“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.