Friday, January 29, 2010

The Oldest and Most Important Debate

Pardon this short run into the thickets of intellectual history.

At the risk of boring people, I am going to talk about the roots of one of the oldest and most important debates in the world -- human population growth.

Specifically, I am going to talk about one person you have probably heard of (and not read) and another person you've probably not heard of (and not read).

The first person is Thomas Malthus.

The second person is the Marquis de Condorcet.

I am going to structure this little post around 7 questions:

  1. What did Malthus say?

  2. What has really happened?

  3. Where did Malthus go wrong?

  4. What did Condorcet say?

  5. Was Condorcet right?

  6. Why did Malthus Rebut Condorcet?

  7. What does this have to do with the U.S. and the modern world?

And, if you read to the bitter end, I will give a hint (and a link) as to how this all relates to terriers.

The False Promise of Malthusian Misery

Rev. Thomas Malthus's pessimistic 1798 tract on population was a response to essays and tracts previously published by William Godwin and the Marquis de Condorcet (both of whom are named on the title page and quoted by Malthus).

While everyone has heard of Malthus, very few people have heard of either Godwin or Condorcet even though Condorcet's predictions have been far more "right" than those of Malthus.

At their essence, Malthus, Godwin and Condorcet were arguing about the "perfectibility" of humans and the role of class not, as some some believe, about the environment.

To put it bluntly, the question was whether humans were nothing more than rutting pigs doomed to breed like rats and die like flies, or whether we were a species that could learn, pass information across time and space, and exercise self-restraint?

In addition there was another question to be answered: Was a tyrannical class system that exploited the poor part of the "natural order of things," or could social equality and freedom lead to a better world?

These debates are still being waged.

Ironically, while Malthus gets all the attention, Condorcet and Godwin are very much the winners in the real world, as shown by the rise of voluntary family planning and the decline of fertility rates all over the world, the steady improvements in human diet all over the world, the rise of democracy, and the rise of free trade.


Malthus postulates that "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio"

Curiously, Malthus gives no evidence to support this claim, nor does he suggest any means for "checking" population growth other than "misery" (starvation and disease) or "vice" (war and contraception).

Malthus argues that humans are entirely captive to their passions, noting that "No move towards the extinction of the passion between the sexes has taken place in the five or six thousand years that the world has existed," and that such passion will naturally produce more people, less food, lower wages and misery.

Malthus writes that "Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race."

Condoms, cervical caps and vinegar douches were well known in Malthus's day, but Malthus opposed them, calling them a "vice," arguing instead that men and women should practice abstinence until marriage (i.e. the Bush Administration's family planning program).

Did Malthus think abstinence would work?

No. In reality, he thought death was the only way out.

Malthus was not just a passive observer of death -- he was a cheerleader for the Grim Reaper. In fact, Malthus specifically suggested public policies to encourage a rise in the death rate. He wrote that:

"Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases: and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. If by these and similar means the annual mortality were increased ... we might probably every one of us marry at the age of puberty and yet few be absolutely starved."

According to Malthus helping the poor would simply result in more poor people. A growing population would result in falling wages (more people means cheaper wages) and rising food prices (since food can only grow in an "arithmetical ratio"). In the end, everyone would be worse off. Since death was the inevitable outcome, he thought we should get the process rolling early on by cutting off aid to the poor and, in fact, encouraging more disease.


Malthus was wrong on almost every point.

Since Malthus's time, and before, food production has outpaced human population growth, while longevity has increased, disease has declined, income has risen, and voluntary family planning has been widely embraced.

As Jared Diamond has noted:

"We're better off in almost every respect than people of the Middle Ages, who in turn had it easier than cavemen, who in turn were better off than apes. Just count our advantages. We enjoy the most abundant and varied foods, the best tools and material goods, some of the longest and healthiest lives, in history. Most of us are safe from starvation and predators. We get our energy from oil and machines, not from our sweat. What neo-Luddite among us would trade his life for that of a medieval peasant, a caveman, or an ape?"

In fact, there is no question that for humans things are better today than they were even 10 years ago, and that this improvement has been both regional and global.

Not only is the percent of hungry people in the world now in decline, but so too is the absolute number. Contrary to Malthus's prediction, we have fewer and fewer hungry people, not more!

Income is on the rise too: between 1990 and 1999 the percent of people living on less than $1 a day in the developing world dropped from 29% to 23%, while the percentage of people with telephones increased eight-fold!

Maternal mortality and child mortality are also in decline, while across the world people are eating not only more food but better food (i.e. the food they want to eat).

All of this has occurred while, in the last 12 years, the world has ADDED more people to the world than EXISTED during Malthus's own time!

Perhaps most ironically, natural population growth in Great Britain -- Malthus's home country -- has stopped altogether, and that nation is now importing poor people from other nations - a pretty farm cry from a nation captive to unrestrained "passion between the sexes."

According to Malthus, this should be not be happening.

Please note that this decline in hunger is not a new trend -- it extends back more than 30 years and is expected to continue for as far as UN food projections are made.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, malnourishment fell from 37 percent of the population in the developing world (1969-70) to 28 percent (1979-81) to 20 percent (1990-1992) to 17 percent (1998-2000). In absolute numbers, the number of malnourished declined from 960 million people to 798 million people during this same period of time.


How could Malthus have been so wrong?

If we set aside the "original sin" and religious underpinnings that are at the core of Malthus's world view, we find four "stasis" assertions underpinning Malthus's population and food thesis:

  1. Malthus assumed human population growth would largely be driven by fertility. In fact, that's not what happened. Fertility stayed the same, but MORTALITY went down as indoor plumbing went in, deeper wells were dug, rats were exterminated, and trash collection systems were operationalized. If Malthus had been paying attention, he could have anticipated this, as rat catchers and indoor toilets were growing concerns in his own day, and death rates were already falling. Instead of anticipating the future, however, Malthus assumed HEALTH CARE STASIS, and with it an age structure built around childhood dependency rather than increasing numbers of productive adults. Instead of a population getting sicker and less productive, people got healthier and more productive.

  2. Malthus assumed a localized, sustenance-based, agrarian economy. If Malthus had been paying attention he would have noticed the changing nature of his own economy. In fact, rapid urbanization was already occurring, as was the rise of manufacturing and long-distance trading. Malthus's assumption that most employment (and therefore wages) would be derived from agricultural efforts assumed ECONOMIC STASIS. In fact the rise of large farms and increased agricultural mechanization was already occurring (the cradle and scythe, the cotton gin, and the first cast-iron plow were all patented a few years before Malthus began writing), as was international trade. Both phenomenon resulted in a decline in the cost of food and an increase in manufactured products as capital was diverted to better housing, better shelter, and improved infrastructure systems (schools, roads, ports, water and sewage systems, etc.). Instead of people getting poorer as populations rose, people grew marginally richer, and the hardships of previous generations began to ease.

  3. Malthus was hamstrung by an a priori desire to preserve the social order of his day and by his training as a cleric. Denigrating the poor is nothing new. In fact, across time and culture most people think people that are poorer than themselves have "bad values," while those that are richer are merely "lucky." Malthus was no different, arguing that because poor people could not control their "passions" they were doomed -- a kind of "original sin" argument. Quoting the Bible, Malthus quite literally informed his reader's that "the wage of sin is death" and that this was the natural order of things, as was the class system (a sentiment that was music to his reader's ears). To gild this philosophical lily, Malthus tossed out unsupported mathematical assertions about populations growing at "geometrical ratios" and food growing "only in an arithmetical ratio". It sure SOUNDED like science, and no one thought to argue.

  4. Malthus knew next to nothing about agriculture. In fact, agricultural production does not necessarily increase at a plodding rate as Malthus assumed, and agricultural outputs were being boosted in his own day through applications of fertilizer, water, insecticides and the careful selection and creation of animal breeds and plant hybrids. In fact, Europe already had cloning labs in the form of monasteries devoted solely to grafting more productive fruit trees. Instead of talking to farmers about the speed of agricultural innovation in his day, however, Malthus simply assumed AGRICULTURAL STASIS.


Who was the Marquis de Condorcet?

Condorcet was a French philosopher, mathematician, and sociologist and a leading figure in the French Enlightenment. It was Condorcet's last piece, written just before his death in 1775, that sparked Malthus's rebuttal tract on population.

Condorcet's very long essay was entitled an "Essay on the Progress of the Human Spirit," and in it Condorcet argues that science, reason, and education, together with the principles of political liberty and equality, will soon lead humanity into a new era of happiness.

Malthus, of course, argued that Condorcet was wrong.

According to Malthus, a growing population would eat up the benefits of scientific progress and lead to a perpetual grinding up of humans in the maw of misery (war and disease) and vice (war and sinful birth control). In the Malthusian world, we are all Sisyphus, rolling the rock up the hill by day, and watching it roll down on us at night. Trapped by unbridled "passion between the sexes" we can temporarily expand our numbers, but starvation, disease or war will eventually catch up and hammer us down. According to Malthus, there is nothing to be done, or that should be done, to prevent this. Crushing poverty for the majority of the world is the natural order of things, and alleviating it is as hopeless a task as teaching a pig to sing.

Malthus argued that helping the poor only creates more poor people, and that if people refuse to delay marriage and embrace chastity, then not only are they doomed to die in droves, but society should actively take steps to exacerbate misery in order to speed up the process so that people might see the error of their ways ("In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague.")

While Malthus essentially advocated germ warfare against the poor, Condorcet advocated for the creation of a Social Security system and education of women and the poor, and prophesized the end of slavery and the rise of free trade.

Condorcet said he thought economic and social progress in developing countries would spring forward much faster than it had in Europe because these less advanced countries would have the European model of success to emulate and copy.

Writing in his "Essay on the Progress of the Human Spirit," Condorcet argues that:

"The progress of these peoples [folks in undeveloped countries overseas] is likely to be more rapid and certain than our own because they can receive from us everything that we have had to find out for ourselves, and in order to understand those simple truths and infallible methods which we have acquired only after long error, all that they need to do is to follow the expositions and proofs that appear in our speeches and writings."

Unlike Malthus, who believed people were largely doomed to repeat their mistakes, Condorcet thought people could learn across generations and, if given opportunity and liberty, great things would happen including increased trade and agricultural production.

While Malthus argued that "geometrical" population growth would always outstrip "arithmetical" agricultural production, Condorcet argued that science would find ways to dramatically increase agricultural production.

Writing in his "Essay on the Progress of the Human Spirit," Condorcet argues that:

"A very small amount of ground will be able to produce a great quantity of supplies of greater utility or higher quality; more goods will be obtained for a smaller outlay; the manufacture of articles will be achieved with less wastage in raw materials and will make better use of them.... So not only will the same amount of ground support more people, but everyone will have less work to do, will produce more, and satisfy his wants more fully."

Condorcet anticipated this abundance would lead to increased population growth, but he also believed that people would engage in voluntary family planning as incomes, education and knowledge rose.

In the Tenth Chapter, of his "Essay on the Progress of the Human Spirit," Condorcet writes that:

"But even if we agree that the limit [to population growth] will one day arrive ... we can assume that by then men will know that, if they have a duty towards those who are not yet born, that duty is not to give them existence but to give them happiness; their aim should be to promote the general welfare of the human race or of the society in which they live or of the family to which they belong, rather than foolishly to encumber the world with useless and wretched beings. It is, then, possible that there should be a limit to the amount of food that can be produced, and, consequently, to the size of the population of the world, without this involving that untimely destruction of some of those creatures who have been given life, which is so contrary to nature and to social prosperity."

In short, according to Condorcet, people would voluntarily limit the size of their families, with the goal of raising HAPPIER families, rather than simply LARGER families.

Unlike Malthus, Condorcet thought "population enlightenment" would occur as a natural product of freedom, democracy, education, science, and increased egalitarianism. As people did better, learned more, and gained increasing amounts of political and economic liberty, they would also voluntarily embrace one of the most fundamental types of self-determination -- the tools to control their own family size.


As Condorcet anticipated, shared knowledge across time and space has dramatically boosted both agricultural production and personal income, with "each successive generation" amassing "larger possessions ... as a result of this progress."

As Condorcet anticipated, the spread of democracy has increased across the globe, and modern societies across the globe have embraced Social insurance "safety nets" to protect the poor and aged.

Condorcet argued that improving the status of women and making investments in female education were critical to economic and social development. This is now widely accepted all over the world, even among social conservatives.

Condorcet anticipated that increased food production, combined with a rise in international trade and an increase in personal wealth, would result in an increase in the number of people on earth. This too has occurred as he predicted.

Most remarkably, however, Condorcet argued that in time this population growth would slow as people came to understand that the greater good was not in making more people, but in making more happy people. The kind of voluntary slowing of population growth that Condorcet predicted has occurred in Europe, Canada, the United States, Japan, and increasing numbers of developing countries (Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Iran, Brazil, etc.) Indeed, across the globe today, nearly half of all the people on earth are now living in countries that have replacement level fertility rates or less.


Condorcet did not argue that there were no limits to population growth, and Malthus's rebuttal of Condorcet was not driven by a desire to state that there were limits to human population growth.

Instead, Malthus's essay was motivated by a need to rebut Condorcet's dangerous assertion that everyone would do better if everyone had more economic, social and political freedom.

Malthus and the landed aristocracy of his day in England were living at a time of rapid economic change -- a time social historian Karl Polyani has called "a revolution of the rich against the poor."

Poverty in Elizabethan England was not being driven by population growth as much as it was by the process of "land enclosure" which sought to push people off the land in order to enable the already rich to get even richer by raising wool for the rapidly expanding international wool trade.

As the BBC notes,

"Land enclosure meant that the traditional open field system whereby individual peasant farmers could farm their own pieces of land was ended in favor of creating larger and more profitable farming units which required fewer people to work on them. As the wool trade became increasingly popular, these units were often dedicated to rearing sheep. As a result, many people who had lived and worked in the countryside their whole lives found themselves without any means of support and, in many cases, evicted from their homes."

In short, in the "new economy" of sheep, most of the old tenant farmers were "surplus" or redundant, and across England their homes were literally pulled down or torched.

As the "redundant poor" were pushed off the land, more and more poor people were crowded into cities and towns. "Poor taxes" on the wealthy increased by 75% between 1802 and 1818 as the number of people made poor by the enclosure system rose to dizzying heights -- and with it social unrest.

Condorcet's theories of social, economic and political equality were seen a threat to the "new economic order," and Malthus sought to rebut Condorcet by offering a new, seemingly scientific-sounding, rationale for cutting the rapidly rising poor taxes being paid by the rich.

According to Malthus, the poor were not poor because of the enclosure system, but because they had too many babies and because they were not living a chaste life. So long as the poor bred like rabbits, they were doomed to die like flies. According to Malthus, there was nothing society should do to intervene, except perhaps to make it a little more orderly by constructing punitive workhouses.


Students of American history might note some parallels between late 18th Century England and mid-20th Century America.

As southern historian Will Ferris has noted, the "new economy" that began to appear in the American South after about 1935 was built on tractors and mechanical harvesters rather than mules and men. With the "death of the mule" millions of southern tenant farmers were pushed off the land and over the course of several decades millions of poor men and women poured into America's cities where many took factory jobs and others lived desperate lives on the edge of ruinous poverty.

As in Malthus's day, rising urban poverty in the U.S. fueled a push for new laws to help the poor. These new laws, in turn, resulted in a rise in "poverty taxes" on the wealthy elite.

Race and class pressures built up in American until they reached the explosive year of 1968 when riots broke out in dozens of American cities -- Washington, Chicago, Detroit, and over 100 other cities across the nation.

Perhaps not coincidently, the year 1968 was also the year that Garrett Hardin wrote his now-famous essay entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons" in which he somewhat disingenuously couches the enclosure system of the 18th Century as being a parable about the environment. In Hardin's version, fences were erected to protect the land from greedy and overly fecund people who, if left unrestrained, would rip apart the environment upon which all life on earth depended. According to Hardin, the only way to protect the "commons" is to end reproductive freedom ("Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all") and embrace laws which encourage fewer births or, as he refers to it, to "legislate temperance."

Why is such legislation needed?

According to Hardin, the problem is that humans no longer have a "negative feedback" to control their "fecundity" like birds do. If humans ever had it, it was ruined by the rise of the welfare state.

Hardin goes on to postulate a kind of race and class "group think" about population and family planning in which "they" (the poor) think quite differently than "we" (the rich) do.

"In a welfare state," he writes, "how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement?"

Notice that according to Hardin poor people have "adopted overbreeding as a policy to secure [their] own aggrandizement!"

Really? Is that how the poor people are getting rich? By making "policy?"

In fact, like Malthus, Hardin's essay appears to be framed as a scientific-sounding rationale for preserving the social and economic status-quo of his day.

Just as Malthus ignored the fact that the enclosure system of his day was driving poverty in England, so too does Hardin ignore the fact that tractors were driving the rise of poverty in American cities.

Just as Malthus ignored subsidies for the large estates of his day and instead focused on reasons to cut the "poor tax," so too does Hardin ignore corporate subsidies and tax credits for the landed rich. Instead, like Malthus, Hardin zeros in the need to cut welfare to the poor.

Like Malthus, Hardin is not passive. He writes that "It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience," and he says that instead we must embrace "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon."

In later writings Hardin drops the notion that coercion should be "mutually agreed on." In his essay on Life Boat Ethics, Hardin (like Malthus before him) argues that aid should be withheld from the poor so that misery will rise and they will be forced to be more temperate and less fecund.

Ironically, while "The Tragedy of the Commons" is still widely quoted, and while it quotes Malthus, very few people know why the enclosure system was really put into place, or what Malthus's essay actually says.

Nor do most Americans know enough about the rise of urban poverty, or the social pressures of the era in which Hardin was writing, to fully understand the undertone of what he was saying or why it was so warmly received by so many social and economic conservatives of the day.

Ironically, like Malthus, many folks have HEARD of "The Tragedy of the Commons," but relatively few have read it and even fewer seem to notice how demonstrably wrong it is.

Remember, according to Hardin, appeals to "conscience" will not work to reduce birth rates and only "coercion" will work. In reality, within 5 years of writing "The Tragedy of the Commons," birth rates in the U.S. had dropped to below-replacement levels and they have remained there ever since.

No new coercive laws were needed.

The same phenomenon of dropping birth rates has occurred all over the world -- in Europe, Japan, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Brazil to name just a few countries. In almost all cases, coercion was not needed -- conscience and persuasion alone did the trick.

For those that have not read "The Tragedy of the Commons," or who want to refresh their memory as to what it says >> click here.

More than "human doom" scenarios attract environmentalists to Malthus, however. There is also a shared intellectual construct - a construct based on STASIS.

Most environmentalists are believers in stasis: trees should not be cut down, dams should not be built, introduced species should be exterminated, climate should not shift, and genetically-modified crops should not be created. No animal or plant species should decline in numbers, nor should they dramatically increase in numbers. If a mountain appears to be "naturally' bald (as in the Smokies) it should not be allowed to reforest. Animals from widely different locations, such as two species of parrot, should not be allowed to hybridize, nor should humans engage in mining or aquaculture. And, of course, there should be no human population growth or increase in natural resource use.

In fact, environmentalists have more than a small point.

Very rapid population growth is forcing very rapid change to the environment -- change that is, undeniably, doing harm to much of the world's wildlife and wild places.

The problem is not that conservationists want to move slowly after fully examining the options (a VERY good and VERY wise thing!) but that they routinely misrepresent the data and fully discount the future in order to arrive at "human doom" scenarios.

Like Malthus, human "die-off" theorists assume stasis arguments about health care (fertility will not fall fast enough), economics (there will be a shortage of water and energy because prices for these commodities cannot rise), agriculture (the farms of tomorrow will be like the farms of today), and social orders (African countries will stay mired in the pit of despotic tribalism).

In fact, stasis never occurs in the natural world, nor does it occur in human society. If you had told someone in 1880 that the U.S. would have a population of 300 million people today, they would have said "Impossible! Where will you pasture all the horses?"

In fact, at some level many of the energy and water crisis arguments we hear today sound very much like the horse pasturing concerns of 125 years ago. Just as Ford and Benz began to build cars for an energy source that was not yet in production, the companies that now bear their names are making hydrogen-fueled cars for an energy source that is still in development.

Whatever happens with gasoline, one thing is for sure: We are NOT going to do nothing. We are going to find an alternative power source for vehicle transport. In fact, we already have several alternative power sources, and today we are simply experimenting with alternatives and efficiencies -- and we are doing this despite the fact that the price of oil today is about the same, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as it was in 1975. We will not be going back to horses or, God forbid, walking.

While no one can predict what combination of nuclear, geothermal, solar, hydrogen, wind, methane hydride, trash-to-fuel, tidal barrages, wave mills, and hydropower (to name just a few options) will power the Next Economy, there is very little doubt that there is no "energy shortage" per se -- only a surplus of options that involve different tradeoffs that we may, or may not, agree to accept.

Similarly, we see no stasis in the field of water storage, transportation, desalinization, and conservation technologies, nor do we see a stasis in water pricing and international trade, both of which have enormous implications for water use all over the world.

In short, though the natural world may get worse, the human world is likely to continue to thrive.

Humans are remarkable animals in the sense that we have shown a marked ability to change ourselves, and our surroundings, at a very rapid rate.

While the pig of 1703 is very much like the pig of 2003, the human is not. Pigs cannot fly, but today humans can. Humans can also communicate to millions of other humans across the globe at the click of a mouse, grow wheat in the desert and strawberries in the arctic, and mine minerals from the bottom of the ocean.

Humans are also capable of changing the way we live. Since Malthus's day we have moved from 100-acre farms to 600 square-foot apartments, we have changed diets, we have rewritten marriage and inheritance laws, and we have changed the basic unit of social cohesion. And, of course, we have embraced the "vice" (Malthus's word) of voluntary contraception -- just as Condorcet predicted we would, and under the circumstance he envisioned (i.e. after a long period of population growth and relative prosperity).

The adaptive nature of humans is almost totally discounted by environmentalists with a strong Malthusian bent. In fact, a nearly complete discounting of the adaptive nature of humans seems to be a precursor to a fascination with Malthus.

It is not accidental that there are do demographers (i.e. experts on human population change) who are Malthusian DOOM-ographers.

Nor is it an accident that most doom-ographic treatises are written by experts in non-sentient life: Garrett Hardin is a microbiologist; Bill Paddock an agronomist specializing in corn; Paul Ehrlich specializes in butterflies; William Vogt specialized in birds. Among the lay public with a fascination with Malthus, we typically find various kinds of engineers, computer programmers, and bug experts who specialize in non-sentient organisms and systems.

Biologists used to working with butterflies, ants, and yeast often draw parallels between barely sentient wildlife and humans, but in doing so they tend to ignore the unique qualities that humans bring to the table.

A deer on the Kaibab Plateau does not have the written word to use as a predictive tool for what might happen when wolves, cougars and coyotes are extirpated from its habitat, nor does it have laws to govern group conduct, nor does it know how to use irrigation pipe, steel plows, and seed to boost habitat production.

Not so long ago humans were not much more sentient that the deer on the Kaibab Plateau. The people of Easter Island, for example, were without writing and were completely cut off from the rest of the world and living on a tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific. Hardin notes that on "Easter Island, they just had too many people and they didn't see the consequences of cutting down all the trees."

This is, of course, correct.

But we do not live on Easter Island anymore. The development of writing several millennia ago, enabled humans to amass experience over time and share it across vast distances (as Condorcet said would happen).

Without writing we could not perfect social codes, and we could not improve technology in a rapid and methodical manner. Instead, we quite literally "reinvented the wheel" again and again.

Quite literally we lived according to "the law of the jungle" instead of the laws of man.

With the advent of the written word and a rapidly expanding vocabulary, everything changed.

A quantitative leap in the human condition occurred shortly after the advent of movable type and the production of low-cost pulp-based paper.

Further leaps occurred with the advent of public libraries, daily newspapers, and indoor lighting.

Still greater advances were propelled by such electronic communications systems as telegraphs, radios, telephones, movies, television, and the internet.

The revolution is ongoing, of course. Saturday's edition of The Washington Times carries a front page article entitled "Google Knows All", while Google itself tells me that the main town on Easter Island (Hanga Roa) has a modern telephone system and Internet service linked by satellite to the rest of the world. There are even two "cybercafes" in town!

The point made here is not a small one, as the neo-Malthusian cannon of doom gives very little standing to the power of communication, education or legislation.

Consider the simple "I-PAT equation" that is commonly asserted to be a mathematical model of the relationship between population growth and the environment. The IPAT equation is expressed as: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology.

In fact, this "equation" is not an equation at all. Other than population, the components are vaguely defined and nearly impossible to operationalize as meaningful numbers.

Though the I-PAT equation may LOOK like science, it is in fact little more than a rhetorical assertion masquerading as a numerical entity (as was Malthus's assertion that "food grows arithmetically").

The I-PAT equation is also far from complete.

Consider the case of the United States, for example. In the last 35 years we have added 100 million people to our population. During this same period of time our water got cleaner and our air got cleaner. Today we have more forest cover in the U.S. than we did in 1970, and we have more land in protection.

Even as our population grew, and our level of resource consumption soared, the state of the environment generally improved. Today the U.S. has larger populations of whitetail deer, moose, buffalo, coyote, wolf, bald eagle, cougar, manatee, whale, sea turtle, pronghorn antelope, beaver, Canada geese, osprey, ducks, alligators, raccoon, red fox, otters, bobcat, black bear, grizzly, wild turkey and heron than it did just 30 years ago.

How could this have happened?

The short answer is that we passed laws.

In 1864, Lincoln signed an Executive Order protecting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. In 1872, the first National Park (Yellowstone) was created, and in 1900 Congress passed the Lacey Act banning the interstate sale of wild game. In 1911 Congress passed the Weeks Act, which resulted in the federal government purchasing vast tracts of denuded mountains, which paved the way for the National Forrest System, which in turn helped launch the National Wildlife Refuge system.

Other environmental laws quickly followed: the Federal Migratory Bird Law, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, the "Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act," and the National Forest Management Act, to name just a few.

The end result, when combined with science-based wildlife management, was a surge in wildlife numbers across the U.S. with many species (beaver, turkey, deer, otter, bear) being reintroduced into areas where they had once been locally or regionally extirpated.

Ironically, this great boom in wildlife protection occurred even as the population of the United States grew by 100 million people.

As quickly as the population of the U.S. grew, however, its food-growing capacity grew even faster. In fact, thanks to new crop hybrids, automation, irrigation, and innovative crop-planting schedules (such as winter wheat), U.S. agricultural outputs are now so high that we, quite literally, do not know what to do with the beneficence of the land.

Not only are we exporting vast amounts of food overseas, we have also taken 35 million acres of land out of production through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) -- a swath of land larger than Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. combined.

Instead of being short of food, American taxpayers are now paying farmers to leave land fallow and to plant cover-crops that are beneficial to wildlife -- and we continue to ship vast quantities of food overseas as well.

Does this mean U.S. population growth has not had a negative impact on the U.S. environment?

Of course not.

In fact, the environment of the U.S. might be a great deal BETTER if we had not added over 100 million people to our population since 1970.

That said, there is no doubt that the environment of the U.S. in 2003 is better than it was in 1970, and that this improvement happened DESPITE both a tremendous rise in population numbers and a tremendous increase in per capita resource consumption.

* * *

And thus ends this little exposition on the roots of one of the oldest, and most important debates -- population growth and the future of mankind.

I should note that this piece was written in August of 2003, and so the data are no longer quite up to speed. Suffice it to say that nothing has changed in direction or velocity; the world is still doing better this year than last, and fertility in the developing world still continues to fall like a rock (thank God).

In full disclosure, I suppose I should add that I knew Garett Hardin quite well (we were friends) and he was responsible, in no small part, for my becoming a demographer. I also knew Bill Paddock quite well, and we too were friends. If you want to read a game-changing book, I think Bill would agree (if he were alive) that there are few better books than Garett's Filters Against Folly. Highest recommendation.

For those wondering how any or all of this fits into the world of working terriers, the answer is "quite well, thank you." To understand that, read >> A Pictorial History of Terriers; Their Politics & Their Place.

Want to know even more? Order a copy of
American Working Terriers and find how all of this is linked in to the the rise of the "animal rights" movement, the rise of mounted hunts, and the largest political protest in the history of the U.K. (a protest against a proposed ban on fox hunting!)


Amanda S said...

Thanks Patrick, for some American optimism. I've had a book called "Plague Species" for a few years by a modern day Malthusian called Reg Morison. The guts of his argument can be found in his PDF presentation.

I have to admit that I am impressed by his concept of humans being a species in plague proportions with the bell curve our demographic destiny.

If we lose productive coastal land to rising sea levels, good arable land to urban expansion and unsustainable production methods result in loss of fertility of other land, I can't see how we are going to produce enough food in the future to feed still rising populations. I know that some parts of the world are still under-exploited from the agricultural production point of view but they are getting increasingly smaller.

You seem to suggest that the whole world could become like the first world; that is long lived, demographically stable and well fed. It would be a great thing if this could happen.


PBurns said...

It's already happened. The world's total fertility rate is 2.6 which is far less than the U.S. had when I was born, and it continues to fall rapidly to replacement rates (2.1). When you call Dell Tech support for your computer, you are talking to "Mike" in India, while the computer itself was made with parts from Malaysia, the Phillipines, and El Salvador. Your prescription drugs are made in India and China, your shirt from cotton from Egypt, and you are getting email spam from Nigeria, while cell phone cards from 30 nations are for sale at your local convenience store. Most of the developing world today has technology at hand that your parents could not have dreamed of in 1950: color TV, cell phones, Internet cafes, Google, and Fed-Ex. Will there always be disparities in the world? Of course. But anyone who is not blind can see the direction we have been going for 200 years. What is amazing is that even as all this has gone on, the developing world is also moving to protect wild lands as fast as they can. Massive parks have been set aside in Africa, Latin America and even parts of Asia. As for food, surely you are paying attention to production? Look at our cows -- they produce four times as much milk as they did 30 years ago. Look at corn and soy -- more production with less pesticides and less fertilizer and less land disturbance. Look at the massive growth in aquaculture (the world now raises more fish in ponds and net cages than beef on land). This is the world we live in NOW. and the direction is still upward at a steep climb, and the velocity is not slowing down. This is, to quote Hans Rosling, the miracle of our time, and it is all around us to see. Hell, look at what we are doing now! It was impossible just 15 years ago, as there was no Internet with graphics browsers, Google, Blogger and Youtube. Now folks in Rwanda have all of this and more. Amazing.


Amanda S said...

Here in Australia the picture looks more worrying. With climate change south eastern Australia and the south western corner of Australia around Perth are predicted to get hotter and dryer. That certainly seems to be what is already happening. One of the big problems that our government is having to solve is how to scale back the already over-allocated water resources of the Murray Darling basin when there seems to be much less than there used to be.

I've been looking at the statistics provided by the Australian Bureau Of Statistics to try and understand what has been happening to our agricultural production. When I look at the wheat statistics 1861 - 2009, it seems that annual wheat production is now far more volatile than 40 years ago. In good years the yields per hectare are about twice as high as before, in bad years per hectare yields are just the same.

It looks as though grain production from Australia has risen in the last twenty years but the context is the collapse of the wool market in the late eighties so my guess is that land that was previously pastoral is now being used to raise crops.

Of course Australia does produce much more food than it requires for its internal needs but then if you didn't have Australias (or US's) then you couldn't have Hong Kongs or Singapores or many other countries which are not self sufficient in food.

I do realise that world climate change will produce winners as well as losers and that some parts of the world will be more productive but I wonder whether the gains will outweigh the losses.

jaceee said...

Good long argument, but one that fails on one account -- by not including the principles of thermodynamics you (and Malthus, et al) have missed the boat. Improving standards of living since Malthus' time are rooted solely in the energy glut caused by hydrocarbon recovery and use. With no replacement (magic bullet) technology, when the oil runs out, all the gains will be for naught. It is a thermo principle that without an energy source life-systems will tend to disorder (that means death, eventually). Without considering the laws of thermo in the argument, it's going to be skewed (relying instead on socio-economic 'policy' arguments and such just obscures the thermo realities)...

PBurns said...

Actually jaceee, you simply do not know very much about energy, and babbling about thermodynamics does not hide that fact.

For starters, there are many kinds of energy, but you seem to think that only oil, coal, or natural gas are in play.

Along with nuclear energy, we have geo-thermal, aqua-thermal, tidal, river, chemical, wind, bio-fuels, solar energy, methane hydrides, and a number of others. We can store energy (and do) in electrical, kinetic, and chemical form.

The problem we have now is NOT finding energy, but choosing among the many options that are out there.

The notion that there is some sort of "silver bullet" with one-size fits all is absurd now; why would we have that in the future? Our now homes are heated and cooled with energy coming from at least 15 broad types of energy sources, and our vehicles are powered now with gasoline, diesal, bio-diesal, ethanol, natural gas, electricity, and even a few solar and quite a lot of human-powered sources.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about Moore's Law meeting the world of solar cells, but the same curve is evident for wind energy and a few others, to say nothing of conservation efforts which serve as a massive "force multiplier". See >> for more on solar and use the Google to learn more. Energy has never been a problem and never will be; the problem is simply one of making choices and investments.