Malthus and the Anthropocene: The Agricultural Collapse of Complex Civilizations

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Sir David Attenborough powerfully re-stated the Malthusian perspective years ago in his 2011 address to the Royal Society in London. As he phrased it, Thomas Malthus observed in 1798 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. If we expect 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 need now – as a species – to rethink our place in space. 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. Our problem can be put quite simply: 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? 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 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. 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. 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. Our recent past is not a reliable guide to the foreseeable future.

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. Moreover, these emissions work to heighten 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, it has become apparent that the trends set in motion by the “engineers” of the “Green Revolution” did not “solve” the Malthusian problem. On the contrary, their “solutions” merely postponed the food/population problem, amplifying it and projecting it to troubling global proportions.

While all famines and food shortages are local, the breakdown of the modern world’s food-system is now truly global. As the war in the Ukraine clearly underscores, disruptions in the global flow of petroleum, fertilizer, or other “agricultural inputs” or the similar disruptions in flow of grain harvests, surpluses, and stockpiles powerfully affects the livelihoods or survival of populations often halfway around the world.

The colonial legacy and Cold War enthusiasm for ‘growth economics’ combined with the 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.

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 and a few exceptional and visionary economists like E. F. Schumacher, Kenneth Boulding and Herman Daly who took their insights very seriously have been proven to be 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 the “Green Revolution” converted and consolidated countless solar-based systems of agriculture into a capital intensive, petro-dependent global-food system which cannot provide a sustainable future. Hailed as a remarkable success of human ingenuity in the middle and late 20th century, this “revolution” may yet prove to be the biggest misstep in the history of civilization, leaving billions of people to experience heightened food insecurity or death as the global climate changes in ways we cannot predict. How could this have happened?

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 in perpetuity. 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 as a part of nature 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 over the control of dwindling non-renewable resources can and will only hasten our demise.

Tim Weiskel

Transition Studies TV

& Global Balliol

Food-Famine-2-525

“Food, Famine and the Frontier Mentality,”
Worldview, 24, 12 (December 1981), 14-16.

and

Plant-Genetic-rev-525

“A Public Policy for Plant Genetic Resources,” 
Worldview, 23, 10 (“October 1980), 11-13.

See related:

and

Environ-Decline-1972

[…particularly with its concluding chapter:
“Chapter V – Time’s Arrow and the Human Prospect.” (1992)]
Environ-Decline-1992-ChV.

and

Malthus-Anthropocene-350

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