relations in a society but the whole fabric of social life. That we live in a capitalist system does not just determine what we consume, but how we relate to each other, even how we think, since we are subject to alienation. The people who Marx and Engels argued would be able to organise production rationally and sustainably in a socialist society would not be us with fewer shops. They would be unalienated and therefore profoundly different from humans born under capitalism.It may well be that post-capitalist society would see the world as abundant while consuming very little, as Kallis points out that some tribal societies do now. This would be part of the non-capitalist mindset which a successful overthrow of capitalism would need to achieve.

Self-limitation or structural change?

In considering how socialism would deal with the need for sustainability, Kallis underestimates the scale of change that the end of capitalism would mean. He also seems in places to fall into a common mistake in green theory, of underestimating the scale of change for which he himself is arguing. It would be easy to treat the call for self-limitation as an alternative to systemic change. It is after all fairly common for greens who despair of the possibility of large-scale change to argue for change on a personal or local level as the only feasible alternative. To his credit, Kallis is prepared to consider how a culture of self-limitation might be developed at a social level, rather than just as a matter of changing individual minds. This includes a number of specific proposals, including maximum wage laws, shorter terms for politicians and a basic income to enable people to participate in public life. These would, Kallis argues, limit the accumulation of wealth and power.

This would be a positive development, although Kallis does not precisely delineate how it is the accumulation of wealth and power by some which prevents the development of a culture of self-limitation, rather than, say, the need for companies to sell new products to consumers. The argument proceeds rather by analogy: ancient Athens was culture of self-limitation, ancient Athens paid a stipend to citizens to attend the Assembly and limited terms and re-election for politicians, therefore our culture of self-limitation needs these things. (Athens seems to be turning up more frequently as a potential model for structural changes. It is, for example, often cited as a model of democracy by proponents of the citizens assembly. This is a little disturbing, given the reality of ancient Athens as a complex, class, society with internal inequality and an imperialist foreign policy. A paragon of justice and democracy it was not.)

Leaving aside the limitations of the model, the more serious objection to these proposals as a serious programme for social change is that these would require such a significant change to the workings of capitalism as to require a revolution to achieve them. In order, for example, to get a basic income at a level which would genuinely enable people not to have to sell their labour power to live with a decent standard of living, the people rather than the capitalists would already have to be in power. Kallis appears to suggest these measures as an alternative to socialist revolution, when in fact it is only a socialist revolution that could deliver them.

The need for a movement

Kallis appears to recognise the need for wide support in order to achieve the major systemic changes necessary to deal with the climate crisis. He also recognises that a call for self-limitation would not necessarily be any more popular than the argument that there are external limits. ‘The lack of a viable path to implementation might be seen as a drawback’ he admits (p.101). He suggests that there might be a minority of people ‘who see the wisdom of simple living’ (p.102) and adds that working-class participation will be crucial.

He is entirely correct that the climate movement needs to be a movement of the working class. It is difficult to see however how leading with a need for self-limitation will achieve that working-class movement. To propose limits to consumption may seem fine to people who have enough stuff already, or have already been able to travel the world, but it comes over very differently to people who are already having to go without. Calling for voluntary poverty is unlikely to be a way to organise among those who already find themselves struggling to manage.

The route to building a working-class green movement is more likely to lie in green jobs, just transition and other measures, like restoring rural public transport, which would both address greenhouse-gas emissions and improve people’s lives now. Kallis is not wrong to identify capitalist consumption as an environmental problem. While we are in the capitalist system, however, castigating individuals for their part in that consumption is unlikely to help achieve the system change we ultimately need.


Elaine Graham-Leigh is the author of the new Counterfire book Marx and the Climate Crisis.

[1] Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Penguin, London 1969), p.308.

[2] T. R. Malthus, Principle of Population, 2nd ed. (Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1951), p.531.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.