This time it was different


As a child I was a consumer of a fair amount of environmentalist alarmism. Not the standard stuff you see on the news, but books like The Population Bomb.

I also read the science fiction classic Stand on Zanzibar. Stand on Zanzibar is about an overpopulated Malthusian world. It is the world of 2010, and the population is 7 billion. The author, John Brunner, was writing in 1968. This was the beginning of the worries about population growth and sustainability.

Brunner was right about the world population in 2010…but it’s not quite the dystopia that he painted. In some places, like the Congo, it is quite hellish. But in much of the world there is a slow but steady advancement, much of it thanks to China.

Rather than the inevitability of a Malthusian crisis due to overpopulation (note that fertility rates peaked in the 1960s) slowly creeping up on us, I think we need to worry about our society’s ability to withstand shocks. Those shocks might destabilize the social matrix which our high productivity society needs to survive, and without that productivity, we will be a Malthusian crisis.

5 thoughts on “This time it was different

  1. But Malthus never mentioned crisis in his monograph. His model was a steady state one of ever-increasing productivity, no resource depletion, and yet always inequality, and poverty side-by-side with wealth.

  2. Rather than the inevitability of a Malthusian crisis due to overpopulation (note that fertility rates peaked in the 1960s) slowly creeping up on us, I think we need to worry about our society’s ability to withstand shocks. Those shocks might destabilize the social matrix which our high productivity society needs to survive, and without that productivity, we will be a Malthusian crisis.

    You hit the nail on the head. Ours is a highly complex civilization that depends heavily on all parts of the system working properly to water, feed, clothe, house, keep clean, and medicate the population. The supply chains that sustain our civilization are necessarily complicated to maximize delivery to a huge population that is not organically supported by local infrastructure.

    It’s all very effective and efficient, provided everything is working well. The trouble is that we haven’t tested this highly complex system under multiple stresses. High efficiency generally means low redundancy, and low redundancy doesn’t handle multiple shocks well.

    In the highly unlikely, but still very possible, event that there are several disruptions (e.g. water supply, power, sanitation, transport) to the system, there WILL BE mass die-offs.

  3. “Those shocks might destabilize the social matrix which our high productivity society needs to survive, and without that productivity, we will be a Malthusian crisis.”

    Excellent point, as always. I think both the pro- and anti-immigration sides might actually use this. Pro because they’re trying to act as a buffer for victims of said shocks and anti because they’re trying to prevent such shocks in their own societies.

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