Ghost of Malthus stalks debate

By world poverty, we do not mean that some people’s retirement funds are frozen and so they cannot meet their house repayments, we mean that two billion people face every day with no income, no possessions and no visible means of support. They have less than you would, here in Australia, if you had $1 per day to purchase your food, accommodation and clothing. Like them, you would be able to afford a cup full of dirty water and just enough nutrients to remain alive.

They have no future. Every year about one percent of them die, hideously, and their children are condemned to follow their footsteps.

This is the reality of the new world order.

By 2015 there will be twenty cities collectively containing 500 million people. More than half of those people will be this poor. These urban poor are the world’s new slaves. Unlike the Africans transported to the Americas these new slaves are not fed and housed, their children are not nurtured and employed. These people are discarded if they injure themselves at work and swept out with the garbage. There are more slaves now than at any other time and those slaves are worse off than they have ever been before.

This is the reality of the new world order.

The world’s richest people, five percent of the total population, control fifty percent of the world’s wealth. The world’s poorest people, fifty percent of the total population, control five percent of the world’s wealth. Wealth has been becoming more concentrated since the end of the second world war.

The point of underlining this huge disparity in wealth, which is reflected directly in resource consumption, is because it goes to the very heart of the population debate.

Why crunch the numbers?

“The world’s population now exceeds 6.7 billion and
consumption of fuel, water, crops, fish, and forests exceeds supply.

“Every week an extra 1.5 million people add to greenhouse gas emissions and
escaping poverty is impossible without these emissions increasing.”

British Medical Journal – August 2, 2008


A number of times this year, in publications from the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian to the UK Guardian, journalists have describe the population debate as unpalatable.

The importance of the debate is defined by the assertion that no matter how much we curb consumption, population growth will eventually mean that we outstrip the capacity of the earth to support us.

The unpalatable nature of the debate is the definition of the culprit. If it focuses on reducing consumption, the question essentially comes down to, “Who is going to give up what?” If it focuses on reducing population, the proposition is even more difficult, “Which two billion people are going to die.”

Even if the debate focuses on reducing population growth, as opposed to the actual number of people, emotions run high. Population control policies such as those used in China and India are considered invasive and oppressive. Even contraception and abortion are issues that regularly tear communities apart.

The ghost of Malthus – sidebar

At the heart of the debate is the proposition put forward by Thomas Robert ‘Pop’ Malthus in 1798, “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.”

We are rabbits. We breed as fast as possible until we have consumed all the available resources and then confront famine.

On current world projections, you would have to say he got it pretty well right.

It seems natural, then, that almost every discussion of population comes back to the finite nature of resources and the elastic, if not exponential, nature of population growth. The interesting thing is that Malthus was not making a disinterested observation. He actively opposed the emerging poor laws on the basis that there was no point trying to save people from themselves, when they are doomed to face famine by their very nature.

To quote Pop himself, “No fancied equality, no agrarian regulations in their utmost extent, could remove the pressure of it even for a single century …  the argument is conclusive against the perfectibility of the mass of mankind.”

Essentially, he believed that governments should not interfere with the law of the jungle. Malthus’ world view is one of the foundations of what we now call the market economy.


The standard answer from the political wing of the environmental movement is that the world population is flattening out. The United Nations estimates that it will stabilise at around 9 billion people and, somewhat conveniently, estimates that the earth can support 10 billion people or more.

As people become more affluent and better educated, they delay having children until later in life, or decide not to have children at all. The birth rate of most European nations is below the death rate. Their native populations are shrinking and they rely on immigration to supply the labour force necessary to support the aging population.

“Educate and empower women,” David Suzuki has said a number of times, “and you will reduce population growth and increase affluence at the same time.”

This is not to say that we can sit back and wait for it all to sort itself out. That stabilisation requires a lot of pro-active education, a change in attitudes to sexuality and the balance of power between genders. It also assumes that the developed world will eventually stop increasing its consumption and more importantly stealing the resources of the poor to maintain their limitless aspirations.

Follow the money

Just two facts illustrate the geographical inequity that exists today and the blatantly distorted rhetoric used to maintain that inequity.

Firstly consider the flow of money. The flow of aid dollars peaked in 2006 at $US100 billion dollars. This is the total sum of money given to the developing world and includes, despite international agreements that it should not, money to fund armies and interest holidays on loans. Much of this money never gets to the nations themselves, it is simply transferred from one financial institution to another to fund projects that the target nation may or may not want and may or may not benefit from. Those projects might be new airports or new roads or tonnes of genetically modified seed.

In the same year, $US130billion was paid by developing countries as interest on loans made by foreign banks to their governments, often at the direction of the International Monetary Fund.

In one year we took more than $30billion from these people, while at the same time we pretended to help them by delivering projects that further enriched us. With friends like us, these poor countries need no enemies.

The second fact worth noting is the failure world diplomacy aimed at reaching international agreements. As well as the disappearance of the World Poverty conference, the trade talks known as the Doha round collapsed this year, and the climate change conference to be held in Copenhagen next year faces insurmountable difficulties.

A quick summary of the discussions around carbon dioxide emissions highlights the problem.

At Bali in December 2007, the United States negotiators held out until the last minute, claiming that unless China, India and Brazil agreed to cap their emissions there was no point in the agreement. A quick look at the left hand graph summarises the US argument. “Since these nations are becoming more affluent and have such large populations, their increase in emissions is going to outweigh any savings that we make.”

The right hand graph though shows exactly the same figures on a per capita basis, rather than a regional one. The situation looks somewhat different from that point of view. Remember, these two graphs are the proposed agreement in which developed nations reduce their emissions by 20% in 12 years and developing nations are allowed to slightly increase their standard of living. It is this proposal that the United States claims will unfairly disadvantage their economy.

Surprise, surprise


, the rich countries twist the rhetoric to prevent the poor from climbing out of poverty.

Rethinking the argument

Since the debate about population, poverty and the environment is trapped in a Malthusian whirlpool, it seems worthwhile to consider the facts from a completely different point of view.

Historically, we consider the cradle of civilisation to be the Tigris Euphrates valleys, the location of modern Iraq. Agriculture appeared here 10,000 years ago and the surplus food supply provided by agriculture allowed the first cities to develop around 7,000 years before present. From there, specialisation allowed civilisation to flourish and empires expanded as the standing army sought out extra resources from the fringe of the empire to feed the growing cities.

Remembering Gaia

The imperial pattern of resource usage contrasts markedly with the Gaian view of the planet.

The view that the planet might be an organism and that the carbon cycle, water cycle and the ocean currents are simply circulatory systems of that organism was initiated by James Lovelock. I have summarised his view of the world in these pages before, and you can find that summary at by popping ‘Lovelock’ into the search tool at that site.

Significantly for this discussion, a wide range of scientists have adopted the view of the earth as an organism to help explain the functioning of various systems. The major project founded by David Suzuki to explore how Nitrogen 16 from the oceans ended up as biomass in the great temperate rainforest on the west coast of America is a good example.

Those scientists discovered that the Salmon returning from the ocean to spawn bring tonnes of nitrogen rich protein into the forest annually. They sacrifice themselves, and the nitrogen rich protein they have stored over five years, to provide nutrients for their offspring. Bears drag their carcasses into the woods. Flies hatching in their remains are caught by migratory birds who deposit the nitrogen they contain across the forest.

Each individual salmon is a cell in a nitrogen supply system that feeds the forest from the sea. The myriad of creatures taking advantage of this exotic seafood feast are like enzymes in our body, breaking down food into nutrients for the cells that need them.

Once we begin to consider the forests of the world as her lungs, the great rivers and ocean currents as her blood stream, then the role of the world’s twenty megacities, holding more than half a billion people takes on a new and more sinister character.

If we found something in our body that consumed far more resources than the surrounding tissue, starving it in the process, we would be concerned. If we discovered that  this growth produced vast amounts of toxic waste, we would seek medical intervention. If we realised that this hungry, toxic entity was growing rapidly we would grant a medical practitioner the right to excise that growth.

Our current medical responses to cancer are not benign. Radiation, chemotherapy, surgical removal: They all involve the elimination of the mutant growth and the possible loss of surrounding tissues and organs as collateral damage.

This is the hard-nosed response to the population problem. Famine, plague and pestilence will restore the balance. A little fine tuning of the world’s trading network will target and control the speed of the excision. There are some who see this already happening, today.

If we accept this, then we accept that Malthus was right. We are rabbits, we have outstripped our food supply and are simply reaping the consequences.

Improving world’s best practice

On the face of it, the situation does not look promising. The world’s best diplomats cannot agree on a fair division of the spoils and modern medicine’s best response is selective poisoning. Fortunately, the best new medical approaches to cancer, offer a somewhat more inspiring solution.

The best research being done in the medical universities around the world is attempting to answer the questions;

l        Can we selectively starve cancer cells?

l        What causes the cells to mutate?

l        What makes cancer cells grow so fast?


There are lots of different answers emerging and, so far, none of those answers offers a clear cure for cancer but, collectively, they spell out a different approach. Instead of blasting the patient or chopping out their affected parts, these approaches attempt to address the fundamental malfunctioning of individual cells.

If we take that approach to the patient before us, the planet itself, then the key drivcrs that underpinned the emergence of civilisation in the Tigris Euphrates are under the microscope.

l        The production of a surplus in one region at the expense of another region

l        The separation of production, consumption and waste disposal in a linear fashion

l        The use of specialisation to create an exploited class on which wealth depends


These approximations of the fundamental nature of civilisation, as it has unfolded thus far, inevitably result in the exploitation of resources and a Malthusian cycle of exponential growth followed by famine and collapse.

In the same way that many people have identified interest on loans as the fundamental driver capitalism’s boom bust cycle, so these characteristics would appear to underpin unsustainable settlement and resource use.

The problem is that so much of our social infrastructure and culture is built on these fundamental tenets.

The only example of society taking on board such fundamental changes is the vegetarianising of Hindu society around 1500 before present. By preserving the muscle power of agrarian society and coincidentally ensuring the supply of milk, holy cows gave India a stability and, arguably, a level of tolerance, that saved it plunging into starvation again.

That was a religious decree, however, and we have arrived at a point in our political thinking where religion is taboo. Despite this, the most functional intentional communities on the planet today have some sort of belief system holding them together. Similarly, the lack of morality at the heart of the world’s financial markets is revolting to most ordinary people. The selfishness that drives economic rationalist society seems to be at the heart of our social and environmental problems.

Increasingly, a commonly recognised moral framework to which all individuals are subject appears to be the only way forward. The alternative would appear to be a modern Dark Age.

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