- Date published:
10:52 am, December 20th, 2020 - 46 comments
Categories: Economy, energy, science, sustainability - Tags: population
Population has always been a critical driver of events and prior to the Industrial Revolution we lived in a zero sum world, with energy and resources effectively limited to that which could be harvested from photosynthesis, one person’s gain was at the limit, always someone else’s loss. Very low density hunter gather populations could thrive (often quite nicely) because they rarely approached their local resource limits, but the invention of agriculture changed this dramatically. The next 10,000 odd years of recorded history is a long story of local competition for fundamentally constrained opportunities.
There were only three ways to survive and dominate, use what you had more efficiently, take what someone else already had, or move to somewhere not yet occupied. One drove warfare, conquest and empire, the other drove innovation and intensification … yet the diffuse and intermittent nature of sunshine and climate imposed a strict zero sum game on both of these strategies, at least locally.
Eventually we expanded ourselves across the entire globe until there was no terra nullis left. And for a very long time our total global population hovered under 1b, this was as much we could sustain. Economic performance reflected this same logic; in the aftermath of the Black Death there was a surge of prosperity for the survivors, but within a century or so population rebounded and poverty was once again the harsh reality for most. This demographic stalemate slowly became apparent to the intellectual classes, most noteably the English cleric Robert Thomas Malthus.
In the context of the era in which he wrote, Malthus was entirely correct:
In his 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus observed that an increase in a nation’s food production improved the well-being of the populace, but the improvement was temporary because it led to population growth, which in turn restored the original per capita production level. In other words, humans had a propensity to utilize abundance for population growth rather than for maintaining a high standard of living, a view that has become known as the “Malthusian trap” or the “Malthusian spectre”. Populations had a tendency to grow until the lower class suffered hardship, want and greater susceptibility to famine and disease, a view that is sometimes referred to as a Malthusian catastrophe. Malthus wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible.
What Malthus could not understand (because at the time we lacked the intellectual tools to see it) was the underlying reason for this zero sum state … was that a world dependent on sunlight would always run hard against economic limits so low that the vast majority of the lower classes would forever be doomed to poverty. In Malthus’ logic, increasing population merely resulted in more misery.
While Malthusian ideas are often painted in a dark light, we should be generous about his motives, the man himself was a cleric distressed by the poverty and misery he saw around him. As a Christian thinker of his era, he would have framed this in terms of ‘people having too many babies’, the result of a lack of morality, chastity and constraint. The only path he could see out of the trap was to retreat from increasing population, back to a more sober world with fewer people living to a higher standard of living. Note carefully the pattern of the thinking here, ‘we have immorally expanded to a technological limit, therefore we must stop and retreat back into virtue’.
What he could not have anticipated was that coal would shatter his zero sum world, beyond all imagining.
Engels wrote in 1892 about how coal merely resulted in more misery:
Malthus was correct that the vast majority of the lower classes would forever be doomed to poverty:
Yet in 2016 fully half the human race achieved a modest middle class standard of living (by local standards at least) for the first time in human history. That's absolutely unprecedented and astonishing.
Yes poverty persists, but inarguably we now live in a world where most people live twice as long as they would have done 200 years ago. A large fraction of people may not be particularly prosperous, but they no longer live with the constant threat of starvation, disease, violence, slavery, exploitation and a life of inescapable drudgery and brutal labour that would have characterised their ancestor's lives.
We have now reached the point where fully 90% of the human race now live in homes connected to an electricity grid. Each and every day over the past decade or more, over 300,000 people had the power connected to their home … for the first time ever. More than anything else this changes lives; refrigeration, hot water, washing machines, lighting, heating and cooling, vacuum cleaners. These very pragmatic electric machines that we now take for granted, are transformational.
Yes it remains a very unequal world, and poverty in many forms remains real. But by every rational measure the world is now a far better place for most people than it was prior to Industrialisation. That is not to argue that the status quo is a good thing, but that we should be careful about what it is we really want to change.
Electric machines used unnecessarily to replace manual tasks impair wellbeing when they replace the mental and physical activity that reduces risk of metabolic disease, mental illness and cancer.
<Importantly, physical inactivity, itself, often plays an independent role as a direct cause of speeding the losses of cardiovascular and strength fitness, shortening of healthspan, and lowering of the age for the onset of the first chronic disease, which in turn decreases quality of life, increases health care costs, and accelerates mortality risk.>
“Our constructed environment insidiously removes transiently useful stresses.” What does he mean by this? By making things too easy for our bodies, they don’t learn how to deal with the stresses of heat, for instance.
“We don't have thermal stress because if it gets hot, we turn the air conditioner on, if it gets cold, we put a heater on. We don't expend physiological costs to move against gravity because we make the remote controls open our doors.
“We make it easy for us and in the process, it decays what we are.”
Electric machines used unnecessarily to replace manual tasks impair wellbeing
Yes it's true that for much of the developed world, too much food and too little exercise are now the paradoxical threat we face.
The good news is that unlike our ancestors, we have choices about how we respond to this. We have relatively endless opportunity to modify our diets and we can seek recreational exercise in virtually unlimited forms.
They didn't. You should ask your (great) grandmother about this.
I would add that our choices are influenced by advertising and media and by how much cash you have to spend and where you live.
I see an urgent need for government action to ensure a liveable income and a home in a safe community with access to sustainable employment.
Also an education system that teaches how each and every person alone and in collaboration with others can find science based knowledge and use this to improve human wellbeing (so choices are less based on advertising and media motivated mainly by profit).
Yes, those sentiments are entirely good ones.
The threat of starvation and houselessness is exactly what necessitates the life of inescapable drudgery and exploitation of the working classes under capitalism. While things may have improved, the vast majority of the gains have been distributed upwards. See: Shock horror, trickle down does not work
In the past I've provided dozens of citations. Honestly I suggest you spend a little time here at the economist Max Rosen's project.
Or the work of the late Hans Rosling.
Or Steven Pinker.
Again nothing I'm arguing for here should be interpreted as a defense of the status quo, quite the opposite. But the point of the OP is that some parts of the left, like Malthus himself, consistently reach for the wrong response to the many imperfections of the world.
It's worth asking why.
I am not disputing data, but the citations you have presented don't disprove that working people across the world are still exploited and the gains are redistributed unequally towards a global elite. There are clearly vast improvements in the standard of living across the world, the question that is unasked is how do we redress the inequity of these gains. Max Roser said it well:
but the citations you have presented don't disprove that working people across the world are still exploited and the gains are redistributed unequally towards a global elite.
Never said otherwise.
The trick we are trying to manage here is how to work with a remarkably productive system that generates insane amounts of prosperity, but seems to have a propensity for an intolerable level of inequality baked in.
What no human society has ever achieved, at least at any credible scale, is both a dignified, decent material prosperity and a tolerable level of it being shared around fairly.
If this were easy, someone would have done it by now
What do you mean by "credible scale" and who's making that judgement?
Small communities that are really dependent on being part of a wider economic entity may be interesting case studies, but don't count as conclusive in my view.
I have an idea of what you may have in mind, and I don't want to be dismissive of the possibilities they represent.
I've long argued that it's a matter of scale, tempered with discretion. When we (humans) recognise that the key to continuing here as residents requires us to voluntarily restrict our activities and behaviours, we will have succeeded in thinking through what other organisms naturally achieve.
It's likely that wealth hasn't been "shared around fairly" because those with the most to lose from such sharing believe it's not easy. It's difficult to credit the alternative notion that those with the most to gain are the 'sticking point'.
I'm hypothesising that, at the end of our day, it will be (more) obvious that common behavioural traits/drives are at the root of civilisation's successes, and failures such as inequality/scarcity and Anthropocene-related climate change, pandemics, habitat/species decimation, etc etc. I do wonder how our achievements will stack up against our failures.
We urgently need to learn how to live with nature rather than against it, but "Your call is important to us." For all our cleverness, our most universal 'achievement' is convenient myopia, present company excepted, of course.
Malthus is certainly worth reading, not least because he preserves some details from Cook's visit to NZ. But it is well to consider the context also – like Burke, Malthus was writing in response to events in France, and, naturally, in defense of the privilege he enjoyed. There is a preliminary social Darwinism in his writing, a product, as with Dawkins, of the interests he was moved to defend.
But relating his observations of resource limits to economics is frankly, a bit of a stretch. Capital, like morale, can be stretched to fit the circumstances. In a specie poor dark-age Europe the provision of capital allowed ambitions to stretch beyond local boundaries, financiers tended to finance war – not the most sustainable of enterprises.
As in Malthus's time, the forces that keep the bulk of the world in poverty are economic and socioeconomic, not resource limits – which makes the use of them to argue retaining austerity less than rigorous.
As in Malthus's time, the forces that keep the bulk of the world in poverty are economic and socioeconomic, not resource limits
This is part of the old 'how big is the pie vs how do we share the pie' argument.
The answer is that the data I linked to clearly shows that across many different geographies, cultures, economic systems and environments … the reality was that for thousands of years most people lived in absolute poverty, with barely enough surplus for a tiny elite rarely amounting to more than 5% of the total population.
Even if you had shared that surplus out perfectly equally under some ideal socioeconomic system, the resource limits were so severe the average person would have seen very little change.
Now we have a much bigger economic pie, and while we still fail to share it well, the outcome for the average person has been quite dramatic all the same.
In my view, you have to have a decent sized pie before it’s worth sharing.
In my view, you have to have a decent sized pie before it’s worth sharing.
Quite – and for the neoliberals that pie will never be quite big enough.
The lesson of sociobiology however, is that sharing is h. sapiens key survival advantage.
You're skirting around one of the most glaring problems with Malthus (and JS Mill etc), that they don't take into account the existence of social forces as a whole.
We see clearly that the material limits of nature are changeable, and they can be altered depending on how the forces of production are organised. Yesterday we had to chisel coal out of the ground by pick-axe, tomorrow we may be able to mine asteroids with spaceships. In this way we can talk about a relationship of metabolic exchange between humanity and nature, and this relationship is mediated via production. All production is subject to material conditions, meanwhile material conditions are themselves subject to the forces of production.
How big is the pie and how do we share it? Well, the answer is that we cook the pie in an oven of our own making. When the people constitutes itself a Republic, the workers will run the whole kitchen and they'll make sure nobody goes hungry.
Malthus didn't anticipate the effect that coal power would have, but why would he? The industrial revolution in England, and the agricultural revolution which preceded it, was by no means a historical inevitability. Progress does not just happen all on its own, it requires some movement, some activity.
Now we have a much bigger economic pie, but, why? As you say people lived in absolute poverty for thousands of years, yet in the last 400 years the development of productive forces absolutely exploded. The past four centuries are a small blip in the whole chronology of human existence. I'm sure feudal society could have trundled along all the way into 2020 without the development of crop rotation, irrigation, seed drills, coal, electricity, pesticides, petrol cars, cargo ships, democracy, computers, 3D printers and TikTok.
What changed was the emergence of capitalism – this very particular set of social relations which organises society around the relentless accumulation of capital.
Obviously capitalism is not developing harmoniously with nature, it relies on the maximum exploitation of natural resources and human labour. In the 21st Century the global economy is structured around overproduction and perpetual crisis. Still, at least
we don't suffer deadly plagues anymorewe have iPhones now.
We make the pie, and ultimately we don't need to submit human capacities to the demands of capital. Unlike Malthus we don't have to accept the existing conditions as a historically unmovable obstacle.
We could overcome capitalism, to develop an entirely different set of social relations, which themselves bring forth new productive forces. As I think you're alluding to already, it's very possible to satisfy all our needs and desires without recourse to social exploitation or environmental destruction.
Nice contribution thanks.
Yes I'm guilty of neglecting social forces in this argument, mainly for the sake of conciseness. But you are right and they cannot be neglected.
My view is that humans are a remarkably adaptable, malleable creature who are pretty much capable of anything you can reasonably imagine. Social forces being the sum of all human potential, could go in any direction at any moment, but are constrained by the material limits of the day.
Capitalism as a social force is not a very complex thing, it rests on two main pillars, the idea of private property and double entry book keeping. The first idea was relatively meaningless during the hunter gatherer phase of our existence (when we all lived in 'harmony' with nature) because there was very little to own.
Agriculture introduced the idea of land that needed to be settled, cleared, and then defended. This demanded organisation and hierarchy to reliably hold onto a desirable territory, and thus notion of ‘the big chief’ became prominent. For millenia our social organisation was predicated on the idea that the sovereign king was the 'owner' of everything and everyone in the lands they controlled. It was essentially a territorial notion of property first and foremost. Most ordinary people still owned so little, that the idea of personal property was largely relegated to minor import.
It was the rise of the great Italian trading cities, whose wealth depended less on territory and more on the movement of goods, that the old Roman practice of double entry bookkeeping rose to a new prominence. Now you had an accounting technology that had the formal and methodological rigor necessary to control a business economy. In turn accounting technology enabled banking to become a relatively trusted and respectable business, which eventually evolved into the complex credit currency economies of today.
As incomes slowly rose through the 16th and 17th centuries, first the elites and then later the working people, began to accumulate enough personal prosperity, that the idea of personal property became fully embedded across the whole of society. We take the idea that things we 'own' like homes, cars, clothing, furniture, and our own lives 'belong' to us somewhat for granted. For most of human history this was a much fuzzier concept.
Bring these two ideas together, an increasing sense of personal property rights, and an accounting technology that enables a business and financial economy to develop beyond all prior constraints … and voila you have capitalism.
My point here is not so much to rigorously explain capitalism, but to point to the technical and conceptual forces that were necessary for it to become manifest. And this I extend generally to the idea that new technologies (often in unexpected combinations) are what trigger latent social forces to become manifest.
Which is why my thesis here starts with the technical and builds toward the social.
What is Capitalism? would be an interesting post. The free ebook "Capital as Power" makes a strong case that capital translates to various forms of power over politics, culture, resources, etc. So Capitalism is a political philosophy of power, aka "Lex Rex", or might makes right. Its mutant offspring is the corrupt corporate state per the USA
Do you believe, RedLogix, that boundless energy is the only constraint to a glorious future for all humans?
That we'll create our food from the stuff of the planet, our technological brilliance will provide us with the medicines, entertainments, shelter, transport and drinking water and there will be no end to the places we can occupy, or the number we describe our population by?
That's a good question.
I think of energy as a fundamental constraint, but it's not a sufficient condition by itself. So while I firmly believe that clean, abundant and safe energy is a necessary condition, that is not the whole story. For example coal made it possible to end slavery, but it still required a massive social change to ensure it happened.
As I've hinted at before, because we now live in a global world we need an ethical system that functions at that same scale.
"I think of energy as a fundamental constraint" – I get where you're coming from here, but energy is also the fundamental driver of diversity aka evolution. It's how we break the constraint, or as permaculture has phrased it "the problem is the solution".
Energy is the main factor that drives evolution. Mostly via primary production but ambient energy is not insignificant. Population, and range size (how much land you control) are also good proxies for total energy (and potential diversity) available to a species. When populations hit a systems carrying capacity (energy limit as you describe it) this gives rise to competition and stressors that accelerate changes.
Migration, innovation & adaptation are all likely to occur faster at carrying capacity than any other time.
There are striking parallels between evolution and the rise of humanity, but we have failed to learn the best survival method of all, cooperation. We (think we) dominate all other species, as our planet burns, our gut diversity plummets, and our children face the perils of gluten in wheat.
Darwin liked to read Malthus too.
"I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved and unfavourable ones to be destroyed."
Capitalism is akin to parasitism. Even our technological advances mimic evolutionary progress. We are not so far removed from nature as to justify our removal of nature. It will undo us.
As Amartya Sen has written and spoken about extensively, the likes of Condercet challenged Malthus’s view even at the time and also it’s not only technological changes that disprove Malthus’s theses but also social changes that come through education and the expansion of women’s rights in particular.
That some on the left want to use the climate crisis to revive a theory that was disproven long ago is immensely depressing.
Yup. I've only recently discovered Condercet. Worth a post …
And thanks for addressing the real point of the OP. Chrs.
"We need to learn how to work with Nature, rather than against it."
What behaviours and beliefs are delaying a transition to a truly sustainable human civilisation on spaceship Earth?
Well it was Jared Diamond who suggested that the invention of agriculture was our "greatest mistake". To his credit he was really proposing this as a thought experiment, and not a mandate to return to a hunter-gatherer existence, but it poses in my view exactly the same question Malthus did. As you are with coal.
The critique of the ecomodernist 'acceleration' falls again precisely into the same pattern of mistake that Malthus made.
Shellenberger, Michael. Apocalypse Never (p. 242).
The common factor is this apocalypse shaped hole in our psyche that we yearn to fill. In earlier era's we commonly misappropriated religion for this purpose; us moderns who think ourselves so much above the old time faiths, reach for more sophisticated 'sciencey' looking tools.
But the purpose we put them to seems much the same.
Coal was a solution, with no obvious insurmountable downsides (at the time) – even put an end to slavery accoding to some.
I'm not an adherent of the ecomodernism movement, but happy for history to judge whether the next iteration of technofixes can raise us rapidly above the tsunami of fine self-made messes bearing down on civilisation.
Technological achievements are awesome; the rapid development and deployment of multiple COVID-19 vaccines is a good example. But I can't help wondering if the proportion of global resources and technological savvy being directed to papering over self-made cracks in order to keep civilisation's boat afloat is increasing and, if so, whether this increase is sustainable.
Just hope we can do civilisation right (sustainably) in time.
even put an end to slavery accoding to some.
The idea that coal made the historic end of slavery possible is entirely reasonable and well supported by the data and many thinkers.
The idea that somehow this therefore morally justifies burning coal without limit in the face modern evidence that we've reached the limits of doing so, is a completely different claim, and bonkers non-sequitur in my view. And a classic example of taking a good idea and then just going too damn far with it.
But I can't help wondering if the proportion of global resources and technological savvy being directed to papering over self-made cracks in order to keep civilisation's boat afloat is increasing and, if so, whether this increase is sustainable.
Under the constraints of fossil fuels the answer is probably not. As more than a few people have pointed out, the kind of progress that we have achieved over the past 200 years has not only been rather uneven geographically, but there is good reason to think it's slowed down in the past few decades.
The Hans Rosling clip I linked to above is a wonderful story in it's own right; but there is also an implication he doesn't address … that his own data shows the developed nations rate of progress has stalled somewhat in recent decades. That everyone is converging on a much improved plateau of development, but none are surging ahead.
And that presentation is now a decade old; I suspect more recent data would only confirm this.
So why are 'we' still "going too damn far with it" – is it a sense of entitlement; that we can have our cake (coal) and eat (burn) it too?
The World’s Most Insane Energy Project Moves Ahead
Regarding failed patterns, an objective observer would have to conclude that humans collectively continue to foul their own 'nest' – maybe that's the problem; the belief that we own ‘our’ planet and can do what we like with it. Our apparently successful 'expand and accelerate' behaviours now threaten to bring civilisation very low – any fix(es) need to be implemented urgently and with much better foresight that that accompanying previous 'fixes'.
Time will tell if your vision of a hyperenergised human civilisation comes to pass and, if so, whether that might be "going too damn far".
"We need to learn how to work with Nature, rather than against it."
We lived in harmony with nature for millennia. You've just forgotten what it was like.
Unless you’re a lot older than I am, neither of us remembers what it was like – humans have created new ‘harmonies‘
On average we use ~20 times more energy than the minimum our primitive ancestors and physiologically similar life on spaceship Earth use(d) to get by. What might happen, I wonder, if that inequality was to increase?
@ those who envision a hyper-energised future of 10+ billion souls each using 10-to-100 times that 58 kWh per day; ‘More (energy) consumption isn’t necessarily better’, and ‘Won't someone please think of the koalas!’
This civilisation will end someday, but we don't have to actively create the circumstances that will end it sooner rather than later – that choice is on us.
On a slight tangent to Morrie.
Often this insatiable want for the next, latest and newest object is a pursuit for happiness. Counter intuitively, a desire-free life is the key to happiness.
We make the mistake of thinking the joy we feel, is attached to acquiring a trinket. This happiness arises, because for a brief moment, we are desireless. Generally speaking this happiness abates as a new desire emerges.
Time and time again it seems to come back to The Lorax. There is a strong streak of needing to keep 'biggering', while not many want to speak for the trees.
@dmk and gsays
Yes, for most of our evolution we lived with such scarcity that the two birds, 'more' and 'better' always sat right next to each other on the same tree branch. Get one and you got the other.
It's only now that we've had several centuries of industrialisation, where most people in the developed world (the golden one billion) have their reasonable material wants satisfied that we even begin to question whether 'more' is always 'better'.
In essence yes, you both make a highly pertinent point, that I hope to address in the next post.
The IMF predicts that world population will hit 9.7 billion by 2050 and be pretty stable with birth rates slowing to 2.2. (the replacement rate is 2.1 children per woman).
I don't know the complex reasons behind falling birth rates but improving trends like healthcare, female emancipation, contraception, education — all no doubt help. Also, adverse environmental factors could be lowering fertility.
I am pro-humanity but anti- global collapse. Learning to live sustainably on a finite planet is our only way forward.
I wouldn't want to see global collapse either. It seems to me hat:
Also take the chance to enjoy our beautiful country this summer while it is not overrun by hordes of foreign tourists.
Point 1 is part of what this series is about. And why we probably shouldn't need to worry about it too much. Erlich, like Malthus turned out to be completely wrong.
Point 2 is a reasonable one, but not all 'material wants' are the same, and interestingly changing global demographics will play into this substantially.
And yes your sentiment about the 'hordes' is shared by lot's of kiwis. When I was much younger, and most of my friends were doing OT's, I was mostly to be found in the Southern Alps. It's a remarkable thing to have not just whole valley, but sometimes entire named ranges all to yourself.
The most powerful proponent of Malthusian ideas is Thanos, of course.
Thanks to Marvel and Walt Disney, rejected ideas, theories, and ideologies are recycled and re-seeded into the minds of receptive audiences for another revival round. More popcorn?
Not being a comic fan I had to search on that. But yes a deep link.
One of the principles that I adhere to is that science and religion must ultimately speak in harmony. They describe different aspects of a single, coherent reality. Thanos is the end result of science (or knowledge) stripped of faith. (While of course at the same time religion unmoored from physical reality soon degenerates into mere superstitions.)
I think this is what keeps me optimistic, often unreasonably so, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. It's my sense that the correct direction points to the place where what we currently call science and religion, eventually converge into a conceptually complete whole. Thanos ran in the exact opposite direction it would seem.
" the place where what we currently call science and religion, eventually converge into a conceptually complete whole."
The Dancing Wu-Li Masters
Ah, sorry, I thought you were a Sci-Fi fan and there’s only a fine line between that and (some) comics, IMO. That said, I’m not a comic fan either (used to be as a child). It’s worth paying attention to themes, concepts, and symbols in modern movies as they tend to tell us a lot about ourselves and at the same time influence us.
Here’s an analogy, see what you think:
Science provides the visual, religion provides the audio, and we’re the listener-viewer.
This raises at least one question: are we on mute?
I thought you were a Sci-Fi fan
I am, but somehow the DC universe slipped by me. My loss
Science provides the visual, religion provides the audio,
"In the Beginning was the Word" … yes that works
I found this incredibly dark little short this morning; it seems apposite to our condition: