Thursday 12 December 2013

Magical Thinking versus Malthus was Correct (except for a blip)


One of the most important books I have ever read was Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms: a brief economic history of the world; because he makes clear that Malthus was essentially correct, and more people does mean less food per capita - over the long term.

Malthus is the normal, what we have had since about 1800 is a blip.


The blip is that since 1800 there has been an era in which productivity has outrun population growth - so far for about eight generations. The population of the world has gone from 1 billion to 7 billion - and another billion will come in about 14 year and another about 18 years after that...

The blip has an explanation - the blip is not something to be taken for granted.

In a nutshell, the blip boils down to food production - the planet used to yield enough food for 1 billion people, but now yields enough for 7 billion people.

So the blip was caused, or enabled, by an era when technological breakthroughs in food production (and the implementation of those breakthroughs) came so thick and fast that massive population growth was sustainable, and the average amount of food per person also increased.


But this outrunning will only continue if relevant technological breakthrough/ implementing also continues.

This is not due to a magic cause, it is not in the nature of things - there were specific historical reasons, operating in actual places, and among individual human beings - which led to technological breakthroughs. 

So the root of modernity is... whatever enabled technological breakthroughs from about 1800. And the sustaining of modernity depends on the sustaining of... whatever enabled technological breakthroughs from about 1800.

All the evidence I have seen shows that the rate of relevant breakthroughs has been declining for some considerable time, probably the past couple of generations (since the mid twentieth century).

This would not be at all surprising, it would indeed be what we would expect - so long as we do not succumb to magical thinking. 


What was the cause of the take-off in productivity which became visible from about 1800 hundred and enabled a great increase in food production? Whatever it was, it has to be something new, which wasn't possible before - something contingent, and not in the nature of human society.

Greg Clark's book makes clear that the only coherent explanation for the 'industrial revolution' and the (contingent) escape from the Malthusian norm, was a change in human capability - a change in the abilities and motivations of human beings which (in the case of England) can be observed and measured to be building-up from early Medieval times.

It should not be surprising that human capability is collapsing - and modern societies are in practice unable to do things which used to be done easily. It should not be surprising that the dense concentration of relevant technological breakthroughs - and the capacity to implement them - has gone.


Things have causes, modernity is not magic; food production requires the production of food - the production of more food to feed billions of extra people requires breakthroughs.

The usual situation in human history is that when extra people are born, they die of starvation - because there is no food for them. We now have an extra six billion mouths to feed above the norm, and plenty more coming.

Most people seem to act like feeding six billion extra people is something that just happens, by magic, like there is some invisible hand that inevitably produces what ever is needed.

But no. It is not magic. Technological breakthroughs were made by specific people in specific places and under specific circumstances - when these change, then the normal state resumes: very few breakthroughs or none at all; and the extra productivity no longer sustainable, technology forgotten or not usable.


Modernity was an achievement - a wicked achievement in many ways; but by achievement I mean that it happened for particular reasons; and if or when those particular reasons disappear or cease to operate then we have six million people too many - and more on the way.

Reality is a Red Queen situation - population and food production (and the rest of it) are so far out of equilibrium that we have to keep running hard to stay in the same place. Mess-up the capability or implementation; and food production soon collapses.

(Food is the bottom line, but of course the same arguments apply to other necessities).


That is realism. But what we have is magical thinking.

Magical thinking on the politically-correct, 'Liberal' Left and also magical thinking on on the mainstream conservative/ libertarian 'Right'.

The magical thinking of socialists who see productivity increase as 'normal' (the graph rises) and the main problem as spreading it around, sharing-out the food which magically appears; and the magical thinking of libertarians and capitalists who think that - however big the population - enough food will always be forthcoming so long as the incentives and institutions are correct - the invisible hand fed an extra six billion since 1800, and can feed another two, four or six billion if necessary.

Both are fantasies. The reality is that society is entropic, and keeping the extra six billion alive needs not just sustaining past capabilities but continually developing more.


We need relevant breakthroughs and they need to be applied or billions of people will start dying off.

Nature cannot hear our rhetoric, nature will not be fooled - either we are doing this or we are not doing it.

Everything in modernity depends on those breakthroughs! Where did they come from? WHO did they come from? Do those situations and people still exist, do they still generate breakthroughs - are they even trying to generate breakthroughs?


This is not a threat. In fact I believe that we cannot generate enough breakthroughs to sustain the blip,  because we are not clever enough - but if we understood the realities and were actually trying to do something useful about them, then the end of the blip would not be so bad as otherwise. 


Modernity was a blip, made possible by the ability to feed billions more people.

But the blip had causes, and if or when those causes are removed or have already been removed - or if population outstrips relevant capacity - the blip will stop blipping, and the world will return to normal Malthusian equilibrium

And there are currently maybe six billion people in excess of that equilibrium...



The Crow said...

It's long mystified me, the way leftists manage to completely take for granted the reliable and endless provision of goods and services, free of charge, with nobody actually arranging for any of it to happen.

Gyan said...

But are breakthroughs necessary?
Consider that large areas in Africa, for instance, are underutilized for political reasons. Large areas in temperate zone could be converted for food production. And also consider that population growth is slowing down in poor countries.

So, perhaps technological breakthroughs are not so important as political stability.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Gyan - Yes but why are large areas of Africa so underutilized? What happened when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe? Which is the natural state for Africa - and which is a blip, for which a multitude of things must be lined-up 'just right'?

(For example, if European colonial Africa is regarded as 'a good thing' - we must remember European colonialism only happened in most places after there were effective antimalarial drugs and treatment for other tropical diseases.)

Who exactly is going to line-up the causes to make Zimbabwe back into a bread-basket instead of a basket case - and why would they do it?

Who is gong to do the same for temperate agriculture - and why aren't they already doing so and the other 1001 sensible and necessary things that need doing.

Since humans aren't going to get any more sensible, altruistic, long termist, intelligent - but the opposite - then in practice the only way to bail-out from the cumulative corruption and nonsense is frequent, big technological breakthroughs.

So - who is going to make these breakthroughs? Who is capable of it? Are there enough such people? - and why would they do so, and would the breakthroughs be implemented?

None of this stuff just happens. And we have a vast system of bureaucracy and Leftism which actively, systematically (and sometimes purposively) stops them happening - even if they could theoretically happen.

essYof said...

You sound like you've seen Geoffrey West's stuff - but if not, here's a TED talk (giving ~40s of context)

He says the same thing you do - that to avoid collapse, we have to have breakthroughs at an ever faster rate.

seaseFr said...

Forgot to add - one idea is that, as the population grows, so will the number of idea-havers, and thus the number of breakthroughs. But, what if the idea-having populations don't grow as fast as the rest (if you accept that there are populations that are more innovative than others). Probably someday there'll be nano-technology, Artificial General Intelligence, gene modifications and space. But it isn't clear that progress will win the race with collapse.

Bruce Charlton said...

@essYof - (How I hate those TED talk things... Hulk Will Smash!)

"we have to have breakthroughs at an ever faster rate" - It's an empirical question: do we? The answer is no, not at all, not even slightly. Quite the reverse. How many creative geniuses are there now in relevant fields compared with 100, or 200 years ago? - a lot fewer.

@ seaseFr - "one idea is that, as the population grows, so will the number of idea-havers,"

That was indeed an idea; but now we know it is not true.

And I think we probably know why. A high rate of idea having was pretty much confined to a smallish segment of the planet, and it looks like intelligence has been declining there for a couple of hundred years - in fact since about 1800 when modernity took off.

Also, I believe science has been declining for several decades, and we will not have any of the things you mention!

Maximo Macaroni said...

I presume you would disagree with Julian Simon, then, that innovation is the ultimate resource and that now it has been unleashed, new ideas will continue to keep us happy for the foreseeable future.
I guess his bet with Paul Ehrlich on the price of strategic materials was just fortunately timed! Would you take Ehrlich's side for the next twenty years?

Bruce Charlton said...

@MM - I would disagree that innovation has been 'unleashed' (innovation was a contingent outcome of the natural selection of some humans by social conditions in some places during the medieval period - and natural selection has been working in almost the opposite direction since about 1800) but I would agree that if relevant breakthroughs increased in the same exponential fashion as population has grown, then we could keep adding billions to the world population for a longer time than will actually happen.

However, significant and relevant innovation ('breakthroughs') have been dwindling, not expanding - and a lot of technologies and capabilities have been and are being lost (for example, many useful medical drugs has been suppressed, and useless/ dangerous ones vastly oversold).

What HAS expanded is hype, spin, dishonesty and propaganda about fake innovations and tiny incremental advances.

But I hope you are not one of the George Mason economics department people who believe that sincerity is a function of willingness literally to make a substantial wager! I regard betting as (nearly always) immoral - and I loathe the culture of officially sanctioned gambling which has swamped Britain in the past couple of decades.

Bruce B. said...

I know next to nothing about agriculture but here's some thoughts.
I get the impression we grow much less food (at least in Western countries and probably Russia) than we could grow. I get the impression third world hunger is largely a matter of distribution not lack of food.
I know we Westerners and many 2nd-worlders (e.g. Mexico) eat many more calories than we need. Most people probably eat two or three times as many calories as they need and some probably eat five or ten times what they need. I don't count calories but I probably eat 1000-1500 calories a day and am a fit and trim 165-lbs. People could eat less as the world grows.
I might be missing some point like Malthusian starvation is a mathmatical certainty given exponential population growth. Still, it doesn't seem impossible or even unlikely to me that the world could feed billions of additional mouths.
There are ways of applying existing technologies to agriculture. My company is looking into applying existing technolgies to eliminate waste, inefficiencies, etc. in agriculture. I don't know the details and if the results in terms of increases are marginally better or not.
Just some thoughts.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - The thing is that there was 'nothing' stopping the world organizing things better before 1800 to feed/ keep-alive more than one billion people - yet they didn't. Some of this was due to disease and violence, but still - it took until the 1920s before another billion could be sustained.

My point is that population is a long way above the natural/ low tech equilibrium. There is no reason why we should expect to do better than now; and solid reasons why we are more likely to do worse - not least because we already are doing worse over recent decades.

Maximo Macaroni said...

" ... sincerity is a function of willingness literally to make a substantial wager!"
I don't think sincerity has much to do with it. But Simon did win and has said that proved something. I take your point that all this innovation could have expressed itself long before 1800. Were the Romans on the verge of high-tech but never got there because of their number system? Did the Chinese stagnate because of a fragile Imperial system? Perhaps the decline of Christianity reflects or causes (?) a decline in innovation. Can we ever forget how to make a railroad?

Anonymous said...

Population growth, the industrial revolution, and fossil fuel production/consumption seem to correlate. If fossil fuel is finite, and near peak cost-effective production, the system over-shoot may reaching it's limit, regardless of innovation. Much of our food production is dependent on petroleum.
I strongly agree with much of your writing, Prof. Charlton. You are a joy.


The Continental Op said...


America has a "tradition" of associating the depth of conviction with a willingness to put up money. Thus, we have a variety of sayings to that effect: "put up or shut up", "put your money where your mouth is", "lay it on the line", "show me the money."

It's because money is a god here. To stake your money is like swearing by God.

jgress said...

Do leftists take it for granted? Perhaps positions have shifted, but when I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the leftists who were predicting imminent starvation, and it was conservatives like my parents who were on the side of the optimists. You guys have short memories.

Nicholas Fulford said...

The problem is the progress paradigm. The progress paradigm says that we can continuously improve life through technological breakthrough.

While few can argue that just as local entropy can be put off at the expense of increasing overall entropy; technological progress enables us to grow our population beyond what would otherwise be possible.

This works to a point; but not ad infinitum as technological change imposes upon the natural order, creates an artificial increase in the ability to feed people, for a limited time. The costs of intensive factory farming are born on the overall ecology, and symptoms of the problem include algae blooms, coral degradation, hypoxia in river deltas feeding into places like the Gulf of Mexico.

We are out of balance in terms of population and consumption; and the corrective measure when it finally materializes will be shocking in its severity. Technological breakthrough amplifies the size of the correct when it can no longer be put off, and it could induce positive feedback cycles which are very difficult to reverse. I am extremely concerned about this, as a correction will at some point occur, and it will be devastating when it comes.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - I remember. Not that I was often 'on the right side' - but the reasoning varies. As I recall, when Leftists were supposedly concerned about overpopulation it was to justify the usual Leftist policies and not to do with realism - I remember conversations when it was clear that they were not really concerned about solving the problem, but exploiting it.

George Goerlich said...

@Bruce - I am having a hard time resolving two potential moral dilemmas: 1) High reproductive rates represent a good, 2) Overpopulation is bad. Most of the (liberal) people I know resolve this by choosing not to have kids. The conservative people I know deny that overpopulation is a real issue. I agree with your assessment on both issues, insofar as they are dealt with separately, but morally any resolution of the overpopulation problem appears at conflict with large families.

Bruce Charlton said...

@GG - There are two ways that people have 'solved' this 'dilemma' - the first one applied through all of human history up to circa 1800, when there was no contraception and no state 'welfare' based on coercive confiscation; which was that if/ when a family had more children than they could support, on average all children above this number would die. If the family could not support any children, all would die.

The other solution is modern US Mormons, who use contraception to adjust family size to resources (independent of welfare and charity - barring unforeseen accidents etc) - so the wealthier (and healthier, and more devout) families on average choose to have the most children, and the poorest just one or two.

Rich said...

As a farmer in the US I can say that distribution is a large and looming problem. We are also way overproducing.

The most egregious and serious error in food production is undoubtedly its dependence on limited resources and its extreme fragility.

The amount of resources the goes into planting, harvesting, processing, and shipping a field of corn is staggering. These resources will not always be cheap and we have structured our whole system around only a few of them.

The answer is, as Bruce points out, less people and more small scale farmers running on draft power.

Ugh said...

There is also GMO foods which should be a blessing, but is treated as a poison not a breakthrough.

Since every respected scientific organization that has studied GM crops including such institutions as the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, and others have found GM crops both safe for humans for and the environment. Of course, it's impossible to prove anything is completely without risk, it's worth noting that none of these organizations is in the tank for big agribusiness, yet they all agree that there’s simply no evidence that it’s dangerous to eat genetically modified foods. Notoriously skeptical science-oriented publications including Nature and Scientific American have also concluded there’s just no evidence that GMOs are bad for us. Yet they are outright banned in many parts of the world and demonized everywhere else.

I understand it's hard to have faith in giant agribusinesses, but it is simply bad for business to kill your customers. GMO not only would help with crop yields, make poor land tillable, but it can also be used to add nutritional value to dietary staples reducing disease and illness.

Mankind has been hybridizing plants and animals for thousands of years just because it's done with a microscope and a beaker doesn't make it evil or necessarily dangerous.

Bruce Charlton said...

One of the most striking parts of Greg Clark's book was the comparison between cotton factories in England and India.

Despite having the same machines and managers and system, the Indian factories were (I think) one-eighth as efficient.

This is the problem with technological solutions - they don't necessarily export well.

Add to that the declining average intelligence in the West. What used to be a solution will be found no longer to work, or when it breaks nobody can repair it...

Animal breeding has only been around for about 300 years. It is not easy. Even if people make a recipe for how to do improve breeds, and how to maintain breeds - people who don't understand what they are doing will sooner or later stop doing it (because it is long termist, and a hassle) - and specialized breeds (and the productivity gains therefrom) will be lost...

Rich said...


GMO may not kill you in a week, but they'll probably make a good deal of your life miserable while society foots the bill for drugs and overpriced procedures. Just regular mass produced, but highly engineered (i.e. cheez-its)food already does this.

Even if they are perfectly safe, and you're incredibly ignorant of the natural world around you if you believe a scientist splicing fish DNA into plants DNA is perfectly normal. These aren't a couple of scientists putzing around with microscopes as you would believe. But allowing for the safe consumption of GMO's, it still hands over proprietary rights of main staple foodstuffs to huge mega corporations run by a small number of people.

That is scarier to me as a farmer and as a human being than the safety of the food.


"When it breaks no one can repair it."
Precisely! Try fixing a new John Deere tractor. It takes three days and three different "professionals" to come out and look at it and another week to fix. It is not a machine that could ever be fixed by a farmer in a pinch. And it is engineered that way.

Animal breeding is quite interesting. Large corporations gained control of most of the breeding done in the world a few decades ago. The ramifications are already quite apparent. We have had several instances of boars who will not mount sows because that trait has been breed out of them by an industry that only uses artificial insemination. The narrowing of breeds and loss of genetics in livestock rearing is a travesty. At least with plants seeds can still be viable for a hundred years plus? With animals you lose the genetics as soon as you lose the pig. The few breeds that do still exist are being raised on a small scale with limited genetics which also causes problems.

We have already lost many excellent genes forever. Efficiency does not equal resiliency and that is what farmers should strive for.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ads - Good point. I was thinking of the 'agrarian revolution' and increased productivity in Britain which came in the 1700s and just before the industrial - supporting the early increase in population; with better crop rotations and the introduction of animal breeding - men such as Coke of Norfolk and Robert Bakewell.

Bruce Charlton said...

General Note - I perceive that many people look around the world and see all the opportunities for extra production without better technology, and assume that when people get hungry, then these opportunities will be taken...

Oh yes? Is that how the world works?

What about the big counter-example of the history of most of the world? Are we better, or more sensible, than them?

In most times and places, a shortage of food leads to theft and violence of what little food there is; which leads to a decline in food production.

Or else weakened populations are substantially wiped-out by epidemics.

Premodern East Asia seems to be an exception, where a strong state imposed nonviolence and good hygiene kept infectious diseases down for long enough that average human disposition was pacified - and massive efforts went into maximizing food productivity - until the population density grew to maximum carry capacity, so must people toiled all the time raising food on tiny land plots, and most people barely-subsisted on a handful of rice a day, and had no food surplus to raise children.

Rich said...


Indeed, animal breeding used to be something else entirely. Different counties had different pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese that were unique to that area and that they were proud of. In other words the power of domestication and dominion over the gene pool was spread out, such as it is in the natural world. Consolidating that power ruined 12,000 years of work in a generation.

"...extra production without extra technology..."

Yes, yes excellent point. Many in the farming world believe this to be true and they welcome collapse, much like the moldbuggians. They believe that "then the world will finally see."

They fail to see your larger point. By thenit will be too late. If the government hasn't taken their land by force then some other violent mob will.

Repentance and revival can only happen now. Alas, without some major divine intervention collapse and mass die off seem inevitable. Maybe not in our lifetime, though it would appear that we are certainly close.

Rich said...

Aside- It is amazing how someone, like yourself, who thinks things clearly through can gain insight into worlds he takes no part in. You have a better grasp of food production, what might cause its demise, and how that might play out, than 99% of people actually in that industry.
I guess this shouldn't be surprising after reading you all this time but, I'm still impressed.

So, many great posts coming in a flurry. Keep up the good work! Looking forward to the new book.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ads - Thank you. I was very interested in farming and gardening for food in my mid-teens (probably stimulated by Tolkien), read a lot, kept my eyes open - I lived in a farming/ fruit growing/ market gardening village and had a farmer Great Uncle; and did a little vegetable growing and tree chopping myself. Mostly I am remembering from then.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ads - "
They fail to see your larger point. By then it will be too late. If the government hasn't taken their land by force then some other violent mob will. "

That is the refutation of 'survivalism' or the people who suppose that hoarding gold will enable them to ride out monetary collapse. If collapse really comes, it will very soon get to a point where the minority who have saved anything will have it expropriated; most likely by the 'government' who are already doing this in a small way.

Only groups about the size of whole large towns or even states will potentially be able to resist; but they would need to have pre-organized and pre-prepared.

And these would themselves soon be at each others' throats unless they share a strong religion and a centralized leadership and command structure.

JJ said...

Not just in Africa, but most of the planet's farmland is utterly mismanaged. The level of misallocations and underutilizations are just astonishing. And they can all be attributed to each individual government. Subsidies to farmers encouraging them to grow crops to EXCESS leads to falling prices. The government then counteracts this problem by paying X amount of farmers not to grow anything at all. This too is usually enough, and so the excess crop is purchased by the state, and then dumped overseas, primarily in Africa. These in turn put local farmers out of business, who then stop growing crops and the continent becomes even more dependent on charity. Its a vicious cycle from beginning to end.

If governments around the world all stopped all means of subsidization (encouraging farmers to grow certain crops, buying it at fixed prices, and paying farmers not to grow at all), leaving it to them to individually decide which crops to grow based on market prices, the global food supply would not be anywhere near as unstable as it is today.

Couple that by preventing NGO's from dumping food en masse, and there wont be any worries going forward. But the latter prescription would inevitably be met with accusations of extermination and genocide. Their economic illiteracy means they cant grasp the idea that if say, the Salvation Army gives away vast amounts of clothing in a certain village, then the following year, there wont be any tailors at all, as they will all close up and move away, and the villagers will all be dependent on the Salvation Army. You cant compete with free.

Its as foolish as Malthus to make assumptions about global capacity for food production even with the assumption that there wont be any innovations going forward. We have no idea until all the arable land is fully utilized.

George Goerlich said...

Sounds like sound reasoning to move to Salt Lake City

Bruce Charlton said...

@JJ - If humans managed land perfectly, or even much better, then no doubt at all the planet could grow more food. BUt will it actually happen?

In the 1939-45 war, Britain was short of food, the British government and many individual people worked hard to grow and raise more food - and this was as sincere and hardworking as things get. But the policy was a shambles, almost certainly for the economic reasons that you outline, and there was a decade of food rationing after 1945 - England was perhaps shorter of food than anywhere else. But it actually happened. The desire to make food cheap for the poor, the fact that removing rationing would cause a (temporary) rise in food prices - these kept England artificially short of food for year upon year; yet people then were far more honest and rational than they are now.

Gross mismanagement is the human condition - it is one of the reasons why food supply is limited; it is not a reason for optimism; it is not something that can potentially be overcome.