Reverend Robert Revisited

In 1798 Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus wrote an essay on ‘Population’ which was probably about the size of a 250 page modern book. Perhaps it is good for the reader to remember that was long before the days of Tesla’s wireless radio and modern T.V. etc. Newspapers were not very old or as pervasive as today. Perhaps an essay was more likely to be read than a book.

Said essay was really a book evolving because Reverend Robert revised it five times before he died in 1834 at the age of 68. This treatise was so powerful it threw English and European intellectuals into an immediate debate over the validity of his logic. So powerful an impact that Malthus had, he constantly was drawing in new facts to corroborate his logic. Every major thinker in Malthus era and beyond had to deal with his logic in terms of political economy, the evolutionary perfection of society, all economics including evolutionary economics, demographics and wages etc. Men who agreed with Malthus, and men who didn’t, still had to deal with Malthusian logic before they could go on. Even social and scientific thought was under the spell of Malthusian logic. Darwin and Wallace found Malthus logic a vital stepping-stone in both their concepts of natural selection. Rousseau, John M. Keynes, Karl Marx etc, all had to deal with Malthusian logic to go on.

Malthus original intent was to balance his own fathers Poly Anna, overly optimistic direction of human society as being headed towards utopia.

Whether you see this publication as an essay, a treatise or a book, the power of its logic should be a compelling review to all who treasure reason, logic and contemplation.

At the end of this decade that inaugurated the new millennium, Earth Day and Arbor Day may be a great time to remember the clarion call of this very bright, caring, thoughtful minister.

Reverend Malthus identified a problem that all future generations should be mindful of. Religion may not have given the problem this man identified proper attention and there may be more than shrift to pay. Secularists dismiss same because it was too religious. It would seem to me this minister was doing the best he could with the influence of his generation. If this has any semblance of truth, ignoring said essay might be the greatest travesty of modern history. I hope you will agree shortly.

Now, in our modern influence, to ignore our green earth and simply live for ourselves and our own generation may be, according to Malthus, a shortsighted, selfish way of ignoring developing problems that may raise life threatening problems in this century for our children, grandchildren and beyond. Life, and the emergence of humans to the top of the food chain, post ice age and post dinosaurs, may have developed a population problem that shall haunt this earth ad infinitum.

Malthus, early on says that food production on the limited resources of this earth grows arithmetically whereas, the passions of human’s will produce more population than this earth can sustain. The geometrical (multiply) expansion of population exceeds the arithmetical (addition) capacity of food production.

Yes, modern creative agriculture like hydroponics can postpone a developing crisis of nourishment. However, a really bigger question may need to be asked. Can infinite growth on a finite planet be sustained?

Our capitalism, that has done so much for us, may be a two edged sword that delivers a good cut and a bad cut. Do you think it so? Let us examine both sides.

Our society is based on growth. Growth provides more food, homes, cars, businesses, jobs, transportation, communication, income etc. If there is a market, capitalism will find a way to serve that market, provide jobs and growth. The real question we have to ask is how long can this be sustained? On a finite planet, infinite growth is impossible. Thus growth can have both, a good side and a bad side.

Have you noticed most all politicians run for office on growth? The overt and subtle messages of all campaigns are, more industries, more manufacturing, more housing and the coup de gras for getting votes, more jobs. Yes, growth always means change and it can cut both ways, good or bad and maybe both.

Is the picture being painted here coming into focus? Perhaps I can add some dramatic dimensions to this picture. It took hundreds of thousands of years for humans to produce approximately 1 billion people by about the year 1750. I should also mention that this is an expansion of Malthus numbers. He did not have the privilege to have Einstein and relativity in his back ground so the Reverend saw the world as 6,000 years old, not 13.7 billion years old i.e. from the big bang which is a minor happening in the infinity of relativity.

Nonetheless, we need to carry forward the startling numbers we just mentioned that Malthus was concerned with. Think on these geometrical numbers:
Thousands of years to 1750 - 1 billion people on earth
150 years to 1900 - 2 billion people on earth
100 years to 2000 – 6 billion people on earth
50 years to 2050 - estimated 12 billion people on earth

Subsequent questions; Are we the cancer on mother earth? Will we tax its resources beyond earth’s ability to recycle fast enough, to support massive demands for food to supply such an enormous population? Will copper, zinc, steel, iron and other elements be mined to extinction? If the oceans are over fished now, what will it be like in 2050, or 2100? When will wood consumption pass our forests capacity to produce consumable wood or has that already happened? Does urban sprawl and forest depletion help push some flora and fauna to extinction? With the level of oceans rising from three to twelve feet by the end of this century how much useful land will disappear? If our host mother earth dies, we humans will die. Are we the cancer here?

Will the momentum to produce children drive the leaders of the world to create wars to help kill off some of the excess population? Malthus mentions this twice and was very concerned even though he died two centuries ago.

Which is better, to have never tasted this life or be given life and sent off to war and die? How do you miss something you never knew? Would reducing population tend to reduce the need for war? Malthus thought so.

With overpopulation looming as one of our greatest threats, Malthus identifies the evolution of food gathering for humans. The first was the hunter and developers of flocks. Next in importance is the gatherer, then the pasture or pastoral setting for growing meat and the last was mechanized agriculture of the arable land of which we have only a limited amount and urban sprawl is eating away at that.

Malthus is very correct in his view that food production grows ‘arithmetically’, whereas population grows ‘geometrically’. Will the geometric expansion of population continue until the supply and demand for food leave only the upper classes as the ones who can afford to eat? If so, how far behind would Armageddon be?

In conclusion, it would seem we should all be grateful that Malthus was very insightful in the last of the 18th century and pointed to those passions of humans to produce population and relate same to the need for geometrical food production. Also, the consequences of this shadow battle grows exponentially year- by -year.

Is this the best of all possible worlds as Dr. Pangloss would have us believe or should we abide by the admonition of Candide and tend our garden? Living under this sword of Damocles is terrifying and will become more so in generations to come. Let us tend our gardens, be green, as earth day would have us be and savor the greatness of Earth Day and Arbor Day.

Let us hope that in the next few generations they can be grateful that we showed our love and caring for them by not only focusing on the problem, but also doing something significantly positive about it. Let us all walk softer on our mother earth regarding our consumable demands and also teach family size restraints. Our earth needs our enlightened stewardship.

So far……


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