Sept 11 Journal
~ Sunday, June 13, 2004
Malthus exchanges -- Big changes coming quickly
In a previous email Alypius Skinner referenced several mass dieoffs, or civilization collapses
a. an 8k event (6000 BC)
b. the cutback of the 23rd century BC
c. the 6th century AD
d. the 14th century
e. 17th century
I gather that C is a reference to the fall of the Roman Empire although I understood that that occurred in the 5th century and D is a reference to the bubonic plague of the 14th century. Feel free to enlighten us as to the other dieoffs and/or point us in the right direction.
As you say, Malthus was in no position to predict the more than six fold increase in human population that has taken place in the two hundred years since his death. But rather than viewing this unprecedented population growth as a refutation of Malthus, we should instead recognize that it exemplifies Malthusian theory which simply suggests that population will grow in accordance with the increase in the food supply. The reason that we’ve reached 6.3 billion is because we’ve provided the necessary food -– just as Malthus theorized when he postulated that we need food to live.
Malthus is also often wrongly understood to have predicted apocalyptic collapse. Instead Malthus believed that the principle of population (that population tended to increase faster than food resulting in misery) operated CONSTANTLY which precluded the requirement of apocalypse. The constant operation of the population principle worked to prevent huge population crashes by keeping a large proportion of the population in misery, in other words, reducing their access to resources. Here’s how he put it in Chapter 2 of his famous 1798 Essay on Population
there is a constant effort towards an increase in population [which tends to] subject the lower classes of society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition…The way in which these effects are produced seems to be this. We will suppose the means of subsistence in any country just equal to the easy support of its inhabitants. The constant effort towards population …increases the number of people before the means of subsistence are increased. The food, therefore which before supplied seven millions must now be divided among seven millions and half or eight millions. The poor consequently must live much worse, and many of them be reduced to severe distress.
His findings are especially applicable today as we consider that only 2 billion of the world’s 6.3 billion people live a middle class or better existence. The world’s relative poverty, as predicted by Malthus, is reflected in the misery of the unlucky many, and the social, political and military turmoil that is a byproduct. The conflict in the Middle East, for example, has degenerated into an existential one over the area’s scarce land and water resources, with the stronger power, as always, repressing the weak.
We are now at a unique moment in history where the world’s economic growth especially in China and India and their concomitant increased energy and commodity demands, is beginning to have extraordinary impacts on the price of resources. Thus in the not too distant future we may see $100 a barrel oil – and all the misery that that entails for more than 90% of the world’s population. The coming increase in misery will encompass associated unpredictable political impacts due to higher prices and stalled economic growth.
Were it not for ideological blinders, such clear signs of the increasing scarcity of vital resources and their political and social effects would give the lie to the ignorant notion that the solution to the world’s problems is a matter of raising the world’s unlucky 65% out of poverty. As the song says, when will they ever learn that our poor earth is tapped out.
----- Original Message -----
From: alypius skinner
Sent: Thursday, June 10, 2004 4:46 PM
Subject: Re: [MalthusISM] NYT:China's aging crisis + Bleier
McD: The industrial revolution began at the latest
Historians routinely place the beginning of the industrial revolution about the middle of the 18th century--circa 1750--although clearly no fixed date is possible.
>but Malthus lived till about 1830.
He wrote his famous _Essay on Human Population_ in 1798--and at this time it was too early to foresee the full consequences, good as well as bad, of the IR. Just think: Adam Smith didn't even foresee the business cycle, which we today take for granted as endemic to credit-based industrial economies. Yet you seem to think that Malthus, in 1798, should have foreseen the huge increase in agricultural productivity (relying not just on division of labor as in Adam Smith's famous pin factory description, but on the discovery of oil, the internal comubustion engine, and petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides, as well as government-funded agricultural research centers and improved crop varieties--professional, organized science as opposed to hobby science was mostly still in the future when Malthus wrote) that resulted from the industrial revolution.
>My guess is
the rest of what you write is as way out as this is.
You guessed wrong, but I don't blame you. Most history books focus intensely on major political and sometimes religious and philosophical developments, but pay minimal attention to the other changes going on that precipitate many of the political and ideological developments.
>THere is no way humans can breed as fast as Malthus
held they could in relation to the many faster growing
populations they eat as food.
Malthus's point wasn't that population would grow at a specific predictable rate, but that it would grow to the limits of feasible food production. And even though he did not foresee the advent of scientific birth control--the first scienfically informed literature on this topic did not begin to circulate until about 1825, and, I should add, the result has been not only falling birth rates but also lower birth rates among the more capable members of society than among the less competent, which reversed the traditional pattern with consequences which we may already be witnessing in modern societies without recognizing the underlying genetic cause--even though he did not and could not have foreseen the advent of scientific birth control, population has increased to the point that we have minimal margin for facing another year like, for example, 1816, the "year without a summer," which resulted from the 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago. How many people would starve if that happened today? Population and resources are in balance now, but it is a very precarious balance.
Even if the sort of climate disruption that has occurred intermittently throughout the Holocene interglacial (a very stable period compared to 90% of the Pleistocene age, which the Holocene is a geoclimatological extension of, differentiated only by the flowering of human culture) does not, by some stroke of good fortune or divine mercy, recur for many centuries, we still face the danger that resource depletion may sabotage our ability to keep food production in balance with population. I know this possibility is routinely scoffed at by politicians, economists, and futurists, who insist either that abundant new resources will be discovered indefinitely or that adequate substitutes will be found indefinitely; but the former must be mathematically false and the latter has not been proven. Indeed, depletion of critical resources has yet to face its first test (although exponential growth in annual resource use strongly suggests that the first authentic test probably is not far away in historical terms), and we have yet to discover whether the common assumption--for that is all it is--that is routine among economists and futurists will prove true or not. I grant that "the stone age did not end from a shortage of stones," yet what would have happened if man had run out of stones before he could discover superior alternatives? Would we have advanced to the age of metals if we had first run out of stones? What if we don't develop substitutes before we run low on critical resources? Can we belatedly develop substitutes or will the shortage of key resources be too socially disruptive? We won't know the answer until we actually face the test. Barring the very rapid deployment of substitutes, the first tests will be in oil and natural gas, probably followed by coal and perhaps copper--all within this century. I don't mean that supplies will simply vanish, but they will be in seriously short supply. That will be our window to discover and deploy substututes--but that we will be successful is only an untested assumption.
And keep in mind that ever since the birth of capitalism in 10th century western Europe, population growth has been highly correlated with growth in energy consumption. What happens if the quantity of energy available for consumption falls? Will this 1000 year correlation continue to hold in that event? I think it will.
Do you remember that famous bet between Paul Erlich and Julian Simon? Erlich was a fool to make that bet (and a dishonorable fool since he didn't pay up). He clearly didn't understand the volatile nature of commodity markets in the short and intermediate terms. But in the longer perspective, it is Erlich and not Simon who is right. Commodity prices have been in a strong and persistent secular uptrend since the 15th century. According to the Foundation for the Study of Cycles, commodity prices tripled in real terms between 1460 and 1960.
Malthus has not been debunked. He is merely out of style. Wait a few decades, and you'll be hearing a lot more, and more serious, discussion of Reverend Malthus.
?>No matter how high
> you throw a stone, it always comes back down.
>There is little relation between that & population
Little, but important. Population size is ultimately subject to the "laws" of nature just as much as that rock in the air. The difference is that one is limited by gravity and friction while the other is limited by other forces. But we have lived in an age of exuberant growth for so many generations now that limitations on humanity seem somehow "unreal"--just as many people in the late 1990's could not imagine that the stock market would ever go down. We can all be millionaires someday--all 290 million of us--if we just buy on every dip and never sell. Nope. Markets fall, rocks fall, population falls, and sometimes precipitously. That was true in the past, and it will be true in the future. Ecclesiastes is right. The sun sets, and it also rises. What has been will be. There is nothing new under the sun--including the current episode of exuberant human expansion. All species explode in numbers under unusally favorable circumstances. Then the circumstances change and the population crashes. Us too.
Re Alterman on Kerry's Dance:
(see Alterman text below)
At the end of his column Alterman outlines the speech that we’re waiting for Kerry to make, the speech that would get him elected. The question is, why doesn’t he make the speech. It’s not for the lack of those who would give him such advice, as the Alterman column shows. The question is, why is he choosing to ignore such advice, and why has he so far accepted only the opposite, losing advice?
The situation reminds me of a comparable time in the 1988 Dukakis campaign when I read a similar column by David Broder in the Washington Post outlining the speech we were thirsting for from our candidate. In it he expressed pride in his record and his qualifications to be president and his determination to reverse the terrible policies of the Reagan years. Dukakis never made that speech. Afterwards, we realized that Dukakis couldn’t respond to the challenges of running a campaign and the challenges of the presidency because of domestic problems; namely his wife Kitty’s drug and alcohol abuse issues.
With Kerry it seems to be a different sort of problem. It may be that he does not have the temperament, the courage to be President. The job requires that he stand up for the issues he believes in against determined or even trivial opposition. Kerry appears to be someone who wants to be liked without any risk. His futile courtship of McCain is a good example of his fecklessness. Some of his cowardice may be evident in his war record, undistinguished at best, and marked by chicanery, fraud and perhaps worse by some accounts. At least one of his purple hearts was gained not through enemy action, but when he was hit in the arm by a tiny splinter when a bullet he or his men fired ricocheted off a rock. See Alexander Cockburn’s Counterpunch for more and worse details. The problem with Kerry is that he’s a phony, a person of no substance and the best thing about him may be that he is aware that he doesn’t have the mettle to be president. The only problem is: where does that leave us – and the rest of the world?
This article can be found on the web at
by Eric Alterman
[from the June 21, 2004 issue]
It may have the ring of cliché, but America's next presidential election will be among the most crucial events in contemporary history. Rarely in the modern era has the world seen such unchecked power exercised so ignorantly, arrogantly and with such profoundly counterproductive results as the Bush Administration's bait-and-switch invasion of Iraq. As Al Gore told an audience at NYU recently, "The unpleasant truth is that President Bush's utter incompetence has made the world a far more dangerous place and dramatically increased the threat of terrorism against the United States." The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Gore noted, has reported that the Iraq conflict "has arguably focused the energies and resources of Al Qaeda and its followers while diluting those of the global counterterrorism coalition." Al Qaeda now boasts an army of more than 18,000 potential terrorists, with the Iraqi war "swelling its ranks."
The horror is slowly dawning on everyday Americans. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, almost three-fifths of the people questioned disapproved of Bush's handling of the war--the highest level the survey has ever recorded. Meanwhile, a CBS survey revealed that just about two-thirds of those asked responded that the country was on "the wrong track," also the top level CBS has ever reached in the twenty years its pollsters have been asking the question.
Yet John Kerry remains roughly even with Bush in a straight-ahead matchup. There are many reasons for this. The Massachusetts liberal comes across as stiff and uncharismatic, and in America's personality-driven political culture, that matters far more than it should. Bush, moreover, has spent far more money on advertising than Kerry and has succeeded in casting him as an opportunistic "flip-flopper" among people who believe political ads. Much of the media, moreover, remain in thrall to Bush, having embedded themselves in this Administration's flight of ideological fancy and, like the New York Times's Judith Miller, published its spoon-fed propaganda as gospel.
(Miller recently escaped any censure from the Times for passing along untrue stories about Iraq's weapons program, which is only fair, since it was the editors' job to rein in her uncritical embrace of convicted embezzler and possible Iranian spy Ahmad Chalabi. In a more recent example of the same type of shameless shilling for the Bush Administration, CNN's Kelli Arena reported "speculation that Al Qaeda believes it has a better chance of winning in Iraq if John Kerry is in the White House." This was arrant nonsense, as the IISS had just reported that Al Qaeda was using Bush's Iraq invasion as a recruiting tool, having been allowed to fully reconstitute itself owing to this Administration's criminal neglect.)
Kerry's primary problem is that he has so far failed to distinguish himself in a fundamental fashion from Bush on the one issue that has destroyed the President's credibility. Bush & Co. fooled Kerry into voting to give them the authority to go to war back in 2002 on the basis of falsified evidence and meaningless promises, and Kerry has found himself in a straitjacket ever since. As the Los Angeles Times's excellent Ron Brownstein notes, the Kerry campaign's foreign policy focus is "less on criticizing the president's policies than on questioning whether he could provide the international leadership to implement them." Brownstein quotes a Democratic foreign policy analyst worrying that "the best he will be able to say is that Bush is finally doing what I said to do all along."
The election's dynamic is further complicated by the unwelcome presence of political kamikaze bomber Ralph Nader, whose uncured self-delusion is leading him once again to convert the genuine idealism and narrow-minded narcissism of his supporters into another victory for the reactionary Republican right. With his hypercautious position on Iraq--"measured," in the opinion of the New York Times--Kerry risks leaving many of those who rightly see the war as a catastrophe with nowhere to go to express their outrage. As with the election of 1968, an increasingly antiwar electorate is being offered only prowar choices for the presidency. It is just possible, therefore, that Nader may once again insure Bush's "victory" in the election, dooming the world to four more years of a neoconservative imperialism and rogue American militarism.
How can this be avoided? Quite easily, if Kerry could only admit to the entire country what he told me and a bunch of other reporters back in December in Al Franken's living room: Like so much of the country--and its elite media--he made a terrible mistake in trusting George W. Bush. He underestimated both the fanaticism and incompetence of the President and his advisers and their willingness to mislead the country into war. He thought George Tenet's CIA reports were on the level. He imagined Colin Powell was more than just window-dressing.
Today Kerry can stake his claim--together with considerable political cover--alongside the truth-tellers of the Bush era: people like John DiIulio, Paul O'Neill, Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson and generals Anthony Zinni and Eric Shinseki, who have seen their characters and reputations attacked for the sin of patriotism and professional responsibility. Without delving into too much hand-tying detail, he could promise America to extricate the nation from its hubristic Mesopotamian misadventure at the earliest possible moment. He could assure Americans that he will reunite our allies and the world community in an intelligent fight against Islamic terrorists whose enemy is civilization everywhere. He could reassure the nation that he will get America "back on track."
It is a simple, understandable message and one that is already implicitly endorsed by a majority of Americans. Unless the Democratic nominee rethinks his commitment to this neocon nightmare soon, he risks inviting a second Nader/Bush Administration, unshackled from the need to seek re-election, thereby unleashing its most belligerent and fanatical impulses. God help us.