Depraved Malthusianism


By Ian S. Markham

Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame has just produced his latest offering. Inferno has all the classic Brown features: some great descriptions of Florence, Venice, and Istanbul; a well-delivered and intriguing plot; and a sophisticated encounter with Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is going to be widely read, and is sure to be a bestseller.

Yet it is now clear that Brown is a depraved secularist. This is not meant as a term of abuse, but, simply and literally, as descriptive of his worldview. For the Christian tradition, sin can so corrupt us that we are unable to see the presence and providence of God; and in this novel, Brown exposes his total blindness to the possibility of the world being held within the providence of God.

By Dan Brown.
Doubleday. Pp. 480. $29.95

The plot is driven by a movement that believes populations must be reduced to ensure the survival of humanity. It was Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) who originally suggested that human populations need to be checked from time to time by catastrophe because agricultural production cannot keep up with human reproduction. Strangely Malthus was worrying about this issue when the population of the world was less than a billion. At least when Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, the world’s population was three and a half billion. In both cases, their apocalyptic predictions have not materialized. Instead the population of the world today is approximately seven billion people and there is little evidence of an imminent population correction.

Fearmongers about population growth make several fundamental mistakes. First, they ignore the rich human capacity for innovation and development. We are really good at discovering a technique that can transform agricultural production; we are producing more food now more cheaply than ever before. Second, there is a complex relationship between economic growth and population growth.

Brown’s protagonists tend to assume that a smaller population means more resources to go around; the truth is that a smaller population means much less economic activity. In a world where there are only small rural communities, everyone struggles. The careers of most TLC readers depend on significant and major populations, which enable a high degree of specialization and a significant number of people needing their wares or services. Many of the problems in Africa are not due to population growth but to the lack of population and therefore the lack of infrastructure. And the fine balance between the working and retired populations depends on not declining and at least replacing the population overall.

It is of course true that population growth can create local difficulties. A sudden surge in population in a region (for example, through displaced refugees in a war zone) puts enormous pressure on clean water supplies and waste disposal. And sometimes we are not sufficiently considerate towards other forms of animal and plant life in our environment. But a gradual increase in population density, if carefully managed, can be absorbed fairly easily by our globe and can lead to increasing wealth.

Brown’s book is not simply misleading about the nature of the “problem,” but entertains shocking and depraved solutions. For future readers of this enjoyable novel, I will avoid being specific. Suffice to say, calls for a dramatic population reduction or for enforced sterilization of certain groups in society are, in a proper and literal sense, depraved from a Christian perspective. Christians believe that every human being is an extraordinary gift; every human life is infinitely precious. Accordingly, growth in population is a good: we are living into this extraordinary world that God has created.

One might object that surely at some point there must be a limit to the sheer number of people that the finite resources of the world can support. The response comes in two parts. First, on the economic level, it is amazing how the extraordinary gift of the Imago Dei, which expresses itself in our capacity to think and innovate, means that the limit for natural resources is always further away than we expect. In the 1970s, we believed that our oilbased society was unsustainable; now in 2013 we can see an energy-independent America for decades to come. Second, on the faith level, the miracle of human life is not a freak accident but an expression of a divinely guided intention. We trust that the process of the big bang and evolution was providentially guided. And we trust that human development and growth will continually be held in the hands of God.

Brown has done a service in reminding us of how fundamentally different the secular worldview is from the one of faith. He has firmly planted his flag in the secular camp. The challenge of faith is to offer a response that affirms the intrinsic value of humanity and to trust in the hope grounded in God.

The Rev. Ian S. Markham is dean of Virginia Theological Seminary.


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