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How Charles Dickens rebukes ‘overpopulation’ fearmongers like Scrooge, Malthus and even today’s environmentalists

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21.12.2018

Ebenezer Scrooge, the protagonist in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, was a pitiful wretch not merely because he was miserly and misanthropic. He was also a died-in-the-wool Malthusian, telling two “portly gentlemen” raising money for charity that if the poor would rather die than go to prisons and workhouses, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Thomas Robert Malthus is best known to posterity as the author of the 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population. Human progress was doomed by simple math, Malthus reasoned, since population growth is “geometrical,” but increases in the food supply are merely “arithmetical.” Sooner or later the natural limits imposed on agricultural production would exact a terrible vengeance on humanity, he concluded, given our equally natural impulse to reproduce. It was inevitable.

Dickens proffered a ‘fierce critique’ of Malthusian ideas

Malthus and the debates he inspired would have been well known to Dickens when he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843. Indeed, what is eerily familiar about the Victorian obsession with human progress is how polarized the conversation was — just as it is today, where debates about whether humans are straining the earth’s limits are just as alive as they were in Dickens’ day.

“The great question now at issue,” Malthus himself wrote, “is whether man shall henceforth start forwards with........

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