Foiling Malthus

January 20, 2010:

Were we successful stabilizing global population at about 9 billion people in a post-expansionary society, say by 2040, how would this play out?  What to do may be counterintuitive if we’re not to replicate the fate of long ago societies. For instance, population has now leveled off in Japan and many European countries, but their instinct is to fear for continuation of their societies, especially when buffeted by in-migration from less developed countries. They have a “graying problem,” and want to increase the birth rate. Their health care and retirement systems are financially strained. They were set up assuming that a big population at the bottom of an age pyramid could pay for a few oldsters at the top, but if population stabilizes with many people living to old age (success), the age demographic will be nearly flat. So what would this portend for even the definition of work, much less working age?

But today, much of the world, including rural India and China, are in a fix illustrated by the condition of pre-earthquake Haiti. For 20 years, migration from the countryside grew the population of Port-au-Prince by 3-4 times, until it constituted about a third of the Haitian total (exact population figures are impossible to know). Most Haitian city dwellers kept body and soul together by street entrepreneurship; working, yes, but eking out a living however they could. Port-au-Prince was one city’s story of the global rural-to-urban migration also mentioned in Chapter 1, and which the UN forecasts to be the major segment of global population growth in the next decade.

Most stories of the Haitian earthquake are from Port-au-Prince, the capital. Haitians in Port-au-Prince that had lost it all decided to run back to their village in the country. Although their numbers are impossible to estimate, anecdotal news accounts describe their human stories. (A New York Times account is at: How do we develop people in a place like Haiti to create a quality life for themselves? And how could they progress into a situation more like Europe and Japan today?

This Haiti story is similar to ancient China through dynasty after dynasty. Country people went to cities; more excitement, maybe a position of more status than grubbing dirt. But if they got in trouble for either natural or political reasons, they returned to the country. Rural farms with family connections was a safety valve for displaced people. The history of early New England manufacturing has a similar bent. After 2-3 years, mill girls were expected to take the money and run back to the country for the rest of their life. For centuries, rural refuges absorbed fluctuating employment in cities, one reason why laying off workers did not seem devastating. Their little boon put them ahead of where they would have been otherwise.

For years archaeologists have probed how and why ancient societies collapsed, as mentioned in Chapter 1 of Compression. A consensus is that global population grew very little because humans had limited control of their environment. When changing conditions decreased their resources, all they could was starve, die of disease, migrate, battle other humans for them, and have a lot of children. That is, whenever population growth ran ahead of food supply, something decreased the population. In 1798 Thomas Malthus simply restated the obvious as an economist might phrase it. (Plagues wiping out big swathes of the European population were not such distant events then.) Malthus has been much derided because he wrote just as growth from the industrial revolution made it seem that we had escaped this cycle forever.

Archaeologists can now piece together more complete stories of ancient societies. An article in Science (Jan. 8, 2010, pp. 140-141) describes how the Village Ecodynamics Project combines data from different studies into simulated scenarios of how people actually lived over time. A simulation of the Pueblo population in Colorado concluded that beginning around 900 C.E., they overhunted deer, domesticated turkeys, became overdependent on maize, and began to have competition from other tribes for their resources. Squeezed tighter and tighter for 350 years, they finally carved out defensible dwellings around springs around 1250 C.E.. By 1270 cooler summers cut maize production for both people and turkeys. Life became even tougher. Soon after they disappeared. (Article at, but you have to pay for it.)

Today we have much more control over our environment, but don’t have the wisdom to alter our instincts and manage our environment. Given all the things we can learn how to do, how can we change ourselves to foil Malthus by 2040?

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