What if Malthus was actually right for once?

Not that I think for a moment he will be — no one in the history of ideas was ever more spectacularly wrong (the poor fellow argued that resources would never be able to keep up with population growth even as an agricultural revolution led to much faster growth in food supplies than in population).

But some still predict that he will be. Andrew Sullivan drew my attention to this:

Grain yields are beginning to hit a “glass ceiling” in many countries, Brown said, where farmers have already taken advantage of what science has to offer for improving yield. As more and more countries hit an upper limit on productivity, the world grain harvest will begin to plateau, even as demand for food continues to rise, causing a rise in prices. More worrisome, the global food market is vulnerableto external shocks such as prolonged drought. “We don’t have idle land, we’re flat out,” says Brown. “We don’t have [food] stocks. We’re living harvest to harvest. The question becomes, what if we have a major shortfall in the world?”

Of course, if Malthus were ever proven right, that would be an extraordinarily bad thing. So I continue to root against him, even as I occasionally worry: Have you bought a bad of “topsoil” lately? It’s like all chunks of bark and stuff…

28 thoughts on “What if Malthus was actually right for once?

  1. Steven Davis II

    Mother Nature has her way of resolving problems such as over-population. The human race just keeps trying to beat her, but she’ll come back with some sort of nasty disease which will bring us back down to a sustainable number. At this point, none too soon.

    I haven’t seen “top soil” since I left the midwest. This pinestraw/bark/sand mixture they sell down here is just that.

  2. Tavis Micklash

    Mushroom compost for the win. Dixie mix is great.

    I dont think the US has reached near its food capacity. Famine and food prices are a very real issue in other parts of the world though. Alot of that has to do with civil wars and corruption though.

    I dont think the sky is gonna fall in my lifetime.

    BTW bonus points for refering to Malthus.

  3. Silence

    This is where GMO and/or new varieties of crops and farming methods have helped in the past and may yet help us again. Shorter crop cycles, drought and salt tolerant plants, increased yields/acre and the like.

    Then there’s also the improved supply chain: better refrigeration, less spoilage, faster movement of goods and better visibility of supply.

    Some countries have always been net importers of food. Some are generally exporters.

    There’s no shortage of underused arable land. Just look around locally, thousands of acres in Richland County alone are filled with plantation pine, deer and dove plots, left fallow and returning to scrub or woods. Even with food prices at high levels, there’s a lot of land that has yet to be returned to cultivation.

    Land could easily be converted from growing silage and animal feed, and used to feed people instead. Despite my dislike of vegetables, it is an efficient diet.

    I believe that the USDA still pays “farmers” not to grow food. Our current farming policy promotes the growth of commodity crops – corn, grains, cereals at the expense of fruits and vegetables. There’s a thousands ways that we could be more efficient, and if food gets scarce or pricey enough, we’ll start adopting them.

    Water, energy, minerals, food, land, any one of these could prove to be a limiting factor, but I’d bet that it won’t be food. I do agree that we’ll see some shocks though, if we run with leaner supplies stockpiled. Maybe there will be certain foods that consumers can’t get all the time.

  4. bud

    By definition Malthus WILL be right some day. We can only avoid it if we bring population growth down to zero. Otherwise it’s a certainty that the earth cannot sustain any positive population growth indefinetely.

  5. Doug Ross

    No worries here. If it gets bad, we just crank up the war machine and go take whatever food we need from smaller countries. What are they gonna do about it? Lots of farmland in Canada we can take.

  6. Silence

    @bud – global warming may indeed open up some additional arable land, which might also help in certain areas. Look up the Medieval Warm Period.

  7. Brad

    Something struck me in that passage I quoted: “Grain yields are beginning to hit a ‘glass ceiling’ in many countries…”

    OK, then; don’t grow grain. Grow potatoes.

    Malthus and potatoes and population-crop ratios are much on my mind because I’m still slowly making my way through “1493,” by Charles Mann. (It’s one of several books I’m reading. It’s at the dinner table, and I’m reading it a few pages at a time.)

    Basically, once they were imported from Peru, potatoes did a great deal to eliminate famine in Europe. Potatoes, along with a revolution in agricultural techniques (one of which was importing guano, also from Peru). Potatoes yield a lot more food per acre than grain. Grain is limited by the weight that the stalk can support; a potato can be as big as your head.

    Of course, this revolution came with trade-offs. Dependency on potatoes on the level seen in Ireland make the population extremely vulnerable to such things as the blight that also came from the Americas. (Interestingly, the blight came from Mexico while the potato came from Peru. Both had existed for thousands of years without coming into contact with one another.)

    Other vulnerabilities are inherent in the agricultural revolution. Increasingly, soil was depleted and simply became a medium for fertilizer and other additives. And while there’s an amazing array of potato species in Peru, one limited kind fed and still feeds much of the rest of the world.

    So Malthus could still get “lucky.” But so far, human ingenuity has always been able to stay way ahead of him. He reckoned without innovation growing along with population.

  8. Mark Stewart

    Wait, back-up, did you say you keep a book at the dinner table? That might be worse than a TV in the kitchen…

    But then, after I hit thirty I seemed to only be able to read a dozen or so books per year; which seems pretty pittiful to me.

  9. bud

    It’s not a matter of luck Brad, it’s a mathematical certainty that the earth cannot support a constant % increase in the population indefinitely. Eventually the weight of the people will be greater than the weight of the earth. What is keeping us in the game is that we invented good, effective and inexpensive birth control measures over the last century. That has kept the birth rate down in the developed world and is not doing the same for much of the third world. Some countries, including Japan and Italy, are already seeing population declines as the elderly are not replaced as they die. Sub-Saharan Africa is the last major holdout. As long as can keep dangerous men like Rick Santorum out of positions of power this birth control revolution is likely to continue.

    Just do this simple exercise. Take the 7 billion population we currently have and multiply it by 10% every decade, a rate much lower than we’ve experience in recent decades. At the end of 100 years the earth will be inhabited by nearly 17 billion people. But keep going another hundred years and we’ll have 42 billion. After the third century that number swells to 111 billion. There is no plausible way to feed 111 billion human beings no matter how fast food production rates grow. At the end of the day the population growth will slow. It’s just a matter of how.

  10. Brad

    You’re thinkIng like Malthus. There were so many things he DID not anticipate because he COULD not anticipate.

    To him, it was also a mathematical certainty.

  11. Brad

    Paul Ehrlich was pretty sure of himself, too. We were supposed to have been thinned out by mass starvation in the 1970s.

    Ehrlich himself has acknowledged, albeit parenthetically, that “we underestimated the resilience of the world system.” One thing you have to admit he’s good at: understatement.

  12. Tim

    Ireland didn’t have a potato problem, it had a political injustice problem. Throughout the famine, it was a net producer of foodstuffs for the non-resident landowners across the Irish Sea. England had ships full of food that it wasn’t about to waste on the Irish. The poor Irish were the Ethiopians of their day.

  13. Silence

    bud- it won’t increase forever. Developed nations’ population growth usually falls off to around or slightly below the replacement rate. The boom comes earlier, when a nation gets better healthcare/wealthier but hasn’t started having less babies yet in response. Usually as infant mortality drops off and women gain rights/get more educated they decide to have less babies.

  14. Steven Davis II

    Two words… Soylent Green.

    “OK, then; don’t grow grain. Grow potatoes.”

    Ah, I think Green Acres had an episode like this.

    But seriously, you can’t just grow potatoes… unless you have approval from a buyer because there’s a limit to the number of potatoes that can be planted every year. Same with things like sugar beets, tobacco, and a few other crops. If you’re allowed to plant 160 acres and you plant 320… you better plan on selling half of them at a roadside stand.

  15. `Kathryn Fenner

    Global warming, more properly climate change, will submerge a great deal of currently occupied land, result in freak weather that endangers crops, turn currently arable land to deserts….

  16. Steven Davis II

    “Eventually the weight of the people will be greater than the weight of the earth.”


  17. Steven Davis II

    Something everyone should know:


    Since the earth is suspended in space, it cannot be put on a scale and weighed.

    But scientists can estimate its total weight by estimating the weight of each of its parts, the crust, or solid rock, the mantle, also solid rock, and the core, a liquid, because of the great heat at the center.

    These add up to an estimated 6.6 sextillion tons. To see what that number looks like, we’d have to write two 6s, followed by twenty zeros, or 6,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 tons.

    Some people believe that the earth’s weight increases by 100,000 pounds each year from dust and meteoric material falling from the sky, from the residue of burning fuel, and from salt from the ocean spray.

  18. Bart

    Well, there is always the alternative, Solyent Green.

    Apparently, according to Andrew “Nostradamus” Sullivan, in due course, the source for Solyent Green will be around in abundance.

    Based on a little reading and research, apparently, the earth’s population is expected to level off at 10 billion by 2065 and remain so for about 100 years. After that, no one is willing to make a prediction because of the uncertainty of the nature of humans and our propensity to find new and interesting ways to destroy ourselves or decrease our numbers.

    But, if Santorum is elected president, he will naturally insist on passing laws that require the proliferation of children, outlaw abortions and birth control, relegate women back to a constant state of being barefoot and pregnant and incarcerate all gays and lesbians who refuse to seek counseling for their deviant behavior. Yep, that is the fate awaiting humanity at the hands of fanatics like Santorum. Too bad the man can’t even carry his own damn state in a senate race and the left is worried about the possibility of him winning anything other than a few delegates in the primaries?

    Better check under the bed for monsters and the toilet for sewer gators bud. You stand as much a chance of finding either than Santorum ever being the president.

  19. Burl Burlingame

    One problem is that we don’t grow enough different types of crops. There used to be something like 300 species of wheat, but we only grow three.

    I’m also reminded of the Haldane quote: The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine.

  20. bud

    Paul Ehrlich was pretty sure of himself, too. We were supposed to have been thinned out by mass starvation in the 1970s.

    What Malthus and Ehrlich didn’t anticipate was effective BIRTH CONTROL. That is the most important component of that resilience Ehrich speaks of. In the developed world that is largely accomplished by hormonal CONTRACEPTION. It is also starting to work in Asia and Latin America. We just need to keep the perveyors of medieval thinking about birth control out of the equation and we may avoid the Malthusian certainty.

    Besides, if you look at Africa that resilience really isn’t all that obvious. Life expectancy in some Sub-Saharan countries is less than 50. That’s due to constant war, starvation and disease. Dying young is the other way populations can be kept low.

  21. Karen McLeod

    To have that population leveling, you have to have a developed nation. I don’t see that happening much in the middle east. So many countries there seem to be trying to go backward.

  22. Silence

    @Burl – Good point about the reduction in the genetic diversity of our crops. Monoculture definitely increases both the likelihood and the potential effects of crop disease, pests, bad weather issues, etc.

  23. bud

    Double the human population every decade, about what was occurring in the 60s and 70s, and in 45 decades (450 years) the weight of the human population would equal 9.5 sextillion tons, or about 1.5 times the weight of the earth. This is a simple math equation that cannot be changed. In effect the growth rate of the population WILL slow down. The good news is it already has.

  24. Steven Davis II

    @bud – You’re implying that man will still be around in 450 years. I have my doubts. We’re destined to be short-time residents in the history of the Earth (less than 10,000 years of modern man… if it’s even that long).

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