“Material abundance is (A) rapidly depleting our resources and (B) destroying our environment.” This has become the refrain of a new generation neo-Malthusian environmentalists in our day. It’s widespread in Mainline (National Council of Churches denominations) and is the dominant view point among influential emerging church notables (Brian McLaren’s “Everything Must Change” being a prime example.”)
Thomas Malthus was an early nineteenth century British minister who analyzed parish records spanning many years. He published his research in An Essay on the Principle of Population, in 1798. At the core of Malthus’ observations was the relationship between population and resources. He observed that while resources tend to grow arithmetically (i.e., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5…), population tends to grow geometrically (i.e., 1, 2, 4, 8, 16…). Population always outgrows the ability of resources to support the population.
Aside from the normal causes of death like accidents and old age, factors like war, pestilence, and famine also served as a check. These would reduce the population to manageable levels. Population would increase again and repeat the cycle all over again. Being opposed to contraception and abortion, the only solution Malthus saw was late marriage and abstinence. (I suspect that Dicken’s Ebenezer Scrooge was a Malthusian because of his quip “If they [the poor] are to die, better that they do it and decrease the surplus population.”) His outlook for humanity in the century ahead was one of catastrophic economic disaster. He was wrong.
Malthus believed that increasing wages would lead to increasing birth-rates and declining death-rates, thus mushrooming the population into disaster. Instead, we experienced what has been called the Demographic Transition in the period from 1750 to 1950 in the Western world. Malthus was correct that death rates fell but not long after they began to fall birth-rates began to fall as well. For nearly 200 years birth-rates were always higher than death-rates but both were declining. Thus, the population grew. But by the middle of the twentieth century, death-rates leveled out and birth-rates followed suit shortly thereafter. Western nations leveled out at the replacement rate. In fact, the problem most Western nations are facing today is that they are slowly dying out because they are not replacing themselves.
The boom in post-World War II assistance to the developing world led to dramatic declines in the death-rates that took the West decades to experience. Birth-rates are more culturally sensitive and take longer to change. Consequently, for decades developing nations have been experiencing very high population growth. The decline toward replacement rates is well underway and it is expected that the world population will stabilize at around ten billion in the second half of the twenty-first century. Affluence leads to lower fertility, not more, as Malthus believed.
The other eventuality that Malthus did not see was the astounding contributions of the Industrial Revolution, communication, transportation, and market exchange. These developments improved productivity beyond what anyone in his day could hope to imagine. Everything from food, to clothing, to housing, to a host of basic goods became exponentially more abundant and less expensive in real terms. This process is still underway and bringing greater abundance to ever greater portions of the globe.
Malthus’ views had considerable influence in many circles throughout the nineteenth century but the astonishing abundance delivered over the many decades after his death in 1834, caused a general abandonment of his outlook. However, apocalyptic pessimists over the years have continued to latch onto the seemingly obvious formula that resources are limited and we will one day use them up. Every few decades this outlook reappears in some new version.
There really are only two solutions if you work from the Malthusian premise. One solution is population control, which in its soft form includes delayed marriage, contraception, education, and abstinence. In its hard form it leads to abortion, sterilization, and genocide. The other solution is reduced resource use, which in its soft form might include “simple living” movements, conservation, and recycling. The hard version is state control of markets to “fairly” ration the limited resources.
Those old enough to remember the 1960s and 1970s will remember the last full-blown neo-Malthusian wave with people like Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, and Jimmy Carter and his Global 2000 Report. These folks predicted exhaustion of most major commodities, famines, and unprecedented global unrest from shortages and economic collapse by 2000. The very opposite has happened. In the past decade or so we’ve seen a neo-Malthusian resurgence that is married to apocalyptic climate change scenarios (which I will address next) and a deep suspicion of people acting with economic freedom (i.e, markets). This new wave is generally grouped under the moniker “sustainable growth” although not every expression of sustainable growth has to do with neo-Malthusian thinking.
How should we evaluate the claim that we are running out of resources? We can start by looking at commodity prices over an extended period to see what they tell us. If the supply of a commodity is becoming scarcer relative to the demand for the commodity, then the commodity’s price will climb. Commodity prices factor in anticipated growth in present and future demand, estimated quantities of natural resources, and the capacity to extract resources for productive use. What has happened to commodity prices over the years? A 2001 study that looked at commodity prices over the previous 140 years concluded:
“…while there has been a downward trend in real commodity prices of 1.3 percent per year over the last 140 years, little support is found for a break in the long-run trend decline in commodity prices. …”
When a commodity starts to become scarcer, several things happen. Suppliers are motivated to search harder for more of the commodity and ways to renew supplies of it (i.e. the lumber industry). Entrepreneurs enter the markets. They begin offering substitute commodities, they recycle the existing commodity, and they begin to find ways to use the commodity more efficiently. Users of the commodity will likely decrease use and look for alternatives as prices go higher. In other words, there is a dynamic feedback loop that prohibits an abrupt exhaustion resources. The market will inhibit the total depletion of resources because people will abandon the commodity when the price is too high, long before its exhaustion.
The reality is that we are not running out of resources. Resources are becoming more abundant! Based on estimates of population growth and what is know of existing resources the planet can sustain worldwide material abundance into the foreseeable future. Just as Malthus could not see the impact of the Industrial Revolution on resource availability, I think many neo-Malthusians are blind to the evolution of renewable, reusable, and synthetic fabrication (from renewable resources) that is taking place in our lifetimes. Had Malthus’ perspective won out in the early nineteenth century, it is hard to imagine the devastating impact it would had on generations down to this day. The same caution needs to be sounded about neo-Malthusians today.
Neo-Malthusians believe we should constrain economies until we can clearly see the way ahead and we have solutions for the future. I view this as an expression of Modernist hubris. It imagines that human beings, through rational analysis, are capable of ascertaining what all their options are much less able to have sufficient wisdom to choose among them. Highly decentralized actors and institutions, making daily decisions in an organic feedback loop, are far more likely to emerge solutions to pressing problems than an expertocracy planning the future.
Life is full of risks. We are to be prudent and weigh risks. But do we wed only when we can see the solution to every eventuality? Do we take a job only when we discern we will have no troubles? Do we wait for a guarantee of perfect safety before we get behind the wheel of a car? Of course not. Prudence is one thing but the argument that all challenges must be resolved in advance is deeply destructive to human flourishing and expression of hubris.
As I close out this installment, I want to be certain I’m not being misunderstood. I’ve not said that we should not be restrained in our personal consumption or that Christian simplicity (focusing solely on God) will not require us to limit our consumption. What I have said is that there is no shortage of material resources. I’m saying that our call to limit our consumption is not tied to a zero-sum game where our use of resources denies use to others. Our motivation for limits lies elsewhere. But before we get there, I want to quickly look at the second issue I mentioned at the beginning of the post. What about environmental degradation and climate change?