The lack of recognition was unmerited; Hong apparently captured the workings of the Malthusian trap better than Malthus. (I use the hedge word “apparently” because he never worked out the details.) The Englishman’s theory made a simple prediction: more food would lead to more mouths would lead to more misery. In fact, though, the world’s farmers have more than kept pace. Between 1961 and 2007 humankind’s numbers doubled, roughly speaking, while global harvests of wheat, rice and maize tripled. As population has soared, in fact, the percentage of chronically malnourished has fallen — contrary to Malthus’s prediction. Hunger still exists, to be sure, but the chance that any given child will be malnourished has steadily, hearteningly declined. Hong, by contrast, pointed to a related but more complex prospect. The continual need to increase yields, Hong presciently suggested, would lead to an ecological catastrophe, which could cause social dysfunction — and with it massive human suffering.
Exactly this process is what researchers mean today when they talk about the Malthusian trap. Indeed, one way to summarize today’s environmental disputes is to say that almost all boil down to the question of whether humankind will continue to accumulate wealth and knowledge, as has been the case since the Industrial Revolution, or whether the environmental impacts of that accumulation — soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, consumption of groundwater supplies, climate change — will snap shut the jaws of the Malthusian trap, returning the earth to pre-industrial wretchedness.
March 10, 2014 @ 4:37 pm
Libertarians love to crow about how Malthus has been "proven wrong". The bacteria at the edge of the colony act like the dish goes on forever, too.
March 11, 2014 @ 3:12 am
The maddening thing is that these people usually disparage the most obvious solution – population control -for some perverse reason.
March 10, 2014 @ 11:41 pm
There was an amusing thread at the Slymepit several months ago where an objectivist who blogs under the name "The Prussian" at Skeptic Ink had a long argument with a couple of people over how free enterprise would eventually find a solution to the problem of overpopulation which really isn't a problem anyway and you're a racist if you think it is.
In the twilight of IOZ's old blog, there was an obsessive freak of a commenter who similarly accused people of nihilism for not accepting her faith that humans would eventually engineer some sort of solution to environmental problems. She was particularly fond of the idea that we would somehow find the money and technology to mine other planets for all the resources we need.
I'm starting to think there's a rich, untapped vein of amusement to be found with these kinds of people.