Thomas Malthus had the misfortune to offer his theories at a time when technology was on the cusp of changing all the equations. He believed that since population always increased exponentially and food production only increased arithmetically, a population crunch was inevitable. The ratio of food and population has long held in the animal kingdom. A population of gazelles will increase during fecund periods with plentiful forage only to crash when their numbers exceed the carrying capacity of the land, either by drought or simply a slightly worse than usual bounty in conjunction with ever growing numbers. The population of lions which prey on them show the exact same periodicity. Human populations historically have done the same, yet the beginning of th industrial revolution meant that the land could support a vastly larger population, just as the advent of agriculture had allowed human populations to explode over the preceding 5,000-6,000 years. The Green Revolution (Norman Borlaug) delayed the inevitable crash that had been expected after WWII. It is very likely that short of a disastrous crash, the next stages of technology (short of the Singularity) along with the dramatic drops in fertility will mean that a population-food crash will cease being a specter haunting mankind. Yet in the next 20 years we may see a range of political events reflecting a neo-Malthusian clash between productivity and fecundity.
[As a particularly piquant surprise to me, Malthus also came up with the concept of Economic rent in economic theory. Rent-seeking is the word of the day in Washington, DC, which has become the Mecca for such.]
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard believes that the events in Tunisia and Egypt are evidence for this thesis:
Political risk has returned with a vengeance. The first food revolutions of our Malthusian era have exposed the weak grip of authoritarian regimes in poor countries that import grain, whether in North Africa today or parts of Asia tomorrow.
The surge in global food prices since the summer – since Ben Bernanke signalled a fresh dollar blitz, as it happens – is not the underlying cause of Arab revolt, any more than bad harvests in 1788 were the cause of the French Revolution.
Steve McCann at the American Thinker places the problem of exploding food prices at the feet of the environmental radicals who have engineered a shortage of corn and the solons who have devalued our money:
Perhaps the most overused but most accurate term used to describe the policies and ideology of the American left is the "Law of Unintended Consequences." There is virtually nothing that these people espouse that, once put in place, has not had detrimental effects on either the people of the United States or the world.
Today there is a global food shortage and skyrocketing prices. This has become the underlying factor in the riots in Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, where up to 56% of a person's income is dedicated to the acquisition of food. These riots are now leading to the upheaval of governments and the very real possibility of the ascendancy of the radical elements into control.declined by over 13% against the Japanese yen and 25% against the Canadian dollar.
While bad weather in various parts of the world is an element of the accelerating food prices, there are two other factors directly related to the United States and its policies.
First, because of the enormous deficits run up by the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress, the Federal Reserve has had to effectively print trillions of dollars, which have flooded the global market. Commodities are priced in dollars; consequently, emerging markets throughout the world, and the food sector in particular, are suffering from rapidly rising inflation.
Presumably, the Left will find ways to blame the increase in food prices on the failures of Capitalism over the last few years but both will be missing a very large point: Implicit in these two articles is the fact that neither Egypt nor Algeria (nor many other marginal countries on the face of the earth) have economies capable of creating enough wealth so that all of their people can hope to rise out of abject or comparative poverty; further, while abject or comparative poverty in a wealthy Nation like America may mean one is at risk of obesity, in a marginal country, one is at risk of starvation or incendiary envy.
The neo-Malthusian clash is now between the slowly shrinking percentage of the population of the world who are extraordinarily productive and produce the excess wealth that allows non-productive to live in relative comfort and the ever increasing non-productive constantly demanding more.
These are not the first riots in Egypt to target the rich and insular:
The recent images of riots in Egypt are 'deja vu' for the Jews from Egypt in Israel, reviving sights of the streets and smells of Cairo, which can never be again what it once was. For Levana Zamir who today lives in Tel Aviv, the recent events did not come as a surprise. It is like closing a circle: She and her Vidal family suffered the anger and rage of the Egyptian population in the late Forties, now directed against wealthy Egyptians and the government.
Since Thursday she has been glued to the TV, trying to identify her remaining friends in Egypt and looking in disbelief at what is happening in her native country.
"All these days, I was thinking how proud I am of the Egyptian people," she says. "I have friends in Egypt, but I cannot ‘phone them or send them an email, because it could do harm to them. Even in normal times Egyptian censorship makes it hard, and it certainly does now", says Zamir, who is President of The International Organization of Jews from Egypt, and of The Israel-Egypt Friendship Association.
"When I see the flames and the looting, it is impossible not to recall what they did to the Jews. The Egyptian population in its poverty and anger lashed out at us in 1952, burning and looting Jewish businesses. Today it is doing the same thing to the Egyptian elite," she explains. "Only this time, the hatred against Jews has been replaced by hatred against rich Egyptians".
Since the 1950's little has changed in Egypt. Their economy has not been able to expand enough to feed its people while, with the aid of Western medicine, their populations have expanded so rapidly that they have become completely dependent upon those they despise.
I am not speculating on why the marginal states have so far failed, though the possibilities include culture, the native strengths and weaknesses of the popoulaitons, religion, and a host of other candidates (including all of the above) but there is little doubt that the clash is accelerating in a fractal form; we see it in American red state-blue state clashes and we see it in the current food riots. The productive are coming up against the limits of their abilities while the non-productive do not have the will or the knowhow to become productive.
There are only a few possible long term outcomes of this neo-Malthusian clash:
1) The marginal peoples discover ways to increase their productivity to catch up to their populations (as so many nations in Asia have done since WWII.)
2) The productive nations find an exponential increase in their productivity so that they have enough excess largess to support (ie, bribe) the failed economies of the world.
3) The marginal states descend into greater chaos and the ancient scourges of famine and pestilence, with a soupçon of terror and war, emerge to devour ever greater numbers.