Why we stumble into the population trap

(Published in GralsWelt 43/2007)

In 1798, a work on classical economics, which is still frequently cited today, was published, which has been rejected by most of its readers since it was first published.

Do-gooders, moralists, ecologists, economists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, theologians: almost all of them reject this work with the most varied of arguments. And yet it is mentioned again and again. It is difficult to understand why a work that has been condemned by the majority of its critics for two centuries has not long since been forgotten.

To make matters worse, the basic statements of this strange book are also clad in (simple) mathematical formulas; and mathematics is not a good argument? Or is it?

“We are a heavy burden on the world, and resources are barely enough; Everywhere people complain because needs are growing even though nature can no longer support us. We have to face the fact that disease and hunger, war and flooding are barriers to an excessively growing humanity. "
Quintus Septimus Tertullianus (160-225)

The provocative writing has the title "Essay on the Principles of Population" (German "Experiment on the Population Act").

Its author is Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834).
Born in England on February 17, 1766, the economist and social philosopher comes from a respected middle-class family. After completing his studies, he became an Anglican pastor. Then a well-respected work made him a leading theoretician of classical economics. In 1805 he became a professor of history and received the world's first chair in political economy at the College of the East India Company.

The “Population Act”, which was first published in small editions, soon became controversial. Other, supplemented, and expanded editions followed, and within five decades more than twenty counter-references appeared.

A heated discussion began. It became an extensive chapter in English intellectual history in the first half of the 19th century, and it has not been completed to this day. Malthus' second major work, "Principles of Political Economy", published in 1820, is hardly considered today.

The population law
In the “Population Act”, Malthus started from a simple, at first glance plausible approach:
"In my opinion, I can rightly make two postulates:
First: Food is necessary for human existence.
Second, the passion between the sexes is necessary and will roughly remain in its current state.
For as long as we have known anything about mankind, these two laws seem to have been firmly established components of our nature ...
In taking my postulates as certain, I assert that the power of population to multiply is infinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce means of subsistence for people.
If there are no obstacles, the population grows in a geometric sequence. The means of maintenance only increase in arithmetic order. Just a few numbers will suffice to show the overwhelming power of the first force compared to the second ... " (3, p. 18 f.).
Malthus assumed that the population would grow exponentially (in a geometric series), while food production could only increase linearly (in an arithmetic series). This follows from a simple consideration: If in one generation every couple has four children, and the following generation again has four children per couple, the population will roughly double after each generation.
Food production cannot keep pace with this population growth: one can reclaim fallow land, drain swamps, convert forests into fields, fertilize, better irrigation, etc. But none of these improvements keep harvests increasing; there is even a risk of overuse of the soil, which reduces yields.
So the exponential growth of the population has to outrun the linear growth of the food production.
Sooner or later, epidemics and famine would reduce the impoverished, undernourished population until enough food was available again.
No sooner do people feel better than their reproductive instincts lead to a surplus of births again; the cycle starts again. This “population trap” seems inevitable, unless appropriate family planning, wars, epidemics or natural disasters put a brake on population growth.

The "natural" economic circumstances, in Malthus' opinion, result in a life of starvation for a large part of an overgrown population and bring about social problems.
The Anglican pastor saw no satisfactory solution to the problem of poverty. He was not an optimist hoping for progress. He recommended birth control through abstinence, as the Catholic Church still does today.

In his theory of population dynamics, Malthus also addressed the question, which has not yet been conclusively answered, of how many people can carry countries, continents or even our entire planet.

Too many people?
Malthus' theses indignant various critics.
Until his work was published, population issues were only mentioned in passing.
Although already had Plato In his conception of an ideal state, a mediocrity between too many and too few people is required, and even in the Bible, lack of land plays a role. Some writers from antiquity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had also addressed the problem of population.
But in the 18th century it was largely undisputed that a growing population should be aimed for; This is in the Bible and was in the interests of the state, which needed soldiers, for example, and assumed that more people would produce a greater economic output and pay correspondingly more taxes.

Now, through Malthus, the concept of overpopulation emerges, which suggests the unbearable thought that there are superfluous people; that is, fellow human beings who cannot find a decent place to live in our society.
Criminal ideologues of the 20th century implemented such inhumane ideas in a horrific way.

In our time there is a prognosis that in the not too distant future 20 % or even less of those able to work will be sufficient for the entire industry. The service sector, which is highly praised by politicians, will then hardly create the missing jobs. Because administrations, banks and insurance companies are already making more and more employees redundant and relocating office jobs abroad. Even the automated supermarket without cashiers is on the rise.

What useful activities are there for the rest of the people who cannot find a job, and how is the national income distributed? A capitalist economy left to market forces will hardly find justifiable solutions in the free play of supply and demand.

poverty is not a shame
Thomas Robert Maltnus was a scientist of the Enlightenment, but at the same time, as a theologian, was guided by the religiously founded convictions of his time. This theological character influenced his attitude towards the poor and the poor welfare, which was controversial in England at the time.
In the Middle Ages the Christian ideal of poverty was praised - at least by some orders - as Jesus and his apostles supposedly lived. A voluntary renunciation of a comfortable life was therefore considered pleasing to God, and the gate to the kingdom of heaven was more open to the poor than to the rich. Whether someone was poor or rich was up to divine counsel. Man had to submit to this decision of God with humility. Although the poor were at the bottom of the social hierarchy in medieval society, they found their place in the Christian community.
This attitude has changed since the Reformation under the influence of Protestant work ethics, which emphasized the old distinction between those unable to work, willing and unwilling to work. Wealth is from now on - most pronounced in Puritanism - as a godly result of one's own effort and work. Poverty, on the other hand, was increasingly understood as a consequence of unwillingness to work and thus culpable failure.
In the Middle Ages it was a privilege of the upper classes not to be forced to work. In Protestant work ethics, work was of great importance, and material success as a result of diligence also served to establish social hierarchies (6, p. 41).
This opinion, which is partly associated with contempt for the poor (today asylum seekers and unemployed), can still be felt in our democratic society. She shows z. In Germany, for example, in discussions about the “Hartz IV” reforms, which sometimes give the impression that you just have to put enough pressure on the unemployed, then they would find work.

An inhuman pessimist?
Malthus saw the social problems of his time. Because of bad harvests and the war with France, wheat prices had risen sharply in England and there were even hunger riots. The poor legislation was also criticized because the official welfare had not reduced poverty.

Some - including Malthus - even considered public welfare to be harmful. To reduce social tensions, Malthus recommended limiting the population; at that time not an easy step for a pastor! Critics suggested that Malthus wanted to forbid the poor from marrying and that he welcomed epidemics as a means of curbing population growth.

According to the Economist David Ricardo (1772-1832) gave Malthus "A very pleasant formula for the rich to endure the misfortunes of the poor", and Karl Marx (1818-1883) saw one in Malthus "Typical representative of the ruling class".

Had in the 19th century Malthus'Population theory has some influence on the social sciences. One of his observant readers was Charles Darwin (1809-1882). His selection theory assumes (based on Malthus) that every (animal or plant) population wants to multiply beyond the limits set by the respective biotope. Natural selection ensures that only the best adapted can reproduce, and so the number of individuals remains within natural limits.

The lifeboat doctrine
The population explosion continues, unemployment is growing worldwide. Waves of immigration threaten to inundate industrialized countries, and the developed countries can no longer bear their social burdens. The buzzword “the boat is full” goes around: If a lifeboat is fully occupied, no more castaways may be accepted if one does not want to risk that the overloaded boat capsizes and everyone drowns.
This attitude is derived from the - allegedly brutal - "fight in nature". Needless to say, churches, moralists, social romantics and do-gooders resolutely reject such ideas; mostly without offering problem solutions. However, some scientists warn that we cannot escape the consequences of the population explosion, the consequences of which become all the more serious the longer we delay the collapse - through apparently humane action.
Already Malthus has expressed itself in this sense. He showed himself to be a forerunner of social Darwinism of the 19th and 20th centuries, and even questioned the most fundamental human right - the right to life. In a later, expanded edition of his "Population Law" from 1803, the most severely hostile of his statements can be found:
“A person who is born into an already fully occupied world, who cannot get the maintenance from his parents to which he is rightfully entitled, and whose work society does not need, this person has no right to the smallest part of food and has actually no right to be where he is. There is no place setting for him at the mighty banquet table in nature. Nature tells him to slip away and will swiftly carry out her own command unless he arouses the pity of some guests. When these guests stand up and make room for him, other intruders appear immediately to demand the same favor. The news of the feast for everyone who comes fills the hall with more applicants. The order and harmony of the festival is disturbed, the previous abundance of food turns into scarcity; the happiness of the guests is ruined by the sight of misery and dependency in the whole hall and the pleading cries of those who are rightly indignant about the missing delicacies that were promised them. The guests realize their mistake too late, they have disregarded the orders of the great hostess of the festival, who, since she wants to adequately cater for all her guests and knows that she cannot satisfy an unlimited number, out of humanity refused all further arrivals, when the table was full. " (7, p.104 f.)

Has technical development overtaken Malthus?
It was believed in the past two centuries Malthus' Theses refuted. The industrial revolution of the 19th century created many industrial jobs. Agriculture was also mechanized, using artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and able to feed more people than ever before.

Then came the "Green Revolution" in the 1960s and 1970s with high-yielding crops, mineral fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and sophisticated agricultural machinery. In the 21st century, some are now hoping for genetic engineering.

If people are currently starving in developing countries, this is (still?) Due to a regional distribution problem, not the global lack of food. Even in the 21st century, many of Malthus' theses have been overcome by technological and scientific progress. (2).

Two economic models
The discussion about Malthus is also explosive because two opposing economic and political models are opposed to one another:

Malthusians allegedly doubt that market forces alone can ensure balanced development. You therefore want to make the future plannable by extrapolating trends. This requires moderate government intervention in the economy: For example, compulsory schooling for girls, prohibition of child labor, strengthening women's rights, minimum wages, occupational health and safety, social legislation, population planning, environmental protection, financing of basic research, promotion of alternative energies, etc. As an example of this “neo -malthusian "approach applies the report of the Club of Rome" The Limits to Growth. "(4).

A liberal counter-model is represented in Germany by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, for example. Here it is believed that Malthus I did not understand anything about the dynamics of free market forces, yes that even the limitation of resources preached by ecologists is wrong. The causes of famines in the past have always been mismanagement, wars or other catastrophes, never overpopulation. (8th).

But from my point of view, Malthus' theses have not yet been finally refuted.
Continuous, exponential growth in agricultural production remains a dream; it even seems questionable whether the roughly linear growth of past decades can be sustained in the long term.

And opinions differ widely as to whether the world's population will easily settle down to a level that is tolerable for life on our planet. Malthus' mathematically formulated problem - the drifting apart of the exponential and the linear growth curve - has become a global issue that is becoming increasingly explosive: the carrying capacity of the earth. -

You can also read the articles under “Ecology” "How many people can the earth take?", "How much we are overloading our earth". and "What apocalypse is coming?".

(1) Bronowski Jacob, Der Aufstieg des Menschen, Ullstein, Frankfurt, 1973.
(2) Lomborg Bjorn, Apocalypse No !, zu Klampen, Lüneburg, 2002.
(3) Malthus Thomas Robert, Das Population Act, DTV, Munich 1977.
(4) Meadows Dennis, The Limits of Growth, dva, Stuttgart, 1972.
(5) Myers Norman, Gaia, Fischer, Frankfurt, 1985.
(6) Rainer Bettina, Population growth as a global catastrophe, Westphalian Steamboat, Münster, 2005.
(7) Winkler Helmut, Malthus - crisis economist and moralist, Studien-Verlag, Innsbruck 1966.