July 30, 2007


Malthusian misery's comeback: With the world population growth outpacing food supply, say goodbye to the era of unlimited improvement. (Niall Ferguson, July 30, 2007, LA Times)

Malthus' key insight was simple but devastating. "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio," he observed. But "subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio." In other words, humanity can increase like the number sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, whereas our food supply can increase no faster than the number sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 We are, quite simply, much better at reproducing than feeding ourselves.

Malthus concluded that there must be "a strong and constantly operating check on population." This would take two forms: "misery" and "vice," by which he meant not only alcohol abuse but also contraception and abortion (he was, after all, an Anglican minister).

I wish I could have a free lunch for every time I've heard someone declare "Malthus was wrong." Superficially, it is true, mankind seems to have broken free of the Malthusian trap. The world's population has increased by a factor of more than six since Malthus' time. Yet the global average daily supply of calories consumed has also gone up on a per capita basis, exceeding 2,700 in the 1990s. In France on the eve of the revolution it was just 1,848.

Having conceded the scientific falsity of the theory there's nothing left but faith.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 30, 2007 9:45 AM

There's tremendous room to improve the food supply in Africa, which has been horribly limited by political causes. (Especially but not limited to Zimbabwe.) Everywhere else population growth is slowing.

Posted by: John Thacker at July 30, 2007 10:36 AM

2,700 calories per day? That's enough for a 225lb man. And I'm pretty sure the average person on the planet doesn't weigh 225lbs. No wonder there are so many fat people.

Posted by: Brandon at July 30, 2007 10:45 AM

I'm beginning to think that putting ethanol in gasoline was actually a scheme for making food scarce enough to have something for Malthusians to point at.

Posted by: Joseph Hertzlinger at July 30, 2007 11:10 AM

And where is Mr. Ferguson from, again?

Europeans (and our own coastal elites, who wish they were European for some bizarre reason) are real big on this drivel for some bizarre reason I don't understand. I've not spent a ton of time in Europe, but it's not like the continent is one huge slum. Perhaps it's just because we're only hearing from the European media elite who are as far removed from reality as our own are. Perhaps because they just hate the world.

The next red state American I hear complaining about overcrowding or this Malthusian nonsense will be the first.

Posted by: b at July 30, 2007 11:14 AM

Wasn't there a report just the other day (by the UN, no less) that world population will top out in a few decades and might even be lower at the end of this century than it was at the beginning?

The real problem is that people like Malthusians see a straight line in their logarithmic graphs and assume that the trend will continue forever, when all they are looking at is really is short segment around the flexure point of a curve shaped more like a sine-wave. But the log-curve fits their theories, and with too much modern social science, that's good enough.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 30, 2007 11:28 AM

And John Derbyshire says we're running out of oil. Spare me.

We badly need some kind of truth censor to insert closed captioning when these guys start talking:

Hello, it's a pleasure to be here today [HOGGING THE MIKE AND SOUNDING IMPORTANT]. My colleagues and I have just conclusively finished [FLUSHING OODLES OF PUBLIC MONEY DOWN THE TOILET]. The consequences are clearly serious [FOR EXAMPLE, I'LL KEEP REPEATING SOME DOOMSDAY JINGLE EVERY 15 SECONDS]. We are running out of [MONEY].

Clearly, our government needs to [CONTINUE STUFFING RESEARCH MOOLAH DOWN MY PANTS UNTIL I GET A REAL JOB]. We need to organize things more clearly so that [I KEEP MY FACE ON THE NEWS AND GREENPEACE STARTS PAYING MY HOTEL BILLS]. There are clearly plenty of ordinary Americans [IVY LEAGUE PROFESSORS] from all walks of life [JOURNALISTS AND DISAFFECTED STUDENTS] who are even now organizing support [THEY GET $5 A SIGNATURE].

I'm hopeful of organizing bipartisan assistance [PRESIDENT BUSH IS A CRETINOUS SLOB] and creating a better future for the children [AFTER ALL, I'VE GOT TO GET THEM THROUGH COLLEGE]. Thank you [FOR NOT NOTICING THAT PEOPLE LIKE ME HAVE NEVER, EVER BEEN RIGHT ABOUT ANYTHING].

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 30, 2007 6:51 PM