Aletho News

ΑΛΗΘΩΣ

I Am So Tired of Malthus

By Willis Eschenbach | Watts Up With That? | September 8, 2010

Daily we are deluged with gloom about how we are overwhelming the Earth’s ability to sustain and support our growing numbers. Increasing population is again being hailed as the catastrophe of the century. In addition, floods and droughts are said to be leading to widespread crop loss. The erosion of topsoil is claimed to be affecting production. It is said that we are overdrawing our resources, with more people going hungry. Paul Ehrlich and the late Stephen Schneider assure us that we are way past the tipping point, that widespread starvation is unavoidable.

Is this true? Is increasing hunger inevitable for our future? Are we really going downhill? Are climate changes (natural or anthropogenic) making things worse for the poorest of the poor? Are we running out of food? Is this what we have to face?

Fortunately, we have real data regarding this question. The marvelous online resource, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics database called FAOSTAT, has data on the amount of food that people have to eat.

Per capita (average per person) food consumption is a good measure of the welfare of a group of people because it is a broad-based indicator. Some kinds of measurements can be greatly skewed by a few outliers. Per capita wealth is an example. Since one person can be a million times wealthier than another person, per capita wealth can be distorted by a few wealthy individuals.

But no one can eat a million breakfasts per day. If the per capita food consumption goes up, it must perforce represent a broad-based change in the food consumption of a majority of the population. This makes it a good measure for our purposes.

The FAOSTAT database gives values for total food consumption in calories per day, as well as for protein and fat consumption in grams per day. (Fat in excess is justly maligned in the Western diet, but it is a vital component of a balanced diet, and an important dietary indicator.) Here is the change over the last fifty years:

Figure 2. Consumption of calories, protein, and fat as a global average (thin lines), and for the “LDCs”, the Least Developed Countries (thick lines) . See Appendix 1 for a list of LDCs.

To me, that simple chart represents an amazing accomplishment. What makes it amazing is that from 1960 to 2000, the world population doubled. It went from three billion to six billion. Simply to stay even, we needed to double production of all foodstuffs. We did that, we doubled global production, and more. The population in the LDCs grew even faster, it has more than tripled since 1961. But their food consumption stayed at least even until the early 1990s. And since then, food consumption has improved across the board for the LDCs.

Here’s the bad news for the doomsayers. At this moment in history, humans are better fed than at any time in the past. Ever. The rich are better fed. The middle class is better fed. The poor, and even the poorest of the poor are better fed than ever in history.

Yes, there’s still a heap of work left to do. Yes, there remain lots of real issues out there.

But while we are fighting the good fight, let’s remember that we are better fed than we have ever been, and take credit for an amazing feat. We have doubled the population and more, and yet we are better fed than ever. And in the process, we have proven, once and for all, that Malthus, Ehrlich, and their ilk were and are wrong. A larger population doesn’t necessarily mean less to eat.

Of course despite being proven wrong for the nth time, it won’t be the last we hear of the ineluctable Señor Malthus. He’s like your basic horror film villain, incapable of being killed even with a stake through the heart at a crossroads at midnight … or the last we hear of Paul Ehrlich, for that matter. He’s never been right yet, so why should he snap his unbeaten string?

APPENDIX 1: Least Developed Countries

Africa (33 countries)

Angola
Benin
Burkina Faso
Burundi
Central African Republic
Chad
Comoros
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Djibouti
Equatorial Guinea
Eritrea
Ethiopia
Gambia
Guinea
Guinea-Bissau
Lesotho
Liberia
Madagascar
Malawi
Mali
Mauritania
Mozambique
Niger
Rwanda
São Tomé and Príncipe
Senegal
Sierra Leone
Somalia
Sudan
Togo
Tanzania
Uganda
Zambia

Eurasia (10 countries)

Afghanistan
Bangladesh
Bhutan
Cambodia
East Timor
Laos
Maldives
Myanmar
Nepal
Yemen

Americas (1 country)

Haiti

Oceania (5 countries)

Kiribati
Samoa
Solomon Islands
Tuvalu
Vanuatu

September 9, 2010 - Posted by | Malthusian Ideology, Phony Scarcity, Science and Pseudo-Science, Timeless or most popular

6 Comments »

  1. Bucky Fuller didn’t have much use for Malthus either.
    And I’ll take Fullers straight forward honesty over the elitist Fabian rhetoric any year of the day.

    \\ll//

    Comment by hybridrogue1 | September 9, 2010 | Reply

  2. But the quality of the food, like the quality of life in general, leaves much to be desired. Even assuming the oil never runs out, global warming is a hoax, and there’s plenty of industrialized food for everyone, what about the psychological effects of the increasingly expanding human population?

    Alethonews is an interesting site. On the one hand, it gives voice to the oppressed, including indigenous peoples. On the other hand, it seems to support the continued industrialization of the world. It just wants that industrialization to include the oppressed.

    I’m all for pointing out the absurdity of many of the myths we’re handed from the powers that be – myths seemingly concocted to advance an agenda that won’t include the vast majority of humanity. But at the same time, I don’t think we need to set up an either/or paradigm whereby if I say that the world is overpopulated, then I’m in favor of a Malthusian population reduction scheme.

    Many indigenous peoples practiced population control naturally. They kept a proper balance intuitively. I think the “left” errs in repeating the mantra of “finite resources.” In fact, nature seems to replenish itself pretty well, even given our increasing numbers. I would argue that our problem is not so much that we’re going to run out of trees, but that we’re ruining the landscape in which the trees grow, and, by extension, we’re psychologically ruining ourselves. Unless, of course, one enjoys all the pavement and strip malls, which is of course one’s prerogative.

    Water, on the other hand, is an issue, and, suffice to say, just because you can build a city in the desert and divert water from other places to sustain it, that doesn’t mean you should in fact do this.

    And that, in a nutshell, is the crux if the issue for me: I don’t believe all the doom and gloom about resource scarcity, but I also don’t think that we know how to practice restraint.

    In sum, just because we can feed everyone doesn’t mean that there’s not too many of us. And in stating that, it doesn’t automatically infer that one favors inhumane population reduction measures. I would hope that we can find a way to balance things naturally, so that these questions don’t arise in the first place.

    Comment by higginslads | February 2, 2014 | Reply

    • Actually, the highest production per acre is produced by traditional, labor intensive, organic methods. Malthusianism failed long before the industrialization of agriculture.

      The point to remember being that humans are the real resource. We are both capable and adaptive if left to our own free self determination.

      Also, population growth is seriously in decline. The real threat now being too few people within our children’s lifetime to maintain the society.

      Comment by aletho | February 2, 2014 | Reply

      • Aletho, thanks for your reply.

        “Also, population growth is seriously in decline. The real threat now being too few people within our children’s lifetime to maintain the society.”

        “To maintain the society”? What society? The society of the United States? The society of the New York City metropolitan area? The Itza in Guatemala? The self-sustaining intentional community known as the Possibility Alliance in Missouri?

        How is a slowing in the growth rate of the population, a rate which exploded in the past 200-300 years, going to imperil “society,” however you define it? Societies survived and thrived for millions of years when the population growth rate was far slower. Have we forgotten how to live that way?

        And if humans are the “real resource” and are adaptable as you say, then we’ll simply be creative and adapt.

        The population of the United States has almost doubled in fifty years. That’s, quite frankly, insane. And of course it took from the dawn of humankind until around 1800 to reach a billion people, and in about 200 years since that time we’re already at around 7 million. Even if it can be supported, it is in no way conducive to healthy psychological functioning, IMHO.

        Balance is key, and we don’t have balance now. I don’t think you have to be a radical environmentalist to know this. In fact, it’s not an intellectual endeavor at all. It’s a feeling. A feeling that things are out of whack.

        Indigenous cultures knew intuitively how to maintain balance. We don’t. We see ourselves as “the real resource,” to use your words, as opposed to feeling ourselves as part of a larger whole. It’s “man and nature” when it ought to be “nature, of which man is a part.”

        Because of the systems we’ve created, in all our infinite wisdom, it’s near impossible for one to live in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. We’re all in one way or another slaves to the clock, that wonderful device that causes so much anxiety and frustration. It’s a race to get nowhere.

        Well, I’m done. Thanks for the site and keep up the good work.

        Comment by higginslads | February 2, 2014 | Reply

        • Already today in Japan we can see abandoned villages and even towns. People prefer living in vital and dynamic communities. Outlying areas become depopulated first. Elderly people remain left behind. This is harmful to the social fabric. Many societies are already unnaturally aged ghettos.

          Perhaps the recent spurt in population is undesirable, but the correction would be better to be gradual.

          The important thing being respecting human rights first.

          The radical reduction of human population is a pipe-dream of the elites. A minimal number of drone humans to build and maintain robots in the service of an “ideal” number of superior beings. We must condemn this ideology. Reproduction is a human right.

          Comment by aletho | February 2, 2014 | Reply

          • “Already today in Japan we can see abandoned villages and even towns. People prefer living in vital and dynamic communities. Outlying areas become depopulated first. Elderly people remain left behind. This is harmful to the social fabric. Many societies are already unnaturally aged ghettos.”

            In America, while we do have a substantial number of people, particularly the younger folks, wanting to live in cities, there is also a sizable part of the population that is interested in “going back to the land,” so to speak, living in smaller communities, doing things locally, etc. These communities are vibrant in their own way, certainly not in the technical, instant-information sense of the cities and suburbs, but they have their own sort of cultural energy, albeit on a much smaller scale.

            I worry about the people who aren’t able to keep up with the often incredibly fast pace of “vital and dynamic” communities. I think the increasing pace of life is largely responsible for the incredible increase in “mental illness” the past hundred years or so. Of course, socioeconomic factors play a huge part as well, but interestingly many of the people currently in treatment for varying degrees of “mental illness” and addiction issues are in fact from well-to-do families. They have the economic and social opportunities that are deemed necessary to maintain personal health and well-being, yet they are still “falling through the cracks.” Something larger is going on, and personally I think it’s the pace of modern life that gets to so many people. If one can’t keep up with the pace or enthusiasm (shiny happy people) of those around him, he may invariably escape into the relative comfort of psychosis or drunken stupor. I can speak with first-hand knowledge of this dilemma, as I have experienced these hardships myself.

            “The important thing being respecting human rights first.

            The radical reduction of human population is a pipe-dream of the elites. A minimal number of drone humans to build and maintain robots in the service of an “ideal” number of superior beings. We must condemn this ideology. Reproduction is a human right.”

            On this we are in total agreement.

            Comment by higginslads | February 2, 2014 | Reply


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 654 other followers