Malthus, Revisited…

There’s one issue in the whole peak oil/sustainability pantheon that no-one likes to talk about: overpopulation.

The quickest way to be labeled a misanthrope , Nazi, or worst of all ‘Malthusian’ is to start talking about the concepts of carrying capacity, overshoot, and die-off.

Here’s a quick recap for people who may not understand the Malthus reference:

Thomas Malthus was an 18th century thinker and economist whose “Essay on the Principles of Population” first predicted that humans would eventually become so numerous that they would have trouble sustaining themselves off the Earth. His theory was that humans would keep overbreeding until they exhausted the planet’s capability to provide food, water and other essentials, leading to a crash in the population as people died out from starvation or conflict for remaining resources. His ideas were met with ridicule and scorn for the most part, and people who have ventured to even talk about possible crash in the human population are quickly saddled with his eponymous epithet.

The process of a given animal’s population first overbreeding and then collapsing is nothing new. It’s been seen over and over again around the region with deer, wolves, and other animals. It’s happened to human beings before as well… Easter Island, anyone? Yet for a variety of reasons, the thought of such overshoot and resultant die-off is seen as improbable, if not outright impossible.

We’re hard-wired to spread our genes. Having children is one of the most important things many of us do with our lives (me included). The ability to provide for many children is seen as an outward sign of wealth and status by society these days, whereas in the past it was more of an unconscious acknowledgement that all of your children were unlikely to make it to their majority, so you were hedging your bets. The Bible has God encouraging us to “be fruitful and multiply,” and the Catholic Church (among other religious institutions) militates against birth control of any sort. Americans get additional tax deductions for each child we support. People love to hear stories about how so-and-so was the youngest of 10 children, and their family reunions are huge, etc.

The message is clear: large populations are good. Growing cities & infrastructure is good. More people equals more consumers of goods, which equals more profits for Wall Street, and that’s really, really good.

The dark side of all that good, of course, is that we now have over 6 billion people living on Earth, and we’re due to hit 7 billion some time around 2012. That’s almost twice as many people who were living in the early 1970’s around the time of the first major oil shock. We have more oil shocks coming in our future, only this time, we’ve got twice as many people all clamoring for their share. Things aren’t evenly distributed, of course, so there’s massive population surges in the poorer areas of the world, while the population of the industrialized world has leveled off or started declining a bit.

China and India each have or are approaching 1 billion citizens each. The growing numbers of young, unemployed Muslim men in the Middle East and Europe is seen as a major impetus for swelling the ranks of the various terrorist/jihad organizations operating around the world. The continent of Africa has both skyrocketing populations along with rising rates of disease and insufficient agricultural production. All of these occurrences can be traced directly or indirectly back to the amazing growth in human population.

What fueled this increase? Petroleum, of course. The “Green Revolution” that gave birth to industrialized agriculture was powered by oil and natural gas, both of which are close to peak production if not past it. Industrial farming methods, especially with modified plants, can produce massive yields of food per acre. Many researchers think that we can continue to feed 7 billion, 8 billion, or even 10 billion people using these methods. The fly in the ointment is that the ability to produce this food economically is tied to cheap energy. What happens when farmland that can produce 150 bushels of corn per acre today all of a sudden is only producing 75 or less?

Repeated applications of fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide has rendered the topsoil of most farmland in the USA and elsewhere into basically an inert growing medium, to steal a phrase. Without those inputs, there’s little if any nutrients left in the soil to promote the growth of much anything. Decreased availability combined with increased prices will mean much more competition for food. While we have ample farmland in the US that can eventually be salvaged by means of permaculture or organic farming, I’d be willing to bet that China (holder of many billions of US Treasury bonds) will use it’s financial muscle to buy as much grain off the US as it can, leading to an interesting conundrum: feed the US population and watch China dump it’s T-Bonds and crash the dollar, or keep our paymasters happy and watch insurrection start to build in the USA? If nothing else, this should be another reason for all of us to grow at least some of our own food.

Here in the Upper Midwest, we’re sitting pretty currently in regards to the number of people living up here versus available food & water, assuming Canada and the States don’t give in to idiotic schemes to ship Great Lakes water to other parts of the globe. As the cost of power rises and availability becomes patchy, cities in other parts of the country (American Southwest especially) will crash back to their pre-industrial populations, there will be a flood of people heading north and east in search of a better place to live. Depending on how many of those people we absorb, I still think we’ll do better than many other areas of the nation, let alone the world. There are plenty of smaller towns in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and elsewhere that would be rejuvenated by an influx of families.

A more likely possibility is that all of these folks will move to the cities, since few people have the skills to be farmers these days. I fear that will mean places like Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Chicago will become nastier places to live due to overcrowding and the stress of assimilating large numbers of new arrivals. This will even affect mid-sized towns… places like Duluth, Eau Claire, and the like. How bad will it get? I have no idea. Maybe it won’t change much at all. Jamming another million or two people into the Twin Cities metro area will have it’s issues, though, especially considering that we are seen as being a very quiet & safe place to live compared to the rest of the country. A sudden influx of hungry & desperate people would have a profound affect on the makeup of our cities.

Malthus was ridiculed in his day, when the entire population of the Earth was less than the number of Chinese roaming the planet today. His ideas are picking up some steam these days, even though they’re still considered impolite conversational topics.

Malthus’ successors, including Paul Erlich, Bruce Catton, and Jared Diamond, have all been labeled “Malthusian”, “Neo-Malthusian”, “Doom & Gloom” and much worse. Their predictions of crisis, struggle and collapse have been ridiculed, denied and mocked by economists, politicians and journalists for decades. Various groups have taken up the gauntlet, though usually under the guise of anti-immigration or family-planning agendas, with limited success.

This subject really is the elephant in the room, for burgeoning populations will only intensify the competition for resources that will define much of this century. Oil, food, freshwater, lumber… take your pick. All of them are in limited supply for the 7 billion or so souls that will belatedly realize they’ve got a problem sometime in the near future. Many occupations will become redundant, but knowing how to grow food organically will mean you’ll always have employment.

Decreasing our numbers voluntarily would be a gigantic first step towards a sustainable future. This also goes against everything we’ve been conditioned to accept as good, so I’m doubtful that we’ll get to where we need to be population-wise without a lot of suffering worldwide. If this subject isn’t depressing enough for you in this bite-sized post, you can check out DIEOFF.COM for an in-depth discussion on it.

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