Sanderson on Rubin on Malthus

Some time ago I read "The End of Growth" by Jeff Rubin. Rubin is an economist by training and for many years he moved in rarified and privileged circles as the chief economist for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

His book is based upon the very reasonable observation that fossil fuels are a cornerstone upon much of which our modern civilization stands. Thus Rubin presents his hypothesis that economic growth is sputtering to a standstill as oil becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. It's a reasonable hypothesis that has been widely entertained by most thinking people for at least two generations (including my father in the 1960's) and recently written about by others, particularly Richard Heinberg.

Let me be clear, Rubin has written a book which I warmly welcome and heartily recommend. But there are difficulties with his analysis and he has made the usual egregious error --- he has wrongly represented the work of Reverend Thomas Malthus.

To return to the begining we should first refresh our memories of the issue that Malthus addressed more than 200 years ago. To that end we can do no better than to quote the great man himself:

It has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished-for goal.

Now let us return to what Rubin has to say about Malthus. On page 204 Rubin writes:

"He [Reverend Thomas Malthus] foresaw starvation and pestilence arising as the inevitable result of overpopulation, bringing about a dying off that would cull the number of people in the world."
I was jarred by the words that Rubin used. I didn't recall reading any of them in Malthus's "Essay on the Principle of Population". One of the technological marvels of the modern era is the ability to do a word-search within an electronic document: Eventually a search for "starve" turned up:
"In some countries population appears to have been forced, that is, the people have been habituated by degrees to live almost upon the smallest possible quantity of food. There must have been periods in such counties when population increased permanently, without an increase in the means of subsistence. China seems to answer to this description. If the accounts we have of it are to be trusted, the lower classes of people are in the habit of living almost upon the smallest possible quantity of food and are glad to get any putrid offals that European labourers would rather starve than eat. The law in China which permits parents to expose their children has tended principally thus to force the population. A nation in this state must necessarily be subject to famines. Where a country is so populous in proportion to the means of subsistence that the average produce of it is but barely sufficient to support the lives of the inhabitants, any deficiency from the badness of seasons must be fatal. It is probable that the very frugal manner in which the Gentoos are in the habit of living contributes in some degree to the famines of Indostan."
And also:
"The labourers of the South of England are so accustomed to eat fine wheaten bread that they will suffer themselves to be half starved before they will submit to live like the Scotch peasants. They might perhaps in time, by the constant operation of the hard law of necessity, be reduced to live even like the Lower Chinese, and the country would then, with the same quantity of food, support a greater population. But to effect this must always be a most difficult, and, every friend to humanity will hope, an abortive attempt. Nothing is so common as to hear of encouragements that ought to be given to population. If the tendency of mankind to increase be so great as I have represented it to be, it may appear strange that this increase does not come when it is thus repeatedly called for. The true reason is that the demand for a greater population is made without preparing the funds necessary to support it."
In point of fact, Malthus proposed that population would grow to a point that was limited by the means of subsistence and the extent to which people were willing to sacrific well-being for reproduction which increased their number. Malthus was under the impression that the population would need to be "forced" in order to grow right up to the limit that could be sustained. Thus, only in this extreme circumstance would "the badness of seasons" prove fatal. Without "forcing" the population would only grow to a point where the means of subsistence became uncomfortable, but not fatal, not even during a "bad season".

If Rubin had demonstrated that poverty and famine were things of the past then he could have rightly criticized Malthus. Obviously, famine and poverty are with us still and have consistently beset humanity since before Malthus explained why this is so. Malthus remains as correct today as he has been throughout most of the history of civilization.

In short, Rubin has taken the liberty of putting words into a dead man's mouth. The words may well be false but they belong to Rubin, not Malthus.

Before moving on, we should consider in more depth the above quotations from Malthus. First, the statement "The law in China which permits parents to expose their children has tended principally thus to force the population" might seem odd. It seems obvious that killing children reduces population. But this is simplistic. The critical point is that exponential reproductive capacity trumps all. This is the key fact which Malthus illuminated and upon which modern biological science is built. Thus "exposing children" can be used as a tool to more precisely increase population right to the edge of what the means for subsistence will permit.

Second, the statement "It is probable that the very frugal manner in which the Gentoos are in the habit of living contributes in some degree to the famines of Indostan" might also seem strange to those modern "greenie-types" who advocate reducing ones environmental foot-print in order "to save the Earth". Again, however, the ecologist understands that reduction of each persons ecological foot-print can also be used as a tool to grow population higher. Ultimately so high that there is a huge population in which almost all people live right on the edge of what the means for subsistence will permit.

We might all contemplate that, depending upon how they are utilized, birth-control and reducing personal consumption can both be tickets to ruination of all those things that are best in both nature and civilization. Or they can be utilized for the well-being of people and nature. Given the continued growth of human population and the continued destruction of fredom and nature, we can confidently claim that the overall human population has NOT learned to use these tools well.

On pages 204-205 Rubin claims that:

"Just as human ingenuity has thwarted Malthus's predictions for the past two centuries, Simon believed that innovation would solve the problems caused by population growth."
First, as already explained, the prediction that was thwarted was not a prediction made by Malthus. The prediction made by Malthus was not thwarted, poverty persists.

I certainly agree that "Simon believed that innovation would solve the problems caused by population growth." Simon's belief is a matter of record.

Yet almost 200 hundred years before Simon, Malthus pointed out that innovation in the face of need would increase productivity:

"I expect that great discoveries are yet to take place in all the branches of human science, particularly in physics; but the moment we leave past experience as the foundation of our conjectures concerning the future, and, still more, if our conjectures absolutely contradict past experience, we are thrown upon a wide field of uncertainty, and any one supposition is then just as good as another."
Thus, Malthus anticipated the bounty bestowed by physics. Please pause to think. Think about the extent to which human productivity has been increased by electric motors and hydroelectric power, by internal combustion engines and fossil fuels.

Simon did differ from Malthus in one way. Simon was so arrogant as to think that human inventiveness could solve any problem... Reading Malthus one gets the sense that he anticipates the true nature of each technogical innovation as expressed by Max Born:

"Science and technology will then follow their tendency to rapid expansion in an exponential fashion, until saturation sets in. But that does not necessarily imply an increase of wealth, still less of happiness, as long as the number of people increases at the same rate, and with it their need for food and energy. At this point, the technological problems of the atom touch social problems, such as birth control and the just distribution of goods. There will be hard fighting about these problems..."
In the Middle East and Africa, the fighting has begun. Russia too?

On page 214 Rubin goes on to say:

"When Malthus made his predictions two hundred years ago, he couldn't foresee how unlocking the power of hydrocarbons, first in coal and later in oil and natural gas, would boost the land's carrying capacity."
Well, as we have already seen, Malthus did not make the predictions ["a dying off that would cull the number of people in the world"] with which Rubin credits him. Rather the future has unfolded pretty much as might be expected based on a thoughtful reading of Malthus's essay. In particular, we have seen that Malthus did foresee that the science of physics was ripe to boost productivity...

Malthus also thought that crops could be improved --- although clearly he didn't get the mechanism right because the theories of evolution and genetics were unknown to him. Remarkably, Malthus's essay on population would turn out to be a key plank in the formulation of the theory of evolution. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that both Malthus's essay and the theory of evolution are so greatly maligned by ignorant people.)

On page 258 Rubin writes:

"There's one fact that should provide some comfort: the frightening predictions of doomsayers from Reverend Malthus to Paul Ehrlich and James Lovelock haven't come to pass."
Well, which frightening predictions? The great "cull"? You know, the cull that had NOTHING to do with anything that Malthus wrote!

Frankly, it is totally inappropriate to conflate whatever Ehrich and Lovelock had to say with Malthus's seminal study. On the other hand, in 1980 Paul Colinvaux published "The Fates of Nations: a biological theory of history" which definitely is relevant to Malthus. And, in large measure, Colinvaux shows how the modern disciplines of ecology and evolution (both of which owe much to Malthus) demonstrate the essential point made by Malthus: which is that continued population growth confounds the desirable goals of peace and plenty for all. Rubin would have done well to read Colinvaux.

I was greatly disappointed --- but not at all surprised --- that Rubin resorted to the usual strawman guff that has been so widely promoted by so many of his fellow economists.

Malthus is so much better than Rubin portrays him to be. Malthus is not some wrong-headed alarmist from 200 hundred years ago. Malthus wrote of things that we are more likely to associate with insights from modern thinkers.

Anticipating the great synthesis by Sahlins (The original affluent society and Stone Age Economics), Malthus writes:

A writer may tell me that he thinks man will ultimately become an ostrich. ... till the probability of so wonderful a conversion can be shewn, it is surely lost time and lost eloquence to expatiate on the happiness of man in such a state; to describe his powers, both of running and flying, to paint him in a condition where all narrow luxuries would be contemned, where he would be employed only in collecting the necessaries of life, and where, consequently, each man's share of labour would be light, and his portion of leisure ample.

If more attention had been paid to Thomas Malthus and less to Karl Marx then the world might --- perhaps --- have been spared communist-inspired misery:

If no man could hope to rise or fear to fall, in society, if industry did not bring with it its reward and idleness its punishment, the middle parts [of society] would not certainly be what they now are.

And we would do well to contemplate what Malthus had to say about the present-day rise of the vanity economy:

Suppose that two hundred thousand men, who are now employed in producing manufactures that only tend to gratify the vanity of a few rich people, were to be employed upon some barren and uncultivated lands, and to produce only half the quantity of food that they themselves consumed; they would be still more productive labourers with regard to the state than they were before, though their labour, so far from affording a rent to a third person, would but half replace the provisions used in obtaining the produce.

Malthus was not perfect. His arguments become muddled whenever the absence of data sends him scurrying to the Christian religion for guidance. Nevertheless, the central plank of Malthus's essay stands without recourse to religiousity.

After 200 years, Malthus rises like a giant above the pygmies.