Introduction to Cornucopianism and Malthusianism

Cornucopianism is the belief that, basically, technology that we haven’t invented yet will solve all of our problems with pesky things like scarcity and physics, and that the more people to invent and use all of that new technology, the better. Maltusianism is its philosophical opposite, claiming that population growth is bad, and that if you have children you should probably feel bad. I’m not particularly fond of either of these schools of thought, but I’ll explain why later.

From Wikipedia:

A cornucopian is a futurist who believes that continued progress and provision of material items for mankind can be met by similarly continued advances in technology. Fundamentally they believe that there is enough matter and energy on the Earth to provide for the ever-rising population of the world.


Stereotypically, a cornucopian is someone who posits that there are few intractable natural limits to growth and believes the world can provide a practically limitless abundance of natural resources. The label ‘cornucopian’ is rarely self-applied, and is most commonly used derogatorily by those who believe that the target is overly optimistic about the resources that will be available in the future.

One common example of this labeling is by those who are skeptical of the view that technology can solve, or overcome, the problem of an exponentially-increasing human population living off a finite base of natural resources. So-called cornucopians might counter that human population growth has slowed dramatically, and not only is currently growing at a linear rate, but is projected to peak and start declining later this century.


The Cornucopians are those who believe that advances in technology can take care of society’s needs. An increase in population is viewed positively because with more population comes more brains to generate ideas. These ideas generate technology in the form of modern gadgets, procedures, systems, among others that help address the problems associated with human sustenance and improve people’s quality of life.

People became more specialized in their work thus become more efficient and more able to respond to problems that arise in human affairs. Food production increased greatly as a result of modern, more efficient food production systems.  Despite increased per capita consumption, virtually enough could be produced from the bounties of the earth.

On Malthusianism, the same site has this to say:

The Malthusians are adherents of Thomas Malthus, an influential British scholar who popularized the pessimistic view of population increase founded on the assumption that with more population, more mouths will have to be fed, thus more resources to support that need. The food required to fill this need will not be enough as food production could not keep pace with population increase. This is popularly known as the Malthusian Theory.

Uncontrolled population growth inexorably results to environmental destruction. The ultimate scenario of the Malthusian theory would be wars, famine, resource depletion, among others as a result of competition for dwindling natural resources.

More or less simple, no?

Here’s what the RationalWiki has to say about some of the more extreme manifestations of both:

Crank ideas tend to accumulate the farther out to either side one travels along the Cornucopian-Malthusian continuum.

Denial of various environmental issues such as global warming, ozone depletion, acid rain, etc. can be systematically found on the Cornucopian side. Wishful thinking like abiotic oil is common among the crankier types.

On the Malthusian side, hard green ideologies, the hard forms of the Gaia hypothesis, and associated nature woo become more common. Predictions of imminent “doom ‘n gloom” have been described as “disasterbation.”[19] Also on the extreme Malthusian side can be found “lifeboat ethics,” coined by Garrett Hardin, which holds that the poor nations are already too overpopulated to help, and likens the rich nations to lifeboats that will sink if they share their resources and remain afloat if they don’t. This view inverts the conventional wisdom by claiming that it is immoral to give aid to the starving, because to do so means the rich and poor nations will both starve. The broader influence of Hardin’s line of thought has led to an enthusiasm for immigration restriction in some quarters of the environmental movement, which is highly controversial.

Y’see where I’m coming from now?

For the most part, I subscribe to neither camp, though if pushed I will admit to agreeing with the weakest principles of Malthusianism; i.e. that population growth and resource depletion always results in more problems than solutions. Historically, though, Malthusianism has tended to have rather classist and racist implications. Malthus himself, I believe, even argued that it was morally wrong for the poor to even have children and start families, and that it would be better for the poor to just… die out. (Not that it’s possible for a capitalist society to even exist without the low and working classes.) I do not, however, believe that an enormous population is a problem; rather, I firmly believe it’s a symptom of other, deeper issues.

Cornucopianism, on the other hand, seems to most often manifest as blind optimism in my experience. It’s a form of scientism, I feel– one of the definitions of which refers to the excessive deference to scientific theory, empirical knowledge, and just plain reductionist thinking in all spheres of human understanding. This is almost a kind of religious belief, though. That instead of a prophet or deity, it is “science” and “technology” that will save us, even if current levels of technology and understanding have no feasible answers. The fact that there is only a finite amount of resources that we can expend in these efforts to secure more resources doesn’t seem to be something that occurs to them. Someone like my dad, for instance, seems to insist that we will have enough oil to get us to the next phase of energy technology, whatever and whenever that may be, completely ignoring that oil reserves aren’t going to wait until we don’t need them anymore before they decide to stop existing. (For the record, he isn’t wholly convinced of climate change either and spent many years going from one anti-AGW theory to the next. Eventually he ran out of explanations that haven’t been debunked and sat himself firmly in the “undecided” camp.)

At any rate, these are important schools of thought to be familiar with as we go out into the wide, messy world of environmentalism, conservationism, and economic justice.