Niall Ferguson: Criticized for insisting Malthus was rightHistorians in the News
How the World Works' own opinion is that our sample size for determining Malthusian veracity is simply too small. Judged against the history of human civilization, the 200 years or so since the industrial revolution hasn't been long enough to settle whether humanity will survive its own ingenuity. Right now, how you answer the question is more of a personality test than a scientifically provable fact. Glass half-full? We'll figure out a way. Glass half-empty? We're doomed.
Be that as it may, there's a great big goofy hole in Ferguson's dour argument.
Ferguson recapitulates Malthus' basic premise: "'Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio,' he observed. but 'subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.'"
Malthus concluded from this inexorable divergence between population and food supply that there must be "a strong and constantly operating check on population."
This would take two forms: "misery" (famines and epidemics) and "vice", by which he meant not only alcohol abuse but also contraception and abortion (he was, after all, an ordained Anglican minister).
Even with the great advances in agricultural yields spawned by the green revolution, argues Ferguson, agricultural yields have indeed only grown linearly. But so too, he suggests, has human population, because Malthusian limits have already been operating.
Meanwhile, vice and misery have been operating just as Malthus foresaw to prevent the human population from exploding geometrically.
On the one hand, contraception and abortion have been employed to reduce family sizes. On the other hand, wars, epidemics, disasters and famines have significantly increased mortality.
Together, vice and misery have ensured that the global population has grown at an arithmetic rather than a geometric rate. Indeed, they've managed to reduce the rate of population growth from 2.2 per cent per annum in the early Sixties to around 1.1 per cent today.
Ferguson has an esteemed reputation as a historian, but if this is an example of his normal intellectual coherency, one wonders on what basis he attained his fame.
Population size has stabilized or is actually declining in most of the economically developed nations of the world -- but to argue that this is due to "vice and misery" requires intellectual sleight-of-hand: defining birth control as "vice." If famine, epidemics or war have been responsible for population declines in Italy or Japan in the last few decades, it's the first I've heard of it. The actual evidence available suggests that people in rich countries have fewer children.
The facts seem pretty clear: Economic affluence checks population growth. And only a disingenuous pessimist could consider that reality to be a dire Malthusian limit.
comments powered by Disqus
Randll Reese Besch - 8/1/2007
In the 1920's a way to fix nitrogen in the soil helped to increase population an extra 2 billion! The fact that 1 billion are starving and another 2 billion barely get sustenance should tell you something. The fact that the excesses of the USA ,a meare 6% of the population creates 25% of the pollution. Just imagine the other 94% reaching that same level. We need a small rich population not a huge mostly poor one.
- Rubio Surges Into Second In New Hampshire
- Branstad Says Cruz Ran ‘Unethical’ Campaign
- Christie Highlights Santorum’s Endorsement of Rubio
- Portman Comes Out Against Trade Deal
- Megyn Kelly Gets a Book Deal
- A Big List of the Bad Things Clinton Has Done
- An Unambiguous Sign Sanders Won Last Night’s Debate
- Still Friends at the End
- Quote of the Day
- Trump Still Leads as Clinton Slips
- Clinton Can’t Shake Image as Wall Street’s Friend
- Maddow Doesn’t See Sanders Winning
- Why Does the Media Still Shield Chelsea Clinton?
- Bush Jokes His Mother May Have Abused Him
- Rubio Closes the Gap in New Hampshire
- Tourism spot for Colonial Williamsburg shocks some New Yorkers during Super Bowl 50 for use of 9/11 attack footage
- We asked 6 political scientists if Bernie Sanders would have a shot in a general election
- The price of oil has plummeted and with it Russia’s finances
- Legal scholars at Harvard debate Cruz’s eligibility to serve as president
- Has one of Sally Hemings’s siblings been neglected by history unfairly?
- Retired historian George Dennison remains on the payroll at the U. of Montana while faculty are cut
- The Atlantic profiles exciting ways to teach history
- LDS Church has gone from 0 to 4 historians specializing in women’s history
- American Historical Association protests Turkey’s crackdown on historians and other academics who signed a a petition critical of the Turkish government
- Israeli historian Yair Auron lays out details of a massacre in 1948