Malthus was right

For those who aren’t aware, there are basically two camps in the post-capitalism/resource scarcity debate: the Cornucopians and the neo-Malthusians. As a brief primer, here’s a quick description of both:

Cornucopians — Taken from the term cornucopia, which is the horn of plenty we all recognize from every picture of a Thanksgiving table ever. Cornucopians point to 200 years of history showing increases in resource efficiency as proof that we will engineer our way out of resource scarcity. They’re basically the optimists.

Neo-Malthusians — Taken from the noted economist and doomsayer Malthus, who predicted that humans would basically turn into a ravaging horde of cannibalistic savages because we would run out of food and land and other precious resources. Neo-Malthusians believe basically the same thing, just that Malthus didn’t understand the level of technological improvement that would prolong the industrial age for 200 more years. Neo-Malthusians point to the fact that despite increases in resource efficiency, humans haven’t slowed resource consumption one iota since discovering the power of fossil fuels.

Obviously, I fall solidly in the second camp. In order to not use all our resources up in the next 100 years, all of humanity would have to engage in an unprecedented effort to not only drastically increase resource efficiency, but also drastically reduce resource consumption. I see no historical evidence that humans are capable of, or even interested in, that sort of global cooperation, thus I conclude that the opposite is much more likely true…that we will continue increasing our resource consumption until constraints begin to cause all sorts of economic, societal, and cultural havoc.

After-all, Malthus wasn’t actually wrong in his predictions, he just had too limited of a scope. He looked around Europe and thought, “Golly, we’re running our of arable land and we already treat the peasantry like poo poo, so it seems logical that as we run out of land and food supplies become constrained we will start to turn on each other and there will be much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth.” And when you look back at the 200 years of European history that followed his predictions, you find exactly that. Europe ran out of resources and so they went far and wide conquering lands to secure those resources, they starved their poor and/or worked them to death in the firepits of this new grinding global machine, and sewed mass death on a global scale never seen before. Europe was basically at war with itself either home or abroad from the 1600’s to 1946, largely stemming from a lack of arable land, limited food production capacity, and little to no gold and silver stores. If there hadn’t been a a “New World” or “Far East” to conquer Europe would have devolved into exactly the type of scenario Malthus spoke of…and in fact they more or less did anyway.

So, next time a Cornucopian tries to make you feel better by convincing you that technology will increase resource efficiency to the point that we’ll be able to live in perfect techno-harmony with the world, take heart that Malthus was right. We will all die in a hail of fire and brimstone and roving bands of cannibals.

That or, maybe we could build our cities to lower resource consumption, provide better living standards, and help us live with a more realistic relationship with nature.