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How susceptible are we to a Malthusian catastrophe?

Forget the Mayan Doomspeak. Given the upward trajectory of world population growth which is estimated to reach 9 billion in the coming years, how likely are we to run into a shortage of resources? We live in a world where we depend so deeply on fossil fuels to run our lives, and nuclear energy seems like the only high-powered alternative. Energy substitutes can be developed and marketed just as easily, so I don't think we are hanging at the edge of a cliff.

Nevertheless, do you think our energy innovations might be outpaced by ever-growing consumption? If yes, is this one of those problems that no one wants to talk about because nobody has a game plan?

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    Apr 16 2012: @David Hamilton

    "Isn't this the exact same double think, as... for example, running for government office, on the platform, that the government is incapable of solving problems?"

    well, depends. on its face, it is. but what if the goal is to make things better if we can't make it perfect? a smaller government is closer to the non-aggression principle than a large government. so it might work as a makeshift temporary solution.
  • Apr 14 2012: Just a personal opinion without scientific value.
    The problem is not energy. The problem is politicians.
    The present economic crisis was predicted long ago by a man named Kondratief and came perfectly in time.
    Nevertheless every politician is saying today that the crisis was unpredictable.
    The same with energy. Both North America an Western Europe have the means to generate each more than 4,000,000 Mw electrical power without needing any fuel at all !!! Far more than ever is needed. And everybody seems to be blind and unable to see it.
  • Apr 12 2012: Hello Ethan

    Being human we are suseptible to 'Malthusian' type catastrophes of our own making. The archaeological record is full of failed societies and failed civilizations, Easter Island springs to mind as an obvious example. Amusingly enough, given your first sentence, there's the up and down example of the Maya, with at least two cycles of expansion and collapse. There are however examples of socities which have adapted to the challenges facing them and prevented collapse. Frequently quoted examples would be the King of the islanders of Tonga archipelago who instituted a top down approach to environmental management and Papua New Guniea with it's bottom up approach to environmental management.

    It all seems to depend on being adaptable and innovative in the face of challenges and having an ability to make tough choices where needed. If we look at what we might loosely call technological, global society it seems to have an enormous capacity to both innovate it's way out of any problems facing it and an equal capacity to keep on running blindly off the cliff edge thinking it is doing the right thing.

    Hopefully we humans can use our intelligence and adaptability to innovate our way out of the limits we seem to be banging our heads against at the moment, with population and more importantly the impact of that population on our environment. Currently I think somewhere in the middle of using and powering a lot less stuff and having much cleaner methods of production lies the way out of our problems, if those problems are as crticial as the evidence seems to be suggesting.
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    Apr 11 2012: If you’re speculating on a sudden drop in global population then I consider the biggest risks to be WW3 or a global pandemic - probably flu.

    On the positive side, I am encouraged by the large number of people, from all parts of the world, who are choosing to have fewer children, or even a single child. China took the lead over 30 years ago, but many wealthier Indian families are also seeing the benefits. This is even happening in catholic countries, with Italy having one of the lowest birth rates in Europe.

    This seems to be happening in all countries where infant mortality is falling. So the best way to reduce the global population is to invest in measures that will give parents the expectation that their children will survive. The best way to achieve this is to invest massively in public sanitation - clean water supplies and sewage disposal / treatment systems. Followed by universal basic healthcare and education. The cherry on top would be the provision of low cost credit for business start-ups.
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    Apr 11 2012: Probability theory and statistical analysis people boldly stated during construction that the recent nuclear disaster in Japan "could not happen". Do you want their theory about the liklihood of a Natural Regulation event in the future? A case can be made for a population deficit right now. If there is an imbalance between production and consumption, I said IF there is, it could be that the excess is on the supply side which rules-out a Malthusian limiting event. I don't share your optimism that we are not hanging on the edge of a cliff. I think we are cliff hanging but it has a moral, not a physical cause. What our Creator predicted (in the King James Bible) is more relevant than what Mr. Malthuse theorized.
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      Apr 12 2012: Hey Edward,

      Could you quote or leave a reference of this prediction in the Bible? I am interested in comparing the two theoris. =)
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        Apr 12 2012: Sure Derek. Read chapters 20 and 21 from the last book in the Bible, called Revelation. Keep your mind open and think clearly as you read. Once you read chapter 20 there is a button at the top where you can select "Next Chapter". Here is a link to the King James Bible:
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      Apr 12 2012: "Probability theory and statistical analysis people boldly stated during construction that the recent nuclear disaster in Japan "could not happen""

      eeer, uhm. what? nobody told anything like that. actually, the probabilities of such events are estimated, and kept low. but never at zero.
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        Apr 12 2012: Your challenge stands unrefuted because I do not have a transcript of the TED talk I quoted. However, isn't it consistent with practice to say an event "cannot happen" when the calculated probability of it happening is exceedingly unlikely? I think that is the intent, if not the forensically valid form. Thank you Kristzian.
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          Apr 12 2012: i can imagine someone saying causally that such events has no chance to happen. but if you read any article on the subject, you see that there are estimated and calculated probabilities associated with every event.
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    Apr 11 2012: We are susceptible to a Malthusian 'catastrophe' , it wouldn't be a a catastrophe , it would be just a natural regulation .
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    Apr 11 2012: We have enough space to feed all people on the planet now and then some more. But the distribution of food and energy is very off. People in western countries use most of the earths food and energy-resources. We consume more than we need; if this changes (downward), then there is more than enough food and energy
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    Apr 11 2012: in the last 50 years, total land used for crops did not increase. yield increased threefold. with technology, we can use our resources more effectively.

    it is hard to see any limit on how many people the earth can feed and serve. with future technologies in our sight, the number can be 10 billion, 100 billion, who knows?
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      Apr 11 2012: Yes, but anyway, in my opinion those billions don't need food so much as freedom and responsibility. Recently I am really not in a mood for masses :)
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        Apr 11 2012: as things go today, we will have less and less freedom and responsibility in the near future. if you want to worsen your mood further, just make a quick stastics about TED conversations calling for more centralization and control on one side, and those that call for more freedom on the other side.

        (ps: romney is running against obama this year)
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          Apr 11 2012: On the one side, TEDsters are intellectuals and these are always left-leaning.
          On the other side, we have the cream of the crop here, and indeed, those people are the leaders.

          But what can I do? jump to the river?

          American presidents are all the same to me. The downfall of this country is truly stunning.

          How come a conservative and free society suddenly gives in to all this "progressive" european mumbo jumbo? Social security, homosexual marriages, banning death penalty, becoming "pussies" in one word.

          Who is behind this? Show yourself! :)
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        Apr 11 2012: "are intellectuals and these are always left-leaning."

        how can we change that? why is that that intellectuals fall for misconceptions several hundred years old? like malthusianism, mercantilism, marxism and such.
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          Apr 11 2012: If you read Hayek then you probably already know.

          They believe in the power of human intellect and will never approve of something like spontaneous order. They like to tamper and experiment, looking for a better, fairer world, whatever. Take Einstein for example and read what he had to say as far as politics is concerned - hot hot air!

          That is why I am very suspicious of any conscious attempt to design something. Unfortunately only handful of people understand the fallacies of the human mind. Austrian economists were humble enough to admit that they did not possess all knowledge in the world.

          The world is led, however, by technocrats (currently financial technocrats-designers-of-euro-etc) and it will bring it to its knees again. I bet!
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        Apr 11 2012: they believe in the human intellect, but they refuse to believe in the human intellect of the masses. what kind of doublethink is that? i tell you what kind: they believe in their own intellect, but they don't believe in the intellect of the average guy. elitism, it is. shame on them.

        they accuse us of having no empathy. we do have. we handle everyone the exact same way. they don't have! they assume some people are just too dumb to make decisions.

        call yourself a progressive, a technocrat or whatever. either you want to rule or not. either you know how other people should live, or not. if you want to rule, shame on you. if you do not, you are one of us. we want cooperation, we don't want coercion. that is the essence. everything else is just noise.
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          Apr 12 2012: "either you want to rule or not. either you know how other people should live, or not. if you want to rule, shame on you. if you do not, you are one of us. we want cooperation, we don't want coercion. that is the essence. everything else is just noise."

          Hear Hear, well said! You sir are a scholar and a gentleman.

          I think this has something to do with your question "how can we change that?"

          The other thing I notice is that the lesser the intelligence the more important the person's view is of self. This becomes a self inflicted sequestering oneself from the fruits of communication.

          I do think that Ayn Rand had it right as with the collective verses the individual. Collectives are not real bright.
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          Apr 16 2012: Isn't this the exact same double think, as... for example, running for government office, on the platform, that the government is incapable of solving problems?

          Really? Then... Why do you want the job?

          No one in government... has ever been a conservative... Conservatives produce things... I'd rather elect a sappy hippy, who thinks he's doing good, than a lier. Every conservative politician, who has ever lived, is bold faced, and blatantly, lying to everyones face. "Government is wasteful and inefficient... Now, pay me a hundred thousand dollars a year to go to the capitol, and tell them that"... Ya... That's not a waste of money.