Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Malthus was not wrong: further lessons on bad interpretations of politics and history

Costa Pinto biofuel production facility, 
Piracicaba, Brazil, October 19, 2008

[I've updated this post a bit since its initial appearance, revising and extending certain sections to clarify and bolster the argument a bit. I hope. -Ed M. 7/3/2011]

I've been thinking a great deal about a recent visit from an old friend, who happens to be a member in good standing of the mainstream, Foreign Affairs-abiding, academic community of foreign policy scholars.

I talked a lot with my friend about peak oil, climate change, and ecological ideas more generally, as applied to the study of politics and international affairs. I tried to make the case that any valid interpretation of contemporary politics has to place at its center the unfolding ecological holocaust. Any useful understanding of politics or policy has to acknowledge ecological collapse as the basic motive force of human history, driving and defining all other current events. Any interpretation that ignores the unfolding ecological holocaust, or depicts it as but one policy concern among many, is intellectually bankrupt. Or so I tried to imply, assert, bluster, argue, and cajole, in conversations with my foreign policy buddy, over burritos and booze.

A lot of his responses boiled down to asking whether a crisis of the immensity I described actually existed. For example, my friend employed the venerable rhetorical strategy of invoking Malthus to show, supposedly, that assertions of imminent resource scarcity have always been wrong. Malthus was wrong about scarcity, therefore today's arguments about ecological scarcity are wrong as well. See my earlier post on this subject for more details.

The Malthus assertion, obviously, is a logical fallacy. It is also factually untrue, as my friend Steve -- a professional ecologist by trade -- pointed out in a comment on my earlier post. Malthus was not wrong. His basic argument about maximum limits on human food supplies, and therefore human population, was in fact correct. Yes, really.

More on that in a moment. For now, I want to digress just a bit. I want you academics in the humanities and social sciences reading this to ponder my statement for a second. Thomas Malthus was in fact correct. That means the little bit of folk wisdom you've been nodding to ever so sagely in graduate seminars for lo these many years - we all know Malthus was wrong -- is one hundred percent crap. You should think about that, when you are trying to teach your undergraduates and your graduate students. Something you have routinely believed for your entire professional career is, in fact, completely wrong, with no basis in fact. Not just misguided, not just subject to differing interpretations, but wrong. I will offer evidence for that further down in this essay. For now, I just want to point out to you academic types that there are probably other things in your field of interest which seem self-evidently true but have no actual basis in fact.

In the medical profession, practitioners are a little less complacent. This became clear to me during the days when (until yesterday) I was employed in administrative support for physicians. Medicine has tried in recent years to institutionalize a corrective mechanism for blind acceptance of past practice. Such acceptance had been the norm for decades. Physicians had long been indoctrinated to believe that inherited wisdom from their mentors was more or less true. All those little tricks of patient care that you learned in medical school and residency were thoughtlessly applied out in the real world of the hospital and the clinic.

Then, beginning in the 1990s, a movement swept through Western medical professions, arguing for a new way of evaluating conventional medical wisdom. This movement called itself by the term evidence-based medicine. It held that doctors shouldn't simply do something because it had always been accepted as true. Instead, medical practice and belief should be constantly re-evaluated in the light of hard evidence. Professional mechanisms of promotion and recognition should encourage such habits.

You would think that medicine had been doing that all along -- millions of pages of scientific medical journals and textbooks, after all, had filled library and hospital bookshelves since the Victorian age. Yet, in reality, doctors out in their practices tended to ignore accumulating bodies of new evidence and simply do what they were taught, especially in the non-glamorous types of medicine. Sure, once organ transplants became big news, a family doctor out in Everytown, New Mexico, would take that into account in patient care. But, in addressing everyday aches, pains, and breakdowns, the old practices tended to prevail. Because it's easier to do something the same way than it is to constantly worry about whether or not you're doing it right.

That started to change, in the last two decades or so, as more and more doctors accepted the premise of evidence based medicine -- that they should constantly check their beliefs and methods against an updated knowledge base. Computers and the internet, naturally, made this much easier to do. When I worked at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, much of my daily work involved helping doctors in isolated rural towns try to access online databases of the latest medical information. These doctors actually gave a shit whether the information they used to treat their patients was like, you know, true. Evidence based medicine, they realized, wasn't just good practice, it was also an ethical obligation.

Today, information long thought to be self-evidently true is much more likely to be questioned. Cough syrup, for example, turns out to be no better than a placebo, and beta blocker medications have been revealed as ineffective in treating a heart attack. Yes, some doctors think evidence based medicine goes too far, and they grouse about fancy medical schools insisting that every little method has to have a vast body of statistical evidence backing it up ("I don't need no stinking statistics to tell me that jumping out of an airplane will kill you"). Such criticism is mostly misguided and irrelevant. Evidence based medicine is here to stay.

In my experience, the humanities and social sciences -- most notably history and political science -- are much less sophisticated and systematic about re-evaluating their internalized, ossified conventional wisdom. Oh, to be sure, professors in those fields constantly publish in their little sub-specialized journals, like the American Historical Review, the American Political Science Review, Diplomatic History, and International Security. It is fashionable, in those journals, to publish some contrarian screed or other, boldly asserting that a bit of inherited academic wisdom is grievously wrong (Hitler did not deliberately seek war, slavery did not cause the Civil War, etc. etc. etc.). But each little contrarian screed, sad to say, is just one more bit of intellectual flotsam in a vast sea of muck. A contrarian screed in history or political science does not, for the most part, serve as a peer-review corrective to the knowledge base. We know this, because contrarian screeds are just as likely to appear on any side or angle of an interpretive or empirical question. The Russians caused the Cold War; no, the Americans did; no it was a combination of both; no, asking who's to blame is not the right way to approach the topic. Blah, blah, blah. The goal isn't progress in knowledge. It's endless proliferation of viewpoints, which is not the same thing.

There are occasional exceptions. Historians revised their beliefs about slavery in the American South, for example, when new research began to show that it was immensely profitable and not, as conventional wisdom had it, on the way to extinction. In this case, progress in knowledge actually happened. For once.

Mostly, though, some new bit of counter-intuitive information in a journal of history or political science doesn't serve to correct old beliefs. Instead, it functions as one more item on a curriculum vita on the way to tenure. Or the hope of tenure, in an academic industry dominated by adjunct slave labor. The true, original function of academic journals -- recording the steady accumulation and refinement of knowledge -- has long since been abandoned in the humanities and social sciences. Those journals mainly disgorge an endless series of contradictory viewpoints, with no real effort at synthesis or consolidation or correction.

This stands in rather horrifying contrast to the situation in the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and biology. Academic journals in those fields record an ever-expanding, consolidated, and verified body of reliable knowledge about the universe. Yes, yes, yes, careerism and mediocrity prevail in the natural sciences, too. Spare me. That doesn't change the fact that those disciplines produce actual knowledge with real world applications. They have given us stem cell treatments and microprocessors. Historians and political scientists have given us a continual vomit of worthless and forgotten verbiage, like "post-revisionism" or "hegemonic stability theory."

Or, far worse, they have given us empty ideological blather masquerading as knowledge -- the foremost example being neoclassical economics. Only slightly less prominent are such favorite delusions of policy-makers as theories of counter-insurgency, nuclear deterrence and "the democratic peace." Such blithering finds its way into government policy-making all the time, to serve as a ready-made justification for the agenda of powerful elites. As a description of reality, these ideas are useless at best, destructive at worst.

They also tend to be, on the whole, a patch-work quilt of assertions, distortions, and lies. The above examples are notorious. But the myth of Thomas Malthus as chicken little takes the cake, because it is so simple to debunk. Malthus was not wrong. He argued that there were absolute physical limits to food production, and therefore to human population.

He was right. How do we know this? Consider the following figure, which I borrowed from the Global Change curriculum at the University of Michigan:

"Years BP" = Years Before Present

This graph shows the changes in human population dating back 500,000 years. You will notice that prior to the industrial revolution, the line makes exceedingly little upward progress, and in fact never goes higher than a certain point. Only at the outset of the industrial revolution does the line shoot  upward in a sudden, exponential explosion of population.

Why? What changed? The easy answer: industrialization. Well, what made industrialization possible? There is one answer, and only one. Fossil fuels. That's it. Not Western intellectual traditions, not democratic institutions, not easy flow of capital. Nope, sorry ladies and gentleman. We owe industrialization to the mere existence of coal, oil, and natural gas. They alone provided, or ever could provide, the necessary supplies of cheap, abundant, easily accessible energy. Without that energy, the huge upward curve of economic growth after 1750 would not have happened. End of story. Without the upward curve of economic growth, there would be no gigantic leap in technology for industry and agriculture. Without that technology, expanding food production and the gigantic infrastructure to distribute the massive supplies of food would not have existed. Therefore, the upward curve of population you see on the above graph would not have happened. It would be physically impossible without the necessary technology and energy. Nothing trumps physical reality. Nothing. Fossil fuels alone made exponential population increase physically possible.

What is it about the physical reality of fossil fuels that makes them the sole enabling factor for the industrial revolution and associated population growth? As Steve the ecologist has pointed out, fossil fuels have unique physical properties. They provide an enormous bang for the buck, in terms of energy released per unit of fuel. No other source in nature even comes close. Nuclear fission appears to do so, but in actuality, it doesn't. Nuclear power plants are serviced by infrastructure made possible only by fossil fuels. Plus, uranium and other nuclear fuels are limited in supply. So the actual net energy yield of nuclear power is dramatically less than it appears to be. The fact that our civilization is rapidly depleting its stocks of fossil fuels and of uranium means the days of nuclear energy are numbered. Just like the days of our civilization itself.

The relatively flat curve on the above graph, prior to the industrial revolution, means that there is, in fact, an absolute limit on human population. Without fossil fuels, the natural carrying capacity of the Earth won't allow human populations to grow beyond those of the early 1700s. That's why the population growth curve in the graph above is so flat. The planet's inherent ecology and resources won't allow us to build enough infrastructure and grow enough food to support a population in the billions. We have 500,000 years worth of evidence for this hypothesis. Fossil fuels granted a temporary, one-time only exemption to the basic rule. No other energy source can match their yield or their ease of extraction, production, and distribution. Now they are going away. Oil first, natural gas and coal eventually. Ergo, the natural ceiling on human population will return.

Malthus was right.

Mainstream academics and policy-makers desperately want this not to be true. Everything about our current way of life depends on escaping natural limits to energy supplies and resources. Such an escape was the essence of the industrial revolution, which initiated two hundred plus years of seemingly unlimited economic growth, punctuated only by occasional episodes of depression and recession. We've been in such an episode since about 2008. Conventional wisdom says we'll grow out of it, as we always have. And perhaps we will, but the resumption of growth will prove, in the long run, to be transitory. And the long run might turn out to be very short. World production of crude oil has been flat since about 2005. It's not a coincidence that the global economy has been stagnant in that time, very nearly collapsing into the abyss during the catastrophic financial meltdown of September 2008. World oil production might begin to creep upward again, or coal and natural gas might begin to substitute for oil in various economic sectors, or certain alternative energy technologies (e.g. electric cars) might for a while stave off the impact of petroleum depletion. But substitution, like everything else in nature, has limits. The reckoning will come.

The people who run human societies don't want to face what Al Gore, in a different context, called an inconvenient truth. Everything about the organization of today's societies depends on growth. To question this is unthinkable. And so, instead, we look for a magic bullet. Some miraculous formula that will allow growth to continue without limit. Human beings thought they'd found such a magic bullet once before. Fossil fuels allowed human populations after 1800 to grow exponentially, in defiance of the natural limits described -- accurately -- by Thomas Malthus. Can't we find a way to do that again?

My academic historian friend, the one who visited recently, would like to think so. He casually invoked Malthus to dismiss my worries about resource limits. That attempt offers just one example of the desperate yearning among mainstreamers for a magic bullet. In grasping for one, my friend pointed to Brazil's ethanol industry as evidence against my worries about peak oil. Brazil has simply grown corn and sugar for fuel, thereby substituting ethanol and other biofuels for petroleum. Presto! Problem solved. No need to worry about peak oil.

Except my friend is grievously, catastrophically misinformed about the success of Brazil's biofuel industry. Like physicians before the advent of evidence based medicine, he would rather accept prevailing dogma uncritically than examine the available evidence. Brazil's shift to biofuels has been an unmitigated economic and human disaster. Converting finite agricultural land area to growing transportation fuel -- in Brazil and around the world -- has helped drive world food prices through the roof. Brazil fuels its cars and trucks by starving human beings. Even worse, climate change is destroying the finite area of agricultural land. This makes biofuels even more unconscionable. And also untenable. Brazilian biofuel prices have lurched periodically upward as weather disruption devastates global agriculture. With climate change blasting farmland and water supplies into oblivion via heat and storms, it makes no sense to substitute for Saudi oil by using scarce land for gasoline instead of food.

But never mind. Mainstreamers would rather have their magic bullet. They would rather not face the inconvenient truth -- that human beings must begin dramatically reducing their energy use. We must, of necessity, accept non-growth-based economics, also known as steady state economics or ecological economics. Economist Herman Daly has helped pioneer this emerging discipline, in preparation for the day when his colleagues abandon neoclassical fantasies of endless growth.

Historians, political scientists, and government officials would do well to follow Daly's example. Growth-based economics is about as useful as theology and metaphysics. Like those fanciful branches of pseudo-knowledge, abstract social science theories of endless growth are very elaborate and interesting, but useless as a guide to behavior in the real world.

Real world examples from nature of growth without constraints are not comforting. Ecology offers numerous examples of populations overshooting their resource base, then crashing.  An even more stark example comes from the science of medicine. Physicians don't need evidence based medicine to know the name for a living mass that grows without limit. Such a mass is called cancer.

Cancer eventually destroys its host. Growth-based economics will do the same. It is destroying human civilization today. It is annihilating humanity's resource base by consuming resources faster than they can be replenished or substitutes invented (the literature on peak oil, for example, illustrates the physical impossibility of finding bang-for-the-buck alternatives to fossil fuels). The same resource consumption is destroying the climate and biosphere. Destruction of these finite support systems will eventually force human populations back to the natural limits to growth. Whether we do so voluntarily or not.


  1. Why Malthus was wrong:

    1: Malthus assumed that being poor would decrease population growth rates. He advocated reducing public support as a means to force the poor into such destitution as to reduce the birth rate. Birth rates almost always decline with higher standards of living and reduced infant mortality.The poorest societies have the highest birth rates.

    2: As Verhulst first proposed and has been shown to be much more likely, the logistic model or the demographic transition is almost always the model followed by developing societies. This produces an s-shaped population growth curve rather than the exponential model of Malthus, and it is non-linearly related to resource availability.

    Malthus was an important scholar, but his population models, specifically, have long been falsified.

  2. This is a perfect example of why academia drives me crazy. You're perfectly right, of course. On narrow technical grounds expressed in the professional literature of your field. If you view Malthus as a contributor to your particular professional literature, his specific models and numbers were incorrect and have been falsified.

    But his larger point about populations being limited by resources -- a point picked up by Darwin as a critical factor in his formulation of natural selection -- remains valid. The use of Matlhus' name as an all-purpose put down against anyone arguing for the existence of ecological limits remains a time-honored rhetorical tactic in need of debunking.

    But you guys in professional scientific academia don't much care about rhetoric, or making your points in a way that will resonate with anyone other than the few dozen or so colleagues who follow your teeny weeny little professional literature. You are content to focus on the tiny little niche arguments expressed in obscure quantitative methods and impenetrable jargon.

    Which is why the fossil fuel companies and their conservative foot soldiers have defeated you so completely in the battle for public opinion -- and political power. You are correct on narrow technical grounds, but isolated and irrelevant in the larger cultural discourse. It's more important for you to issue pedantic correctives than it is to focus on the forest rather than the trees. And now, as a result, the grants and institutional structure supporting your livelihood are potentially under direct threat.

    So congratulations. You wonder why so many people show up at public events denying your climate science, but you yourself cling to the same insular professional culture that helped make the denial possible.


  3. Plus, I am clearly the embodiment of perfect wisdom and insight, and everyone should just admit that I'm right. All the time. About everything.


  4. Of course my real intent was simply to tweak - score

    However, the reason everyone says Malthus is wrong is not so much of a technocratic solution to resource management, but rather that human populations do not respond like algae in a petri dish. In virtually every case, and independent of resource availability, human population growth rates decline once infant mortality declines, and in most cases growth rates become negative (Japan, Italy, etc.)

    On the issue of why we lose in the broader media - it's a complicated issue. The public believe us only based on the "appeal to authority" model of science. It's a false model, but the one the media use. So, our opponents in the climate change world use ad hominem attacks on our credibility to kill our message. This is how it always works. So, say I invoke Malthus on an ag related issue, it is easy to attack me as foolishly using outdated science and thus reduce if not eliminate my credibility - the only thing holding up my arguments in the public sphere. There are very few academics with the reputation to withstand the well-funded ad hominem attacks and still be a face of authority (e.g. James Hansen). And, then we are al forced to react defensively in lieu of the witch hunts against scientists, e.g. Michael Mann.

    If I write a paper on climate change and disease (e.g. Moore and Messina in PLOS one - an excellent open source venue) and few are able to understand the models or mathematics, how do I present the results and policy implications to the public without relying on the appeal to authority model? Almost no one discussing climate science in the public sphere has ever actually built or parameterized a climate model. The public rarely even understands the difference between weather and climate. So, how does one frame this discussion?

  5. I am currently surrounded by intellectually precocious yet also very loud and demanding little children... so, must respond later, alas. All good points, naturally...

    Urgh. Children...