Malthus: Population

Malthus stated that an increase in food led to a temporary improvement until population growth outstripped the improvement resulting in a net lower standard of living. This “Malthusian trap” lead to greater susceptibility to famine and disease, a “Malthusian catastrophe”.

We have had many Malthusian catastrophes; The Great Chinese Famine occurred from 1959 to 1961. The estimates of the death toll ranges from 15 to 55 million. The litany of Malthusian catastrophe includes recent famines and ancient societies such as Easter Island that utilized all of their available resources and collapsed. We forge the lesson of the Dust Bowl; our lives depend not on WiFi but healthy soil. Intact, self-restoring soil ecosystems are essential, especially in times of climate stress.

Overpopulation is clearly linked to disease epidemics, starvation, and social unrest. Some people believe, however, that Malthus oversimplified the matter, and that there may be ways to address a growing population without causing misery. Others suggest that the growing disparity indicates that a Malthusian catastrophe may already be occurring.

The idea that the human population is somehow immune to the limits to growth generates debate due to our ability to solve problems. We have repeatedly overcome obstacles to our natural limits. In the process we are destroying the fabric of nature and our resilience is diminished.

“How did you go bankrupt?”
Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

How did the collapse happen?
Two ways. Gradually, we overcame every little hurdle, then suddenly when one small hurdle tripped us up.

Human demands are outstripping the earth’s capacity to support human life. The resulting environmental damage will undermine food production. For example in the short term a serious drought leads to a drop in cattle prices as farmers liquidate their herds lacking the hay to feed them. Consumers are happy with the long warm dry summer days by the BBQ with the resulting short term cheap beef as the herds are liquidated but shocked a year later by the high price of beef as supply shortages prevail.

In the same way our increased production of low cost staples comes with a cost in terms of dropping fresh water aquifers, dropping soil carbon content, global warming, more intense storms, urbanization of cropland, and yet we can be proud of increased production of food and a slowing of the rate of increase in population, but the population coninues to grow. We are actually engaged in a dangerous form of delusional brinkmanship as our total numbers continue to grow.

Why Worry production is up, up, up

Demand continues to rise. Agricultural area is finite. Photosynthesis is a constant. Improved yeilds can be achieved with Genetic engineering. Those improved yeilds may be limited by climate, water and the mining of our soils.

Time will tell.

Based on current demand (biofuels, water shortages, growing population, stagnant agricultural productivity growth, a long-term annual production shortfall of around 2% exists which based on the highly inelastic supply curve for food crops will lead to sustained price increases in excess of 10% a year – sufficient to double crop prices in seven years.

>Wheat, Cotton yields up 3x from 1899 to 29.3 in 1969.
>Hay yields up almost 2x 1899 to 1969.
>Sorghum yeilds up 5x 1909 to 1969.
Production is up! Rate of population growth is down! Life is good!

The following edited excerpt is from Vaclav Smil
Department of Geography, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg.
Smil, V. How many billions to go?. Nature 401, 429 (1999).

The peaking of the population growth rate deserves wider recognition.

The rate of human growth has peaked, but the numbers continue to grow and will until after the year 2100; “I braked as I was driving thru the school zone, so at the time of impact I was decelerating much faster than my previous acceleration, in fact as I spun out of control, I was going backwards when I killed those kids.

The first milestone went virtually unnoticed, during the late 1960s, when the relative rate of global population growth peaked at just over two per cent a year. Slowly, the rate kept falling (to about 1.7 per cent by 1990), the absolute numbers of people however kept on increasing. Annual population growth surpassed 80 million people per year during the late 1980s, and in 1991 a projected a gain of 100 million people a year by 1995 and more than 100 million people before the year 2000.

The second demographic milestone occurred when the absolute annual growth of humanity also began to decline. Because of this UN demographers cut the forecasts twice: fertility is falling and the increase of the global population fell below 1.5 per cent during the early 1990s. As a result, the absolute increase peaked at 85 million new people a year during the late 1980s and it was down to 80 million new people by 1995.

As with other species, the exponential growth of humanity will end. The high UN long-range forecast sees the global population growing to no more than 10.7 billion people by the year 2050. Pinpointing the eventual value is beyond our ability, mainly because it is impossible to predict accurately the course of fertility and deaths.

Transition to low fertility has been accomplished in all affluent countries, the process is well advanced in most of Asia and Latin America, and there are clear indications that it is — finally — under way in sub-Saharan Africa, the largest remaining region of very high fertility. The UN’s medium (8.9 billion) forecast is based on the assumption that by the year 2050 total fertility will be almost universally no higher than the replacement ratio of 2.1 children per woman, compared to the current global mean of about 2.7.

Will Ethiopia and Nigeria with fertility above 6 be able to change so fast? China has done so since the 1960s, after a great famine. Few would argue that its population controls could easily be copied in Africa. And so the world population may undergo one more doubling to 12 billion. Even so, we may be seeing the beginning of the end of the growth of our species.

The question of course is: Can we sustain this level of human population on this planet?

The Chinese officially stated in 1981 that the famine was mainly due to the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward, Anti-Rightist Campaign, natural disasters and the Sino-Soviet split. The problems included requiring the use of poor agricultural techniques; the Four Pests Campaign that reduced bird populations (which disrupted the ecosystem); over-reporting of grain production; and ordering millions of farmers to switch to iron and steel production.

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