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Malthus' Last Laugh

8/28/2008 3:25:03 PM

Tags: Thomas Robert Malthus, Malthus, Malthusian, population, overpopulation, positive visualization, green revolution, agriculture, industrial agriculture



For centuries now Dr. Thomas Robert Malthus has been, on and off, an object of derision because people associate him, unfairly, with predictions of a doomsday scenario in which humanity should long ago have suffered a population catastrophe. In fact, that wasn’t part of his fundamental thesis. He was, explicitly, putting a bee in the bonnets of the enlightenment philosophers who visualized a Utopian future for humanity in which every individual would have enough to eat. Malthus suggested that wouldn’t be achieved as long as population growth continued apace and, indeed, he seems to have been proven right by the events of the intervening centuries.

He was wrong about the arithmetic increase of the food supply. We’ve managed to make food supplies increase geometrically. Even so, someone is always starving.

In Robert Heinlein’s science-fiction novel, “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,”[1] one of his characters warns, “It is never safe to laugh at Dr. Malthus; he always has the last laugh.”

Those who want to take the risk and discredit Malthus might nevertheless point to two “green revolutions.” The first one came during the 20th century when new science helped create sudden, astonishing growth in our food supply. In 1968 William Gaud, former director of the United States Agency for International Development called the achievement a “green revolution”[2] in a speech. He believed that the growth in our agricultural productivity would revolutionize human life worldwide. In fact, we did increase food production to keep up with worldwide population growth. The innovation that made this agricultural revolution possible was funded by wealthy nations like the U.S. who were concerned that famine in nearby poor nations, like Mexico, could threaten economic security.[3] U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace, The Rockefeller Foundation and Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho got the wheels turning. The Ford Foundation and others soon pitched in to provide money to scientists who were working to increase food supplies. The production of cereal grains in developing nations more than doubled between 1961 and 1985.[4] In places like Mexico and India the gains were orders of magnitude more impressive.

Still, true to Malthus’ predictions, poverty and famine persisted. We fed a lot of people, but we never managed to feed everyone. Throughout the last quarter of the 20th century the newspaper stories about mountainous piles of surplus grain in North America routinely ran side-by-wide with stories about starving multitudes in Africa.

[1] Heinlein, Robert A. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. New York. G.P. Putnam’s Sons. New York. 1966. ISBN 0-312-86355-1 (1997 Orb books softcover ed.)

[2] Speech by William S. Gaud to the Society for International Development, 1968.

[3] Wright, Angus. The Death of Ramon Gonzalez: The Modern Agricultural Dilemma. University of Texas Press. Austin. 2004.

[4] Conway, Gordon. The Doubly Green Revolution. Cornell University Press. Ithaca. 1998.

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