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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Malthus, pyramid schemes, starvation and birth control

Malthus, the much maligned, stated that populations increases exponentially; ie 1,2,4,8,16 ......, while food production increases arithmetically; ie 1,2,3,4,5 ...... In reality, populations such as humans which lack predators are limited by starvation. A possibly more useful way of stating the principle, with apologies to Parkinson is that Population expands to use up any advance in food production*.

Richard Dawkins on P391 of his excellent book The Greatest Show on Earth stated it succinctly and I quote.  "If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."  One would hope that humans who, at least individually, show a modicum of foresight might learn to show collective foresight.

Malthus didn't count on various technical advances we would make in food production ever since we left the hunter gatherer life style but was completely correct. Each increase in food production has been used up by population increase. The recent, much vaunted green revolution which started around the 1960's was the latest of such jumps in food production and gave India and some other countries, a few decades without starvation. A recent estimate is that there are now 700m more people on earth due to this latest green revolution.Link
So with a few delays, Malthus has proven to be completely correct.

What he didn't know is how our knowledge of contraception would advance. It has often been observed that when populations reach a fairly high level of economic well being, birth rate falls. Everyone is mystified by this and explains that women are delaying having babies as they pursue a career; people are not having any children so that they can enjoy the fruits of their labor and so forth. No argument there but how do you think they are avoiding having children. Abstinence??? I don't think so!! Abstinence went out of fashion more than half a century ago. One of the reasons for not having children (not often stated) is so you can enjoy non-abstinence uninterrupted. The simple fact of the matter is that with a certain level of economic development, contraception becomes affordable. The proof of this is a number of countries which have made contraception affordable before they achieved a western level of development. They did it by subsidizing contraception and lo and behold their birth rate fell. Of course, with birth rate under control, economic development is much more likely. There are less mouths to eat up  advances in productivity.

While we are at it, lets look at the most recent  green revolutions that began in the 60's. The Yield of a number of grain crops was greatly increased. Some say tripled. This production was achieved by careful selective breeding but the new varieties only fulfilled their potential with irrigation, fertilizer, herbicides and  insecticides. Despite being free of starvation for a number of decades. the change was not an unmitigated success. Part of the dark side has been:

   a) mining of the water table to provide water for the new, highly productive varieties, lowering it disastrously, notably in China and India,
   b) accessing deeper layers of water which are contaminated with arsenic, notably in Bangladesh and parts of India,
   c) Pesticide pollution of aquifers, which along with arsenic contamination has led to a greatly increased incidence of cancer, especially in Bangladesh and parts of India
   d) salination of soils,
   e) more land in production pushing nature and her free provision of food, fuel, fibre medicine waste disposal and clean water further into a corner*.

*(you would have thought that land would have been taken out of production due to higher yields.- go figure)

   f) production of greatly increased grain yield but with less vitamins and minerals per kg of grain than in traditional varieties resulting in nutrient malnutrition,
   g) huge loss of a genetic diversity as locals switched to the new varieties, abandoning their traditional varieties.
   h) the loss of small farms to large land owners as the peasants borrowed to buy fertilizer, got into debt and defaulted on their loans.
   i) an increase in population of about 700,000,000 mouths that are only with us because of this most recent green revolution.

We really have got to the point of diminishing returns. Every advance in agriculture production makes us poorer and poorer. It makes us poorer by:

*decreasing the availability of food, fuel, fibre, clean water and clean air that we obtain gratis from nature as more land is put into agriculture for profit.
*decreasing the ability of nature to process our wastes safely
*decreasing the variety of foods available to us as areas which once grew fruit and vegetables are given over to the more profitable growing of grain crops for cash.
*reducing the space we have to live in as we are crowded by more and more people.
* facilitating diseases of crowding that we would otherwise not have had and increasing the possibility that a pandemic will be much more severe.
* pushing us closer to a disastrous collapse in our Gia support system as we test the theory of sudden climate change with gay abandon.

There is talk now of the need for a second (actually more like the 100th) green revolution, this one based on splicing new genes into varieties of grain. This will probably work and will further increase production. As has happened since agriculture began, population will increase until the new advances in production are used up. In the mean time all those extra people will further degrade the natural environment that we depend on for our existence.

Note: It has been reported that a number of genetically changed plants caused organ failure when fed to rats.

Extra agricultural production only pushes us closer to the brink. The last thing you want when you are standing at the edge of a cliff is a great leap forward.

As was mentioned above, since the 60's it has been noted that when a country achieves a certain level of prosperity, birth rate falls. This is a modern phenomenon. It didn't happen anywhere in Europe before the last century. Britain's birth rate remained high all through the industrial revolution with well off Brits having as many children as their poorer cousins. Think back to your grandfather and great grandfather's family. How many children did each of your ancestors have as far back as you can trace. The difference, as previously mentioned,  in the 'modern era' is contraception.

Contraception has been available at least from Roman times, but it only became truly effective when it was modernized and put into the hands of women. Both the pill and the effective IUD (as opposed to previous less than adequate models) only became practical from about 1960 onward and they have had a huge effect in countries where they are affordable either because the economic level of the population makes them so or because the government has subsidized them.  In both cases, birth rate has fallen precipitously. Ignoring immigration, which is another story, most European countries have decreasing populations. What a success - and they are fighting against it tooth and nail. That is also another story.

I lived in South Africa for 15 years, much of the time in the homeland of Gazankulu.  Despite an educational level of around grade 2 amongst many of the women, they would come into the clinic for their 3month jab to keep them from getting pregnant.  There is a vast difference between not having a formal education and being stupid.  These women were clever and fully realized the advantages of having less children.  Their men were not so smart.  They would have beaten the women if they knew what was happening.

We must learn to live in our respective countries with a stable and then a reducing population. This , of course will result in a population in which the age distribution curve is heavily skewed toward older people. We have to work out ways to live and live well in such a society. For far too long we have been living in a pyramid scheme in which each generation had to be larger than the previous one. This was necessary so that there were enough young people to fill the more menial jobs before they rose up to higher levels.  It was also necessary in order to have enough working people to provide the pensions of the retired. This, quite frankly, is a stupid system.  The pension contributions of the working public should go into buying up the means of production.  Pensions are then paid  from the dividends from these companies and even from selling the shares to presently working people.  The elderly become a boon rather than a drain on the economy as they spend their pensions.  Our system can't go on.  We must stop importing so-called cheap labor to fill the positions of the children we are not having. In the long term, cheap labor is very expensive.


Pyramid schemes collapse and the mini collapse we are going through at present (2008ff) is nothing compared to what is to come if we keep increasing agricultural production rather than concentrating on reducing population. If we continue this way, we will soon have an answer to the question of who is correct regarding sudden climate change. If the climate change sceptics are wrong, we may very soon achieve the lovelock number.


* Starvation killed an estimated 50m Chinese over the 19th century, 20m Indians in the latter half, 1m Irish between 1845 and 1852, 1/3 of the population of Ethiopia from 1888 and 1892 and 3m in Bengal in 1943. Imagine the effect of the failure of the wheat and rice crop for just one year due to sudden climate change or even from a mega volcano one spring. (link)

** If you double your population or your GDP, you pretty well double your use of water, wood and minerals, double your production of pollution and garbage and double the area of land you cover in buildings.  You continue to eat into unoccupied land, you eliminate all the benefits unoccupied land brings to the human population for free. Below is a table of how long it takes to double all of the above as a function of yearly GDP growth rate. You can calculate it for yourself with a high-school calculator if you put in (for 3% growth rate, for instance) log 2/log1.03.  The '2' is a doubling time, 1.03 is the interest (growth rate).

Annual growth and number of year to double the economy

1%
70 years

2% 35 years
3% 23 years
4% 18 years
5% 14 years

How many countries in the world do you know that can find twice the water, wood, minerals and produce twice the pollution and garbage and still have any quality of life.  The only two I  can think of off hand are Canada and New Zealand.  We don't want to live like this.
Link

3 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Hi William,

Excellent article. Perhaps you would be interested in my invention to solve the population crisis. It is male birth control with no side-effects and which is 100% effective. No, you don't remove all the male sex organs ;)

Instead you place a small valve cast in silicone in the tube that delivers sperm to the urethra and ultimately the tip of the penis and the vagina. This valve lays flat to the skin between the male's legs.

The valve has two positions. In one position sperm exits through the valve between the male's legs. In the other position it is routed normally for fertilization of the female egg.

The valve would be inserted on an outpatient basis and would be very cheap. Men would be in charge of birth control. However, the woman by touching the valve would know which position it was in. If it is not the position she wants she can say no to sex.

Since men are largely driven by the desire to experience orgasm, having this device would benefit them because women would be more likely to have sex with them.

All female birth control other than sterilization is 99% effective at best.This means that on average you'll have one pregnancy for every 100 episodes of intercourse, even with protection of female contraceptive devices. Most young couples engage in this many episodes at least every year or two.

The only sure method of preventing conception is to prevent sperm from entering the vagina. This can only be done if it is intercepted outside the vagina. Fortunately male plumbing is easily modified through a shallow surface incision. As a matter of fact there is an uncommon birth defect in males where they are born with such an opening between the legs.

I believe this could be marketed to the male population with ease. They get to control their family size without any chemical intervention or reduction of fertility. They can have more sex. The women will be happier about having sex because of the reduction of the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. So it will be a big win for the orgasm addicted males. (Actually its probably the endorphins/adrenaline released that is the addictive cause).

Interestingly, the aboriginal people of New Guinea, accomplished roughly the same thing, (stable population) by driving a sharpened stick through the man's penis as a rite of passage. The ensuing scar tissue so reduced the amount of sperm at the outlet of the penis that pregnancy was reduced dramatically.

If it were me though, I'd prefer the insertion of a soft silicone valve to having a sharpened stick driven through my.... ouch it hurts just to think of it!!

Aloha,

Jonathan Cole

Paul F Davis said...

Deep thoughts on the roof. Thanks for sharing these profound insights and your perspective.