Saturday, February 27, 2016

Against Techno-Fetishism

Either a vertical farm or Star Wars outpost. Hard to tell. Source.
A while back I criticized the current fashion for "vertical farms," essentially skyscrapers designed to do what anyone armed with sun and soil can do--grow plants, as a prime instance of our techno-fetishism. This is the application of high technology to the simplest of problems even where its not required, and where simpler solutions are more cost-effective, to make us feel like we're somehow more "advanced" or "clever," or to create "economic activity." Architects, always looking for some new novelty to distinguish themselves from the herd, leaped on board producing fantastic renderings of buildings that would take many millions to construct, all to do what a simple wooden barn or urban greenhouse can accomplish.

It's part of a larger trend in our society--technology for technology's sake--meaning we can not see beyond high-tech solutions even when simpler ones will do. Not only do--they are often superior in terms of performance, cost effectiveness, resource use, bang-for-the-buck, etc. But instead we would rather use technology because it is "cool"--the very definition of a fetish.

So I was glad to see this excellent and very effective takedown of the vertical farming idea:

Why Growing Vegetables in High Rises is Wrong on So Many Levels (Alternet)

It's good to know I'm not alone in the common-sense-based community. Routing sunlight through solar panels to power indoor lights is not more environmentally friendly, than, you know, USING THE SUN! You know, the great glowing ball in the sky that does it all for free. However, most consumers of American news are probably unaware of the sun since they spend all their time indoors staring at screens or driving around in cars.
No one would consider stacking photovoltaic solar panels one above the other. In such a system, only the top panel would produce electric current. The leaves of plants also need to be directly and strongly illuminated if they are to activate the photosynthesis that powers their growth. 
If plants are living indoors, even if they are in an entirely glass-walled room, they can't capture enough sunlight to perform those functions. Plants nearest the windows will receive weak sideways illumination for part of the day, while interior plants will get much less than that; for both, the light intensity would be wholly inadequate to produce a significant quantity of food.
Growing plants indoors. Sheesh. Maybe if you're trying to avoid being arrested for growing that plant, but otherwise it's like developing high technology to raise fish on land. People already complain that salad greens and broccoli are too expensive; imagine what happens when you've got to recoup real-estate costs, property taxes, rental fees, and so on. There's a reason businesses move to the the suburbs. Do you really want lettuce at $20.00 a head?

And the idea that we don't have land is absurd on its face. Every city is surrounded by an abandoned farm belt. You could just bike that produce in if you had to, or, heck, carry it by horse-drawn wagon.
In the United States, we produce 4,000 calories worth of food per resident daily, twice what's required. We have ample land; we just need to stop abusing the soil we have.

Consider what it would take to provide fresh produce to just 15,000 city dwellers; that would be about 2 percent of the population of the District of Columbia. 
That was the objective of a favorable 2013 analysis of vertical gardening by GIZ, a German engineering group. They estimated that the project would require a 150 x 150 square-foot building with 37 stories. It would cost a quarter billion dollars to construct and equip and would consume $7 million worth of electricity annually. Those estimates led them to conclude, “It is possible to grow only high value crops for consumers who have disposable income for such products.”

The article is brilliant, backed with facts and figures that I didn't have available. I wish stuff like this would squelch the techno-fetishism promoted by the media, but since their job is to peddle novel non-solutions to maintain the status-quo, I kind of doubt it.
Reduced energy consumption for transportation is an excellent argument for urban gardening and farming within or close to cities, but it's no justification for indoor gardening. The climate impact of shipping food over long distances is significant, but the impact of energy-intensive food raising methods can be far larger than that. Dependence on artificial lighting in particular makes the impact of food production vastly larger than the impact of food transport. 
Defenders of vertical gardening claim that it can produce much more food per acre of land per year than sun-and-soil agriculture. But not only are many of these comparisons exaggerated; they are also irrelevant. No matter how big the improvement in production per square foot per year, it will have no effect on the key number in vertical gardening's energy predicament: the quantity of photosynthetically active light required to produce each and every kilogram of plant tissue. That's a basic biochemical requirement. 
Increasing a food-production building's yield by stacking in more and more plants per floor or operating year-round only increases the demand for electric lighting.
What's the alternative? As the article points out, rooftop gardening is one. The roofs are already there anyway and exposed to direct sunlight; plus sunlight actually degrades roofing membranes. Thus, protecting the membranes from UV degradation and growing plants, whether for edible or medicinal purposes or just to clean the air, makes sense. Vertical walls can now be used as well (though difficult to harvest).

And of course, there are ideas like urban food forests, raised bed gardening on empty lots, or just tearing up your lawn and planting a victory garden. A few years ago on this blog I wrote about French Market Gardening:

French Market Gardens - La Culture Maraîchère

Here's another example from Low-Tech Magazine: Fruit Walls: Urban Farming in the 1600s

And another great example of using greenhouse technology on an appropriate scale to grow citrus fruits on the Great Plains in the middle of winter!


It is these kinds of solutions that actually make sense, rather than the grandiloquent top-down megatechnic solutions promoted by the corporate media.

It also makes me wonder what the real agenda is in trying to automate every tiny scrap of agricultural labor in a world where millions of people are unemployed and desperate all over the planet. Control the food and you control the people. If people can produce their own, they have freedom, which is what the people in power definitely do NOT want.

Here's Lloyd Alter's coverage: Vertical farms: Wrong on so many levels (Treehugger). Lloyd takes on some other green fantasies, too, for example, the solar-panel highways concept. Again, just like growing plants indoors, burying solar panels under streets seems like a silly idea on its face, yet it was again greeted with raptures of "change the world" excitement. One would think it would make more sense to put solar panels (made with difficult to extract elements and often toxic to produce) where, you know, the sun might shine on them.
[The solar bike path in the Netherlands] has been in operation for a full year, and the developers are calling it a huge success. The $ 3.7 million project has generated 9,800 kWh, which at $0.20 per kWh is worth a whopping $1,960! That's a 0.0057 percent return on investment! 
Now of course this roadway was a prototype and would cost a lot less if mass produced. But solar plants in Germany are now delivering power at 9 cents per kWh. It's predicted that by 2025 it will drop to between 4 and 6 cents per kWh. The Solaroad people claim that their system will pay for itself in 15 years, but at those rates it will cost more to rake the leaves off their solar panels than it will get out of them in electricity.  
Adele Peters of Fast Company goes so far as to claim that "A solar-paved street could ultimately be cheaper than something made of asphalt or concrete."I am sorry, but that defies logic. The solar roadway has to sit on top of a very stable and strong concrete base, and the return on this investment is not fifteen years, it is never...OK, they have proven that they can do it. They still have not proven that it makes any sense.
Solar bicycle lane's first year is "a great success" (Treehugger)

As he pointed out when it was built:
Get those darn kids off the solar bike lane! They're blocking the sun! They're standing on US$ 3.7 million of photovoltaics and precast concrete bike lane, running all of 230 feet, that's going to generate enough energy to supply enough electricity for three houses!

The Solaroad people, who built this bike lane in Krommenie, near Amsterdam, admit that because of the angle (lying almost flat), these solar panels will only generate 30% of what a conventional roof mounted panel would produces. They are also protected by heavy textured tempered glass, that probably costs a whole lot more than solar panels do these days.

Another sacred cow that Lloyd takes on is trendy shipping container architecture, yet another example of architecture's bandwagon effect. Originally, shipping container architecture was about appropriating waste products to produce low-cost housing for underserved communities. Now they are being produced just to make houses out of! He links to an article from Arch Daily:
...there are a lot of downsides to building with cargo containers. For instance, the coatings used to make the containers durable for ocean transport also happen to contain a number of harmful chemicals, such as chromate, phosphorous, and lead-based paints. Moreover, wood floors that line the majority of shipping container buildings are infused with hazardous chemical pesticides like arsenic and chromium to keep pests away. 
Reusing containers seems to be a low energy alternative, however, few people factor in the amount of energy required to make the box habitable. The entire structure needs to be sandblasted bare, floors need to be replaced, and openings need to be cut with a torch or fireman’s saw. The average container eventually produces nearly a thousand pounds of hazardous waste before it can be used as a structure. All of this, coupled with the fossil fuels required to move the container into place with heavy machinery, contribute significantly to its ecological footprint. 
Another downside is that dimensionally, an individual container creates awkward living/working spaces. Taking into account added insulation, you have a long narrow box with less than eight foot ceiling. To make an adequate sized space, multiple boxes need to be combined, which again, requires energy.

In many areas, it is cheaper and less energy to build a similarly scaled structure using wood framing. Shipping container homes makes sense where resources are scarce, containers are in abundance, and where people are in need of immediate shelter such as, developing nations and disaster relief. While there are certainly striking and innovative examples of architecture using cargo containers, it is typically not the best method of design and construction.
The Pros and Cons of Cargo Container Architecture (Arch Daily)

Here's another critical take:
Housing is usually not a technology problem. All parts of the world have vernacular housing, and it usually works quite well for the local climate. There are certainly places with material shortages, or situations where factory built housing might be appropriate- especially when an area is recovering from a disaster. In this case prefab buildings would make sense- but doing them in containers does not. 
You’ve seen the proposals with cantilevers everywhere. Containers stacked like Lego building blocks, or with one layer perpendicular to the next. Architects love stuff like this, just like they throw around usually misleading/meaningless phrases like “kit of parts.” Guess what- the second you don’t stack the containers on their corners, the structure that is built into the containers needs to be duplicated with heavy steel reinforcing. The rails at the top and the roof of the container are not structural at all (the roof of a container is light gauge steel, and will dent easily if you step on it). If you cut openings in the container walls, the entire structure starts to deflect and needs to be reinforced because the corrugated sides act like the flange of beam and once big pieces are removed, the beam stops working. All of this steel reinforcing is very expensive, and it’s the only way you can build a “double-wide.”
What's wrong with shipping container housing? One architect says "everything." (Treehugger) For another take with economics in mind, see: Home, Sweet Shipping Container, and Why Not? (Naked Capitalism)

I'm glad at least a few of these ridiculous sacred cows that are endlessly being recycled in the media are finally being taken on. The emperor has no clothes, and architects are often the worst offenders. There are architects, however, who really do work to create affordable, appropriate-tech solutions, and it's too bad they don't get the coverage they deserve. Maybe we'll finally get to discuss real solutions that don't pad the profits of the one percent. Feel free to include your own favorite examples of techno-fetishism in the comments.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Fun Facts

First of 2016!

The wealth of richest 1% of humanity is equal to the other 99%. Progress!
http://www.bbc.com/news/business-35339475

Millionaires control 41% of world's wealth, and are expected to take even more in the years ahead.
http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/15/millionaires-control-41-of-worlds-wealth.html

By 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. These “plastic soups” are growing at a rate of 10x every decade since the 1950s. It is expected to continue growing as our population increases.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/20/by-2050-there-will-be-more-plastic-than-fish-in-the-worlds-oceans-study-says/?hpid=hp_no-name_morning-mix-story-g-duplicate%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

The above stat has been disputed. Read more here: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35562253

I like this comment from Reddit:

"40 years ago a headline might have read, "With current consumption and disposal rates of plastic, the world will have 5 massive plastic oceanic gyres the combined size of India, Europe and Mexico." Would that have been outragious clickbait? It's now a reality."

https://www.reddit.com/r/collapse/comments/41sne0/plastic_to_outweigh_fish_in_oceans_by_2050_study/

However, this is most likely true:

Sometime in the last few years, we reached a point where there are, by weight, more ships in the ocean than fish.
https://what-if.xkcd.com/33/

63% of Americans can't afford a $500 car repair or a $1,000 emergency room visit.
http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/63-of-americans-cant-afford-500-car-repair-or-1000-emergency-room-visit-300200097.html

Global unemployment numbers will hit almost 200 million in 2016.
http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/global-unemployment-numbers-hit-almost-200-million-2016-1538904

More people now die from air pollution than malaria and HIV combined.
http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/jan/16/winter-smog-hits-worlds-cities-air-pollution-soars

Half the world's population (nearly 5 billion) will be short-sighted (myopic) by 2050.
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/02/160217113308.htm?utm_source=fark&utm_medium=website&utm_content=link

If slavery were a country it would have the population of Canada, but it would be the third-largest emitter of CO2 after China and the United States.
http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/01/20/463600820/todays-slaves-often-work-for-enterprises-that-destroy-the-environment?utm_campaign=storyshare&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social

European Queens waged more wars that European Kings. From 1480 to 1913 there was a 27 percent increase in wars when a queen was in power, as compared to the reign of a king.
http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2016/01/european-queens-waged-more-wars-than-kings.html

Gov. Rick Snyder has appointed more than a dozen "emergency managers" to replace democratically elected leaders in Michigan, most of them in majority black cities.
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/23/us/anger-in-michigan-over-appointing-emergency-managers.html

There are more shopping malls than high schools in the United States; 93 percent of teenage girls say that shopping is their favorite pastime.
http://www.treehugger.com/cleaning-organizing/10-crazy-facts-about-stuff-make-you-stop-mindless-shopping.html

Lesbians have a 9% wage premium over heterosexual women, whereas gay men face an earnings penalty of 11% compared with straight men.
http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-35558515

66 million hungry school-age children across the globe could be fed for six years for the same amount of money Americans will spend on Valentine’s Day this year.
http://www.treehugger.com/economics/valentines-day-numbers-are-you-sitting-down.html

The average American watches 5 hours of TV per day.
http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/average-american-watches-5-hours-tv-day-article-1.1711954

In Southeast Florida, the sea could rise three feet by 2060.
http://prospect.org/article/sinking-feeling-politics-sea-level-rise-and-miamis-building-boom

By the end of last year, the contributions of just 158 families and the companies they own (a staggering $176 million) made up about half the total funding in the 2016 presidential race.
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/01/democratic-socialism-government-bernie-sanders-primary-president/

The state of Wyoming has only two escalators.
https://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/3z9vd3/what_is_the_most_bullshit_sounding_true_fact_that/

Rice does not need to grow in water, but since it can survive it, it is done to control weeds and other pests creating higher yields.
https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/3zgrwr/til_rice_does_not_need_to_grow_in_water_but_since/

Colorado offered free birth control — and teen abortions fell by 42 percent.
http://www.vox.com/2014/7/7/5877505/colorado-contraceptives-teen-pregnancy-birth-control?s_src=NWLC&s_subsrc=fb_20150206_birth-control

Life expectancy for Syrians (average) 2010: 79.5 years. 2014: 55.7 years.
https://twitter.com/ianbremmer/status/689834125734367232

Only seven women are allowed to wear white when meeting the Pope.
http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-35380666

Across Europe, more people are dying than being born.
http://qz.com/596459/across-europe-more-people-are-dying-than-being-born/

Between 2002 and 2012, college textbook prices rose 82% while overall consumer prices rose 28%.
https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/441j0l/til_between_2002_and_2012_college_textbook_prices/

Americans are more likely to die younger than people in other developed nations.
http://boingboing.net/2016/02/09/americans-die-younger-than-oth.html

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Secular Cycles - Bringing back the social aspect

Apologies for the length, but I just couldn't find a place to break this into multiple posts.

Over the past few series of posts, some of you may have noticed the similarity between Paul Colinvaux's ecological hypothesis and the ideas of Thomas Malthus. Malthus' ideas also revolved around demographics and the role they play in historical cycles, particularly concerning population increase. His ideas were later applied with more economic rigor to land and rent prices by David Ricardo.

A number of scholars have detected distinct historical cycles and attributed them to primarily demographic factors. German historian Wilhelm Abel compiled time-series information about prices, wages, rents, and population movements in Western and Central Europe from the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries, and concluded that fluctuations in the circulation of money were inadequate to explain the cycles he observed. Later Michael Postan, working in England, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, in France came to similar conclusions. Le Roy Laduries' The Peasants of Languedoc was a compilation of hundreds of years of precise historical data in which the same repetitive patterns could be seen: "Rents would rise first, with grain prices lagging behind rents, the price of industrial goods lagging behind grain prices, and workers’ wages bringing up the rear." On this basis he argued that rural France went through  a great Agrarian Cycle from the end of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth, and that this cycle was essentially Malthusian in nature.

However, other scholars looked at this demographic determinism and argued that it neglected the sociopolitical aspect of history, without which we cannot explain historical cycles. They argued that sociopolitical factors such as  "growth in the size of the parasitic class and the increasing extravagance of noble consumption," were as much a factor in the historical cycles observed as were  demographic trends.

For example, they pointed to the fact that after the Black Death in Europe, societies went on very different trajectories. Some became more free, while others became more oppressive. Also, they pointed out that higher productivity, lower food prices and higher wages in the wake of the Black Death did not lead to population growth; instead the population stagnated from the mid-fourteenth century to the late fifteenth century. This prolonged post-Black Death depression phase was not predicted by Malthusian theory. Scholars such as Robert Brenner argued that these were due to established structures of class relations. Many of these scholars were associated with the Marxist school of thought.

However, an attempt has been made to resolve the "Brenner debate" by reconciling the two in a larger framework, and bringing the state back in as an actor. Rather than being in opposition, demographic factors and sociopolitical developments are intrinsically linked. Theories were developed to subsume the two in a larger framework, notably by Jack Goldstone, who termed his ideas demographic-structural. The theory argued that there is a causal connection between population growth and state breakdown. In this theory, population growth is not a direct cause of state breakdown, but affects the underlying social institutions, which in turn affects sociopolitical stability.

The concept of Secular Cycles developed by Peter Turchin and Sergey A. Nefedov is a more recent and rigorous attempt to reconcile both demographic and structural factors. Turchin, like Colinvaux, has a background in the natural sciences (zoology and biology). Their desire is to create a model of the rise and fall of complex agrarian civilizations sophisticated enough to have explanatory power, but not so complex as to be unworkable. Some simplification is required, of course, because history is neither linear nor predictable, something they freely acknowledge.
What we need is a synthetic theory that encompasses both demographic mechanisms (with the associated economic consequences) and power relations (surplus extraction mechanisms). In the dynamical systems framework, it does not make sense to speak of one or the other as “the primary factor.” The two factors interact dynamically, each affecting and being affected by the other. 
In this  book  we  examine  the  hypothesis  that  secular  cycles—demographic ­social-political  oscillations  of  very  long  period  (centuries  long)—are  the  rule rather than the exception in large agrarian states and empires.
Secular Cycles is not available at my local library and is prohibitively expensive (probably because it's a textbook). Thankfully, the introduction which describes the basic approach is available for free online.(PDF) I will use this as the basis of this blog post. Emphasis mine unless noted otherwise.

Secular Cycles - phases


Turchin and Nefedyov divide secular cycles into two major phases: an integrative phase and and a degenerative phase:
...Politically the integrative phase is characterized by a centralizing tendency, unified elites, and a strong state that maintains order and internal stability. Internal cohesion often results in the vigorous prosecution of external wars of conquest, which may result in the extension of the state territory (assuming there are weaker neighbors at whose expense the state can expand).  
The disintegrative phase, by contrast, is characterized by a decentralizing tendency, divided elites, a weak state, and internal instability and political disorder that periodically flare up in civil war. External wars of conquest are much more difficult to prosecute during the disintegrative phase. If they happen, they usually take place during the intervals between civil wars and at the expense of equally weak opponents. More frequently it is the external enemies that profit from the internal weakness of the state and society, resulting in an increased frequency of raids, invasions, and loss of territory.
Secular cycles are also divided into a number of subphases. There is typically an expansive phase, a stagflation (stagnation plus inflation) phase, a crisis phase, and a depression phase. Each of these phases can last different periods of time, although some are typically more acute and shorter than others.
- Population growth is particularly vigorous during the first, expansion phase of the integrative trend. This is a time of relatively stable prices and modest real wage declines (if any). 
- [A]s the population density begins to approach the limits set by the carrying capacity, price increases or wage declines accelerate—this is the “stagnation” or “compression” or even more descriptively stagflation (stagnation plus inflation) phase. Although the majority of commoners experience increasing economic difficulties during the stagflation phase, the elites enjoy a golden age, and their numbers and appetites continue to expand. 
-The stagflation phase (and the overall integrative trend) is succeeded by a general crisis. Whereas expansion grades smoothly into stagnation, the transition between stagflation and crisis is often (but not always) abrupt. Discrete events signaling the arrival of crisis can be pandemics, extreme episodes of famine, or state collapse followed by intense civil war (or any such events in various combinations).  
The crisis phase in our terminology is not a discrete, brief event (which is one meaning of the word crisis) but an extended period that can last for one or more human generations. The decline of population numbers during a crisis results in a situation of plentiful per capita resources. However, this does not necessarily end the disintegrative trend, because there are usually too many elites and elite aspirants, and intraelite conflict continues to generate internal instability. 
-[T]he crisis grades smoothly into a depression phase, characterized by endemic civil warfare. The population may grow during the intervals between intense civil wars, but such increases typically do not last and are followed by declines (although not as a catastrophic as those typical of the crisis phase).  
The depression phase ends when the ranks of elites are pruned by internal conflict to the point where the disintegrative trend can reverse itself, and a new secular cycle begins. Alternatively, if no functioning state can get going, then the depression phase grades smoothly into an intercycle of indeterminate length.
The boundary between these phases is "fuzzy," and often times the authors round the transition periods to the nearest decade. Secular cycles are not regular, repeating rhythms, but rather events that play out along different timescales and are affected by a number of factors. These systems are complex, chaotic, and nonlinear, meaning they are not predictable. Agrarian states are affected by exogenous variables (coming from outside the system): "Exogenous factors, unlike endogenous ones, are those that are not part of feedback loops." And often the actions of even lone individuals can affect the system in unpredictable ways.

The Demographic Component

Like Colinvaux, Turchin and Nefedov examine the underlying demographic/Malthusian arguments:
The demographic component of the theory is based very much on the original insights of Malthus and Ricardo...The key variable is the population density in relation to the carrying capacity of the local region...The concept of carrying capacity...is defined as the population density that the resources of the habitat can support in the long term...Resources usually refer to food, although in some environments the limiting resource may be the availability of water or fuel. Carrying capacity thus is an upper ceiling on population growth. From the point of view of economics, this limit arises because labor inputs into production suffer from diminishing marginal returns...
The carrying capacity of the land is determined by things such as temperature, rainfall, topography, water supply, soil type, and so forth. A forest can support more people than can a desert. It is also affected by climate, which means that the carrying capacity varies over time. This is important in understanding rise and fall.

Also critical is the idea that the carrying capacity can be affected by the level of technology employed. As Esther Boserup pointed out, increasing technology along with population growth can lead to intensification, which is the use of technology to increase the carrying capacity of a given piece of land (e.g. transition to agriculture from foraging). "As Ester Boserup famously argued, population growth can have a positive effect on economic innovation."  Not mentioned, though relevant, is William Catton's concept of ghost acreage, which is drawing resources forward in time or space to (temporarily) increase carrying capacity of a given area (fossil fuel, fossil water[aquifers], imports, etc.).

Diminishing marginal returns means that if you have a fixed variable, adding more and more inputs will generate increasingly smaller outputs over time. It is a core concept in economics. for example, adding more and more workers to a task does not work if there is some limiting factor (and there always is). For more on the concept of diminishing returns, see here. The law of diminishing returns mean that surpluses will reach a maximum and then decline over time:
One important consequence of the law of diminishing returns is that the amount of surplus produced by cultivators is nonlinearly related to their numbers. Surplus is the difference between the total production and what is needed for subsistence...The amount of resources needed for subsistence increases linearly with population, while the total product grows slower than linearly as a result of the law of diminishing returns...Thus, when population increases from a low level, initially the amount of surplus increases (more peasants means more surplus). At some intermediate density, however, the surplus reaches a maximum: this is where the effects of diminishing returns on labor inputs into agriculture begin to be felt. After that point, the surplus begins to decline.
While Boserup's insights are considered to be a refutation of Malthus, suggesting that innovation and intesification can solve any predicament, in fact they are complimentary. Intensification was simply a factor that Malthus missed; incorporate it and you still have a valid theory:
Although Boserup is widely regarded as being anti-Malthusian, both her insights and those of Malthus can be comfortably combined within the same general theoretical framework. Thus, adverse effects of population growth on the standard of living can provide strong inducements for the adoption of new means of production. However, in agrarian societies, economic change can win only a temporary respite from marginal immiseration.  
For example, a society that approaches the current limits of population growth can invest in clearing forests, draining swamps, irrigation, and flood control. All these measures will result in an increase in the carrying capacity. However, at some point there are no more forests to cut or swamps to drain, and if the population continues to grow, eventually it will again begin pressing against the Malthusian limits.
As a society approaches the carrying capacity of the land, there are a number of immediate and measurable effects on the underlying social structures of that society:
...There are shortages of land and food, and an oversupply of labor. As a result, food prices increase, real wages decline, and per capita consumption, especially among the poorer strata, drops. Economic distress leads to lower reproduction and higher mortality rates, resulting in a slower population growth. Should population density reach the carrying capacity, there would be just enough food to sustain and replace one individual; birth and death rates would equalize, and population density would be at an equilibrium...
What happens to the underlying social structure when diminishing marginal returns start to set in, and productivity gains can no longer keep pace with population growth? Some very distinct things, which we can see in the historical record:
The typical changes accompanying population growth are high rents and land prices, increasing fragmentation of peasant holdings or high numbers of landless peasants, and increased migration of landless peasants to cities...Cheap labor results in a flowering of trades and crafts. The demand for manufactures increases, because the elites profit from high rents on land and lower labor costs. 
Increased urbanization and conspicuous consumption by the elites promote regional and international trade. The gap between the well-to-do and the poor grows. In rural areas...[c]hronic undernourishment creates conditions conducive to the spread of epidemics...The cities accumulate landless peasants and jobless artisans, who join the growing ranks of paupers and vagrants. Food riots and wage protests become frequent. Eventually, deepening economic misery leads to peasant and urban uprisings...
This very much in line with Colinvaux's theories. One critical difference is that in secular cycles, as the population of commoners becomes immiserated, the fortunes of the wealthy actually increase, because increasing population means more and cheaper labor, and it is the elites who exploit that labor who benefit from the situation.

Thus, rather than being hostile to population increase, increased population is temporarily beneficial to elites, because it affords them access to cheaper labor (one reason why elites always advocate for natalist policies, and see population decline as a "crisis"  to be solved).

Increased elite wealth is also a driver for foreign trade, because there is a greater market for luxury goods thanks to elite wealth accumulation. This fits with Colinvaux's model for trade, where it is used as a way to create niche space for upper-class buccaneers in a time of population growth, while providing expanded niches throughout the trading society. Thus, increasing population drives trade in two ways: increasing fortunes for the rich and increased competition for niche space (about which more below).

The law of diminishing marginal returns means the surplus declines as population increases, since more and more people does not equal more and more surplus after a certain point. That surplus is appropriated by elites:
The surplus produced by peasants is not made available to the elites (and the state) automatically; left alone, peasants would happily consume it themselves (or simply work less, “consuming” it as extra leisure time). How much of the production ends up in the hands of the elites depends on many economic and political factors. One important dynamic is that the elites are usually able to extract a larger amount of surplus during the late stages of population growth...In a serfdom-based system lords can set the level of extraction almost arbitrarily high, because oppressed serfs have nowhere to flee—the whole surrounding landscape is at the saturation level, and the only alternative is the life of a vagabond or a bandit, which has always been brutish and short. 
Thus, most serfs have no realistic alternative to submission...Oversupply of labor leads to depressed wages and chronic unemployment or underemployment for a substantial part of population. On the other hand, employers, both rural and urban, profit greatly from this economic situation.
This ties in with Carneiro's circumscription theory - an idea of early state formation. This idea is that elites grow powerful enough to form a coercive state in societies which are circumscribed, i.e. there are no more places where dissidents and rebels can flee to. This allows elites to successfully remove resistance to their authority, and become more powerful and more rapacious. Redistributive chiefs can make the leap to kingship in places which are circumscribed by oceans, seas, rivers, mountains, valleys, deserts, jungles, or hostile tribes (for more, see this).

Compare this also to the view of mainstream economics, who insist that there can be no such thing as unemployment, because increasing the population causes more goods and services to be demanded, which will employ the surplus labor (supply creates its own demand, aka Say's Law). We see that this view is simply historically false.

Thus, we see that the elites grow ever wealthier as the society approaches the carrying capacity, and they demand ever more consumption even a time of diminishing returns and increasing poverty for the masses:
...during the late stages of population growth, when commoners are already suffering from economic difficulties, the elites are enjoying a golden age. Both the reproduction of the existing elites and the recruitment of new elites from commoners will be fastest when the amount of extractable surplus is greatest. The expansion of elite numbers should take place...when fast-rising prices and land rents offer the greatest opportunities for rapid accumulation of wealth by current and aspiring elites, and when state fiscal problems lead rulers to increase the sale of privilege and rank; both factors tend to accelerate social mobility into the elite ranks. As a result, the peak of elite numbers often lags behind that of the general population.
Note that this implies an increasingly "two-tier" society of lords and serfs; a sort of "hourglass" shaped social structure, rather than pyramidal or diamond-shaped (albeit with a much larger bottom portion).

The good times roll, for the rich. But it cannot last for long (compare the Roaring Twenties to the Great Depression, for example). Incomes for elites start to fall:
Such a happy state of events (for the elites) cannot continue for long. First, expansion of elite numbers means that the amount of resources per elite capita begins to decline. This process would occur even if the total amount of surplus stayed constant. But, second, as general population grows closer to the carrying capacity, surplus production gradually declines. The combination of these two trends results in an accelerating fall of average elite incomes.
We judge our standards not by some absolute level of consumption, but relative to our peers and our parents' generation. Everyone wants to live better than their parents. Even as society becomes poorer, elites want to live better. They look around and set their level of consumption based on people around them. They also set it based upon their parents. They demand more than the people who preceded them, and they are accustomed to getting it:
...Modern studies of consumption level expectations suggest that people generally aim at matching (and if possible exceeding) the consumption levels of their parents. Thus, what is important is not the absolute level of consumption but the level in relation to the previous generation...If we can extrapolate results obtained by studying modern consumers to preindustrial elites, then we would predict that during the good times the elites would easily become accustomed to elevated levels of consumption...By contrast, should their level of consumption decrease in relation to the previous generation’s, the elites would be expected to react vehemently to this development. This argument suggests there is no contradiction between the bitter critique of the elites for their luxurious and wasteful way of life by contemporary social commentators and the equally bitter complaining of the elites themselves about their poverty and indebtedness.
It's become common to see stories about how "poor" people who make combined six and seven-figure salaries feel in places like Manhattan, the Beltway, the Hamptons, Beverly Hills, Orange County, Silicon Valley, and other wealthy, exclusive enclaves. Now we can understand why they feel this way. Increasing amounts of elites bid up the cost of everything, and elites demand to live better than their parents did, leading to an inflation of expectations (compare their lifestyles to a generation ago). It's worth noting that the predatory behavior of elites was at the core of a study which predicted a civilizational decline which received significant attention a couple years back.

As elite competition intensifies, those who play their cards right can be the beneficiaries of elites who have less wealth to deal with the declining resources per capita. We see this in business where the big fish gobble up the little fish. Business owners who do not have the resources to hold out against larger competitors, or hold on through a downturn, have no other choice than to sell out to those who can. The winners of this competition can then buy up the losers, further cementing their position, increasing their wealth, and driving out-of-control inequality (while creating ever more frustrated and angry losers under this system):
The deteriorating economic conditions of wealthy elites during the late stagflation phase of the secular cycle do not affect all aristocrats equally. While the majority are losing ground, a few lineages, by contrast, are able to increase their wealth. The growing economic inequality results from the operation of what some sociologists call the “Matthew effect.”
Poor aristocratic lineages tend to get poorer because they attempt to maintain their elite status on an inadequate economic basis...A wealthier lineage, by contrast, can maintain the level of consumption necessary for preserving its elite status and have some resources left over to acquire land from its impoverished neighbors. As a result, the poor get poorer while the rich get richer.
During periods of economic hardship, poor peasants must sell land or starve. As a result, at the same time that the majority are sliding into absolute misery, a small percentage of thrifty, hardworking, or simply lucky peasants are able to concentrate increasing amounts of land in their hands. At some point, such successful peasants usually attempt to translate their wealth into higher social status. This demand for upward social mobility is an important factor contributing to the elite overproduction that develops towards the end of a prolonged period of demographic expansion.
Again, ripped from the headlines: We've consistently seen stories about how the one percent is losing out to the .01 percent, and even the .001 percent! We see above that this is a real and logical phenomenon.

Why Don't the 1 Percent Feel Rich? (The Atlantic)

We're also constantly subjected to "Horatio Alger" stories about how people are able to amass enormous fortunes during this period and slip into the ranks of the super-rich. Many of the Silicon Valley titans fit this pattern, as do many elites from places like Russia and China who are the beneficiaries of ultra-cheap labor, expanding economies, and extreme inequality in their home countries. This is sold to the public in the media as a way to say, "see, anyone can make it!" and "inequality doesn't matter-only social mobility does!" even as the majority gets poorer and poorer. But these are related! The poverty of the masses leads directly to the emergence of super-rich elites. Making them richer will not solve poverty, despite what elite apologists in politics, economics and the media assure us.

Toynbee would describe this as the transition of the creative majority to the dominant majority. He would also note the emergence of the sullen internal proletariat. Thanks to secular cycles, we can see, although Toynbee could not, how both these events are related population growth.

What is the reaction from the dominant majority? It's obvious: take even more from the internal proletariat!  Thus population growth => diminishing marginal returns => elite greed and rapacity. The relation between elites and population growth is in my opinion one of the most interesting parts of secular cycles (and missing from Colinvaux and Malthus).

The problem is, the elites are trying to maintain their lifestyles in a time of growing  immiseration for the general public due to diminishing marginal returns. This leads to growing social conflict, and even revolutionary sentiment:
The declining incomes of the majority of aristocrats have two important consequences: intensifying oppression of the peasants by the elites and increasing intraelite competition for scarce resources. The elites will attempt to increase the proportion of resource extracted from the producers by whatever means that are available to them, both economic and extraeconomic (coercive). 
Their success will depend on the structural characteristics of the society: the relative military strength of the elites with respect to the producers and the state, legal and cultural limits on surplus extraction, and so forth. If successful, elites may not only deprive the commoners of the surplus but may also cut into the subsistence resource, resulting in a negative growth rate for the commoner population... 
The second consequence of plunging elite incomes is increased intraelite competition. The forms that this competition takes will depend (again) on the structural characteristics of the society. Probably the most important factor is the capability of the state to suppress overt violence. Here we consider the forms of intraelite competition in the presence of the state when internal order is maintained. The situation after the state collapses or is seriously weakened is considered later.
Turchin and Nefedyov want some sort of metric for their model of intraelite competition, and some of the things they use are increased applications for higher education certifications and increased civil lawsuits (in societies which maintain social order, that is). More recently, Turchin has looked at the number of applicants to law schools, and the bifurcation of lawyer salaries:
Increasing inequality leads not only to the growth of top fortunes; it also results in greater numbers of wealth-holders. The “1 percent” becomes “2 percent.” Or even more. There are many more millionaires, multimillionaires and billionaires today compared with 30 years ago, as a proportion of the population.

Rich Americans tend to be more politically active than the rest of the population. They support candidates who share their views and values; they sometimes run for office themselves. Yet the supply of political offices has stayed flat (there are still 100 senators and 435 representatives -- the same numbers as in 1970). In technical terms, such a situation is known as “elite overproduction.”

A related sign is the overproduction of law degrees. From the mid-1970s to 2011, according to the American Bar Association, the number of lawyers tripled to 1.2 million from 400,000. Meanwhile, the population grew by only 45 percent.Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. recently estimated that twice as many law graduates pass the bar exam as there are job openings for them. In other words, every year U.S. law schools churn out about 25,000 “surplus” lawyers, many of whom are in debt. A large number of them go to law school with an ambition to enter politics someday.

So why is it important that we have a multitude of desperate law school graduates and many more politically ambitious rich than 30 years ago?

Past waves of political instability, such as the civil wars of the late Roman Republic, the French Wars of Religion and the American Civil War, had many interlinking causes and circumstances unique to their age. But a common thread in the eras we studied was elite overproduction. The other two important elements were stagnating and declining living standards of the general population and increasing indebtedness of the state.

Elite overproduction generally leads to more intra-elite competition that gradually undermines the spirit of cooperation, which is followed by ideological polarization and fragmentation of the political class. This happens because the more contenders there are, the more of them end up on the losing side. A large class of disgruntled elite-wannabes, often well-educated and highly capable, has been denied access to elite positions...
Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays (Bloomberg)

"Startup culture" is a clear manifestation of intraelite competition in the modern-day U.S.

Note how similar this is with Colinvaux's theory regarding increasing competition for broad niche space as a fundamental cause of social conflict and unraveling. Increasing elites caused by population growth is the driver for many of Colinvaux's prime movers: wars, colonization, foreign trade, and technological innovation. It's also fundamental to the establishment of caste systems and police states (due to elites feeling more threatened by commoners).

I would also link it to debasement of currencies and increasing indebtedness at all levels. As peoples' living standards start to decline, they attempt to use debt to compensate. Increasing indebtedness leads to more wealth bifurcation as the lenders benefit from increased demand for their money and can use interest to redistribute income upward. Currency is debased as money is printed as means for elites to increase their wealth and status apart from any useful contribution to the economy. I would also point to financialization as another means of elites to hold onto their wealth--the wealth of elites in declining empires typically comes from putting the rest of the society in hock to them, along with illusory Ponzi schemes and hallucinatory paper wealth (Spain, the Netherlands, Britain, etc.).

I would also use bubbles as a clear indicator of elite overproduction: prices are irrationally bid up when a lot of wealthy elites want to hold onto their money.

Societies at this point reach what they call a bifurcation point, leading of one of two paths: either an increased freedom for the majority, as with the decline of serfdom after the Black Death in Western Europe, or an increasingly repressive police state, as under the Malmuks in Egypt. The Magna Carta or the Iron First.

The behavior of elites matters. If elites are so rapacious that they take so much surplus from the underlying population, the underlying population will not even be able to reproduce itself. Turchin uses the contrast between post Black-Death England and Egypt. In England, there were plenty of places to hide, and the longbow served as a force equalizer. In Egypt, the elites trying to maintain their living standards were the specialized slave-warriors known as Mamluks, a particularly cohesive and militarily capable group of elites, and there was no place for peasants to hide due to the surrounding deserts. Thus, England recovered demographically and economically; Egypt did not.

Turchin also notes that in Islamic societies such as the Maghreb, polygyny led to faster elite reproduction since multiple wives boosted the genetic fitness of elite males and hence led to more claimants for elite positions. Too many princes led to more social conflict and sped up the secular cycles compared to Western Europe. In Ottoman societies, by contrast, even though the Sultan had a harem, only one son could succeed him and all other claimants were killed off. This slowed down the cycle.

In some Islamic societies, the administrative classes were slaves recruited specifically for this purpose (e.g. the Malmuks and the Ottoman devshirme). Thus the amount of elites was controlled by the state rather than biology, and the children of these administrators could not inherit their parents' position and dropped out of the ruling class. This decreased intraelite competition and made the secular cycles move more slowly in these societies.

Elite overproduction leads to the creation of counterelites, who are the failed aspirants to elite positions. These dissident elites desire nothing more than to bring down the system that has no place for them. This ties in with Colinvaux's (and others) observation that revolutions come from the ranks of the disaffected upwardly mobile classes whose aspirations are thwarted, rather than from the bottom strata who are accustomed to lower living standards:
As a result, the elites tend to lose their unity and split along numerous fission lines: new elites versus old, one religious faction against the other, regional elites against the center, and so on. Because there are not enough resources for everybody, certain segments of elites, or groups aspiring to elite status, inevitably end up as the losers. We refer to them as the counterelites, or dissident elites. Usually, the counterelites do not constitute a true sociological group, because there is little that unifies them apart from hatred for the existing regime and a burning desire to bring it down. Incidentally, we are not implying here that the motivations of the counterelites are purely economical. The late stagflation phase...is typically characterized by a harsh oppression of the productive segments of the society and extreme social inequality, offering ample ideological justification for revolutionary action.
State Collapse

The above dynamic leads to the next phase, which is social breakdown.

Social trends resulting from demographic growth—declining surplus production, popular immiseration, and intraelite competition—have a profound impact on the ability of the state to maintain internal order, or even to survive. As Colinvaux pointed out, increasing bureaucracy is an inevitable consequence of the loss of freedom accompanying population growth:
Population growth leads to expansion of armies and bureaucracies, resulting in rising state expenditures. An increased number of aspirants for elite positions puts further fiscal strain on the state. Thus, states have no choice but to seek to expand taxation, despite resistance from the elites and the general populace. Yet the amount of surplus production declines (as discussed in the previous section), and the state must compete for this shrinking surplus with increasingly desperate elites.  
As a result, attempts to increase revenues cannot offset the spiraling state expenses, and even though the state is rapidly raising taxes, it is still headed for fiscal crisis. Note that declining real revenues may be masked by persistent price inflation, and it is therefore important to express all fiscal flows in real terms...After a certain lag time, the negative effects of population expansion begin to affect the elites, who become riven by increasing rivalry and factionalism.  
Another consequence of rapid population growth is the expansion of youth cohorts. This segment of the population is particularly impacted by lack of employment opportunities. Finally, growing economic inequality, elite competition, and popular discontent fuel ideological conflicts. For example, in early modern Europe, dissident elites and dissatisfied artisans were widely recruited into heterodox religious movements... 
As all these trends intensify, the end result is state bankruptcy and consequent loss of the military control, elite movements of regional and national rebellion, and a combination of elite-mobilized and popular uprisings following the breakdown of central authority. Internal war among political factions is only one aspect of increased interpersonal violence. A breakdown of social order is also accompanied by increased banditry, homicides, and other kinds of violent crimes. On the ideological level, the feeling of social pessimism is pervasive and the legitimacy of the state authority is at its lowest point. The society approaches a condition that may appropriately be called “Hobbesian” (Hobbes himself lived during such a period). We refer to these conditions collectively as high sociopolitical instability.
Now here is a really interesting point: these trends feed upon themselves. In other words, demographic increase leads to sociopolitical changes, which in turn affect population growth. Feedback loops are formed where one variable affects the other. Growing elite rapacity and overproduction and diminishing marginal returns for the peasants (the Malthusian and Marxist schools), leads in turn to changes in the underlying demographics which brought this situation about:
...how does instability affect population dynamics? We can envision two general (and, actually, interrelated) ways: by affecting demographic rates and by affecting the productive ability of the society. 
...when the state is weak or absent, the populace will suffer from elevated mortality due to increased crime, banditry, and internal warfare (civil war)....When the state is strong, warfare is directed outward, and the areas that suffer most are the state frontiers, as well as areas outside, which are targeted for conquest. Collapse of the state and the ensuing civil wars reduce the resistance of the society to external invasion...As a result, internal warfare and external invasions by groups ranging from small bands of raiders to rival great powers can become hard to separate...
 Disease epidemics, which decrease population numbers, may be seen as unrelated. But, in fact, unceasing state breakdown leads to factors which increase the spread of disease vectors: armies on the move, vagrants drifting from town to town, bandits raiding the countryside, increased migration and long-distance trade as people seek out new niches:
Warfare has also an indirect effect on mortality, because movements of rebel or invading armies spread epidemics...The times of trouble also cause increased migration: refugees flee from war-afflicted areas or areas whose productive potential has been destroyed. Migration has several effects. First, it can lead to emigration (and we can simply add that to mortality). Second, people on the move cannot afford to have children. Thus, birth rates decline. Third, migration leads to epidemics. Increased vagrancy spreads the disease by connecting areas that would stay isolated during better times... 
Additional factors facilitating the spread of disease are the movements of armies and the expansion of international trade. The latter factor should be qualified by noting that international trade expands in the precrisis period (stagflation phase) and then gradually declines after the society has descended into anarchy. Thus, the rise of widespread epidemics—pandemics—is most probable during the late stagflation phase. In fact, the arrival of a pandemic is one of the most frequent triggers of the demographic-structural collapse. 
Finally, political instability causes lower reproduction rates, because personal consumption plummets as a result of lowered production capacity. In the absence of organized ways to store surplus, peasants are unable to weather short-term subsistence crises. What stores are accumulated by individual households are easy prey to the marauding armies and other predators. In addition, during times of uncertainty people choose to marry later and to have fewer children. Incidentally, people’s choices about their family sizes may be reflected not only in birth rates but also in the rates of infanticide. Thus, family limitation practices may be disguised as increased infant mortality.
Strong central governments contribute to population growth. As Colinvaux noted, the very existence of the state itself can increase birth rates. Governments can ration and hoard. They can promote trade through uniform systems of laws and money, and maintain roads, trade routes, and so forth, increasing prosperity for all. They can offer protection from pirates and bandits. They can organize labor on a large scale, increasing intensification of systems such as agriculture. They can build and invest in new technology. This leads to more prosperity. When the state breaks down, these all go away, leading to less wealth, and hence lower population growth rates. For example, during the Roman Empire, people lived in productive lowlands. After the collapse, people had to live in hilltop forts to protect themselves from raiders. During the Middle Ages, people needed to live close to town walls in case of attack, leaving much of the countryside fallow. Or, more recently, look at the aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse:
The second and perhaps even more important effect of sociopolitical instability is on the productive capacity of the society (the carrying capacity). Vigorous states often invest in increasing the agricultural productivity by constructing irrigation canals and roads, implementing flood control measures, clearing land from forests, organizing the colonization of underpopulated regions, and so on...The other general mechanism is that the state offers protection. In a stateless society, people can live only in natural strongholds or in places that can be made defensible, such as walled cities...  
In other words, lack of effective suppression of internal violence by the state imposes a “landscape of fear,” in which a large proportion of agriculturally suitable lands is abandoned because they are too far from a place of security. By contrast, the strong state protects the productive population from external and internal (banditry, civil war) threats, and thus allows the whole cultivable area to be put into production.
Although these effects of social breakdown hit the commoners more acutely, elite numbers are also reduced:
...a number of social mechanisms exist by which elite surpluses can be reduced: (1) deaths resulting from civil war, (2) deliberate purges of elites by new rulers, (3) limitations imposed on heir production (celibacy, primogeniture), (4) downward social mobility, voluntary or forced by the state, (5) increased material resources resulting from conquest or improvements in agricultural productivity, and (6) the development of a new political order that directs a greater share of resources to the elites. Several such mechanisms are usually operating in combination; the specific mix depends on cultural peculiarities of societies and historical accidents.
Hitting bottom

In order for this degenerative phase of the cycle to end, the fundamental problems of overpopulation, elite overproduction, and state insolvency must all be dealt with in some way. The ways in which these are dealt with vary greatly from society to society, and Turchin and Nefedov refer to these  bifurcation points as causing societies to evolve in radically different directions.

Three different ways are generally seen. Overpopulation generally takes care of itself via what Ian Morris calls "the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse:" climate change, migration, famine, epidemic and state failure. An alternative is to find ways to increase the carrying capacity through migration of the surplus population, or through technological innovation and intensification, as happened during the early days of the Industrial Revolution:
An alternative to population collapse is an increase in the carrying capacity—after all, overpopulation results not from the absolute numbers being too large but from too high a population density in relation to the carrying capacity. The carrying capacity can increase as a result of technological progress. This is probably what happened in early modern England. During the crisis of the seventeenth century, the English population hardly declined, while the average yield of grain per acre probably doubled. The end result was a twofold decline in the population pressure on resources. 
The carrying capacity may also increase as a result of the conquest of new underpopulated territories...Theoretically, the carrying capacity can also increase as a result of a substantial amelioration of the climate, although at this point we cannot point to a well-documented, convincing example of this mechanism in action.
Elite overproduction can be dealt with by the means seen above. An elite that is not militarized can be expropriated easily. High elite turnover generally results in a short-term period of instability. A rapid elite turnover can also be possible where are there a lot of potential external elites waiting in the wings (an external proletariat). By contrast, an elite that is militarily strong and unified can not be easily overthrown, but can only be reduced through a long, grinding period of internecine fighting and civil war. According to Turchin, societies condemned to this fate are destined to enter prolonged depression phases.

Sometimes, a new integrative cycle never begins, and the society remains stuck at a low level permanently (Toynbee would say the challenges were too great for a society to overcome, and got stuck in the interrupted phase):
Thus, for a new secular cycle to get going, the pressures of the general population on resources and of the elites on commoners must be substantially reduced from their precrisis levels. There is also a third condition. Not all societies are capable of the broad-scale cooperation that is required to construct a functioning state, and some societies with a previous imperial history can also lose this ability with time. Thus, it is entirely possible for the civil warfare to gradually die out but a centralizing, integrative trend nevertheless failing to take hold. In this case, the area in question may persist indefinitely...
The timing of the cycles varies based upon various factors:
...we do not expect a strict periodicity in secular dynamics. Instead, dynamics should have an average period, a characteristic time scale, with a substantial degree of variation around this average... 
...the typical length of the expansion phase is primarily determined by (1) the per capita rate of population increase and (2) the population density in relation to carrying capacity at the beginning of the cycle...Expansion phases are also affected by geopolitical environment...Abnormally long expansion phases result from successful territorial conquest, especially when it is accompanied by colonization of conquered territories, which serves to reduce population pressure in the metropole. 
The length of the crisis phase is much less predictable, because while there is a definite biological limit on how fast a human population can grow, there is no comparable limit on how fast it can decline...pathogens afflicting historical populations varied in their lethality. A relatively mild pathogen could drive population down slowly...A severe epidemic, on the other hand, would lead to a very short period of drastic population decline, and also to a deeper degree of social disintegration and longer depression phase (as happened in post–Black Death Europe). 
The characteristic lengths of the stagflation and depression phases depend more on the state and, particularly, on elite dynamics than on what the general population does. In particular, the military strength of the elites has a large effect on the length of the depression phase, or even if there is such a phase at all.
Secular cycles provides a very good addition to the previously examined ecological hypothesis, and fills in many of its gaps. It brings back the sociopolitical aspects, as well as the role of the state. I find it complementary rather than contradictory. We can see very clearly how these cycles are playing out in our own time, and it allows us to make sense of current events without buying into the nonsense perpetrated by the media and our current elites.

Incidentally, the cyclical nature of various social phenomena is being noticed by more and more people; here's economist Branko Milanovich on "Kuznets waves".

Blogger note: After getting mercilessly spammed over the past months with up do a dozen messages per day for "escorts in dubai," I have had no choice but to disable anonymous comments and require signing in. Hopefully that will deal with the problem. It's too bad it's come to this, and sorry for any inconvenience.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Fates of Nations - Conclusion


In the last four installments, we have outlined the major thesis of The Fates of Nations by ecologist Paul Colinvaux. We have seen how the human animal has used its intelligence to take control of its ecological niche after the last Ice Age, replacing it with socially-constructed niches. Such niches are varied and limited in number in any society. We've seen how Colinvaux utilizes the concepts of niche and breeding strategy. Breeding strategy is determined by niche.  Broad niches are considered wealth, and narrow niches are considered poverty. Both are brought about by rising numbers over time.

The effects of crowding are felt in the broader niches first. Those who occupy the broad niches take to colonization, conquest and trade to relieve pressure of rising numbers on their living standards. Wars are won by societies with the superior military technique. As numbers rise, political repression typically follows, including caste systems which assign people to the less desirable niches. Social conflict and breakdown is a result of societies who do not manage these transitions.

We've seen how this parallels the rise and fall of cultures outlined in Arnold Toynbee's magnum opus, A Study of History. We've also seen how this describes a number of "episodes" in the historical record, from the rise and fall of Classical Greece and Rome, to the Mongol invasions, to the American Revolution.

In his concluding chapter, Colinvaux meditates on the ramifications for the future:
The human breeding strategy remains what it has always been. Each breeding pair acts to maximize fitness, which we define as the number of offspring who survive them to breed in the next generation. Fitness in human breeding is largest when the chosen family is at an optimum, not too large and not too small. But this optimum number is very sensitive to the broadness of the niche to which the children are to be raised.
The relatively poor will always have larger families than the relatively rich. The experience of history is that the average family that results is more than is needed to replace the parents, even among the affluent. The only circumstance in which families fall below replacement is in the more extreme forms of poverty, where resources are so constrained that the optimum number falls to below two.
Populations tend to rise most quickly following a large increase in resources or standards of living brought on by a major technical advance or a successful aggression. This is because the optimum family then can be seen to be large by people of most standards of affluence, but particularly by those being recruited from the poor to the middle classes. The spurt in numbers always ends when the new resources, won by technique or conquest. are used up; after which the population continues to increase, but more slowly. Many modern nations have just passed through, or are still in, one of these periods of rapidly increasing numbers.
There is an important variant on the effect of fresh resources on the optimum family. It is that hope, alone and by itself, will raise the number of children chosen. Any reason for rising hope in a population always leads, therefore, to rising numbers...hope itself will lead to larger families. This is inherent in our breeding strategy...A feeling of well-being makes the numbers rise.
Rising numbers must always soak up spare resources by sharing them out among the extra people. One consequence of this is that poverty always persists. A second consequence is that good times for the not-so-poor must always end in some successor generation producing a predictable series of events which include trade, colonialism, class repression and aggressive war. Since our own numbers will continue to grow, it is inevitable that our own future holds variants on these themes. (pp. 318-319)
As noted earlier, Colinvaux dismisses the idea of the "demographic transition." This point is critical, because the idea that charging full steam ahead with massive industrialization in order to bring the developing world up to exorbitant Western living standards is seen as the silver bullet to the overpopulation crisis by the so-called "Bright Green" or "Ecomodernist" movements. This idea is heavily promoted by those who have a stake in promoting "pro-growth" policies, such as governments, bankers, businessmen, corporations, and wealthy elites (The Davos crowd). See, they argue, growth solves it's own problems!!

Colinvaux would surely regard such people as utterly delusional. Rising living standards cause people to have more children, not less, as noted above. Wealthier couples may have less children on average, but it does not mean that populations will stop growing altogether. Since wealthier people consume more anyway, increasing wealth to stop population growth seems like a self-defeating strategy if you want to deal with resource use or carbon emissions.

It is true that a number of wealthy countries are experiencing stagnant, or even falling population growth rates. It is possible that the root cause of this is the pinched living standards of the younger generations caused by crowding, extreme income inequality, and increased economic competition due to globalism. Europeans, for example, would consider the conditions under which many children and adults live in places like Sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America as unacceptable (this is less true of America, hence it's higher growth rates). This is leading them to delay, or even forego, staring families at all, because children are seen as simply "unaffordable" for younger couples. A tradeoff is perceived between having children and maintaining an affluent Western standard of living, with its self-actualization opportunities, leisure time, and consumption patterns. Social and religious taboos against not getting married or having children have also been relaxed.

This was not the case in the past, where Europeans were either poorer or richer on average. There seems to be a strange national "middle-income trap," where most people are rich enough to care about their children's prospects, but not rich enough to guarantee both themselves and their children a bright future anymore without painful sacrifices. Western societies tend to make children an economic burden, rather than a necessity, which they are seen as in places where the family structure is still intact, work is more informal, and there is no social safety net nor old-age pensions. Subsidies to parents promoted by political elites are having little effect, because the subsidies cannot offset the costly educational burdens for the few jobs which pay decent wages, nor the soaring housing costs and stagnant incomes. All of these are consequences of crowding, and cannot be solved merely by government meddling.

It is also thought that by empowering female education and mating choice, birthrates will drop as well. There is some truth to this, but it is often accompanied by Western cultural imperialism and a destruction of traditional lifeways which have sustained people for countless generations. These are replaced by Western-style "free markets," where everyone is suddenly placed into competition with everyone else in a "sink-or-swim" type environment. It makes no sense to educate women if they simply displace men from the workforce causing mass unemployment, which is what we've seen so far under corporate globalism. As Colinvaux pointed out earlier, there need to be enough niches for the newly educated people, otherwise there will just be more conflict, not less, as there are too many claimants for the available niches. Thus increased education, including of women, before economic development, can actually be destructive. Educating women has often been accompanied by a loss of wealth and prestige for men, leading to extreme reactionary movements, the most extreme of which are the Islamic State, the Taliban, and Boko Haram, all of whom are not coincidentally opposed opposed to Western education (Boko Haram even translates as roughly this).

It's also worth noting that areas outside the affluent West are still growing very rapidly, and the crush of people is sending a tidal wave of refugees, both political and economic, to the wealthy, Western countries. These people all want to live in the broad niches that Westerners currently occupy, with the conditions noted above. Immigrants are being brought in to fill the undesirable narrow niches of Western societies. With their traditional social structures, and unaccustomed to Western wealth and comfort, their breeding strategy is to have as many children as possible, displacing the native population and causing social conflict. The migration crisis is utterly predicable from the ecological hypothesis, although Colinvaux fails to predict it using his own theory.
The assertion that spreading wealth will halt the growing populations is a statement of what is called in the textbooks the "theory of the demographic transition."...The idea does not have the status of a formal theory, in spite of the name given to it. It is merely the observation, now commonly made and well established, that more-affluent people have smaller families than poorer people. This is explained by niche theory, which truly is a theory and which explains the observation. There is  no evidence that making people wealthy will halt population growth, merely that growth will be somewhat slower when we are all wealthy.
The way in which the demographic transition argument is often offered makes it particularly dangerous to the human well-being. In its most glib form it slides out as a sentence something like this, "We now know that poverty is a cause of population growth and not a consequence." The implication is that, if we will only get down to producing wealth and sharing it with the poor, history will go away. But that glib sentence is utterly false. It is based on nothing other than the belief that there is some magic in being wealthy that sets the family  at replacement. A rising population is the cause of increased poverty; niche theory predicts that it will be so; the historical record shows that it always has been so. (p. 320)
He also dismisses medical advances as automatically putting a halt to population growth:
For a few years when first introduced, medical improvements probably do cause a few more children to be raised in a single generation, because, as I have said earlier, the families of that generation will have been conceived in ignorance of the effects of the new medicine. The effect has no long-term significance, except to let people plan their optimum family with greater precision. But to assume that the recent invention of mass medicine has made any fundamental difference to the number of children raised in any contemporary society is to assign to people the small-egg gambit of a mosquito; it is to assume that women are mere baby factories and their output is a function of what the doctors can keep alive. It is unscientific as well as literally inhuman.(pp. 321-322)
And finally, there is the idea that there is some sort of magic "inflection point" in human numbers,  just as there is with mice or bacteria, which will come about naturally and without much pain. According to Colinvaux, this is to misunderstand history and the breeding strategy of large animals such as humans:
This leaves the third assertion which can best be described as "the doctrine of inflection in the growth curve." The argument goes like this: the rate of growth of the human population is not so steep as it was before; therefore, we may say that it is starting to "level off  and this looks like "the point of inflection" on the growth curve of small animals in a laboratory experiment. 
When you put healthy fruit flies, or flour beetles, or mice, or flesh flies, in a suitable laboratory cage and give them all the food, water, or bedding they need, they engage in healthy reproduction. The numbers in the cage begin to grow...You put in fresh food and water daily, more than enough for their needs, making every effort to keep them comfortable. The population begins to grow more and more rapidly, geometrically, exponentially, faster and faster and faster. The growth curve by now looks like one of those horror charts of projected growth of the human population from sensational "ecology" literature. And then the rate curve levels off; there is indeed a point of inflection when the population ceases to grow...It is to this history that we are invited to compare the recent progress of the human population.
The laboratory populations "inflect" because their cages become so crowded that the animals have to struggle for food; or because they no longer have space for some of the vital activities of their niches; or because they blunder into each other and bite by mistake; or because they eat each other's eggs. These troubles interfere with the breeding efforts of the animals...The birth rates go own because of privation, and the death rates go up through similar privation. Is this what is happening to the human population? When the population growth of mice in a cage finally stops, one of the things that happens is that mothers eat their babies, definitely making the population "inflect." The absurdity of comparing human history with this is obvious.
Many wild populations of animals, particularly the big ones to which we relate most easily, seem to be constant from year to year, showing that some ancient growth curve must have leveled off in circumstances less drastic than those we engineer in a laboratory cage...The very last individual for whom there is room is supported and no more individuals can be recruited to the population. Extra individuals are always being produced but the surplus are denied a chance to live. This is the only scientific explanation of this kind of population stability that has been found. Competition or predation removes surplus individuals when all the living[sic] has been taken up by others. Any other explanation invokes magic. (pp.322-323)
Given that so much of the book is devoted to military history, it is not surprising that Colinvaux takes a look at the future prospects for war. Since that the book was released at the height of the Cold War, Colinvaux contemplates a possible nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Soviet Union, and considers scenarios where this would be strategically make sense (which thankfully did not happen). But he does describe the circumstances in which he believes future wars are likely to occur:
The first requirement of aggression is a rising standard of living. Niches of the ruling classes of the aggressive population have been getting broader, requiring more and more resources for each person. The ruling class will have worked to spread the new standards to poorer sections of the community and there will have been a history of partial success for this effort. More and more of the people will have been living better...
A high standard of living always includes more chance to choose a path in life and is, therefore, seen as a form of freedom. Aggressive armies fight for loot to support a standard of living, but their spokesmen talk of fighting in the cause of liberty...The belief that you are fighting for liberty is a second general requirement for a war of aggression.
A rising population is a third requirement. This condition will automatically be met when the standard of living is improving and there is a sense of greater freedom...
A fourth requirement is that much effort has already gone into meeting the needs of the new freedoms by means less costly than aggressive war...The potential aggressor...will have made good progress at expanding its resources by technique in agriculture, industry and government. It will have a strong merchant class...And it will have communities of its own people dependent on providing or consuming the goods of trade for their regular employment. In material things, therefore, the aggressor state must already be comparatively wealthy.
The fifth requirement, and an extremely important one, is that there must be a suitable victim. The ideal victim is a society that is technologically backward by the standards of the aggressor. It will thus have land and resources from which the aggressors know that they can extract a higher standard of living, possibly for more people than the victim did...
All aggressions are attempted from positions of apparent military superiority. This sixth requirement means that the aggressor usually has, not just a large army, but soldiers with superior technique...And in all successful aggressions with lasting results, this requirement has in fact meant that the attacking army has weapons or tactics which are clearly superior to those of the victim and which the victim cannot copy...There have been many aggressions in which the apparent military superiority of the attacker turned out to be illusory...Aggression never comes from a poor country against a rich country, except in very special circumstances. It can happen that a nation appears poor by some standards of measurement, but is wealthy by the test of its own history...
It should be obvious that very many of the nations of the contemporary world are growing in ways that must soon let them fit this profile of a potential aggressor. Standards of life, hopes for liberty, and numbers of the people are all rising together. Many nations show a strong interest in military affairs. Whether they will actually go to war will depend on their finding suitable victims. (pp. 324-328)
One is forced to consider the ramifications for China, a country which has experienced a generation of rising living standards and is now reaching the limits of providing new niches through economic growth and trade. China has the world's largest army, the world's second largest economy, has been making military threats over islands in the Pacific and building carrier fleets, and is experiencing an economic slowdown. India, soon to surpass China in population, has had numerous conflicts with Pakistan, and both are nuclear powers.

While this is fundamentally sound, I question a few of the conclusions. it is hard to see what the United States gained from many of its aggressions, such as the Vietnam War of the Gulf Wars. The Gulf Wars can at least be seen as a means to stabilize trade routes and secure the price of the oil resource.

Which is a good segue into something I think Colinvaux missed: trade is the new war. A society can now be looted simply by means of the economics of banking and debt, as Michael Hudson has repeatedly pointed out and described in great detail. Wars are expensive and costly, and with the deadliness of modern weapons, it is very hard to conquer and hold territory anymore even for the most powerful nations. Much of the "aggression" by the West has been through economic means against places like Iran, Argentina, Mexico, Greece and Venezuela, rather than outright war.

As Westerners left the colonies behind, they erected an economic system which ensured that the vast resources of the so-called Third World would continue to flow to them. The impoverished regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean continue to provide the goods and raw materials which flow to the West and sustain our present lifestyles. The Amazon rainforest is chopped down for American beef; Indonesian forests are burned down to produce palm oil plantations for Europe; Thai mangroves are destroyed to make shrimp farms, Latin American farmers produce our coffee and chocolate, and African children mine the rare earth elements needed for our smartphones and wind turbines, all out of sight. War is no longer required. Political corruption and repression in these societies keeps these "banana republics" in line, and if some "socialist" leader even thinks of tipping the apple cart and using some of the resources for his own people, he is swiftly targeted with economic sanctions, followed by clandestine assassination/coup attempts, and finally a carpet of bombs dropped by Western air forces.

This use of economic warfare is missed by Colinvaux, probably because 1980, in addition to being the start of China's rise, was also the beginning of Neoliberalism's (aka free market looting) rise to become  the dominant economic ideology of the West. It, too, can be seen as a way for elites to open new opportunities (liberalized global trade and buying up common-pool resources via the Shock Doctrine) and maintaining their extravagant lifestyles which were under pressure from below, as the crises of the Seventies showed. It certainly has worked: a handful of people who could fit into a medium size conference room now control as much wealth as half of the world's population.

Colinvaux discusses the "three great technologically prosperous empires:" The United States, Europe, and the (former) Soviet Union. He also focuses on mercantile island nations such as England and Japan. This causes some of Colinvaux's predictions to go awry. I've already noted he missed the rise of China (which follows from his own theories). The salient point about the Soviet Union was not war, but collapse and breakup. This, too, follows from the ecological hypothesis: it's likely that there was no way to accommodate the rising aspirations of the middle classes within the old, sclerotic Soviet bureaucracy. Political repression can only go so far, and the enticements of broader niches made available by access to the West was enough to tip the balance. For Japan, the salient point has been economic stagnation and falling population.

As for Europe and the U.S., while there have been resource wars (Iraq, Afghanistan), and economic warfare (Venezuela, Iran), I would say the main points have been the stagnation of living standards, the dismantling of the state (austerity), extreme inequality, and especially the impact of mass immigration--from Latin America to the United States, and from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe. These have reached such levels as to become politically hot-button topics for power-hungry demagogues. As I mentioned before, mass migration is predictable from the ecological hypothesis. Colinvaux also misses the complete collapse of the Middle East, which has combined repressive regimes, a youth bulge, mass unemployment, radical ideology, acute resource shortages such as fresh water, and rising food prices together in a witches brew of state failure and social collapse.

As for energy and resources, Colinvaux points out that the lifestyles of the affluent West are entirely dependent upon cheap and abundant sources of energy. Again, this is presented as sort of an afterthought, which is too bad, because this is the major reason why arguments like Colinvaux's are dismissed out of hand. This is why I wish he would have dealt with this topic sooner and at more length than in the book's concluding chapter:
The well-being of the European West was built on cheap energy. All previous civilizations used energy that was expensive, human labor supplemented with a little work from animals. Energy is the power to do work. It is necessary to most of the dimensions of a broad, civilized niche.
It was failure to find a source of cheap energy that led to economic stagnation in the later days of the Roman Empire. Romans relied on slaves to make things, carry things, and to do for people of cultivated ways those services that make cultivated living possible. This made certain that very many of the people, the slave classes, would always be poor, but an even more serious consequence was that the very high cost of energy meant that businesses could not get ahead; they could not easily make large surpluses; they failed to generate capital. And a poor business income meant a low tax base, a government short of funds, stagnation in the armies, and eventual collapse. Any civilization poor in energy cannot meet the costs of elaborate government and supply needed by crowding numbers.
Even before the industrial revolution, the European West began with a technology base which was better than that of any previous civilization. Then it found the Americas to take its surplus people and let the numbers grow without impossible strains on the costs of government. And then, after two centuries of growth and conquest without a fossil-fuel economy, it found how to use coal and oil to do the work that had been done in other civilizations by slaves. The coal and oil lay on the ground, loot to be had for the cost of picking it up. It was this loot of fossil energy that let the West come within measurable distance of abolishing poverty, despite their rapidly rising numbers. They could generate capital, give opportunities for trade to more people. carry people in and out of cities to use resources of space in turn, build them houses, free them from brute labor and give them time to experiment with their powers to learn. A very large portion of the people have become wealthy in the sense that they have had the pressures of rapidly risings numbers have tended to maintain a subculture of poverty in even the wealthiest cities, but energy has been so cheap that new ways of living could be invented, for a time, as fast as people were bred to fill the new niche-spaces. Yet it all has depended on a very large flux of very cheap energy. (pp. 332-333)
As I mentioned earlier, sophisticated technology, applied science, and extravagant energy use have been the major economic factors for the past one-hundred and fifty years. These have led to increased living standards alongside population growth, although it can be argued that the former caused the latter and not the other way around.

This have caused most people to argue that rising populations are no longer a problem, nor will they ever be again, and that we have left the Malthusian world behind once and for all. We will always have science at our disposal to increase our productivity in perpetuity to stay ahead of population  growth. There is no limit to what the earth can provide, and the pressure of rising numbers will always bring forth sufficient "innovation" to solve any problem as it arises. This is taken as an article of almost religious faith by the West.

Again, Colinvaux would regard such people as delusional at best, mendacious at worst. How does the above idea square with the fact that we are already being told we are going to have to eat less meat to save the planet (eerily echoing the loss of meat consumption faced by our earliest agricultural ancestors). Insects are now being touted as the only way to provide sufficient protein for growing numbers. Wild-caught fish are becoming a delicacy due to declining fish catches, with farm-raised fish lower in vital nutrient as the affordable alternative. Even people in rich Western societies are being treated to horsemeat, and beef is replaced by "pink slime" and "meat glue." Is this the innovation that the boosters are touting as "progress?"
 
We see the effect of crowding everywhere we turn. The younger generation has embraced the "tiny house" movement, and  even the smallest apartments are unaffordable in big cities such as New York, London and San Francisco, where prices are out of control. The quality of even large houses is terrible, comprised of the same glued-together particle board that makes up our shoddy furniture. Metal has been replaced by plastic, disposable goods quickly fall apart, and our thin fabrics wear holes in them after a few months of wear. Energy efficiency is a good thing, but lets not pretend it is some great product of "innovation" rather than a way to maintain our exorbitant lifestyles in the face of rising numbers and declining resources.

Increased competition due to a lack of niches is causing longer work hours along with a burgeoning prison/guard labor industry to deal with the fallout. The elderly are compelled to work and the youth are being denied entry in the job market. Expensive university education is not a bug, but a feature designed to ensure only children of the affluent will inherit the more desirable niches. Social mobility is long gone, and a caste system has descended. Nepotism is rampant. A repressive police state beyond imagining has been constructed in nearly every Western society in the span of a decade. Even life expectancy is decreasing for some demographics for the first time in over a century.

All caused by the weight rising numbers. How can we really continue to argue that we have left the Malthusian world behind forever? We only took a break thanks to one-time breakthroughs that cannot be repeated, as Robert Gordon has recently pointed out (but does not go far enough).

It's not just cheap energy, but also cheap food, that has allowed for the vast population growth we've seen over the past two hundred years. The two are related, of course. Here it is worth quoting Colinvaux at length:
The rise of the west also dependent on cheap food. At first the cheapness came from the new agriculture of novel crops and crop rotations, the farming from which the cities of Renaissance Europe and Tudor England were fed. Then came the vast glut of cheap food from America, that glut which forced the English government to repeal the corn laws and destroy its own farming industry. The English countryside became depopulated despite the massive growth of the British population. Even in America itself a similar thing happened as large areas of New England, once farmed, were given back to the wilderness in the face of competition from prairie wheat and corn. A historian of the future looking at the record of either old or new England from this period could make the same error of historians of the later Roman Empire who imagine that the population was falling.
The next cause of cheapness in food came from applying the new cheap energy to agriculture. Tractors, harvesting and planting machines and, above all, chemical fertilizers lowered the costs of growing food even as they increased the total supply. The cheapness of food from this episode, now ending, was entirely dependent on the cheapness of the very large fluxes of energy used.
There then came yet one further push to cheap food. This was the development of crops such as hybrid corn, a new agriculture that goes by the name of the "green revolution" in the contemporary press. This agriculture is completely and inextricably dependent on a large flux of cheap energy. The ecological engineering that went into making the new varieties is elegant, but the plants are made to rely on our supplies of cheap energy in order to grow at all. An understanding of this dependence of crops on fuel energy is vital to understanding our future.
The total energy that all our crops can trap from the sun is set in ways that we have not been able to alter. Most likely the actual limit is set by access of the plant to carbon in the air, for it cannot make sugar faster than it can get carbon. All crops and wild plants accept this limit alike, and we have not been able to increase this primary production of plants by one iota. What farmers have done is to breed varieties of plant that put down more of their store of sugar into parts that people like to eat. We measure the productivity of a wheat crop by the weight of grain, not the weight of roots, stems and leaves. Cultivated wheat puts much of its energy reserve of sugar into grain whereas its wild ancestor used most of the reserve to maintain healthy roots and stems in the rough and tumble of wild life, but both kinds of wheat had the same sugar to start with.
With the new varieties of the green revolution we have pushed this process one step further. We have taken over many of the functions that a wild plant had to do for itself, and have done it for the plant ourselves, in factories. We do not let the plant hunt out scarce minerals with its roots, we give it superabundant supplies of fertilizer so that it does not have to work for its nutrients. We take away a plant's ability to protect itself against disease and pests, because the plant used to spend part of the energy reserves of its grain to do the job itself. Instead we protect the plant with chemicals. In other words we keep alive, with fertilizer and chemicals, a plant that would have had no chance of hacking it alone, and the energy that its ancestor would have spent in fighting its own battles is then freed for the plant to make more grain, this extra grain, therefore, is entirely dependent on the cheap fuels supplied to our chemical industries; indeed, in a real sense the energy of this extra grain is some of the energy from the chemical industry. We are actually eating fossil fuel. And this fuel is soon going to be expensive almost beyond our present understanding. (pp. 333-335)
As for the future of cheap energy:
Western society has been built on the treasure hoard of fossil fuel lying loose at the surface of the earth. It is as if we have been living on the loot of some vast and undetected robbery. But the loot is far gone. The oil may be half used, or more. There is still coal, but the  best, or at least the most easily reached, is gone. We have bred very large populations to use this cheap fuel so that our use is now at a rate which means that the remainder must be spent far more quickly than what we have used already. And now the rest of the world wants to use fuel as we have done. We must share the swag--what there is left of it.
This means that energy will soon be expensive whereas once it was cheap. It is not that we will run out of energy; it is rather that we will run out of cheap energy. Indeed, we already have, though present (1980) prices are still absurdly low by the standards of what will be the norms ten years from now. Oil, and then coal, will soon be so expensive that nuclear reactors will seem economical to run. We can then pursue research into whatever esoteric methods of energy production we like. There will always be energy, but at a very high price. Never again win energy be cheap, plentiful and easy to extract. This is a fact with profound implications for the politics of nations.
Cheap food too has gone forever. The good parts of the earth are all farmed, and the yield does not quite keep up with the demands of the increasing numbers of people, the crops of the green revolution will be extremely expensive to produce as energy prices rise, probably, in fact, too expensive for poorer countries to use them at all. To the extent that these new crops are abandoned, food production will actually fall, requiring that prices go up in response to the increasing imbalance of demand and supply. Demand too will grow as our numbers continue to grow. In the productive agriculture of the West, farmers will have to start economizing in the use of tractors and fertilizer, as their energy costs climb. They will find themselves using more labor, both human and animal. Their yields need not fall, but the price must go up.
We are, therefore, moving into a time when both energy and food will be dear. Many patterns of civilized life are about to change as a result. The spreads of cities will be different, the countryside will be repopulated, there will be quite different patterns of work and play. It may not be something to fear; it may be rather an opportunity, like all change, for the most adventurous to welcome. Perhaps we can dismantle city governments, break monopolies of power, live country lives when we want to, and work in small industries for brave entrepreneurs instead of serving some giant corporation. Change is always good for the brighter spirits, and the high cost of fuel and food make drastic change inevitable. But the new patterns must certainly offer new temptations and straits which might drive nations to battle, even nuclear battle.(pp. 336-337)
Pretty impressive considering it was published about twenty years earlier than books such as The Party's Over, Hubbert's Peak, and The Long Emergency.

And we've earlier seen how rising numbers inevitably bring about more bureaucracy, more laws, more regulations, and less freedom. This is not some "conspiracy" of elites as certain more paranoid quarters like to argue, nor is it a nefarious scheme of socialist bureaucrats simply to feather their own nests as libertarians argue. Rather, it is a logical and inevitable consequence of rising numbers:
There must now be fear that the press of restriction will increase, possibly rapidly, because we are about to lose our large flux of cheap energy and cheap food. Almost inescapably, lack of cheap energy will mean lack of cheap capital, which will lead to a progressive shortage of new opportunities for living well. Since the numbers of people must be expected to continue slowly to rise, then the progressive loss of freedom that we already experience must accelerate. (p. 348)
In Europe the mass of the people have long been denied the use of wilderness or countryside by patterns of "ownership" that make "no trespassing" a common sign of law. Americans are still happily ignorant of laws against tresspass, yet they find fewer and fewer places where they can go without checking with some official first, Americans must reserve time to climb a mountain, file travel plans if they walk in the climb a mountain, file travel plans if they walk in the Sierras, get permission before they wander in an Alaskan wild place. We can no longer do as we please because so many people want the land that they cannot all use it at the same time. So the land is rationed—though various euphemisms are used for the offensive socialist word "ration." (p.347)
City, suburban and business fife is set about with regulations—irritating, pettifogging, bureaucratic restrictions. We blame governments for being too big and remote but, whether the mood of the electorate swings to the left or the right, nothing much seems to change. Yet it is not some error of government that causes this restriction, it is the gentle jostlings of the people. It IS a result of people-pressure. The irksome mounting of petty restrictions, which president and prime minister alike have not been able to stop, is the fruit of expansion when the numbers of people are only a little fewer than the number of opportunities there are to let them live in a reasonable way. The people must be rationed to niche-spaces, and bureaucratic restrictions are the ration cards.(p. 348)
The older societies always developed very oppressive social systems when the rising numbers could be accommodated in no other way; the mass was compressed so that the few might live well. Likewise we find ourselves beset by the big government which is part of this process...If we do not find ourselves ranked more steeply by social caste, it is because we have earlier gone so far in removing poor, narrow and low-caste lives from our society entirely...each society will find other ways of keeping people in their places. Probably this means state socialism with its idea of equal shares of what little there is, backed up by the sanction of law. Our choice, therefore, will be rationing by caste and wealth to yield unequal shares in great variety or rationing by the apparatus of a socialist state with it inevitable uniformity.
Liberty, in the Jeffersonian sense, cannot survive a continual packing-in of people. If our numbers continue to rise on a resource base that expands but little, the future inevitably holds ever greater restrictions on individual freedom. Our descendants will not be able to live as we live and our free American and European ways of doing things will seem like poems of the past. Liberty will fall progressively as the  numbers rise, and obedient compliance with the majority Will must take the place of individual initiative. Perhaps some politician cleverer than the rest will arrange this necessary peaceful compliance and call it "free." (p. 349)
Such were Colinvaux's conclusions back in 1980 based on his ecological hypothesis, and I think it's safe to say, with a few reservations noted above, that it has held up pretty well and been pretty accurate in predicting our present course in the years since it was first published. Even events which he missed could be reasonably derived from it as noted above.

Since much of these entries could be contrued as rather disconcerting and disheartening, I will end on a positive note with this sentiment from the author:
This is a good time to be living, for ours are the generations with accumulated knowledge and who yet see the end of the easy times with their swag of free energy. Change, the friend of the clever and the innovative, is close upon us. There are going to be some good and interesting things to do. (p. 351)
Next: Secular Cycles - a more recent model.

Images from this article.

Addendum: A while back, I read this article: Extreme poverty: Can it become a thing of the past? from the BBC. Given the above topic, I found this part especially interesting (emphasis mine):
Back in 2002, I went to Malawi to follow up a letter I received from a post office clerk, Innocent Nkhoma, who had heard me on the BBC. He wrote about famine striking his area and of the loss of his daughter.

Landlocked Malawi remains a deeply impoverished country, despite having received substantial aid and never experiencing the impact of conflict.

Returning to meet Innocent 13 years on, I found that he believes his family are actually worse off today.

The major change in their circumstances is that the post office was privatised in 2003 and he lost his job. It was several years before he finally found a more poorly paid permanent job as an assistant in a small rural health centre.

Innocent and his wife Agnes lost a house that had been provided by the government and they also have to rent a piece of land to fend for the family, now doubled in size to six children.
Innocent told us he earns $50-$60 a month from his job today at the clinic - to take care of the whole family.