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More Malthus

February 14, 2016

200px-An_Essay_on_the_Principle_of_Population

Thinking about Malthus’ birthday yesterday, I suddenly remembered the strangest conference speech experience I’ve so far undergone.

We were in Boston and the year was 1998 – the bicentenary of the first publication of Malthus’ Essay on Population.  It was decided that we would hold the Annual General Meeting of Whatever the Hell Society It Was that I had to join just to give a paper at its meeting concurrently with the banquet, to be immediately followed by the main plenary conference lecture.

It was December and it was Boston and it was very very cold.  Our venue was some soulless conference centre that was partitioned and rented out.  The two of us were jet-lagged and giggly.  But not so jetlagged and giggly to consider the paradox of stuffing your face with food while listening to a lecture on Malthus.  But this paradox had not occurred to the conference organisers, or indeed, to many people in the room.  Trying to host the AGM during a banquet was chaotic enough.  People were stretching for refills and passing condiments – arranged as we were at large round tables.  The committee could have asked for a show of hands to be allowed to liquidate the society’s assets and abscond to the Cayman Islands, and we’d have all cheerily waved our passive approbation.

And when the grim lecture began, discussing that portentous (and wrong) philosopher who put the “dismal” in “dismal science”, the bizarre quality was further complicated by the poor sound-proofing of the thin partitions distinguishing us from the other function being hosted in the building that evening – a Christmas Party for a Federal Association of Industrial Accident Claim Processors – who were hosting a seventies disco shindig scheduled at precisely the same time as our Malthus lecture.

There was something about the festive time of year, the extreme cold, the sleep-deprived near hysteria, the plentiful food and drink, the sombre discussion of famine and desolation being fed into one ear and Sister Sledge being fed into the other year that created a collage of emotions and sensations that remains with me to this day.  I can remember nothing whatsoever of the intellectual content of the lecture – but the lecture was part of the mood music of one of the strangest nights of my life.

I said yesterday that humanity had nothing to thank Thomas Malthus for – nothing at all.  I’d stand by that.  But he did at least contribute to one of the most psychedelic nights of my life.  I was brought, by means of incompatible stimuli, to the doors of a different kind of perception, an oceanic consciousness.  And for that I am perversely yet sincerely grateful.

But hang on – sod my stupid psychedelic experience in Boston – let’s not forget the bigger picture – the man was a famine-enabling monster of cold-blooded pseudo-scientific pseudo-rationalistic destructiveness.  He should never have been born.

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