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Friday, June 5, 2009

The Myth That Malthus was Wrong

There is a widely accepted idea that we are NOT subject to Malthus'
notion that populations, including human populations, always
increase until reaching some limit where the available resources
won't sustain them. When that time comes there will be famine, or
other disaster, and the population will be greatly reduced.

But the truth is that it has happened many times in human history,
in many parts of the world. I was reminded of this recently when
watching a History Channel show about Europe's "Little Ice Age".
This occurred in the 14th century. Prior to that there had been 300
years of generally good weather in Europe. This led to excellent
crop yields, and also to expanding agriculture northward. This
greater food production had allowed the population to expand to
numbers never seen before in Europe. In the 14th century, when the
weather turned colder, and with long periods of heavy rain, food
production declined. This led, as was inevitable, to malnutrition
among a large fraction of the population, and that in turn led to
epidemics of diseases, which killed large numbers of people.
Europe's population was significantly reduced.

There is an excellent book, "Collapse", by Jared Diamond, which
describes similar events in many different parts of the world, and
at different times in history. So it is something the human race is
quite familiar with, although those living today in the World's most
powerful countries are not.

There is every reason to think that this will happen again. There is
a difference, though, when compared with past Malthusian
catastrophes, and that is the scale of globalization and
international interdependence. All of these events in the past were
local in nature, although some of them affected large regions.
Today, the world is functioning as an entity, at least in economic
matters. Very few, if any, nations are self-sufficient. The U.S. for
example, needs oil from abroad in order to grow the food which
sustains us. We need the energy in oil both for production of
chemical fertilizer and for transporting the food throughout the

Our technology has allowed us to expand yields by the use of
chemical fertilizer, and the development of new strains of plants
which can exploit that better than older varieties. But our
technology is useless against floods, droughts, storms, changes in
cloud cover, and temperature changes.

There will be disaster. The only way it can be avoided is to stop
the growth of the human population. But humans like making babies,
so we are not likely to do it on our own. It will take disaster to
do it for us.

I didn't say anything about WHEN there would be disaster. The good
news is that it won't be this year, or next, or any time very soon. The
bad news is that it will probably be in your lifetime, if you're under 50
years of age.



  1. The effects of the current demographic transition will still take some time. Meanwhile, you should join the efforts of making the other important transition from fossil fuels to renewables

    1. I agree that the transition away from fossil fuels, to renewables, is very important. I have solar panels on my roof that make me a net supplier of energy to the electric company. I'm grid connected, so the power flows back and forth, changing direction many times during a day.


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