Are Malthus’s Predicted Food Shortages Coming True?

Jeff Sachs asks, “Have we beaten Malthus?”:

Are Malthus’s Predicted 1798 Food Shortages Coming True?, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Scientific American: In 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus famously predicted that short-term gains in living standards would inevitably be undermined as human population growth outstripped food production, and thereby drive living standards back toward subsistence. We were, he argued, condemned by the tendency of population to grow geometrically while food production would increase only arithmetically.

For 200 years, economists have contended that Malthus overlooked technological advancement, which would allow human beings to keep ahead of the population curve. …

Another factor undermining Malthus’s argument, it would seem, is … demographic transition… Malthus did not reckon with the advance of public health, family planning, and modern contraception, which together with urbanization and other trends, would result in a dramatic decline in fertility rates to low levels… Perhaps the human population would avoid the tendency towards geometric growth altogether.

These critiques of Malthusian pessimism have long seemed irresistible. Indeed, when I trained in economics, Malthusian reasoning was a target of mockery, held up by my professors as an example of a naïve forecast gone wildly wrong. …

Yet the Malthusian specter is not truly banished—indeed far from it. Our increase in know-how has not only been about getting more outputs for the same inputs, but also about our ability to mine the Earth for more inputs. The first Industrial Revolution began with the use of fossil fuel, specifically coal… Humanity harnessed geological deposits of … coal, oil, and gas… We learned to dig deeper for minerals, fish the oceans with larger nets, divert rivers with greater dams and canals,… and cut down forests with more powerful land-clearing equipment. … Much of what we call “income,” in the true sense of adding value from economic activity, is actually depletion instead, or the running down of natural capital.

And although family planning and contraception have indeed secured a low fertility rate in most parts of the world, the overall fertility rate remains at 2.6, far above replacement. … According to the medium-fertility forecast of the United Nations Population Division we are on course for 9.2 billion people by mid-century.

If we indeed run out of inexpensive oil and fall short of food, deplete our fossil groundwater and destroy remaining rainforests, and gut the oceans and fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that tip the earth’s climate into a runaway hothouse with rising ocean levels, we might yet confirm the Malthusian curse. Yet none of this is inevitable…

In the coming decades we will have to convert to solar power and safe nuclear power… Know-how will have to be applied to long-mileage automobiles, water-efficient farming, and green buildings… We will need to re-think modern diets and urban design to achieve healthier lifestyles that also cut down on energy-intensive consumption patterns. And we will have to help Africa and other regions to speed the demographic transition to replacement fertility levels, in order to stabilize the global population at around 8 billion.

There is nothing in such a sustainable scenario that violates the Earth’s resource constraints or energy availability. Yet we are definitely not yet on such a sustainable trajectory… We will need new policies to push markets in a sustainable manner (for example, taxes on carbon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and to promote technological advances in resource saving rather than resource mining. …

Have we beaten Malthus? After two centuries, we still do not really know.

Originally published at Economist’s View and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

4 Responses to "Are Malthus’s Predicted Food Shortages Coming True?"

  1. villager   August 22, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    I think Mark Thoma’s timing is off. He speaks futuristically such as “In the coming decades …” and he uses the future tense of verbs as if there is a lot of time before things happen. I don’t think the time frame is too distant. For example, fish will be completely depleted from the ocean around 2030-2035. I figure that by 2020 there will be sufficient evidence of the trend line for this and other events for most people other than the willfully blind. And, if somebody really wants to do something to delay or offset events, I surmise that planning/action needs to commence no later than 2015. That is not too distant! The US/global economic recession is a distraction from some very serious concerns that involve survival.

  2. Anonymous   August 30, 2008 at 8:38 pm

    Time is running out in more ways than one…From the Guardian: is fast running out to stop irreversible climate change, a group of global warming experts warns today. We have only 100 months to avoid disaster.

  3. Anonymous   September 5, 2008 at 11:20 pm

    So what “expert” decided that the apocalypse is coming in 100 months? It is a daily event around the world: How many children die of starvation and preventable disease every hour? Approximately 6 million people died in the Congo over the past decade and the media essentially ignored this story till very recently. what about all the species that are going extinct every day? Our complacent attitude towards the rape and murder of the Earth’s biosphere is truly astounding. Our “lifestyle” is not only unsustainable it amounts to a global murder-suicide. Fundamentally, the majority of people still live in fear of their own survival even though technology has eliminated the need for anyone to live in want. Egotists justify themselves by claiming that if they do not play god who will? Until humanity comes to the sane conclusion that all life is sacred and should not be subject to exploitation in any form period, we simply live each day by the grace of our creator. When any disaster befalls us maybe we should be asking what did we NOT do to deserve this? Pride goeth before a fall. Whom does the grail serve?What do I prescribe: Human beings are truly miraculous creatures that have the intelligence and disapline to learn how to co-operate with all life and to learn to come to a concensus as to what are our essential needs are and how to fulfill them without harming any life in the process. Wow what a concept.

  4. Jerry Scovel   May 21, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    The human population is about to test the Malthusian theory of population on a global scale and only about one in two hundred genetic lines will pass through this global extinction event. The trick is to make sure that your genes make it to the other side of the event. The humans that survive will be brighter, stronger and more adaptable than those that fail. It is essential to be isolated from the general population and have the ability to produce all that you need to survive.I propose that artificial floating islands offer the best chance to avoid the ‘Mad Max’ scenario that will most assuredly be the fate of the land dwellers. Plastic barrels, plastic bottles and styrofoam have all been used to make rafts that have crossed the ocean. I will use plastic barrels to support my island as they will easily support weight and are easy to remove and repair if required.It is my hope that a few dozen nerds and their families will join me in constructing the islands. I have found that you can make a nerd as tough as a jock but you can never make a jock grasp concepts. I have the tools needed to build the islands and some of the materials but I will need partners to help me with the labor and the rest of the materials.I have a shop near Rock Island Illinois where we will construct the factory raft that we will use to build the other rafts. The factory raft will then be towed to the Mississippi river where we can use the power of the river to build the remaining rafts.