Malthus is in the air

The original dismal economist did not anticipate the productivity explosion bequeathed by technology. But when does the magic stop?

Published April 21, 2008 4:09PM (EDT)

There's nothing like a broad-based spike in commodity prices to bring back the ghost of Malthus. The age of scarcity is suddenly upon us, and with the global population growing at about 80 million a year, everyone wants to know: Are we at the end of the line?

In his Monday New York Times column, "Running Out of Planet to Exploit," Paul Krugman reviews the evidence and concludes, "Don't look now, but the good times may have just stopped rolling."

Limits to growth, anyone?

...Concerns about what happens when an ever-growing world economy pushes up against the limits of a finite planet ring truer now than they did in the 1970s.

But over at BusinessWeek chief economist Michael Mandel argues in "Throw Malthus Off the Bus" that the key to escaping the bottleneck of resource constraints, pretty much ever since the Industrial Revolution began, has been productivity growth based on increases in knowledge, which he defines as including both "business know-how and technology." And knowledge is a theoretically unlimited resource.

Andrew Pollack's excellent front page New York Times article, "In Lean Times, Biotech Grains Are Less Taboo" offers an provocative intersection of these two points of view. High prices for grains are forcing previously picky customers to forgo their opposition to genetic modification. When the Malthusian push becomes a shove, technology will come to the rescue.

Biotech proponents see genetically modified crops as one more weapon in the arsenal of technological productivity enhancers that will enable humanity to continue slipping out of the tightening noose formed by a burgeoning population rapaciously exhausting finite resources. Biotech opponents variously see genetically modified organisms as a crime against nature, a Pandora's Box of ecological catastrophe waiting to happen, and fundamentally dependent on a petroleum-based infrastructure that itself is not sustainable. The tension at play here -- will science save us, or destroy us? -- is an ever-popular theme at How the World Works. The surge in food (and oil) prices is suggesting that a showdown between the opposing camps is far more imminent than might have been suspected, even just a year ago.

Only the most foolhardy would attempt to make a prediction as to how it will all play out. But with global population numbers predicted to top out at 9 billion by 2050, it does seem safe to predict this: The question of whether humanity will escape a Malthusian fate will likely be answered, if not in my lifetime, then in my children's. And considering how long humans have been bumbling about, that's a pretty amazing prospect to consider.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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