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.


  1. Good series of articles - it presented an interesting alternative perspective on history. I think Colinvaux overplays his hand in some respects; in particular, I don't see any basis to conclude that the demographic transition is an illusion. I doubt it will be a "silver bullet" though, and overpopulation is by far the gravest problem we face. I cringe every time the media discuss low fertility or gradually falling populations as a "problem", rather than a godsend. Needless to say, I also consider a total ban on immigration to be an absolute priority.

    1. Yeah, I think the jury is still out on the DT. But one thing's for sure, we're a long way from it, globally speaking. Dealing with the pressure from overpopulated countries is going a major issue for a long time to come in the West, as well as a moral dilemma.

  2. The demographic transition is real, but temporary. Think of it as a brief plateau on an exponential curve going up. What is happening is that people whose social conditioning is such as to want a small or moderate sized family are going extinct, by reproducing at sub-replacement levels. This group is the majority, and so is dominating the process right now, causing a plateau. Meanwhile people whose social conditioning is massively pro-fertility are doubling in population every 20 years or so. This group is the minority right now, but will eventually come to dominate, at which point exponential growth of population will resume. These pro-fertility groups would include polygamist Mormons, Duggar-style Christians, extreme orthodox Jews, probably some extreme Moslems, etc. When these pro-fertility groups become the majority of the United States, they will push for policies to support their further growth including aggression against other countries. Same story elsewhere.

    My prediction will be wrong if social conditioning is not easily transferred from parent to children. That is, if the Duggar children rebel against their parents, and whatnot. But in fact, it appears the Duggar children are mostly following their parent's footsteps, and likewise for the polygamist mormons and orthodox jews, at least such is my impression. But I could be wrong here.

    Extreme pro-fertility was a bad idea in the past, which is why most of us have a social conditioning towards moderate or small sized families. Having huge numbers of kids back in the 18th century was a formula for disaster. Childbirth was dangerous and so too many kids would eventually kill the mother, at which point the father would be unable to support the younger children. All this death would lead to breakdown of the family support structure and the final result would probably be that the children ended up being sold into prostitution and then dying young of venereal disease and alcholism. Moderation was the road to success back in the old days. Whereas nowadays, childbirth is fairly low-risk and there are all sorts of welfare systems that subsidize huge families, especially for those who aggressively scam the system, as most of the extreme pro-fertility groups are known to do.

    1. Maybe. I'm not so sure. It's part of a larger question about how modernity has affected breeding patterns. The lengthy and onerous requirements to get a job have certainly not done us any favors here. However, it's going to take a long time to play out. If we lose antibiotics, for example, the game changes.

      As for the Duggar types, I'm going to guess that there's an eventual regression to the mean. My grandma was the youngest of ten. She will have zero grandchildren. It's not quite so linear as you describe. Also, the effects on society are not as predictable, nor as quick, as the so-called "Human Biodiversity Movement" would have us believe.

      Although I do think that one reason Judeo-Christian religions have taken over the world is because those religions encouraged their followers to have as many children as possible, a legacy which continues to this day. Those at the top of the religious pyramid profit from misery, since dealing with it is baked in to their religion (as Mother Teresa's detractors have pointed out).

      You raise a larger, and rather unpleasant issue. Either you let children starve, or you subsidize the people gaming the system to have the largest number of offspring possible. This was less of an issue when the family unit was the dominant social unit pre-capitalism, rather than the post-capitalist state. One major grievance for white people is, I think, the perception that they are taxed so that minorities can breed. It's never stated openly, though, only dog whistles. I think the prodigious breeding rates of illegal immigrants also gives native-born Americans pause, hence the popularity of Trump, which is another unspeakable topic. It's one of those predicaments (like overpopulation), where there's no clean answer.

    2. The Duggars were a bad example, since they are probably a one-off doing it for publicity and so there is no strong ideology to pass on to the children. A better example of ideological pro-fertility Christians would be the Quiverfull movement. As for your grandmother and the Catholics, these are not good examples either. Your grandmothers generation was spontaneously prolific because of the improving economic conditions, not because of ideology. Catholics are not really pro-fertility in ideology, just opposed to measures against nature (such as sodomy as a substitute for vaginal intercourse, contraception, abortion, infanticide). Catholics have never pressured celibates to marry and even require celibacy by priests, monks and nuns.

      As for the minorities, they are NOT pro-fertility in ideology and their birth rates are only marginally higher than for whites. The hostility against them is mainly because there is no pleasure so dear to lower-middle-class whites as having someone else to despise. If blacks and other minorities didn't exist, we would have to import them so the poor whites would have someone to kick around. This is basically what the Europeans have done with the Muslims--imported a bunch of niggers to kick around so the natives can feel superior. But I digress...

      It will be a while before the United States is dominated by pro-fertility fanatics. But that will happen in the near future in Israel. If you think Israel is war-like now, just wait until about 30 years when the Jewish population will be mostly ultra-orthodox nationalists. Average number of children is 7 per women for these fanatics, versus close to replacement levels for the secular Jews and slightly above replacement for the Arabs (Moslem citizens of Israel). Jewish culture is specifically designed to provoke persecution and then prosper under conditions of persecution (ditto for gypsies and for most of the pro-fertility cults like the quiverfulls and polygamist mormons--the more persecution, within limits, the stronger they become, the faster they reproduce, and the more they provoke more persecution). So once the ultra-orthodox take power in Isreale, expect them to do whatever it takes to provoke war with neighboring states.

  3. And no, his prediction have NOT held up. Energy and food continue to be very cheap and there are further technological quick fixes on the horizon that will kick the can further down the road. But his predictions, like those of the other doomers, will eventually come true. That's the nature of exponential curves. Changing the exponent makes a huge difference in exactly how fast the curve goes up, but the final result is still always infinity. More likely disaster will take another 100 years, but being off by 100 years is really nothing in the grand scheme of things.

    1. Those things cheap in the West right now, that's true. But fuel is cheap only at the cost of economic stagnation - hardly something to crow about. Food is cheap through intensification, which has driven the quality way, way down (based around U.S. corn), to the point where treating the side-effects of this diet is the major profit center in many capitalist economies. And the big-ticket items like shelter and medicine are already becoming extremely dear. Go to a big city in the Third World choking in automobile pollution and tell me overcrowding is not a problem (even Paris and London are limiting cars). We've also got a dispossessed proletariat - there are plenty of wide-open spaces in America, but homelessness is rampant in big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco.

      I'm sure Mr. Colinvaux would acknowledge the length of the time scales that these things play out on, although like a lot of past Malthusians (*cough* Erlich *cough*), he may have sensationalized too much. Remember - not collapse, breakdown.

  4. Nice work. I've been thinking about these issues for some time now with similar dismal results. More backing vocals and oyster sauce? I dunno.

  5. there should be a downloadable pdf here:,5&sciodt=0,5

    of a paper I wrote (Malthus to motive) describing my views on the neurobiol effects of the types of stressors to which you predictively allude. Start with the final "impending doom" section, then start from the beginning. It's overall somewhat sprawling and dense, even to me, but you're quite smart.

  6. This prognosis for the future appears to be based on the assumption that homo sapiens is going to persist as-is physically and intellectually, with all of the villainy and idiocy thereunto pertaining.

    The genetic makeup of homo sapiens *IS* going to change profoundly over the next few generations, if not much sooner. Scientists are working to take over the reins of evolution, and so I must assume that humanity 2.0 will probably not stagger into the future chained to the yoke of the forces outlined here.

    If in fifty years the average human is 6'6", more athletic than today's finest decathlete, more brilliant than Einstein, and with a lifespan measured in centuries, will any set of predictions based on the past hold true?

    1. What are these super scientists going to do for the rest of the planets biology? Are they going to make apes independent of the environment they evolved in? Fucking crisis cult mentality is spreading as fast the rest of the human cancer.

      Humans could be among the victims of sixth 'mass extinction', scientists warn

      "The study "shows without any significant doubt that we are now entering the sixth great mass extinction event," co-author and Stanford University professor of biology Paul Ehrlich said.

      And the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances on Friday and described by its authors as "conservative", said humans were likely to be among the species lost.

      "If it is allowed to continue, life would take many millions of years to recover and our species itself would likely disappear early on," lead author Gerardo Ceballos of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico said."

      Got a link to the "science" that cancels this out?


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