Putting the life back in science fiction

The Malthus-Boserup Ratchet
February 7, 2017, 11:05 pm
Filed under: climate change, Oceania, sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

This is an idea I picked up from Patrick Kirch.  While it is used to explain population growth by Polynesian archaeologists, I’m starting to wonder if it can be repurposed to a wider context.  The basic idea starts with the notion that, just perhaps, Malthus was wrong.

For those who don’t remember, Malthus was famous for the idea that populations expand geometrically, food supply expands arithmatically, and that ultimately there’s famine that brings populations back down to carrying capacity.  This is the ecologist’s version of it, which we get by learning about how Darwin repurposed Malthus, not by reading his original essay.

Esther Boserup (Wikipedia link),  was a Danish agricultural economist, and the catchy quote to remember her by is that “the power of ingenuity would always outmatch that of demand.”  Her 1965 book, The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The economics of agrarian change under population pressure, can be boiled down to “necessity is the mother of invention.”  When farm production stalls, farmers generally find ways to intensify their production, from shortening swiddening cycles to radically switching from swiddening to perennial gardening, and so on.  Her work provoked a whole flurry of research, both for and against, but the general idea is that people innovate to find their way around Malthusian limits.  While this is not always true (witness, say, Easter Island, the Maya, the Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloans, Viking Greenlanders, and others in Jared Diamond’s Collapse), it seems to be generally true, at least in the last few hundred years.

In Polynesia, with its fairly limited set of islands and crop plants, it should be no surprise that groups in different archipelagos independently (so far as we know) discovered some of the same tricks, as well as inventing some of their own.  These new tricks include everything from new crops (sweet potato from South America) to many new cultivars (Hawaiians created dozens of taro cultivars), to various ways of intensified farming and of organizing the farmers into groups, or into a low class of peasantry in the case of Hawai’i.

The problem is, of course, Easter Island, which was far from alone in experiencing famines and catastrophic battles.  Growing a population through innovation only works so long as you can keep innovating.  Fail to innovate when population pressures are high, and you get a Malthusian famine decreasing your population the hard way.

That’s the essence of the Boserup-Malthus ratchet.  The archaeologists who proposed the idea suggested that innovations happened most radically when populations hit Malthusian limits.  But often war happened too, as people fought for decreasing resources.  The key question was whether a particular island society could innovate its way out of its crisis or not.  This is an oversimplification, of course.  If you look at Easter Island (Rapa Nui), they apparently went through a population crash, but even afterwords, they were innovating both culturally and with their agriculture.

Now, this might sound all quaint and charming, but I think it’s useful to think of right now as a ratchet moment with our fossil fuel-based energy system.  There are innovations in renewable energy taking off right and left, but critical systems, like transportation, commerce, and warfighting all still depend on oil.  If we don’t innovate out of using fossil fuels entirely, we face a Malthusian disaster exacerbated by climate change making the planet less habitable for humans.  If we do innovate, we face a still-growing population, until we fail to innovate, and face a Malthusian crash.  It’s a grim situation, but it’s worth remembering that for every Easter Island crashlanding, there’s a place like Tikopia where, through various forms of population control, they’ve kept the island from crashing until the present day.

Just a brief thought to pass the time.  My question is, should we root for the innovators right now, or not?


17 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Yes, we should innovate, if only because it buys us time. While “kicking the can down the road” has become a term of derision, it can be a useful tactic, especially if not doing so causes immediate deaths. This may have dire consequences down the road, but since we cannot know what innovations are possible, that should be removed from the equation.

As to whether Malthus was wrong, I think that despite innovations (which are likely to be very slow) populations were, by and large, kept in check by food production, coupled with disease outbreaks and war.

Comment by Alexander Tolley

So far as I know, the Tikopians and other islanders used a combination of abortion, infanticide, ceilbacy, and exile to keep their populations numbers down. Modern society has innovated to include birth control, which is even more humane. The problem with using famine as a population control method is that it’s easy to get into a chaotic situation where you also have civil unrest and disease. It’s not a very controllable solution.

Comment by Heteromeles

I certainly do not endorse traditional Malthusian solutions. I am optimistic that education of women and moving to cities for non-farm work is the best way to control population growth and get on the path to population decline.

As I’ve said before in response to your dire Dx for California, I think vertical farms, factory foodstuff production, backyard farming, etc are all innovations that will stave off the Malthusian demon. Africa has very low crop productivity because there is not much fertilizer use. Cheap, sustainable ways to make nitrogen fertilizer would be helpful, as well as security to prevent theft and crop destruction. Phosphorus recycling is going to be important too.

Water is going to be a huge concern in some areas, such as the ME is currently experiencing. I’m encouraged by various approaches to attcak this problem, from better farming techniques, cheaper desalination, ag water recycling and even small scale water extraction from the air.

It just feels like a race between ignorance and education. I trust education will win, but then I have an Enlightenment bias.

As you point out, societies have managed the goal in various ways. But we live in a world that pretty much requires economic growth for a variety of reasons. Societies cannot remain relatively static in such an environment. Nor would I wish them to become so, especially if they revert to the stable state of monarchy with highly unequal wealth and freedom for most of the population.

Comment by alexandertolley

Yes, keep innovating. Half of the world’s nations have already reached sub-replacement fertility. Many others are on track to reach it. It looks like the demographic transition has been delayed indefinitely in Africa, but things are looking better elsewhere. No doubt things will get ugly if a Malthusian crisis prompts a wave of refugees from Africa to other regions (witness the ugly reaction to Syrian refugees), but there’s reason to believe that most regions won’t have Malthusian crises of their own, if innovation/adaptation can keep up for a few more decades.

I fear I might be misunderstanding your question though, because I don’t see how (e.g.) fighting wars with fossil fueled machines (or becoming unable to fight wars with fossil fueled machines, for that matter) either constitutes or causes a Malthusian disaster. I see how wars in general can precipitate such disasters — preventing planting/harvesting/distribution of crops — but I feel like there’s an implication I’m missing.

Comment by Matt

Yes, that was obtuse. Perhaps it’s my background in studying symbioses, but I’m a big fan of Mexican standoffs. Symbioses seem to work as mutualisms when both partners have the ability to punish each other for cheating to a level that will stop the cheating. If they can’t stop the cheating, the relationship devolves into parasitism.

Admittedly I’m not at all fond of war, but I’m even less fond of getting conquered. The problem with a country getting rid of its military is that it loses the ready ability to deter armed coercion. I’m reading about non-violent conflict, so I understand that there’s a role for non-violent defense as well. Still, I think there’s a role for militaries in civilization. Since they’re currently petroleum powered (except for the rare nuclear vessels), getting rid of petroleum infrastructure destabilizes things. For me, the tie between petroleum and military power is one of the key problems we have to solve, if we don’t want to get into Hot Earth Dreams territory.

Comment by Heteromeles

Seems to me that the US is doing what it can to hang on to petroleum for its military. Regardless of what Donald Trump claims to believe, the military I am sure is aware of the problems with fossil fuel dependence. In WWII both Japan and Germany ran out of fuel before the US did and so the US won. I suspect the US military is hoping to be the last one with any gas left in the tank. After that, having held off invasion from other militaries the US empire can safely transition to a petroleum free military along with the rest of the world. In the meantime, the US will continue to have two oceans between itself and would-be invaders.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

I am commenting on my own comment about the US being the last country with petroleum for its military. I think that is the hope of America’s military planners. However, there is Russia which has a decent military and a domestic supply of oil and so it will be in a good position to have the last military with oil. The US will run out before Russia unless the US can manage to somehow get control of Russia’s oil without getting into a mutually destructive nuclear exchange with Russia. Or maybe the US can hang on to Mid East oil and outlast Russia. Who knows. Maybe petroleum disarmament pacts round the world along the lines of nuclear disarmament to maintain a balance of power across the world. (not holding my breath)

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Good points. Here’s what little I know about oil:
–Take all figures about how much is left with a grain of salt. Everybody’s got reason to hide what they know.
–That said, publicly available information can be found here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_proven_oil_reserves). Were I looking for El Cheeto Grande’s first invasion target, I’d expect him to start praying that some Venezuelan terrorists blow up a post office in the US in the next few years. After all, the bugger doesn’t want to extend humanitarian aid to failed states (this assumes the oil reserve figures are right, and likely they are not). Otherwise, you can read a lot about international politics by looking at those numbers.

Comment by Heteromeles

Co-incidentally this article on Malthusian economics appeared in my Feedly feed this morning.


The main point I took from it was that Malthusianism implied a move towards both a stagnant population and stagnant growth absent productivity shocks but that this could happen at a variety of living standards and you had to watch out for service sector productivity.

Comment by DanielDWilliam

Good article, I’d recommend it to everyone. Although the language is different, I’d suggest that when you combine the author’s take on Malthusian limits with shocks (positive and negative, aka black swans) to the system, plus lag times as such shocks work their way through the system, you get such massive complexities that virtually any narrative (progress, decadence, etc.) is possible. That’s worth remembering with the current desires on the US right to return the place to the way it was back in the 1950s.

Comment by Heteromeles

The thing to keep in mind is that there are thermodynamic limits to populations and that thermodynamic limits are difficult to innovate around. Our energy budget is ultimately limited to how much sunshine reaches the earth. Whatever innovation the Polynesians made were within the solar budget. Innovations like fusion reactors which attempt to circumvent solar limits haven’t materialized so far.
I personally do not see contraction of world population in line with declining fossil fuel extraction as a tragedy. Is the upcoming uptick in baby boomer deaths a tragedy? That people die is not a tragedy. Perhaps that a lot of people die young is a tragedy. That a lot of midlife productive people die prematurely is perhaps a tragedy for the culture that they live in, given that they take a lot of knowledge to the grave, thereby impoverishing their culture.
Certainly, the decline of fossil fuel production will call for innovation in both low energy input farming methods and innovation in social arrangements to get more people to farm. And along with that there will be innovations in or rediscovery of subsistence living and nomadic cultural technologies.

Comment by Wolfgang Brinck

Is there a name for the kind of variation of the Jevons paradox we seem to be in now? The scenario[1] is where fossil fuel consumption rate is now constant at it’s highest ever level. But GDP is still growing. So innovation and the roll out of renewables is not fixing the fundamental problem, but it is allowing us to keep on growing. At least for a bit.

[1]The figures on which the scenario are uncertain, prone to later adjustment and coming from people with a vested interest in portraying optimism. And since atmospheric CO2 concentration is rising faster than ever, fossil fuel consumption rate may not actually be static.

Comment by Julian Bond

Aren’t we actually in a Jevon’s paradox situation? Both higher energy efficiency for transportation coupled with extraction better techniques has reduced specific use, reduced costs and resulted in maintained growth.

While renewables are rapidly gaining market share (from a very low level) for electrical generation, fossil fuels remain the current choice for transportation because of higher stored energy density. Changes will rely on more powerful batteries, or cheap fuel cells and cheap non-fossil fuel hydrogen sources, plus a non-fossil fuel infrastructure. This will take time as a lot of manufacturing processes are well established and plant with long operational lifetimes are well amortized. I think costs like carbon taxes will be needed to shift energy choices more quickly.

During the last US administration, it was claimed that uncertainty over fossil fuels was driving electrical generation towards renewables. The new administration is very pro fossil fuels, so it will be interesting to see what impact, if any, this has on the selection of new power stations in the US.

Comment by Alex olley

It amazes me that building new infrastructure isn’t normally reported as growth, while new fossil fuel pipelines are, at least in the mainstream media. Part of this is propaganda and part of this is bias. If there’s a key point in here, it’s that the data are murky (as Julian pointed out), and both the fossil fuel industry and the renewables industry have propaganda going, with the fossil fuels industry arguably producing more. As a result, straight-up logic is not quite as useful a guide as one might hope here.

Comment by Heteromeles

“It amazes me that building new infrastructure isn’t normally reported as growth”.

I don’t understand your point. New infrastructure shows up in GDP. Repair also shows up in GDP, although the infrastructure itself isn’t increased, just maintaining its value to offset depreciation. Growth is usually measured as increases in real GDP.

Comment by alexandertolley

That’s what I get for writing too quickly. Rebuilding cities to run on renewable electricity is looked at as a profound disruption that’s questionable at best. Building new pipelines and new gas plants is looked at as necessary growth. I mean this in a political and public messaging sense, not in an accounting sense. In the latter case, both get counted as growth.

Comment by Heteromeles

If we look at jobs growth however, renewables, especially solar, is far more attractive than pipelines as the industry is relatively labor intensive, especially for domestic installations.

I think the messaging I hear is still that:
1. fossil fuels dominate the economy as an energy supply
2. Renewables cannot fully substitute either for performance or on cost.
3. Ergo, hobbling the fossil fuel industry will slow down GDEP growth.

The message has subtly changed since price and performance of renewables has rapidly improved. I still see the “the sun doesn’t shine at night” argument. It is certainly true that suddenly reigning back fossil fuels could have an impact on GDP primarily via reduction of transportation. However the argument then switches to “so we MUST have business as usual. Let the market decide. (GW isn’t true anyway)” rather than: how do we transition as fast as possible away from fossil fuels. Tipping the market scales in various ways seems quite acceptable to me, given the costs of GW even without the hot dreams scenario.

Comment by alexandertolley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: