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.

1/7/2009 8:32:00 AM

A farmer I know once had a bumper sticker which read "Don't criticize farmers with your mouth full" A second one should have been added "Don't criticize oil companies with your mouth full" Fossil fuels provided four distinct things for the major rise in human food production. 1)Animal labor and human labor used for agriculture has dropped to almost zero and with the newer tractors with GPS and computer controls will drop even further meaning more food for sale instead of keeping the farm going 2) Fertilizers made from fossil fuels have exponentially increased the capacity of land to produce food 3)Despite the unequal distribution of food which comes more from totalitarian regime's starving their own people (ex. North Korea compared to South Korea and the former division of Germany) the transportation of food has changed dramatically within the last 100 years meaning I can have kiwi for breakfast when my great grandparents had never heard of one 4)The preservation of foods both fresh and canned is made so much better by refrigeration which is powered by fossil fuels, i.e. less spoilage = greater abundance, also sustained by more efficient transportation.

1/6/2009 8:07:31 PM

Consider what George Works said - "The green revolution was made possible by cheap fossil fuels." Now recall from just this year how the artificially inflated price of oil quickly caused the poorer nations to become pinched for food. Combine the two, and you have proof of Patrick's statement that "food distribution in this world tends to follow wealth distribution [and] is a more influential component in world hunger than incapacity in production in most cases". And that is just under conditions where oil did exist, but its distribution was artificially restricted by a lack of wealth. In summary, when the oil does begin to run out - to slightly modify more of George Work's words - Malthus' last laugh WILL be coming soon. And that "soon" will likely lie within the span of our children's lifetimes.

1/6/2009 6:06:31 PM

Yes, I do admit we have increased food production simply through mechanisation, population, irrigation and amendments to the soil, but things such as pesticide use have not realised any tangible gains and many of these same things have resulted in decreased viability of land or making it completely useless. Let's face it, food is a weapon and used much more to glean a profit than it is used to help out the hungry. One only has to look at the USDA statistics and ponder why over the past 25 years that US farmland and agricultural production has declined by 50% even though population continues to rise (and further hampered by finding more non-food uses for agricultural products). One also has to question the ever increasing imports of food to this country and what effect that has to the rest of the world.

1/6/2009 2:28:53 PM

As the author points out, people are still starving, despite the fact that we have been able to increase food production. I suspect that one of the causes for this, and one of the persistent critiques of Malthus not mentioned in this piece, is that food distribution in this world tends to follow wealth distribution, and that wealth is unequally distributed. This is certainly a simplification, as the correlation in maldistribution of food and money is not 1:1, but this tendency, an inequitable distribution of food following an inequitable distribution of wealth, is a more influential component in world hunger than incapacity in production in most cases.

george works
1/6/2009 11:12:01 AM

The green revolution was made possible by cheap fossil fuels, used to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer and power farm and transportation equipment. The era of cheap fossil fuels is rapidly coming to an end, but the population of the earth is still growing exponentially. Malthus' last laugh may be coming soon.

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