by Mary Harrington
Monday, 17
October 2022
Analysis
10:30

Was Thomas Malthus right all along?

Food may yet become the defining limitation of the human population
by Mary Harrington
He saw the future

“I will not live in the pod, I will not eat the bugs” has been a meme among the very online Right for some time. It refers to a general sense that They (whoever they are) would like to funnel all of humanity into a dystopian future in which we’re stacked in tiny, pod-like homes and fed on ‘sustainable’ protein manufactured from insects.

But is there really a sinister plot afoot to persuade us all to eat bugs? Eva Vlardingerbroek, a campaigner who rose to prominence with the Dutch farmers’ protests against carbon cuts, thinks so: she’s shared footage from a Dutch school of a programme where kids are invited to try eating insects as a ‘sustainable’ protein substitute.

One swallow does not make a summer, as they say. (Though on bug protein, we’ve seen quite a few swallows recently). But while there probably isn’t a literal conspiracy to move us all into pods and onto a diet of insects, the meme (and Vlardingerbroek) point to a real policy problem: how we get out of an oncoming impasse in the developed-world human food chain.

In 1798, Thomas Malthus published a famous essay, in which he predicted that human populations would keep multiplying to the point where the food supply would no longer be able to keep up. Malthus judged that number, in Britain, to be around 28 million (less than half of today’s population).

Demographers estimate the global population at that time was around one billion; that number has increased eightfold since then. While the growth rate is slowing, it hasn’t peaked yet. Malthus got the numbers wrong because he didn’t reckon on the oncoming ‘green revolutions’ — especially those powered by centralisation, mechanisation and command of organic and inorganic chemistry — that would make food cheap and plentiful enough to smash the barriers his estimations were based on.

But was Malthus wrong in an absolute sense? Opinion is still divided. For it’s increasingly apparent that the the ‘green revolutions’ themselves were not a permanent solution, not least because so much increased productivity relies on fossil-fuel-dependent nitrogen fertilisers. This dependence is already contributing to rising food prices, thanks to sanctions on Russia: what will happen when fossil fuels run out altogether at some undefined future moment?

Meanwhile, and relevantly for the Dutch farmers’ protests and our putative bug-eating future alike, intensive and centralised livestock farming is highly polluting, producing runoff that damages rivers even as it relies in turn on carbon-intensive production of cheap grain for feed.

Where do we go from here? None of the options look very appealing. Human populations need to stabilise or fall, or else we need to go on looking for ever cheaper and more sustainable ways of feeding a population growing into the future. And this looks like replacing what’s left of the rural economy with robotisation and multi-storey factory farms, for example. Or trying to persuade people to eat less meat, or to eat ‘alternative’ protein (such as insects).

Alternatively, it looks like trying to persuade people not to reproduce, and coping with the great many negative political, cultural and economic side-effects of long-term population shrinkage. Out on the radical fringes, ‘ecofascists’ propose still more brutal and direct solutions, most of which (rightly) provoke horror. But even shifting back to slower and more inefficient, labour-intensive food production implies a smaller population, and reversing many sociocultural changes (such as urbanisation) which most view uncritically as ‘progress’.

Faced with this wicked problem, it’s perhaps no wonder we find green protesters’ demands are often incoherent. The Van Gogh soup protest last week, for example, demanded an end to fossil fuels, but also affordable food and energy for the poorest. The brutal truth is that unless we embrace the pod and the bugs, we’re probably going to have to pick one.

Join the discussion


To join the discussion, get the free daily email and read more articles like this, sign up.

It's simple, quick and free.

Sign me up
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
51 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 month ago

Highly processed food has been disasterous for human health, yet the ‘plant-based’ diet as envisaged by BigFood looks like increasing that trend. Without whole foods, vegan or carnivorous, we’ll still wither, even if we don’t starve.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin Smith
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

As a working class lad from central Scotland, I survived on highly processed foods, along with all my mates. The life expectancy for Glasgow males then (60s-70s) was about 65. We’re all still kicking around 50 years later. Probably helped that we’d play football until midnight every night, after our dinner of toasted processed cheese on white bread toast with coke (the drink).

’Disastrous’ seems extreme, but maybe that’s a middle class perspective where you already expected to live to 80 at least. But for my group it was the smoking, drinking and glue-sniffing that were potentially disastrous. Eating the crisps in the bag before using it for the glue didn’t create much risk at all.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Stewart
Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Wouldn’t you have got crumbs stuck up your nose?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Dalton

Dunno, I avoided the glue sniffing as I just liked crisps. I suppose that made me an ‘enabler’.

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Fair enough, but where do you think all the enormously fat people have come from? Being kept alive past 70 with drugs and medical interventions, unable to walk, breath properly, losing sensation in the extremities, loss of sight, touch, smell, facing amputation… and all that before sniffing the glue…hardly a life worth living. The prevalence of metabolic syndrome, obesity, hypertension and type 2 diabetes is indeed a disaster, and not just for the individuals concerned but for society and the health instititions that have to deal with the consequences. And certainly not a middle-class issue either; the poor suffer the most. You were young, active and probably didn’t consume too many snacks between meals, and if you went to school you got meat and two veg and maybe you even had porridge for breakfast rather than coco pops. Either way you didn’t consume the level of processed carbs, sugar, high fructose corn syrrup, highly processed vegetable oils and all the seriously destructive food additives we get today in the supermarket. Anyway, glad you survived the glue.

Last edited 1 month ago by Martin Smith
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

Good points. But given the exclusive diet of pretty hard processed foods in my neck of the woods, well into a much less exercised adulthood, why was obesity and diabetes not prevalent back in the eighties? Are processed foods these days really much worse for bad stuff than back then? I’m no food expert so I wouldn’t know.
I avoided the glue, and the fags (I was very boring and sensible) constantly offered by mates as a courtesy, though they really respected my choices and didn’t apply peer pressure at all.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Stewart
Su Mac
Su Mac
1 month ago
Reply to  Martin Smith

Low quality but not the sheer quantity is my “gut instinct” on why there were less fat people in the 70’s. I believe the expectation of larger meals and bingeing in our current era is what has taken us over the edge.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

”Yuval Noah Harari | “What to Do With Useless People? My Recommendation Is Drugs & Computer Games.” By. … Yuval Noah Harari is a lead advisor for Klaus Schwab. Klaus Schwab is the author of COVID-19 / The Great Reset and the founder of The World Economic Forum. Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum Are …”

Ian – the plan is in place already.

But your post reminds me of the old days – and when you hit the real bottom and took up solvent ‘Huffing’ as it was called in the rock bottom world I drifted through – mid 1970s.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Aaron James

I dodged the drugs completely Aaron, even at Uni – as everyone else indulged I prized keeping my mind under control. I’ve always found it odd that people who bang on endlessly about protecting the environment, wholesome food and human equality have no misgivings at all about ingesting mind altering drugs, or worse, encouraging the poor to take them up.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

But this cocaine is organic and fair trade, so that’s ok, yah?

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 month ago

Speaking of people whose arguments may be vindicated after 200 years: What about the suggestion that the universal franchise would inevitably lead to the wrong people gaining and exercising power?

Last edited 1 month ago by Malcolm Knott
Kevin R
Kevin R
1 month ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

In fairness, that was also the case before the universal franchise.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 month ago
Reply to  Kevin R

True, with one reservation. The government did not need to spray money around to the population at large in order to stay in office. (They did spray it around but only to themselves, their friends and relations and MPs whose support they needed in the Commons. That cost less and was not on a scale to debase the currency.)

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
1 month ago

Of course Malthus was right in his underlying principle; the planet is a fixed resource, and cannot support infinite demands on it. Even reducing it to the simplistic population numbers versus food supply reveals its truth; in acknowledging that we might ‘have to eat bugs’ you have already admitted that the planet’s primary food sources will become inadequate. If you then consider the bug food cycle alone, ignoring all the other resource limitations such as water, energy, environmental destruction, waste, etc of an ever-growing population, you have to calculate where the bugs will be grown, what they will eat, what will be done with their waste products, and so on. Having depleted the oceans, we have to grow fish ‘in the lab’ – fish farms. How’s that working out? We have the choice of either increasing numbers of people living on the edge of a steadily wasting planet, or managing numbers downwards to achieve balanced quality and sustainability of life, all life.

Simon B
Simon B
1 month ago

Apart from the technical aspect of food production, I’d like to include eating itself as a cultural problem. I only realised after having stayed at various Buddhist and Catholic monasteries how absurd the eating habits of the average westerner and no doubt well-off person are. Both in terms of quantity and quality. Taking only what one needs is unheard of. Is it supposed to be Christmas every day? A christless Christmas though, no context, or special occasion just ‘hitting the spot’ until we drop.

Eating has become food consumption and is part of the permanent short-term gratification cycle of modern life. Modern life has demanded man to abandon any marvel and gratitude and replaced these with the economically handy attitude of a child that doesnt want to eat her beans. (And then orders a 15 Pound Taco with ingredients from 24 countries instead, only to pop it on the gram for extra endorphins)

Try eating 2 instead of 3 meals a day and ask yourself why you are eating it. Believe me you will live just as fine. Ow and for heavens sake, buy local. Not just for the environment but for the sake of being human on the physical planet instead of the metaverse.

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
1 month ago

In all the comments so far not one person has mentioned any species other than Homo sapiens (and “insects” of which there are millions of species). We are crowding out other species all of which have a place in our ecosystems and we will be by far the poorer for our children to never see a living polar bear cheetah or plenty of less charismatic species as well. I campaigned on population back in the 1960s but the movement was undermined because capitalism needs more consumers and more workers in order to fuel “growth”. I also taught about “global warming “ as it was called then. So many opportunities were missed makes me very sad!!!

Last edited 1 month ago by Alison Wren
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago
Reply to  Alison Wren

Why stop at polar bears and cheetah’s? What about Saber Tooth Tigers, Woolly Mammoths and the Dinosaurs?

James Longfield
James Longfield
1 month ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

All killed by indigenous people of their time (except dinosaurs)

James Longfield
James Longfield
1 month ago
Reply to  Alison Wren

You are the problem

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago

I’m hugely in favour of reducing the overall human population; the question is very much how that happens and in which sections of the world it happens.
Apropos of the top of my head, a stable population of around say, 60 million for the UK might seem ideal. That would very much depend on how the demographics between different groups played out though. Once the “baby-boomer” generation (of which i’m a member) has passed, the current imbalances in age groups should become stabilised and with less pressure on housing, health and other services, perhaps the standard 2.1 replacement rate for the population could be achieved again (not exactly sure what the rate is now but think it’s below that rate).
In terms of ethnicity, differentials in the replacement rate could potentially lead to tensions, but that doesn’t have to be the case providing the successive generations following primary immigration more successfully integrate within the UK. Urban ghettos lacking such integration (including social class mobility) need to be addressed, and that will be very far from easy. We saw in the recent essay on the French banlieue that some Western nations are on the verge of intractability in that regard.
So it’s not the case that a reduced population on it’s own might be preferable, but that a reduced population might provide more favourable circumstances for greater integration and social harmony. This addresses just the UK of course. How that plays out in the rest of the world, with the pressures of mass migration into more developed nations, is the bigger question.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The only way it happens is by force.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 month ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Either by human force or by God.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 month ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

That is nonsense. Studies show that the growth of Africa would stop if you simply gave women who wanted contraception, contraception. It’s a total lie that reducing populations is tantamount to a coercive one child policy.

George H
George H
1 month ago

It has often been assumed that giving women access to contraception in sub-Saharan Africa would reduce population growth. But that isn’t what actual studies show at all. What the studies show is that women in SSA (on average obviously) actually have fewer children than their ideal desired family size.

For example, the total fertility rate (the number of children the average woman has over her reproductive life) in Niger is approximately 7, while women’s desired number of children is approximately 9.

So, while you’re not exactly wrong to say that the population would drop if access to contraception were provided to women who wanted it, the issue is that in the countries with the highest fertility rates, like Niger (and that’s just an example; similar studies have been done in several countries), they don’t want it.

There are cultural issues at play here that aren’t amenable to simple technical solutions.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

Is there not a more optimistic outlook than Mary offers?
It seems that once people become prosperous, they stop having such large families. Almost all developed countries have fewer babies than are necessary to replace their current populations.
And the birthrate is still falling.
As the population falls – assuming technological innovation can replace the work that would have been done by the missing people – food and energy scarcity stop being issues. Lower population also solves global warming and other environmental problems.
In a couple of hundred years time we might be back to 1850 population levels but with 22nd Century technology.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matt M
Jill Corel
Jill Corel
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Yes MattM, there is a more optimistic outlook. This is a very heartening discussion “Superabundance: The Age of Plenty”:
Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley are co-authors of the new book, “Super Abundance”. They sit down with Dr Jordan B Peterson to discuss their studies into overpopulation, the myths surrounding the subject, and how academia has created a new philosophy that demonizes modern man simply for existing.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6iC_hY4qhyk

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Jill Corel

Thanks Jill. I will check it out.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 month ago
Reply to  Jill Corel

Talk about just in time “Super Abundance”!
Thanks Jill x2.

D Glover
D Glover
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

I see what you did there. You followed the statement ‘And the birthrate is still falling.’ with ‘As the population falls’
The birthrate in the UK is about  1.8 babies per woman, but the population is rising every year.
Our PM is quite comfortable with this because her three priorities are growth, growth and growth. You only get those in a rising population.
Malthus wasn’t so far off the mark with his estimate of the carrying capacity of Britain. We feed 68 million people only because we import nearly half their food. Stop those imports for any reason and you’ll feel the force of Malthusian logic, followed by Darwinian competition.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 month ago
Reply to  D Glover

Obviously if you remove the technology that enables those food imports, Malthus arrives at truth. But since the 1850’s we have been ramping up technology at an even faster pace to meet our needs.
And growing population with a declining replacement birth rate implies other imports – people.
Growth in development does not imply more people growth but better use of resources. We have seen huge improvements in productivity over time; those improvements were the source of growth. Government policy does influence choices in creating those improvements. Sometimes they actually work. We muddle along.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  D Glover

Yes it is an interesting question: stop immigration and adapt to lower population and lower economic growth (the Japan model) or keep high levels of immigration and deal with the cultural and social impact of population growth (the US model).

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt M

Anybody looking at the Japanese can see a real population decline and China is now arriving in a similar demographic decline. Wealthy nations have a declining birth rate supplemented by new arrivals. The cultural effects are hard to assess but evolution suggests the hardiest will replace the weak. Whether the arrivals can continue producing the technology gains is a mystery to play over the next 50 years.
The descendants of the Maya hardly know of the great culture now buried in the jungle. Few today could build such structures without modern metal tools.

Paul Mathews
Paul Mathews
1 month ago

at least two fundamental flaws with Malthus’ theory:
 
1. Malthus’ theory centred around the “‘law’ of diminishing returns”, which took no account of equal progress in science and technology and other factors to keep abreast of fulfilling the needs of a growing population; therefore, there can not be any necessary (over) population issue.
 
2. It follows, therefore, that it can be neither a ‘law’ nor a ‘law of nature’ regarding population, but in fact, as history has shown, such a ‘law’ is conditional and historical.
 
It follows, then, that if no such law exists then the Malthusian principle of population is left without any theoretical basis.

Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Mathews

Advances in science and technology are difficult to predict. Anyone who predicts that those advances will always outpace population growth will have the very same problem – they are simply guessing at unpredictable events. But the concept that population growth unchecked will eventually outpace resources, resulting in large loss of life is not disproved just because we can’t predict the date.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

Of course one can’t prove a negative. It’s just that innovation has steadily created an excess of prosperity. Not to say that there will be periods and places where death reduces resource competition.

Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

How do complex systems fail? Gradually, then all at once.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

And if we can get used to being permanently hooked up to social media to manage our lives along with VR headsets and intravenous feeds, I think the robots will find it quite easy to increase our pod population even more.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

Indeed. The man’s main problem was the problem of timing. Pity that he didn’t predict that.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

Ecologists can and do predict carrying capacities for most other species.

Any well trained one will immediately tell you, for example, how many elephants should be in a national park to prevent widespread habitat loss and the death of the same elephants shortly thereafter.

It’s the arrogance of man to presume technology renders ecological equations wrong in both principle and practice when applied to him.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
1 month ago

World Bank Blog May 2022India seeks to arrest its alarming decline in groundwater

JOHN ROOME

Today, groundwater is the only source of water for most of India’s people, providing the bulk of water for farming and domestic use. 

While groundwater spurred the Green Revolution that made India a food-secure nation, the widespread extraction of this precious resource has led to its alarming decline. With climate change making rainfall patterns increasingly unpredictable, groundwater will assume even more importance.
Already, almost two-thirds – 63 percent – of India’s districts are threatened by falling groundwater levels. In many cases, this water is becoming contaminated. Worryingly, poverty rates are 9-10 percent higher in districts where groundwater tables have fallen below 8 meters, leaving small farmers particularly vulnerable. If current trends persist, at least 25 percent of India’s agriculture will be at risk.

Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago

In lab experiments with various different species, if the food supply remains abundant, population growth invariably ends quite abruptly when the species is completely killed off by its own waste products. But don’t worry – science will always save us.

Jim R
Jim R
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim R

“Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

It’s odd how everyone, including Mary, harps on the science and technology solutions, when there are simpler, less controversial things we could do.
All the fancy fertiliser won’t help if a farmer doesn’t have a road to bring his crop to market. Roads, rails and ports are essential, and also add to human flourishing by breaking down the walls of isolation.
Some method of controlling the commodity markets would prevent every “short-fall” from turning into a crisis. As it stands now, every dip in crop yield these to large price hikes. But we all know that yields vary from year to year. And we know that we can do something to protect the poor of our world.
We handle, on an industrial scale, many very dangerous and noxious substances in order to create the reality we live in. Isn’t there something that can be done with all that livestock waste? It’s full of the chemicals that plants need to thrive. Is any one working on extracting them for fertilizer?

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 month ago

“…crop yield leads to large price hikes.” Woops.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago

Malthusianism is like a zombie that refuses to die because it’s basically an end of the world prophecy that sounds scientific enough to pass as actual science, or at least philosophy, but it hits all the same emotional buttons. First, a coming calamity without any hard mathematical rules, just a prediction for something bad that will happen “eventually.” Second, an appeal to morality for mankind to repent for their greedy sinful ways, and a path to possible salvation through same. Did I mention that Malthus was a cleric? For a bunch of people who claim to reject religion, environmentalists seem like an awfully preachy bunch. I wonder if people would still take them seriously if they stood on corners holding signs that say “Repent, for the Malthusian collapse is nigh”

Jürg Gassmann
Jürg Gassmann
1 month ago

I’m not worried about the survival of the planet or life on earth or of mankind. Even a nuclear holocaust will only kill most of us, not all of us. Mother nature will have millions of years to recover, but recover she will.
I AM worried about the survival of civilisation. And for the survival of civilisation, we cannot accommodate an ever growing population with anything approaching our current levels of resource utilisation. I don’t see greater population numbers as a desirable objective just for the sake of it.
The recipe for peaceful population reduction is simple, easy, and tested: Increased prosperity and equal rights for women. It’s not a quick fix, but it is a reliable, long-term and sustainable fix.
Also, while populations are still increasing, the trends are encouraging – India last year saw a change in direction in its population curve, meaning that within about a generation, new births will no longer replace deaths (i.e. the population will no longer grow but overall fall).
We have a white-knuckle ride for the next two to three decades, but “solutions” based on ideologies – any ideology – are inimical to civilisation and humanity.

Saul Sorenti
Saul Sorenti
1 month ago

The only problem here is how bugs currently taste. GM bugs of the future may well be as flavourful as gourmet jelly beans and as nutritious as a cow

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
1 month ago
Reply to  Saul Sorenti

Are bugs that nutritious for humans? Are we capable of digesting them appropriately over the long term. They seem fine for snacks and are quite popular in some places, so much so we had to learn how to cultivate them because we decimated wild grasshoppers for snacks.

Gary Cruse
Gary Cruse
1 month ago

Will not as opposed to cannot defines the crossroads the author seems to be at. Our refusal to allow farmers to farm is not a scarcity.
Much like barking about low birth rates in some countries, who’s stopping you? We’re not puppets.

All other argumentation collapses on this point. Move along, folks, the whaaambulance is on the way.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

Population numbers in Western countries and the developed East are falling and eventually the rest of the world will follow the same trajectory. Marriage is becoming less and less popular and the development of advanced AI “pleasure” dolls will only accelerate these changes.
There will be billions fewer people in time to save our diets.

Last edited 1 month ago by William Shaw
My 2 cents
My 2 cents
1 month ago

Didn’t someone invent fertiliser? I recall an article saying little Holland makes enough food for all of Europe.