Last week’s speech warning of the triple crisis looming by aout 2030 by the British Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir John Beddington, represents a moment where an issue has moved from the edge into the mainstream. In a speech at SDUK 09, Beddington described a confluence of population growth, water, food shortages and energy shortages – exacerbated by climate change – where there are huge uncertainties which could further worsen food and water issues. Some columnists discounted the speech because Beddington mentioned the 18th cventury economist Thomas Malthus, whose pessimistic population predictions turned out, famously, to be wrong. Don’t speak too soon.

Why Malthus invariably produces this response is an interesting question, and I’ll discuss this later, but it’s worth summarising first the substance of John Beddington’s speech.

He started with food, where Britain’s reserves are at their lowest since we started keeping records – down to around 14% of annual consumption. This is a problem because one of the consequences of the burgeoning growth of the middle class in China and India, with the greater consumption of meat and dairy produce.The combination of increased demand for food by more affluent people in the so-called ’emerging economies’, along with population growth – up to around eight billion from six on mainstream projections, and its increasing urbanisation – means that food demand is likely to increase by 50% over the next two decades. (Changes in eating habits, away from milk and meat, could mitigate this).

Turning to water,  “fresh water available per head of the world population is around 25% of what it was in 1960.” Already one-third of the world’s population is experiencing water shortages, and demand for water is expected to grow by 30% by 2030. By 2025, we’re likely to be seeing serious water stress in China – 23% of the world’s population,11% of the world’s water – and India, but also in southern Europe.  The US Secretary for Energy, Steven Chu, has said that in 25 years time, California (the breadbasket of the 1930s, for anyone who remembers The Grapes of Wrath) may not be able to produce its own food and some cities may not be able to provide water to their residents.

And demand for the third element, energy, could rise by 50% between now and 2030. Last year, demand for energy from non-OECD countries exceeded that in the OECD for the first time.

All of these things are compounded by the uncertainties of climate change. Tropical glaciers are melting rapidly (China has announced plans to build 59 reservoirs, some underground, to catch the meltwaters); the Arctic may be ice-free in summer by 2030; and acidification of the oceans is proceeding apace. Beddington pointed out uncertainties beyond this:

Let me just focus on some of these which are actually relevant to the agendas of food, water and energy security. The Sahelian drought has been going for some time, when will it break? How significant will the CO2 and rainfall changes we know the climate change models are going to predict affect Africa and Asia. The monsoons, hugely important for feeding vast parts of the developing world and making them viable, will they weaken or strengthen? We don’t know. What is the effect of glacial melt? We can see some effects of it but we are going to get events which drive major climate events in our world.

Malthus – in the two centuries since he wrote his The Principles of Population – has become a byword for a failed prediction. He argued that population grew exponentially, while agricultural production grew arithmetically – and eventually the result would be catastrophe. The conventional wisdom is that he failed to see the advent of the industrial revolution, or the accompanying technological innovation which made society far more productive. (And that means that whenever anyone raises the idea that there may be limits to population, people jump to the conclusion that technology will fix it.)

But there’s another way to look at why Malthus was wrong, and it’s contained in a chart on the limits to growth (another project which was derided for its Malthusian errors without many of its critics apparently taking the time to read, or at least try to understand, the work).


It measures CO2 emissions on a seven thousand year scale  – or to  put it another way, it measures the use of fossil fuels as an energy source. Arguably, Malthus got it wrong because he didn’t foresee the effects on production of using all of the fossil fuel that quickly.

It’s not just Britain’s Chief Scientific Adviser who sees conflicts between patterns of population growth and increasing consumption of resources. The American economist Jeffrey Sachs has also made this connection recently. In an article in Scientific American, in which he observed that when he trained in economics, “Malthusian reasoning was a target of mockery”.

Our increase in know-how has not only been about getting more outputs for the same inputs, but also about our ability to mine the Earth for more inputs. The first Industrial Revolution began with the use of fossil fuel, specifically coal, through Watt’s steam engine…. In countless ways, we have not gotten more for less but rather more for more, as we’ve converted rich stores of natural capital into high flows of current consumption. Much of what we call “income,” in the true sense of adding value from economic activity, is actually depletion instead, or the running down of natural capital.

At the same time, population continues to increase:

The overall fertility rate remains at 2.6, far above replacement. Sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region of the world, still has a total fertility rate of 5.1 children per woman, and the global population continues to rise by about 79 million per year, with much of the increase in the world’s poorest places.

As the introduction to the article observed: “It remains to be seen whether his famously gloomy prediction is truly wrong or merely postponed”.

Which all raises the question of why it’s impossible to mention Malthus without mockery. The obvious answer is that, as far as the conventional wisom goes, he did get it wrong. But it’s possible that he got it wrong not because he underestimated our ingenuity but because he couldn’t imagine the gains from huge quantities of cheap energy. Rather than being about the smartest kids in the school, it’s more like finding a million dollar note lying around in the playground. And the problem with million-dollar notes is that once they’re spent, they’re spent.

And energy is fairly invisible stuff. We forget that we’re using it. Somewhere in Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book, The Upside of Down (from memory, I can’t find the reference to hand) he says that every time we fill up our petrol tanks we’re buying the equivalent of four two person-years of labour [see comment]. There’s another stat which says that our energy use, at least in the affluent north, is the equivalent of having several thousand slaves on tap.

But there’s a deeper story here as well. All systems reach their limits sooner or later, and this was Malthus’ point, even if he was early. As Herman Daly has put it:

“We’ve moved from an empty world to a full world – full of us and our stuff. In an empty world, if you wanted to catch more fish you sent out extra fishermen and boats. Now we have way too many fishing boats – but not enough fish. It’s no longer man-made capital that’s in short supply; it’s natural capital.”

But culturally, we aren’t comfortable with this message. There’s a fine passage by Barbara Heinzen in her book Feeling For Stones, in which she traces how our experience of “abundance” was shaped by European – and later American – exploration of areas which they perceived as wilderness.

The very genuine abundance of of the American landscape bred a profligate attitude towards the natural world; there would always be more wood, more land, more passanger pigeons, more wilderness to find. As a settler nation in an open land, Americans grew up believing each person had birthright to the wealth of the country to be spent however he pleased. This profligacy survives in the illusions of unending growth underlyiong all modern economic systems.

Some anthropologists say we’ve been a profligate species for 25,000 years, eating it up, burning it, throwing it away, moving on.  In the face of such deep narratives, anyone who tries to tell a different story is likely to get ridiculed.

Related posts:

When the rivers run dry

The history of energy use