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The Malthusian Trap
Is The Human Population Bound To Collapse?
Around the year 1800, a man by the name of Thomas Malthus popularized a theory that would from then on be known as Malthusianism.
The idea being that as population increases, the resources necessary to sustain it dwindle until you reach a population crash; ie: starvation, famine and death. People called this the "Malthusian Trap".
The Depopulation Argument
Malthusianism has been one of the leading ideas in the arena of depopulation for the last 200 years.
You’ll see it used often especially in the 20th century as a cautionary tale and warning against the exponential growth projections that started exploding in the last century.
We, presently, are about to crack 8 billion people on earth. In the year 1900, (122 years ago) the global population was only around 2 billion.
Clearly, that level of unchecked population explosion is untenable in perpetuity. This has lead to the scientific (and especially the natural sciences) community to debate what can be done to avoid this seemingly inevitable catastrophe. One of the preeminent books on the subject is “The Population Bomb” written by biologist Dr. Paul Ehrlich.
Charts like the one below are typical of this conversation:
A Friendly Wager
Dr. Ehrlich would dominate this conversation since 1968 up until a curious economist challenged his thesis with a bet.
In 1980, Julian L. Simon made a very public and shocking proclamation that he would bet Ehrlich that his predictions wouldn’t turn out to be the case over an extended period of time of Ehrlich’s choosing.
It went like this (taken from Wikipedia):
“The widely-followed contest originated in the pages of Social Science Quarterly, where Simon challenged Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was. In response to Ehrlich's published claim that "If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000" Simon offered to take that bet, or, more realistically, "to stake US$10,000 ... on my belief that the cost of non-government-controlled raw materials (including grain and oil) will not rise in the long run."
Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose any raw material he wanted and a date more than a year away, and he would wager on the inflation-adjusted prices decreasing as opposed to increasing. Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. The bet was formalized on September 29, 1980, with September 29, 1990, as the payoff date. Ehrlich lost the bet, as all five commodities that were bet on declined in price from 1980 through 1990, the wager period.
What Simon demonstrated was undeniable. Even allowing for Ehrlich to choose the commodities of his desire that would be most likely to increase in price over time, after the time period of Ehrlich’s choosing (10 years), ALL 5 of those commodities fell in price!
If Ehrlich, author of the Population Bomb, was correct about his predictions that as population grew (which it certainly did between 1980 and 1990) limited resources would dwindle (thus increasing their price due to scarcity) all of his five metals should have increased significantly.
Not only did they drop in price, ALL of them dropped in price an average of 35%!
A New Challenger Enters The Ring
As concerns about population continue now in the year 2022, and the world is set to crack 8 billion, all of the same dystopian Malthusian predictions are coming into prominence again.
Enter Marian Tupy.
Tupy — a senior fellow at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, Cato Institute — has proposed an updated formula that counters Malthus' bleak predictions. And, actually makes a strong case for an optimistic future that doesn't require a population crash or depopulation at all.
Two fascinating and counterintuitive mechanisms of human populations that Tupy brings to the table are these:
As population increases, average wealth does as well
The wealthier people become per capita, the few children tend to be had per family
Adding these and a few other Simon-esk factors into their projections, Tupy and his colleagues (using data from some of the world’s leading demographers) predict that by the year 2100, the global population like be no more than 9 billion, and possibly as low as 7 billion.
No Malthusian trap necessary.
On top of the stabilizing of population growth, technology is increasing at an exponential rate that rivals human numbers. What can be seen retrospectively even over the last 100 years speaks to everything moving towards abundance and sustainability.
Many new technologies in most industries world wide have been discovered and implemented to offset or even reverse damages done by humanity to the planet since the industrial revolution. And this is a trend that will increase without the overreactions of world governments to expediate them.
As is forever reiterated on the Social Disorder Podcast, When making or predicting changes to a complex system, you will inevitably get emergent results. It would seem that the complex system of human population as a single unit isn’t as derivative as Malthus or Ehrlich presumed it was.
I see that as a good thing, and something we should learn more about before making massive wholesale changes upon it as a reactionary defensive maneuver.
In the mean time, it’s up to us to call out these over-reaches whenever powerful people present them. Whether we do or don’t, the difference will change the history of humanity moving forward.
~ Drew Weatherhead
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Listen to the full podcast episode below:
The Social Disorder Podcast: The Malthusian Trap