Monday, October 17, 2011

Letter to NYRB re Malthus and nature's limits

The following is a letter I wrote responding to the last paragraph of an article by John Terborgh, “Can Our Species Escape Destruction” in the New York Review of Books (October 13, 2011).

The New York Review of Books
October 14, 2011

Dear NYRB:

Thanks for John Terborgh’s valuable review and not least for his welcome reference to Malthus in his last paragraph. I offer a quibble only because Terborgh suggests a popular misconception about Malthus’s views, a misreading that has worked to obscure the author’s important message regarding the restraints that nature imposes on life on earth.

[Here is Terborgh’s final paragraph.

Malthus foresaw more than two hundred years ago that exponential growth could not be sustained in a world of finite resources. Malthus’s thesis is not a conjecture: it is a truism. Dismissing Malthus has become a popular talking point because global society has not collapsed-yet-but must remember that Malthus put no time limit on his prediction.]

Malthus never predicted that population growth would one day lead to the collapse of civilization. Rather in An Essay on Population (1798), he did hazard a more fundamental and useful prediction. Writing to counter some of the optimism inspired by the French Revolution, Malthus postulated that humans would always be “condemned to “a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery” due to the “principle of population,” the tendency of population to increase faster than food supplies. Malthus emphasized that this oscillation was a “constantly operating process,” not an event that would take place at some distant point.

Arguably not a day has since passed that humans have not experienced a measure of the misery that Malthus predicted. Malthus believed that his major theoretical contribution was his discovery that misery was the mechanism by which population is kept level with resources.

Malthus ends his first chapter with an eloquent and pertinent description of nature’s “imperious” demand for limits. Incidentally, Darwin famously acknowledged that it was an adumbration of this insight that helped underpin his theory of evolution.

The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds, in the course of a few thousand years. Necessity, that imperious all pervading law of nature, restrains them within the prescribed bounds. The race of plants and the race of animals shrink under this great restrictive law. And the race of man cannot, by any efforts of reason, escape from it.

Ronald Bleier
The author is the editor of The International Society of Malthus, a website.