Malthus’ Revenge or Human Creativity to the Rescue?
By Dr. D. Michael Shafer, Co-Founder of Warm Heart Worldwide
Massive fires are burning out of control in the American West.
The Greenland ice cap is beyond repair.
With one exception, world leaders are wringing their hands.
Can we save civilization as we know it from climate change?
The headlines notwithstanding, this is actually an old question. Two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus answered it with a resounding, “No” and for almost as long has been derided for his failure to grasp the redemptive power of technology.
For those not familiar with the long-discredited, Reverend Malthus, a contemporary of Adam Smith, let me introduce you. Malthus is renowned for his “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798), in which he articulated what we know as the “Malthusian trap,” the notion that people will pursue their own interests rather than managing population within what he viewed as fixed resource limits.
He argued that, on average, the land can sustain only so many people. In times of warm weather and good rains when yields are high, noted Malthus, humans reproduce rapidly, soon raising the population above the land’s average carrying capacity.
When the weather turns, temperatures fall and food supplies falter, the extra humans die off until the population falls below the land’s carrying capacity. When the weather cycle turns, human population shoots up again and so on.
I began by calling Malthus “long-discredited” because to his loss and ours, his “Essay” appeared just as King Coal and mechanical powered seemed to open unlimited vistas of productivity. Suddenly, humans were no longer bound to grubbing in the ground. Technology seem to free them from earthly strictures.
Note the qualifier “seemed to,” and the first half of this essay’s title “Malthus’ Revenge.”
Just as Malthus saw land, its primal capacity to support human life, as a finite resource, so climate change science suggests that the global climate system, too, is a finite resource.
Technology, a modern Malthus would argue, did not free us from our planet’s resource constraints, it simply enlarged the scope of the resources we can plunder.
Today, the modern Malthus would say, we face the same disaster as the old Malthus predicted – just on an immensely larger scale. Old and new Malthus alike would agree, the world’s problem is entirely our problem as in, there are far, far too many of us.
Ironically, the Covid-19 pandemic has given us a glimpse of a post-die-off world of clearer skies and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The real question is, therefore, “Does it have to end this way or do we humans possess the creative and social capacity to change enough to evade the Malthusian trap?”
We can only hope so. No absolute barriers bar the way; we humans are the only binding constraint. As Malthus observed two centuries ago – humans today seem bent on the pursuit of private, not collective, ends.
Nowadays, our imaginations may not permit us to conceive of the means to achieve the kinds of practical climate saving technological solutions available, but, sector by sector, for example, such simple changes as the following could stop climate change in its tracks:
- Elimination of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides
- Maximum localization of farming
- Restrictions on meat animals
- Investment incentives in innovation, not the preservation of oil
- Smart-grid development
- Biocharring of all waste biomass
- Emphasis on forest management and reforestation
- Soil and water protection and restoration
- Green roofs
- Power generation and storage capacity
- Reduced sprawl, multi-family, increased density
- Electric, fuel cell
- Efficient, ubiquitous, public transportation
- Restricted private use
- Urban planning
- Compost organic garbage
- Green streets, shade trees, restricted daytime traffic
- Sewage to biochar to water filtration/recycling
- Universal green roofs/roof top gardens, no AC
I have no idea where a modern Malthus might stand on the future as we talk about climate change resilience and mitigation, emission controls and even atmospheric carbon removal.
I have no doubt that the Reverend, who saw God’s hand in the poor’s starvation, would scoff at the notion that we will accomplish the necessary changes in time, however innocent each may be. The challenge is ours.
“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”
Ishmael is a novel that portrays how we have come to this point of building an unsustainable civilization.
Ishmael, a wise gorilla who communicates with his human student through telepathy, describes two main groups of people living on Earth: the Takers and the Leavers.
The Takers are the members of people in modern, developed countries who see the world as theirs for the taking. They believe Humankind rules the world, and we can do with it whatever we please.
Leavers, on the other hand, are people who live off the land. They believe humans belong to the world—that is, they believe other species, every one of them, have just as much of a claim to Earth as humans.
According to Ishmael a long time ago we all used to be Leavers. There was a time when, for centuries, human beings lived sustainably. We took what the land provided, we lived in small communities, and we respected the Earth. We simply lived as other animals do—we didn’t take any more than we needed, and we didn’t kill off other species for the sake of safeguarding a surplus of our own food supply.
Ishmael does not place the blame on humans, but on the misconception that man was put on the world to dominate, rather than living in peace and harmony with all creatures.
He says, “…people need more than to be scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.”
“Humans”, Ishmael explains, “are like a person driving a car as fast as they can towards a cliff. If we don’t take our foot off the accelerator and hit the brakes soon, we’re going to hurdle off that cliff to our certain death.”
Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael is a wonderful story that is very thought-provoking. While it does not provide any answers, it does paint a picture of how we have gotten to the point we are at, offering hope that we can make changes before we self-destruct.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Corporate Social Responsibility is a growing business practice across the globe arising from the urgent need to protect the environment. Corporations take an active role in local social programs, in particular environmental issues, helping finance and support projects that serve the needs of their communities.
Shangri-la Hotel has hit a home run with their Corporate Social Responsibility in Chiang Mai.
Anyway you look at it you will see a win-win-win-win-win project!
Win # 1 – Shangri-la Partners with Warm Heart’s Stop the Smoke project.
Northern Thailand contributes to global warming through the unhealthy smoke released by agricultural burning. This problem also has a huge impact on the local economy when tourism drops off during the infamous Chiang Mai smoky season. Partnering with Warm Heart Shangri-la is funding a biochar operation to help reduce the smoke.
Win # 2 – Instead of burning crop residue farmers are making biochar
As part of their Corporate Social Responsibility project Shangri-la buys all of the biochar the farmers are able to make. This provides the incentive for farmers to join the project and make biochar. This puts more money in the farmer’s pocket, helping the local economy.
Win # 3 – Biochar is put to use improving soils
What does Shangri-la do with all the tons of biochar the farmers make for them?
They use a little of the biochar to maintain their own property, the rest of the biochar is donated to local non-profit farming communities to help rebuild soils, enabling them to grow fantastic produce. Again, this helps the local economy by providing more jobs and profits.
Win # 4 – Shangri-la buys the high quality produce
To maintain their desire to only use the best ingredients in their restaurants they purchase as much fresh produce from the community gardens as they can use. This keeps their customers very happy, and again, helps put money in the local economy.
Win # 5 – Local food security
Shangri-la does not buy all of the harvest, just what they need. The rest of the abundant produce is also sold locally. This helps increase local food security with high quality food for the community.
Win # 6 – Setting an example
Shangri-la can not stop all the smoke alone, but they prove that the right Corporate Social Responsibility commitment can have a huge impact on the whole community. We need more local corporations to step up and follow Shangri-la’s example, until we have enough sponsors to work with farmers to help Stop the Smoke, forever. The health of the community and the environment will be the ultimate winners.
Warm Heart welcomes local corporations to join in and support this impactful program. We will work with you to set up your own biochar production team. Together we can Stop the Smoke and bring back blue skies year-round!
Contact Dr. Michael Shafer to set up your own CSR project!
Climate change is a complex issue with many contributing factors. There is no one solution. We must all work together in our different areas to breakdown the problems and find solutions.
Our focus at Warm Heart is working on eliminating the agricultural smoke that contributes to global warming, by making biochar. Biochar can help heal our soils and ensure food security.
We would love to hear from you what you are doing, what aspect of climate change are you trying to solve, and how are you going about it?
Send your stories and pictures to email@example.com to be included in our next issue!
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- Heed the warning about social distancing during this pandemic
- Wash your hands frequently and use a disinfectant
- Eat a healthy diet to help your immunity system stay strong
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