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02 April 2005

farmers efficiently farming, teenagers exponentially screwing ...

Nephew Kwak said:

Comment part 2: Here are two simple reasons that Malthus has been so very, very wrong up until now, though they do not guarantee that he will be wrong regarding some point in the future.

1) Food production is not restricted to mere arithmetical increase.
2) Human reproduction is not restricted to geometric growth.

Comment 3: furthermore, much of what was "dismal" about Malthus's "science" was not just that he predicted famine, but that he made the following political policy suggestion -- because famine appears to be likely in the future, we must avoid it by maintaining a socio-economic system that promotes starvation among the poor. Thus starvation deaths in the future are prevented by inducing starvation deaths in the present. His math may have been technically correct, but his logic left something to be desired.

Okay, I never should have Malthused, because I am just a Malthusian Amateur, but Nephew Kwak is a Genuine Malthusian Professional. If we were to judge this by the height of the stacks of books on these subjects each of us has read, I can sit on my stack, and Kwak takes an elevator to get to the top of his stack.

But what the hell, in for a penny, in for a pound. But am I right? Hard to tell ... but Kwak SEEMS to be backing Malthus.

Desperation and fear of individually and massively starving to death does and has indeed altered the food production curve so that it is not always a straight arithmetical up ramp -- over limited periods of time. Ancient Greece, for example, enjoyed centuries of bountiful agriculture -- until its soil became exhausted and its agriculture collapsed.

In modern times the trend toward food production efficiency has embraced some very scary new foundations: Intensive monoculture, where entire states and regions are almost entirely devoted to one crop species, superefficiently harvested by giant machines designed specifically for that one species (Midwest wheat, maize/corn, the machine-pickable tomato, e.g.).

For decades the production increase dramatically outpaces the grim Malthusian arithmetical constant up-ramp ... until Midwest topsoil becomes exhausted, the Ogilala Aquifer runs dry (the Great Plains evolved only as a natural wild grassland of great species diversity, not to undergo intensive monoculture and intentional climax ecology for 150 years), or a new pest or blight invades the monoculture regions and finds a single-species feast. It is naive, for example, to think that the Midwest Dust Bowl of the 1930s was a one-time mistake which our agri-scientists have since learned from so that no equivalent catastrophe will ever happen again.

Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" (1962) was the first public critique of the technological fundamentals behind "The Green Revolution." At a time when TGR was demonstrating miraculous super-arithmetic increases in food production, Carson noted that the macro-environment was suffering increasing biocide. The worldwide industrial use of DDT and subsequent chlorinated hydrocarbons was thinning bird eggshells and wiping out a variety of species starting from the top of the food chain, but working down, and including us. (Top predators accumulate the highest concentrations of these chemicals.)

There is also the now-well-understood phenomenon of the Superpest. When newly introduced pesticides wiped out plant pests so efficiently starting in the 1940s, scientists and farmers concluded that the farmer-vs.-pest war was over, and the farmers had won.

But each pesticide only kills 99.99 percent of the target pest. The 0.01 percent which survives -- a mutant freak of some kind -- is, by definition, a Superpest, and all its offspring will be pretty largely immune to this latest pesticide, requiring industry to develop even more toxic pesticides -- which will only kill 99.99 percent etc.

In the two centuries since Malthus' "Population," scientific and industrial shortcuts and efficiencies have supercharged food production in the short-term, but provided increasing evidence that the day is soon coming when worldwide agriculture will begin to suffer irreversible collapses.

My childhood geography books (circa 1960) said with perfect confidence that the North Atlantic Grand Banks were an inexhaustible source of edible commercial fish (cod, flounder, etc.). For much of the past decade the Grand Banks have been Closed to fishing fleets, in a desperate hope that the exhausted fish populations can in time recover. There is not much optimistic evidence that the Grand Banks will ever recover. We fished much too efficiently like there was no tomorrow, and conserved not at all until it was much too late.

Human population increase ... Malthus himself recommended voluntarily delaying marriage and delaying having children -- in other words, voluntarily abstaining from sex until the early or mid-20s. In case any readers are human males or human females, I invite your Comments on how realistic Malthus' solution to the problem of exponential population growth is.

Today, the Bush Administration aggressively champions AIDS and population-control policies based on voluntary Abstinence and Monogamy, and punishes nations and programs which feature condoms, abortion, artificial birth control, sterilization, etc. (See most recent post on Thousands of Teenage Virgins Having Sex.)

Well ... let me weenie out of my own educational inadequacies and tell about a chance encounter I had with a professor of world population studies from Mount Holyoke College. We met on quite a different matter, but I wasn't going to pass up the chance to pester the poor woman with questions. "Do you people still take Malthus as your First Principle?" I mean, what the Good Reverend said seems so bleak and pessimistic, and he's a Long-Dead Old White Man, and we've come to learn that all of them were wrong or irrelevant. (The professor was from India.)

"Oh yes," she said with complete confidence, "Malthus is still the First Principle. There is no getting around Malthus."

What's changed -- gotten worse, in fact -- is our increasing recognition that mere numbers of people here and there are much less significant than each society's per-capita consumption of food and resources. An average American consumes (off the top of my head -- help me out, Kwak ... this is probably a way lowball figure) ten times more of the world's resources in a lifetime than an average Bangladeshi or Filipino.

So mere tables of raw population and population increase by nation aren't the important phenomena that will bring about Malthus' dismal predictions. We think the damage is coming from India and China, but actually the heavy damage to the Earth's ability to feed and sustain us, and the heavy damage to weather patterns and the ice caps, is coming from North America and Europe.

Though Europe is more conscious of these things politically -- a tank of gasoline is outrageously expensive, by intentional taxation, in Europe to enforce fuel efficiency and reduce unneccesary driving. In the USA, our bipartisan politics are founded on a government promise of cheap gasoline. Europeans laugh at Americans weeping about this month's record gas prices; they've been paying far more for decades, and choosing to pay it -- for one reason, to duck the foreign-dependence pressure that keeps dragging the USA into oil-related wars.

I will now turn over the Was Malthus Right? debate to the Associated Press and the United Nations' just-released report on the world's resources and the health of the world's environment under human impact over the last half-century. Just because the dateline is April Fool's Day ... don't reach for an excuse to reject this latest Dismal Malthusian Prediction.


International Herald Tribune (Paris)
Friday 1 April 2005

UN study cites growing
human damage to ecology

LONDON (Associated Press) -- Growing populations and expanding economic activity have strained the planet's ecosystems over the past half-century, a trend that threatens international efforts to combat poverty and disease, a UN-sponsored study of the Earth's health has warned.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year, $24 million study released Wednesday, is the largest to show how people are changing their environment. It found that humans had depleted 60 percent of the world's grasslands, forests, farmlands, rivers and lakes.

Unless nations adopt more environmentally friendly policies, increased human demands for food, clean water and fuels could speed the disappearance of forests, fish and fresh water reserves and lead to more frequent disease outbreaks over the next 50 years, the report said.

Jonathan Lash, a member of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment board, said in London that the report was an audit of nature's economy.

"The audit shows that we have driven most of the accounts into the red," Lash said. "If you drive the economy into the red, ultimately there are significant consequences for our capacity to achieve our dreams in terms of poverty reduction and prosperity."

Walter Reid, director of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, said that over the past 50 years humans had changed ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than any comparable period in human history.

"These changes have resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss to the biological diversity of the planet," Reid said.

Earlier Wednesday at an event in Japan, A.H. Zakri, director of the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, said environmental degradation could be slowed by eliminating trade barriers and subsidies, protecting forests and coastal areas, promoting "green" technologies and lowering greenhouse gas emissions thought to contribute to global warming.

The study was compiled by 1,360 scientists from 95 nations who pored over 16,000 satellite photos from NASA and analyzed reams of statistics and scientific journals.

Their findings, announced in several cities worldwide, highlighted the planet's problems at the end of the 20th century, as the human population reached 6 billion.

A fifth of coral reefs and a third of the mangrove forests have been destroyed in recent decades. The diversity of animal and plant species has fallen sharply, and a third of all species are at risk of extinction. Disease outbreaks, floods and fires have become more frequent. Levels in the atmosphere of one greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, have surged, mostly in the past four decades.

Conservation groups called on governments, businesses and individuals to heed the study's warnings.

"Ecosystems are capital assets," said Taylor Ricketts, director of conservation science at the World Wildlife Fund. "We don't include them on our balance sheets, but if we did, the services they supply would dwarf everything else in value."

- 30 -


Blogger Newphew Kwak said...

Goddamn it! It's quarter past one in the morning and I never hardly ever stay up past maybe 11:30 so I should be going to bed, but you, Dear Uncle, insist on goading me and taunting me and shamelessly flattering me into staying up and writing some reply. To begin: though I may have a stack of books that require crampons and belay gear to summit, that doesn't mean that I've read any of them. Books make great insulation dontcha know; very necessary in these northern hinterlands.

Okay, so let's see about Malthus. Among other things you are now combining many different arguments which is patently unfair. Your Malthusianism has morphed from "was Malthus right?" to "was Malthus right if we allow for things that he didn't consider but that happen to be forces working in the same direction as his conclusions?" Like Hummers and such.

Okay. So here's some quoting from Marilynne Robinson's essay "Darwinism," collected in her book of essays, The Death of Adam. I highly recommend. You are encouraged to disagree with anything she says. But you are also encouraged to enjoy her absolutely marvelous essay writing skill and gorgeous prose as well as enjoying her intelligence and honesty in grapling with her subjects, even if she ends up wrong on some of them (which I'm not saying that she does, just saying). Also, she used to live in Northampton.

.... [p.32] It appears to me that the conjunction which allowed evolution to flourish as Darwinism* was the appropriation of certain canards about animal breeding for the purpose fo social criticism, together with a weariness in European civilization with Christianity, which did cavil, if anything did, at the extraordinary cruelty of industrial and colonial civilization. Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population to demonstrate the harmful consequences of intervening between the poor and their death by starvation. In his Autobiograph, Darwin says:

"[In 1838] I happenend to read for amusement [!] Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the result of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work..."

It would appear he made Malthus's grim thesis, that alleviation of misery only results in greater misery, darker still by concluding that those who die deserve to, as the embodiments of unfavorable "variations." In The Descent of Man he treats human fecklessness as atavism, and perhaps that is part of what he means here. But as a consequence of the progressive character of change brought about by the process of destruction he describes as occurring whithin and between populations, survival is always a function of relative fitness. There is no such thing as intrinsic worth. No value inheres in whatever is destroyed, or destructible. In Origin of Species he says:

"In each well-stocked country natural selection acts through the completion of the inhabitants, and consequently leads to success in the batter for life, only in accordance with the standard of that particular country. Hence the inhabitants of one country, generally the smaller one, often yield to the inhabitants of another and generally the larger country. For in the larger country there will have existed mroe individuals and more diversified forms, and the competition will have been more severe, and thus the standard of perfection will have been rendered higher."

Those who have wondered how it can be that larger countries so consistently dominate smaller ones will find their answer here--bigger countries have better people in them. Insights like this one must have sweetened the pill of Darwinism considerably for those among the British who felt any doubts about the glory of Empire. Especially to be noted is the progressivist spin Darwin puts on Malthus. A more populous country implies for him one in which there is more severe attrition, therefore a more highly evolved people. That is to say, success depends not on numbers but on the severity of competition that is the presumed consequence of large population. Brutal conditions at home legitimize domination abroad. Surely this is the worst of all possible worlds. But my point here is that the idea of progressive evolution through natural selection occurred to Darwin as a consequence of reading about endemic starvation in the populations of wealthy countries. He elaborated it into a theory of national aggression.


* [p.30] "I wish to make a distinction here between evolution, the change that occurs in organisms over time, and Darwinism, the interpretation of this phenomenon which claims to refute religion and to imply a personal and social ethic which is, not coincidentally, antithetical to the assumptions imposed and authorized by Judaeo-Christianity."

Etc. Okay, so go read the whole essay.

Anyhow, all your Pollyana'ism, or whatever, is sadly probably right-on w/r/t environmental problems and the such. Yes, agricultural production expansion has been predicated on unsusatianable practices. Wendell Berry has noted that in the production of the average bushel of corn in the U.S. midwest, more than a bushel of topsoil is washed down the Mississippi River. His stat might be a little old and so not exactly true today, but I'll bet a dollar it's pretty darn close (if not worse).

But what your Pollyana'ism ignores is my part (2) comment, which was that human populations don't have to expand exponentially. There are now a small handfull of economically advanced countries with negative population growth rates, not resulting from war, famine, disease or the fourth Horseman, whatever his name is. Just from people wanting something other in their lives than childrearing, and the ability to act upon that desire. It's a pretty well established socio-economico-demographico fact that as a population becomes richer, the population growth rate falls. This brings up the multiplier problem you noted -- that a rich person in the world today tends to make a larger impact, often negative but not exclusively, on the environment than a poor person. So even though Italy has a negative pop growth rate, doesn't mean that it is a sustainable population as it currently stands.

Throw some et ceteras in here. I'm tired and going to bed. If I have some more energy soon I'll add more.


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