Malthus Is Back: A Return to an Agrarian Past

Reading the WSJ a couple of days ago, I saw an article entitled, “New Limits to Growth
Revive Malthusian Fears”. Not so fast you naysayers. Malthus is not right – yet.

As the world grows more populous — the United Nations projects eight billion people by 2025, up from 6.6 billion today — it also is growing more prosperous. The average person is consuming more food, water, metal and power. Growing numbers of China’s 1.3 billion people and India’s 1.1 billion are stepping up to the middle class, adopting the high-protein diets, gasoline-fueled transport and electric gadgets that developed nations enjoy.

The result is that demand for resources has soared. If supplies don’t keep pace, prices are likely to climb further, economic growth in rich and poor nations alike could suffer, and some fear violent conflicts could ensue. [link]

It stands to reason. There’s no point in the past that hasn’t seen prosperity knocked down by resource constraints. Perhaps this period of time is no different and our innovations are merely procrastinating the inevitable. As Paul Krugman says,

It was only with the industrial revolution that we finally escaped from the trap (if we did — for all we know, 35th-century historians will view the period 1800-2020 or so as a temporary aberration).  [link]

And then, I read Buttonwood in the Economist who -while discussing possible safe investments in a time of financial turmoil- talks about a return to our agrarian past.

In his book “Wealth, War and Wisdom”, Barton Biggs, a Wall Street veteran, suggests that investors should own, as insurance against the apocalypse, “a farm or a ranch somewhere far off the beaten track but which you can get to quickly and easily.”

…competition from biofuels and increased demand from Asia may…mean that the era of cheap food is over. British farmland prices rose by 25% last year, according to Knight Frank, an estate agent. It would be a nice irony if the best hedge against a collapse of the post-industrial economy turned out to be a return to the agrarian past. [link]

It seems like we are returning slowly but surely to a primitive way of life. It reminds me of the Star Trek: TNG movie (can’t remember the name) where Picard and crew run into a species that is fully developed technologically (warp capabilities, etc.) but has shunned technology to lead a more holistic life. The movie probably had more to do with the New Age Nineties than anything else, but perhaps we are heading to that point. Well it’s either that, or World War III.

The third and most obvious solution is to come up with new innovations. So people – go out there and innovate. Innovate, I say!

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2 comments for “Malthus Is Back: A Return to an Agrarian Past

  1. March 27, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    No, simplify. Simplify, I say! Perpetual economic growth is not solving most of our problems, creating many more problems, and definitely not increasing our happiness. Let’s give it up!

    Dave Gardner
    Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

  2. Mike Lowry
    March 29, 2008 at 8:24 pm

    Sorry Dave but I’m not ready to don a loincloth and run back into the wilderness just yet.

    Technology will allow us to do more with less regardless of whether we strive for perpetual economic growth or return to an agrarian age. The call for innovation must be heeded!

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