Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Malthus Rules!

Keywords: global footprint; Malthus; knowledge economy; population growth; technology; technical fix; climate change; Amartya Sen; Paul Ehrlich; Julian Simon

Thanks to everyone responding to my critique of the “” theory. I’ve had several positive comments, plus five that are mostly negative and require replies. I will paste in the full text of these negative comments on the comment section of the earlier blog on "What's Your Global Footprint?" but will address the most salient aspects here before reviewing Malthusian predictions, past and present.

Helmut Burkhardt: “... A bad article... based on technical fixes. ... The technical solutions of today become the problem of tomorrow...”

Metta: Yes, that’s the way life is. I wash my dishes knowing that they will have to be washed again after the next meal, but that’s no argument against doing it. A new wonder drug comes out and five years later some side effects show up, but that’s no argument for stopping medical . Science keeps extending our life expectancy, despite also causing the ‘problems of tomorrow.’ I’m entirely in favor of technical fixes; they are the only kind of fixes that can save us.

Adrian Kuzminski: “...Knowledge may well be intangible, but the payment received for knowledge work is spent on material things.”

Metta: Less and less true. We spend more and more money and time on things we can’t carry home: Shakespeare in the Park or psychotherapy or shiatsu massages or new software or downloaded MP3 songs or advice from investment brokers and lawyers. Both our income and our expenditures increasingly involve the production and exchange of intangible arrangements of concepts. That is why the economy can continue growing without using up the planet’s natural resources. The new sources of wealth are inexhaustible; they are not material things but ideas, which are not finite, not scarce, not subject to the laws of conservation.

The arguments proposing a are terribly misguided; if economic growth stops, so will economic development around the world. Yet such arguments arise from the belief, derived from , that our economy is constrained by the earth’s “carrying capacity” and that we are exceeding our finite “global footprint.” Wealth generated by trafficking in ideas cannot have such deleterious effects.

Adrian: “Population is seldem emphasized these days by ecologists as perhaps the underlying factor pushing growth...”

Metta: There are good reasons why not. I’ll come back to the population issue below, for we all need to re-think the Malthusian debate – time after time. As we’ll see, most demographers and economists treat population size the dependent, not the independent, variable — the effect of economic changes, not the cause.

Sam Lanfranco: “...Water, waste and food are core properties to a sustainable system. Each is under threat from the dual factors of and life style. Technological advances have pushed famine back as a threat but that same technology has eaten away at the sustainability of life so there are fast approaching limits on how we innovate...”

Metta: Despite your anxiety about the “fast approaching limits on how we innovate,” our knowledge-based society is actually producing technological solutions at an increasing rate, and continuing to improve human health and longevity. You worry about water, waste, and food, but these are scarce or abundant only in relation to the prevailing technological conditions. For example, two-thirds of the planet is covered by water, which will no longer be scarce when we can desalinate and pump it in quantity. Today we’re learning to drip water sparingly from a hose onto each thirsty plant, and to recycle or compost waste or use it to produce renewable energy. As for food, I interviewed M.S. Swaminathan last month, and he assured me that production will keep pace with population. He’s already transferring mangrove genes into crops so they will thrive in salty soil when the rising sea levels flood India.

Derek Paul: “...the new technology you want to have enter the scene to solve problems needs to go through an acceptability panel before it is introduced.”

Metta: Come on, you’re a scientist, Derek! Technology is solving new problems everywhere – e.g. when you download a new computer program or buy a water-conserving toilet. Or when Swaminathan gives seedling fruit trees to poor people and teaches their wives how to pickle the mangoes. Or when he installs a TV in each village, broadcasting daily weather forecasts about when it is safe to go fishing on the ocean. Or when a surgeon learns a new laparoscopy technique that enables patients to go home straight from the operating room. Who wants more “panels” slowing down the diffusion of technology? I am producing Peace Magazine today with a tiny fraction of the effort and energy expenditure that was required 20 years ago. Don’t borrow problems from the future; the real ones will show up soon enough by themselves and then we’ll have fun solving them.

Derek: “As for climate change, I think I could show that it is ultimately proportional to population. That would make it Malthusian, if I have understood your attribution of meaning to ‘Malthusian.’”

Metta: Yes, that’s true, but it’s a spurious correlation. is inherently proportional to the use of fossil fuels, but not inherently proportional to population size. If industry had been based on renewable energy sources from the start, we wouldn’t be having climate problems today, no matter how large the human population had become. But given our present technology, it is true that population size affects the total greenhouse gas emissions.

When I said that climate change is not a Malthusian problem, I meant that it is not a matter of resource depletion. Malthus argued that human population growth will inevitably continue until the available food is consumed, and then there will be a catastrophic rise in death rates, which will bring the population back into sustainable relationship with agricultural limitations.

To be sure, there is no guarantee that humankind won’t kill ourselves off with nuclear weapons or climate change, or something else – but it won’t be from lack of food or natural resources. As and have shown, when do occur, it is not because of a shortage of food, but rather because there a lack of “effective demand” — the hungry people have no money to buy food. Democratic governments easily solve that and most countries are becoming democratic.

Other people have expanded Malthus’s theory by predicting that human population growth will exhaust not only the supply of food but also all kinds of other finite resources: e.g. minerals, forests, and now especially petroleum. Thus the theorists are modern Malthusians who worry that civilization will collapse shortly because of oil depletion, causing the death of billions of people. From their point of view, the energy crisis is indeed a Malthusian predicament.

But I argue that it is not. The world need not run out of energy. In fact, our problem arises from “gorging on oil” and emitting its greenhouse gases. Such emissions are a real problem, in contrast to most of the Malthusian prophecies, which are not well founded. Instead of dying young, humankind is everywhere (except in Africa and a few conflict zones) enjoying ever-longer, healthier lives, with greater comfort, convenience and well-being. We can keep producing enough food, energy, and water to go around by creating increasingly efficient and non-polluting technological improvements.

Louis Lefeber: “... Metta writes, “We can increase efficiency.” Whose efficiency? And what is the meaning of efficiency? Productivity of labor or capital? Or profitability? Government agencies?...”

Metta: Thanks for sending me your interesting paper on “social efficiency.” It introduces distinctions that are sometimes useful, sometimes not. In this paper I refer primarily to — the innovative production of a given quantity of goods or services with decreasing inputs of human labor, energy, and raw materials. This is raising the standard of living wherever it occurs, while reducing “ecological footprints,” to use this problematic metaphor. Indeed, it’s the only factor that can do both.


Thomas Malthus is still misguiding public policy-makers, 210 years after publishing his “Essay on the Principle of Population.” His mistaken theory sounds intuitively plausible, so people keep believing it, no matter how often it has been disproved. Millions of people have paid a terrible price because policy-makers have not seen the flaws in it. Let me run through his basic argument here.

Malthus’s basic prediction was that population would ultimately outrun food supply. He claimed that human nature impels people to reproduce as much as possible, until the supply of food becomes inadequate and checks population growth. He maintained that population, if unchecked, increases at a geometric rate (2,4,8, 16, etc.) whereas food can at best grow at an arithmetic rate (i.e. 1,2,3,4,5, etc.).

He promoted “moral restraint”(late marriage and sexual abstinence) for the working class and the poor (but not the well-to-do) as the only proper way to restrict population growth. Moral restraint and “vice” (including homosexuality, infanticide, and contraception) were the “preventive checks” against population growth.

Malthus did not believe that preventive checks could suffice. Instead, he believed that the only factor significantly checking excess population growth was death (i.e. accidents, misery, war, epidemics, and especially famine).

Indeed, he predicted that by the middle of the 19th century, there would be famine or some other catastrophic increase in the death rate, and he did not propose to prevent that. On the contrary, he was influential in weakening the Poor Law, a system of social security that had provided for England’s paupers. Moreover, as a professor at the British East India Company’s training college, Malthus influenced the colonial administration of India in ways that continued even after the company was dissolved in 1858. Because of him, the famines that occurred in India were not relieved. In fact, sometimes it was actually forbidden for food to be sent into famine areas by private relief efforts.

It was also because of Malthus’s theories that food was not provided in Ireland during the Potato Famine of 1845-49. Ireland was supposedly suffering from “over-population,” so the famine was a “necessary corrective.”

I first encountered Malthusian theory in my high school social studies class when a student was collecting money to aid famine victims somewhere overseas. A girl named Mary Jo actually argued against this charity. “If we send money to them this time,“ she explained coolly, “they will live long enough to have more babies, so there will be even more of them to feed the next time the crops fail. It is more humane just to let them starve now.” Though I was aghast, I could think of no way to refute her argument, which seemed water-tight. (Decades later I read an apt comment by Friedrich , calling Malthus’s theory “the crudest, most barbarous theory that ever existed, a system of despair which struck down all those beautiful phrases about love thy neighbour and world citizenship.” and Engels loathed Malthus and produced a complicated alternative theory of population involving a “reserve army of labor,” which I need not discuss here, thank goodness.)

But the beauty of Malthus’s theory is that it is falsifiable. And it has been falsified. He argued that so long as people have food, they will keep reproducing. Thus the way to restrain excessive population growth is to keep people poor.

But just the opposite is true: In every country, birthrates decline when economic development occurs and food production keeps growing faster than the population. In fact, population size is more an effect than a cause — a “dependent variable” instead of an “independent variable,” in the terminology of social science.

Let me try to clear up the confusion that Malthus sowed in the world.

Let’s imagine a society without in- or out-migration. Over time, the size of its population will be determined by three variables: birth rates, death rates, and the sufficiency of the means of subsistence (say, food). If our imaginary society is a traditional, pre-industrial one, birth and death rates will be high and approximately equal, while the food supply will be limited. Consequently, the human population will remain small and fairly steady — as homo sapiens actually did for two million years.

However, since there exists a kind of necessary equilibrium among these three variables, a change in one of them will cause changes in the other two. Much depends on what happens first, as I’ll show with the following two scenarios:

Scenario One: Here the increase while the and food supply remain almost steady. This is the scenario that Malthus considered normal and, as he predicted, the population size will increase — but it can do so only within the limits set by the food supply. When the growing population exhausts the food supply, then either (a) there must be a marked increase in food or (b) the death rates must rise (from hunger, disease, or violence). Since Malthus did not suppose that the food could increase much, he predicted that it would be higher death rates that would stop the population growth. (He was wrong.)

Scenario Two: Now suppose instead that in our imaginary society the birth rates and food supply are steady at the outset but the death rates begin dropping. Again, the population will grow, though eventually the equilibrium must be restored through one or more of the next phases: either (a) the death rates rise again, reducing the population to the size that can be sustained, or (b) the food supply keeps increasing and/or (c) the birth rates decline, stabilizing the population at its new, larger size.

I can report with joy that this second scenario is what actually happens as countries undergo . The process begins with declining death rates — often the effect of innovations in public health and infrastructure (as indeed was the case in Malthus’s England during the industrial revolution). Then, after a certain lag, the birth rates begin to drop. The sharper the death rate decline and the longer the lag before the birthrates also drop, the greater will be the population growth. But notice that declining birthrates do not begin the sequence; they come at the end, as the result rather than as the initiating cause of the changes. Political leaders (e.g. in China) have occasionally coerced families to reduce their family size earlier in the developmental sequence, but there are significant disadvantages to that.

Defying Malthus’s assertion that “human nature” will keep reproductive levels high, no matter what, the world’s population’s has voluntarily declined from 2.2 percent per year in the 1960s to 1.17 and falling today. Why? Here’s an explanation from the World Bank:

“Parents tend to have larger families when they fear that many of their babies may die, when they need laborers to work on the family farm or business, when they want to ensure that they themselves will be cared for in their old age, and when they lack access to education and to family planning if they want it.

“Experience shows that three of the most successful strategies to reduce fertility rates are to ensure that people 1) have greater access to primary health care and family planning services, 2) receive a basic education, especially girls and women, and 3) have government services that help protect them when they are sick, old, or unemployed.”
Here is the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s explanation in a 2000 interview:
“I do not think that Malthus will be proved any more right in the future than he has been in the past. Already in 1798, Malthus thought that the world was overpopulated and any further increase would lead to food shortage and higher death rates all around. Since then the world population has grown more than six times with enormous increases in living standards, nutrition levels and life expectancy. These increases continue even today, and there is every indication that the fall of fertility rate that is occurring across the world will not allow the population to grow faster than food production, given the technological possibilities that are also present in raising food production. In fact, if we look over the last three or four decades, food prices have fallen dramatically for all the major staple food crops (sometimes have been halved or fallen even further), indicating that what is restraining a faster expansion of food production is demand rather than difficulties in expanding food production or escalating costs of food production.

“Of course, there still is a need for much more food to be produced because there are hungry people across the world. They are not hungry because there are too many of them, but because they are poor and do not have the means of buying food. So what is needed is economic expansion and the enhancement of the economic entitlements of the deprived population in the world. Food production can respond appropriately to more demand on the basis of available technology and further technical advances that are occurring at this time. Malthus did not appreciate the role and magnitude of technical progress in food production.

“Nor was Malthus right in thinking that fertility rates will not fall in the absence of economic compulsion and penury. On the contrary, fertility rates have come sharply down with the process of development, influenced particularly by women's empowerment...”
Having reviewed Malthus, I want to turn to today’s Neo-Malthusians, who do not limit their doomsday scenarios to food shortages but predict that within a few years the expanding population will soon exhaust the earth’s supply of minerals, water, petroleum, or other natural resources, thereby bringing calamity to our species. Several scholars during the 1970s made such predictions, including in The Population Bomb and Donella Meadows for the .

But not everyone accepted these ominous projections. The economist , (see photo) for example, claimed that natural resources were infinite. Indeed, Simon challenged Ehrlich to a bet about the market price of metals. Ehrlich would pick a combination of any five metals that were worth $1,000 in 1980. If, ten years later, the metals were worth more than $1,000 after adjusting for inflation, Ehrlich would win. If they were worth less than $1,000, Simon would win. The loser would mail the winner a cheque for the change in price.

Ehrlich replied that he accepted “Simon’s astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in.” He picked copper, chrome, nickel, tin, and tungsten.

He lost. In 1990 he sent Simon a cheque for $576.07. The price of all these metals had dropped so much that Simon would have won the bet even if the prices had not been adjusted for inflation.

How was it possible for metals or any other natural resource to become less scarce in the 1980s? John Tierney explained in The New York Times Magazine:

“Prices fell for the same Cornucopian reasons they had fallen in previous decades — entrepreneurship and continuing technological improvements. Prospectors found new lodes such as the nickel mines around the world that ended a Canadian company's near monopoly of the market. Thanks to computers, new machines and new chemical processes, there were more efficient ways to extract and refine the ores for chrome and the other metals. For many uses, the metals were replaced by cheaper materials, notably plastics, which became less expensive ˇ Telephone calls went through satellites and fiber-optic lines instead of copper wires. Ceramics replaced tungsten in cutting tools. Cans were made of aluminum instead of tinˇ”

In a word, the market stimulated technological innovations that made for efficiencies in the use of natural resources.

Ehrlich lost the bet, but nevertheless, Malthus still rules. There is a widespread suspicion of both the market and technological change, which are expected to ruin the planet rather than increase its bounty. The assumption is commonplace, even among environmentalists, that food and natural resources can expand no further, so that when one person eats, someone elsewhere must inevitably go hungry. I even know prosperous professionals in the knowledge economy who, convinced of Malthusian theory, are abandoning urban civilization and taking up subsistence farming, trying to reduce their “global footprint” and hoping to survive the imminent catastrophe when oil runs out and billions of human beings die.

Social theories have real implications for how we live our lives, both personally and collectively. Social theories influence policy-makers, even when they are assimilated unthinkingly. We don’t always know what theories we do believe or who invented them.

It’s important to find out.



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