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* Book: Giorgos Kallis (2019, Stanford University Press). Limits: Why Malthus was wrong and why environmentalists should care


Contextual Quote

  • "A “limitarian” as opposed to a liberal or libertarian approach begins with a principle of prudence and moderation."

- G. Kallis [1]


"Western culture is infatuated with the dream of going beyond, even as it is increasingly haunted by the specter of apocalypse: drought, famine, nuclear winter. How did we come to think of the planet and its limits as we do? This book reclaims, redefines, and makes an impassioned plea for limits—a notion central to environmentalism—clearing them from their association with Malthusianism and the ideology and politics that go along with it. Giorgos Kallis rereads reverend-economist Thomas Robert Malthus and his legacy, separating limits and scarcity, two notions that have long been conflated in both environmental and economic thought. Limits are not something out there, a property of nature to be deciphered by scientists, but a choice that confronts us, one that, paradoxically, is part and parcel of the pursuit of freedom. Taking us from ancient Greece to Malthus, from hunter-gatherers to the Romantics, from anarchist feminists to 1970s radical environmentalists, Limits shows us how an institutionalized culture of sharing can make possible the collective self-limitation we so urgently need." (


Introduction: Why Limits?

  • 1. Why Malthus Was Wrong
  • 2. Economics: Scarcity without Limits
  • 3. The Limits of Environmentalism
  • 4. A Culture of Limits
  • 5. The Limits of Limits

Epilogue: In Defense of Limits


Reading notes by Rok Krancj:


“In the following pages, I aim to reclaim, refine, and defend the notion of limits. I want to dissociate limits from what in scholarly jargon we call Malthusianism—a set of ideas dating back to 1798 and an essay written by the cleric-turned-economist Thomas Robert Malthus that have come to shape the ways we think about limits. With this book, I hope to make those who invoke limits consider how best to do so; I also hope to make the critics of limits think twice before branding those of us who call for limits as Malthusians.”

“Scarcity and growth became an inseparable pair, with limits spurring efforts for growth. My thesis is that it is only when we begin to accept the world as abundant that we can contemplate limiting our wants and delimiting a safe space for our freedom. This notion may appear counterintuitive, but that’s because we tend to think of limits in the Malthusian terms of scarcity. This book develops a different view of limits, one of limits as self-limitation, a view that I will trace from radical Greens back to the Romantics and even further back to the ancients.”

“Beginning with a rereading of Malthus’s 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, I argue that Malthus discovered not natural limits but unlimited wants. Far from a prophet of doom, Malthus invoked doom so as to galvanize the pursuit of growth. We will see how Malthus is still with us thanks to modern economics, which was founded on this myth of eternal scarcity and a call for perpetual growth. I will explain how some environmentalists got trapped in this Malthusian vision of a limited and scarce world and why this is problematic. And I will make a case for self-limitation— the establishment of self-imposed and deliberately chosen limits—as distinct from the Malthusian limits we attribute to our internal or external world, which we must either overcome or succumb to.”


The core of Malthus’s argument is “the principle of population,” the title of his Essay. Put simply, the principle is that our ability to produce children will always outstrip our ability to provide for their survival. Humans, Malthus argues, have two basic needs: food and sex. The power of reproduction is “indefinitely greater” than the power of production.14

From the facts that humans need to eat and have sex and that it is easier to have children than to provide for them, Malthus concludes that there is not, and will never be, “enough for all to have a decent share.”15 There are always potentially more people than there is food. In other words, there is always a scarcity of food in relation to people. This, I claim, is the second— and unremarked—principle of Malthus’s Essay: the principle of scarcity. The principle of scarcity follows directly from the first principle of population: if the number of people is always potentially greater than the amount of food they can produce, then there is a scarcity of food—scarcity now, always, and everywhere. Nature’s bounty is scarce because our reproductive potential is limitless. Malthus conceives of a world that is naturally limited because the needs of our bodies are naturally unlimited. Here is a conception of nature that lies at the heart of modern economics and, to an extent, environmentalism.

Poverty is a manifestation of scarcity, Malthus then explains. The poor are the excess for which no share is left, and they flock to the parishes for aid. Malthus believes that thanks to mathematical logic and from unquestionable first principles he has proven the necessity of poverty. Poverty, Malthus argues, follows naturally from libido and hunger. This is a natural law. Revolutionary ambitions to eradicate poverty go against science.

“Malthus calls “positive checks” those that repress an increase of population already underway. Hunger and famine, infanticide and premature death, war and disease: whatever reduces how long people live is a positive check. “Preventive checks,” in contrast, are those where reason intervenes to reduce the number of offspring in advance.”

> The Reverend Malthus, Apostle of Growth

“Contrary to his iconic status as a prophet of limits, Malthus was in fact a prophet of growth.17 He did not claim that population growth must be limited, and he saw no natural limit to food production. He claimed that population growth is limited by the amount of food produced, which can grow without limit. [...] Malthus insisted that the only way to reduce misery is to produce more food. Malthus was not an advocate of limits, but someone who invoked the specter of limits to justify inequality and call for growth.”

“Misery and growth alternate in cycles, Malthus claimed.26 Population grows and declines cyclically, but in the long run population grows at the rate of food production. When we produce more food, we have more children. When we produce more food, we have more children. At some point, our numbers exceed the available food supplies, and then checks take hold, primarily impacting the poor—by Malthus’s definition, those who are in excess and cannot be fed. High prices for food, however, and lower wages for the overly numerous poor are what restore equilibrium, make people more industrious, increase productivity and food production, and lead to a new cycle of expansion.”

> Inequality and the Free Market in the Name of Growth

“Helping the poor, Malthus argues, reduces their suffering, but suffering is necessary because this is how God makes us industrious.”

“Malthus here rehearses arguments economists would polish in the future. One of these is that redistribution disturbs the equilibrium of a free market. The artificial security provided by the Poor Laws, Malthus claims, “operates to prevent the price of labour from rising” when population falls, keeping people poorer than necessary. And it “keeps it down some time longer” when population grows: high costs of labor do not let food production grow to meet the needs of a growing population.29 Malthus’s proposals are, then, “an attempt to tie population growth itself to increases in the produce of the land.”30 Poor relief kept people tied to the parishes that provided free food, making them less likely to move around and search for jobs. Malthus proposes instead a “total abolition of all the present parish-laws” to “give liberty and freedom of action to the peasantry of England . . . to be able to settle without interruption, wherever there was a prospect of a greater plenty of work and a higher price for labour.” “The market of labour would then be free, and those obstacles removed which, as things are now, often for a considerable time prevent the price from rising according to the demand.”31 The Essay might well be the first rejection of redistribution and welfare in the name of the growth of free markets.”

> Why was Malthus Wrong?

“The idea of growth as we understand it today was invented a century after Malthus. At his time, the concepts of welfare, production, and population were conflated. For Malthus and many of his contemporaries, economic growth meant population growth, and growth in agricultural production. And Malthus was optimistic that population could grow in the long term without limits—with discipline, industry, and more food. Granted, the cycles Malthus wrote about suggested that in the long term the amount of food available per person would be steady: if more food was produced, population would catch up. But this was not a dire pessimistic prophecy. And Malthus did not present it as such; an increasing, fed population was the best a nation could aspire to. Citing Adam Smith, he foresaw that alongside stable food provisioning, a nation could also increase manufacturing and other wealth.”

“Remember, Malthus was not a demographer; he was a priest and a philosopher arguing for the impossibility of a classless society. If preventive checks could control population growth or if it was possible to produce food faster than people, then how could Malthus sustain his argument against equality? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that under these conditions there could be enough food for everyone to have a decent share? Yes. But Malthus insisted that this would be an unhappy outcome. What Malthus refused to allow for was not that we could limit our numbers, but that we could limit our numbers and be happy. Preventive checks, for Malthus, were terrible. As he put it, “It is difficult to conceive any check to population which does not come under the description of some species of misery or vice.”37 Criticizing the French philosopher Condorcet, who argued that people could both limit their numbers and satisfy their sexual instincts, Malthus responded that this would be possible but only by recourse to a vice like “a promiscuous concubinage, which would prevent breeding, or to something else as unnatural.”38 In other words, he saw preventive controls as unnatural.”

“Malthus’s logical argument is founded then on the theological premise that populating the earth at a geometric rate is what our nature, and God, call for, and that limiting our numbers below that is unnatural, and therefore ungodly. The conclusion of the model is built into its assumption: the world is limited and cannot be shared because God commanded unlimited expansion. We cannot limit ourselves without suffering, but suffering is part of divine providence. God wants us to suffer, because without the incentive to reduce suffering we would not work to populate the earth.”

> The Ideological Work of Malthus’s Essay

Early capitalism needed to grow its workforce, and it required a Protestant ethic of hard work; Malthus provided a narrative that fused the supposed wishes of God with the wishes of factory owners. And he defended the idea that the best thing to do about poverty was nothing,43 even while maintaining that as a Christian he cared about the poor. The masses of people in the parishes were there not because they had been expelled from enclosed land, but because they had too many children. Why Malthus was wrong has political implications that remain relevant. Those who claim that Malthus was wrong because he did not predict our capacity for technology and growth reproduce the thinking justified by Malthus’s own framework. It was Malthus who imagined a limited world in order to justify growth. He did not see limits to resources but an eternal limit to the satisfaction of our limitless wants.”

“A focus on growth accepts the myth of scarcity, a legitimating metanarrative for dominant institutions, which position themselves as the only ones who can confront scarcity.”


“Robbins famously defined economics in his essay as “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” The idea behind this postulate of scarcity is that we want unlimited things but have limited time. Scarcity is why we economize. And economics is the science of economizing. The isolated man who maximizes whatever is useful to him became the bedrock of what came to be known as neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economists developed mathematically complex models of the behavior of homo economicus, a modern-day Robinson Crusoe who strives to get the most out of his limited time.”

> Scarcity, Relative and Absolute “Economics retained Malthus’s premise of unlimited human wants, but instead of reproduction, an instinct people demonstrated a capacity to limit well, the science posited an unlimited desire to do and to have, or else to produce and to consume.6 Limits of food became limits of time, capturing the new experience of having too little time that urban dwellers felt. Lionel Robbins’s 1932 essay marks this shift from Malthusian to neoclassical scarcity: “Man wants both real income and leisure,” but “he has not enough of either fully to satisfy his want of each.””

“In my field of ecological economics—a very different type of economics from neoclassical economics, since we understand the economy as a flow of energy and matter, not money—we distinguish Malthusian or absolute scarcity, a finitude of means, say food or natural resources, from neoclassical or relative scarcity, a scarcity of means to satisfy limitless alternative uses.9”

“Our world is limited because our wants are unlimited. In this limited world, only scarcity knows no limits.”

“This story of scarcity, however, like Malthus’s, is circular or tautological. It begins with an assumption that what people want to do or have has no limits. From this it derives scarcity, which justifies growth, which in turn validates people’s wanting and pursuing things without limit. In reality, growth is a particular need of capitalism—a system that requires a compounding of profits. With the invention of scarcity, though, growth was naturalized and sacralized. It was inscribed in human nature (growth is what people, not economists or the owners of capital, want). The origins of this assumption are sacred, be it God’s wish for Christians, like Malthus, or the birthright of people to pursue whatever they want, for liberal economists. The underlying assumption is the same: people want as much as possible. And the conclusion is, they should. Economics perfected Malthus’s story of universal and natural scarcity, justifying the perpetuation of limitless growth, an objective that otherwise makes no sense.10”

“[...] Only from this peculiar perspective, which economists take for granted, does the strange idea of “opportunity cost,” a founding concept of the discipline, make sense. “Every act which involves time and scarce means for the achievement of one end involves the relinquishment of their use for the achievement of another,” writes Robbins.13 In simple words, everything we do has a cost: the cost of not doing something else instead.”

> Scarcity Gets Real

“[T]he foundational neoclassical assumption that individuals maximize utility is supposedly confirmed by the fact that it is the foundation of a theory of demand and supply that explains prices. But no one has been able to measure utility to test whether indeed it correlates with prices. Claiming that utility is revealed in prices is a tautology if prices are the only way to know how useful we find something.

Unrealistic as these assumptions may be, the story of scarcity resonates with an actual experience of scarcity, which the theory helps to justify, if not produce. Analytical economics appeared with the industrial revolution and capitalism. The notion of scarcity emerged within a context of unprecedented social mobility and wealth.16 Religion retreated and feudal aristocracies weakened. Wants and material expectations were liberated from the limits of custom, class, and religion. The new bourgeoisie felt legitimized to want everything, and the rest aspired to live in bourgeois style. Status, signaled by consumption, replaced the fixed social positions of class, especially in the anonymity of cities. The psychological experience of personal scarcity—not having as much as one’s neighbor or the people one reads about in newspapers—was very real. But this social scarcity based on comparison was one side of the coin; the other was the very real experience of material poverty, as enclosures dispossessed peasants and sent them to factories or, if not there, to food relief or workhouses.17

These two experiences of scarcity—positional inequality and precarious access to basic goods—feed one another to this day. The enclosure of the commons makes us depend more on wage work, while our position in the social hierarchy is signaled by our ability to buy goods.”

“Competition for limited positional goods increases the price of these goods and shifts resources from public or common goods to private goods, eroding the former, making more goods accessible with money. This is how poverty is reproduced amid affluence.18

“Sharing the commons equitably could alleviate this scarcity, as people would have access to the minimum they needed to survive and as they would compare themselves less to others, having access to the same commons. But Malthus’s Essay and much of economic theory thereafter theorized the experience of scarcity in a way that prefigured accumulation and growth, rejecting sharing and equality.”

“[...] Why then would economists relegate Malthus to the prehistory of the discipline? I suspect it is because Malthus serves as an excellent bogeyman of a before and an after. Malthus’s world of food shortages and famines is supposedly the before of the capitalist world of plenty, a before to which we could return if we took our foot off the pedal.”

“Limitless expansion—of life, economy, and so on—appears as a central pursuit with capitalism and forms the particular imaginary of modern Western civilization. From the vantage point of economics, then, a steady state can only be understood as stagnation, a condition that must be overcome.”

“Unfortunately, environmentalism also inherited Malthus’s canon, reducing the ecological question to an economic idiom of wants, resources, and technologies.”

> The Limits of Malthusian Environmentalism

Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich—academic ecologists who argued that population cannot grow for long at a geometric rate because a disastrous check will keep it at bay—became household names. These “neo-Malthusians” retained the idea of a limited world that would clash with exponential growth. Unlike Malthus, though, they attributed scarcity to the nature of resources and land, not human nature, which they saw as malleable. Unlike Malthus, neo-Malthusians called for birth control or coercive restrictions on populations by the state. Against neo- Malthusians, economists invoked the other half of Malthus’s story, that of growing food production. Seen together, economists and neo-Malthusians played two sides of the Essay’s coin: limitless growth in a limited world.

Limits to Growth report: “Unlike Malthus, the MIT team thought we could limit ourselves within the limits of resources and turn the crash into a smooth landing, maintaining the highest possible level of steady population and consumption (basically, by shifting to renewable resources, recycling, and using finite resources at a rate low enough to allow for their substitution). The choice was between limiting growth smoothly or letting it crash badly and limit itself. Environmentalism in this vein did not accept the Malthusian assumption of limitless wants, but it didn’t question the desirability of prevalent wants either. The happy-ending scenario in Limits to Growth was one of slowing down growth so as to perpetually maintain the maximum number of people and goods, something quite similar to Malthus’s concern with sustaining the highest number of people possible. The reason for slowing down had little to do with aspiring to a different, better way of life. It was rather an adaptation to external limits, limits imposed by the nature of things with which our wants clashed. The drive for change was not desire, but survival in the face of looming collapse.”

“The question became how to allocate limited resources over time to sustain the maximum aggregate number of person-years. This is essentially a question of an optimal allocation of scarce resources between generations. And how to allocate scarce resources optimally is what economics is all about. Crucially, economists after Robbins had developed the idea that it was not only natural resources that are scarce but also capital, labor, and time. From this perspective it might be better to leave future generations with fewer forests or more polluted oceans if such were the cost for passing on more technological capital with which to do more things. Framing the question as one between, say, using less or more forest moved the matter from ecological limits to an issue of allocation and one of efficiency in prolonging the highest level of satisfaction of wants for the maximum population possible.

Like Malthus, who invoked collapse to sustain the maximum number of people possible, environmentalists, when they invoke the limits to or collapse of growth, imply that what we want is to sustain the maximum output possible for as long as possible. Within this Malthusian framework, the ecological question is reduced to an economic one of how to sustain optimum output given scarcity constraints, which in turn opens the way to market solutions for problems that are in essence social.


> Limits, Sharing, and Equality

Malthus’s limits explained away enclosures; self-limitation instead justifies sharing the commons. Sharing, as we know from egalitarian societies, precludes the accumulation of power and the competition for position that drives expansion. And if surplus is shared and expended instead of accumulated, then there is less expansion. Limits, that is, are an outcome—intended or not—of sharing. Malthus claimed that there is not enough for everyone to have a decent share. The self-limitation thesis instead is that there will be enough for everyone only when we limit ourselves to our fair share. Without limits, there will never be enough. And without sharing, there will always be those who will have less and feel they do not have enough.

Self-limitation for sharing a limited resource is the essence of the theory and forms of organization called “the commons.” Against neo-Malthusians like Garrett Hardin who argued that users of a commons will free-ride without limits at the expense of others, scholars studying actual commons have shown how users come together to devise collective systems that limit their use of a common resource, given the consequences of not doing so.

> Limits and Freedom

Do limits intrude on freedom? Liberalism holds that an individual should be free to do anything provided it does not cause harm to others. But an individual who rides free in a commons harms the freedom of others. In complex globalized societies that run on fossil fuels, almost everything we do harms others sooner or later (think of carbon emissions) as we free-ride in the global commons. A “limitarian” as opposed to a liberal or libertarian approach begins with a principle of prudence and moderation.

“Any project in common, including a state, involves rules and self-limitations. 16 Participants must internalize rules or the costs of enforcement make it impossible to govern. The subjects being governed must also govern themselves. Freedom cannot mean the liberation of the self from all internal and external constraints, because without such limits a society cannot function. In a functional society, members must see as legitimate the limits that society demands of them.

> When Autonomy becomes Heteronomy

“[S]elf-limitation requires institutions at higher levels to secure the endurance of agreed limits.”

“The setting of limits is then partly a problem of global, collective action: can we set up the higher-level international institutions that can control, say, carbon emissions or aggression or competition, and let nations and lower-level polities set up their own limits?”

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