Thomas Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population, is often ignored or derided today. The general commentary on Malthus goes something like this: “oh yeah, isn’t he that guy that predicted we were all going to starve because the population was increasing faster than the rate of food production… what a fool to not predict all the technology that allows us to keep growing”. Indeed, the world population at the time of publication, 1798, was about 1 billion and today the estimated population is 7.5 billion. What an achievement!
This interpretation of Malthus is wrong and it’s very possible that we just need a little more time to see him vindicated in tragically spectacular fashion. As humans, we are arrogant in that we tend to humanize time scales. The time that you happen to live in is, after all, all that really matters to you. When you see the population continue to increase exponentially and you don’t notice any starvation around, what’s the big worry?
Malthus’s full essay is worth the read but let’s just look at the core of his argument:
This is not an apocalyptic prediction of worldwide starvation, it’s really a simple observation akin to Herbert Stein’s Law, “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Malthus suggests some likely “checks” such as war, famine, disease, and abstinence, which would repress population increase. In the area of moral restraint, he even suggests that marriage at a later age would serve to repress population growth, a phenomenon we are beginning to see in the developed world.
What about the increases in the means of subsistence? This is where water comes into play. To produce food we need some basic ingredients, one of which is water. Most of the water consumed by humans is by far for the production of food. Our most critical means of subsistence is fresh, clean water.
What does it look like when this means of substance starts to run into its limits? Unfortunately, in the past 100 years, there have been many tragic examples of famine despite all our advances in technology. The causes of famine are often complicated by poor infrastructure development, war, or failed attempts at central planning but the cause is almost always rooted in lack of fresh, clean water. Meanwhile the developed world uses water with reckless abandon. In a host of developed countries, government, farming interest groups, and even environmentalists actively encourage the use of biofuels for transportation in the name of renewable energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. This concept can effectively be reduced to using clean water and fertile land for locomotion. We can expect this to drive the cost of food upward and thus incentivise greater use of land and water for cultivation. In Australia, where I reside, not only is fresh water used to make energy, but energy is then used to make fresh water again in the form of desalination plants.
What will happen when the developed world starts to encounter Malthusian checks on our water resources?
An interesting case is Egypt, currently ranked above South Africa on the Human Development Index.
A graph of Egypt’s population over time looks like this:
A graph of Egypt’s water supply, 97% of which comes from the Nile River, looks like this:
It is a classic Malthusian dilemma. Will it be recognized as such? That is unlikely. In fact, the source of the graph featured above was found in the paper “Observed historical discharge data from major rivers for climate model validation” (MPI Report No. 307). It seems our attention is on other matters. In our sanctified effort to try and predict at what rate the temperature of the planet will rise, we fail to recognize how fragile we are to other threats, known and unknown. To make matters worse, south of Egypt, Ethiopia is stoking tensions by installing their own giant valve on the Nile in the form of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This is one of many water problems Egypt faces. The population of Egypt is expected to increase to 95 million by 2025. If water supply remains the same, per capita consumption will go from 800 m3 to 600 m3 per year. The Egyptian government has already banned water hungry crops such as rice from being grown along the Nile and is even burning the crops of those who violate this ban. What would famine look like in a moderately developed country fully exposed with open access to the internet? Will the problem be recognized and resolved in time or will it become too confused by politics, warfare, climate change, failed government efforts, delayed engineering works, or some other distraction?
If we can so thoroughly misinterpret Malthus as a fool rather than the first true data driven sociologists and environmentalist, then it is easy to understand how we might fail to see the source of looming global misery – water scarcity.