Utopia beats Dystopia

Predictions Revisited

Let’s lay Malthus to Rest

After all that Halloween anguish about the global population reaching 7 billion, how refreshing to have an upbeat assessment of the world food situation! It comes from the retiring professor of sustainable development and food security at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “Hindsights in Perspective” was the title of Rudy Rabbinge’s farewell address, and you can see a press release about it here http://www.wageningenuniversity.nl/UK/newsagenda/news/RR_UK111129.htm

Two hundred years ago, Malthus predicted that the world would be unable to feed the growing population. The fact that he was manifestly wrong is illustrated by the current situation in which the population has increased seven-fold, but there is now more food per head available than in 1800.”

Other points from Prof. Rabbinge:


Rudy Rabbinge. Photo Wageningen U.

  • The notion of a present or future shortage is a misunderstanding – this is not the case anywhere in the world, except in China.
  • We do not need extra agricultural land in order to feed the world population in the coming decades.
  • The damage caused to the environment by farming has dropped considerably.
  • Ineffective policy, unequal distribution of production and poor food distribution still leads to a billion people going hungry — a disgrace that warrants a world-wide reaction.
  • Science gives cause for utopian thinking with good prospects rather than anti-utopian (dystopian) defeatism; whilst naive optimism is dangerous, unfounded pessimism is discouraging and frustrating,

Back in 1967, in The Environment Game (Secker & Warburg) I visualized an implosion of food production into small, intensive operations, such that most land could be restored to nature. This is a theme at Wageningen too:

Rabbinge refers to the energy-producing greenhouse (which could be operational in the coming years), energy-neutral buildings, and small-scale power generation by means of bio-solar cells. If agricultural production is concentrated at the well-endowed locations, geared up to high production, the world will be in a position both to sustain agro-biodiversity (the combination of natural disease control and biological control mechanisms in the fields) and to release areas of agricultural land for nature. This will require more energy per unit of area but less per unit of product.

Postscript: Prof. Rabbinge feels more affinity with the Malthus’s French contemporary, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet, who believed in dramatic change thanks to man´s ingenuity. You can see the Marquis de Condorcet’s book on Progress (1795, trs into English 1796) here http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_staticxt&staticfile=show.php%3Ftitle=1669&Itemid=27#toc_list Before getting too zealously utopian, please remember that Condorcet was a prominent supporter of the French Revolution but then died as one of its many victims. Failures are due to politics, not science and technology.

For earlier posts about Malthusian errors see: https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/the-population-bomb/ and https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/06/24/malthus-with-a-computer/


9 Responses to Utopia beats Dystopia

  1. Andrew McRae says:

    I think Malthus is frequently overemphasised and that the apparent non-reality of his specific prediction is then erroneously used to justify an equally unfounded general cornucopian carefree approach to societal development.

    Dr Al Bartlett has a series of videos which model the population as unlimited exponential growth, with the motive being to show this cannot continue forever for one reason or another, and that people do not have an accurate intuition about how quickly a limit can be reached under such growth. Ultimately exponential growth on a finite planet cannot continue in the manner to which our banks have become accustomed.

    More broadly speaking, Malthus will appear to be wrong every day right up until the day he is proven correct. The argument about Malthus predicting food as the limiting factor misses the point that some type of limitation will be reached that will stop population growth, it is physically inevitable. Let’s assume Malthus’ prediction never happens. The debate should be about whether we are smart enough and self-disciplined enough to bring about an equilibrium under our own terms and schedule, rather than the present course of rooting like rabbits, consuming like crazy, and letting nature roll the dice in a traditional boom-and-bust cycle, which was the order of the day in Malthus’ time – and still is today.

    If one wants to put the Malthusian cat amongst the Austrian pigeons, one might even say that the amount of effort and money being spent by the U.N. to improve technology, wages, and living conditions in developing countries mainly in order to lower the birth rate is an enormous vote of confidence in Malthus’ prediction by national economists around the world. After all, if such remedial efforts are deemed worthy by cost/benefit analysis, what kind of catastrophe are such efforts aimed at preventing? The Malthusian one of course.

  2. Max_B says:

    Global fertility levels have already fallen massively, from 4.5 per woman (1970-75) to 2.6 per woman (2000-2005) (Source: UNPopDiv: World Fertility Levels 2007). They are projected to continue to falling.

    Moderately developed/developed countries all exhibit the same fertility decline: Women choose to stop bearing children earlier in their life, and/or choose to start bearing children much later in their life.

    The ‘overwhelming’ reason for projected population growth is that globally we are living longer. The developing world is now going through the same thing the developed world went through, a rapid increase in life expectancy…. Average age of death is almost doubling… leading to a massive population increase:

    Most of the additional 2.3 billion people projected to be living on the planet by 2050 will enlarge the population of developing countries, and will be distributed among the population aged 15-59 (1.2 billion) and 60 or over (1.1 billion) because the number of children under age 15 in developing countries will decrease. (Source: UNPopDiv: World Population Prospects 2008 Rev.)

    Population growth is ‘inevitable’ upto the middle of this century, because of the reduction in mortality. Project this out further however, and Global Population is expected to be falling well before the end of this century.

    IMO it’s a non-story, country development/reduced mortality lead to a massive fertility decline, but you have to go through the population increase (ageing) to get there.

  3. Pascvaks says:

    The fly in the ointment of population growth (3rd World) and sustainment (Feeding/Medicine) is all too human. Regardless of what the scientists’ numbers say is possible, the next global war is likely to “reduce the surplus population” in a very Scrooge-like and uncivilized fashion. No doubt both sides will shed crocodile tears over the unfortunate collateral damage, but I’m sure, both will also claim it was totally unforseen and unavoidable. Aren’t people so nice? The difference between what is possible and what is allowed is, indeed, the rub.

  4. Dylan says:

    Unequal distribution of production and supply still leads to a billion starving mouths, yet the Malthusian Maniacs in their pathological fear and hatred of humanity, see this as EFFECTIVE policy.

    “U.S. policy toward the third world should be one of depopulation”
    – Henry Kissinger, 1978

    “Man, if you be a man, forbear that wicked thought”

  5. Steve C says:

    An observation on that ‘implosion of food production into small, intensive operations’ – which I would agree would be a desirable target. There are major problems in its happening, mainly due to the fact that those with an interest in ‘Big Ag’s’ monopoly of food production can (expensively) lobby and ‘advise’ governments far more effectively than can small producers.

    As it happens, there’s a comment on Watts Up With That today (in the thread about ‘Tallbloke’s’ computers being seized in the ‘Climategate’ investigations) which has two or three interesting, and worrying, links about official harrassment of small farming establishments in the US, and I remember not long ago Jo Nova reported on similar harrassment of a family farming business in Australia. The Watts Up link is: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/12/14/uk-police-seize-computers-of-skeptic-in-england/#comment-831854 – I don’t have a link for Jo Nova’s items, but there are plenty of references to similar stories around the internet. Should any GM pollen blow unwanted onto your – theoretically – non-GM fields, for example, the GM company can sue you into bankruptcy for ‘patent infringement’ when this is discovered; should a small farmer attempt to save seed for next year, the slightest trace of soil or fertiliser on the seed can result in box-ticking bureaucrats declaring his seed ‘contaminated’ and unfit for use.

    If those small operations are ever to become viable, there’s a lot of playing field levelling which needs to be done in the face of some very big vested interests which are doing very nicely, thank you, out of the present system. As in so many fields (no pun intended), our current ‘big-money politics’ fights reason.

  6. Wojciech_M says:

    I think that Malthus has become a victim of politics. I have read a Wiki entry about him. Also read Francis Fukuyama’s recent book about the history and dynamics of political systems. Plus looked into the history of scarcity of resources in the development of human populations. It seems that Malthus is right. Particularly, looking at the time he wrote his essays.
    Malthus wrote from an 18th century perspective – before innovations (industrial revolutions, education, science and technology) took place and enhanced available resources. He identified discrepancies between the rate of resources growth (linear) and the rate of population growth (exponential) saying that the expected production is insufficient for the population growth. As result, the growing populations needed colonies, new teritories. If those were unavailable then other processes were activated to reduce this inbalance. Processes like disease, war, hunger; wars were the method to obtain the scarce resources by subduing other populations. Malthus did not consider these “natural processess”, he suggested education aiming at limiting population (conscious late marriages, celibacy – at least a limited version).
    What happened was the Industrial Revolution(s). The innovations allowed us to multiply available resources, make better use of them or to switch from natural resources to synthetic ones (like fertilizers or plastics). Science, education and increased level of life triggered Malthus’ postulate about conscious reduction of female fertility – we got contraception, so the rate of population growth can be kept at bay.
    I think that everything we gained (lifestyle) can collapse, if we loose our innovativeness, or if we become poor (so we will have less access to resources, education, health care, everything that came with building resources by the work of the whole society). And then we will again face the situation Malthus described two centuries ago.
    I understand that we are more than locusts, and that we do not consume ever more and more :-). But I think that we are unjust to Malthus – he just described the plight of hundreds of years of human history up to his time; and I think he got a lot of things right.

    • calderup says:

      An interesting and well-reasoned comment. I’ve tidied up the English a little — I hope carefully.

      • Wojciech_M says:

        Dr Calder,
        Thank you for the corrections.
        Fukuyama’s book was extremly interesting, and he gave a credit to Malthus.
        I am reading Brian Fagan’s books on climate and history. A lot of CO2-unprecedented-human-influence voodoo, but the valuable thing is the description of the conditions of human life in the past. Unimaginable misery (although being 52 and from Poland, I do have some experience what a subsistence economy may look like); people hardly making 30-40 years, brutalised by menial work in agriculture, fishery, trade; decimated by diseases.
        Most interestingly, I look at the life in Europe in 1950s (in West Europe) – I bet none of us contemporaries would like to trade places with someone from that time.
        I visited two anthropological museums in The Netherlands – in Urk and in Giethorn. In both of them you could see how people lived in 1940-1950; how small their houses were; what life without electricity was like; how poor was the heating (they used peat); everyone slim, not so many calories there. Village shops were way better than in my Grandma’s village in Poland – but can we imagine how they compare to modern shops in these Dutch villages?
        (Google translator helps, but please note, that it is about last 100 years…)
        And we are talking about one of the most developed countries in 20. century…

  7. ecaldwell says:

    The Reverend Malthus’s first essay on population is still quoted. It should indeed be laid to rest—even it’s author repudiated it as wrong only a few years later.

    Henry George wrote a critique of it in his book Progress and Poverty (1875), (still in print and available on line at
    http://www.henrygeorge.org/pcontents.htm effectively disproving it.

    But, it sticks around like a bad smell because the Catastrophists and the Monetarists seem to need it to justify their policy propositions.

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