Stop Being Beastly to Malthus!

I never understand why people think that Malthus got it so badly wrong. His argument (the Malthusian trap) was that resources are finite and that, therefore, there must be some limit to the number of people that the world can feed.[1] While it certainly turned out that the world can feed many more people than he thought, this does not disprove the underlying theorem. At some point there must come a threshold, where food supply really fails to meet the demand. If we generalise from food to include water, then that point might not be as far away as complacent people think. Of course, we also have to take into account the environmental damage associated with feeding, transporting, and keeping a large number of people warm.

Malthus has become almost a figure of derision. While he may have been wrong about when, the jury is still out about whether. He was right about the generic point, that there is a limit to the carrying capacity of our planet. Food is central to this, because even if we do not run out of food, much environmental damage is caused in its production.

The world’s population will stabilise in about 50 years, although African populations will continue to expand for a while longer.[2] So we should mitigate the environmental effects of food production. I like to eat beef from time to time. However the production of beef is very energy intensive and the methane released by cattle contributes about 20% of the total global warming.[3] So I favour a tax on all beef, similar to that on fuel. Such a tax is more justifiable even, then a tax on sugar and tobacco. This is because consumption of sugar and tobacco does not have the strong externalities associated with fossil fuels and production of beef. There is no proper libertarian argument against taxation in circumstances where strong externalities apply.[4] Pigovian taxes are taxes designed to compensate for externalities and to reduce behaviour that harms others; they would seem entirely justified in this case. I am less of a fan of Pigovian taxes to deal with internalities – that is to stop people from harming themselves. But as it turns out, red meat is bad for our health, as discussed in a recent news blog.[5]

So let us give Malthus his due. He might have got the detail wrong, but his principle still stands. I vote for the rehabilitation of Malthus.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. Malthus TR. An Essay on the Principle of Population. London, UK: J. Johnson, 1798.
  2. Lilford RJ. The Population of the World – Will Depend on What Happens in Africa. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 9 January 2015.
  3. Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, de Hann C. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Rome, Italy: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2006.
  4. Lilford RJ. An Issue of BMJ with Multiple Studies on Diet. NIHR CLAHRC West Midlands News Blog. 4 August 2017.
  5. Capewell S, Lilford R. Are nanny states healthier states? BMJ. 2016; 355: i6341.
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