Destiny’s Child

“Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.”
Jean de La Fontaine (1678–1679) and Master Oogway (Kung Fu Panda, 2008)

The Reverand Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) was once ostracized for his relatively obvious theory that human population would be limited by the ability of the earth to provide sustenance. As resources became rare, he postulated, “preventive checks” (such as abstinence and contraception) would slow population growth, while “positive checks” (such as disease, pestilence, and famine) would serve to maintain human population at sustainable levels.

Occurrences of these positive checks soon became known as Malthusian Crises. Crises are born of population growth out of proportion to resources, and consequently serve to reduce population levels back in line with resource availability.

Until recently, it was thought that modern technology had rescued us from this cycle, and made Malthus’ theories obsolete. Just as natural selection stops when civilization begins (another topic for another time), so too did our technological prowess shield us from the Malthusian cycle of population boom and bust.

The examples of technology being used in this way are manifold, but certain concrete examples are readily apparent. Newer agricultural technologies to help combat famine, the use of medications and vaccines to combat disease, epidemic, and pestilence, and greater communication and transportation technology to deliver these treatments, supplies, and personnel to necessary areas.  In this way, the advent of modern technology helped to sustain population levels out of proportion to “natural” resources.

With time, advances in computing technology have become such that many tasks which were previously relegated to human beings can now be handled by computers. In fact, whole fields have been decimated by the use of computers. Telephone operators, whether at a central switchboard or a company switchboard, have been almost wholly replaced by voicemail system.

Think of the lowly greeting card. In the past, there was someone hired to write them (Longfellow Deeds?), another to design them, another to print them. They then went to a distributor, who sold them to the local Hallmark store. The Hallmark store employee sold them to you. You put them in the mail, and the mailman delivered them. Currently, one can log on to any number of sites where electronic cards are available. With a few clicks of a button, you have fired the distributor, hallmark employee, and mailman (while at the same time hiring fewer programmers and internet engineers).

Thus, while technology can increase accessibility of scarce resources, it also serves in a very real sense to make other resources more scarce–those of jobs, and consequently wealth. In doing so, it encourages growth in a relatively resource poor environment, and sets up conditions to precipitate a Malthusian Crisis on a scale potentially much greater than those it has helped avert.

Unfortunately, there is no going back from this brink.  The fact remains that the world’s population continues to grow at a pace greater than the amount of human jobs needed to sustain it.  There are simply too many people, and too much automation, to allow for adequate levels of sustenance.  Through this lens, we see that unemployment and fiscal crisis are not necessarily direct results of the failed policies of one government or another, but a historical inevitibility.  As such, no amount of legislation or specific fiscal policy will be able to reverse it.  And, to top off the good news, the situation is likely to get much much worse before it gets better.  The logical end to this cycle is a “positive check” (the word positive is Malthus’, not mine) the scope of which may be unprecedented.  After all, the wheel of history cannot be stopped from turning.

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8 Comments

  1. azizhp

     /  October 12, 2011

    I’ll play spoiler here – the entire population of the world would fit into Texas with the same population density as Manhattan:

    67k ppl/sq mile in Manhattan * 270,000 sq miles = 1.8e10 people

    ie, almost 20 billion people could fit into Texas. Of course that assumes NYC is at some sort of maximal population density, and would require similar scaling of cropland and infrastructure to support it, but in truth we arent even close to maxing out our capability for sustainable agriculture OR architecture. Such as “skyfarming” http://nymag.com/news/features/30020/

    Its also important to note that the population is not world wide homogenous. A micro Malthusian crisis could happen in Sudan while people live an easy life in Switzerland. So theres a lot of room for things to be optimized further.

    I think Malthusian worries are on the centuries-timescale and that puts it within reach of political pressures and technological solutions. The world economy does reallocate resources when needed – consioder teh tsunami, or droughts, or earthquakes, or other disasters.

    What we really need to worry about more is the shorter timescale problems which are entirely manmade – financial crises, global warming, etc.

    And of course there’s always the Yelowstone supercaldera or Apophis to worry about in the longer timescale. So really Malthusian stuff is pretty low on the priority list of things to keep us up at night!

    Reply
  2. My company makes greeting card software. So go right ahead and use the electronic versions and keep me employed!
    Also, more on topic, who’s to say that a Malthusian crisis can’t take on an economic form? We could be having a crisis RIGHT NOW! Of course, the more likely theory is that I have no idea what I’m talking about…

    Reply
  3. Aziz, there is absolutely no comment here about population densities, just overall numbers. There is no doubt there is maldistribution of population and that more people could be accomodated within our technological ability to do so. And your point about micro-Malthusian Crises feeds exactly into my point. Western intervention in Sudan and Ethiopa have quelled these crises in duration and severity, thus blunting their “positive” effect (a very cold term, but I continue to use it to be true to Malthus).

    The point is that increasing automation decreases the amount of human resources needed to sustain the current population, even as technological advances decrease the amount of natural resources needed (arable land, etc). This throws the balance of population and resources even further askew.

    I think actually Huzaifa hit my thesis right on the money… Our current economic downturn represents an economic Malthusian crisis, which we as a global community have not yet recognized. There really is no legislative way out of this crisis, it represents the inevitable turn of history… and it will be ugly.

    I am not, in any way, suggesting technological advancement should be impeded, slowed, or turned back. Only that it has brought to fore what was otherwise inevitable anyway.

    Does all this talk of inevitable Malthusian Crises remind anyone else of Harry Seldon?

    Reply
  4. Shk. Husain Jamali

     /  October 12, 2011

    My answer to Malthusian Theory is EDUCATION. As the world is progressing technologically, we have to make sure the minds of today’s young generation should also be developed to cope with the technical, economic and environmental positive checks. To do that we have to make sure our children get the best food, best education and best training and the freedom to think out of box solutions. It is amazing what a human mind can accomplish when it is forced in a corner.

    Reply
  5. THH

     /  October 12, 2011

    Technology and automation do not decrease the overall wealth of society, they increase it, dramatically. The problems we see arising recently are related to the distribution of that wealth within society, not the absolute amount of wealth generated in terms of goods and services.

    It is a fallacy to consider “jobs” a resource: if you imagine a future world where everything is totally automated and requires no human intervention whatsoever, there would be limitless goods and services available, even if employment approached 0%. Jobs are not wealth — it is true that historically in the “pre-automation” era, jobs were the only way for society to create wealth. However automation and technology have led to substantially higher wealth creation with fewer man-hours of work needed.

    Let’s say that because of increasing automation, there is less “work” to do — so then we can all have 10 hour work-weeks and have the same (or more) quantity of goods and services available. What’s wrong with that? Even if people earn less in absolute dollar amounts, the cost of goods and services would be so dramatically decreased, that buying power would be dramatically increased. (Case in point: increased technology now lets us have phones that are more powerful than the supercomputers of 30 years ago, for a mere $200.)

    However, as technology continues to progress at an ever-increasing clip, the economy has been reconfiguring at an uncomfortable rate, leading to real pain and hardship for many people in disrupted fields. In previous generations, these effects were limited to blue-collar labor. Now, white-collar labor is increasingly feeling the effects of this disruption as well. The current configuration of the economy has unfortunately led to a dramatic increase in wealth inequality, and that is the true problem to be solved. With the right policies, there is no reason though that our future world cannot have massive prosperity for all.

    Reply
  6. Salima Husain

     /  October 14, 2011

    Zero percent employment is statistically impossible. Yes, the whole world population can be fitted in the State of Texas, but what will the human condition be like then? True, we have not reached the max. of the population growth. THH is right that some global areas have or are going through the prediction of this theory. The Theory does hold true without exception whether the crisis is political, economical or environmental. Genocide in Sudan can be traced to the theory, there women on average are giving birth to 5 children, the father of these children supports his family by tilling his land. Eventually this land gets divided more and more among his descendents until it is so small to render it un-tilliable to sustain even one family. Another example is Bangladesh where millions die due to heavy rains, due to lack of their education or skill are they suitable for Texas? Banglore is another example where lack of water has caused a havoc and people are using bottled water to bathe. Recetly in China traffic was gridlocked for weeks. Some countries are not waking up to the fact that we need to improve (or radically change) our educational system. Time has come that not every child is cut out to take Calculus in 10th Grade and become proficient in Math, this stresses the kids as they are not able to grasp the abstract concepts. May be they can be trained in Vocational Schools for various trades, i.e., laying tiles and bricks, electricians, mechanics, plumbers etc. with added help from modern technology. High school drop out rate will drop, and colleges will have the benefit of acquiring the brighter ones. American Society in general is selfish, they tend to ignore the achievement of their children or lack of it. We need a grass roots movement at home to encourage our children to excel in whatever they decide to do in life. Politics of modern day education can not be the same as in the 17 century. Paradigm shift will check the advance of economic collapse world wide.

    Reply
  7. AHamid

     /  October 14, 2011

    I’ll be brief in my comments. As a argument to the Hallmark Card product process, while jobs may be reduced or eliminated through technology, other jobs like creating “Apps” for mobile devices such as the iPhone, continue to create jobs that did not exist five years ago. Perhaps a zero sum game!

    Reply

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