This time is different! Or is it? NeoMalthusians and environmental optimists in the age of climate change

Publication Date01 January 2021
AuthorNils Petter Gleditsch
This time is different! Or is it?
NeoMalthusians and environmental
optimists in the age of climate change
Nils Petter Gleditsch
Peace Research Institute Oslo & Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Warning about dire effects of climate change on armed conflict is a recent variation of a scenario that has been
promoted by environmental pessimists for over two centuries. The essence is that human activities lead to resource
scarcities that in turn will generate famine, pestilence, and war. This essay reviews three stages of the argument: first,
the original Malthusian thesis that focused on food production. Second, the broader neoMalthusian concern from
the 1970s about limits to growth and developing scarcities in a range of necessities. And recently, the specter of
climate change. In each phase, the Malthusians have met firm opposition from environmental optimists, who argue
that emerging scarcities can be countered by human ingenuity, technological progress, and national and international
economic and political institutions and that environmental change is not in itself a major driver of human violence.
In the third phase, the Malthusian case appears to be stronger because human activities have reached a level where
they have a truly global impact. Environmental optimists still insist that these problems can be overcome by human
ingenuity and that the long-term trend towards less violence in human affairs is unlikely to be reversed by climate
change. The stakes seem higher, but the structure of the debate remains largely the same.
armed conflict, climate change, environmental optimism, IPCC, Malthusianism
The debate about the consequences of climate change
has come to play a dominant part in international polit-
ical discourse about the future of armed conflict. While
climate change itself is a relatively new issue, the main
theme of the debate is not. It has roots in the writings of
Thomas Malthus over 200 years ago and the responses to
his pessimistic assessment of the human condition.
The Malthusian model
The original model (Malthus, 1798) was striking in its
simplicity. Population would increase in a geometric
progression, resulting in exponential growth. Food pro-
duction, on the other hand, could only increase in an
arithmetic progression, with linear growth. Regardless of
the starting point, the two curves must eventually inter-
sect, and food will become scarce. Even a country with
an abundant food supply will at some point be hit by
severe scarcity. Malthus posited that this could be
countered by what he called ‘preventive checks’, a lower
birth rate resulting from celibacy, birth control, abor-
tions, or infanticide. Alternatively, by ‘positive checks’,
a higher death rate through war, famine, and pestilence.
Thus, the consequences for armed conflict and other key
aspects of human security formed part of Malthusianism
from the start.
This message was controversial when first published
(cf. Goodwin, 1820). However, the slow erosion of tra-
ditional Malthusianism occurred mainly because of the
phenomenal increase in food production thanks to selec-
tive breeding of plants and animals, mechanization of
agriculture, and – more recently – the Green Revolution.
Improved nourishment and better health led to lower
mortality, particularly among infants. At first glance, this
Corresponding author:
Journal of Peace Research
2021, Vol. 58(1) 177–185
ªThe Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0022343320969785

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