Modern Malthusianism

Book Review of "Preparing for the Twenty-First Century"
by Paul Kennedy; Random House 1993

Jesse Alan Gordon, 1993

Thomas Malthus predicted mass starvation in early 19th century England, because population increased geometrically while the food supply could increase only arithmetically. Malthus wrote that the impending catastrophe was mathematically inevitable, and hence made a name for himself as the First Great Doomsayer. Malthus was proven wrong, as has been every doomsayer since. From George Orwell's "1984" to Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb", thoughtful people have been predicting catastrophes, and human political and economic ingenuity have avoided the seemingly unavoidable. Nevertheless, the tradition of doomsaying continues on unabated. The latest entry is Paul Kennedy's book, "Preparing for the Twenty-First Century."

Modern Malthusianism

The twenty-first century, according to Kennedy, will be one in which the rich get richer, while the poor get much poorer, and cause a lot of trouble for the rich. There'll be pressure for mass migrations from the poor countries of the South to the rich countries of the North, causing political havoc as we exclude them all. The ever-widening gap in wealth between the North and South preshadows economic havoc, since it is "inconceivable" that the Earth can support 10 billion people at modern levels of Northern consumption. Overpopulation in the South will wreak havoc on the environment as well, in which "for the first time... what the South does can hurt the North." The interconnectedness between overpopulation, pressure on natural resources, migration, and social and political instability, will define the primary challenges of the upcoming century.

Kennedy opens his book with a detailed description of Malthus' predictions of catastrophe. Then he explains why we escaped Malthusian doom, because Malthus failed to predict British colonial emigration, the agricultural revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. Kennedy makes the analogy into their modern counterparts -- mass movements from poor populations, the biotechnological revolution, and the robotics revolution -- these incorporate the three missed lessons of Malthus, and will define the next century. Kennedy indicates that the way to avoid the catastrophe is by transfers of technology and enormous cash aid from North to South, and by getting the poor countries of the world to develop along the lines of the Korean model. Kennedy tries to distinguish himself from Malthus by incorporating the Malthusian lessons and by offering solutions to his Malthusian predictions. But his solutions seem politically unpalatable, economically unworkable, and scientifically unsound, and hence Kennedy's book becomes just another voice in the cacophony of modern Malthusianism.

The Twenty-First Century

Preparing for the twenty-first century, according to Kennedy, means meeting three interconnected challenges. The first is "relative competitiveness," by which he means providing a decent standard of living through economic growth. The second is demographic and environmental challenges, for which Kennedy proposes sustainable development as the compromise path between economic needs and environmental pressure. The third is the historical tradition of political instability as the cause of war. If we fail to meet the first two challenges, we end up with the third.

In the first half of the book, Kennedy analyzes the three challenges in the context of improving technology. The real challenge is "how to use the power of technology to meet the demands thrown up by the power of population." Technology can solve problems, or it can displace people. Multinational corporations may replace the nation-state as the defining entity of the next century, but they could exploit the poor of the world to a greater extent than nation-states ever did. The biotechnology revolution could feed all the world's hungry, or it could cause a collapse in world food prices and create a catastrophe for billions of poor farmers. The robotics revolution could be the next industrial revolution, or it could exacerbate the division between the rich and the poor. And looming beyond the political, social, and economic challenges, is the environmental challenge: we could destroy ourselves ecologically by the misapplication of technology to other challenges.

In the second half of the book, Kennedy analyzes the major regions of the world, and what are their specific challenges in that context. Japan is well-positioned to take advantage of the upcoming technological revolutions, and even Kennedy grants them "guarded optimism." America doesn't fare so well -- we need greater savings, a smaller deficit, more research spending, and less military spending, if we are to remain competitive. Kennedy devotes a chapter each to Europe and to the former Soviet Union; this is his area of expertise and the subject of most of his other work. India and China are problematic because they contain two billion people, all of whom will soon demand the right to consumption at levels currently enjoyed in the North, and their demands will threaten the earth. The rest of the developing world is the source of Kennedy's most pessimistic visions -- his analysis of Africa, the Islamic world, and Latin America make their situation seem entirely hopeless.

North-South Split

Development is the our topic for this issue, so I'll focus on Kennedy's view of developing countries in the twenty-first century. Poverty in developing countries provides the connection between the issues of overpopulation, environmental pressure, and social instability. Kennedy foresees that the gap will widen between the rich North and the poor South, and that assumption drives most of his analysis.

Kennedy initially conceived this book as an analysis of transnational problems. The nation-state declines in importance as technology erases borders, and as international institutions replace national ones. Globalized business replaces national sovereignty as technology creates a "borderless world," with multinational corporations in the lead. Kennedy foresees multinationals continuing their role as exploiters of poor countries, rather than as a source for employment, development, and wealth creation.

The biotechnological and robotics revolution will similarly widen the gap between North and South. The poor countries are losing out, Kennedy says, because technology erodes the value of labor and material, the chief assets of developing countries. Biotechnological advances weaken the position of farmers, who constitute most of the developing world. Electronic sophistication decreases the need for large amounts of raw materials, weakening the export base of natural resource-based economies. Hence biotech and robotics, the two biggest upcoming revolutions, will both aggravate the North-South split.

Here I think Kennedy is simply wrong. Technological advances have been the source of all of the world's wealth, and I believe that further advances will further improve the world. At best, technology will solve all of the problems of the poor of the world, and will bring them into the developed world in the near future. At worst, the South will grow relatively poorer, as the North better exploits new technology to get richer at a faster rate than the South. If the South grows richer, but slower than the North, they'll still be richer than they are now; their relative poverty is only a problem if one is more concerned with equity than with development. Kennedy says that the South will grow absolutely poorer, using the same logic as Malthus, that technological advances can't keep up with population increases. Malthus was proven wrong because he could not envision the fantastic gains that technology brought. Kennedy makes the same mistake -- he is not sufficiently visionary in the potential of technology. He is willing to admit that technology could save the world, but he says that we will breach "environmental thresholds" first.

Kennedy makes an odd prediction that India will be a leader in the robotics revolution. Indeed, India has a high education level, is sophisticated in computer technology, and has a strong political motivation for entering new technological fields, and that bodes well for their ability to produce and export many of the future's robots. But Kennedy says that India will use robots, not export them. That seems extraordinarily unlikely in the context of massive unemployment under which India currently suffers. Kennedy's argument for the continued poverty of the South is that robotics, for instance, will cause further unemployment -- but that's only true if there's a reason to adopt robots in place of people. In the North, where labor prices are high and unemployment is low, employing robots makes sense. In India, where armies of millions of unemployed are available for a dollar a day, I do not foresee robotic replacement even after fifty years. This is a first-year economics lesson, between capital-intensive economies and labor-intensive economies. Robots make sense in capital-intensive Japan and America, but not in labor-intensive India. India will spend decades raising their wage level, before they are ready to replace labor with capital.

Kennedy has some valid prescriptions for developing countries. Kennedy says that development will occur if poor countries will focus more resources on education, put away more in national savings and investment, develop a strong state with industrial targetting, and maintain an export orientation. He cites Japan and Korea as his primary models for development, ignoring the cultural differences between East Asia and the rest of the world that preclude instituting the model universally. Africa suffers, he says, because there is too little focus on education. Latin America suffers because of their import substitution strategies rather than export-led growth. The Islamic world suffers because they keep their women uneducated and are resistant to change. China will do well because they are adopting the Korean model. Kennedy ignores that China, and the rest of the next generation of East Asian "Newly Industrializing Economies," have similar cultural attitudes to Japan and Korea, and therefore can adopt that model; the model has not worked elsewhere and should not be touted as the universal answer to poverty.

Environment and Development

Environmental economics is my specialty area, so I'll focus on Kennedy's view of the future of the environment. Kennedy's question is, "Why should rich societies care about the fate of far-off poor peoples?" His answer is, because they can hurt us by mass migrations, global warming, and environmental degradation. Kennedy eschews humanitarianism, I believe, in order to appear more the hard-nosed economist. Saving billions from starvation and poverty is not a sufficient reason unto itself. Kennedy makes the connection between environment and development only to emphasize how the South can hurt the North, and hence we should help them in order to avoid hurting ourselves.

Kennedy goes through the laundry list of environmental dilemmas: deforestation, loss of biodiversity, pollution, salinization, acid rain, ozone depletion, global warming. He summarizes all of the major problems without offering any solutions. Indeed, his environment chapter is a litany of woes rather than a vision of how to address the problems in the future. This is Kennedy at his most pessimistic. He maintains that we must trade off between environmental concerns and economic development, and the best we can do is achieve a workable compromise. He has no optimism that the future can invent means of achieving environmental and developmental goals simultaneously.

On ozone depletion, Kennedy is entirely off the mark, since this is an area where optimism is most warranted, if one is dealing with the next century. Kennedy's book was published three months after the signing of the Copenhagen Amendments to the Montreal Protocol, which effectively eliminated CFC production by 1996, and phased out all other ozone-depleting chemicals as well. Kennedy ignores the scientific implications of the Ozone Treaty, and declares that CFCs are a major problem for development in the future, as well as a major source of global warming. In fact, in the US, 35% of our global warming potential is caused by CFCs, according to tables presented by Kennedy -- that means that 35% of US-caused global warming will be eliminated before the twenty-first century begins. Kennedy also ignores the political implications of the Ozone Treaty -- that when the world determined that there was a serious environmental problem, we addressed the problem, internationally and consensually, and solved it. Of course, we will be suffering the consequences of ozone depletion for years to come, but the source of the problem has been eliminated -- the Ozone Treaty is a success story. Kennedy ignores it. Furthermore, the Montreal Protocol and its related treaties were the model for the greenhouse gas treaty at the Rio "Earth Summit." The success of the Ozone Treaties, I think, provides a great source of optimism for the success of future environmental treaties as well -- that optimism is not shared by Kennedy.

Kennedy and Malthus

In the long run, Malthus was wrong because what he assumed were geometrical increases were in fact sigmoidal, that is, the trend leveled out after a while. Kennedy recognizes that population increase is a sigmoidal curve, but fears that the "demographic transition," when the rate of increase stops, will come too late. In fact, that transition is well studied and fairly predictable, which is the source of Kennedy's estimate of earth's leveled-out population of 10 billion in mid-century. The analogous transition in technology is unstudied and unpredictable, because it is not yet anywhere in sight. There is no reason to believe that a technological transition will occur in any foreseeable future, that is, technological progress will continue unabated well into the twenty-first century. Yet that transition is the basis of Kennedy's pessimism -- he believes that the technological transition will occur before the demographic one, that is, that technology cannot keep up with population needs.

That's the same mistake as Malthus made. To Kennedy, it's "inconceivable" to support 10 billion people; to Malthus, today's living standards would have been as equally inconceivable. Maybe we can't conceive of the technology that the future will use, or how they will use it -- but we can conceive that the future will have developed sufficient technology to solve a lot of problems. In fact, Kennedy does conceive the important technologies of the next century -- biotech and robotics -- but then assumes that their results may destroy the world, or at least hurt the world's poor. The first agricultural revolution and the first industrial revolution, in the long run, were the greatest source of human development that the world has ever known. The second set of those revolutions, biotechnology and robotics, will probably do as much for alleviating poverty as the first set. The transition period is disruptive in any revolution -- Kennedy assumes that the disruption will be permanent, and therefore that the revolutions themselves are bad. I think that the most important characteristic of technological revolutions in thinking about the future is that we must conceive the inconceivable.

Kennedy's inconceivability applies to the tradeoff between environment and development. If improving technology does anything, it will alleviate that tradeoff, as in Kennedy's example of how miniaturization creates wealth with ever less use of natural resources. Kennedy's best conception is that we can come to a compromise between the need to develop economically and to preserve ecologically. That's a false dichotomy -- the entire field of environmental economics is dedicated to finding means by which to achieve both environmental and developmental goals simultaneously. In the twenty-first century, optimistically, that tradeoff will no longer be necessary.

"Preparing for the Twenty-First Century" is like a big introductory survey course. Kennedy touches on a lot of areas without getting into enough detail to analyze them fully. Skimming the surface, by acknowledging the problems without analyzing their potential solutions, creates pessimism. Kennedy is a historian. In his previous book, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," Kennedy looked deeply at the trends of history and applied them to the modern world. In his current book, Kennedy looks at one of the great mistakes of history and applies it all over again. Malthus was wrong, and Kennedy is even more wrong applying Malthusianism today.

EJSCK Reprinted from Harvard College Economist, 1993.
All material copyright 1993 by the Economist and Jesse Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


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