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I wonder what Malthus would say if you told him that, in the future, less than 2% of the population of the United States would be farmers, and that the population of the world would exceed 7 billion. This must be because, although Malthus was gloriously (and thankfully) wrong in the specifics, the general problem that he elucidates here is an important one that somehow eluded the attention of every major thinker before him.As the human species continues to multiply at an ever-increasing rate, the ghost of Malthus will continue to haunt us.Humans tend to increase faster than they can create food, so at a certain point they will be unable to support themselves.
That's what's happened so far: the "Green Revolution" of the 20th century greatly increased farm yield, preventing a calamitous population collapse in the nick of time. Genetically modified crops could be that bullet; just like the Green Revolution, they offer to greatly increase farm yield, bringing along a number of dire-sounding, poorly understood side effects.
Unfortunately, we now suspect that rather than preventing a calamitous collapse, the Green Revolution may just have forestalled a catastrophic one; the new farming techniques are destroying our soil. (See Charles Mann's cover story in National Geographic, September 2008 for more.) We need a new silver bullet. You might explain that it'll only result in decreased sensitivity and a shortage of socks, but he is going to keep at it with endless industry and innovation. We'll either be able to innovate fast enough to barely stay ahead of our own unforeseen consequences, or something else will happen. ETA: Cecily directs me to a couple of poems that say pretty much what I've said but much better and they rhyme. I’m not sure what exactly I expected from this little book.
But don’t mistake this realistic view of things for gloating about the destitution of the masses.
Surely, if he thought that suffering could be entirely extirpated, he would throw all his weight behind that solution.
I have heard it said that Malthus was an enemy of the poor—a lassez-faire capitalist that didn’t want welfare states to impinge on the free market.
Yes, he was opposed to the Poor Laws in England; but not because he cared little for the well-being of the poor.
That general idea is so obvious that it seems hard to believe someone would have to come up with it, and Malthus is just the guy who laid it out most clearly. But he's also been consistently misinterpreted and vilified since day one by people who, for example, think he's advocating policies to kill off poor people.
That's sortof the same as using Darwin to justify eugenics; there's a logical leap in the middle that makes no sense.
True, for reasons he lays forth, Malthus is not very optimistic about this prospect.
The tension he identifies between food supplies and population increase lead him to conclude that some poverty and suffering is inevitable, and that a perfect utopia is an idle dream.