Saturday, 5 May 2012

Was Malthus Wrong?

A Malthusian Catastrophe, in a nutshell, is what is was predicted to happen by Thomas Robert Malthus when population outpaces agricultural production. Too many people + not enough food = problems.

The man did not mince his words:
"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world".
It's often said that Malthus has been discredited because he predicted a global catastrophe that never happened. The Green Revolution, for example, is one of the many instances where we have found technological solutions to stay ahead of the game and feed an ever growing population.

Malthusian predictions do not (and I'd add cannot) take human ingenuity into account. Does this mean he was wrong, and the catastrophe he described will never happen? Can we assume that people will always find solutions and never run out of food?

I think that these assumptions miss the point. We should look at the idea more broadly. To assume that it is impossible that some countries in the developed world might descend into a food crisis is foolhardy. There is no guarantee that we will find a solution every single time.

I don't see that happening in the foreseeable future. I'm just saying it isn't impossible. In fact, there are places in the world where it's happening right now.
In Somalia, a two-year drought – which is phenomenal in now being the driest year in the last 60 – has caused record food inflation, particularly in the expectation of the next harvest being 50% of normal. Somalia already had levels of malnutrition and premature mortality so high as to be in a “normalized” state of permanent emergency. This is true too in pockets across the entire region.

Somalia is not a developed nation. But this is an example of an entire country which cannot produce enough food to feed itself during drought. They have not developed their own technological solution as some believe is simply an inevitable human response to such a catastrophe. It's true that these people could be saved if there were not so much conflict and violence in the area. It would be easier to deliver aid, for one. But as a closed system, the human population seems to exceed the carrying capacity of the local land. Unfortunately, there just isn't enough water.

There are other regions where significant numbers of people are undernourished.

Map showing areas where significant portions of the population are undernourished.
Globally, total food production could easily feed the world. But because wealth is not evenly distributed, neither is the food. So despite globalisation and industrial agriculture, there are many regions which must rely on their local ecosystems and farming techniques to support them.

In reality, humans CAN and DO create their own food crises. In the future, any combination of the depletion of natural resources, population growth, economic crises and violent conflict could create a crisis in any country. I wouldn't dare predict how, when or where. No prediction of the behaviour of complex systems can be made with 100% certainty. I can't even imagine a famine in any developed nation in the foreseeable future. But to say this is impossible because a particular prediction was wrong, I think, is irrational.

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