Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Malthusian Holocaust is Real and it is Happening Now

Thomas Malthus pointed out that human populations have the potential to double every 20 years or so.  However, the human ability to increase the production of food and water is not so automatic, and is usually slow and erratic.  Given the great power of exponential growth to increase without limit, it is only under historically rare conditions that it is appropriate for everyone to have six kids starting at age 14.  Especially for societies without an open frontier, most of the time people should attempt to not have more children than they can reasonably support.  This will ensure that, however small or large the population is, it will be appropriate to current circumstances. 

Of course, it was not just Malthus that said this.  Benjamin Franklin, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes…  basically every serious economist before about 1970.  However, starting around 1970 (ish) the rich have waged perhaps the greatest propaganda war in human history, claiming that more people is always better, and the key to prosperity is that people breed without restraint as if they were rats so that we won’t ‘run out’ of workers.  This is a lie: the rich know that too-rapid population growth creates poverty, but for the rich as a class nothing is more profitable than an unlimited supply of cheap labor.

Because what Malthus said is so obviously true, the econowhores who are trying to ‘prove’ that Malthus was wrong have to misquote him.  A typical example is this: Malthus predicted that the entire world would run out of food and that there would be widespread famine, a global apocalypse hasn’t happened, therefore Malthus was wrong.

The lie here is that Malthus was explicit in NOT predicting a global apocalypse.  According to Malthus, famine is nature’s last-resort method of population control, but it rarely occurs (and when it does, is usually more due to political factors, such as Stalin’s extermination of the Kulaks).  No, what limits population growth is not zero food, but too little food. 

It is impossible for a society to run out of food.  As populations approach the limits, by hook or by crook nature causes the population to be limited so that everyone is at least at subsistence.  In some ways this is a good thing: we can’t go into a demographic debt, we are always at a point where in principle some progress beyond subsistence is possible.  The problem is that when nature limits population growth, then most people are living the most miserable possible lives that are compatible with human existence, and it’s not a pretty picture.  Society-wide, this results in an economy that is capital starved and cannot make significant new investments, it also fractures social stability and generally creates incredible levels of corruption and nepotism.  So for most people that are not billionaires this is a very bad thing.

So how does nature limit population growth?  Many ways, but these are the main ones.

1. Disease.  The human body has a marvelous ability to fight off infection, but this system takes a lot of energy.  When the human body is malnourished, it has to set priorities.  Keeping warm and (when necessary) using muscles and feeding the brain are non-negotiable.  So one of the ways that the body adapts is by shutting down the immune system.  The possibility of dying from infection two months from now is trumped by the need to stay alive today.  Even with modern antibiotics, people who are chronically malnourished are far more likely to die of disease than people with plenty of food.

Antibiotics and vaccinations and clean water get most of the credit for the long lifespans in first-world societies, but adequate food and central heating (which reduces biological energy demands) are just as important.  If you take a bunch of young healthy people, and you have them do heavy physical exercise in the cold with an inadequate diet, even with antibiotics they will start to get sick. 

2. Violence.  This is, historically, not that high on the list of nature’s killers.  People tend to fight back, and killing people who don’t want to be killed is difficult and dangerous work.  Still, it is a factor.  When people are hungry they tend to not like it, and the instinct is often to band together in groups, and steal resources from others or wipe them out to avoid the competition.  Fuzzy thinkers often blame war on aggressive or stupid politicians, but look at what is going on today in Syria.  The Syrian population hit the limit, food ran short, there were demonstrations and the government cracked down etc.etc.  I suspect that if the average Syrian had had plenty of food that none of this would have occurred. 

3. Infanticide.  When people have too many children, often they have to make a choice: you can kill one child and have enough to let the other three survive, or let all four die.  It should be noted that (almost) nobody will kill their children if they have any options: infanticide is an act of desperation. 

It might seem that this would be a useful (although disgusting) means of population control, but I argue that it is not so.  Remember: the problem is not avoiding starvation, but avoiding subsistence.  Anything that holds the population at the level of subsistence: starvation, infection, infanticide, etc., holds the population at the maximum level of misery.

I would argue that, in the long run, outlawing infanticide would be a good thing.  Consider: if a farmer wants to maximize his cattle herd, he generally breeds as many cattle as he can, and then culls un-needed ones as circumstances warrant.  Suppose that a farmer was not allowed to cull un-needed cattle?  Then the farmer would be more careful to not breed more cattle than he was certain that he would need.  In this case the size of his herd would generally be less than the maximum.

So it is with humans.  If people were forbidden to cull economically surplus children, if infanticide was (quite correctly) assumed to be murder and this law enforced, then people would be more careful not to have more children than they can support.

4. Inability to bring a pregnancy to term.  Now this is a biggie, but it is not widely appreciated.  When women are chronically malnourished, they have trouble either getting pregnant (because their menstrual cycle shuts off), or if they do get pregnant, in bringing it to term.  The trick is that this means of population limitation is almost invisible: nobody is dying, nobody is killing each other, nobody is starving.  But because it is a method that only operates when people are right at the level of subsistence, it also ensures that people are crushed into misery.

Reports are that in modern India there are half a billion people suffering from chronic malnutrition.  (The oligarchs who encouraged this, and who chortle in the press about how wonderful it is that they can supply labor cheaper than any other major society, have created more suffering than Hitler, Stalin, Mao-Tse Tung and Pol Pot combined, by a wide margin.  But I digress).  There are reports of significant disease-related mortality in India (and there are other reports that India is suppressing these findings: it would conflict with their mantra of easy profits via cheap labor being wonderful).  However, it is also certain that these women are not going to be able to have large numbers of children.  In other words, if India’s rate of population growth is slowing, it is likely due in large part to the population being so impoverished.

The Malthusian apocalypse is happening in India, and many other places, today!  It’s real!  It’s been real in the centuries since Malthus, and the millennia before.  It’s not flashy, though, it wouldn’t make a good science fiction movie.  It is slow grinding poverty, year after year, decade after decade.

Every time a society has a high fertility rate and the population does NOT double every 25 years or so, that is the Malthusian holocaust in action.  Check your history books: this has happened a lot!  And no, people don't have lots of children because they have a high mortality rate, they have a high mortality rate because they have a lot of children.  I mean, rabbits don't need modern medicine to experience exponential population growth if they have enough food, and neither do humans.  

Some time ago the Indian government switched from (giving lip service to) limiting population growth, to instead dealing with rapid population growth by producing more.  India currently has a population of about 1.2 billion, and because all of these 1.2 billion people have (barely) enough to eat, the 'productionists' are claiming victory.  But not so fast.  First of all, yes, everyone alive in India has enough food to stay alive, but there has been zero progress for the average Indian.  The old Soviet Union did better!  How is this a success?  And consider also what a totally meaningless accomplishment this is.  If the productionists had only been able to produce enough food for 1.1 billion Indians, there would today be 1.1 billion Indians.  If they had been able to produce enough food for 1.3 billion Indians, there would today be 1.3 billion Indians.  It is impossible for these 'productionists' to fail - the very terms of their so-called success are absurd!  The entire premise is rubbish!

It is an iron law of development that no society ever got rich unless first the fertility rate fell, and then there was a century or two of halfway decent economic growth.  Away from the get-rich-quick schemes of Wall Street, real-world economic progress is always a slow and steady building up of physical per-capita wealth, and this can’t happen unless population growth is moderate.  However, a stable or slowly growing population is only good if it is done via people choosing to have moderate numbers of children before they get hungry.  If population is limited due to limited food, that doesn’t count.

For decades now the ‘experts’ have been telling us not to worry about the population explosion, because global populations will stabilize soon anyhow.  For decades now the ‘experts’ have been consistently wrong – likely because they knew perfectly well that third-world populations were going to continue exploding, but if people realized that, they might have acted to stop it, which would have cut profits for the rich, which is unthinkable. 

However, it may finally be the case that in much of the third world populations really are stabilizing.  But it is important to remember: it matters how this is happening.  Is it because women are being empowered, and people aren’t treating their children as a disposable source of cheap labor, and children are being considered as precious items on each of whom significant resources must be expended?  Or is it because people are so miserably poor that they are dying, or not being born, to keep the balance?  You can’t just look at the population numbers in isolation.  It matters how it has come about.

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