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The latterday Malthusians

Summary:
Robert Malthus (1766-1834) is very much alive and well and living among us. His 1798 book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” made the point that starvation must come because population multiplies geometrically and food supply does so arithmetically. When a nation’s food supply increases, so does its population, until it reaches back again to subsistence and famine. In the future, said Malthus, there would not be enough food to sustain the whole of humanity, so people would starve. By a coincidence, it ceased to be true the moment he published it because the world was on the cusp of a shift to the mechanized mass-production that characterized the Industrial Revolution’s bridge to the modern world. Those innovations extended to agriculture and expanded food production. The modern

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Robert Malthus (1766-1834) is very much alive and well and living among us. His 1798 book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population,” made the point that starvation must come because population multiplies geometrically and food supply does so arithmetically. When a nation’s food supply increases, so does its population, until it reaches back again to subsistence and famine. In the future, said Malthus, there would not be enough food to sustain the whole of humanity, so people would starve.

By a coincidence, it ceased to be true the moment he published it because the world was on the cusp of a shift to the mechanized mass-production that characterized the Industrial Revolution’s bridge to the modern world. Those innovations extended to agriculture and expanded food production.

The modern Malthusians have included Paul R Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, published in 1968. It said that the battle to feed the world had been lost, and that in the 1970s hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation. Ehrlich has published many revisions of the book, always maintaining his thesis, but pushing the catastrophe dates forward.

By another coincidence, Ehrlich’s thesis ceased to be true even as he was publishing it. Norman Borlaug was at the time developing the Green Revolution, using high-yielding grains, expanded irrigation, modern management techniques, hybridized seeds, and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Borlaug was reckoned to have saved over one billion lives, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, two years after Ehrlich’s book came out.

More Malthusians came along in 1972 when the Club of Rome commissioned “The Limits to Growth,” predicting that the future would bring "sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity" (i.e. starvation and poverty). They looked at five variables: “population, food production, industrialization, pollution, and consumption of nonrenewable natural resources,” and assumed that all of them would grow exponentially, whereas the ability of technology to increase resources would grow only linearly. Critics immediately decried is as “simplistic,” underrating the role of technological progress in solving the problems of resource depletion, pollution, and food production.

The rise of obesity as a major problem has rather put starvation onto the back burner, but latterday Malthusians now stress other reasons why unchecked population increases will bring disaster. These include resource depletion, pollution, greenhouse gases, and even that there will not be enough space for everyone. All of these help to reinforce a Project Fear designed to force people to change their ways.

But along come renewable and clean energy production, electric and hydrogen powered vehicles, lab-grown meats, genetic engineering, CRISPR gene editing and Artificial Intelligence, among others that show the pace of technological advance is accelerating rather than increasing linearly. Modern projections predict the world population to peak at 10 billion, then decline. This is a manageable figure. And it looks as though the modern Malthusians will be confounded in their gloom by the one unlimited resource of human ingenuity and creativity. It will prove them as wrong as their predecessor was.

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