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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Revenge of Malthus? Why Live8 is only Half the Story

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766 - 1834) Posted by Picasa

This 18th / 19th century Anglican priest and economist spoke to his own age and only some of his insights are transferable to ours. His most devastating interpretation of observed human affairs in his Essay on Population (1798 / 1803) remains, arguably, as true today as it did then. Malthus contended that unchecked population growth was always self defeating. Beyond the level of economic sustainability, war and want would always cut back population size. His solution to this problem consisted of a blend of "moral restraint" (now superseded by contraception) and wealth creation, obviating the need for large and early start families.

His prophecies took hold largely in the west where we have indeed seen a stabilisation of the birth rate and a demographic skew toward the elderly. One could argue of course that such a transition has not occurred in the developing world because of a poor social infrastructure and the infancy of middle class aspiration. To some this sounds like special pleading for western bourgeois liberalism. What is of more enduring value in his thought though is the idea that sustainability has its own logic in a world of limited resource. It is in this logic that we see the Revenge of Malthus and the weakness of much of the political rhetoric about world development.

The simple truth (that Malthus would have understood so well) is that this world cannot sustain the lives of 6 billion humans (10 billion in 50 years) in the manner to which the rich north and west has become accustomed. Many people worry about America, Japan and Europe and the disproportionate impact on the global environment and development caused by these wealthy nations. However, soon we shall be shaking our heads at the prospect of India and China thirsting for fossil fuels, SUV's to consume them and carbon emissions in the Far East going through the roof. Maybe Africa will eventually join the party as well ... but nobody will truly be celebrating for long. The Malthusian limit is nearer perhaps than we think.

What Malthus couldn't have envisioned is a world where the limits to growth are as much environmental and ecological as they are economic; although these, of course, are all inextricably interdependent factors. It is this new situation that has wiped out his most favoured solution, making everyone middle class like himself ... small families, industrious, good housekeeping. Even if this was thought desirable it is now hardly possible. Middle class abstention is an indulgence of prosperity, and prosperity costs. Today prosperity costs the world itself, the ultimate sustainability limit.

So, what are the prospects, living as we do under the shadow of the Revenge of Malthus? Note that I am concerned with what I think WILL happen and how we can steer that more positively, not what SHOULD happen by dictat. What should happen is pretty much straightforward; mandatory birth limits, mandatory carbon emission limits ... a lot of other "mandatories." These don't sell well at elections though and in any case I am sufficient of a realist to recognise the dead hand of coercion and political repression lying dormant in such good intentions.

I don't see the developed or the developing world exercising self restraint. So long as we have nations and peoples' pursuing self interest based policies of growth and yet more growth we shall continue to global diminishing returns from an overstretched planet. The Americans and others think that there will be a technological fix for this ... the Holy Grail perhaps of nuclear fusion or genetic enhancement of crop production. What Malthus knew but what many politicians then and since choose wilfully to ignore is that the world itself sets limits on human growth no matter how smart we get at squeezing more juice out of the orange. There still only is one orange at the end of the day. I, therefore, see ahead two stark choices; adapt and down size or die in an environmental catastrophe.

The "adapt and down size" option presupposes a spiritual revolution in world humanity ... a shift to a way of living that embraces self restraint (rather than greed) as a virtue. As a Christian I am bound to say that this is both achievable and fruitful by the grace of God. However, such aspirations will only and can only apply to a subset of the world population. Christianity is a realistic faith and recognises the dangers inherent in such universal utopianism. Whenever humanity has entertained this notion its enablers have always eventually resorted to coercion and that is both unacceptable and unsustainable. Perhaps there is a third option though and one for which many will think this author crazy.

When we look to the natural world and its ecosystems we observe that expanding populations, when they reach their sustainability limit, either implode or seek out new food and land resources. The alternative for us, if we are to continue to grow, lies off planet. The earth just cannot support many more people than we have now. Already we are beginning to see the excitement of exploration moving off world and revealing huge potential in the solar system. The prize in terms of natural resources, outside any planetary gravity well and its energy deficit, lies in and with the asteroids. There are enough primary metals in the asteroid belt to serve humanity for millennia. Terraforming Mars as a human habitat is already seriously being looked at. Truly, the earth is not the end. We have only just begun. Malthus can be defeated ... but only if we think REALLY big.


curious servant said...

I happened by and I spent about a half hour reading your blog. Interesting ideas. I love science, writing, theology, and I am a teacher at a middle school.

It was fun here and I will be back.

Laura said...

Father, can you check in ASAP?

Father Gregory said...

Sorry Laura ... what do you mean? check in?

Laura said...

just making sure you are OK...and not perhaps in London on some sort of business and perhaps on one of the subway trains or the bus that were bombed.

Thank you.

Father Gregory said...

Oh, thank you Laura. I understand. We have had terrorism in Masnchester (the IRA) but I was not in London at the time. I could have been though ... I am making two trips there over the next week.

Flying_Belgian said...

I read your blog recently, and noticed your comments about Malthus.

I think in the main (as an economist) that the core ideas of Malthus have largely been discredited, because his views about population growth and its effects failed to come true. The mistake that he made was that he assumed (without much proof or foundation) that population growth would be intrsinically faster than the capacity of nature to furnish the population with food.

In fact, improvements in technology (allied with the increase in labour supply that population growth generates) meant that the ability to supply food kept up with population. Indeed, the rapid economic growth that we have seen in the past 200 years in the Western world, and consequent rise in living standards shows that humankind's ability to produce food (and anything eles) has outstripped population growth.

Similarly, in the developing world, the problem with food is not primarily one of population growth. Rather the limited technology, institutional problems and the like mean that food does not reach the people that need it. Put another way, the world produces enough to feed its people, its just (a very big just) that it fails to allocate the resources appropriately. But this is quite separate to the problem that Malthus identified which was that the productive capacity was limited.

You have a strong point about climate change and natural resource depletion, but I don't think it necessarily comes straight out of Malthus. The problem with fossil fuels is not so much that they are finite (because mankind can always develop new sources of energy) but that their use has a harmful side-effect on the earth. If anything, the problem here is the opposite to that which Malthus conceived- whereas Malthus thought the problem was not enough economic growth, the problem here is in a sense "too much" in the sense that as Africa and Asia develop fossil fuel consumption will rise, leading to the problems you identify.

I don't agree that the world necessarily poses the limits on growth that you imagine. You are quite right to suggest that limited natural resources do pose major problems given our current way of life, however, saying that economic growth cannot continue is a non sequiteur because it could be that other technologies, forms of energy etc were developed. To give a simple example- when the price of oil jumped in the early 1970s, many observers said it would be the end of transport as we knew it, because the price of oil made it too expensive. However the high price of oil gave manufacturers (and consumers) an incentive to develop more fuel efficient cars, as a result cars are drastically more efficient now. In the same way, the exhausation of one source of fuel generates incentives to develop new forms of energy.

Please don't think for one minute that I am a free-market "technology will solve everything" Bush fan. There is a major problem facing mankind that the market will never solve- because using natural resources and burning fossil fuels generates a side-effect not taken into account by consumers there will be a failure of the market mechanism.

Father Gregory said...

Thanks for that f_b

I might still disagree with you that population is not a crucial issue (especially if we hit 10 billion by 2050). We may have deferred a Malthusian prospect in my view, but not eliminated it.

Fr. Gregory

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