The Club of Rome's new Malthusianism-lite report (2023)

Malthusianism is just so damned tiresome. The constant stream of predictions that a growing human population will soon crash because we are about run out of food and/or other resources has always failed to come true. Now, a new People and Planet report by researchers operating as part of the Earth4All initiative of The Club of Rome projects in two different scenarios—Too Little Too Late versus Giant Leap—that the world population will peak around the middle of this century. Good news, but the authors just can't help inflecting their report with a touch of good old-fashioned Malthusianism. Call it Malthusianism-lite.

Eponymously, Malthusianism begins with the claims made by the 18th-century economist Thomas Robert Malthus in his 1798 An Essay on the Principle of Population. "Population," Malthus famously asserted, "when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio…. This implies a strong and constantly operating check on population from the difficulty of subsistence." This differential in the growth rates of population and food supplies meant that some portion of mankind would always be on the verge of starvation.

What Malthus did not foresee was how modern science coupled with the dynamism of increasingly free markets would produce over the next two centuries what economist Deidre McCloskey has called the Great Enrichment. Entrepreneurial human ingenuity makes it possible to produce food at an exponential rate that outstrips population growth, resulting in more calories per person.

The most notoriously wrong modern prophet of Malthusian doom is Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. Mypublic crusade against Malthusian stupidity began with my 1990 Forbes article, "Doomsday Rescheduled," in which I reviewed Paul and Anne Ehrlich's book The Population Explosion. "One thing seems safe to predict: starvation and epidemic disease will raise death rates over most of the planet," they asserted in the book. I pointed out that this was a follow-up to Paul Ehrlich's failed prediction made 22 years earlier in his 1968 The Population Bomb, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." That didn't happen.

Unchastened by failed prediction after failed prediction, modern Malthusians remain entranced by the simplicity of their model. Consider the overpopulation twaddle peddled by Daniel Quinn's telepathic gorilla in his 1995 novel Ishmael and Jared Diamond's 2005 shoddy narrative of doom, Collapse.

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Keep in mind that the new People and Planet report has been commissioned by the same The Club of Rome that promoted the notorious The Limits to Growth report back in 1972. "For 50 years, since The Limits to Growth report and the 1972 UN Stockholm summit, the world has ignored the risk of system collapse," (emphasis theirs) admonishes the Earth4All initiative. The 1972 report concluded, "The basic behavior mode of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse." In the "standard run" of The Limits to Growth computer model:

"Food, industrial output, and population grow exponentially until the rapidly diminishing resource base forces a slowdown in industrial growth. Because of natural delays in the system, both population and pollution continue to increase some time after the peak of industrialization. Population growth is finally halted by a rise in the death rate due to decreased food and medical services."

The Club of Rome's new Malthusianism-lite report (1)

The 1972 report projected that exponential consumption would deplete important nonrenewable resources such as oil, natural gas, copper, tin, and lead before the year 2000. That didn't happen.

Just over 50 years later, the new People and Planet report eschews "hard limits to growth beyond planetary boundaries." The nine planetary boundaries used in the new report are derived from a 2009 Nature article in which researchers aimed to identify "a safe operating space for humanity." The new report finds that humanity has already "overstepped" six of those boundaries: global warming, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, air pollution, land use change, and nutrient overloading. The People and Planet report concludes that by 2020 for those six boundaries, "humanity was already exploiting more than what is sustainable in global ecosystems, along multiple dimensions."Ocean acidification, freshwater use, and novel entities (formerly known as chemical pollution, but now related to plastic wastes) are not quantified and so not considered.

The salience of the planetary boundaries hypothesis is highly questionable. A 2012 analysis by the eco-modernist Breakthrough Institute pointed out that six of the planetary boundaries—land use change, biodiversity loss, nutrient overloading, freshwater use, air pollution, and chemical pollution—do not have planetary biophysical thresholds; their effects essentially regional and local. Consequently, the analysis finds that "there are no global tipping points beyond which these ecological processes will begin to function in fundamentally different ways than they do at present or have historically." The upshot is that "there is little evidence to support the claim that transgressing any of the six non-threshold boundaries would have a net negative effect on human material welfare."

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In both of the new Earth4All scenarios, there is no global food shortage, no explicit mention of imminent nonrenewable resource depletion, and world population peaks and gradually falls due to demographic choices, not through a Malthusian collapse.

"According to our results across all simulations for both scenarios, the primary issue is not overpopulation in comparison with available resources, but rather the current (too) high consumption levels among the world's richest quarter," assert the authors. "Or, put even more concisely: humanity's main problem is distribution rather than population" (emphasis theirs).

Nevertheless, the Earth4All report's Too Little Too Late—"decision-making as usual"—scenario is a kind of Malthusianism-lite, detailing "a situation characterised by ever-increasing risks for having triggered irreversible declines in Earth's life-supporting systems and all its associated ecosystems." Whereas the Giant Leap scenario "represents a pathway towards fully returning human pressures on the planetary systems to the safe zone in civilisation's long-term view, hopefully before irreversible planetary declines are triggered."

In the Too Little Too Late scenario, global population peaks at around 8.8 billion in the 2050s falling to around 7 billion by 2100, and average annual global per capita income reaches $42,000. Global average temperature increases to 2.5 degrees Celsius above the 1850-1900 average. In the Giant Leap scenario, population peaks at 8.5 billion in the 2050s and declines to around 6 billion by 2100, and average annual global per capita income reaches $51,000. Global average temperature rises to 2 degrees Celsius over the 19th-century baseline. Both ozone depletion and air pollution in 2100 are below the posited planetary boundary thresholds, and the nutrient overloading boundary is still exceeded in the Too Little Too Late scenario.With respect to future man-made global warming, the world is likely already on track to keep the increase in average global temperature at around 2 degrees Celsius over the 19th-century baseline.

So what "extraordinary turnarounds" are allegedly needed to move from "decision-making as usual" to the Giant Leap? They are ending poverty, addressing gross inequality, empowering women, making food systems healthy for people and ecosystems, and transitioning to clean energy. The People and Planet team aims to end poverty by having the International Monetary Fund allocate $1 trillion annually to low-income countries for green jobs; reduce inequality by increasing taxes on the richest 10 percent until they take less than 40 percent of national incomes; empower women by providing them access to education; incentivize farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture and engage in sustainable intensification; and with respect to energy, immediately phase out fossil fuels while spending $1 trillion annually on scaling up new renewables.

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As it happens, "decision-making as usual" has already been furthering those trends. As population more than doubled since 1972, average per capita global gross domestic product in constant 2015 U.S. dollars has risen from $5,200 in 1972 to $11,000 in 2021. With respect to absolute poverty, the World Bank reports that in 1972 nearly half of the world's people lived on less than $2.15 per day. That has fallen to just over 8 percent in 2019.

Assuming an average 3 percent annual growth rate, the world's GDP would increase from $100 trillion now to $974 trillion by 2100 yielding per capita GDP for 7 billion people of nearly $140,000 annually. Assuming just a 2 percent growth rate, per capita GDP would rise to around $66,000 annually. And this does not take into account the technologically advanced products and services that will be available eight decades hence. It is notable that these rough calculations are well above the People and Planet projections by average per capita incomes in 2100.

For the authors, overpopulation is not the issue; inequality is.

However, income inequality has been falling among nations. That is, poorer places are getting richer faster than already well-off countries.

The Club of Rome's new Malthusianism-lite report (2)

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Notably, City University of New York economist Branko Milanović observes that income inequality has been rising within "many large countries including the United States, China, Russia, India and even the welfare states of continental Europe." The remedy recommended by the authors is to increase taxes on the richest 10 percent until they take less than 40 percent of national incomes. As it happens, according to the World Bank, there are very few countries in which 40 percent of national income goes to the top 10 percent. (The U.S. figure is 45.6 percent.)

The authors clearly want much of the taxes collected to be redistributed to poor countries as foreign aid, e.g., $1 trillion per year to create green jobs. There is a robust debate over the effectiveness of foreign aid with respect to boosting economic growth, but not too surprisingly, I find Institute for European Studies economist Miroslav Prokopijević's argument that "foreign aid fails because the structure of its incentives resembles that of central planning" persuasive.

Education is one good measure of the increasing empowerment of women. Among other things, it correlates with increased reproductive choice and access to employment outside of their households. While obviously not nearly enough, the percentage of females globally receiving primary education rose from 65 percent in 1972 to 88 percent in 2018, and secondary education increased from 38 percent to 76 percent.

The People and Planet report wants to subsidize "regenerative agriculture" as a way to make food production "healthy" for ecosystems. One big problem is that there are no consistent definitions of regenerative agriculture. It's largely just a term used to denigrate also ill-defined, but rhetorically disfavored, conventional agriculture. Considering that agriculture is the most extensive way that humanity alters natural landscapes, it is good news for healthy ecosystems that farmland peaked around the year 2000, leaving more land for nature. Instead of plowing down more land, farmers around the world are intensifying their production, thus growing more food on less land. Oddly, in both the Too Little Too Late and the Giant Leap scenarios, the amount of cropland continues to increase up to 2100.

The final Giant Leap policy recommendation is to incentivize the global transition to clean energy sources by which the authors mean chiefly solar and wind power. (Nuclear is not mentioned.) They specifically recommend beginning the process of electrifying everything by means of immediately tripling investments to more than $1 trillion per year in new renewables. Interestingly, in January 2023, Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that "global investment in the low-carbon energy transition totaled $1.1 trillion in 2022 – a new record and a huge acceleration from the year before." The International Energy Agency projects that renewables will become the largest source of global electricity generation by early 2025, surpassing coal. It may not be as fast as the authors demand, but the energy transition is already well underway.

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To sum up: The world and the state of humanity are not where we want it to be, but global poverty is rapidly falling, inequality between countries is declining, women are gaining greater personal autonomy, peaked farmland is sparing more land for nature, and renewable energy sources are being briskly deployed.

Back in 1972, The Limits to Growth report commissioned by The Club of Rome was thoroughly Malthusian: Unless humanity changed its profligate ways, population collapse loomed. The Club's new People and Planet report amounts to Malthusianism-lite. Tiresome still, but better, I guess.

FAQs

What was the report of the Club of Rome? ›

The Club of Rome report and other warnings of imminent environmental disaster encouraged environmentalists to believe that an environmentally sound society had to be a 'no-growth society,' and that achieving it had to become a priority everywhere in the world.

What did the Neo Malthusians Club of Rome suggest? ›

The Club of Rome's main focus is upon global problems associated with population and economic growth. It espouses a neo-Malthusian agenda of limiting population growth and promoting sustainable economic development in order to address perceived problems of environmental degradation.

What is the most famous report of the Club of Rome? ›

Its seminal, best-selling 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, alerted the world to the consequences of the interactions between human systems and the health of our planet.

What is the Club of Rome population theory? ›

Whilst the book did not predict what precisely would happen, it stated that if the world's consumption patterns and population growth continued at the same high rates of the time, the earth would strike its limits within a century. The message was that this outcome was not inevitable.

What was the significance of the Club of Rome report of the 1970's? ›

The Club of Rome stimulated considerable public attention with the first report to the club, The Limits to Growth. Published in 1972, its computer simulations suggested that economic growth could not continue indefinitely because of resource depletion. The 1973 oil crisis increased public concern about this problem.

What was the first report of Club of Rome? ›

In 1972, the Club's first major Report, The Limits to Growth was published. It sold millions of copies worldwide, creating media controversy and also impetus for the global sustainability movement.

What is Malthusian neo-Malthusian theory? ›

Neo‐​Malthusianism, defined as fear that a large population size could lead to a humanitarian and ecological disaster and that combating so‐​called overpopulation is thus an urgent problem—has real‐​world consequences. The belief has often resulted in support for coercive policies.

What is the neo-Malthusian goal? ›

As overcrowding and working class wages improved, Neo-Malthusians argued that maternal and child health would similarly improve, reducing the number of families living on public and privacy charity.

What are some of the solutions Malthusians neo or new Malthusians suggest to prevent these consequences? ›

While the poor continue to have high fertility rates, they will continue to be poor. Neo-Malthusians advocate for better family planning, a change in societal expectations and norms, greater access to contraceptives and more education about conception to reduce the poor's fertility rates.

What are the five factors Club of Rome? ›

They examined the five basic factors that determine and, in their interactions, ultimately limit growth on this planet-population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation.

What did the Club of Rome advocate? ›

At the international level, the Club of Rome advocated resource conservation for the first time in a more systematic way in 1968.

What is the Club of Rome plan? ›

The central message of The Limits to Growth – A Report to the Club of Romeiii published in 1972, was that the quest for unlimited growth in population, material goods and resources, on a finite planet, would eventually result in the collapse of its economic and environmental systems.

What is Malthusian population? ›

The Malthusian theory explained that the human population grows more rapidly than the food supply until famines, war or disease reduces the population. He believed that the human population has risen over the past three centuries.

What does Club of Rome mean by sustainable? ›

It affirmed that “humanity has the possibility of making development sustainable, that is of ensuring that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

What was the main conclusion reached by the Club of Rome limits to growth team? ›

The report's main conclusion was that the world would experience an uncontrollable and sudden decrease in industrial capabilities and population in the future.

What did the Club of Rome predict in limits to growth? ›

11 March 2022 - The 1972 book, Limits to Growth, warned that the Earth's resources would not be able to support the exponential rates of economic and population growth and would collapse before the end of this century.

Is the Malthusian theory relevant today? ›

In modern times, Malthus's population theory has been criticized. Although the theory of Malthus proved somewhat true in contemporary terms, this doctrine is not acceptable at present.

What is the difference between Malthusian and neo-Malthusian? ›

In Britain the term 'Malthusian' can also refer more specifically to arguments made in favour of family planning, hence organizations such as the Malthusian League. Neo-Malthusians differ from Malthus's theories mainly in their support for the use of birth control.

Is the Malthusian theory correct? ›

According to the economists' vulgata, Malthus was wrong because he predicted a world of material scarcities exactly when the industrial revolution was taking off, thus freeing many people from the yoke of scarcity. But, Kallis tells us, this is the wrong way of reading Malthus.

What is the conclusion of neo-Malthusian theory? ›

Many experts concluded that rapid population growth would eventually be checked by some absolute limit on resources (such as food, energy, or water).

Who started neo-Malthusian movement? ›

The Malthusian League, the first neo-Malthusian association, was founded in London in 1877 by the English feminist Annie Besant (1847-1933) and presided over by her compatriot Charles Robert Drysdale (1829-1907), and by his partner Alice Drysdale Vickery (1844-1929) after his death.

What is the neo-Malthusian theory quizlet? ›

Neo Malthusian Theory. believe that the world's population has been growing to fast implying that the world would be better off if it had fewer people. like the predecessor the Neo Malthusians believe poverty and rapid population growth on the world's poorest population.

What is the major weakness of the Malthusian theory? ›

The Malthusian theory is wrong because empirical evidence has shown that population does not grow geometrically and food production does not grow arithmetically.

What is the weakness of Malthusian? ›

One of the principal weaknesses of Malthus' thought has been that he neglected the manpower aspect in population growth. He was a pessimist and dreaded every increase in population.

What are the criticisms of Malthusian theory? ›

the theory only addressed population issues related to his home country of England. the theory was rooted in racist ideologies related to England's imperialist foreign policy. Malthus failed to anticipate the development of new technologies that would decrease food insecurity.

What is a neo-Malthusian quizlet? ›

Neo Malthusians believe: earth's resources can only support a finite population. Believes that limited resources keep population in check and reduce economic growth therefore growth should be controlled. Pressure on scarce resources leads to famine and war.

What did Neo Malthusians view as the main limit of population growth? ›

env. exam 1
QuestionAnswer
The demographic transition model shows population growth as a function of resource scarcity.false
Which theorists developed the I = PAT equation?Ehrlich and Holdren
Neo-Malthusians view _______ as the main limit of population growth.scarce resources
80 more rows

What do neo Malthusians believe the exploding population is outstripping on Earth? ›

Malthus suggested that population pressures lead to resource overuse, famine and misery, in particular, because exponential population growth outstrips food production.

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