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The Five Horrorists

Tim Delaney foresees five threats to sustaining global civilization.

For centuries, social thinkers have pondered whether the Earth’s carrying capacity is being compromised by human overpopulation. For example, in his An Essay on the Principles of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus claimed that the world’s population was growing too quickly in proportion to the growth in the amount of food available. His theory was rather simple, and harshly criticized by later scholars such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who called it “false and childish.” But has Malthus’ concern about the number of people and the available food supply been proven accurate?

First, let’s take a brief look at Malthus’s theory from Marx’ and Engel’s point of view. Malthus ‘stupidly’ reduces two complicated issues – human reproduction and the natural reproduction of edible plants (our means of subsistence) – into two theorems. One says that the human population grows geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc), and the other says that the food supply grows arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8, 10, etc). Marx and Engels are correct in replying that human population does not grow geometrically, as Malthus supposed, nor has our ability to grow food grown arithmetically. In fact, our ability to produce food has grown dramatically since the time of Malthus, through such means as machinery to replace human and animal labor, and large corporate farms, which produce far more food than traditional family farms. However, Marx was nevertheless concerned about overpopulation, and wrote, “There are too many people. Even the existence of men is a pure luxury; and if the worker is ‘ethical’, he will be sparing in procreation.” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844). His concern for population control was directed at those workers who could not afford to provide adequate food and shelter for their children. He suggests it is unethical for people to have children if they cannot provide for them.

Despite any criticism of Malthus’ theory of population growth and the incapacity to provide food, millions of people around the world are without adequate food, and many die of starvation. The charity CARE estimated in 2008 that more than 840 million people around the world were malnourished, 800 million of them in the developing world. Malnutrition can severely affect a child’s intellectual development and physical growth. In addition, six million children under the age of five die every year as a result of hunger. The rising costs of food, especially staples such as rice and grains, will jeopardize an increasing number of people worldwide. In short, close to a billion people face hunger, and this hunger could trigger global social unrest.

Although Malthus’s precise theorem of overpopulation has been disproved, he introduced to us another related concept – The Four Horsemen. Malthus’s use of the Four Horsemen was in part an adaptation of the Bible’s description of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In Revelation (the last book in the Bible) Chapter Six, the Four Horsemen are unveiled: Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, each riding a different color horse. Malthus described his own version of the Four Horsemen – War, Famine, Pestilence and Disease – as forces of natural disaster which keep the human population at a manageable number. He argued that when there were too many people, the Earth would be confronted by these deadly forces.

Ask yourself: are there war, famine, pestilence and disease today? The obvious answer is ‘yes’. Now ask yourself, are war, famine, pestilence and disease caused by forces of nature? I propose that Malthus’s four horsemen are not entirely forces of nature, but instead are mostly human-made. As a result, Malthus’s theory needs to be substantially revised. My theory is articulated through the concept of the ‘Five Horrorists’.

The Five Horrorists

This concept is a development of Malthus’s Four Horsemen concept. Breaking away completely from its religious roots, and de-emphasizing the natural component of Malthus’ four horsemen, ‘the Five Horrorists’ emphasizes the social forces that if left unchecked will lead to the utter destruction of society. Along with updated versions of Malthus’s four horsemen – war, famine, pestilence and disease – I introduce a new and equally deadly partner – the ‘enviromare’. Enviromares are environmental-related nightmares, or threats to humanity and the environment, which, if left unchecked, spell the end of life as we know it. That’s why I think of the Five Horrorists as even more deadly destroyers of life. The first horrorist we shall consider is war.


One of the most devastating forces facing humanity, and the environment, is war. War has been waged throughout human history. As sociologist C. Wright Mills once wrote, “To reflect upon war is to reflect upon the human condition” (The Causes of World War Three p.1, 1958). War has always involved the destruction of people and the physical environment, but with the advent of nuclear and chemical warfare, the environment risks forms of permanent destruction.

Clearly, war itself, including acts of terrorism, is human-made and not a force of nature. It should also be noted that war, and/or acts of terrorism, contributes to the second horrorist, famine. For instance, after a female suicide bomber killed 45 people outside a World Food Program food distribution centre in Pakistan in December 2010 the relief project was suspended, leaving some 300,000 desperately poor villagers, already impoverished by fighting in Pakistan’s tribal belt, scrambling to feed themselves (Associated Press, 26 Dec 2010).


According to the World Food Program in 2010, there are now over one billion people in the world who face hunger. Famine (from the Latin fames, meaning ‘hunger’) is the second horrorist, and is the result of both social and natural forces. That is, although forces of nature, such as floods, droughts, and earthquakes, contribute to famine, this horrorist is primarily the result of human behavior. Wars, including deliberate crop destruction, are among the leading social forces causing famine.

In Three Famines (2010), Tom Keneally examines three of the most devastating famines of the past two hundred years. They had a huge impact on not only their own societies, but also on international relations. The first was the Gorta Mor, the great hunger of Ireland in 1846. This, together with other Irish famines in the mid-1800s, killed approximately three million people. The second famine detailed by Keneally is less well-known but equally deadly, the famine which struck Bengal in 1943. The third is the Ethiopian famine which decimated the country in the 1970s, and again in the 1980s. Keneally argues that another social force – certain types of governmental systems nurture widespread famine, for example, imperialist nations or dictators who negatively influence the subjected peoples. In an interview with the magazine Australian Peninsula Living, Keneally says, “Food shortages in natural disasters are not always the real reason for famines – but one thing I can assure you is that there has never been a famine in a liberal democracy.”

Malthus was wrong when he predicted that human population growth would exceed our ability to produce food. In advanced industrial societies technology has found a way to meet the expanding demand for food. However, people in ‘advanced’ societies are often guilty of conspicuous consumption; and many other people live in regions where there is a high infant mortality rate and little government provision for famines and old age. Both these issues must be addressed if there is to be any serious hope of eliminating this horrorist.


The third horrorist is pestilence. Pestilence refers to plagues of locusts, grasshoppers, and other insects or pests. Malthus was partially correct in identifying this horrorist as a force of nature. Locusts constantly consume vegetation, and a swarm, numbering millions, can consume as much vegetation in a day as 2,500 people. Beyond destroying crops, locusts may also spread various diseases. However, social forces also contribute to pestilence. Deforestation and the draining of marshlands have led to increasing migratory behavior of locusts and other insects. When insects cannot find food in their local wild environment they will seek it elsewhere, usually resulting in devastation for crops and other vegetation.


Disease, the fourth horrorist, is also the combined result of natural and social forces. According to the Center for Disease Control, societal and environmental changes such as worldwide explosive population growth, expanding poverty, urban migration, and a dramatic increase in international travel and commerce, all increase the risk of exposure to deadly infectious agents. A generation ago, the medical profession believed mass death due to disease would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, despite astonishing advances in medicine, disease is as prevalent today as any time in the past, although the specific fatal diseases have changed.

This horrorist is likely to remain a destroyer of humanity in the future. The inevitability of this horrorist led health officials to coin the phrase, ‘emerging infectious diseases’ or EIDs, to refer to infectious diseases that have emerged since the mid-1980s, or those likely to emerge in the near future.

Despite the threat of EIDs, some long-existing diseases continue as the leading causes of death in the Western world. According to the Center for Disease Control in 2010, heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death, still accounting for nearly half (48%) of all deaths in the U.S.A. in 2008. For decades, stroke was the third leading cause of death in the U.S., but it has dropped to fourth, having been replaced by chronic lower respiratory disease.


As described earlier, an ‘enviromare’ is an environmentally-produced nightmare which causes great harm to humanity and the environment. The enviromare is the fifth horrorist – a new destroyer of life in addition to Malthus’s four horsemen.

In Malthus’s era it would appear that there was little concern about protecting the environment, as it was in fairly good shape and had been barely exposed to the harmful effects of industrialization. However, after more than two centuries of industrialization humans have come perilously close to irreversibly harmfully altering the Earth’s fragile ecosystem. The result is the production of enviromares.

Although enviromares are directly associated with forces of nature (the ecosystem, the biosphere, etc), they are influenced by a number of social forces. There are a variety of enviromares associated with some type of pollution, including: water pollution and shortages of drinkable water, due to, among other things, toxins being dumped into bodies of fresh water; land pollution, especially as the result of overgrazing, deforestation, agricultural mismanagement, the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, erosion, urban sprawl, and strip mining. There is also solid waste pollution (Americans produce more than 4.5 pounds [2kg] of garbage per person per day); noise pollution (mostly an urban problem as the result of high-density living); celestial pollution (near-Earth orbit is already littered with trash); air pollution caused by both nature and humanity; and chemical and nuclear pollution – dangerous chemicals, radiation, and radioactive fallout. And of course, there is climate change. There exists a near endless supply of statistics on these problems, but suffice it to say that the Earth is becoming warmer, the amount of available drinking water is evaporating, topsoil is turning to dust on the wind due to decay, solid waste is being created at an alarming rate, and we’re running out of space for our trash, the quality of air is highly compromised in many parts of the world, and no one is exactly sure how much chemical and nuclear toxic waste exists, but there’s a great deal of it around.

The Role of Nature

Joining the five horrorists in their attack on the environment is nature itself. For instance, nature plays a role in compromising clean air via volcanic eruptions, which spill a variety of toxics into the air. According to the United States Geological Survey, the volcanic gases that pose the greatest potential hazard are sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen fluoride. Sulfur dioxide gas can lead to acid rain downwind from a volcano. Many large explosive eruptions, injecting a tremendous volume of sulfur into the stratosphere, can lead to lower surface temperatures and promotes the depletion of the ozone layer. Because carbon dioxide is heavier than air, the gas may flow into low-lying areas and collect in the soil. Volcanoes release more than 130 million tonnes of CO2 every year.

The environment is also under constant attack by lightning strikes. Across the Earth there are 100 lightning strikes per second, or 8,640,000 a day (Strike Alert, 2010). The average lightning bolt is six miles long. Lightning reaches 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, four times as hot as the sun’s surface. Lightning kills more people than tornadoes, hurricanes, or winter storms, and in the U.S. is second only to flash floods for the number of deaths caused by storm-related hazards.


Humans and nature have tagged-teamed against the environment. Is there any hope for sustaining our global civilization? The answer to this alarming question will be addressed in detail in a forthcoming book on environmental sustainability to be co-authored by myself and Tim Madigan.

The earth’s ecosystem is in its most fragile state in recorded history. There are those who would suggest the Earth will be just fine although humanity is doomed. After all, the planet has survived an Ice Age. Perhaps the current negative state of affairs confronting the environment is simply a part of a cycle that cannot be altered. On the other hand, do we want to risk destroying the environment and end human life as we know it? Years ago, the German sociologist Max Weber warned us that bureaucracy had created a society akin to an ‘Iron Cage’. If we do not change our environmental habits, and soon, we face a world which could be characterized as a ‘Toxic Cage’.

© Dr Tim Delaney 2012

Tim Delaney is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York in Oswego and the author of numerous books and articles. Visit his website at booksbytimdelaney.com.

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