Malthus on my mind

malthus normanborlaug

It just so happens that I have been reading Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population these days – another one of those famous books that I’d never gotten around to.  And it just so happens that Norman Borlaug died yesterday.  And it just so happens that T. R. Malthus keeps coming up in discussion about consumption, scarcity, the environment, global warming, etc.  Consider this riposte by Paul Krugman regarding feedback on earlier post of his.  It’s all related.

Some would say that Borlaug, the Nobel Prize winner, showed Malthus the door when he ushered in the Green Revolution.  (He rejected that term, though.)  Food supply didn’t have to inevitably fall behind the growth of population.  Except that Borlaug remained worried about population growth throughout his life and feared that if the rate of increase wasn’t checked, his work would have done no more than bought a temporary reprieve from famine to the world.  Borlaug, who seems to have been a deeply compassionate and extremely sensible man (see this address) was also criticized by many for a narrow technocratic approach to the problem of feeding the world – Simple, we’ll breed more productive wheat! – understood the wider context within which agriculture sits.  He wasn’t trying to get the developing world hooked on Western fertilizer and seed products – he was trying to feed the world.  He regarded such critics as elitists who didn’t worry about where their next meal, or their family’s meal, was coming from.

Oh dear, so much comes together here, not the least of which is just how great those 18th century thinkers were.  Did Malthus forsee it all?  Now we associate him with Carlyle’s remark about economics being the dismal science:  nothing but famine, war and pestilence bring production and consumption into balance, that’s the future.  Dismal, yes, but that’s not what Carlyle was talking about anyway. And Malthus was just trying to introduce some hard nosed good sense into a discussion too much dominated by optimistic good feeling of people like Condorcet.  In situating ourselves within Nature, the universe, we have not advanced much beyond Rousseau and Voltaire’s argument of more than 200 years ago.

Krugman’s gripe was with people calling him a (neo) Malthusian when he rantedabout congressmen being treasonous to the planet and the sky falling and all that climate change stuff.  But he was way off base, as this commenter pointed out:

“[Krugman wrote] We only think Malthus got it wrong because the two centuries he was wrong about were the two centuries that followed the publication of his work.”

Only an economist could say that with a straight face.

Shorter version: “Malthus was wrong because his theory had zero predictive ability”.

Yes, I thought of that too.  If only Malthus had published his work in 1598, he would be looked upon as an undisputed master of analysis and prediction!   On the other hand, just this evening, here at a conference on water resources and climate change, a speaker remarked that maybe bringing the Green Revolution to India wasn’t such a “wise idea” because a significant consequence has been unregulated and unrestricted pumping of groundwater for irrigation, which is bringing the nation to the point of  massive water shortages.  Maybe Malthus should have written about water supply instead of grain supply, although it comes to the same thing in the end.

Or does it?  The same speaker said we should never underestimate our ability to adapt, an intellectual mistake that neo-Malthusians make a lot.

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One Response to Malthus on my mind

  1. troutsky says:

    We needn’t think of it as either-or, Malthus or Borlaug. They both bring something to the table, but not the end of history. Each was right and wrong with many contingencies that must be considered before any “predictions” can be made. I personally think we can feed everyone with naturally evolved varieties and keep population at a sustainable 6 billion.

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