Malthus and the Anthropocene
“The first step to understanding man is
to consider him as a biological entity
which has existed on this globe,
affecting, and in turn affected
by his fellow organisms, for
many thousands of years.”
Alfred W. Crosby,
The Columbian Exchange (1972)
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“Nature to be commanded
must be obeyed…”
Sir Francis Bacon,
Sir David Attenborough succinctly and powerfully re-stated the Malthusian perspective years ago in the last address he gave to the Royal Society in London under the chairmanship of His Royal Highness, Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. As Sir David phrased it, in 1798 Thomas Malthus observed, in effect, that “…there cannot be more people on this Earth than can be fed.”
We all recognize this to be true. Indeed, it is a truism. But therein lies the problem. It is simultaneously so obvious and so ominous that both personally and collectively we choose to ignore the insight rather than embrace it – because of all its troubling implications.
This must stop, soon. We need now – as a species – to rethink our place in space. If we hope to continue to be a part of the complex and ever evolving ecosystem on our planet, we had better pay attention quickly to some non-negotiable realities of how that system works and why we cannot survive the trajectories we have set for ourselves within it.
To begin, then, we have now to come to the collective realization that as a species we live within a planetary ecosystem that we did not create, cannot control and must not destroy. What is more, it seems that Earth is the only life-supporting planet in the known universe. This is a sobering fact about the precariousness of our place in space, especially because the agricultural practices upon which the world’s human population depends are now themselves predominantly based on non-renewable resources. It does not take a rocket scientist to observe the obvious. Simply put: any society that bases its primary production system (its agriculture) upon non-renewables will itself – in time – not be renewed.
This is a sobering realization on its own, yet, even more disturbing is the fact that in spite of all that scientists now know about our vulnerable circumstance and despite our very best intentions, the social, economic and political institutions of our contemporary world are committed to operate – in their ‘default mode’ – so as to destroy the prospects for our future survival within the constraints of Earth’s ecosystem.
Starkly put, then, the question is simply this:
Can humans survive the Anthropocene?
Can we repurpose with sufficient speed our institutions so as to assure human continuity, rather than accelerate our demise? If we fail to redirect our institutions away from their default modes of perpetual growth no amount of technological wizardry will spare us from the system-wide collapse toward which our global food system is now headed.
Our problem is compounded by the well nigh universal phenomena of “chronocentrism” — the belief that the “normal” state of the world corresponds to what has existed in “my time” — that is, the period of time I can remember or the recent past. This is demonstrably false, but many cultures persist in thinking that they once lived in a time that was “normal” in human history.
For example, in demographic terms the world’s population has tripled during the lifetime of anyone born in the immediate post-World War II period who is still alive today. For someone born in 1945 or 1946, for instance, the global population has grown from roughly 2.5 billion people in 1945 to roughly 7.5 billion people today. For those born less than twenty years earlier, in 1927, when the world population was 2.0 billion and who are still alive today, the world’s population has increased nearly 4-fold in their lifetimes. Quite naturally, for those who have lived over this span in Earth history it is common for them to think of this time as “normal.”
Yet it is not. In fact, this interval proves to be a highly exceptional moment in both human history and Earth history. Never Earth’s history had the global human population increased three- or four- fold in the life-span of one individual.
Moreover, the total human population will never again triple or quadruple in the life span of any one individual. That is to say, it will not continue to expand from its current size of roughly 7.5 billion to over 22 billion or even 32 billion in the lifetime of someone born today who lives to the age of 75 or 80 years old.
So, it turns out that the post-World War II global population “surge” in human history was both unprecedented and unrepeatable. The demographic behavior of our species in this short interval of human history is peculiar, unique, non-replicable and quite abnormal in the long span of human affairs and Earth’s natural history.
This means that many of us who grew up during this abnormal period and came to think of growth as “normal” are now culturally blind to the world that is unfolding before us. This will become more starkly apparent in the decades ahead. Our recent past is not a reliable guide to the foreseeable future. This is because as a species we are accustomed to thinking in linear time while, in fact, we are now caught in the midst of exponential transformations.
Having grown up on a food supply subsidized heavily by fossil fuels and the “Green Revolution” inspired by the work of Norman Borlaug we have lost an understanding of the fundamental ecological principles of past civilizations and consequently destroyed our ability to conceive of alternate ways of structuring a survivable future. Never have so many people come to depend upon fewer and fewer species of plants grown by ever-expanding agro-tech corporations on petro-intensive mega-farms in rural areas at greater and greater distances from the points of expanding urban consumption
This entire structure of the world’s food system has only been made possible by an ever-increasing consumption of various forms of non-renewable, fossilized fuel whose availability is becoming more “expensive” at the same time that the impact of combusting these fuels is releasing both CO2 and methane on a scale that threatens global ecosystem stability. Furthermore, these emissions work to heightens the frequency and severity of extreme weather events like floods and droughts that in turn undermine the stability of agricultural production. These escalating and self-reinforcing trends are not — nor can they ever be — a recipe for global food-system security.
In the full light of the emerging ecological and system sciences we have come to understand that the trends set in motion by Norman Borlaug and the other Rockefeller Foundation-financed “engineers” of the “Green Revolution” did not “solve” the Malthusian problem in the post-World War II world. On the contrary, their “solutions” postponed the food/population problem and in the process amplified it, projecting it to troubling global proportions.
While all famines and food-related disasters are local, the break-down of the modern world’s food-system is now truly global. As the war in the Ukraine clearly underscores, any disruptions in the global flow of petroleum, fertilizer or other agricultural “inputs” or the similar disruptions in flow of grain harvests, surpluses and stockpiles registers immediately in the livelihoods or survival of populations often halfway around the world.
For this reason we are going to have now to devise alternate, sustainable and restorative agricultural systems – and very quickly, too — if we expect to survive as a species.
The colonial legacy and Cold War enthusiasm for ‘growth economics’ combined with a tragic and pervasive public misunderstanding of the petro-intensive ‘magic’ of the ‘Green Revolution’ has meant that modern cultures all over the world are on a collision course with Earth’s finite ecosystem. These interconnected crises are accelerating as the global food system is becoming ever-more dependent upon fossil fuel combustion. At the same time recurrent pandemics afflict the world’s poorest agricultural populations with increasing severity, and extreme weather and changes in the climate stress food production and global supply chains beyond the breaking point. The world’s petro-dependent food system is collapsing before our eyes as every agency and expert tasked with monitoring these trends has been screaming now for years.
It is no mere coincidence that the titles of books penned by some of the world’s greatest analysts attempting to grapple with the population/food problem have been eerily similar and foreboding in the past several years. One of Lester Brown’s last publications was entitled: “Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity” while the most recent volume of George Monbiot focuses upon what must be done urgently to change the trajectory of global agricultural systems in his book “Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet”
Meanwhile Peter Victor’s volume entitled, “Harman Daly’s Economics for a Full World” provides us all with a reminder that truly great economists like Herman Daly have not been distracted by the post-World War II flutter of “growth economics” nor by the Cold War induced fad of “development economics.” Instead, Herman Daly and his associates have explored the economics of sustainability and focused throughout their careers upon the central Malthusian insight that human activity is embedded within the constraints of Earth’s ecosystem and cannot survive apart from it. We cannot dominate a functioning ecosystem and bend it to our purposes. As they point out, we are not apart from nature, but rather a part of nature. We had better soon learn the “house rules” of a functioning ecosystem and assume our role as ecocitizens within it.
During the heady years of the “Green Revolution” when the fanciful ideologies of perpetual growth dominated the writings of public intellectuals and academics, it became fashionable to sneer at the insights of physicists like Al Bartlett, sociologists like William Catton, or the MIT authors of the 1972 Club of Rome Report,“Limits to Growth,” dismissing these people derisively as “neo-Malthusians.” But the fact is that fifty years later these authors have been proven correct. They have been the prophets proving the wizards wrong.
In reality, there is nothing “neo” about Malthusianism. In our day, the fundamental research of both ecologists and sociologists alike has led to a radical reassessment of the “Green Revolution,” leaving us with troubling new questions. As the title of one recent essay phrased it: “How Could Something So Right Turn Out Wrong? How Could Something So Good Go Bad?”
The tragedy is that in less than a century — an amazingly short period in the sweep of human history — the “Green Revolution” converted and consolidated countless solar-based systems of agriculture into a petro-dependent, hyper-coherent, global food system which does not have a sustainable future. Hailed as a remarkable success of human ingenuity in the middle and late 20thcentury, this “revolution” may yet prove to be the biggest misstep in the history of civilization, leaving billions of people to experience heightened food stress or death as the global climate changes in ways we cannot predict. How could this have happened?
The answer to this question is grounded in the fundamental arrogance of anthropocentric intention and design in a complex ecosystem. For this reason, it is not clear that we can survive the Anthropocene. It is a simple fact that in the past no known ecosystem has ever been — nor in the future can it ever be — engineered to deliver ever increasing benefits to only one of its constituent species for very long. In striving to reach this goal the species concerned destroys the system itself.
We will be no exception to this fundamental law of biological systems. We cannot survive apart from nature. Our last, best and only chance of survival is to live within the constraints of a solar powered finite planetary ecosystem. Vain techno-fixes or misguided hopes for finding break-through new energy sources as well as desperate attempts to “win” battles to control the dwindling non-renewable resources can and will only hasten our demise.
As a vehicle to foster global public awareness of this crisis, we have created the weblog, Transition Studies, to address the collective human task of devising a just transition towards global sustainability. Some notes on this work are now available through the ongoing, cumulative weblog for public consideration at http://transition-studies.net.
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For a summary introduction to how the modern discipline of “economics” has contributed to this tragic trajectory in global agriculture see:
For alternatives to these ominous trends that are now openly discussed and widely shared consult the emerging trend of news and views expressed by mass citizen-scientist alliances emerging around the world to conserve, protect and regenerate topsoil. See for example:
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