After reading Merchants of Despair
, I decided to do some fact checking and to learn about some of the topics in more detail. I started in chapter 1 about Malthus. I found serious scholarly errors. Next I skipped to material about population control and President Lyndon Johnson. Again I found serious scholarly errors. I have not fact checked the rest of the book; I did not fact check any other part and find it was OK. Topics I already knew something about (DDT, nuclear power, Julian Simon's bet about resource prices) seemed correct when I first read them. I think the book is approximately correct in general claims and has some good philosophical ideas, but it gets a lot of details wrong. Do not trust its specifics. Educate yourself by reading further books on the topics that interest you.
Below I detail some scholarly errors I found. I only checked a small amount of material to find these. If we assume the rate of errors is representative of the rest of the book, then that's really quite bad.
Zubrin does Malthus fast and hard, and then talks about what is "Malthusian" throughout the rest of the book, relying on the early presentation of Malthus in chapter 1. In chapter 1, he provides only two Malthus quotes. After that he moves on to quoting people he identifies as Malthusians. Both Malthus quotes are misquotes. He also provides a very clear and direct paraphrase of Malthus, which he cites to two Malthus chapters. But Zubrin's story is a fantasy not backed up by his cites. This is very poor and unacceptable level of scholarly research.
First Malthus Misquote
Malthus prescribed specific policies to keep population down by raising the death rate:
[blockquote] We are bound in justice and honour to disclaim the right of the poor to support. . . . [W]e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 128-136). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Malthus' view as presented is despicable. But it's both misquoted and taken out of context.
The actual quote can be found here:
Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.V
Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.VIII
This is the same edition Zubrin cites, see here:
Principle of Population, Card Catalog Information
Why can it be found in two different chapters? Because Zubrin took two different Malthus quotes and combined them into one quote for his book. Then he cited it as if it was just one quote from book 4 chapter 5.
The first part of what Zubrin quotes, before the ellipsis, is actually from three chapters later. And it's edited
. The bulk of the quote, starting at "[W]e should facilitate" is a correct quote in the literal sense but completely out of context and misleading. But besides being out of context, Zubrin doctored it by adding an initial sentence, from elsewhere in the book, which he also changed the wording of. This is an unacceptable distortion of the facts.
Besides moving a Malthus sentence out of context, Zubrin edited it. It actually reads (from 4.8):
As a previous step even to any considerable alteration in the present system, which would contract or stop the increase of the relief to be given, it appears to me that we are bound in justice and honour formally to disclaim the right of the poor to support.
Zubrin made the following changes:
He started mid-sentence while giving no indication of doing so.
He changed "we" to "We". This is especially misleading because immediately afterwards he uses "[W]e" to indicate the same type of change. Since he indicates it the other time, you would expect him to indicate it other times. This sort of inconsistency in quoting practices is extra misleading to the reader.
He deleted the word "formally".
He un-italicized the word "right
These things make it a serious misquote. Plus he moved it three chapters earlier out of context. When he cited the quote, he did not cite the chapter this actually comes from, only the chapter the other part of his supposed-quote is from. This is very unscholarly.
But it gets worse. Did Malthus really want plague? No. His argument is structured like this: (I haven't read the whole book but I read enough to get the basic idea and see that Zubrin had this part wrong, you can get a lot of context from the two chapters prior to the one Zubrin quotes. 4.3 and 4.4)
What we need is moral restraint
. Do not marry and have kids if you can't afford them. The poor laws are bad because they subsidize having kids you can't afford and they make promises they can't keep. What are the alternatives to moral restraint? Nothing good because of limited resources. Too big a population will lead to famine. Or if we don't want big nasty famines, then the logical consequence is we should keep people dying off regularly from plague, disease, dirtiness, crowding, malaria, etc... But Malthus is not advocating that, he's saying it's the consequences of lack of moral restraint. What he's advocating is moral restraint.
So Malthus was saying, "If we don't do what I'm suggesting, then what happens? All this bad stuff." And Zubrin has quoted that bad stuff out of context and said it's what Malthus was proposing. That's utterly wrong.
Second Malthus Misquote
In a letter to economist David Ricardo, Malthus laid out the basis for this policy: “The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.”
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 189-191). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
This is commonly misquoted. Maybe Zubrin didn't know any better. He cited a secondary source for this which I haven't checked. Regardless, he's guilty of bad scholarship. He should have checked a primary source whenever he could instead of relying on secondary sources. If I can find out the truth of this one just with Google, he ought to have been able to find out too using Google, book writing skills, libraries, and his swarm of interns:
I wish to acknowledge my debt to New Atlantis interns A. Barrett Bowdre, Elias Brockman, Nathaniel J. Cochran, Jonathan Coppage, Brendan Foht, and Edward A. Rubin, who put in many weeks at the Library of Congress verifying, and where necessary correcting, every fact, quote, and footnote in this book.
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 3693-3695). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Many weeks of work verifying "every fact, quote, and footnote"? Well, I believe they tried, but it was shoddy work that, sadly, overall, failed at its task.
This Malthus quote is edited, truncated, and taken out of context. This gives the false impression that Malthus wanted lots of people dead. "Swept from the soil" sounds like killed or at least gone. He didn't want them to live and exist anymore. Except that isn't what Malthus actually said or meant. The full quote, in context, is completely different and is part of a dry, economics discussion. It has nothing to do with genocide. But Zubrin falsely presents Malthus as genocidal using this fake quote (twice).
The full quote can easily be found with Google by any researcher (no doubt libraries have it too! e.g. the Library of Congress which Zubrin sent a bunch of interns to). I found it on these four webpages: one
The most informative one actually explains the issue of this passage being misquoted
An examination of the full text of this letter finds Malthus's intent to be far different that [sic] the one implied by the truncated wording commonly used by Mokyr and others. As a reading of the whole letter makes clear, in this correspondence Malthus was conveying his surprise that the Irish economy was not as bad as he had been led to expect. He commented earlier in the letter that "[t]hough the distress was certainly great, it was I think on the whole less than I expected." Referring particularly to the south, where he had toured through Tipperary, Waterford, Kerry, and Limerick, Malthus noted that "great marks of improvement were observable." It is in this context that Malthus undertook his observation on the Irish population that Mokyr cites. In this section of the letter, Malthus was reflection not on overpopulation and hunger, but rather on employment and wages. He noted that Ireland possesses "a population greatly in excess above the demand for labor." In this context, Malthus went on to make an economic argument concerning the distribution of labor "[t]he Land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the this population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns." In examining the unedited quotation, it is clearer why Malthus emphasized the word Land in his letter, to very explicitly contrast it to the towns mentioned in the frequently elided ending phrase. The central issue here for Malthus was not the absolute scale of the population of Ireland, but rather its concentration in agriculture rather than industry. As this example well illustrates, the tendency to misread Malthus as a Malthusian is strong, especially in the wake of the Great Hunger.
I'm not sure what he means about misreading "Malthus as a Malthusian". But in any case, Zubrin lowercased the word "Land" (I'm unsure what is italicized in the original which I don't have a copy of), Zubrin omitted the context, and Zubrin incorrectly presented the quote as ending on the word "soil" without revealing that Malthus wanted to sweep them off the Land into Towns for economic reasons, rather than wanting genocide as Zubrin falsely implies. Overall, it means one thing and Zubrin misquoted it to mean something else very different.
Malthus False Summary
In short, Malthus argued that we should do whatever we can to encourage disease, and we should condemn doctors who try to find cures. In addition, everything should be done to keep the wages of working people as low as possible.
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 137-138). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
And the source on that:
3 Thomas Malthus, Essay on Population, 6th ed. (London: John Murray, 1826), bk. IV, chap. 5,300–301.
4 Ibid., bk. iii, chap.7, especially 371–375; ibid., bk. iv, chap. 1.
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 3716-3718). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
So, to see if Zubrin's summary was accurate, I read those chapters (3.7 and 4.1), in the 6th edition from 1826. They are available here:
Principle of Population Bk.III Ch.VII
Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.I
One of the problems here is it's hard to tell which text the citation is intended to cover. At first I thought it was covering both sentences. But what Zubrin says here about disease and doctors isn't in the cited chapters (3.7 and 4.1). I've now figured out the disease sentence is referring to the previous misquote (in which Malthus suggests we "court the return of the plague"). Whereas the wages sentence, which looks like it goes with the disease sentence, is actually separate and refers to a different part of the book, found in the footnote.
So far this is confusing but not actually a very big deal (though bear in mind that his summary about Malthus wanting to "encourage disease" is just as completely false as the implications of out of context quote. This is a summary only of Zubrin's total misreading of his misquote). But it gets worse. Zubrin summarized Malthus, "In addition, everything should be done to keep the wages of working people as low as possible." That is absolutely not what Malthus says in the cited chapters (3.7 and 4.1), which I read through specifically to check for this.
Zubrin provides primary source citations to give the superficial appearance of having done proper research. But he hasn't; he is misleading his reader. Books should not be traps to fool their readers!
I'd like to show you this with quotes but how do I quote Malthus to demonstrate that his text lacks
the statements Zubrin says it has? Click the links and search them yourself on words like "wages", "low" or "possible". I did that in addition to reading the full chapters. Zubrin's claim about keeping wages as low as possible is just not there; Zubrin made it up and then falsely represented it as a summary of Malthus.
The closest Malthus comes is some economic arguments about how you can't make the poor rich with minimum wage laws. These bear no resemblance to Zubrin's supposed summary, but maybe Zubrin (who does not understand economics and praised minimum wage laws twice in the book) confused Malthus discussing facts of economics for Malthus trying to keep wages for the poor low. That's my best guess at what happened but there is really no excuse.
I'll try to give you a sense of what Malthus actually said
when he talked about wages in 3.7 (I don't know why 4.1 was cited, it doesn't even mention wages and is irrelevant):
What I have really proposed is a very different measure. It is the gradual and very gradual abolition of the poor-laws. And the reason why I have ventured to suggest a proposition of this kind for consideration is my firm conviction, that they have lowered very decidedly the wages of the labouring classes, and made their general condition essentially worse than it would have been if these laws had never existed. [...]
To remedy the effects of this competition from the country, the artificers and manufacturers in towns have been apt to combine, with a view to keep up the price of labour, and to prevent persons from working below a certain rate. But such combinations are not only illegal, but irrational and ineffectual; and if the supply of workmen in any particular branch of trade be such as would naturally lower wages, the keeping them up forcibly must have the effect of throwing so many out of employment, as to make the expense of their support fully equal to the gain acquired by the higher wages, and thus render these higher wages in reference to the whole body perfectly futile.
It may be distinctly stated to be an absolute impossibility that all the different classes of society should be both well paid and fully employed, if the supply of labour on the whole exceed the demand; and as the poor-laws tend in the most marked manner to make the supply of labour exceed the demand for it, their effect must be, either to lower universally all wages, or, if some are kept up artificially, to throw great numbers of workmen out of employment, and thus constantly to increase the poverty and distress of the labouring classes of society.
Malthus wants to very gradually abolish the poor-laws, which he says have lowered the wages of the labouring classes and made their lives worse. His plan is to improve the lives of the workers and raise
their wages by this reform! Zubrin said pretty much the opposite, that Malthus wants wages to be low; actually Malthus wants to improve wages. More generally, Malthus wasn't trying to make the poor miserable or kill them, and actually he wanted to improve their lives (by explaining moral restraint and reforming bad laws. Also by understanding resource limit, population growth and crop yield issues, about which Malthus was mistaken but not evil).
Malthus further discusses minimum wage laws, which he says are illegal, irrational and ineffectual. He tries to explain why they won't help the labourers. He basically says that if you force wages above the market rate, this causes unemployment and doesn't provide more wealth to the poor people overall as a group.
Zubrin's scholarship here was very bad and he misstated what Malthus was saying.
To clear things up about Malthus a bit more, in general, he meant well, at least according to his book
(first edition preface):
If he [the author, Malthus himself] should succeed in drawing the attention of more able men, to what he conceives to be the principal difficulty in the way to the improvement of society, and should, in consequence, see this difficulty removed, even in theory, he will gladly retract his present opinions and rejoice in a conviction of his error.
Indira Gandhi arrived in Washington in late March and met first with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who handed her a memo requiring “a massive effort to control population growth” as a condition for food aid. Then on March 28, 1966, she met privately with the president. There is no record of their conversation, but it is evident that she capitulated completely.
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2508-2510). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
False. Indira Gandhi was already in favor of population control before meeting with Lyndon Johnson. She did not "capitulate". Zubrin presents a false, anti-American picture in which the US pressures Indira Gandhi into semi-betraying her country accepting unwanted population control, in return for food aid (India was having a famine at this time).
Zubrin's anti-American story is based on his imagination, not historical facts. I learned this reading books which Zubrin himself cites, so you might expect him to have read them too. They clearly tell a different story, but Zubrin changed the story to make USA look worse and bias his book to have more of a "USA and other first world countries screw over the third world" slant (which is a theme throughout, with some truth to it, but apparently Zubrin is so committed to this cause that it matters to him more than facts do.)
Here's the real story:
The Coming Population Crash And Out Planet's Surprising Future
, by Fred Pearce, p 60 (this is a book Zubrin cites and therefore ought to have read):
Johnson found an unexpected ally: the newly elected Indian prime minister, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. As minister of information, she had run aggressive family planning propaganda for her father. Now she wanted to do more than exhort. After the two leaders met in March 1966, Johnson reported back to Congress... [that they agreed about the population control agenda]
Since I discovered Fred Pearce is himself a poor scholar
, I didn't know what to believe yet. So I checked Zubrin's source for this specific passage. It's Fatal Misconception
by Matthew Connelly, p 222. Connelly backs up Pearce (and then some), while contradicting Zubrin.
Connelly says nothing about Indira Gandhi capitulating. Instead he says, p 222, "Johnson did not have to insist." Why not? Because of stuff like this, "the local USAID administrator noted that, under Gandhi and Mehta's leadership, 'more punch in very recent weeks is being added tot he Central Government's family planning program.'" Indira Gandhi was already in favor of population control without Johnson having to make her capitulate. The US didn't need to pressure her into it, she already wanted to do it to her own people.
There are more details in Connelly, p 221.
[Indira Gandhi] had wanted to donate her family's ancestral home in Allahabad so that it could become an Institute for Family Planning. As information minister, she had pressed a plan to distribute hundreds of thousands of radios across rural India to transmit family planning information. And Gandhi together with Rama Rau was also among those who had been pressuring Nayar to pay women to accept IUD insertion. 
After being elected, "Gandhi's interest in family planning was apparent in her first meeting with Ambassador Bowles. So too was her evident need for American help." Bowles said good relationships would require three things: 1) "peace with Pakistan" 2) "genuine and positive neutrality in the Cold War" 3) Connelly quotes his own source for this one, which says, "pragmatic economic policies ... giving high priority to agriculture, education and population planning." Connelly continues:
Gandhi replied that managing relations on this basis would be any "easy matter," promising to
"press hard on such programs as family planning." On January 25, 1966, the day after she was formally sworn into office, the Ministry of Health was renamed the Ministry of Health and Family Planning, including a separate department with its own permanent secretary and minister of state. 
Indira Gandhi did not implement population control measures under US pressure. She didn't capitulate. She was eager to do these things and got started right away, months prior to meeting Johnson. Zubrin misleads us in a way that contradicts his own sources.
Zubrin tells a story in which Johnson gets in office and then population control advocates want to get him on board with population control and have to persuade him.
To get President Johnson on board, [people showed Johnson a fraudulent study]
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Location 2281). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
In passing the study on to Bundy, Komer commented: “Here’s a little flank attack that I think might just penetrate LBJ’s defenses . . . . It might score.”
It did. Johnson bought the claptrap, including the phony mathematical results. Two months later, he declared to the United Nations that “five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” Having succeeded in this policy coup, “Blowtorch” Komer was promoted...
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2287-2290). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
With the Johnson administration now backing population control, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act in 1966...
Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2292-2293). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Notice the date of 1966. The thing is, Johnson was already in favor of population control before this. I learned this, again, from a book Zubrin himself cites and presumably read.
The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years
by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is a primary source book. California worked in the Johnson administration and tells about it firsthand. It says, p 154:
Previous presidents had either opposed mounting government birth-control programs, finessed the issue, or gingerly approved a little research on population control. Johnson himself had waited until he was elected in his own right to unveil his position. Then, in his January 4, 1965, State of the Union message, Johnson had said, "I will seek new ways to use our knowledge to help deal with the explosion in world population and the growing scarcity in world resources."
So who needs to trick Johnson with a "flank attack" and fraudulent study? He already agreed with their basic agenda enough to advocate it in major public speeches since since at least January 1965. Zubrin presents it as a "policy coup" to trick Johnson into believing a position he'd already been advocating. That's bad historical research, apparently including not paying much attention to Zubrin's own sources.
As we've seen, Zubrin has multiple misquotes and factual inaccuracies in the areas I checked. I fear the rest of the book may have a similar densities of serious errors. It strains credibility that I just happened to choose the only two poorly researched parts to investigate.
I sent this post to Robert Zubrin, author of Merchants of Despair
. This is the full text of his reply:
So you are fine with the deaths of millions of Irish and Indians, under the
administration of British Malthusians, the murder of millions of Jews and
Slavs by German Malthusians, and the myriad ongoing worldwide crimes of
other Malthusians ever since.
I guess they were all misquoted too.