Population Part 3: Why Malthus Was Wrong
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
For a few decades in the 20th century, it seemed as humanity's triumphs of public health were turning into an ironic and deadly trap. Because more babies were surviving infancy than ever before, and more adults were safe from deadly diseases, the human race's numbers were growing at a spectacular rate—from 2 billion in 1930 to nearly 4 billion in 1970, with the 5- and 6- billion marks just around the corner (indeed, world population reached 5 billion around 1986 and 6 billion around 1999). "Population control" policies swept the globe. Many thought that Thomas Malthus—the 18th century clergyman who held that "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man"—had been proven right.
Like many broad statements about general principles, Malthus' argument feels as if it must be true, eventually (even if it's off by a few decades or a few centuries). After all, it's a logical observation about physical facts: the world's resources aren't infinite, and the laws of Nature make no special exemptions for Homo sapiens. So there must be some limit on the number of people the planet can support.
But what is that limit? A general principle can't say. It could sustain any estimate, from 100 souls to 9 billion (which is both the U.N.'s medium prediction for 2050 and the "nine thousand millions" that Malthus' critic William Godwin proposed in 1820) to one quadrillion or so.
In the 1970's Paul Ehrlich offered a proposal for finding the real limit, a formula known as I=PAT. The formula defined human environmental Impact as the consequence of Population (number of people), Affluence (the amount the population consumes) and Technology (how efficiently they use resources to create what they consume).
In the years since Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, thousands more scientists and other researchers have closely studied relationships between people and their environment. "Certainly since the 70's, when we had the modern resurgence of the Malthusian idea, we now have a lot better data," Marc Levy, a political scientist who is deputy director of Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network, told me last year.
This data has shown that A and T are just as important as P in the formula. Moreover, the relationships of the three variables — of population, per-capita consumption, and the efficiency with which people take resources from the environment — depend a great deal on local circumstances.
That means a very general statement about IPAT (like "the earth has too many people") rubs away too many economic, political and cultural details; it ends up concealing more than it reveals. Last year, for instance, Paul and Anne Ehrlich argued that the 2 billion or so people who will be added to the human population in the next few decades "will have a disproportionately negative impact on our life-support systems.'' One reason, they said, is that "our ancestors naturally farmed the richest soils and used the most accessible resources first. Now significant amounts of those soils have been eroded away or paved over, and farmers are increasingly forced to turn to marginal land to grow food.''
Compare that broad hand-waving to the first-hand knowledge of a particular place embodied by Charlie Teller, a long-time development worker in Ethiopia. In an on-line discussion of population issues in Africa in 2008, Teller noted that the parts of Ethiopia that need the most food aid are the ones with the lowest birthrates.
Then, too, Ethiopian deforestation has been worst in sparsely peopled rural areas; the crowded cities have the most tree cover. The reason: trees were chopped down during revolutions, when no government was on hand to enforce the law in remote areas. So while it seems intuitively obvious that Ethiopian forest loss stems from a biological cause (its people's fertility), the real causes are political (in the inability of successive governments to keep order).
World food stocks offer another example of the difference between a vast generalization from general principles and a collection of patiently-gathered facts. Today one person in seven is chronically hungry (a point Ehrlich has made against critics who ridicule his predictions of mass famine in The Population Bomb).
But humanity isn't even close to the limits of its ability to produce food. In fact, today's agriculture could feed 10 billion people — if those people were vegetarians (meat requires much more agriculture land per unit of food than do plants). The world's hungry suffer because they're too poor, not because they're too numerous.
Nobody, of course, expects hunger or climate forcing to vanish at the touch of a magic wand called "social change!'' or "technology to be named later!'' But you needn't believe in miracles to see that the harmfulness of the P in IPAT depends greatly on assumptions made about A and T.
To the extent that environmentalists focus on population alone, they're aiding and abetting, if only by inattention, in the assumption that A and T are constants that cannot be changed. At its extreme, then, an obsession with population is probably a net minus for the cause of sustainability: The more you encourage people to worry about too many children in some other part of the world, the more you help them forget about the too many appliances in their own kitchens.
Tomorrow: An example of this kind of misleading rhetoric.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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