Complex Neo-Malthusian Theories

While simple Malthusian theories are limited to the examination of only a couple of functions and the way they outpace and constrain one another, more complex forms of neo-Malthusianism explore how a variety of different trajectories mutually enable and/or constrain each other. This is not to deny that Thomas Malthus has been so much discredited by his detractors that only few modified Malthusian theories openly claim a Malthusian lineage. Based on the logical structure of Malthusianism, however, it is easily possible to identify Malthusian theories even where their complexity goes beyond the original framework.

Limits to Growth

In 1972, a group of MIT researchers around Dennis Meadows applied a complex neo-Malthusian framework to the planetary level and used the emerging method of computer-driven system dynamics, developed by Jay Forrester, to examine the earth system as a whole. In their iconic study The Limits to Growth and its two sequels, they compellingly demonstrated that exponential growth on a finite planet is impossible in the long run (Meadows et al. 1972, 1992, 2004).[1]

Meadows and colleagues found that, for a while, the growth of various parameters such as world population, resource consumption, and environmental pollution may appear to defy physical limits, but only until the systemic feedbacks kick in. In the long run, as resource depletion and/or pollution exceed physical limits, an abrupt decline or indeed collapse of industrial society is the only way for the world system to return to equilibrium. The delay between temporary overshoot and ultimate collapse is due to the fact that there are various time lags between anthropogenic

Fig. 4.6 World model standard run (Source: Meadows et al. (2004, 169). Despite some updating, Fig. 4.6 is remarkably similar to its precursor in Meadows et al. (1972, 124))

causes such as resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions, and systemic outcomes such as energy scarcity and climate change.

The diagnosis of The Limits to Growth is a systemic pattern of exponential growth, overshoot, and collapse. Contrary to what their detractors sometimes surmise, Meadows and colleagues did not envision imminent doom. On the contrary, their baseline model, called “standard run”, displays a continued pattern of exponential growth and overshoot until about 2010 or 2020, followed by the onset of systemic collapse between 2020 and 2050 (Fig. 4.6).[2]

The end result of the standard run scenario is a contraction of world population to the level of about 1960 by 2100.[3] Shockingly, this implies a dramatic decline by more than two billion people from current levels. However this decline would not happen by starvation alone, as it would occur over several generations and other demographic factors would also play a role: lower birth rates, pandemics, declining life expectancy driven by failing healthcare systems, and so on.

As the model suggests, it is perfectly possible for industrial civilization to “overshoot” and exceed planetary limits for a limited period of time. In the long run, however, no society, and much less the human race as a whole, can live beyond their means. No matter how recklessly we tap into the resources of the earth crust to sustain our unsustainable lifestyles, the improvement of our economic welfare and the increment on global carrying capacity are only temporary.

Fig. 4.7 Causal pathways from environmental scarcity to violent conflict

  • [1] For a related warning, see Ehrlich and Ehrlich (2004); see also Bardi (2011)
  • [2] The model is on track with historical data (Turner 2008; Hall and Day 2009)
  • [3] In the original version (1972, 124), the projected contraction of world population by 2010 was “only” to the level of about 1980
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