Malthusian Fiction and Fact


Prophecies of doom, especially when they’re particularly frightening, have a way of sticking with us in a way more rosy scenarios never seem to do. We seem to be wired this way by evolution, and for good reason.  It’s the lions that almost ate you that you need to remember, not the ones you were lucky enough not to see. Our negative bias is something we need to be aware of, and where it seems called for, lean against, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss and ignore every chicken little as a false prophet even when his predictions turn out to be wrong, not just once, but multiple times. For we can never really discount completely the prospect that chicken little was right after all, and it just took the sky a long, long time to fall.

 The Book of Revelation is a doom prophecy like that, but it is not one that any secular or non-Christian person in their right mind would subscribe to. A better example is the prediction of Thomas Malthus who not only gave us a version of Armageddon compatible with natural science, but did so in the form of what was perhaps the most ill timed book in human history.

Malthus in his  An Essay on the Principle of Population published in 1798 was actually responding to one of history’s most wild-eyed optimist. While he had hidden himself away from French Revolutionary Jacobins who wanted to chop off his head, Nicolas de Condorcet had the balls to write his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit, which argued not only that the direction of history was one of continuous progress without limit, but that such progress might one day grant mankind biological immortality. Condorcet himself wouldn’t make it, dying just after being captured, and before he could be drug off to the Guillotine, whether from self-ingested poison or just exhaustion at being hunted we do not know.

The argument for the perpetual progress of mankind was too much for the pessimist Malthus to bear. Though no one knew how long we had been around it was obvious to anyone who knew their history that our numbers didn’t just continually increase let alone things get better in some linear fashion. Malthus thought he had fingered the culprit – famine. Periods of starvation, and therefore decreases in human numbers, were brought about whenever human beings exceeded their ability to feed themselves, which had a tendency to happen often. As Malthus observed the production of food grew in a linear fashion while human population increased geometrically or exponentially.  If you’re looking for the origins of today’s debate between environmentalists and proponents of endless growth from whatever side of the political ledger- here it is-with Condorcet and Malthus.

Malthus could not have been worse in terms of timing. The settlement of the interiors of North America and Eurasia along with the mechanization of agriculture were to add to the world untold tons of food. The 19th century was also when we discovered what proved to be the key to unleashing nature’s bounty- the nitrogen cycle- which we were able to start to take advantage of in large part because in Peru we had stumbled across a hell of a lot of bat poop.

Supplies of guano along with caliche deposits from the Atacama desert of Chile would provide the world with soil supercharging nitrogen up until the First World War when the always crafty Germans looking for ways to feed themselves and at the same time make poison gas to kill the allies discovered the Haber-Bosch process. Nitrogen rich fertilizer was henceforth to be made using fossil fuels. All of that really took off just in time to answer another Malthusian prophecy  Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb of 1968, which looked at the quite literally exploding human population and saw mass starvation. The so-called “Green Revolution” proved those predictions wrong through a mixture of nitrogen fertilizers, plant breeding and pesticides. We had dodged the bullet yet again.

Malthusians today don’t talk much about mass starvation, which seems to make sense in a world where even the developing world has a growing problem with obesity, but the underlying idea of Malthus, that the biological-system of the earth has systemic limits and humans have a tendency to grow towards exceeding them still has legs, and I would argue, we should take this view very seriously indeed.

We can be fairly certain there are limits out there, though we are in the dark as to what exactly those limits are. Limits to what? Limits to what we can do or take from the earth or subject it to before we make it unlivable the majority of creatures who evolved for its current environment- including ourselves- unless we want to live here under shells as we would on a dead planet like Mars or like in the 70s science-fiction classic Logan’s Run itself inspired by Malthusian fears about runaway population growth.

The reason why any particular Malthus is likely wrong is that the future is in essence unknowable. The retort to deterministic pessimism is often deterministic optimism, something has always saved us in the past, usually human inventiveness i.e. technology and will therefore save us in the future. I don’t believe in either sort of determinism we are not fated to destroy ourselves, but the silence of the universe shouldn’t fill us with confidence that we are fated to save ourselves either. Our future is in our hands.

What might the world look like if today’s Malthusian fears prove true, if we don’t stumble upon or find the will and means to address the problems of what people are now calling the Anthropocene, the era when humanity itself has become the predominant biological, and geochemical force on earth? The problems are not hard to identify and are very real. We are heating up the earth with the carbon output of our technological civilization, and despite all the progress in solar power generation, demon coal is still king. Through our very success as a species we appear to be unleashing the sixth great extinction upon life on earth, akin to the cataclysmic events that almost destroyed life on earth in the deep past. Life and the geography of the planet will bear our scars.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a novelist of the Anthropocene bringing to life dystopian visions of what the coming centuries might look like if we have failed to solve our current Malthusian challenges. The 23rd century Bacigalupi presents in his novel The Windup Girl is not one any of us would want to live in, inheriting the worst of all worlds. Global warming has caused a catastrophic level of sea rise, yet the age of cheap and abundant energy is also over. We are in an era with a strange mixture of the pre-industrial and the post industrial- dirigibles rather than planes ply the air, sailing ships have returned. Power is once again a matter of simple machines and animals with huge biologically engineered elephants turning vast springs to produce energy which for all that is painfully scarce. Those living in the 23rd century look back to our age of abundance, what they call the Expansion, as a golden age.

What has most changed in the 23rd century is our relationship to the living world and especially to food. Bacigalupi has said that the role of science-fiction authors is to take some set of elements of the present and extrapolate them to see where they lead. Or, as William Gibson said “The future is already here it’s just not evenly distributed.” What Bacigalupi was especially interested in extrapolating was the way biotechnology and agribusiness seem to be trying to take ownership over food. Copyrighting genes, preventing farmers from re-using, engaging in bioprospecting. The latter becomes biopiracy when companies copyright genetic samples and leverage indigenous knowledge without compensating the peoples from whom this biological knowledge and material has been gleaned.

In the neo-medieval world of The Windup Girl agribusinesses known as “calorie companies” with names like AgriGen, PurCal and RedStar don’t just steal indigenous knowledge and foreign plants, and hide this theft under the cloak of copyright, they hire mercenaries to topple governments, unleash famines, engage in a sophisticated form of biological warfare. It as if today’s patent obsessed and abusing pharmaceutical companies started to deliberately create and release diseases in order to reap the profits when they swept in and offered cures. A very frightening possible future indeed.

Genetic engineering, whether deliberately or by accident, has brought into being new creatures that outcompete the other forms of life. There are cats called cheshires that roam everywhere and  possess chameleon like camouflaging capabilities. There are all sorts of diseases, mostly deadly, diseases that make the trans-genetic jump from plants to humans.

Congruent with the current Malthusianism, The Windup Girl is really not focused on population as our primary problem. Indeed, the humanoid windups, a people whose condition and fate take center stage in the novel were created not because of population growth, but in response to population decline. In a world without abundant energy robots are a non-starter. Facing collapsing population the Japanese have bred a race of infertile servants called windups for their mechanical like motions. Just one of the many examples where Bacigalupi is able to turn underlying cultural assumptions into a futuristic reality the windups are “more  Japanese than the Japanese” and combine elements of robots and geishas.

The novel is the story of one of these windups, Emiko, who has been abandoned by her owner in Thailand coming to find her soul in a world that considers her soulless. She is forced to live as a sexual slave and is barbarically brutalized by Somdet Chaopraya’ the regent of the child queen, and murders him as a result. Emiko had become involved with a Westerner, Anderson Lake working for AgriGen who is searching out the Thais most valuable resource, their seed bank, the Norwegian seed bank of Svalbard having been destroyed in an act of industrial terrorism by the calorie companies, along with a mysterious scientist called Gibbons who keeps the Thais one step ahead of whatever genetic plague nature or the calorie companies can throw at them.

Anderson and the calories companies are preparing a sort of coup to unseat the powerful Environment Ministry once lead by a murdered figure named Jaidee to open up trade and especially access to the genetic wealth of Thailand. The coup is eventually undone,  Bangkok flooded and Emiko living in hiding the deserted city offered the chance to create more of her own kind by Gibbons who relishes playing God.

What I found most amazing about The Windup Girl wasn’t just the fact that Bacigalupi made such a strange world utterly believable, but that he played out the story in a cosmology that is Buddhist, which gives a certain depth to how the characters understand their own suffering.

The prayers of the monks are all that can sometimes be done in what are otherwise hopeless situation. The ancient temples to faith have survived better than the temples to money- the skyscrapers built during the age of expansion. Kamma (karma) gives the Asian characters in the novel a shared explanatory framework, one not possessed by foreigners (the farang). It is the moral conscience that haunts their decisions and betrayals. They have souls and what they do here and not do will decide the fate of the their soul in the next life.

The possession of a soul is a boundary against the windups. Genetic creations are considered somehow soulless not subject to the laws of kamma and therefore outside of the moral universe, inherently evil. This belief is driven home with particular power in a scene in which the character Kanya comes across a butterfly. It is beautiful, bejeweled a fragile thing that has traveled great distances and survived great hardships. It lands on her finger and she studies it. She lets it sit on her finger and then she shepherds it into the palm of her hand. She crushes it into dust. Remorseless. “Windups have no souls. But they are beautiful.”  (241)

It isn’t only a manufactured pollinator like the butterfly that are considered soulless and treated accordingly. Engineered humans like Emiko are treated in such a way as well. They exist either as commodities to be used or as something demonic to be destroyed. But we know different. Emiko is no sexual toy she is a person, genetically engineered or not, which means, among much else, that she can be scarred by abuse.

 In the privacy of the open air and the setting sun she bathes. It is a ritual process, a careful cleansing. The bucket of water, a fingering of soap. She squats beside the bucket and ladles the warm water over herself. It is a precise thing, a scripted act as deliberate as Jo No Mai, each move choreographed, a worship of scarcity.

Animals bathe to remove dirt. Only humans, only something inhabiting a moral universe, possessing a moral memory both of which might be the best materialist way of understanding the soul, bathe in the hope of removing emotional scars. If others could see into Emiko, or her into the hearts of other human beings, then both would see that she has a soul to the extent that human beings might be said to have one. The American farang Anderson thinks:

 She is an animal. Servile as a dog.

He wonders if she were a real person if he would feel more incensed at the abuse she suffers. It’s an odd thing, being with a manufactured creature, built and trained to serve.

She admits herself that her soul wars with herself. That she does not rightly know which parts of her are hers alone and which have been inbuilt genetically. Does her eagerness to serve come from some portion of canine DNA that makes her assume that natural people outrank her for pack loyalty? Or is it simply the training she has spoken of? (184)

As we ask of ourselves- nature or nurture? Both are part of our kamma as is what we do or fail to do with them.

The scientist, Gibbons who saves the Thais from the genetic assaults of the the calorie companies and holds the keys to their invaluable seed bank is not a hero, but himself a Promethean monster surrounding himself with genetically engineered beings he treats as sexual toys, his body rotting from disease. To Kanya’s assertion that his disease is his kamma, Gibbons shouts:

Karma? Did you say karma? And what sort of karma is it that ties your entire country to me, my rotting body.  (245)

Gibbons is coming from a quite different religious tradition, a Christian tradition, or rather the Promethean scientific religion which emerged from it in which we play the role of god.

We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.

I want to shake you sometimes. If you would just let me, I could be your god and shape you to the Eden that beckons us.

To which Kanya replies: “I’m Buddhist.”


 And we all know windups have no soul. No rebirth for them. They will have to find their own gods protect them. Their own gods to pray for their dead. Perhaps I will be that one, and your windup children will pray to me for salvation.(243)

This indeed is the world that open up at the end of the novel, with Gibbons becoming Emiko’s “God” promising to make her fertile and her race plentiful. One get the sense that the rise of the windups will not bode well for humanity our far future kamma eventually tracing itself back to the inhuman way we treated Emiko.

Bacigalupi has written an amazing book, even if it has its limitations. The Windup Girl managed to avoid being didactic but is nonetheless polemical- it has political points to score. It’s heroes are either Malthusian or carried by events with all the bad guys wearing Promethean attire. In this sense it doesn’t take full advantage of the capacity of fiction for political and philosophical insight which can only be accomplished when one humanizes all sides, not just ones own.

Still, it was an incredible novel, one of the best to come out of our new century. Unlike most works of fiction, however, we can only hope that by the time we reach the 23rd century the novel represents it will be forgotten. For otherwise, the implication would be that after many false alarms Malthusian fiction has after a long history of false alarms, become Malthusian fact.



7 comments on “Malthusian Fiction and Fact

  1. S.C. Hickman says:

    Yes, his take was very inventive, and his YA Novels Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities are excellent too… look forward to those reviews… strange how Malthusian fictions also infiltrated the early Eugenics movement, too. Along with the change over during the 30’s and 40’s as eugenics metamorphisized into genetics and our own era of Biogenomics and the NBIC biotechnologies, etc.. a pattern? Many great dystopic takes on that path of Malthusian thought, too.

  2. S.C. Hickman says:

    Reblogged this on alien ecologies and commented:
    Rick Searle on another dystopic topic: Malthusian thought and a review of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl… excellent as usual!

  3. […] namely the rights of indigenous people against bio-piracy something I was turned on to by Paolo Bacigalupi’s bio-punk novel The Windup Girl, and what promises to be an increasing fight between pharmaceutical/biotech firms and individuals […]

  4. […] tells us anything about the future it is through a process of focused extrapolation. As, quoting myself, the sci-fi author Paolo Bacigalupi has said the role of science-fiction is to take some set of […]

  5. […] something that merely drove the need for more children, and was only checked by the kinds of famines Malthus had pegged as the defining feature of agricultural societies and that we only escaped recently via the industrial […]

  6. […] It seems there is a strange dynamic at work throughout the digital economy, not just in finance but certainly exhibited in full force there, where the whole game in essence a contest of asymmetric information. You either have the data someone else lacks to make a trade, you process that data faster, or both. Keeping your algorithms secret becomes a matter of survival for as soon as they are out there they can be exploited by rivals or cracked by hackers- or at least this is the argument companies make. One might doubt it though once this you see how nearly ubiquitous this corporate secrecy and patent hoarding has become in areas radically different from software such as the pharmaceuticals or by biotech corporations like Monsanto which hold patents on life itself and whose logic leads to something like Paolo Bacigalupi’s dystopian novel The Windup Girl. […]

  7. […] of genetic information seen in novels like Michael Crichton’s Next or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. This alternative sees genetic inheritance being reconceptualized as the collective property of […]

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