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Aug 28, 2008

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Ben

Malthus made some crude predictions, but basically, it was this: that people were limited by food, and that originally people used fertile land that produced more food than one person could eat from one person's labor; later, they used marginal land that produced less than one person could eat from one person's labor.

Ecologists adapted this idea into the logistics model of population growth. They went out and found some cases where it applied. They have studied them well. Unfortunately, they don't actually apply well to that many cases.

Now, we know more and more about demographics. We know that most populations are limited by factors other than 'food' - particularly calories available from food. In fact, many populations are constrained by 'predation' - bacteria and algae for example are often limited by grazing organisms and viruses - and by parasites.

Diseases don't just strike the malnourished - they also strike people who are crowded together, stressed, or uncomfortable. Emerging infectious diseases strike more often as people live in less hospitable places or crowd together. Pests have an easier time when populations are larger.

These are all malthusian in effect - large populations create pressures that tend to lower populations. Anti-malthusian effects would be those that make life easier as populations grow - specialization, better mutation/selection pressures, drug discovery on time scales more appropriate to pathogen evolution.

Anyway, I'm just fleshing out some of the issues and complications ... there are more. But a full discussion would distract, perhaps, from the point of the main post.

Michael W. Kruse

Thanks for expanding on this, Ben. Especially:

"Diseases don't just strike the malnourished - they also strike people who are crowded together, stressed, or uncomfortable. Emerging infectious diseases strike more often as people live in less hospitable places or crowd together. Pests have an easier time when populations are larger."

One of the issues Robert Fogel points to is that average human height and body mass was increasing in Britan in the early 19th Century and then actually began to decline for a period before continuing on the upward trend. He suggests that while caloric intake improved the impact of rapid urbanization and the resulting deplorable living conditions actually made life less healthy. With improvements in sanitation living quality improved once again. (Ghost Map gives a wonderful account of life in that era and the issues that had to be surmounted.)

Jared Diamond, I believe, highlights some of these issues in various contexts as well.

I have tendency to ramble in these posts. I was trying to behave myself and just give a sense of the Malthus thinking. :-)

Thanks for these helpful insights.

ZZMike

Malthus was perfectly right. Given the state of science and agriculture in his day, that was probably the most reasonable view.

Unfortunately, he didn't see the rise of the Industrial Age and the dramatic increase in agriculture. (That the train of Industry ran over more than a few people on its way to the Promised land is another story.) But still, Malthus' failing was that he was not a good futurist.

As we know, few people are.

ZZMike

PS:

"... then we can look at the challenges that plague the bottom one billion of the world’s population living today."

One diagnostic test: under what forms of government are these people living?

Each country should really have its own "poverty level" dollar figure. If you apply that number to the US, you might come up with not a few percent, but a few people. If we believe our government (no laughing there in the back row), our "poor" live at around 10,000 times the poverty level of (f'r'example) Northern Africa.

Michael W. Kruse

I don't think anyone saw what was coming in terms of industrialization but actually population growth and been building for at least a couple of centuries before Malthus. I'll come to all this eventually. I'll be curious to see how you access my take.

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