Remember Paul Ehrlich and The Population Bomb ?

(Picture from here.)

TPB was about Malthusian economics, unsurprisingly invented by Thomas Malthus. It was Malthus’ proposition that resources such as food and water showed linear while population growth was exponential. Given this hypothesis, his conclusion was that all populations would eventually outgrow their food supply and die back to a manageable level.

This was big in the seventies. The publication The Limits to Growth in 1972 used a computer simulation to suggest there were, well, limits to the growth of society. I.e., unregulated population growth and its concomitant resource exploitation could result in catastrophe.

The Malthusian disaster was averted by the Green Revolution—a long term technology transfer through the fifties and sixties that improved agricultural production markedly. This involved chemical fertilizers, mechanization, new varieties of traditional crops, and a full suite of techniques to wring every little bit of calorie from the earth. This seemed to prove the critical response to Malthusianism that the Industrial Revolution broke mankind out of the Malthusian trap. There was no end of human ingenuity and it would always rise to the crisis and avert any and all problems.


The problem both Malthus and his critics seem to miss is that the symptoms of Malthusianism reflect a deeper issue of scale.

I fully believe in human ingenuity. We can pretty much think our way out of any problem if the problem is narrowly focused. Do we need indefinite power? Let’s run that black rock through a heat engine and generate electricity. Individual transportation? Burn that sticky stuff and use it to turn wheels that run on a surface made of the same sticky stuff. Problems with bacterial diseases? Flood humanity with compounds we find in nature that kill them. Problems with getting enough nutrients to crops? Extract Phosphorous from Florida and add Nitrogen from the air using the sticky stuff again.

All of these techniques work in the timeframe of the problem. The issue here is that the solutions have long term effects we don’t like: global warming, pollution, and the continuous use of more and more acreage. Not to mention how much damage that proceeds from our activities into the sea, land, and air.

Back to the issue of scale: if there were a tenth as many humans on the planet, our effects lessen proportionately. As the number of humans increase, the effect on the planet increases—and knock-on effects make that effect exponential. Case in point, one side effect of global warming is the melting of the permafrost in the northern hemisphere. This allows decomposition of the vast peat reservoirs into methane and CO2. Consequently, our direct contribution to the atmosphere is multiplied into exponential effect.

This scale effect seems to be ignored or sidelined by a lot of popular media. Many scholars have shown that the abundance of resources over time has increased per unit individual as the population swelled.

This is true but the total cost of those resources has also increased and this is often not mentioned or belittled in the narrative. Instead of total cost, the price of goods is what is examined. This isn’t always a good comparison or the time frame of the comparison is cherry picked to prove the point. For example, in 1950, a pound of bread was $0.12, inflation adjusted to $1.37. The price of bread in 2016 was $1.80— not much different. (We can say that in 2016 there were many more kinds of breads and different prices such that apparent inflation actually reflects the increase of choice rather than change in the money supply.)

But the total cost has to include the pollution caused by fertilizing the wheat, CO2 in the atmosphere from the burning of fuel in the tractor, transportation of the goods to market, and the taking that bread home. The potential cost of power to handle all of the manufacturing has to be considered as well as the environmental cost of dumping the bread’s plastic bag into a landfill. These costs are not represented in the price of that pound of bread. Some costs, like global warming, aren’t yet represented much at all. At best, weather disasters amplified by climate change or tax cost of pollution cleanup get transmitted to the consumer via taxes but most are, at the moment, ignored.

As I’ve been saying, all of these costs scale. The natural systems of the earth have excess capacity for us to harvest and abuse—we can take so many fish, use so much land for crops, pollute so much air and water, and natural systems will absorb that abuse and loss and fill in the gap. Cod produce millions and millions of offspring every year. We can take below a certain percentage and the cod would be just fine. We didn’t and the cod fishery crashed from overfishing and climate change. But we overfished because so many people wanted to eat cod. We have global warming because we have built the lives of ~9 billion people on carbon that was planted in the ground over two hundred million years ago.

Ehrlich was absolutely right about the problem. He was just wrong about the symptoms.

There is, apparently, money to be made denying all of this. It fits a political narrative that is quite popular. It is also reassuring. If it’s all wrong, we don’t have to change anything, right? I would love for them to be right but they’re not.

I think we have to scale down the world. Not necessarily the economies involved—at least, there’s no reason I can see that we need to tie our economies to population size. But unplanned shrinkage is going to be a big issue both economically and socially.

This is not an easy thing to change. “Growth” is built into the economic engine of the world. Nobody every congratulated a CEO on having maintained the same level of profit this year as last year.

That said, it’s interesting that as time has progressed, population growth has begun to diminish. This appears to be the result of education and the availability of family planning. Girls’ education seems to be very influential. Growth starts to approach zero around 2100. It’s possible it might go negative. This makes population like peak oil: oil is a finite resource and eventually we start to run out of it. It’s not a matter of if we’ll run low; it’s a matter of when.

Population is similar. Like oil, it’s not a matter of if population will decrease, it’s a matter of when. The question then becomes, like oil, do we manage a soft and graceful landing or do we crash into a wall and break into tiny, tiny splinters.

Given that, I’ve been watching Japan a lot.

Japan led the world in automation in decades past. They are masters of doing more with less. They’re still mired in the same match of number of workers to productive hours. But I think that will change. Japan has been investing heavily in robots: animals, domestic, rescue, industrial. Some of this is to help care for an aging population—and, let’s face it, any reducing population curve is going to get weighted towards the far end. The old will inevitably outnumber the young.

But additionally, this is going to help with the transition from a human, numbers based approach to the economy to an economy that is based much less on human intervention. There’s been a lot of talk about AIs taking our jobs—or helping us with them—anyway. So, maybe that’s like peak oil, too. If it’s going to happen, why not make it work for us instead of against us? Why not start reducing population—and environmental impact—now? Embrace the coming change so we can be benefitted instead of harmed?

Oh, right. This is the same species that resisted COVID vaccines and denies global warming.

I can dream, right?


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