Malthusian catastrophe

Malthusian catastrophe

Overview
A Malthusian catastrophe (also phrased Malthusian check, Malthusian crisis, Malthusian disaster, Malthusian fallacy, Malthusian nightmare, or Malthusian theory of population) was originally foreseen to be a forced return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth
Population growth
Population growth is the change in a population over time, and can be quantified as the change in the number of individuals of any species in a population using "per unit time" for measurement....

 had outpaced agricultural
Agriculture
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

 production
Production, costs, and pricing
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to industrial organization:Industrial organization – describes the behavior of firms in the marketplace with regard to production, pricing, employment and other decisions...

. Later formulations consider economic
Economics
Economics is the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek from + , hence "rules of the house"...

 growth limits as well. The term is also commonly used in discussions of oil depletion
Oil depletion
Oil depletion occurs in the second half of the production curve of an oil well, oil field, or the average of total world oil production. The Hubbert peak theory makes predictions of production rates based on prior discovery rates and anticipated production rates. Hubbert curves predict that the...

.
Based on the work of political economist Thomas Malthus
Thomas Malthus
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus FRS was an English scholar, influential in political economy and demography. Malthus popularized the economic theory of rent....

 (1766–1834), theories of Malthusian catastrophe are very similar to the Iron Law of Wages.
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Encyclopedia
A Malthusian catastrophe (also phrased Malthusian check, Malthusian crisis, Malthusian disaster, Malthusian fallacy, Malthusian nightmare, or Malthusian theory of population) was originally foreseen to be a forced return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth
Population growth
Population growth is the change in a population over time, and can be quantified as the change in the number of individuals of any species in a population using "per unit time" for measurement....

 had outpaced agricultural
Agriculture
Agriculture is the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life. Agriculture was the key implement in the rise of sedentary human civilization, whereby farming of domesticated species created food surpluses that nurtured the...

 production
Production, costs, and pricing
The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to industrial organization:Industrial organization – describes the behavior of firms in the marketplace with regard to production, pricing, employment and other decisions...

. Later formulations consider economic
Economics
Economics is the social science that analyzes the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. The term economics comes from the Ancient Greek from + , hence "rules of the house"...

 growth limits as well. The term is also commonly used in discussions of oil depletion
Oil depletion
Oil depletion occurs in the second half of the production curve of an oil well, oil field, or the average of total world oil production. The Hubbert peak theory makes predictions of production rates based on prior discovery rates and anticipated production rates. Hubbert curves predict that the...

.
Based on the work of political economist Thomas Malthus
Thomas Malthus
The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus FRS was an English scholar, influential in political economy and demography. Malthus popularized the economic theory of rent....

 (1766–1834), theories of Malthusian catastrophe are very similar to the Iron Law of Wages. The main difference is that the Malthusian theories predict what will happen over several generations or centuries, whereas the Iron Law of Wages predicts what will happen in a matter of years and decades.

An August 2007 science review in The New York Times
The New York Times
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...

raised the claim that the Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times...

 had enabled the modern world to break out of the Malthusian growth model
Malthusian growth model
The Malthusian growth model, sometimes called the simple exponential growth model, is essentially exponential growth based on a constant rate of compound interest...

, while a front page Wall Street Journal article in March 2008 pointed out various limited resources
Non-renewable resource
A non-renewable resource is a natural resource which cannot be produced, grown, generated, or used on a scale which can sustain its consumption rate, once depleted there is no more available for future needs. Also considered non-renewable are resources that are consumed much faster than nature...

 which may soon limit human population growth because of a widespread belief in the importance of prosperity for every individual and the rising consumption trends of large developing nations such as China
People's Republic of China
China , officially the People's Republic of China , is the most populous country in the world, with over 1.3 billion citizens. Located in East Asia, the country covers approximately 9.6 million square kilometres...

 and India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

.

Work by Thomas Malthus


In 1798, Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population
An Essay on the Principle of Population
The book An Essay on the Principle of Population was first published anonymously in 1798 through J. Johnson . The author was soon identified as The Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. While it was not the first book on population, it has been acknowledged as the most influential work of its era...

, in which he wrote:
Notwithstanding the apocalyptic image conveyed by this particular paragraph, Malthus himself did not subscribe to the notion that mankind was fated for a "catastrophe" due to population overshoot. Rather, he believed that population growth was generally restricted by available resources:

Neo-Malthusian theory


Neo-Malthusian theory argues that unless at or below subsistence level, a population's fertility
Fertility
Fertility is the natural capability of producing offsprings. As a measure, "fertility rate" is the number of children born per couple, person or population. Fertility differs from fecundity, which is defined as the potential for reproduction...

 will tend to move upwards. Assume for example that a country has 10 breeding groups. Over time this country's fertility will approach that of its fastest growing group in the same way that
will eventually come to resemble
regardless of how large the constant a is or how small the constant b is. Under subsistence conditions the fastest growing group is likely to be that group progressing most rapidly in agricultural technology
Technology
Technology is the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function. It can also refer to the collection of such tools, machinery, and procedures. The word technology comes ;...

. However, in above-subsistence conditions the fastest growing group is likely to be the one with the highest fertility. Therefore the fertility of the country will approach that of its most fertile group. This, however, is only part of the problem.

In any group some individuals will be more pro-fertility in their beliefs and practices than others. According to neo-Malthusian theory, these pro-fertility individuals will not only have more children, but also pass their pro-fertility on to their children, meaning a constant selection for pro-fertility similar to the constant natural selection
Natural selection
Natural selection is the nonrandom process by which biologic traits become either more or less common in a population as a function of differential reproduction of their bearers. It is a key mechanism of evolution....

 for fertility gene
Gene
A gene is a molecular unit of heredity of a living organism. It is a name given to some stretches of DNA and RNA that code for a type of protein or for an RNA chain that has a function in the organism. Living beings depend on genes, as they specify all proteins and functional RNA chains...

s (except much faster because of greater diversity). According to neo-Malthusians, this increase in fertility will lead to hyperexponential population growth that will eventually outstrip growth in economic production. This appears to make any sort of voluntary fertility control futile, in the long run. Neo-Malthusians argue that although adult immigrants (who, at the very least, arrive with human capital
Human capital
Human capitalis the stock of competencies, knowledge and personality attributes embodied in the ability to perform labor so as to produce economic value. It is the attributes gained by a worker through education and experience...

) contribute to economic production, there is little or no increase in economic production from increased natural growth and fertility. Neo-Malthusians argue that hyperexponential population growth has begun or will begin soon in developed countries. To this can be added that farmland deteriorates with use. Some areas where there was intensive agriculture in classic times (i.e., the feudal era) had already declined in population because their farmland was worn out, long before he wrote.

At the time Malthus wrote, and for 150 years thereafter, most societies had populations at or beyond their agricultural limits. After World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, mechanized agriculture produced a dramatic increase in productivity of agriculture and the so-called Green Revolution
Green Revolution
Green Revolution refers to a series of research, development, and technology transfer initiatives, occurring between the 1940s and the late 1970s, that increased agriculture production around the world, beginning most markedly in the late 1960s....

 greatly increased crop yields, expanding the world's food supply while lowering food prices. In response, the growth rate of the world's population accelerated rapidly, resulting in predictions by Paul R. Ehrlich
Paul R. Ehrlich
Paul Ralph Ehrlich is an American biologist and educator who is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology. By training he is an entomologist specializing in Lepidoptera , but...

, Simon Hopkins, and many others of an imminent Malthusian catastrophe. However, populations of most developed countries grew slowly enough to be outpaced by gains in productivity. By 1990, agricultural production appeared to begin peaking in several world regions.

By the early 21st century, many technologically developed countries had passed through the demographic transition
Demographic transition
The demographic transition model is the transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as a country develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic system. The theory is based on an interpretation of demographic history developed in 1929 by the American...

, a complex social development encompassing a drop in total fertility rate
Total Fertility Rate
The total fertility rate of a population is the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime if she were to experience the exact current age-specific fertility rates through her lifetime, and she...

s in response to lower infant mortality
Infant mortality
Infant mortality is defined as the number of infant deaths per 1000 live births. Traditionally, the most common cause worldwide was dehydration from diarrhea. However, the spreading information about Oral Re-hydration Solution to mothers around the world has decreased the rate of children dying...

, more education of women, increased urbanization
Urbanization
Urbanization, urbanisation or urban drift is the physical growth of urban areas as a result of global change. The United Nations projected that half of the world's population would live in urban areas at the end of 2008....

, and a wider availability of effective birth control
Birth control
Birth control is an umbrella term for several techniques and methods used to prevent fertilization or to interrupt pregnancy at various stages. Birth control techniques and methods include contraception , contragestion and abortion...

, causing the demographic-economic paradox
Demographic-economic paradox
The demographic-economic paradox is the inverse correlation found between wealth and fertility within and between nations. The higher the degree of education and GDP per capita of a human population, subpopulation or social stratum, the fewer children are born in any industrialized country...

. Developed and developing countries follow two distinct paths. Most developed countries have sufficient food supply, low fertility rates, and stable (in some cases even declining) populations. In some cases, population growth occurs due to increasing life expectancies, even though fertility rates are below replacement. For example, , Spain
Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

 has approximately 4.6 km2 of arable land or permanent crops per 1,000 residents, and its average fertility rate is well below replacement level (1.3 children/woman). Its population has grown less than 50% in the last 40 years. The corresponding ratio for Nigeria
Nigeria
Nigeria , officially the Federal Republic of Nigeria, is a federal constitutional republic comprising 36 states and its Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. The country is located in West Africa and shares land borders with the Republic of Benin in the west, Chad and Cameroon in the east, and Niger in...

 is only 2.1 km2 of arable land or crops per 1,000 residents; Nigerian total fertility rate is 5.0 children/woman, and its population has more than tripled during the same 40 years. The Malthusian catastrophe appears to have been temporarily averted in Spain, although the Neo-Malthusian theory argues that the situation is only temporary; on the other hand, a significant part of population of Nigeria lives near subsistence levels.

David Pimentel and Ron Nielsen, working independently, determined that the human population as a whole has passed the numerical point where all can live in comfort, and that we have entered a stage where many of the world's citizens and future generations are trapped in misery. There is evidence that a catastrophe is underway as of at least the 1990s; for example, by the year 2000, children in developing countries were dying at the rate of approximately 11,000,000 per annum from strictly preventable diseases. These data suggest that, by the standard of misery, the catastrophe is underway. The term 'misery' can generally be construed as: high infant mortality
Infant mortality
Infant mortality is defined as the number of infant deaths per 1000 live births. Traditionally, the most common cause worldwide was dehydration from diarrhea. However, the spreading information about Oral Re-hydration Solution to mothers around the world has decreased the rate of children dying...

, low standards of sanitation, malnutrition
Malnutrition
Malnutrition is the condition that results from taking an unbalanced diet in which certain nutrients are lacking, in excess , or in the wrong proportions....

, inadequate drinking water
Water crisis
Water crisis is a general term used to describe a situation where the available water within a region is less than the region's demand. The term has been used to describe the availability of potable water in a variety of regions by the United Nations and other world organizations...

, widespread diseases, war, and political unrest.

Regarding famines, data demonstrate the world's food production has peaked in some of the very regions where food is needed the most. For example, in South Asia
South Asia
South Asia, also known as Southern Asia, is the southern region of the Asian continent, which comprises the sub-Himalayan countries and, for some authorities , also includes the adjoining countries to the west and the east...

, approximately half of the land has been degraded such that it no longer has the capacity for food production. In China there has been a 27% irreversible loss of land for agriculture, and it continues to lose arable land at the rate of 2,500 square kilometres per year. In Madagascar
Madagascar
The Republic of Madagascar is an island country located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa...

, at least 30% of the land previously regarded as arable is irreversibly barren. On the other hand, recent data show the number of overweight people in the world now outnumbers that of malnourished, and the rising tide of obesity
Obesity
Obesity is a medical condition in which excess body fat has accumulated to the extent that it may have an adverse effect on health, leading to reduced life expectancy and/or increased health problems...

 continues to expand in both rich and poor countries.

On the assumption that the demographic transition
Demographic transition
The demographic transition model is the transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as a country develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic system. The theory is based on an interpretation of demographic history developed in 1929 by the American...

 is now spreading from the developed countries to less developed countries, the United Nations Population Fund
United Nations Population Fund
The United Nations Population Fund is a UN organization. The work of the UNFPA involves promotion of the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. This is done through major national and demographic surveys and with population censuses...

 estimates that human population may peak in the late 21st century rather than continue to grow until it has exhausted available resources. Some have expressed doubt about the validity of the UN projections, claiming that they are below the projections by others. The most important point is that none of the projections show the population growth beginning to decline before 2050. Indeed, the UN "high" estimate does not decline at all, even out to 2300, indicating the potential for a Malthusian catastrophe. The actual growth curve of the human population is another issue. In the latter part of the 20th century, many argued that it followed exponential growth
Exponential growth
Exponential growth occurs when the growth rate of a mathematical function is proportional to the function's current value...

; however, a more recent view is that the growth in the last millennium has been faster, at a superexponential (possibly hyperbolic
Hyperbolic growth
When a quantity grows towards a singularity under a finite variation it is said to undergo hyperbolic growth.More precisely, the reciprocal function 1/x has a hyperbola as a graph, and has a singularity at 0, meaning that the limit as x \to 0 is infinity: any similar graph is said to exhibit...

, double-exponential, or hyper-exponential
Tetration
In mathematics, tetration is an iterated exponential and is the next hyper operator after exponentiation. The word tetration was coined by English mathematician Reuben Louis Goodstein from tetra- and iteration. Tetration is used for the notation of very large numbers...

) rate. Alternatively, the apparently exponential portion of the human population growth curve may actually fit the lower limb of a logistic curve, or a section of a Lotka–Volterra cycle.

Historians have estimated the total human population on earth back to 10,000 BC. The figure on the right shows the trend of total population from 1800 to 2005, and from there in three projections out to 2100 (low, medium, and high). The second figure shows the annual growth rate over the same period. If population growth were exactly exponential, then the growth rate would be a flat line. The fact that it was increasing from 1920 to 1960 indicates faster-than-exponential growth over this period. However, the growth rate has been decreasing since then, and is projected to continue decreasing. The United Nations population projections out to 2100 (the red, orange, and green lines) show a possible peak in the world's population occurring as early as 2040 in the most optimistic scenario, and by 2075 in the "medium" scenario.

The graph of annual growth rates (below) does not appear exactly as one would expect for long-term exponential growth. For exponential growth it should be a straight line at constant height, whereas in fact the graph from 1800 to 2005 is dominated by an enormous hump that began about 1920, peaked in the mid-1960s, and has been steadily eroding away for the last 40 years. The sharp fluctuation between 1959 and 1960 was due to the combined effects of the Great Leap Forward
Great Leap Forward
The Great Leap Forward of the People's Republic of China was an economic and social campaign of the Communist Party of China , reflected in planning decisions from 1958 to 1961, which aimed to use China's vast population to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a modern...

 and a natural disaster in China. Also visible on this graph are the effects of the Great Depression
Great Depression
The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression in the decade preceding World War II. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations, but in most countries it started in about 1929 and lasted until the late 1930s or early 1940s...

, the two world wars, and possibly also the 1918 flu pandemic.

Though short-term trends, even on the scale of decades or centuries, cannot prove or disprove the existence of mechanisms promoting a Malthusian catastrophe over longer periods, the prosperity of a small fraction of the human population at the beginning of the 21st century, and the debatability of ecological collapse
Ecological collapse
Ecological Collapse refers to a situation where an ecosystem suffers a drastic, if not permanent, reduction in carrying capacity for all organisms, often resulting in mass extinction...

 made by Paul R. Ehrlich
Paul R. Ehrlich
Paul Ralph Ehrlich is an American biologist and educator who is the Bing Professor of Population Studies in the department of Biological Sciences at Stanford University and president of Stanford's Center for Conservation Biology. By training he is an entomologist specializing in Lepidoptera , but...

 in the 1960s and 1970s, has led some people, such as economist Julian L. Simon
Julian Lincoln Simon
Julian Lincoln Simon was a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute at the time of his death, after previously serving as a longtime business professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Simon wrote many books and...

, to question its inevitability.

A 2004 study by a group of prominent economists and ecologists, including Kenneth Arrow
Kenneth Arrow
Kenneth Joseph Arrow is an American economist and joint winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics with John Hicks in 1972. To date, he is the youngest person to have received this award, at 51....

 and Paul Ehrlich suggests that the central concerns regarding sustainability have shifted from population growth to the consumption/savings ratio, due to shifts in population growth rates since the 1970s. Empirical estimates show that public policy (taxes or the establishment of more complete property rights) can promote more efficient consumption and investment that are sustainable in an ecological sense; that is, given the current (relatively low) population growth rate, the Malthusian catastrophe can be avoided by either a shift in consumer preferences or public policy that induces a similar shift. However, some contend that the Malthusian catastrophe is not imminent. A 2002 study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that world food production will be in excess of the needs of the human population by the year 2030; however, that source also states that hundreds of millions will remain hungry (presumably due to economic realities and political issues).

Application to energy/resource consumption




Another way of applying the Malthusian theory is to substitute other resources, such as sources of energy for food, and energy consumption for population. (Since modern food production and logistics is energy and resource intensive, this is not a big jump. Most of the criteria for applying the theory are still satisfied.) Since energy consumption is increasing much faster than population, and most energy comes from non-renewable sources, the catastrophe appears more imminent, though perhaps not as certain, than when considering food and population continue to behave in a manner contradicting Malthus's assumptions.

Retired physics professor Albert Bartlett
Albert Bartlett
Albert Allen Bartlett is an emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, USA. Professor Bartlett has lectured over 1,600 times since September, 1969 on Arithmetic, Population, and Energy...

, a modern-day Malthusian, has lectured on "Arithmetic, Population and Energy" over 1,500 times. He published an article entitled Thoughts on Long-Term Energy Supplies: Scientists and the Silent Lie in Physics Today (July 2004). For a response to Bartlett's argument, see two articles on energy and population in Physics Today, November 2004, and following letters to the editor. A further way of analyzing resource limitation is the dwindling area for storage of soil contaminants and water pollution
Water pollution
Water pollution is the contamination of water bodies . Water pollution occurs when pollutants are discharged directly or indirectly into water bodies without adequate treatment to remove harmful compounds....

. The high rate of increase in toxic chemicals in the environment (especially persistent organic chemicals and endocrine altering chemicals) is creating a circumstance of resource limitation (e.g. safe potable water and safe arable land).

Criticism


Ester Boserup
Ester Böserup
Ester Boserup , born Ester Børgesen in Copenhagen, was a Danish economist, writer. She studied economical and agricultural development, worked at the United Nations as well as other international organizations, and she wrote several books...

 wrote in her book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, that population levels determine agricultural methods, rather than agricultural methods determining population (via food supply). A major point of her book is that "necessity is the mother of invention". Julian Simon
Julian Lincoln Simon
Julian Lincoln Simon was a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute at the time of his death, after previously serving as a longtime business professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Simon wrote many books and...

 was one of many economists who challenged the Malthusian catastrophe, citing (1) the existence of new knowledge, and educated people to take advantage of it, and (2) "economic freedom", that is, the ability of the world to increase production when there is a profitable opportunity to do so. The economist Henry George
Henry George
Henry George was an American writer, politician and political economist, who was the most influential proponent of the land value tax, also known as the "single tax" on land...

argued that Malthus didn't provide any evidence of a natural tendency for a population to overwhelm its ability to provide for itself. George wrote that even the main body of Malthus' work refuted this theory; that examples given show social causes for misery, such as "ignorance and greed... bad government, unjust laws, or war," rather than insufficient food production.

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