Friday, October 7, 2016

Spitting Bullets: An Interview with Malthus

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834)  He's smiling.
Me: Are you smiling?

Malthus: I am.  That’s as good as it gets for an eighteenth-century English cleric.[1]  Anyway, I’m ahead.  Winning big time.

Me: How so?

Malthus: You know.  Population.  Food.  Everyone talks about my famous quote: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”  A beautiful quote.  The best quote ever.  Believe me.

And for a long time I was feared.  “Malthus,” they would say, “he was right.”  Get to Broadway much?  Ever see Urinetown, when they all shout “Hail Malthus!”?  That felt good.  Maybe my finest moment.  Everyone on stage is dying and they think of me. 

Sometimes I hum the soundtrack to myself.  Gets me through the last fifteen minutes of morning prayer. 

Anyway, 25 million people died of famine in the nineteenth century.  Sixty million in the twentieth.  Right in line with my calculations.

And then along came Norman Borlaug and his Green Revolution.

Me: Missed that one, didn’t you?

Malthus: Yep.  Wheat.  Rice.  Growing like crazy.  And it wasn’t just me.  Paul Ehrlich was a big-time California professor living in the middle of the Green Revolution when he wrote The Population Bomb in 1968. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” he wrote.  “In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”[2] 

Completely goofed.  Bad due diligence.  Very bad.  But he went down fighting—said the worst is yet to come.


Me: That must have made you feel good, though, to be wrong?

Malthus:  Huh?  Did you ever meet an eighteenth-century English cleric who likes to be wrong?  But that’s all in the past.

I’m starting to get my mojo back.

Me: How so?

Malthus: Have you checked the situation lately?  More than seven billion people on Earth, heading for 9.7 billion in 2050.  Still 793 million people hungry on a regular basis.  While ten percent of the world is eating 600 calorie bagels with extra cream cheese and getting obese, millions of people are starving. 

Me: That 793 million is down 209 million people in 15 years, against a much larger total population.[3]  We’ve got chronic hunger almost under 10% of the population, and our total growth is slowing down.  Best of all, we already produce enough food to feed everyone--2,900 calories per person per day against a UN recommendation of 2,250.

This is hard stuff, getting rid of extreme poverty and hunger.  Building cold chains around the world.  Re-educating populations.  Heavy lifting.  But we’re doing it.

Malthus: You’re quoting percentages.  Calories.  I’m talking people.

Take everyone in the United States.  Add them to all the people in the European Union.  Now stop feeding them on a regular basis.  That's your food model.

Me: Still, it’s getting better every day.  And you were wrong.

Malthus: Look, the Green Revolution set me back 50 years.  But you got a little carried away with all that synthetic fertilizer, didn’t you?  Running all that fossil fuel around in your air-conditioned tractors.  Insecticide.  Herbicide.  Nitrous oxide.  Methane.  CO2.

Cutting down rain forests in Brazil to grow soy beans to ship to pigs in China.  That is one humdinger of a scheme you’ve got going there.  

And then designing GMO crops that create super bugs and super weeds.  Genius.

And then there’s meat.  Can I tell you about meat?  Every time someone around the world gets a little jingle in their pocket they trade cereals for meat.  The Livestock Revolution.

You want numbers?  It takes 1,557 square feet of land to produce 1,000 consumable calories of beef.  I know a family of six that doesn’t have a house that big.

Thirty-six thousand calories of feed to produce a thousand calories of hamburger.  Four hundred and thirty-four gallons of water for a thousand calorie steak. 

And the methane?  Ever hung with the herd?  More than 5.5X the greenhouse gas emissions to get 1,000 calories of beef than 1,000 calories chicken.[4]

Apparently human beings never met a cow they didn’t like.
Truth is, I may not have had the Green Revolution in my calculations, but I didn’t have the Livestock Revolution, either. 

And here’s the bottom line: China, India, and Indonesia—the largest producers of rice in the world—saw yields improve seven percent between 2000 and 2010.[5]   Meanwhile, their population was up 11.5 percent.  Ta-da!  That means you’re back in, dare I say, a Malthusian situation

And now you’ve handed me climate change.  The big kahuna.

What happens to farm yields around the world when extreme weather events like flood and drought are no longer extreme, but average?  The world’s carbon emissions are around 50 gigatons (Gt) a year, and people tell me they’re going to rise for the next 15 years.  Really important people.  So you can take that to the bank.  Emissions could be 60 Gt in 2030.  And 1.5°C global warming is already locked and loaded.  Experts think you have to cut emissions to 36 Gt to have a 50-50 chance of hitting 2°C.[6]

All of which makes humankind delusional, I’m afraid.  You’re just the same fuzzy-headed children of the Enlightenment I had to instruct back in 1798.

Earth just passed the 400 PPM carbon threshold—forever.[7]  There’s no going back.  You’re looking at warming of 3°C, 4°C, maybe 6°C by 2100.

You’re looking at life as you know it changing forever before this century is over.

It’s a Malthusian apocalypse.  It’s so bad that there’s some around suggesting it might be immoral to have children.[8]  And that, my friend, is a Malthusian solution.  Just what I’ve been suggesting all along.

Resting Face

Me: Are you smirking?

Malthus: Sorry.  Just my resting face.  Anyway, have you read Naomi Klein?  She’s a genius.  She says it’s a battle between climate change and capitalism, and capitalism is winning, hands down.[9]

The smart money says the Industrial Revolution, which made you all fat and happy for 200 years, is really the end of 6,000 years of civilization.  Well played.

Me: You seem pretty sure of yourself.

Malthus: Oh, I am.  Look.  A few years back, grizzlies started mating with polar bears.  GRIZZLIES MATING with POLAR BEARS!  That wasn’t a wake-up call??  The deplorables and their leaders were busy picking apart percentage points in climate models while something called a Pizzly was dining from their garbage cans.

Pizzly, sometimes called a Grolar.

What a piece of work is man. 

And you can quote me on that.

Me: Well, some mornings it seems a little bleak, I have to admit.

Malthus: Ya think?  Hottest year on record, over and over.  No more graphs to argue about: just walk outside and put on your suntan lotion.  Hurricanes now hit New York City sideways.  We have hundred-year-floods every five years.  Tried to find the Aral Sea lately??  It’s the Aral Desert.

And you have a candidate running for President who believes climate change is a Chinese plot.  Meanwhile, someone forgot to tell the Chinese, who have 420 cities with insufficient water[10] and 4,400 people dying every day of air pollution.[11]

Some plot.

And then you have the Silicon Valley crowd, the high priests of techno-optimism.  They think there’s some kind of gigantic plane that’s going to fly around the Earth, scoop carbon out of the air, and save humankind.  They're launching drones and sensors to get one percent more yield on GMO cow-corn in the fields of Iowa.  Meanwhile, millions of people go hungry a half world away because farmers don't have affordable seed, rocks for irrigation, steel sheds for harvest, transistor radios for weather reports, serviceable dirt roads, or supportive ecosystems.

Want to innovate?  Try starting with the problems and not the technologies.  It's hard to find more intellectual firepower solving the wrong problems with the wrong toys.  

Anyway, I’ve got the title of my next treatise: “Mankind: The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

Me: Well, you were wrong once.  Miracles do happen.  And there are a lot of smart people working hard at the big stuff, and at the little, everyday stuff as well.  And we can cut down on food waste.  Build green cities.  Protect our forests.  Change our diets.  Invent new protein sources.  Create new drought-resistant plants.  Invest in renewable energy.

Malthus: Or frack some more?  Here’s a beaut: The world’s largest carbon-capture plant is set to open soon near Houston.  It’s a coal-fired power plant that filters out 90 percent of carbon and particulates.  Then what happens?  Can you guess?  The CO2 distillate is pumped 82 miles away to an oil field where it’s injected into depleted wells to produce more crude oil.[12]

You cannot make this stuff up.

Me: I know. But you can’t shake me.  We’re going to be ok.

Malthus: Trust me this time.  I’ll give you plant genetics—go ahead and CRISPR away.  I’ll give you green urbanization, cheap Teslas, a smartphone for every smallholder farmer, and the Paris Climate Agreement.  I’ll give you Beyond Meat[13]--all you can eat.  I'll give you a drone in every pot.  And you get all the unicorns from Y Combinator for the next five years, the best that Silicon Valley has to offer.

Me: Can I get food waste and the cold chain?

Malthus: Done.

Me: And I'm going to send you a copy of Food Foolish[14].  Maybe it'll improve your disposition.  What do you get?

Malthus: I don't need much: the Koch Brothers, Paul Ryan and the Republican House, and 2.5°C by 2030.  And just for good luck, I’ll take Senator Inhofe.[15]  That should be enough to ensure widespread misery and global famine.

Let’s talk again around 2020 and see who’s winning.

Me: Check back then? 

Malthus: Absolutely.  But I’m sitting pretty right now.  The best ever.  Lots of people think I’m right.  Makes me want to really smile.  Big smile.

Think I will.

Big Smile

[1] Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834),
[3] Gaelle Gourmelon, “Chronic Hunger Falling, But One in Nine People Still Affected,” December 4, 2014, Web October 6, 2016,
[4] Robert Kunzig, “Carnivore’s Dilemma,” National Geographic, 2014, Web October 1, 2016,
[5] Stephen P. Long et al., “Meeting the Global Food Demand of the Future by Engineering Crop Photosynthesis and Yield Potential,” Cell, Volume 161, Issue 1, March 26, 2016, Web October 6, 2016,, 56-66.
[6] Robin McKie, “World Will Pass Crucial 2C Global Warming Limit, Experts Warn,” The Guardian, October 10, 2015, Web October 6, 2016,
[7] Brian Kahn, “Earth’s CO2 Passes the 400 PPM Threshold—Maybe Permanently,” Scientific American, September 27, 2016, Web October 6, 2016,
[8] Dave Bry, “Does Climate Change Make It Immoral to Have Kids,” The Guardian, April 2, 2016, Web October 6, 2016,
[9] Sarah Jaffee, “Naomi Klein on Cause of Climate Crisis: ‘Capitalism Is Stupid,’" Truthout, September 24, 2014, Web October 6, 2016,
[10] Urban China: Toward Efficient, Inclusive, and Sustainable, and Urbanization, The World Bank Group, Washington, D.C., 2014, Web September 22, 2016,, 26.
[11] Helen Roxburgh, “Inside Shanghai Tower: China’s Tallest Skyscraper Claims to be World’s Greenest,” The Guardian, August 23, 2016, Web September 16, 2016,
[12] Umair Irfan, “World’s Largest Carbon-Capture Plant to Open Soon,” ClimateWire, October 4, 2016, Web October 6, 2016,
[15] Kate Sheppard, “Jim Inhofe Brings a Snowball to the Senate Floor to Prove Climate Change is a ‘Hoax,’” February 27, 2015, Web October 6, 2016,