Posted By stuartbramhall on October 4, 2010
In the 18th century political, economist Thomas Malthus made the observation that human beings have always outstripped their food supply. He also observed that when populations reach the limit of their ability to provide for themselves some external force – usually famine, epidemics, or war – intervenes to drastically reduce the number of hungry mouths to be fed. Afterwards the population and food supply are in balanced for awhile. However as the remaining population continues to grow, eventually they run out of food again, and the cycle repeats itself.
It’s a pattern as old as civilization. Human cultures on every continent except Antarctica adapted very early by using wars of conquest to increase their ability to produce food – driving out the tribes in adjacent land and using it to grow crops and cattle for their own people. The Old Testament provides one of the clearest descriptions of resource driven conquest from ancient history – as 4,000 years ago the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses and Joshua, crossed the Red Sea into the Sinai and drove the indigenous tribes from valley after valley to take over their farmlands for the use of the Jewish people.
The Industrial Revolution and Colonization
The industrial revolution, occurring between 1750 and 1850, supposedly changed all this. Scientists invented fantastic new machines that replaced human, horse and oxen power with the trapped energy of fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal). And expanded exponentially the amount of food that could be produced from a given plot of land. It also vastly improved the ability of people who controlled fossil fuel resources to conquer and seize the resources – not just of neighboring populations – but of those that lived at a distance. A process known as colonization.
Colonization was always much more palatable than wars of conquest. In fact local populations wildly supported colonization. Because it enabled conquering populations to enjoy the spoils of war without paying the price (death and physical injury) directly. Especially when it could be arranged for colonial police and armies to seize the land indigenous people used for subsistence farming, rather than the conquering army itself.
Do Fossil Fuels Invalidate Malthus’ Law?
Over the last fifty years or so, political leaders have claimed that the industrial revolution invalidates Malthus’ Law – that thanks to fossil fuels and modern technology, humankind can now reproduce indefinitely without ever running out of food. On the face of it, the assertion is clearly absurd. Every human being requires a minimum of one square foot of living space (more if they want to lie down at night). If the population were allowed to increase indefinitely, we would all have to carry people on our shoulders.
It’s also really obvious that the famines, epidemics and resource wars that Malthus predicted as inevitable never really ended. The current wars in the Middle East and Africa (which the US government manages to keep out of the news) are primarily resource wars. In case people haven’t noticed, the US and China are engaged in a colossal struggle over resources (energy mainly, but the Chinese are also buying up agricultural land in Africa at a fantastic rate). China is using its economic might to monopolize oil and gas resources (mainly in Iran, Afghanistan and oil-rich African countries). While the US, which has no economy left to speak of, is using sophisticated guerrilla-style proxy warfare to try to stop them.
Is There a Population Bomb?
Personally, I’m not terribly convinced that the industrial revolution has been that effective in feeding the world. What it has done, I believe, is make the first world extremely effective at colonization. It’s created a situation in which 20-25% of the world live extremely comfortably in the first world, 50% live with the misery of extreme oppression and exploitation and 20-25% live with chronic starvation and disease. Obviously the end of cheap fossil fuels is going to shift these numbers. The upper tier will shrink drastically, with more and more first world ‘middle class’ folks finding themselves in the middle or bottom tier.
I don’t happen to believe in the population bomb, either. I don’t believe the world will experience a sudden global catastrophe as a result of our failure to control population growth. All we are facing essentially is a dramatic and exponential increase in global misery. And a unique situation – thanks to the CIA, Blackwater, the Mossad, Pakistani and Indian intelligence, and whoever else trains and finances them – in which growing numbers of radicals from the bottom tier are willing to bring the resource war to the global north – by strapping explosives to their chests.
To be continued, with a discussion of the options open to us if we decide to address the population problem.