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Take That Malthus
Here's How We Feed the Future

The world is growing more food on less land, deflating Malthusian fears of humanity outstripping the planet’s natural limits. That’s according to a scientist associated with prominent green group The Nature Conservancy, who noticed “good news lurking in global [agricultural] data.” The Breakthrough Institute reports:

While agricultural expansion was pretty steady on a global scale for over 30 years, in 1995 we saw the first recorded decrease in agricultural land area. It peaked in 1998, and has been lower ever since. In fact, until 2011 (unfortunately the latest year this data is available from the FAO) it was continuing to decline slightly over time.

At the same time we have managed to produce more food on less land, and are keeping ahead of population growth (although that doesn’t mean we have addressed inequity in food distribution and nutrition).

Read the whole thing. It’s a nuanced look at agricultural intensification, and it runs counter to the nightmarish future many greens like to predict to further their goals. Your typical Malthusian will be quick to point to graphs showing the seemingly inexorable growth of the human population, and lament our inability to feed those future generations. What that particularly pessimistic brand of thinker conveniently forgets is humanity’s remarkable ability to innovate and adapt.

The pace of technological change is accelerating; that’s evident to anyone trying to keep up with the latest laptop, cell phone, or tablet. But that isn’t just true with consumer electronics, it also applies to less sexy but much more important areas, like energy and agriculture. We’re learning to do more with less, and our ability to feed future populations will depend on ever-increasing efficiencies. The data shows we’re already on that path, and it suggests the future is a good bit brighter than many environmentalists want you to believe.

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  • TheRadicalModerate

    The classic Malthusian trap was basically that birthrate was much more sensitive to increases in carrying capacity than carrying capacity was sensitive to technological change. And the death rate was incredibly sensitive to shortfalls in carrying capacity, which in turn drove carrying capacity down even more. It was only when technological improvements drove carrying capacity faster than carrying capacity changes drove birth rate that we escaped the trap.

    You live or die on systems of poorly-understood non-linear differential equations.

    The thing that worries me is the next set of coupled equations that leads to boom-bust behavior. We already know that they exist in the financial markets, but at least those don’t wind up resulting in massive die-backs (so far). But what if there are others out there that haven’t drifted into the lethal range?

    The one that I think is most likely to cause problems has to do with a race between automation driving unemployment sky-high and automation’s ability to deliver a viable welfare state for those unemployed. If goods and services get cheaper fast enough, then you can support the increasing numbers of unemployed on a relatively stable fraction of GDP. But if the unemployment outstrips the price reductions, support systems are going to collapse and people are going to starve to death, or kill each other to avoid starving to death. That seems like a cycle that could repeat itself over and over, just like the Malthusian trap.

    We ought to spend some time looking for these kinds of pathologies. They’re extremely difficult to find and analyze, but looking for civilization-killers seems like a pretty good research topic to me.

    • Andrew Allison

      Thought-provoking comment, thank you. Might I add that another problem with the Malthusian scenario is that it doesn’t take into account female emancipation and education: there’s lots of evidence of the inverse relationship between emancipation and birthrate.

  • lukelea

    “The pace of technological change is accelerating; that’s evident to anyone trying to keep up with the latest laptop, cell phone, or tablet.”

    Au contraire. As for food, we will keep growing more of it on less land until we don’t — or, rather, until the food is too expensive for poor people to pay for. Hopefully before then the geometrical growth in the world’s population will have ceased on its own accord. You don’t have to be a doom-sayer to acknowledge these truths.

    • Andrew Allison

      While the pace of technological change may not be accelerating, like the increase in atmospheric CO2 it’s been exponential the past half-a-century. All good things come to an end eventually, but people have been betting that it couldn’t continue for almost as long as they’ve been betting on peak oil [/grin]. Meanwhile, in Kenya (home of the world’s fastest growing population) and elsewhere birth rates have slowed. Better yet, thanks to that dreadful increased atmospheric CO2, plants are growing up to twice as fast as they used to and the Planet is getting greener and greener. In other words, a bet against Malthus is pretty safe. I’d worry more about a pandemic, an asteroid impact, or Iran getting the bomb if I were you.

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