The Malthus Effect on Politics and Economics
In 1798, Thomas Malthus published an essay that had a profound impact on Charles Darwin and others. He said that population growth vastly outstrips the resources for their survival. This created a mindset of imminent crisis that lent itself to radical political schemes as well Darwin’s idea of survival of the fittest. Was Malthus right? A brief criticism appeared this month in an unexpected place: a geology journal article talking about oil futures.
In a brief paper in GSA Today,1 Eric S. Cheney (U of Washington) and Marianne W. Hawkes argued that the world is not on the verge of an oil crisis. To begin their argument, they looked at history, and singled out Malthus2 as a culprit whose ideas have been discredited:
The concept that resources are essentially finite may have originated with Thomas Malthus. He concluded in 1798 that the exponential growth of Earth’s human population was unsustainable because agricultural production could only increase arithmetically. Since then, mechanized farming, irrigation, refrigeration, chemical fertilizers (from petroleum and other mineral deposits), hybrid grains, genetic modification, and improved transportation systems have blossomed. Now, famine is only caused by political events and by the inability to deliver emergency supplies following natural disasters.
From there, the authors critiqued a dire prediction of M. K. Hubbert in 1956 that oil production had peaked and the world was faced with a precipitous, unsustainable decline. Scientists and activists frequently refer to “Hubbert’s Peak” to lobby for drastic political action.
Cheney and Hawkes showed that numerous factors since Hubbert’s prediction have changed the picture. Oil and gas production will not peak and fall off, but hit a plateau with a long, slow decline and prices rising gradually far into the future. “The scenario presented here,” they sang, “places us among the optimists.”
Drawing parallels with what happened to food production, they argued that political and economic factors are the main drivers of oil production, not the abundance of the resources themselves. “Nationally owned companies currently control 90% of the world’s production of oil and gas,” they said. “These companies tend to be secretive and under-capitalized.” And just as Thomas Malthus saw doom before major advances in agriculture took place, Hubbert announced his doomsday prediction before major new reserves were discovered, before plate tectonics theory opened up new search strategies, before improved recovery technologies were invented, and before alternative energy sources became economically viable.
In conclusion, they argued that the problem with oil is not availability but politics. “Static or gradually declining production would be fairly easy to manage if oil and politics did not mix,” they said. “Crises will recur due to aggressive or unstable exporting nations and to counterproductive legislation and foreign policies of some of the major consuming nations.”
1Eric S. Cheney and Marianne W. Hawkes, “The future of hydrocarbons: Hubbert’s peak or a plateau?,” GSA Today Volume 17, Issue 6 (June 2007), pp. 69-70.
2Malthus was not the first to have a pessimistic view of global economics. The mercantile system of 16th-18th centuries was built on the principle that wealth could not be generated – only distributed. This tended to keep peasants in their place and nobles careful to hang onto their assets. Capitalism represented a radical change of view: the power of the individual to create wealth through hard work and creativity. These ideas were fed by the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on individual responsibility and the intrinsic value of work.
This entry is partially off topic, as our focus is creation vs. evolution, not the eco-politics of oil production. We are also not here to argue the merits of the case made by these two, or to suggest that complacency about the future of oil is an acceptable posture. Conservation is still virtuous and necessary. Note, however, that these ideas were printed in a publication of the Geological Society of America, a very pro-Darwinist organization, and one of the authors is from the University of Washington, not known for its political conservatism or skepticism of evolutionary theory.
The tie-in to Malthus, however, is important, since the Malthusian principle had a profound impact on Darwin. It was arguably the key insight Darwin claimed led to his theory of natural selection. The rest of the story – social Darwinism, Marxism and today’s oil-crisis mentality – shows the power of an idea to affect the lives of billions of people. “Now, famines are only caused by political events” is an understatement. The worst famines in the history of the world were attributable to Stalin and Mao, whose ideologies were built squarely on Darwin, whose main idea was built on Malthus. Another horrific famine in modern times is the fault of North Korea’s communist leader, Kim Jong Il, who lives in opulent luxury building nuclear weapons and entertaining himself with fine wines and the world’s largest collection of Daffy Duck cartoons, while his people scrape bark off trees to keep from starving. Solomon stated a principle almost 3,000 years ago that is the antithesis of Malthus: “Abundant food is in the fallow ground of the poor, but it is swept away by injustice” (Proverbs 13:23).\
Malthus came up with not so much an empirical discovery as a mental picture of the way the world worked. Yes, he could point to some empirical facts that seemed to support his concept that population vastly outstrips resources, but it was a naive generality that ignored (or did not know about) important mitigating factors – chiefly, the power of human creativity to solve problems. Today’s scientific farming technologies can produce bumper crops out of desert sand. And Malthus knew nothing about genetic engineering.
Even in the natural world, we have seen that there are natural feedback mechanisms that can moderate the production of offspring so that it is not exponentially out of control (e.g., 05/28/2007). Recall from 03/17/2003 how Jason Wolf showed that indirect genetic effects can also act as governors on the engine of change, or slippage on the treadmill. The vision of “nature red in tooth and claw” has changed dramatically since 1798 and 1859. Many evolutionists today envision a friendlier world of cooperation, symbiosis and sustainable ecosystems. Malthus, clearly, was not the last word.
The lessons here are many. Ideas have consequences. Complex problems have simple, easy-to-understand wrong answers. Intuitively obvious principles can represent false visions of the world. And scientific or political ideologies built on them can be disastrous. Before jumping on any political or economic bandwagon, remember the lesson of Malthus and his ideological offspring. They did grow exponentially – and led to an economic and political world Soviet-red in tooth and claw.