Scenario: Malthus Was Right: North Korea May Become Popular

23Mar13

Three hundred years ago, Thomas Malthus predicted that human population would always tend to outpace food production, and that this would ordinarily lead to widespread starvation – but that people tend to respond by restricting their own reproduction to match the available resources.  The fact of great differences in birthrates and starvation levels, from one country to another, suggests that Malthus may have been less correct in this belief than in the view commonly attributed to him, namely, that population simply does outpace agriculture, period, and therefore mass starvation must follow sooner or later, keeping population in balance over time.

In response to that latter view, many have said that Malthus was wrong.  World population has expanded exponentially since his time – and yet, thanks to the Green Revolution, food supply has kept up.  We do have some starvation, but the world is not in any sense stuck at a population level anywhere near that of Malthus’s time.

On a larger timeframe, however, the view attributed to Malthus was inevitably right.  Commercial agriculture has moved the goalposts, but it has not changed the game.  As long as everything goes right, farmers can indeed feed more and more people – but only up to a point.  There is a point of “peak food” production.  In other words, we face two constraints:  there are limits on what is possible even in the best case, and there are also limits imposed by the fact that sometimes things go very wrong.

What is possible in the best case is not determined solely by the amount of land available, nor even by the combination of land and advanced agricultural science (including genetic modifications, improved fertilizers, and sophisticated techniques).  The outer limits of possibility are also influenced by many other factors, including the availability of sunshine and water, the behavior of the weather (in terms of e.g., flooding, killer heat waves, and winds), the cost of fuel, competition for arable land (in terms of e.g., suburban sprawl), and fluctuations in markets for agricultural products.

So we do not have a simple march up an ever-rising slope of productivity, where last year’s output will almost always be less than next year’s.  We did have something like that for a long time.  It came to seem like the only way that things could ever be.  And since nothing ever remains the same forever, we essentially did our best to insure that our economy, our lifestyles, our hopes, and expectations – everything in our world would be built upon this imagined foundation of solid rock.

As Malthus apparently anticipated, population does just keep growing after all, for as long as it can.  A few years ago, the prediction was that world population would level off at 9 billion by 2050, but that has been dramatically revised:  experts now think it will just keep rising.  Some predictions go as high as 16 billion by 2100.

That poses a problem.  There is not presently any agricultural concept by which farmers can feed 5,000 people with a basket of bread and a few fish.  Feeding seven, or eight, or nine billion souls is going to require a lot of everything – water, land, diesel fuel, transportation, financing.  This runs up against another reality, namely, that commercial agriculture is consummately commercial.  These people are in it for the money.  Thus we observed, a few decades ago, that food prices for a hungry world were artificially jacked up by the creation of a wasteful biofuel industry – by, in other words, the obscene conversion of food into gasoline.  The American Congress decided to let people starve in order to subsidize the cost of operating gas-guzzling suburban utility vehicles (SUVs).

In a market economy, competition for resources means that resources become more expensive.  Starvation does not happen (yet) because there is no food at all; it happens because people at the bottom cannot afford it.  As we have observed in the U.S. in recent decades, in an unchecked market economy the number of people at the bottom tends to grow, and wealth tends to become more concentrated among a shrinking percentage of people at the top.  We already accept levels of hunger in the United States that would have appalled my parents’ World War II generation; it appears that we are not, after all, too good for a future in which such hunger verges increasingly into outright starvation, and not merely among isolated groups (e.g., the elderly).

Even if a perpetual growth trend were possible, one would have to expect dislocations.  There are, as we see, benighted congressional detours; there are lean years.  There are times when diesel fuel is unexpectedly expensive, or when a crucial fertilizer is, to everyone’s surprise, not available; there are periods when the Mississippi is too dry to permit barges to haul grain at the expected shipping rates.  In other words, there are times when the beans that we should have been storing, to protect people against future starvation, were regrettably converted into automobile exhaust.  At such times, one can expect at least an upward tick in starvation – although, as with most statistics, this concept does not really carry much weight until it is one’s own cupboard that looks bare.

I emphasize the emotional, personal dimensions of these phenomena in order to prepare for a next step in the thought process.  What we are observing is not a future of stable, predictable growth in which it looks like the food is going to be there.  Rather, we are observing a situation of uncertainty.  We do not really know what is going to happen with climate change, particularly what effect it will have upon crop yields.  Generally, though, the forecasts are not good.  This is to be expected.  We have built to the very edges of our putatively rocklike foundation of assumptions.  The weather has to be just so; the water has to be there in exactly the right places and at exactly the right times; the seasons have to function like they’re supposed to.  Shake the model just a bit, and things fall off.

Now, we might have been able to adjust to that – if we’d had not only a century’s (or at least a generation’s) advance warning, but also the wisdom to use it.  Unfortunately, as with the predictions attributed to Malthus, we have been plagued by false advertising from those whom the existing circumstances serve, and that advertising has been accepted as fact by others so inclined.  So instead we now find ourselves contemplating much more dramatic and risky geoengineering schemes in order to stave off a potential global catastrophe.

So, to recap the first constraint, there are burps and stutters along the way, even if one envisions a general upward trend in food availability.  The problem we are now beginning to encounter is that, when an integral piece of the model begins to fail, the whole interconnected edifice might just get pulled down with it.  Water is, again, a key example.  Going ahead 50 years, it is conceivable that much of the world will be a desert.  It’s not just drought due to global warming; there is also a substantial problem of groundwater depletion.  At a certain point – soon in some places, later in others, but across much of the globe eventually – there is just no water anymore.  Then you cannot grow the trees and grasses that would keep the soil in place, so it blows away.  When that even begins to happen, with eight or sixteen billion people to feed, you have a Problem.

Turning to the second constraint, then, there is the reality that we are looking at large, frightening threats for which no solution is in the works.  Or, more accurately, no planned, organized solution is underway.  The truth is, there is always a solution forming; it just may not comply with our wishes when it arrives.  In this regard, the forecasts have been interesting.  As with population, so also with climate:  things are going to hell faster than people thought they would.  According to the report of the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee (January 11, 2013, p. 8), human-induced climate change is now on track “to continue and accelerate significantly.”

Our customary way of thinking is that, OK, there was Trend A, with a nice upward curve of agricultural production keeping ahead of the population in most places that we actually care about; so now instead we are looking at Trend B, where the population and food supply curves are more dangerously interwoven.  Some people are going to starve, and that will be unfortunate.  We know how to handle that, though, from many years of reacting to starvation in places like Ethiopia:  we will feel bad, we will mention it here and there, we will contribute something.  Within the compressed and flaky attention spans required for daily coping in a complex society, this is, in effect, our way of resolving the matter.  In like spirit, a prediction of a temperature rise of up to ten degrees by the end of the century is (a) scary but fortunately (b) someone else’s problem.

That is the kind of thinking that we develop in response to the first constraint, where life goes along more or less OK but does require the occasional adjustment.  What changes, in the second constraint, is that a piece of the edifice falls off much more quickly than it was supposed to, and suddenly the problem from Never-Never Land is ringing the doorbell and wanting to come in.  Suddenly it is no longer a matter of long-term trends and projections and things to debate; it is, instead, a matter of someone’s fist landing on your nose.

Here’s an illustration.  The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 and thereafter were not the result of a sudden, mass desire for freedom to watch porn on the Internet.  They happened because of food prices.  If you want to get thousands of people in the streets, yelling and chanting and demanding that your head be lopped off, just make them hungry or otherwise threaten their lives, and see what happens.

So the way it unfolds, in practice, is that the first chink of the edifice crumbles, food becomes unaffordable here and there, people riot, and suddenly we have, say, a revolution in Pakistan.  It’s an interesting example, because Pakistan not only has nuclear weapons but also a bit of a track record in sharing the wealth.  That’s been a perennial topic of worry, insofar as the Pakistanis might pass along a nuke to some random terrorist; but what I am suggesting here is that the prospect of nuclear blackmail could suddenly become very popular among people who are starving while Americans burn corn in their cars.  Suddenly we have, not the specter of Kim Jong Un doing goofy things with half-assed rockets, but rather Robin Hood standing up to the pigs and demanding a fair share in the gifts that nature has bestowed upon humanity.

Could this happen in 2013?  Why not?  A relatively tiny change in climate was sufficient to make food too pricey for the Tunisians and Egyptians who took to the streets in 2011.  What’s going to happen in the coming year, which poses some threat of agricultural disaster?  Or if not this year, perhaps next.  We are in a world, that is, where the gradual projections and long-term concerns of Kyoto and Earth Day may quickly give way to much more immediate and personal developments.  We are in transition from Crisis Someday to Crisis Today or Tomorrow.

In this new regime, we won’t have the luxury of waiting around until the whole world goes to crap; we’ll be forced to respond, by an assortment of brushfires and emergencies.  And because it will no longer be a matter of leisurely advance planning, many of our most noticeable responses won’t be boring, gradual, NASA-style tweaks advocated by scientists.  Now it will be the time of the politician, experimenting with the future in order to win votes, and for that reason we are apt to find ourselves truly screwed.  But, you know, Kim Jong Un may still come out OK.

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