Reinventing Malthus for the 21st Century:
A Bicentennial Event on Malthus' Original Population Essay
A presentation sponsored by
Negative Population Growth (NPG) and The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)
held at National Press Club, Washington, DC, July 14, 1997
The projections must be apparent to our policy makers having computers and other information, why don't they do something about it?
Lester Brown: I was actually thinking about this over the weekend. My thoughts went back to a book by Robert Ornstein and Paul Ehrlich ö maybe a decade or so ago ö in which they talked about us as a species. Most of our existence as a species ö about 99 point something percent ö has been as hunter gatherers. We are trained to respond to immediate, obvious threats. But in our hunter-gatherer mode of existence there was no incorporation of long term concerns translating into short term actions. And so anything that happens gradually, ö whether it is population growth, soil erosion, rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide ö is happening slow enough that there is always the temptation to put it off to the next term of office or next corporate annual report or to try to delay it. Dealing with some of these problems is difficult. I don't know what the answer to your question is.
The political leadership in this country has access to all the information that we have been talking about. Whether it's the local problems that Rupert was talking about or the global problems like the China things. I can say that some people, that some of the better informed people in both the political and corporate world are becoming concerned. I've seen this manifest in different ways, and I've seen it particularly in the last two years. It comes in the form of political leaders, often heads of state wanting to meet and discuss these issues. It comes with corporations inviting me to speak to their boards, for example, or their senior management teams. And I find that encouraging.
There are three or four things that are beginning to affect their thinking and underlie their wanting to talk about these things. One is the realization that we have probably hit the wall in oceanic fisheries. And that even though population growth will continue the fish catch won't, so the per capita supply will be going down. This sets up all sorts of problems in managing fisheries, conflicts, competition, seafood prices, etcetera.
The second thing is that water scarcely in one way or another is beginning to encroach on the consciousness of more and more people. I mean water tables are falling in some surprising places in the world, like the Netherlands. Someone said where do they fall to? But the reality is that fresh water aquifers in Belgium and the Netherlands are falling and saltwater is beginning to come in.
A third thing that is beginning to concern people is the more and more extreme climatic events ö whether its floods, or droughts or storms, hurricanes typhoons. And this is beginning especially to effect the insurance companies. It is probably the first major industry to feel the economic effect of climate change, and they are running scared. As you may know, some 60 insurance CEO's around the world have signed a statement urging governments to reduce CO2 emissions. When you think about it this is rather remarkable because one major industry is asking government to reduce the outputs of another major industry. I think they are beginning to engage the issue because their backs are against the wall. And then we have things like the heat wave in Chicago in July 1995 where 365 people died of heat stress ö this is a modern industrial city ö that's not suppose to happen.
The fourth thing that's beginning to effect people is one of the thing that I was talking about this morning is the realization that 1.2 billion Chinese moving up the food chain at an unprecedented rate is probably going to affect food prices for everyone before too long.
So I see that as encouraging, but I do not yet see it in most cases translating into policy, though occasionally as with the insurance industry and British Petroleum as you may know made a major statement on the west coast, the CEO, John White, at Stanford said that British Petroleum, as an oil company was taking global warming seriously and they were beginning to invest in understanding it. To think about efficiency, alternative sources of energy and so forth. It was a big jump for big oil, but it was only one company. We still have a long way to go yet. So here and there one can see some encouraging signs. But still the gap between what we need to be doing and what we are doing is widening. And that really is the basis for your concern, it still exists. And my guess is it's going to take a scare of some kind to wake us up and to get us to do the things that we know we ought to do but that politically we have not been able to do.
John Rohe: Very briefly, I might comment that I emphatically agree with Lester Brown that there may have been a Darwinian experiment that has rendered profits extinct. Imagine yourself years ago during the hunter-gatherer society that Les mentions here. If someone was thinking about the next two-hundred-year volcano cycle or the next two- hundred-year flood cycle ö if this person focused their resources on computing these things rather than dealing with the immediate problem, I suspect that they might have been rendered extinct by the lion that's waiting for them to become lunch around the next bend. We react to the short term. Also, there is probably a fear that we might replicate the history of Malthus and if someone comes out and takes a rather dour view of human protoplasm and more human protoplasm they run the risk of becoming the grasping, squeezing old sinner. That's not a very politically acceptable posture to be in. So at this juncture I think it's a matter of issues identification. It's a matter of opening some eyes, it's a matter of getting people to ponder whether or not we are exempt.
Rupert Cutler: I'd like to just say one thing on his question that has to do with the role of the national environmental organizations who for the most part have been silent on the most important environmental issue of our time, population growth. And I would urge all individual members of any national environmental association to contact the leadership of that association and ask them why population growth, population policy, immigration policy aren't higher on their agendas.
It reminds me of back in the late 1960 when the late Senator Jackson was interested in the environment and moving the National Environmental Policy Act along, NEPA. I was here at the time, I was working for the Wilderness Society. None of the national environmental organizations took a very active role in supporting NEPA. None of us had a clue as to its implications or future significance, its importance. I'll never know why Henry Jackson decided to move it along, but thank goodness he did. Population policy probably is going to be the same. It will require some inspired leadership coming from somewhere. You can't expect busy members of Congress to invent some new legislative initiative out of nothing. It has to be a grassroots groundswell of support. If that groundswell begins, hopefully environmental groups will get the message and begin to offer some leadership, some long-needed leadership in population policy.
Sharon Stein: Following up on what John said, at the risk that Negative Population Growth, Inc., becomes that grasping, squeezing Scrooge ö we believe that people should consider having smaller families, that we should have incentives, and that we should have this debate ö but people don't seem to be ready to talk about these things unless we can put them into a quality of life issue or similar context for them. It's very, very difficult to get on the political radar. We want to have a dialogue with the environmental organizations. Our membership is about 17 to 18 thousand. You look at Sierra Club, Audubon I know they have some representatives here. Population growth has got to be put on the agenda from our standpoint as an environmental issue first and foremost.
Sharon Stein: Although we are a 25-year-old organization with deep roots, we recently have kicked off a new outreach program for exactly the reasons that you say. There is the issue of what I call inter-generational equity. I come from the shorter end of the stick ö where the sense is that one generation had a number of kids and now many of us are coming along telling the next generation it has to limit itself. That's a very hard message to sell to the next generation. I look at my parents' generation and say, have you all been good stewards of this country and set an example of what we should be doing for the next generation? But it gets back to policy makers or to young people. It's a matter of "let's get mine now" and let the problems work themselves out ö and that's going to lead to disaster.
John Rohe: The issue of what can be done has to follow an examination of what the issue is. I have a sense that in this nation we don't even know what the issue is. And none of the solutions will make any sense at all until we illuminate in a broad perspective what the issue is. Until people beyond those who come to these conferences begin to appreciate the effects of this mindless addiction to growth ö be it economic growth or population growth and the indifference to limits ö until we can get this out in the mainstream, none of the solutions will make any sense. Certainly public policy is not likely to be influenced if the general business community has an unexamined conviction that they cling to like we cling to romantic mystique of the frontier, that says growth is good and more growth is better. We first have to deal with that. And once we do, then I think a solution can begin to emerge.
In the interval, if you are interested in making a contribution yourself, I think we can make private policy decisions. But we are probably still a step away from making public policy decisions. Private policy is to have your 2.1 children per family. You can personally opt out of being shoved around by the advertising industry that tells you that you must consume, you have to be a good consumer to keep this thing afloat. We can resist those efforts on a personal level. But as far as public policy is concerned, I believe we need to just understand what and how frightful this issue really is.
Sharon Stein: I'm not a tax lawyer, but I will tell you as one of the few groups that has lobbied to get rid of the $500 child tax credit, not the Republicans, not the Democrats, not the independents, no one was interested in standing up and saying let's do away with the tax credit for children. I will say that I've almost got eaten alive presenting that. You're going into the buzzsaw there ö these are just not things that the political leaders are ready to hear, not withstanding the long-term consequences of the track we are on.
Rupert Cutler: There is another important and influential community, that of organized religion. If you were to ask me what was the main difference I felt between the social ambiance of the Washington D.C. area and the Roanoke area when I moved from one to the other seven years ago, I have to tell you it was in the area of religion. People's first question was what church are you a member of? Church, religion is a very heavy-duty concern and activity "outside the beltway" as they say. There is certainly a responsibility on the part of the leaders of the churches of our country and our world to address the ethical and moral as well as the environmental consequence of the continued rapid human population growth. I guess I'd add to my list of major kinds of institutions that need to take this one on much more effectively, in addition to the environmental community, the religious community.
Lester Brown: John was saying earlier, if Malthus were around today he would probably be dealing with this issue as well as population growth because as I noted on the food front, rising affluence is becoming an important source of additional demand. This is not to say that people should not move up the food chain. It is to suggest that as people move up the food chain we look where it is taking us. And what we discovered in this country is that it is taking us beyond the point were it is healthy. If one looks at life expectancy around the world, the longest life expectancy is not in the countries at the top of the food chain with 800 kilograms of grain per year, or those at the bottom, the Indians with 200 kg, it is those in between. For example in Italy, where grain consumption is at about 400 kg per year, life expectancy is longer than in the United States even though we spend far more on healthcare per person than do the Italians. The principal reason appears to be a difference in diet. The Italians consume livestock products but in much smaller quantities and they have a more diverse diet, more pasta, more fresh fruits and vegetable. And so we've had the evolution in the popular press now of the desirability of something called the so-called Mediterranean diet. Which is the Italian diet basically. If we were to move down toward the 400 kg instead of the 800 kg where we are most of us would be healthier. And we find that is happening, probably among many people in this room ö the better educated and more aware segment of the population.
We have done a book entitled How Much is Enough? It was published a few years ago and one of the interesting finding is that when you ask people in a poll in this country in 1958 how happy they were, how satisfied they were with their lives, etcetera, and that question was asked again in 1992 when our incomes had doubled or tripled, the percentage who were happy was essentially the same. And all of the things that we were buying that were suppose to make us happy really hadn't made very much difference.
I think the bottom line that is we need to ask ourselves "What are the things that are important to us? What are the things that are important to the next generation? and How are the things that we are doing now ö whether it be family size decisions or consumption decisions ö going to affect the world in which our children will live?"
And that's the question we are not doing a very good job of answering right now, and that's one reason I said with population ö and it's certainly true with rising affluence ö we still haven't grasped fully the significance of these enormous increases.
Sharon Stein: Well, I want to say that Nike is also in the business of selling shoes, so they want to have as many feet as possible to dress. That's the other side of the coin. What we like to say at NPG is that we are all in this together. People ask us why we work on U.S. population size as opposed to international. There is a sense for some of us that the population problem is so vast, and because of the population momentum, we may not be able to do anything about China, and some of these other countries. We continue to reach out to anyone who will listen about out population message, but you have to provide something to return to a company like Nike or McDonald's or any of these big companies that sit in their boardroom and simply say "how many burgers I sell is very much dependant on how many people there are ö so we want to maximize our profit."
Lester Brown: If someone could figure out how to reduce the cost of desalting sea water by a factor of 10, then we would open up some enormous new possibilities for expanding food production in desert areas that are in close proximity to the oceans. Unfortunately it doesn't appear to be in the cards. We are making a little progress here and a little bit there but we are a long way from getting these quantum jumps that we need to reduce the cost of desalting. Half of the water that is desalted in the world today is in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates. Basically they are using oil money to do it. They can afford it; they are converting oil to water in a sense. But no one else can afford it. Particularly not for producing food. As I mentioned earlier a ton of wheat takes a thousand tons of water and when you think of desalting water on that scale it's just not there. So if someone came up with a dramatic breakthrough there it would make a difference.
In terms of other technologies, as long as we are dependant on photosynthesis, which we are today, then that becomes sort of the outer limit of how far we can go and how much we can convert. And as long as crops depend on water, some use water more efficiently that others but they all do, then the water supply itself is emerging as a major constraint. Water more important than land incidently. If we had more water there is a lot more land that we could cultivate. But its those arid regions without water that can't produce much. As I mentioned I don't see the biotechnologists, although they are making some exciting progress in developing crop varieties that are resistant to particular insects and particular diseases, but in most cases that means that we can reduce the amount of pesticides used, which is a major plus but it doesn't increase production. And the basic technologies we have been using, which interestingly were all developed between 1840 and 1920. It was Von Ludvic in 1847 with fertilizers, and Mendel in the early 1860's with the basic principles of genetics, it was the Japanese in the 1880's dwarfing both wheats and rices and it was the University of Connecticut, Agricultural Experiment Station which by 1920 has successfully hybridized corn. Those are the four big technologies that have lead to quantum jumps in the world grain harvest over the last half century plus irrigation which goes back five thousand years. But since 1920, there has not been a single technological advance in agriculture that could lead to a quantum jump. We might get 2 percent here or maybe even 5 percent there but not the big jumps. So the backlog of technology that farmers can draw upon is diminishing and its not being replenished. That is one of the reasons that the rise in land productivity has slowed so much during the 1990s.
John Rohe: There is maybe one brief thing I might like to add to that also. That is that somewhere along the way I think we have to start thinking of values. This isn't just a matter of how many people can we provide three bowls of rice to on a daily basis. Somewhere in here we have to think of values. Where in the scheme of things do we consider the amenities of the serenity of a placid walk in the woods with our dog. Somewhere that has to come into the equation. And I applaud and am incredibly benefitted by the efforts of Worldwatch Institute in terms of where these real food limits are. But how about values. If the issue is how many people be can stuff into a telephone booth, I think we've lost it. And the other side would point out that "hey, if we've got 12 people in the telephone booth we could just smash another twelve in there and somebody will come up with a solution with the overpopulation." Ingenuity and technology are worthy endeavors but somewhere in here I think we need values as well.
Copyright 1997 NPG.