Thursday, April 12, 2012

Is Malthus defeated?

There was a note about how Malthus got it wrong in the comments section the other day.

The commenter was very much correct in so far as it goes.  Malthus appears to have been vanquished.  Human innovation appears to have stymied the beast.

But let’s work on a bit of a thought experiment.  For easy calculations sake, let us argue that humans left the vice-lock of hunter gather existence 10,000 years ago.

Malthus wrote just before the steam engine really got going.  The steam age allowed for the intensification of the usage of fossil fuels, and much of the “innovation” that has allowed us to expand our population exponentially is tied fairly closely with the expansion of fossil fuel usage.  The start of steamboat travel is about 200 years ago.

Draw a line 10” (10,000 years) long.  At the very end of our 10" line mark off a ¼” segment (250 years). 

That is the length of time that we our innovation has stymied the physical limitations described by Malthus.  If you want to argue that agriculture was not very far along 10,000 years ago, or wish to use Arch Bishop Ushers numbers, you can say that we have had 6,000 years of agriculture, and that would lengthen the length of the non-Malthusian segment to 3/8 of an inch.

Defeated? Or is the jury still out?


Degringolade said...

Nice, I like it.

Malthus wasn't wrong, we just found a pretty nifty work-around that lasted around two centuries. As a work around I consider it pretty damn successful.

But unless someone finds another energy source pretty quick, there will be a quick revisit to Mr. Malthus' ideas.

Paul Ehrlich is watching with great amusement

Odysseus said...

The other side of the equation that Malthus didn't have is that some of the most recent demographic numbers out of India and Asia show how birth-rates drop as societies become more productive even outside of Europe.

Converse the percentage of the world that actually takes advantage of modern agriculture is fairly small.

Not saying defeated but I would say the jury is out in either direction.

russell1200 said...

D: Yes, we need to drill like crazy to give ourselves as much time to make any changes, and at the same time push the alternatives even if it means giving the type of goverment support that the oil companies get. But our political process has split the requirements in half with one side wanting one part, and the other side another.

O: Yes, I think that it is fair to say he did not anticipate that. But with the "peak" estimates usually coming in around 10 billion people that is an awful lot of mouths to feed. I am guessing that water, rather than technique will be the larger limiting factor. When a country is shipping grain, it is actually shipping the (enormous) amount of water that was needed to produce the crop.

I agree, I don't think it is a done deal in either direction.