Population and development: more on Malthus

I’m going to follow up on my previous post and turn this into a Malthusian two-parter. Let me begin by offering you an exclusive behind-the-scenes peek into the intellectual ferment that is the Small Farm Future office. After publishing our post on Malthus last week the SFF team have been reading Chris Wickham’s doorstopper of a book Framing The Early Middle Ages, which makes reference to the late Danish economist Ester Boserup’s influential 1965 book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, and specifically to Boserup’s ‘anti-Malthusian’ arguments. We’d read Boserup’s book a couple of years back and made a few notes on it, but failed to incorporate it properly into our thinking. Wickham’s reference to it fired off connections not only to our arguments about Malthus but also to neo-populist economic theory (in which category we can perhaps place the anthropologist Paul Richards’ gentle critique of Boserup), and to the concepts of agricultural involution and to low level and high level equilibrium traps which we’re currently wrestling with as part of a small side project in which we aim to bring you the history of the world in just four blog posts1. Well, maybe four and a half.

OK, let me drop the first person plural, the joke’s gone far enough. And let me also apologise for subjecting readers of this blog to the painful creaking of my thinking-out-loud gears as I try to get to grips with all of this stuff. The apology would be all the more heartfelt if I was actually employed to do this, rather than spending precious weekends trying to make sense of the world and committing my half-formed ideas to cyberspace, but there you go – I’m just grateful that there are people who feel it worth their while to respond. One of whom is Andrew, whose view of Malthusianism as a ‘dark fairy tale that should never be allowed to occur in reality’ is interesting food for thought.

Anyway, that’s a perhaps unnecessarily long preamble to say that here I’m going to offer some preliminary and disjointed thoughts on Boserup’s anti-Malthusianism, followed by some further thoughts on escaping Andrew’s dark Malthusian fairy tale.

The Malthus-Boserup contretemps hinges on how we construe the relationship between agricultural productivity and population growth. As Boserup sees it, Malthusians consider population growth to be determined by the level of agricultural productivity or technology, whereas in her view the causality runs in the other direction: population growth creates subsistence pressures that stimulate increased agricultural productivity. One of the major dimensions of agricultural productivity that she emphasises is labour: “I have reached the conclusion,” she writes, “that in many cases the output from a given area of land responds far more generously to an additional input of labour than assumed by neo-Malthusian authors”2. And much of her book demonstrates the point with various examples of the way that in non-industrial farming systems additional labour inputs into such things as irrigation, tillage and fertility management results in higher yields per unit area. The same applies to industrial farming systems, though here a good deal of the additional labour is mechanical, bringing problems of its own that I won’t address here.

I think Boserup is right about the spectacularly productive character of human labour – it’s something I’ve remarked on previously on this blog, and something that’s emerged implicitly from my ‘Peasant’s Republic of Wessex’ exercise, which has shown how relatively easy it is to feed large populations through labour-intensive methods even with conservative productivity assumptions. But while it’s true that population growth may prompt agricultural intensification, it doesn’t follow that this provides an adequate historical account of agricultural ‘development’ through history, or that population growth is a final, causal factor (this, essentially, is Richards’ critique of Boserup: she doesn’t provide a historical account to show that population growth is a consistent historical prime mover). But if we do entertain Boserup’s analysis as a historical theory, then it’s a curious concept of ‘development’. Why would a society produce more offspring than it can comfortably feed and then devote itself to disagreeable extra labour in order to make good the shortfall? After all, historically the peasant way has usually been to choose extra leisure over extra work whenever possible – much to the chagrin of would-be ‘agricultural improvers’ – and to restrict fertility accordingly, albeit through methods that tend to strike the modern mind as sad at best and utterly wicked at worst. Wickham shows that this was pretty much the strategy adopted by peasants in early medieval Europe when they could get away with it – which was usually when there wasn’t a strong, centralised state around to organise their labour according to its own designs. Perhaps I’m missing something, but Wickham’s enthusiasm for Boserup’s account as a historical theory baffles me for this reason, when his own work underlines the importance of the state, of centralised polities, in agricultural development. The significance of the state is something I’m planning to write about in more detail soon. For me, all this raises two related questions worth posing to assorted Boserupians, eco-modernists and techno-fixers assembled under the anti-Malthusian banner labelled ‘technical development’: who are the winners and who are the losers of any given ‘development’, and who’s doing the hard work in the society so ‘developed’? A third question might be: even granted an association between population growth and technical development, is it always so tight that the former never overruns the latter, creating a short-term Malthusian crisis?

Anyway, my feeling is that the contrast between the ‘neo-Malthusians’ and Boserup’s ‘anti-Malthusianism’ is overdrawn. I agree that there are many ways of staving off the dark fairy tale of an impending Malthusian crisis, of which labour intensification is a key one usefully highlighted by Boserup. But that scarcely refutes the basic Malthusian problems I discussed in my last post of resource pressures creating generalised stress which may be ‘referred’ elsewhere – onto other people, or onto other organisms. And it doesn’t establish any kind of historical truth that Malthus’s dark tale will always stay in the realms of fiction. After all, Boserup’s tale of ‘development’ through labour intensification is a pretty dark one itself.

Take my Londinium projections from a few posts back. Now imagine this scenario in Londinium a few years hence, which seems to me a possibility at least:

  • declining crop yields as a result of climate change
  • increasing energy prices
  • a global economic depression prompted by the unhappy confluence of public and private debt, stagnant growth and increasing social inequality
  • the steady withdrawal of basic agricultural commodities from global markets as governments prioritise national food security

A sensible government in those circumstances would probably develop a national food and farming policy with a heavy emphasis on cereal cropping. Let’s say it managed to furnish you with just about enough bread to keep the hunger pangs at bay. If you wanted anything much else to eat, you’d be sowing vegetable seeds in domestic gardens, training vines up walls, collaborating in community orchard ventures, joining neighbourhood pig clubs, and dreaming up as many plans for creative agricultural intensification in domestic spaces as you possibly could. Would you say you were experiencing a Malthusian crisis or going through a phase of Boserupian intensification? My friend, you’d be too busy gardening to care.

Anyway, let us suppose that we’re in such a situation, and the future portents are only looking worse. What are the available options? There are four main strategies, three of which are routinely discussed within the Malthusian framework, while the fourth – the most promising one, in my opinion – rarely is. Let me briefly summarize them.

1. The technical fix. This is pretty much Plan A, B, C and Z for most of the world’s governments and would-be governments. Not enough food? Figure out how to raise yields. Too much greenhouse gas? Figure out how to sequester carbon, deflect sunlight, or whatever. Malthus is vanquished by scientific progress. The problem with this is that you can’t guarantee you’ll come up with a fix in time. And even if you do, new solutions beget new problems and rebound effects, so you may just be kicking the can down the road until it turns into an even bigger and more intractable problem later on. Usually, technical fixes are only proximal engineering solutions to underlying social problems – and those problems remain. I still think it can be a good idea to pursue technical solutions. I don’t think it’s a good idea to pursue them as the main, still less the only, strategy to overcoming resource crises.

2. Embracing the fight. Alternatively, you can just embrace the gathering crisis and prepare to fight for your piece of the much-contested pie. But it’s a high-risk strategy. A lot of people seem to harbour the notion that they’ll be one of the ones to come out on top – kind of like the way that most people seem to think they’re a better than average driver. But in an all-out, civilization-shredding Malthusian crisis all bets are off. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that in a ‘state of warre’ life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, which is often interpreted as a historical argument for the progress of refined civilisation over rude barbarism. I’d interpret him to be saying rather that, absent some kind of non-violent proliferation treaty between people (in other words, absent politics), and we’re basically all losers. I’m sympathetic to the preppers and doomers who learn how to grow potatoes or handle a gun, partly because I can’t think of any reasons why it’s ever a bad idea to know how to provide for yourself, and mainly because I think the more people there are who understand the difficulties and compromises involved in self-provisioning, the closer we’ll be to a sustainable agrarian society. But ultimately almost no one can subsist alone, and all else is politics. The ones who know how to cultivate political alliances will do better than the ones who know how to cultivate potatoes – which will be a line of argument I’ll pursue more fully in Wessex and Londinium Part II.

3. Migration. The basic problem in a Malthusian crisis is that there are too many people in the denominator, so one of the easier fixes is for some of them to go somewhere else. This becomes increasingly hard to do as the ‘somewhere elses’ get filled up. The ‘Old World’ solved not a few of its problems in the short term by exporting a lot of its people to the ‘New World’, but it seems unlikely there are more New Worlds to be discovered (with the exception of outer space, a recurrent modernist dream which – a bit like nuclear fusion – has remained constantly unrealised to date). It’s possible that existing ‘worlds’ could be more densely settled by people using more land-intensive techniques (vegan smallholders on what was once extensive pasture, for example, as in my last-but-one post), or an otherwise Boserupian response to the Malthusian crisis. Doubtless there’s scope for migratory recolonizations of this sort, given the political will. But the problem here is a bit like the problem with the technical fix – without specific efforts to trim human lifeways so they fit extant ecological possibilities, migration or migratory intensification only delays the Malthusian moment. In his sad but lovely book about the encounter between farming and foraging peoples, The Other Side of Eden, Hugh Brody argues that, historically, farming societies have been the truly nomadic ones, forever parlaying their agrarian surpluses into surpluses of people, who ultimately must then seek their livelihood in new lands. When those lands have included foraging peoples, the results have usually been genocidal for the latter. In more recent times, importing service has had greater stress than exporting people, but the feeling remains that modern civilisation has been offloading the negative consequences of its actions onto other people or other organisms in ways that can ultimately only postpone rather than transcend its own reckoning with resource constraint.

4. Sub-critical juggling. Well, I know this is my hobbyhorse at the moment, but I think this way of thinking just doesn’t get its due. The logic of it goes roughly like this: no, humanity hasn’t yet transcended the Malthusian manacles of population excess relative to resource base and probably never will, but we potentially have some smart tricks up our sleeve to keep the old parson at bay so long as we avoid complacency. For starters, there are some techno-fixes that might be worth a try – typically of the humble common or garden variety (perhaps quite literally, eg. participatory plant breeding programmes) rather than the grandly revolutionary (eg. nuclear fusion). Then there’s the Boserupian turn to more labour and land intensive forms of agriculture, an approach sometimes pejoratively labelled by scholars as ‘involutionary’ (paradigmatically by the late Clifford Geertz3) but one which I suspect will prove a more enduring solution than ‘revolutionary’ modernist-industrial agriculture (more on this soon). A managed agricultural involution would be one strand of that larger effort alluded to above of trimming human lifeways to extant ecological possibilities, which in a sub-critical juggle scenario would also unfurl in arenas of consumption other than food. Finally, there’s the possibility that as the Malthusian shipwreck approaches, we avoid a Hobbesian rush to the lifeboats, a ‘warre of all against all’ under the cry of ‘everyone for themselves’, which risks killing a lot of people unnecessarily in the crush, and we do so by equalising chances and building collective sensibilities. Is it likely that human societies will adopt this sub-critical juggling approach? Well, perhaps not very – though I’d submit that it’s by far the most promising approach to avoid an unpleasant encounter with Malthus’s ghost. But it is a possible approach, and is not without its historical precedents. How so? Well, that will have to wait until we turn to Wessex and Londinium, Part II.


1. The books referred to in this paragraph are: Wickham, C. (2005) Framing the Early Middle Ages, Oxford; Boserup, E. (1965) The Conditions of Agricultural Growth, London; Richards, P. (1985) Indigenous Agricultural Revolution, London. On ‘agricultural involution’: Geertz, C. (1963) Agricultural Involution, Berkeley. On high level equilibrium traps, among others: Arrighi, G. (2007) Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century, London.

2. Boserup, op cit. p.14.

3. Geertz, op cit.

24 thoughts on “Population and development: more on Malthus

  1. The ones who know how to cultivate political alliances will do better than the ones who know how to cultivate potatoes

    But the only enduring political alliances will be of potato cultivators and other food producers. Who wants a bunch of freeloaders around anyway?

    People who can only eat potatoes, but never grow them will be shunned by the PGP (Potato Growers Party), whose members might get pretty feisty if folks from the potato eaters group come skulking around looking for their next meal.

    • Agreed, but only if the potato growers get together to form a party (ie. they cultivate political alliances), thereby allowing their feistiness to prevail over the Potato Eaters Party. Which is another way of saying we need a politics of agrarian populism – to which most things ultimately return on this blog…

    • False choice fallacy here – just because someone doesn’t grow potatoes doesn’t necessarily make them a freeloader. Even in a vastly decomplexified society, there will be non food producers who are highly valued – history is loaded with examples. Unless we’re truly back to gatherer-hunter societies, which I consider unlikely.

      This means there will likely be plenty of scope for enduring political alliances between food producers and non-food producers of various sorts.

      Further the notion that there will be some monolithic alliance of food producers finds little support in the historical record. Far more often there is some degree or another of enmity between producers of different kinds of foods, e.g. ranchers vs farmers, and then complex webs of alliances.

      • Ah well, I agree with that too. Though I’d want to make the case for most people being food producers (not necessarily full-time) and for food producers building political alliances both for their own and for wider interests. I agree that food producers aren’t the only people of value – though to build up from where we’re at, I think their value needs an enormous boost in recognition. Which is why I kind of agree with Joe, albeit lightheartedly.

  2. Is the question then whether we should vote for Malthus or Boserup? I suppose my personal affiliations could be guessed from previous comments. And I’m still possessed of these convictions. Malthus can remain in the grave and Esther’s thoughts can be laid out as a bench from which to embark on refinements and future adventures.

    Will there ever come some point where Malthus’ calculations and predictions should darken our threshold as a grave forecast of doom? Only in some fairly distant far off future time where populations have grown well beyond 10 billion and bullies, cheats, and miscreants of various other stripes have taken to spoiling habitat for ugly and sinister intent. I’m suggesting here that the end of cheap oil needn’t be the bellwether event to push us to ruin. Your Wessex work appears to support this conclusion. I am coming round to the notion that polity is very significant in a more densely populated world – and perhaps more important than plant husbandry (which is a difficult admition for me).

    Why would a society produce more offspring than it can comfortably feed and then devote itself to disagreeable extra labour in order to make good the shortfall? Why indeed? But I’m not convinced this is how it comes together. Doesn’t it make more sense that in the light of a new technology or a windfall of favorable weather or successful hunting that fertility increases and more offspring result? After the introduction of the potato to Ireland the population ballooned, not in anticipation of lumpers. [and for an example of a short-term Malthusian crisis I’d offer you can do worse than to hold up the potato famine]. I guess I’m suggesting here that if a long dead Brit might be held up for posthumous recognition, then I’d vote for Jevons over Malthus.

    As I’ve self-identified with the Boserupians (a phrase I’d never anticipated making) I should attempt answers for your two questions. 1) Who are the winners and who are the losers of any given ‘development’? I don’t accept the premise that a development will by definition result in winners and losers. But I will admit that many changes to a current system will have tradeoffs that result in this dichotomy. So I’ll take it as a responsibility to offer an example of a development that skirts the requirement for begetting such an outcome. Let’s see, a new variety of a plant perhaps? One could suggest that some current variety of plant would be displaced by the newer version and as such become a loser. Sure. But is this what we want to be spitting about? Within the various plants of the two varieties we’re discussing there will be some sort of difference. As there is no ‘free lunch’ there will necessarily be some sort of reallocation of resources. But context is very important here. If the newer variety trades some attribute in the ancestor which is no longer necessary given it will be husbanded by us, then the resource required to make said attribute can be redirected to something we would prefer. No additional habitat take is needed under this scenario, so I’m failing to find a loser in this instance. I could offer that improvements in the photosynthetic process could be found that allow more efficient use of incident radiation. And this would indeed be a very cool improvement – but like the build out of more photovoltaic infrastructure it would ‘take’ some of the incident radiation that currently is either transmitted, reflected, or otherwise avoided and is ultimately available to some other use (implying some sort of ‘loss’ in someone’s habitat). You did mention participatory breeding (many thanks for that BTW) so you are coming around on this issue already.

    The second question: Who’s doing the hard work in the society so ‘developed’? Have to admit this one gets by me. Those who can I guess?

    Is the contrast between ‘neo-Maltusians’ and ‘anti-Malthusians’ overdrawn? I suppose I agree with you on this. Definitions and all that. But later in this paragraph you conclude that Boserup’s tale of development through labor intensification is also pretty dark… and I’m not on board with that assessment. Perhaps your winners and losers dichotomy above anticipates that a more intense worker is a loser relative to his predecessor who got by with less effort?

    Changing gears, on the bullet points for a future Londinium:
    The first point about declining crop yields as a result of climate change has been suggested by peer reviewed efforts but is still only a suggestion (and one often assuming far off time series and depending upon other models whose own veracity can be questioned). Common garden yield experiments using crop genetics that exist today suggest that merely moving varieties already here to affected habitats (north for example) will serve in the near term. This is not possible for all plant species (the soybean as one example does not move north or south well… but this is only true for an individual variety – different varieties exist for various latitudes and means to modify adaptation to other latitudes is well understood). I did limit this example to the ‘near term’ – for which I’d define as another couple dozen years. But within that time frame more can be done to keep kicking the can down the road. So I’m not persuaded that climate change holds up Malthus more than Boserup or human ingenuity.

    Increasing energy prices… no debate from me on that one. They should increase. Indeed, food prices should increase as well. This puts poverty in the driver seat in terms of food insecurity (where it belongs). But the poor need only be losers if we allow it. Miscreants, bullies, and cheats… like lions and tigers and bears.

    I’m a bit unclear how global economic depression is an agricultural issue. But if it is I imagine we’d agree on how a potential Londinium would have to respond.
    Withdrawal of commodities from global markets… seems very plausible, and in fact examples already exist. Several years ago Russia clamped down on their domestic wheat crop in the face of extreme shortage so that what they did have would not be exported. So I’m with you here as well.

    Curmugeonousness aside, I like this recent positing quite a bit. I hope all this argumentation doesn’t cast to dark a shadow over that.

    • In order for Malthus to be wrong, either population numbers or food supply must be under complete human control forever. If not, they must come into equilibrium by the action of one or more of the Four Horsemen on population (all of whom come riding around mostly when there is a lack of food).

      Based on the numerous examples of populations “coming into equilibrium” with food supply throughout human history, I say the burden in on non-Malthusians to show why those errors in control were aberrations or somehow due to a conscious decision to undertake starving to death by one group or another.

      Malthusian or not, the big conundrum is to show how we can segue from high-energy methods of food production to low-energy methods of food production and still maintain complete control of food supply and population. I like to think that we might somehow find the answer to this question here at SFF.

      But perhaps a non-Malthusian would deny that there are ever limits to the growth of population or food supply, that human ingenuity will always prevail and that we will always be able to maintain whatever energy supply we wish to have. Maybe, but there is plenty of evidence casting doubt on whether such an assumption is a prudent foundation for planning our future.

      • ” the big conundrum is to show how we can segue from high-energy methods of food production to low-energy methods of food production and still maintain complete control of food supply and population”
        I suggest you check out the books of the Agrarian Change and Peasant Studies Series. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg’s Peasants and the Act of Farming shifted my view of farming economics. He suggests that peasants tend to maximise return on labour, while industrialists maximise return on labour plus capital, or increasingly mostly capital. Peasants can actually be more productive without oversight! Ploeg’s summary of Alexander Chayanov – a rival of Lenin, who studied peasant agriculture intensively – is fascinating.

        • Thanks for that, Alice. van der Ploeg and Chayanov (and Lenin…) have featured on here previously and will be making another brief appearance soon – but perhaps it’s time for a lengthier rumination on Chayanov in the context of Boserup and Malthus. I think you’re right about peasant productivity – but for me Joe’s question still stands, not as a question of economic productivity but as a question of political possibility.

          • Should Marx take a seat for this rumination, or shall Chayanov represent for him? Will cooperatives gain a mention? And is there any reason to place each writer’s efforts into the historical context of their time? (I’m thinking it unfair to allow Boserup a peak at the results of 40ish years of a post-Chayanovian Russia without taking her vantage point into consideration).

  3. Being a pessimist I naturally side with the Malthusians. It seems to me that much of this is comes down to energy in/energy out. Mankind has been very clever at increasing both the energy coming out of agriculture (plant breeding and crop rotation) and the energy going in (from draught animals to fossil fuels) – of course these two interact – for instance the application of fossil fuel energy in the green revolution required the breeding of short stemmed varieties of wheat. It seems certain to me that both these processes have limits and, while I don’t know that much about the possibilities inherent in plant breeding, I’m pretty certain that we’re reaching the limits of the energy, be that fossil fuels or biotic resources, available to put into the human food system.

    Increasing the amount of human labour involved in agriculture would add energy to the system but I doubt this will be attempted at any scale until we’re forced to it by a reduction in available fossil fuel energy. At that point it might not add that much being instead a substitute for a reduction elsewhere.

    If we are forced (or even choose) to put more human labour back into our food system I’d like to think it would be along the lines of Peasants Republic Chris has been outlining. I fear it won’t be. In a situation of food insecurity holding onto the land with be the simplest route for the already wealthy to hold onto their position. So I think draconian enforcement of property rights is more likely that land reform and, right now in the UK, there’s nothing in our politics that suggests otherwise to me.

  4. Thanks for those comments. Some interesting thoughts, but sadly I’m short on time to reply just now. In relation to your comments Clem, I wouldn’t quarrel with most of what you say in terms of its empirical content but the issue for me is the tendency to equate concepts like growth, labour input, evolution, development and modernity which are quite normative. But, precisely as you say, increased labour intensity and decreased control over one’s labour don’t strike me as an obvious story of ‘development’ – which is why I think Boserup’s tale is ‘dark’. I wouldn’t necessarily make the contrary assumption that the preceding agrarian forms were ‘lighter’ – but I’d question our tendency to see contemporary society as a pinnacle to which previous societies have laboriously ascended. The relevance of economic depression is that it’s possible to buy yourself out of a Malthusian crisis – but only if you have the money, and possibly at the cost of deflecting it somewhere else.

    Thanks also Joe & Bruce. Agreed, I think. There are lots of ways of keeping Malthus at bay, of which labour input is a big one, but few of vanquishing him – which I guess is why we’re still talking about him…

    An additional post-lunch thought: maybe one way to think about this is that there’s a familiar ‘dark’ Malthusian tale of population overshoot, and a ‘bright’ Boserupian or techno-fixer tale of technical overcoming of resource constraint. But maybe those stories need to be mirrored by a ‘dark’ Boserupian tale of labour coercion and a ‘bright’ Malthusian tale of lives lived abundantly and well by keeping them well-adjusted to the extant agro-ecology – maybe what Ruben would call ‘a small and delicious life’.

    • “But maybe those stories need to be mirrored by a ‘dark’ Boserupian tale of labour coercion and a ‘bright’ Malthusian tale of lives lived abundantly and well by keeping them well-adjusted to the extant agro-ecology”

      Nice chiasm, Chris. (Zizek would be proud of you.)

      The first two instances are the ones that the self-referential First World brain-workers need to be kept locked into (we good, them labourers bad), while the second pair would…mean anarchy!

  5. Glad you’ve been haunted by the dark fairy tale Chris! Again, much to agree with in both blog and comments, and I’m all for self-critical juggling, but some points I’d also like to make, particularly on what gets described as ‘Malthusian’ (together with ‘neo-‘, ‘anti-‘, and other modifiers).

    I thought it might be useful to let the good reverend himself have a say. He summarises his idea as follows: “the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will shew the immensity of the first power in comparison of the second. By that law of our nature which makes food necessary to the life of man, the effects of these two unequal powers must be kept equal. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence. This difficulty must fall somewhere and must necessarily be severely felt by a large portion of mankind.”

    He then divides possible ‘checks’ into two categories, ‘preventive’ (which is basically personal and/or social control of reproduction, in his mind something that the more prosperous classes are able to judge, almost solely in the context of whether to marry early or not) and ‘positive’ (what we might call ‘natural’ or ‘external’ forces such as disease or resource constraint). This is our old friend the nature-culture dualism, but that’s not what I want to comment on here.

    I think it’s important that Malthus’ idea about the mathematical form of population growth (‘geometric’ – exponential) is an assertion, nowhere proved, which by his own argument never actually happens because it is always ‘checked’. It is his choice to propose that resource constraint is the most fundamental of all other possible ‘checks’, and that choice is informed by the fact that he considers the better off (i.e. less constrained by limited resources) to be the only class of people able to assert ‘preventive’ judgement or restraint. The poor, “guided either by a stronger passion, or a weaker judgement, break through these restraints”. The Malthusian nightmare is as much about succumbing to the animal within, guided only by passion and reproducing like rabbits, as it is about the logical limits of resources.

    Some of the writing above, both blog and comments, uses ‘Malthusian’ as a label for a sensible approach to resource constraint. I think it needs to be more restrained in its usage. On the one hand, ‘anti-Malthusian’ is a nice way of labelling those who deny the logic of Malthus’ idea that population expansion does not inevitably overtake our ability to provide for it, but given the number of possible checks to population expansion, we might actually agree with this while still acknowledging the importance of resource constraints. Contrary to Joe in an earlier comment, I don’t think history has ever demonstrated a case of pure exponential global population growth – the 20th century probably came closest, when improved sanitation in the developed world coincided with more traditional ideas about family planning (the force of which continues to decline).

    I don’t think the label ‘Malthusian’ can ever escape its political implications. If one decides to prioritize resource constraint as prime mover, then one is saying something about a fundamental human capacity for blind unreason, which must apply to any segment of the population undergoing the crisis that Malthus’ actually envisions. I’m happy to acknowledge the importance of resource constraints, but Malthus’ vision, and any invocation of it, should remain on the dark side.

    Finally, I think Chris made it quite clear that Boserup basically presents the egg to Malthus’ chicken, with no real answer to which came first, and I’m happy to dismiss her effort to find some kind of universal explanatory historical law, which is a fool’s game if ever there was one (Malthus’ was just as foolish of course). But I thought it would be nice to air Malthus’ own refutation of her position:

    “It will be said, perhaps, that the increased number of purchasers in every article would give a spur to productive industry and that the whole produce of the island would be increased. This might in some degree be the case. But the spur that these fancied riches would give to population would more than counterbalance it, and the increased produce would be to be divided among a more than proportionably increased number of people.”

    I’m happy to leave them both arguing pointlessly in some dark corner.

    • Andrew –
      Thanks for the Malthus quotes. The last one – as you point out a possible refutation of Boserup in a sense – also sounds very much like an anticipation of Jevon’s paradox. Jevon’s was born the year after Malthus passed, and had every opportunity to ponder this thought. It makes me wonder (if he were indeed aware of it) if he ever acknowledged the same.

      And I would agree we’ve beaten the subject fairly hard by now, and perhaps to the expense of other worthy topics (that foul winners/losers dichotomy of opportunity cost again). But I’ve a curiosity about perspective I want to examine. Even if we allow that our ancestors might be able to engage in a debate once they pass from our presence – would such an encounter be “pointless”? [perhaps a pointless curiosity as I’m not of a mind to test it out right now]

      • Thanks Clem. I didn’t mean to give the impression that their debate would be pointless simply because their views are now rather old. I think it’s quite interesting how the words of long-dead authors can take on new meaning when put alongside other perspectives – as with Malthus’ ability to ‘refute’ an argument made long after he died!

        My point there was that arguing about fundamental engines of history – like Malthus’ resource constraint or Boserup’s population increase – is ‘pointless’ in my opinion. History is always too complex for that, and people who attempt it often have a rather single-minded political axe to grind.

        • Which segues nicely into my forthcoming cycle – ‘The history of the world in four-and-a-half blog posts’. I hope you’ll read it and keep an eagle eye out for my own political axes…

  6. First up, thank you for more fascinating and thought-provoking writing (and commenting).
    I would like to side with Andrew and ask if we can move on from Malthus on population. I can understand why his ‘philosophical biology’ was and is very relevant to evolutionary scientists, dealing as it does with generalizations about ‘resources’ and ‘populations’ taken as a lumpen whole. But when we get to the fine detail of human reactions to resource constraint his ideas seem far less… useful. Not invalid, merely… not the best tool in the box. Surely we can have far more interesting and nuanced conversations about resource constraint than Malthus could have dreamt of. We have the concepts, language and 200 years of analysis at our disposal.
    To take a famous example, Amyarta Sen neatly demonstrated that famine is more about appalling resource distribution due to social inequality than to resource crisis itself. And William Catton had far more interesting things to say about the psychology of population growth than, as you mention, the (now) distasteful classism of Malthus.
    I think you’re right in saying that Boserup vs Malthus is a false dichotomy, and the reason is that different responses to scarcity happen in so many terrible and wonderful ways across and space and time. And societies don’t make decisions about creating offspring, people do. (I should be more accurate: when States make decisions about creating or not creating offspring, it never seems to turn out well). In some situations it makes economic sense for a family to have more children even if they are stuggling to get by. In some situations economic sense be damned, people have other motivations. In others even infanticide becomes culturally encoded. So perhaps your four responses to a Malthusian crisis could be clearer about the difference between State reactions, cultural changes and individual responses. I imagine they rarely match exactly.
    Another example: where I live (upland northern England) subsistence population pressure on the land probably peaked in the 1500s, and the general response of people and communities seems to have included all four of the options you describe, focussed mainly on engaging with international industrial capitalism and the purloining of other human and non-human resource bases. Embarking on a future for this community (an agrarian populist one, of course) which is a fair bit closer towards subsistence than at present is clearly going to be a complex, delicate and tortuous process (as with Wessex). I’m just not sure how Malthus’ views on species population dynamics help with that. Am I missing something?
    I look forward to you dissecting his economic views. They sound far more useful!

  7. Thanks for those comments, and for your detailed exposition Andrew which I found helpful and largely persuasive. I guess I’d say – fine, if we define ‘Malthusian’ as the doctrine that population growth tends to the exponential and will always outrun food productivity growth due to class differences in ‘preventive judgment’ then I’m not signing up to the programme. But if the definition of Malthusian is thus restricted, I’d want to demand an end to the all too common practice of decrying any reference to possible natural resource constraints facing humanity as ‘Malthusian’ and ipso facto wrong. Hywel’s reference to Sen’s work is instructive inasmuch as it’s always tempting to reach for a simple population/resource equation and I think social scientists like him have done excellent work in showing that it’s never that simple. But I think they can get a bit carried away sometimes – as in Christopher Taylor’s critique of Jared Diamond that I mentioned in the last post where it seems to me unnecessary to decide between population pressure or culture history as causes of the Rwandan genocide. In an essay called ‘Against the neo-Malthusian orthodoxy’ historian Guy Bois defines Malthusianism as ‘any model in which the principal determinants are in the last resort of a demographic order’. My feeling in brief is that it’s good to avoid models in which the principal determinants are in the first resort demographic, but the last resort? Well, that would imply that human population dynamics have no explanatory purchase whatsoever on our actions – and I’m not sure I can accept that any more than I’d accept Malthusianism in the strict sense defined by Andrew. But that said, I’d pretty much agree with what Andrew and Hywel have written.

    • Thanks for this Chris, I totally agree that situations of resource constraint should not habitually be labelled ‘Malthusian’, though I accept that this often fights against the tide.

      I’m not sure I accept that demographic considerations have to be the principal determinant of a model in order to have any explanatory purchase. I take the point about see-sawing between cultural OR demographic explanations, but I’d prefer to think that the better explanations consider both, together with the connections between them.

      Perhaps a political axe is just as obvious in my desire to avoid singular historical prime movers. In the case of population, if its increase is seen as the primary determinant, even in the last resort, and especially in a model that explains recent history, then population is made a valid ‘problem’, and it’s reduction becomes the goal of any ‘solution’, with more or less objectionable results (Malthus fits here, his solution being to leave the poor to their fate, whether that be dying off or strengthening their own moral fibre).

      Your strategies against dystopia illustrate this I think. The first is ‘anti-Malthusian’ or ‘Boserupian’ in that resource constraint, not population, is the problem to be solved. But the next two are classically Malthusian, and both solve the population ‘problem’ by identifying a surplus to be disposed of, either by competition or expulsion (self-willed or otherwise).

      I believe my politics are pretty close to yours in many respects, and I like option 4 because it doesn’t identify a single problem but offers pragmatic problem-solving based on context while advocating collectivist principles – basically refusing to exclude anyone for whatever reason.

      I guess this is an argument against the ‘last resort’ – I suppose I’m suggesting that the compulsion to identify one, whether in historical analysis or present-day problem-solving, should be resisted at all costs.

      • Andrew, just to clarify – I’m not arguing that demographic factors have to be the principal determinant in a convincing model. I’m simply arguing that demographic factors can conceivably have independent determining effects, against the tendency of thinkers like Bois to deny even that possibility ‘in the last resort’ (or ‘last instance’ might be a better way of putting it). The reference to ‘last resort’ is in terms of conceptual models not practical policy-making. I agree that multi-factorial models are the way to go – and that demographic factors are subject to cultural influence. But I wouldn’t go as far as Bois in trying to excise any possible ‘last instance’ meta-cultural demographic determination from an explanatory model.

        On another issue, I’m just reminded of Ford Denison’s book ‘Darwinian Agriculture’ in which he points out that food productivity in England has failed to reach the level of ‘arithmetic’ growth Malthus predicted, as well as population failing to reach his levels of predicted ‘geometric’ growth. But we only ever talk about the inaccuracy of his population predictions…

        • Yeah, Hitler was a fair artist – capable of a city landscape piece now and then. But we only ever talk about his ugly side. History can be so cruel.

          [trying out for Sean Spicer’s job].

        • Hmmm, well I was going to raise the issue of Godwin’s law…but I don’t quite get the connection between a slower-than-Malthus-predicted food productivity increase and Hitler’s artistic creativity…

          • Well I’m a post behind now (been on a internet-free holiday – only true ‘break’ there is!), but wanted to leave this final acknowledgment.

            Thanks for clarification Chris, and the Denison reference – really interesting point about Malthus’ agricultural model, which I hadn’t considered.

            And Clem, thanks for introducing me to Jevons’ paradox and Gibson’s law!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *