Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Thomas Malthus, Brendan O’Neill, and the Population Problem

John Bedell

British curmudgeon Brendan O’Neill, editor of the online journal Spiked, recently wrote a fairly intelligent take-down of population alarmism. Despite the dire predictions of pessimists from Tertullian (ca. AD 180) to Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) to Paul Ehrlich, the human population is still growing, and the majority lives better than the majority of the much smaller population lived 250 years ago. Mass starvation seems further away than ever. The presence of the ascetic theologian Tertullian in the list of doomsayers shows that the fear of an ever-growing population is really a moral fear, or a sort of disgust inspired by humanity’s unpleasant characteristics. As O'Neill writes,

Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of ‘plague’ on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history. Malthusians insultingly refer to newborn babies as ‘another mouth to feed’, when in the real world another human being is another mind that can think, another pair of hands that can work, and another person who has needs and desires that ought to be met.

Well put, but even so I remain a proud Malthusian. I do not expect that we will experience mass starvation or social collapse any time soon. On the contrary, I expect that things will continue on much as they have for the past 200 years, with increasing wealth for many or even most people, but dire poverty for the poorest billion or two. Where I differ from O’Neill is that I think this situation is appalling. I think it is a terrible disaster that there should be a billion hungry people in the world. I think the degree of environmental devastation and human misery needed to sustain the progress we have made is shocking. I believe we still have poverty and hunger in a world of unprecedented technological wonders because we breed too fast. I believe we have only achieved the undeniable gains of the past 200 years because we have limited our fertility to much less than it might have been, and I think the key to maintaining human progress is reducing population growth to something near zero. I think that the presence of a billion desperate people distorts the world economy, making it certain that in any conflict between capital and labor, capital always wins, and that the best way to help the bargaining power of workers would be for there to be fewer of them. And I think that this imbalance has political ramifications, making it hard for the hungry people at the bottom to achieve real democracy. Things can be bad without leading to mass starvation and the collapse of civilization.

One thing O’Neill misses about Thomas Malthus himself is that while his predictions were off, his history was impeccable. Over the past 150 years, the industrial and scientific revolutions have transformed the world at an unprecedented rate, making it possible for us to create a well-off middle class larger than the population of the whole world in Malthus’s time. But before his time, new technologies that led to more production always led to more population growth, with the result that most people were in the end no better off. Compare a poor peasant of classical Egypt to his ancestor of 10,000 years before. By examining the skeletons of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, we can see that they were better fed, had less disease, and lived longer than classical peasants. All the great technological advances of the Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron Ages – agriculture, pottery, the domestication of animals, the smelting of metals, the taming of the Nile floods and the construction of elaborate irrigation systems – multiplied production a hundred-fold. But that only led people to have more children, and as the Nile valley grew more crowded, the gains of progress were divided among more and more people, so that in the end most were still underfed. The greatly increased crowding led to epidemics of infectious disease. A mostly grain diet gave people bad teeth. Of course, the wonders of civilization – kings, palaces, pyramids, armies of chariots, great works of art, brilliant mathematics, monotheistic theology – were spun off along the way. But the people at the bottom stiff suffered cruelly. They were also less free, their lives now constrained by the need to get along with their thousands of close neighbors, by taxes imposes to pay for the glories of the pharaohs and the vast network of awe-inspiring temples, and by laws those elites wrote to insure their own dominance. Whether being part of a world that included pyramids, great temple complexes, and the like made peasants in any meaningful way better off is, I submit, a hard question.

Fast forward to the medieval Europe. In the 11th and 12th centuries Europeans began to implement wide-ranging agricultural improvements, including grain crops better adapted to northern climes, better plows, more sophisticated regimes of crop rotation, and the like, which led to increased food production. The weather also helped, and stronger governments may also have provided better order. Trade flourished. So, of course, the population began to grow. By around 1300 it had reached the new, higher limit afforded by the new technologies, and misery grew more widespread. When the weather turned worse, around 1320, the result was terrible famines. Poor people were as badly off as ever. Then, in 1348, the Black Death came and swept away about a third of Europe’s population. The result? In western Europe, wages for workers rose so high that governments tried to impose limits. With shortages of workers everywhere, people moved to new farms, or to towns. Suddenly, poor people were much better off.

The pattern repeated itself in the 18th century, when a wave ofPollution in China technological improvements and new crops led to rising production, which led to population growth, which led to increasing misery and, by 1820, the return of famine across Europe. The Irish peasants of the 1840s lived in a world of steam ships, mechanical reapers, and sophisticated crop breeding, but none of that helped them when the potato crop failed.

Since 1850 we have outrun the Malthusian scissors, our technology racing ahead so fast that we have become wealthier even as our numbers have soared. But look at the cost: forests cut down, rivers turned into sewers, seas poisoned, millions of working people used up in the mines and mills, whole indigenous cultures wiped out to seize land for the expansion of "civilization." Life remains a desperate struggle for millions despite our scientific wizardry because we keep on breeding. The dire poverty of sub-Saharan Africa and rural India is a direct consequence of population growth that has outrun the modernization of their economies. Of course, those parts of the world may modernize in their turn, and in a century Mali may be full of middle-class people living comfortable lives in teeming cities. Between now and then, though, millions will have lived in dire poverty, and tens of thousands will have died of hunger and disease.

The main plus that I think can be put on the side of a higher population is that more people means more innovation. The steady acceleration of technological and social change in the modern era may be the product, in a farily simple way, of the growing human population and the growing inter-connectedness of the world. The more connections between people, the more innovation. If this is so, then the rapidly rising population of our world has been one of the main causes of our amazing progress. I have to say, though, that I don't regard the extraordinary progress of the past 200 years as an unmitigated blessing. Why did European civilization go insane in the first half of the twentieth century, spinning into the maelstrom of world war, communism, fascism, and genocide? The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that humanity was unhinged by progress so rapid that it made us crazy. It seems to me that if our population and rate of innovation had stayed at the level of 1750 we would eventually have reached the green revolution, space travel, and the internet, and perhaps avoided the twentieth-century crisis. Of course, we can't rerun history with slower rate of population growth, and that isn't really the point. The point is that the simplest way to bring the blessings of hi-tech living to the billions of poor people in the world would be to drastically slow population growth. That way we can finally put an end to the maddening race between population and resources and insure that we have enough for everyone to live a decent life. This goal is within our reach, but only if we bring population growth under control.

December 10, 2009

From the 
Commonplace Book

The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. . . .  epidemics, pestilence and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.

--Thomas Malthus

We now have in our hands—really, in our libraries—the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years.

--Julian Simon



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