How Malthus drove the Discovery Channel gunman crazy  

Posted by Big Gav in

Salon has a look at the strange case of population doomer gone postal James Jay Lee, who invaded the Discovery Channel and was later shot by police - How Malthus drove the Discovery Channel gunman crazy. Cryptogon also has a look at the episode - Discovery Channel Situation: Manifesto of James Jay Lee.

Among the demands of James Lee, the deranged gunman who rampaged through the headquarters of the Discovery Channel in Washington, D.C., before being shot and killed late Wednesday afternoon, was a request that the TV network "develop shows that mention the Malthusian sciences about how food production leads to the overpopulation of the Human race."

Insane, but perhaps not quite as kooky as it might initially seem. Because when choosing crazy-making prophets of doom and destruction as your inspiration, you could do a lot worse than the late 18th-century economist Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus.

The original "dismal scientist's" main contribution to economics -- the theory that the growth of population would always outrun the growth of production, thus dooming humanity to crushing poverty -- was proven wrong by the Industrial Revolution almost immediately after he set his thoughts down on paper. Few theorists whose names have endured for centuries have been more spectacularly off the mark. In almost every measurable way, the world is immensely richer than it was at the time of Malthus, even in the face of a surge in global population that the economist would never have dreamed remotely feasible. For at least the last century Malthus' ideas have been routinely dismissed in introductory economics textbooks and scoffed at by most mainstream economists, whether liberal or conservative, Keynesian or Chicago School.

Not only has food production outpaced population growth, thanks to technological innovation, but the richest nations on the planet tend to be the ones in which the birth rate drops the fastest -- the so-called demographic transition. So Malthus was wrong twice.

And yet his dystopian vision that humanity's lot, our inescapable fate, will be grinding, desperate poverty, lives on. Down for more than 200 years, but not yet out, because there's always a get-out-of-jail-free card for Malthus: Just wait.

Just wait until the technological wellsprings of innovation run dry, when even the most advanced genetic modification technologies can no longer boost food yields. Just wait until peak oil puts an end to the age of cheap energy, until the oceans are overfished and the atmosphere is choked with carbon dioxide. Just wait until Chinese and Indians and Brazilians consume with the same unsustainable abandon as Americans. Malthus isn't wrong -- he just isn't right ... yet.

6 comments

"Economists" probably have it in for Malthus because Chapter 16 of his essay criticizes their hero Adam Smith.

Yet Malthus always has the math on his side as long as a)humans are confined to this planet and b)global population is still growing.

Pointing out that a small minority has achieved a possibly temporary population reduction is mooted because the energy and resource inputs used by that minority are not available to the majority.

Until humans can show a sustained global zero population growth Malthus still wins on the math.

SP - Malthus was an economist. And a lot of commodity obsessed libertarians buy into his arguments just as much as they do Smith's...

"was proven wrong by the Industrial Revolution almost immediately after he set his thoughts down on paper."

Maybe from the first world perspective, but what if we consider the whole population of humanity? Isn't it only the top 5% who live in western luxury, with the other 95% living in varying degrees of crushing poverty?

95% in crushing poverty is probably an exaggeration...

"Economists"

Malthus was political economist, what economics was before it tried to be 'more scientific'. He may not have had some of the axiomatic baggage of modern economics.

Current economic models developed out of the broader field of political economy in the late 19th century, owing to a desire to use an empirical approach more akin to the physical sciences.[2]

Mind you he probably had his own bag ;-)

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