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Who's Afraid of Thomas Malthus?

Jörg Friedrichs


The main impediment to science integration in the study of resource management, not only between various social scientific disciplines but also between the social and the physical sciences more generally, is a refusal of social scientists to appreciate how deeply the societal sphere is embedded in wider biophysical and socialecological systems. Recently, however, researchers working at the intersection between human and natural systems have come to acknowledge that society is inextricably embedded in, and constrained by, wider ecological systems including the earth system as a whole. This research program is commonly called the socialecological, socio-metabolic, or earth-systems perspective (Berkes et al. 2003; Walker et al. 2004; Haberl et al. 2011; Bierman et al. 2012), and it undeniably holds significant promise for the study of resource management.

It is important to note, however, that integrating a social with a biophysical perspective is not new if we take the long view of the history of science. This is not a problem in and of itself, as science is always a kind of palimpsest. But since amnesia can also hamper the development of new ideas, it is worthwhile for those interested in a social-ecological systems perspective and other related research programs to scrutinize earlier traditions for potentially useful contributions.

Indeed, the linkages between natural resources and social change were studied long before the separation between physical and human sciences, and the subsequent specialization of social science into various academic disciplines. Take for example the physiocrats of the eighteenth century, who emphasized that all economic wealth is ultimately derived from a land base. In the present chapter, I focus on another early integrated framework, namely the tradition founded by the enlightenment polymath Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). Malthus was versed in an impressive array of areas, from theology to philosophy and from population analysis to the emerging field of political economy. He integrated all of these disparate fields of knowledge in order to study the interaction between population dynamics and food production, including the social consequences of that interaction.

Today, Malthus' determination to integrate whatever field of knowledge had something to contribute to the issues under study is a source of inspiration to all those who want to take a genuinely integrated look at resource management. As we will see, modified Malthusian theories constitute a uniquely promising bid for grounding the study of resource management on science integration, not only between various social scientific disciplines but also between the social and the lages between population dynamics, food production, and social change, modified Malthusian theories go beyond his original framework. The most sophisticated models are equipped to consider any kind of resource constraint and incorporate any challenge to the ecosphere, from biodiversity loss to climate change.

Despite the considerable potential of modified Malthusian theories, most social scientists have a hard time accepting that social change can be anything but endogenous. Physical scientists are more open to Malthusian hypotheses, but their social theorizing often lacks sophistication and is therefore duly criticized.

To overcome this unproductive state of affairs, I start from the classical Malthusian framework and gradually add complexity to it. After an introduction and discussion of classical Malthusianism I show how, despite the failing of Malthusian predictions, its logical structure is reproduced by simple neo-Malthusian theories that have been developed to account for contemporary global challenges. Subsequently, I show the potential of more sophisticated neo-Malthusian models and theories, from the iconic Limits to Growth study in the 1970s to the eco-scarcity theory of the 1990s and from climate-based eco-scarcity to Tainter's theory of diminishing returns on civilizational complexity. I conclude by pondering the prospects of modified Malthusian theories contributing to better science integration.

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