Filed under: climate change, Oceania, sustainability, Uncategorized | Tags: Boserup, Innovation, Malthus
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?
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