Malthusian Catastrophe

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A Malthusian catastrophe [mal-thoo-zee-uhn] would be a forced return to subsistence-level conditions due to population growth outpacing agricultural production. Population and growth size has a negative impact on the environment. Later formulations consider economic growth limits as well. The term is also commonly used in discussions of oil depletion. Based on the work of political economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), theories of Malthusian catastrophe are very similar to the Iron Law of Wages (real wages always tend toward the minimum wage necessary to sustain the life of the worker).

The main difference is that the Malthusian theories predict what will happen over several generations or centuries, whereas the Iron Law of Wages predicts what will happen in a matter of years and decades. The Industrial Revolution enabled the modern world to break out of the Malthusian growth model, however, various limited resources which may soon limit human population growth because of a widespread belief in the importance of prosperity for every individual and the rising consumption trends of large developing nations such as China and India.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus published ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population,’ in which he wrote: ‘The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.’

Notwithstanding this apocalyptic image, Malthus himself did not subscribe to the notion that mankind was fated for a ‘catastrophe’ due to population overshoot. Rather, he believed that population growth was generally restricted by available resources: ‘The passion between the sexes has appeared in every age to be so nearly the same that it may always be considered, in algebraic language, as a given quantity. The great law of necessity which prevents population from increasing in any country beyond the food which it can either produce or acquire, is a law so open to our view…that we cannot for a moment doubt it. The different modes which nature takes to prevent or repress a redundant population do not appear, indeed, to us so certain and regular, but though we cannot always predict the mode we may with certainty predict the fact.’

In any group some individuals will be more pro-fertility in their beliefs and practices than others. According to neo-Malthusian theory, these pro-fertility individuals will not only have more children, but also pass their pro-fertility on to their children, meaning a constant selection for pro-fertility similar to the constant natural selection for fertility genes (except much faster because of greater diversity). According to neo-Malthusians, this increase in fertility will lead to hyperexponential population growth that will eventually outstrip growth in economic production. This appears to make any sort of voluntary fertility control futile, in the long run. Neo-Malthusians argue that although adult immigrants (who, at the very least, arrive with human capital) contribute to economic production, there is little or no increase in economic production from increased natural growth and fertility. Neo-Malthusians argue that hyperexponential population growth has begun or will begin soon in developed countries. To this can be added that farmland deteriorates with use. Some areas where there was intensive agriculture in classic times (i.e., the feudal era) had already declined in population because their farmland was worn out, long before he wrote.

At the time Malthus wrote, and for 150 years thereafter, most societies had populations at or beyond their agricultural limits. After World War II, mechanized agriculture produced a dramatic increase in productivity of agriculture and the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ greatly increased crop yields, expanding the world’s food supply while lowering food prices. In response, the growth rate of the world’s population accelerated rapidly, resulting in predictions by Paul R. Ehrlich, Simon Hopkins, and many others of an imminent Malthusian catastrophe. However, populations of most developed countries grew slowly enough to be outpaced by gains in productivity. By 1990, agricultural production appeared to begin peaking in several world regions.

By the early 21st century, many technologically developed countries had passed through the demographic transition, a complex social development encompassing a drop in total fertility rates in response to lower infant mortality, increased urbanization, and a wider availability of effective birth control, causing the demographic-economic paradox (the inverse correlation between wealth and fertility). Developed and developing countries follow two distinct paths. Most developed countries have sufficient food supply, low fertility rates, and stable (in some cases even declining) populations. In some cases, population growth occurs due to increasing life expectancies, even though fertility rates are below replacement.

David Pimentel and Ron Nielsen, working independently, determined that the human population as a whole has passed the numerical point where all can live in comfort, and that we have entered a stage where many of the world’s citizens and future generations are trapped in misery. There is evidence that a catastrophe is underway as of at least the 1990s; for example, by the year 2000, children in developing countries were dying at the rate of approximately 11,000,000 per annum from strictly preventable diseases. These data suggest that, by the standard of misery, the catastrophe is underway. The term ‘misery’ can generally be construed as: high infant mortality, low standards of sanitation, malnutrition, inadequate drinking water, widespread diseases, war, and political unrest.

Regarding famines, data demonstrate the world’s food production has peaked in some of the very regions where food is needed the most. For example, in South Asia, approximately half of the land has been degraded such that it no longer has the capacity for food production. On the other hand, recent data show the number of overweight people in the world now outnumbers that of malnourished, and the rising tide of obesity continues to expand in both rich and poor countries.

On the assumption that the demographic transition is now spreading from the developed countries to less developed countries, the United Nations Population Fund estimates that human population may peak in the late 21st century rather than continue to grow until it has exhausted available resources.

Another way of applying the Malthusian theory is to substitute other resources, such as sources of energy for food, and energy consumption for population. (Since modern food production and logistics is energy and resource intensive, this is not a big jump. Most of the criteria for applying the theory are still satisfied.) Since energy consumption is increasing much faster than population, and most energy comes from non-renewable sources, the catastrophe appears more imminent, though perhaps not as certain, than when considering food and population continue to behave in a manner contradicting Malthus’s assumptions. A further way of analyzing resource limitation is the dwindling area for storage of soil contaminants and water pollution. The high rate of increase in toxic chemicals in the environment (especially persistent organic chemicals and endocrine disruptors) is creating a circumstance of resource limitation (e.g. safe potable water and safe arable land).

Ester Boserup wrote in her book ‘The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure,’ that population levels determine agricultural methods, rather than agricultural methods determining population (via food supply). A major point of her book is that ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ Julian Simon was one of many economists who challenged the Malthusian catastrophe, citing (1) the existence of new knowledge, and educated people to take advantage of it, and (2) ‘economic freedom,’ that is, the ability of the world to increase production when there is a profitable opportunity to do so. Friedrich Engels also criticizes the Malthusian catastrophe because Malthus failed to see that surplus population is connected to surplus wealth, surplus capital, and surplus landed property. Population is too large where the overall productive power is too large. Engels also states that the calculation that Malthus made with the difference in population and productive power is incorrect because Malthus does not take into consideration a third element, science. Scientific ‘progress is as unlimited and at least as rapid as that of population.’

Leo Tolstoy was also an outspoken critic of The Malthusian theory, stating in his ‘On the Significance of Science and Art’ that ‘It would seem as though they were scientific deductions, which had nothing in common with the instincts of the masses. But this can only appear so for the man who believes that science, like the Church, is something self contained, liable to no errors, and not simply the imaginings of weak and erring folk, who merely substitute the imposing word ‘science,’ in place for the thoughts and words of people, for the sake of impressiveness.’

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