February 14, 2012

What Malthus knew and didn't know

The last 150 years can be characterized by a single under-recognized but still remarkable trend. Over the course of just a few generations, industrialized societies have temporary divested themselves of many of the normal constraints of nature. We banished the darkness with electric light. We banished distance with the steamer, the locomotive, and later the automobile and the airplane. We banished hunger, to a considerable degree. We pushed back many diseases. We built our own environments, in which sunlight and fresh air were mere embellishments. In short, we came to think not only that man was the measure of all things, but also the maker and the master of all things.

As an extension of this trend, many of us have fallen into confusion about the very nature of reality. We’ve gotten used to thinking that the process of moving data and pixels around means more than it actually does. We’ve also begun to blur the distinction between persuasion and truth, assuming, at least subconsciously, that truth is simply what enough people believe. On the matter of climate change, for example, I often wonder if most people might be satisfied that an entertaining debate between Al Gore and Sean Hannity would settle the issue once and for all, the forces of nature being wholly irrelevant compared to the awesome power of celebrity. Even environmentalists seem to have created nature from their own social consensus, and endowed it with purposes and preferences that it cannot, in the aggregate, have. Nature, of course, can neither be conquered nor destroyed. It is the indifferent, immutable sum of everything that is.
As it is now becoming obvious to the more observant among us that we have reached the end of our collective binge (and have begun our collective struggle with delirium tremens) it may be useful to put down our brand new IPADs and other gadgets and pick up a few real books. One of these is an old book, Thomas Robert Malthus’s great work of 1798, An Essay on the Principle of Population 1. This is neither a very entertaining nor a very soothing book, but it is still a remarkably relevant one. Malthus’s key thesis is quite simple. Population, he asserts, in the absence of anything to impede it, would increase geometrically. This is to say that if an average couple has four children, and each of those children marries and has four children, the population will double every generation – about every twenty-five years. In fifty years, the population will reach four times its original number. In seventy-five years, the multiple will be eight. In one hundred years, the multiple will be sixteen – etc. The production of food, on the other hand, being dependent on a fixed amount of land, cannot keep pace with a population that is expanding geometrically. Inevitably, then, the increase of population is held in check by the limitations of the food supply. Nearly everything that Malthus has to tell us is derivable from this simple observation.

The consequence of this mechanism, not only in Malthus’s time (the early 19th century) but throughout most of history, has been stark. Some portion of any society has had to either watch their children starve, or forgo having children to avoid this. With the exception of a few small groups in peculiarly favorable circumstances (a surplus of arable land), this situation has prevailed everywhere, and still does in many parts of the world. One need only consider the frequent famines south of the Sahara for modern examples in which the land is simply not productive enough to support the number of people living on it. Human beings, in their relationship to the food supply, are not unlike any other species of animal. Our tendency is to multiply until we reach a natural limit. Having done so, we are at the mercy of any circumstances that lower that limit.

Malthus’ core idea, though once quite well known, has been neglected or ignored – though never actually discredited. I believe this neglect has occurred for three reasons, two material on one psychological.

We will dispense with the psychological reason first. Malthus drew criticism, even in his own time, for the sheer fatalism of his thesis. He believed that because the expansion of population would always leave some people in a state of want, poverty and some degree of competition leading to social stratification were inevitable. This runs contrary to the modern idea of progress. The very widespread notion that human society can be steadily improved until it reaches an ideal state is, by definition, a utopian view. One cannot have poverty in any utopian scheme, and most utopian ideas will not admit much social stratification either. Thus, the 19th and 20th centuries’ great reform movements tended to condemn Malthus (I think unfairly) as a narrow reactionary while leaving his actual assertions unaddressed. This dogmatic optimism is with us still. Given a choice between a comforting illusion and a well-documented but unpleasant fact, most people will still cling to the former. While Malthus did believe that society could be improved, and that maximizing the proportion of the population in the middle class was a worthwhile pursuit, he never allowed any exceptions to the cruel mathematics of population and food supply. Misery, he thought, was simply the natural consequence of the reproductive proclivities of human beings. Inevitably, there would always be at least a few too many mouths to feed.

The first material circumstance to change the world in a way that Malthus could not have anticipated was a revolution in agriculture. This can be subdivided into two processes: the mechanization of farming and the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers.

Mechanization allowed farming to be much more labor efficient. Prior to mechanization, a typical farm in the American Midwest occupied 40 to 80 acres of laboriously tilled land. Some of that land had to be devoted to raising food for the draft animals needed for tillage. Now, farms of 600 to 1000 acres are quite common in the same region, with relatively little land devoted to pasture. One of two people can farm such a huge expanse with machinery, so the percentage of people employed in agriculture has declined from 70 or 80% of the total population to less than 1%. Further, the large families that used to be an advantage in the working of farms have become less of an asset. Diesel fuel and steel do what was once done by animals and children.

Tractors and combines alone did not necessarily increase actual agricultural yield (that is, the quantity of food produced per acre) but in driving the excess farm labor into other occupations, typically in cities, they did produce a world that Malthus would not have recognized – a world in which the percentage of people who actually produce food is insignificant. It is true, too, that as fewer of us produce food, more of us take food production for granted. I heard an interesting anecdote a few years ago in which two coworkers were discussing some grievance among local farmers that had actually made it into the news. One of the interlocutors confessed that, frankly, she didn’t care what happened to the farmers – all of her food came from the grocery. While I hope this level of ignorance is not the norm, one could certainly imagine that groceries get their food from a magic store room, or from Santa Claus, and still live an otherwise normal life in contemporary America.

If we consider rural electrification as a part of the mechanization process, increases in the total yield of agriculture really did result. Refrigeration and drying processes greatly reduced spoilage, thus more of the food that is grown actually makes it to the market. The same can be said for improvements in transportation. By bringing food to market faster, less is left to rot. Finally, irrigation -- starting with the once ubiquitous wind-driven water pump and culminating in huge electric water pumps watering otherwise marginal land in the great plains and California -- has greatly expanded both local and national yield. All of this is simply an outgrowth of the machine age and the oil age.

Artificial pesticides and fertilizers are products of the oil and natural gas industries, respectively. Pesticides are, in a broad sense, a further attack on the problem of spoilage. The less of our food that insects eat, the more is left for us. Nitrogen enhancing fertilizers (primarily anhydrous ammonia) directly increase plant growth. The old rhyme for corn growth was “knee high by the 4th of July” – meaning that if the plants were smaller than that one could expect a poor harvest. Now, corn is often up to my shoulder by the 4th of July. The average yield per acre of corn in the US has increased by more than 400% since 1940 2, thanks mostly to a good dose of chemistry.

From the 1940’s on, this Green Revolution of mechanization, irrigation, and chemistry spread across much of the world, greatly increasing the global food supply. Again, Malthus could not have foreseen this (agricultural improvements in his day amounted to a good manuring) but he could and did predict the outcome. In 1950, the population of the world was 2.6 billion; as of 2011, it is 7 billion. I will discuss the unsustainablility of this increase in population later, but for now it is sufficient to acknowledge that it occurred, and that it could not have occurred without an unprecedented expansion of the food supply.

The second material circumstance that Malthus could not have predicted was the invention, and widespread use, of effective means of contraception. In Malthus view, the natural consequence of human sexual desire would always be to produce more children than the replacement rate – which is to say, more than about two per couple. He allowed that there was some latitude in the overall rate at which people might reproduce – for example, that a policy of early marriage would make matters worse – but he argued that under no circumstances could human nature be so suppressed as to let the rate of reproduction sink to or below the rate of replacement. The higher the reproduction rate happened to be, the greater the amount of misery in a society. In the absence of effective contraception, it would be hard to argue with Malthus on this point. Even in nominally “advanced” societies, it is plain that large families reduce the resources available to each child. It would require an extraordinary amount of wealth to put eight or ten children through college, where educating one or two might at least be manageable. It is easy to understand, then, that in poorer societies in which a greater proportion of a family’s income is spent on food, an excess of mouths means hunger, sickness, and early death. In the industrialized world most of us have forgotten this harsh dynamic, which, only a few generations ago was the daily reality of our ancestors. It is all too common for any genealogical study to turn up very high rates of infant mortality. While the recorded cause of death in such cases is usually infection or disease, this often only masks an underlying weakened condition brought on by simple hunger. I recall hearing that in my own family, my grandfather, as breadwinner, always got not only the most but the best food. The reasoning, very common at that time, was that if he weakened and could not work, the children would be even worse off. This was as recently as the 1930’s.

There are many countries now (Japan and Italy spring to mind) in which the population is actually in decline, and has been for some decades. In Malthus’s time, population only declined under conditions of some terrible outside pressure, such as drought or a plague. In the case of many modern nations, it declines through family planning. Some small-minded paranoiacs look at this trend with alarm, but in truth it is quite a laudable (if accidental) achievement. Every year, the crowded, overburdened island of Japan is now divided among slightly fewer Japanese. It would not be a better or a happier place if there were more of them. Contraception, however, does not disprove Malthus’s thesis but merely amends it. The world as a whole is still careening toward a Malthusian catastrophe as the rising population outstrips Earth’s resources. What contraception does do is offer the possibility of escape from the eternal cycles of overpopulation and die-off in the wake of the impending catastrophe.

That there will be a catastrophe is almost certain. It has already begun, and only the herculean efforts of government statisticians and the public’s own penchant for wishful thinking can temporarily hide the fact. Many have explained the nature of our present material overreach in great detail, and I will not attempt to replicate their efforts here. I would recommend James Kunstler’s badly under-recognized work, The Long Emergency, as the clearest, most eloquent, and least ideologically burdened treatment of the subject. To summarize, however, what Malthus observed about the limitation imposed by the food supply is similarly true of fossil fuels. In some respects, the fossil fuel situation is worse because, unlike food, these resources are functionally non-renewable. As I’ve outlined earlier, our agricultural system has long been heavily dependent of oil and natural gas for tillage, transportation, pesticides, refrigeration, and fertilizers. There is no magic store room at the grocery. The planet will not support anything close to seven billion people if we are reduced to pre-industrial forms of agriculture, or even fossil-fuel-impoverished forms of agriculture. In all likelihood, we will have the latter. There will probably be enough solar and wind power to run irrigation pumps, provided that local groundwater supplies are not themselves overtaxed. Genetic engineering may yield heartier, more disease resistant crops – instead of merely the pesticide-tolerant varieties it has produced thus far. I do not expect to see electric tractors or trucks, however. Neither will there be enough energy for the amount of refrigeration we are used to, nor enough natural gas to make fertilizer, heat and cook with, and use to extract the dwindling oil supplies from tar sands. New extraction technologies like “fracking” may slow the decline a little, but cannot avert it. We would not even be using such technologies if we were not already desperate.

To the extent that all of our contemporary political ideologies are bound to the notion of progress – a continual bettering of our standard of living – we have gotten confused about the direction of causality. Most people implicitly assume that increasingly humane and liberal attitudes over the last two centuries have brought about a more materially secure and comfortable way of life. I would argue, rather, that it is the more materially secure and comfortable way of life that has brought about increasingly humane and liberal attitudes. We did not acquire a plentiful food supply and approach the dream of universal home ownership because well-meaning reformers convinced us all to be nice, but rather because the magic of a fossil-fuel-driven economy brought these things temporarily within reach. Our standard of living did not improve with the enlightenment, but only with the middle stages of the industrial revolution. I myself am very fond of personal liberty and compassion, but I am not na├»ve enough to believe that people can live in houses made of freedom or eat nutritious meals made of brotherly love. Our material bodies require material sustenance. Nature reigns triumphant.

That the next few decades will be very hard there can be little doubt. Whether or not what follows this decline is a return to the world Malthus described does depend on what kinds of beliefs and ideas survive the transition. Ideas may be inedible, but they are not irrelevant. Even in an energy-impoverished, post-oil world the raw materials necessary to produce contraceptives should not be physically unattainable, and their use might make the difference between misery and relative comfort to our descendents. Birth control pills and IUD’s are much cheaper to produce than cars and big suburban homes. The long term future, then, must hinge on what people believe – on whether our descendants have the foresight to cope with population rationally, or persist in ancient, often religiously validated, tendencies to multiply just beyond the available food supply. Contemporary examples show that, in educated populations even with widely varying cultures, population growth arrests itself if only given access to the means. The often cited Chinese model of a “one child policy” is not the only way to achieve a low or negative population growth. Indeed, such a policy is only even arguably worth pursuing to overcome entrenched cultural or religious beliefs. The choice between widespread hunger and draconian government control is, after all, a choice between two very serious evils.

Malthus himself, ironically, was a clergyman. It is interesting to note that, in his day, Christianity tended to restrain population by censuring extramarital intercourse, but now both fundamentalist and orthodox forms of Christianity tend to encourage population by discouraging contraception. There is also a tendency to foster the attitude that “God shall provide” and to reiterate the biblical injunction to “go forth and multiply.” Such notions aren’t prohibitively painful in societies where food is cheap. Malthus wrestled with the obvious tensions between scripture and his observations in a world in which food wasn’t cheap. As a non-believer, I have no need to reconcile God with observable reality, but Malthus’s struggle in this area is nonetheless poignant. In his view, the divine purpose of the whole human enterprise was to produce enlightened minds. Cruel as it seemed, he could accept that God might sacrifice a few people for the sake of instilling both compassion and industry in others. He could not believe, however, that God would find a purpose in leading the whole of humanity into an abyss of suffering by encouraging them to reproduce without restraint. In the context of his times, and who he was, this was probably the most enlightened philosophical compromise that Malthus could make. It clearly pained him. We are indebted to his intellectual courage.


1 Available free online at http://www.econlib.org/library/Malthus/malPop.html , if you cannot find it in print.

2 http://www.sage.wisc.edu/pubs/articles/F-L/Kucharik/Kuch2005EarthInt.pdf

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