It’s hard to think of a historical writer more misunderstood than Thomas Malthus. A week doesn’t go by without somebody dropping his name, but only to show how wrong he was.
Take this Stephen Malanga City Journal article, “Our Vanishing Ultimate Resource: Plummeting birthrates threaten prosperity worldwide. Can America buck the trend?”
Malanga writes that the “media continue to warn us about impending environmental catastrophe and mass starvation caused by an exploding human population. These Malthusian alarms persist even though the last 200 years have proved Malthus completely wrong.”
Malthusian alarms! Well, I don’t blame Malanga, because you cannot find our good Reverend named in any context other than as a failed forecaster in the same vein as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich. Everybody thinks that Malthus predicted doom by overpopulation.
Malthus’s theory was a steady state one. He said that a species will breed up to the point at which no more of it can be fed. He made the logically undeniable point that no more of a species can exist than can be supported by the available food supply. The population will increase and stay at those levels and cannot—because there is no food to—go beyond that point. The doom of which you constantly hear is impossible. Stay here until you understand this. This applies to man, too.
What Malthus said was that a species was always at its limit—barring disasters, wars, famines, booms (exceptionally good harvests), “unnatural practices” (by which he meant abortion and homosexuality), and so on. Charles Darwin saw the brilliance of Malthus’s theory and married it to his idea of evolution: that species are always competing for food provided the mechanism to drive evolution. Those that were better at finding food, survived.
But Malthus was wrong about our species, and exactly in the opposite direction you commonly hear. Man has not bred up to the point that he can be supported by the available food supply. Man does not follow the strict theory of evolution.
NOTE: this does not imply that that theory is wrong overall; merely that it is incomplete with respect to our species; e.g., strict Darwinan “selfish genes” theory does not sufficiently explain abortion, altruism, and adoption, to name just the As.
In fact, mankind has turned out to be quite a slacker, survival-of-the-fittest-wise. As things get better, we breed not more, but less. Take a look at this picture, which shows the estimated World population since 1950.
Looks like nowhere to go but up, right? If so, this is yet another example of how to cheat with statistics. Take a look at the same numbers, but shown as the velocity, or rate of change of population.
That hatchet-notch around 1960 was caused by yet another attempt to create a socialist paradise in China (it’ll work next time, right?). Centrally-planned famine wiped out a good chunk of humanity.
However, Malthus would be at a loss—as we are—to explain the drop-off starting around 1990. True, part of it is due to good old communist stick-to-itiveness: China is vigorously aborting a fairly large fraction of its pre-women, and some pre-men, in its “one-child” policy (they misread Malthus, too).
But weirder is the trend in the West, where the beer is always cold, grocery stores overflow, over 500 channels are on demand, and there is plenty of room to grow. In short: life is good. But people are not celebrating their success in the way they would have in the days before electricity.
Following strict utilitarian principles, some of us are willingly giving up the passing on of our genes. We are not competing for our survival.
Don’t believe it? Then look at Japan. Is there are more technologically advanced civilization? Low crime, more than enough food, and talk about healthy? These people regularly pop out past the century mark. Surely, they must be beavering away producing the next generation. Here are the numbers:
The dip is obvious, even in the raw numbers. And remember: demographic forecasts are almost always right, at least at the decadel level. It’s easy to count people, and breeding new humans takes about a year. Makes it easy to guess what will happen in the short term.
But you don’t have to accept the prediction. Just look at the velocity.
A line that straight downhill is spooky: it cries out for a cause. It is such a steep slope that it appears there was a national decision, after some initial indecision before the 1970s, to stop having babies.
Can a civilization exhaust itself? Turn so inward and self-indulgent? Is there some hidden virus or amoeba acting to suppress the desire to breed? Maybe an adequate diet—in exact opposition to theory—causes that suppression.
It isn’t just Japan. It’s Italy, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and on and on. Even the “developing” countries show signs of the same disease: the better they get (materially) the less they breed. So far, the US is holding its own and still getting to business. Nobody knows why.
Malanga says it’s because we lack an overly strong government. But if he’s right, and since our government has only grown stronger, then the US will be on the same downward path soon.
Update The Pope weighs in: VATICAN ECONOMIST: RECESSION CAUSED BY LOW BIRTHRATE.