Global warming and Malthusianism

Editor’s note: Brad Arnold is a global warming and biological weapons internet activist. This essay by Brad captures succinctly the potentially tragic consequences, intended or not, of the Bush administration’s historic determination to maintain a business-as-usual stance rather than endorsing mandatory caps on greenhouse gases.

Let’s hope signs of positive change at the recent climate change conference in Bali prove more than fleeting.

As a side note, it’s worth acknowledging the varying ways we might interpret the Malthus quote in Brad’s essay. (For some perspective, try William Catton’s discussion here, and Gregory Bungo’s observation that in the quote below Malthus was using satire to make a point.) But while some who dismiss the population issue like to use Malthus as a straw man in making their arguments, a careful reading of Brad’s essay demonstrates that no matter your take on Malthus, the importance of population in the global ecological crisis remains.

My thanks to Brad for this incisive piece. — JF

By Brad Arnold:

Populations tend to increase at a geometrical rate, whereas the means of subsistence increases at just an arithmetical rate. Without the checks of disease, famine, and war, human populations will double their size every 25 years. (An idea advanced by Thomas Robert Malthus)

The world’s population reached 1 billion for the first time in 1830. It took 120 years to double to 2 billion, and just 30 years to reach 3 billion. The world’s population is now over 6 billion people.

Our increased means of subsistence is due to technology and a climate favorable for agriculture. Modern medicine, industrialized farming, and use of fossil fuel have reduced disease and famine. Furthermore, we’ve enjoyed an exceptionally mild climate period called the Holocene.

Most of the 80 million extra each year are born in developing countries least able to support the added population. The demographic divide between the rich developed countries and the poor developing countries is reflected in vast disparities of living standards, health, and economic prospects.

The Earth is warming up due to mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions and the degradation of ecosystems. With business as usual, it is predicted that emissions will increase over 50% while ecosystems ability to remove it from the air will decrease 30% by 2030.

In other words, it is predictable that our means of subsistence will decline due to global warming. This threatens not just those alive today, but future generations too. Rich countries will be able to adapt, but poor countries won’t be able to support their population.

Malthus, 1826:

It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase of population must be limited by it . . . All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons. . . . the marriages and births depend principally upon the deaths, and that there is no encouragement to early unions so powerful as a great mortality. To act consistently therefore, we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavoring to impede, the operation of nature in producing…mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction which we compel nature to use.

Most leaders today understand that as we continue business as usual emissions, we are killing billions of people by reducing their means of subsistence. Yet, the US (responsible for about 20% of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions) chooses to fight against mandatory emission cuts.

It is as if the Bush administration is practicing the kinds of extreme and morally unacceptable practices Malthus described in his realization that population growth is, in one way or another, inevitably checked (i.e., facilitating nature’s unfeeling checks on population, to which the poor would be most susceptible). On the other hand , since you shouldn’t attribute to maliciousness what you can attribute to stupidity, it could be the Bush administration doesn’t realize business as usual will kill billions, mostly in poor countries.

The US is implicitly waging a war on poor countries by obstructing mandatory emission cuts.
Image source: robinhamman’s photostream,, Creative Commons license

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7 responses to “Global warming and Malthusianism

  1. The leaders in my generation apparently wish to live without having to accept limits to growth of seemingly endless economic globalization, increasing per capita consumption of scarce resources and skyrocketing human population numbers worldwide; their desires are evidently insatiable; they choose to believe anything that meet the ‘standards’ for political convenience and economic expediency; and they act accordingly. But, despite all their widely shared and consensually validated specious ideas and soon to be unsustainable production, consumption and propagation activities, Earth exists in space-time, is relatively small and bounded, and has limited resources upon which the survival of life as we know it depends. Whatsoever is is, is it not?

    What worries me is this: the elder guarantors of a good enough future for the children appear to be leading our kids down a “primrose path” along which the children could unexpectedly be confronted with sudden, potentially colossal threats to human and environmental health that are directly derived from human-driven, converging global challenges such as pernicious impacts of global warming and climate change, pollution of the air, water and land from microscopic particulates and solid waste, and the reckless dissipation of scarce natural resources. All the while, the leading elders remain in denial of the fulminating ecological degradation by willfully declining to acknowledge, much less begin to address, humanity’s emerging, human-induced predicament. One day, perhaps sooner rather than later, our children could have extraordinary difficulties responding ably to that with which they could soon come face to face; that is to say, because their elders have so adamantly refused to recognize God’s great gift of good science, our kids will not even know what “hit” them, much less why it is happening.

  2. I agree with Brad’s conclusion: “The US is implicitly waging a war on poor countries by obstructing mandatory emission cuts.” That’s certainly the way it looks in the short term. The rich get richer and the poor get screwed.

    However I’m not sure about this: “Rich countries will be able to adapt, but poor countries won’t be able to support their population.” The part I’m not sure about is whether the rich countries will actually be able to adapt very well or for very long. Being rich means you are dependent on many things and will likely suffer quite a bit as those things become more difficult to acquire. I think Americans are in for a big shock. The US is rich but fragile, Japan even more so. Our growing population only makes it worse. Some of the poorer countries — like Peru, Ecuador, and Uraguay — may find it easier to go through a future bottleneck than many rich nations.

    A related note:

    On his email list Bill Ryerson points to Gwynne Dyer’s column which contrasts China’s and India’s approach to population policy. Dyer notes that China’s one child per family (OCPF) policy that country’s population leveling off at 1.4 rather 2.0 billion — and that the Chinese government seems to want to reduce the population below that peak.

    Most ecologists would say that China is well beyond its long-term “carrying capacity” even with its present population. Maybe the Government is actually listening to them. Maybe it also knows that climate change will not be kind to China. There are things worse than a one-child policy.

    Famine, social disintegration and civil war, for example.

    The US resists any meaningful limits on GHG emissions because of fear of what it would do to the economy. Limiting or taxing emissions is a big government intervention not too unlike China’s OCPF policy. It can only be understood and justified by projecting the consequences of doing nothing into the future, which most people find difficult. If Americans had that skill the savings rate would be vastly different. George Mobus has a couple of good posts on the subject: Are we really educating people? and Is the Modern Version of Education Killing Us?.

  3. Ashit Shanker Saxena

    The US’s debt is reported to be $20,000 per capita!! To think of the US as ‘rich’ is rich, indeed.

    Unwisely interpreting the pursuit of happiness as the pursuit of mere currency in the bank has really bankrupted the US and other countries in the last fifty years or so in more fundamental ways than any monetary system can ever evaluate.

    ‘Happiness’ is a far broader term and must necessarily include the ‘happiness’ of others. Any system that predicates ‘progress’ on the exploitation of the ‘other’ – whether ‘other’ peoples, nations or the environment – will be able to run for a while till its own growing imbalances will start to do itself in.

    I agree with Trinifar in that ‘rich’ people or nations might find the going very, very tough once the systems that they have become dependent upon and cling to begin to break down. All that one has to do is to look back at, say, the French Revolution and the decay of every other man-made system that became ossified and would not/could not change to becoming enlivening.

    In very significant ways which the current ‘civilisation’ does not/cannot acknowledge, one’s own well-being is dependent on the well-being of others, on the well-being of the environment and so on. But, that is a lesson that humankind learns again and again only under immense pain and hardship.

    So, let the ‘good’/’goods’ times roll!! 🙂

  4. Ashit,

    In very significant ways which the current ‘civilisation’ does not/cannot acknowledge, one’s own well-being is dependent on the well-being of others, on the well-being of the environment and so on.

    One sense of the words civilization and culture emphaisizes how learning is passed down from one generation to the next and how subsequence generations expand, enhance, and extend the knowledge they receive this way. It’s striking that after millennia of “civilization” we have not yet managed to establish this fundamental truth of the interdependence between the welfare of self, other, and the environment. When Gandhhi expressed the idea that Western civilization would be a good idea, I believe he was, at least in part, pointing to this.

  5. I am not so sure that Brad’s analysis is right. I do not see how you can blame a leader of a state when it is the activities of the state itelf that is creating the problem. Yes, good leadership could alleviate the problems but the leader, in your case George Bush and in the case of my country Gordon Brown has to lead where others will follow or he won’t get elected.

    There is still not common desire for people in developing countries to take the painful route of organising their lives so that they pollute less and emit lower carbon.

    So let us be less keen to criticise Bush and Brown and more keen to criticise the peoples of the developed world. For them to be prepared to make sacrifices they have to have the problem in their faces; as it is the problem is in some far off countries to which they never travel and will not be in their own faces until soem indeterminate time in the future.

    Robert Kyriakides

  6. I agree, Robert. We need to make the political landscape safe for the right kind of leaders, and the only people who can do that are the members of the electorate.

    However, we can and should blame leaders who are not trying to lead in a sensible direction. Bush certainly falls into that categorty.

  7. Magne Karlsen

    Trinifar: “We need to make the political landscape safe for the right kind of leaders.”

    – —

    Very good. 🙂 — – Now, that’s what I call a most diplomatic answer. The political climate of this world is, at the moment, ice cold. The political landscape of our times in not very encouraging to people who, given the opportunity, just might prove themselves as “the right kind of leaders.” I believe most of these people are horrified by the thought of entering the billions-of-dollars-worth political show-biz culture, and wonder what’s all about and how come anyone even wants to run for political office.

    But Robert is right about one thing: I can easily understand that it is difficult to lead a relatively large population of people who are in a collective state of denial, as concerns the most important issues of our times: environmental conservation being the first case in point. We’re up against one hell of a problem here; one that can only find its solution in the balance point where the free will of each individual person and family, the social / societal commitment of local communities, and the governance of each and every county, state, country, nation state, and larger region. At least, this must surely be the case for a good while, of that I’m absolutely certain. Why? Because I can see how smaller or larger societies of people just do not respond to official political and scientific messages of dreadful environmental disasters in the making.

    And I think it’s true what Robert has to say about the sentiments of the people: “For them to be prepared to make sacrifices they have to have the problem in their faces;” which is something that will not happen “until some indeterminate time in the future.”

    As a matter of fact, Scandinavian farmers make a lot of extra money from climate change. As the climate of the northernmost regions of Europe is changing from “sub-arctic” to “continental,” the fruits of the soil, the farmers’ bounty, is rapidly increasing. At the same time, Central Europe is hit, every summer, by extreme weather events like devastating draught and equally devastating floods. Norwegian farmers do not think too often about that: “It’s their problem, and not ours.”

    Because attitudes like this are all around, I can’t see how western societies are going to do without a good and future-oriented kind of governance; a government that is willing to take the first step, and cut down heavily on energy use of all public buildings in the country.

    Ha ha.

    As it is, right now, they just talk the talk and walk the walk. And that’s all.