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True Causes and Others: Three Letters regarding Malthus and 7 billion

December 6th, 2011 |

Thanks very much to Ronald Bleier for this fascinating essay on Thomas Malthus.  It is well worth reading to find out what Malthus really said in his 1798 essay on population.  To download a copy, visit https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B5F-idWfw7TeYzUwY2VkZjMtNmViYi00MzhlLWI4MTMtOGJlNDExODcyZjNj

 

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One Response to “True Causes and Others: Three Letters regarding Malthus and 7 billion”

  1. Sam Hopkins Says:

    Re: Ronald Bleier’s fascinating essay on Thomas Malthus

    I agree with everything Bleier said. I have always been upset at how the misrepresentation of what Malthus actually said has been used “straw man” for arguments to “prove” that Malthus was wrong.

    But to not look beyond what Malthus could see in his time is a pitfall. Permit me to say that Malthus was much too optimistic!

    Darwin was certainly aware of the collapse of species. But I don’t think that Malthus every imagined a total collapse with or without extinction for the human species. I don’t think he saw that the chronic misery suffered by part of the human population or even the fall of Rome were far less catastrophic than what could happen to humans after 200 years of frenetic growth fueled by nonrenewable resources, new technology, and the resulting unprecedented growth in absolute numbers of humans.

    I contend that he could not and did not come close to foreseeing the huge 90% or more collapse in human population size that is now the risk brought upon us by the huge population growth and what the population has done to the earth since 1800.

    The graphs in Limits to Growth 40 years ago, Catton’s book, Overshoot in 1980, and Peak Oil charts for decades, show that Malthus’s only error was to be too optimistic!. Limits to Growth was far more ominous that its title suggests. It was and is really about the limits to OVERSHOOT AND THEN TO THE LIFETIME of advanced civilization.

    So, I don’t believe that Malthus foresaw the problem we now call “overshoot.” He did not foresee that despite the billions always living in misery in the last 200 years that the world population could rise to be 10 or more times greater than what is sustainable beyond a date as early as 2050.

    Another way of explaining what Malthus could not imagine before the industrial revolution got really rolling is to calculate the number of years that any of our past “moments in time” (population size and and consumption levels) could have been sustained as is. I contend that we can make good enough estimates to be useful for teaching purposes.

    So, then we can look back an calculate for how long each stage of our advanced civilization could have been sustained. We then will see that every 10 years or so that number would drop. We will see that technological advances have NOT made civilization more sustainable. And how population growth is caused by technology and negates any “sustaining” effects of technology is only one reason that technology does not, all things considered, make civilization more sustainable. Sure, we can nitpick about the assumptions that must be made in order to make these estimates. Perhaps that is why no one has wanted to make them. But I contend they can be made well enough to help teach how difficult it is any of the forms and levels of civilization we have had since 1800 to be sustainable for very long.

    As Dennis Meadows and others have said recently, the Standard World Model in Limits to Growth turned out to be good forecasts of what has actually happened in the last 40 years. The nitpickers (and worse) who attacked the book in 1972 said that it did not allow for technology. Well technology has certainly changed. But the curves still have proved good predictors of our approaching the limits. So, then look further to the right on that chart. What do you see? You see collapse of the world’s civilization.

    So, for at least 200 years we can show that with each advance in the industrial revolution, energy and other resource use, the predicted “lifetime” of that level of population and resource is dramatically less than what existed only 10 or 20 years previously.

    Malthus cannot be faulted for not imaging this, for he did not have access to all the evidence of our capacity for overshoot, as well as evidence of it, that we now have.

    Also note that even despite all the evidence we have had for a hundred years, most humans have been in denial. Our refusal to accept or even look at a “Hubbert’s Peak” graph, especially with a timeline of ca 500 years before and after the peak, says it all!

    So, I suggest that we cannot fault Malthus for being too optimistic — for not imagining this much greater disaster that our astounding “progress” after 1811 would threaten mankind with in 2011?

    At the same time we cannot use Malthus’s failure to imagine this threat to mankind as a reason to deny that the threat is real and deserving of concerted action by all mankind to at least attempt to mitigate the severity of the collapse.

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