Malthus and the global peril Worthy Articles

Malthus and the global peril Featured

I DEPART from conspiracy theories and speculate on a phenomenon whose impact is now being felt worldwide. The world population currently stands at 7.683 billion ( The disturbing statistic is that it took 200K years since the appearance of homo sapiens to reach a billion at the turn of the 1800s; and a mere 200 years to reach 7 billion today. By 2050, at current growth rates, the United Nations predicts the world population could reach 9.6 billion. Demographic experts argue 10 billion is the earth’s maximum population carrying capacity; predicated too on another projection that earth can afford to feed only this much.

While in college, I was fascinated by the hypothesis of an 18th century philosopher, Thomas Malthus, whose writings centered on world population and its capacity to consume the earth’s resources. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” (Thomas Robert Malthus)

Malthus postulates that population grows geometrically while world food production only arithmetically — eventually, more mouths will need more of earth’s resources, so that population growth at some point will outstrip food supply. Other writers and philosophers waded into the debate on the carrying capacity of planet earth, where at the turn of the century many predicted worldwide famine and chaos would ensue. Malthus softened this position with his “Malthusian trap” theory stating that excess population would stop growing due to starvation brought about by shortage of food supply. He projected further that certain corrections will intervene in the form of natural preventive checks, either by government and totalitarian methods or “deus ex machina” forcing population and earth’s resources on an equilibrium or sustainable level. This is his “Malthusian catastrophe.” More benign proposals to correct this imbalance were later adopted by governments through population control; “…family planning, late marriages and celibacy.”

But 19th, 20th and 21st century technology advancement intervened, increasing food supply to go hand in hand with the growing population – again broadening the parameters for population growth and food resources, debunking Malthus’ original projections. But common sense dictates that eventually, something has got to give.

In an excellent article by author Jared Diamond “The Global Peril of Inequality” (National Geographic, December 2018), the effects of the Malthusian paradigm has been played out in a parallel venue — with a twist. His theme is that “Life on earth is at risk from climate change, nuclear attack, dwindling resources — and the chasm between the rich and poor.” These were unknown and could not have been predicted during the era of Malthus. The last two of the four risks are the subject of this article.

The conflict in population vis-à-vis use of resources has been translated into the world’s economic divide — the haves and the have-nots; the rich and the poor; the developed and developing countries. For millennia, the encroachment of the colonial countries on the share of the earth’s resources has been implacable. The victims were never totally aware of these striking disparities until exposed to the living standards partly contributed by the resources extracted from the victims themselves. Diamond blamed this on “globalization,” the result of the eventual interconnections worldwide. Diamond put this succinctly: “…Until recently those poor people elsewhere were no threat to rich countries. ‘They’ out there didn’t know much about our lifestyle — and even if they did and became angry, they couldn’t do anything about it.” No longer. They are now a threat not only to the “haves, the rich and the developed world,” but even to their own — from whence they came. They see the higher living standards of these countries and they want these for themselves, not accepting the fact that these developed countries have decades and generations to practice their exploitative methods. Diamond further posits “…people with spartan lifestyle want affluent ones. In most developing countries, increasing living standards is a top policy goal. But millions of people in those countries won’t wait to see whether their government can deliver higher living standards within their lifetime.” And these developing countries will not be able to deliver in the foreseeable future. Thus, notwithstanding each country’s internal dynamics, Diamond’s assertion will precipitate three general threats exacerbating the economic and social divide, fueled by globalization. Diamond summarizes these into three categories: health, terrorism and migration.

The spread of disease has been aggravated by “…travelers from poor countries where the diseases are endemic and public health measures are weak.” Airplanes accelerate in hours diffusion of infected food and passengers thousands of kilometers from the source.

Terrorism. “Global inequality itself isn’t the direct cause of terrorist acts. Religious fundamentalism and individual psychopathology play essential roles. Every country has its crazy, angry individuals driven to kill; poor countries have no monopoly on them. But in poor countries today, people are barraged with media visions of lifestyle that are available elsewhere in the world and unavailable to them. In anger and desperation, some become terrorists themselves; others tolerate or support terrorists.”

Migration. One of the greatest hoaxes propagated by developed countries is that adoption of good policies by governments led by honest and incorruptible political leaders eventually result in a similar improvement of quality of life for its people. This has been the guiding principles of the World Bank-IMF, the ADB and the multilaterals preaching the bible of good governance and good economic behavior. This is a cruel deception as the world’s resources are no longer available to emerging economies as they have been co-opted by the developed economies for decades. These countries can no longer enjoy the consumption rates that Americans, for example, take for granted.

Taking the average consumption of oil as a gauge for a quality of life, rich countries (the haves) with far less population have consumption up to 30 times as high as they are in poor countries (have-nots). This high figure is calculated as being enough for 10-fold the current world population — such a waste of resources!

This is where we revert to Malthus. The world’s resources are finite and technology can no longer mitigate the effects of a disastrous population bursting at the seams.

What is needed is a new global paradigm. Diamond proposes the equalization of consumption rates for all. US consumption is the most wasteful of all advanced economies. Western Europe, which has a similar life quality, has a consumption rate half that of America (per capita oil consumption) “ — and yet the average Western European’s well-being is higher than that of the average American by any meaningful criterion, such as financial security after retirement, health, infant mortality, life expectancy, and vacation time.”

To stave off the Malthusian disaster and the Global Peril, Diamond hints of the application by developed countries of their collective political will. America and the developed world need to lower consumption while maintaining a good quality of life and in effect improve the developing countries’ own. Studies also show that improvement in lifestyle stunts population growth.

This is what we must confront today. We only have one home — Planet Earth. We make it livable. Or we perish together.000
Read 446 times Last modified on Wednesday, 20 February 2019 14:10
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