Dwindling Global Resources

I AM ALMOST AFRAID TO SAY SO, but Thomas Robert Malthus, the English economist, is coming back into fashion. As I am the nearest thing there is to being Malthus’s publisher, and have a great admiration for his work, I ought to be pleased. However, neo-Malthusianism has a tragic message for the modern world.

Thomas Malthus was born in 1766. In 1798, he published “An Essay on the Principle of Population as It Affects the Future Improvement of Society.” Subsequent revised editions appeared in 1803, 1806, 1807, 1817, and 1826. The First Edition is indeed an essay, though it contains the outline of the Malthusian argument. Malthus did a great deal of subsequent research for the later editions.

The reasons I can claim to be the publisher of Malthus are that my publishing business, Pickering and Chatto, which was founded by William Pickering in 1820, was the first publisher of a collected edition of Malthus’s works, edited by E.A. Wrigley and David Souden. This was the first “Pickering Master” that we published after reviving the Pickering imprint; we published it in 1986, and it remains the only collected edition of Malthus.

Malthus died in 1834. He had already prepared a revised second edition of his “Principles of Political Economy” which was published by William Pickering in 1836. It is, however, the “Essay on Population, 1798,” which first states the Malthusian argument:

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population unchecked increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second.”

The early economists, at the start of the industrial revolution, perfectly understood that the food supply might keep pace with the growth of population for a long time, perhaps even for centuries. In fact, there were serious famines in the nineteenth century, particularly in Ireland and India. There were also wartime disruptions of the food supply in the twentieth century. Yet, by and large, the continued growth of the human population, which is now above six billion, has so far been met by continuing increases in agricultural productivity. The human population has grown very fast, but so has the supply of food.

Various factors have shaken the confidence of economists in the future of food supplies, and in the ability to feed a world population which is continuing to grow. The current rise in food prices has caused a Malthusian shudder among the major Governments who feel at least a preliminary fear that they will not be able to feed their populations. A Government which cannot feed its people is not likely to remain in power for long.

The present rise in prices seems to have been linked to the rise in the price of oil to more than $100 a barrel. Although there are foodstuffs, which have a relatively low dependence on oil, most food stuffs depend on oil for fertiliser, for protection against disease, for farm technologies, for transport and distribution. As oil prices have doubled, food prices have also doubled.

Another factor has been the use of biofuels, grown on agricultural land, to replace oil. Governments have been optimistic that this would contribute to the reduction of CO2 gases. Biofuels have been introduced, probably quite wrongly, as one of the renewable answers to global warming. In fact, the loss of food production has contributed to the threat of famine, and to the growing number of food riots in poor countries. More useful is likely to be gene modification, which will raise the productivity of agriculture and reduce the need for oil-based inputs.

It is, however, the social impact of the growth of the Asian economies that is causing the most immediate alarm. India already has a huge middle class, sometimes estimated at 250 to 300 million, or about 30 per cent of the whole Indian population. China’s has, or will soon have, a middle class of the same size. Many Indians still choose an Indian rather than a Western diet. In China, the preference for a Western diet seems to be spreading. Yet meat can only be reared at the cost of grain. If grain is converted into animal protein and then fed to human populations, about eight times as much grain will be needed. The more the Chinese middle class opt for a Western diet, the less grain will be available for the world’s poor. Yet China is a country still growing at around eight per cent a year.

Finally, there is the growing anxiety that global warning will cause a spread of the deserts. For instance, Africa, which one thinks to be a fertile continent, is threatened by the spread of the Sahara Desert. Global warming will certainly change the pattern of the world’s water supplies, and is expected to reduce, rather than increase, the acreage of cultivable land.

In the wealthy countries of Europe, the birth rate has fallen below replacement level, though there is extensive population movement to make up the shortfall. But the world is not big enough, or productive enough to provide Texas-style T-bone steaks for the peasants of Asia. The famines which were forecast by Malthus’s arithmetic were deferred in the twentieth century, but they may reappear in the twenty-first.

Lord William Rees-Mogg
April 22, 2008