Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Thomas Malthus Neglected to Factor In Human Ingenuity

Thomas Malthus was an 18th century English scholar and clergyman. His theories on population growth have led several generations of academics to predict mass starvation and the doom of civilisation, but to no avail. The global human population continues to grow, for now, due to human ingenuity.
Can there be “unlimited progress” in food production? Not sure. But Malthus would never imagine that, with 6 billion more people than in his day, we have a holiday dedicated to handing total strangers handfuls of free food. Utterly non-nutritional food at that!

You can’t really blame Malthus for getting this so wrong. Long-term forecasts are right devilish. Example, the London Times columnist who predicted in 1894 that by 1950, London would be buried under 9 feet of manure likely died before he could have any egg on his face. (Though, no doubt, he had enough time to surmise that the horse-dropping build-up was going awfully slowly.) There was no way for him to know in a few short years, the combustion engine would make horse-drawn transport a cute relic for honeymooners.

And that’s how these long-term forecasts go. The peak oil date certain (the point at which oil production hits an apex and starts falling) has come and gone multiple times over the past decades. Yet, since the concept of “peak oil” was first popularized by Marion Hubbert in 1956, the amount of oil we produce has increased vastly. So too has the amount of known reserves in the ground. There was just no way for him to predict we’d be drilling in thousands of feet of water—or “fracking”! (Heck, in 1956, “frack” was still what polite Dads said after their thumbs got in the way of their hammers.) Or that we’d even have the technology to find the oil (or gas) to deep-water drill (or frack).

The popular 1968 book the Population Bomb posited that in the 1970s, hundreds of millions would starve to death. The theory was that if food production is growing at X rate and the population growing at much faster Y rate, that could pose quite a problem. But then, along came Norman Borlaug, who invented high-yielding, disease-resistant dwarf wheat. (Thank goodness Norman’s mom wasn’t a Malthusian.) Now, dwarf wheat may make those who shun “frankenfoods” mad, but it also meant the emerging world’s burgeoning populations didn’t all starve.

...I don’t care what it’s on—economies, capital markets, wheat yields, hemline trends—long-term forecasts are fraught with peril. And ones that underestimate humanity’s ingenuity and ability to problem-solve are particularly faulty. Yes, pockets of the world face famine—usually in regions with corrupt, despotic governments. But overall, the world hasn’t outgrown its ability to feed itself. Someone invented the steel plow, the tractor, the threshing machine, better fertilizers. Handily, someone also discovered penicillin, the pasteurization process, the Polio vaccine and DDT so we have a better shot at getting past age 5. (And the iPhone too, so we can live, not starve and be entertained all the while.) Malthus didn’t think about the iPhone anymore than he thought about dwarf wheat or the MMR vaccine. That doesn’t make him a bad person, just rather unimaginative. _Forbes
Humans are suffering from a scarcity of ingenuity, inventiveness, creativity, imagination, vision, wisdom, and practical competence. The fact that the global average population IQ of humans appears to be in decline is not exactly a comfort to Al Fin social analysts.

But the tools of knowledge acquisition, correlation, and conversion to practical devices, are getting better. That means that fewer persons can accomplish much more than in the past. That is a fortunate trend, given the progressive march toward the Idiocracy occurring within the mainstream.

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Blogger Whirlwind22 said...

But can the world support more and more people? We are at 7 billion and rising. Will we run out of resources for them as people like Ruppert and Heinberg say that there are limits to growth. And that industrial civilization must collapse for the good of the planet.

7:01 PM  
Blogger al fin said...

Malthus asked the same question when the global human population was only 1 billion or less. Ruppert and Heinberg are not the ones to look to for inspiration, unless you just enjoy being depressed for no reason.

If humans continue electing stupid people to government, or allow themselves to be ruled by stupid dictators, a lot of people are going to die.

But if people used their imaginations and inventiveness, the planet could theoretically support many multiples of the current human population, ultimately.

But for what purpose? The Earth is the cradle of humanity. No one wants to live in the cradle forever.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Matt M said...

With enough energy we can create great hydroponic petri dishes to grow food.

Interestingly enough - human population is self limiting when people realize their offspring will survive to adulthood. In addition, weathly cultures are now in a population decline.

If you truly believe that Industrial civilization must collapse for the good of the planet - you should turn off your PC and scratch your comments on the sidewalk with a piece of chalk. Or else, you are a hypocrit.

5:36 AM  

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