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Why Malthus May Still Turn Out to Be Right

Today, industrial civilization is buttressing a globalized system that injects trade and aid to some of the most vulnerable parts of the world, which would otherwise suffer serious problems of overpopulation. In our globalized world, even the poorest countries are embedded in industrial civilization, both by virtue of transnational interdependence and through governmental links such as development aid and military intervention. This does not always apply to the extent desirable from a humanitarian viewpoint, but in most places and most of the time Malthusian scenarios are successfully prevented by world industrial civilization.

Alas, this applies only as long as world industrial civilization is in a position to bail out places afflicted by overpopulation. In a way, the industrial era with its enormous energy inputs and technological inventiveness may have created a “fool's paradise” which temporarily abrogates the worst effects of overpopulation. Once industrial civilization enters a terminal decline, Malthusian fears may still be vindicated after all (for the “worst case”, see Duncan 1993, 2001, 2005, 2007).

Science Integration

For our present purposes, classical Malthusianism is interesting not only as an intuitively plausible and axiomatically elegant theoretical model to study important phenomena, but also as a paradigm case of science integration. At its core, classical Malthusianism deals with a wide array of vexing ethical and empirical questions pertaining to multiple areas of knowledge, connecting the physical and human sciences and spanning various social scientific disciplines.

Let me simply list a selection of the questions broached and scientific disciplines involved. What are the empirical patterns driving population growth, and how do they operate at the level of individual reproductive choices (population biology, human demography)? How is subsistence affected by various regimes of technological innovation and social distribution, and how is it impacted by a population's level of affluence and food habits such as meat consumption versus vegetarianism (agronomy; food studies)? At what point must a specific territory be considered overpopulated, taking account of the fact that trade and aid can support very high levels of population density in urban areas and countries receiving an inflow of food and other means of subsistence (economics; development studies)? Which social and political mechanisms are triggered by overpopulation, and under what circumstances (comparative sociology; political science)? When is there a serious risk of population pressure leading to a pandemic (epidemiology)?

 
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