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Population, Sustainability, and Malthus: Crash Course World History 215

Population, Sustainability, and Malthus: Crash Course World History 215


Hi, I’m John Green. This is Crash Course World
History and today we’re talking about one of my least favorite subjects, the end of
humanity. Mr. Green! Mr. Green! Does that mean that
you can see the future? If so, how do things work out with Amanda Key? Oh, me from the past, the phrase “work out”
implies that there was a relationship to work out, which there wasn’t, and there will never
be. However, you do currently know your eventual
wife. But I’m not telling you who she is, because if I do you will screw it up! So we’re not gonna look at the actual end
of humanity today. We’re going to learn about a theory about the downfall of civilization.
And unlike all the true theories, this one doesn’t involve aliens, or robots, or robot
aliens. But it is related to environmental catastrophes of the man-made variety. Today
we’re going to look at population and the most persistent theory about population
growth and its effect on humanity. The one proposed by Thomas Malthus. And what’s amazing about the persistence of
this theory, is it’s complete lack of connection to actual human history. All right so in 10,000
BCE fewer than a billion people lived on earth. Nearly 12,000 years later, around 1800 CE,
human population had grown to… still under a billion. At about that time, an Anglican minister,
named Thomas Malthus wrote an essay on the principle of population. That explained why
this slow population growth was the way things were always going to be. Malthus saw the growing
number of poor people on the English streets and he did what any reasonable thinker would
do, he analogized them to rabbits. He reasoned that the same forces that checked the population
of rabbits would limit humans too. Predators, harsh weather, epidemics, and starvation.
Now it turns out that humans have ways of dealing with predators, we killed all the
lions. And also we’ve got this amazing way of dealing with harsh weather that rabbits
have never figured out called clothes. Not to even get in to fire and housing. So that leaves us with alien predators, disease,
and starvation as the big obstacles. Okay, we’re going to address these one at a time.
First, Arnold Schwarzenegger already took care of the alien predators. Thank you Mr.
Schwarzenegger, in exchange we made you Governor of California. Then we have disease. So around the time Malthus
was writing, disease was becoming less dangerous to human populations. And then there’s starvation,
right, well we’ve argued in the past that starvation is generally a man-made problem.
But to Malthus, it was still a natural disaster. For Malthus, uncontrolled reproduction was the central
problem. Remember, he was, you know, coming from the context of rabbits. He explained it through math. Humans could
reproduce geometrically, capable of doubling population every 25 years, but land on Earth
is finite and at best, it could only be coaxed into producing small, arithmetic, increases
in food. So you’ve got population growing geometrically, food growing arithmetically,
all the people are gonna die. Now among simpler creatures, the theory went food shortages
caused immediate famine. But humans would continue to eek out ever more desperate lives,
as increasing demand raised the price of food, and clothing, and bread, and medicine. Powerful individuals and nations would seize
the assets of the weak, but even some of the strong would fall victim to hunger and disease.
Inevitably the population would then dip low enough for the land to recover. Giving another
generation a chance to repeat the same mistakes. Over time then, human population would remain
roughly constant with the natural fertility of the land. Because he was such a fun guy,
Malthus called this theory of history “The Cycle of Misery.” This essay is one of the
most influential pieces of writing in history, along with a handful of other works, it established
the methods and importance of the modern field of economics. It opened the door to the universe
of evolutionary science. And most immediately, Malthusian theory played a devastating role
in the Irish Potato Famine of 1846-1851. Let’s go to the sure to be depressing, Thought Bubble. Nearly 1 million Irish people died of starvation,
disease, and violence during the famine, which was triggered when a fungus wiped out the
one strain of potato grown in Ireland. Had Ireland’s poor population had access to the
thousands of other varieties of potato or aid to purchase more expensive crops, the
suffering may not have been as terrible. But official English policy toward Ireland,
as determined by its colonial master Charles Trevelyan, was to give no aid nor allow anyone
else to give it either. He blocked American ships filled with corn from reaching the island.
He allowed Irish farms that grew crops other than potatoes to sell them straight to England.
Now hundreds of years of anti-Irish Catholic hatred, were the roots of England’s cruel
policies. But Malthusian theory also played a role. In the century before 1846, Ireland’s
population had grown significantly, and many English thinkers saw the famine as an outcome
of Malthus’ predictions. From this point of view, providing food or aid to the Irish was
futile – it could only delay the cycle of misery until it’s downward swings scythed
down even more people. Trevelyan thus felt assured of pronouncing
that the only remedy for the starving was for them to die, and let their corpses serve
to remind the survivors not to have sex. Quote, “the judgment of God sent the calamity to
teach the Irish a lesson and that calamity must not be too much mitigated”. Trevelyan reassured people upset about the
news of starving children, the real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical
evil of the famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse, and turbulent character
of the people. Thanks Thought Bubble. So why did Ireland
want independence in the first place? Oh right, yeah that! So by 1852, emigration and starvation
had shrunk the population of Ireland from about 6.5 million to 4 million. In 2010, the
islands population was still lower than at the famine’s start. So Malthusian theory seemed
to have it’s airtight proof, right? Well, no. In fact, even as Malthus was writing, the
curve of human population growth was beginning to slope upward. The increase in population
was so gradual that all Malthus noticed of it, were the outliers, the poor clinging to
life. But the growth in the number of human beings was far more permanent than Malthus
ever imagined. In fact, it was unstoppable. From 1750 to 1850, right when Malthus was
alive, the number of humans on Earth grew by half a billion people. From about 800 million
to 1.3 billion. By 1960, the population reached 3 billion. And since then, the world has added
a billion humans roughly every 15 years. Sometime in 2009 or 2010, the United Nations estimates
that the Earth’s 7 billionth person was born. Consider that contrast, at the very moment
that Malthus was writing that it was impossible, human population was beginning it’s rocket
like acceleration. So what did he miss? Well, Malthus was like an A+ student in the
subject of human existence, he was right for like 95% of history. But it turns out, grades
aren’t a super accurate predictor of success in life. Malthus should have looked past prominent
disasters like the potato famine and recognized that two major revolutions in food production
were occurring while he was alive. One of the reasons that he struck out so spectacularly
is that, like many Western thinkers, he wasn’t paying attention to China. So Chinese farmers had altered the land, and
used a number of inventions like dykes, and paddle wheels, and bicycle chains, to grow
rice in man-made paddies. It took a lot of labor, but it paid off. Especially when they
discovered that by using the entrails and bones of the fish that swam in the water,
they could get you know, fertilizer! And then they could grow two rice crops in one year.
Thus, the secret of China’s greatness: food! And with the benefit of added surplus, fortunate
people in China were able to free up their time to study and to invent. Yet, while the birth of this
system had begun in the ancient past, additions to it continued throughout Chinese history and
progressed straight through the Qing dynasty. But agriculture was also changing in Europe
during Malthus’ lifetime. Like there’s Jethro Tull’s seed press, the crop rotation system
developed by Charles “Turnip” Townsend, and animal husbandry practiced by scientific farmers
such as Robert Bakewell, who increased the size of his sheep by selective breeding. So
it kinda seems impossible that Malthus could have missed this revolution, because he could
see it from his house in Surrey England. But from his perspective, that agricultural revolution
had the opposite effect of what had happened in China. Like instead of giving people more
food, and more comfort, it seemed to Malthus that it was driving them to greater misery.
That’s because, for lots of Europeans the agricultural revolution was largely about
evictions. The most important innovation of Europe’s agricultural was largely invisible. It was
the decision to treat land as private property. So for most Europeans, the concept that individual
humans could own, like, land was a foreign concept. Even as late as 1500, most of Europe
conceived of land as rightly belonging solely to its creator – God. And then God’s anointed
on earth – kings and the Church – could parcel out packets of land to people they chose.
But any land not specifically granted to a land lord, remained open to anyone who wanted
to use it. This open land was called the commons. And in parts of Europe it made up more than
half of the territory. But then around 1100 CE, British monarchs found themselves perpetually
strapped for cash and they needed new taxes. So in return for voting for tax increases
and gifts, the crown granted enclosure acts to rich Englishman. Giving them the right
to fence off the commons and claim it as their own. So the people who’d used that land to
graze animals, or cut wood, or grow crops could be forced off of it. And for the first
time, richer people could maintain miles of fenced in property to pasture their sheep
or dig mines. Meanwhile the dispossessed, deprived of their opportunity to grow or hunt
their own food, turned to beggary and theft, and to London. Where they hired out their
labor for wages. Wages?! That’s not how humans should live!
Having to fill out time cards and punch clocks! Wait – Stan…don’t you make wages? Ugh, it’s horrible. Myself, I live off the
land. If I can’t grow it, I won’t eat it! So by the time Malthus was a young man, things
weren’t great for the poor and dispossessed. So it’s a small wonder that Malthus only saw
the downside of the agricultural revolution. Only through historical hindsight, do we know
that private property accelerated incentives to experiment with new methods of food
production, which dramatically increased the amount of food produced. Like before enclosure, it wouldn’t have made
sense for someone to buy a seed press and plant neat rows of seeds because anybody with
a cow could have trampled on them an hour later. The lower food prices created by more
food supply began to ease the cycle of misery that Malthus described, although only just
barely. So in fact, agricultural innovations proved that Malthus was almost entirely wrong.
So, why is he still influential? I think because there’s a very seductive logic to the idea
that resources, especially food, are finite. I mean, we live on one planet that has a certain
amount of arable land and surely at some point humans will suck up all of the resources.
And this is especially true in the age of global climate change. In 2014, the UN Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change issued a report that warned of the potential for warmer temperatures
to restrict food supplies in the face of growing demand. In fact, it claimed that rising temperatures
had already diminished wheat production by 2% per decade. While demand for food was rising
at 14% over the same period. Food prices, which had been declining steadily until 2007,
have been volatile since then. Sometimes leading to famine other times to political unrest. And those
are real problems that may yet prove disastrous. But other doom and gloom scenarios regarding
population and food, most notably the 1968 book The Population Bomb, have proven wrong
at least so far. In fact fewer people will die of starvation this year than died 500
years ago of starvation, even though we have far more people on Earth. And there’s still
lots of room to improve agricultural yields. But simply knowing that Malthus was wrong,
isn’t as interesting as thinking about why he was wrong. Malthus underestimated how successful
we would be at adapting to environmental constraints. And he underestimated the role that technology
and innovation could play in creating a world where more humans could live. Now of course that
hasn’t come without its costs – including climate change. And that’s why I think Malthus remains so
influential. Human existence is not a zero sum game. It is possible for me to benefit
and other people also to benefit. But it’s also true that many resources that we imagine
as infinite – aren’t. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course it filmed here in the Chad & Stacey
Emigholz Studio in Indianapolis. And it’s possible because of your support through subbable.com.
And also all of these people who make it. Subbable’s a voluntary subscription website
that allows you to support Crash Course directly so we can keep it free for everyone forever.
Thanks to all of our Subbable subscribers. If you want to support Crash Course, you can also
get like t-shirts, and posters, and DVDs. Okay! Thank you again for watching. And as we say
in my home town, don’t forget to be awesome.

100 comments on “Population, Sustainability, and Malthus: Crash Course World History 215

  1. Mathus was right its just hard for us to except it. Maybe if we piled everyone into unfertile lands and began large scale vertical farming in fertile lands we could last another few thousand years but there is only so much fertile land and we have already began geo engineering and genetically engineering with little to nothing to show for it. Even in Mathus time as you put it we began taking steps to counteract this but unfortunetly (using your examples) larger sheep require more food and to build the machines needed for modern agriculture requires laborers who also require more food to work properly. We live in a world where most of the fertile land is being paved over for parking lots, wildlife is being destroyed for monetary gain and to make room for more humans, and our fresh and salt water is slowly becoming less habitable.. In other words we are skrewed because feeding ourselves will end up being the least of our problems by the time we get to that point. As Joe Rogan once put it " we are just mold on the sandwich" and we are slowly running out of sandwich

  2. Malthus' wasn't wrong. The argument still holds. Just because we've been able to offset the inevitable some of the time in some places it doesn't mean the argument is flawed.

  3. Coming back to this video after a few years, I think his ending note is super important, "Many resources that we imagined as infinite… aren't"

  4. Is this mug serious? This machine kills fascists? Really? Apple corp? The apple corp that dictates in part what government policy will be? Isn't that fascist by definition?

  5. Thanks for the video, very informative, hopefully you'll work out soon that climate change is nothing new, has always happened & always will, CO2 is good for life on earth, but toxic pollution including geoengineering has got to stop asap

  6. Civil unrest is increasing. Something is going to have to limit population growth. I don't know what that will be but most of the obvious options are pretty grim. Technologies response to increasing population is to increase our ability to produce more food which tends to accelerate the increase in population. In engineering this is referred to as a feedback loop. In the laws of nature, the solution to a feedback loop is what is called a catastrophic readjustment. The other possibility, saturation, is even worse.

  7. The Incas practiced genetic in agriculture long before most other regions. For example, combining wild varieties from the Amazon jungle with varieties of the same and/or similar plants from the Andes mountains. That is why Peru has thousands of potatoes varieties. They mixed their several different South American Camels (Auquenidos) in order to use them for different purposes and to obtain many different colors of llama, alpaca, guanaco or vicuna wool. They had an accounting mathematical system and the Inca Emperor in Cusco knew the numbers of everyone and everything possible to imagine. They have a kind of small taxes in the form of products and work in order to help their own communities to keep up improving their communal services. This is also World History.

  8. Pretty simplistic. Malthus has been a scapegoat in academia for over a century probably. So it is a no brainer to base your take on him on the simplistic view in schools. But I think you would have served your audience better by taking a deeper look at his theory. In the first decade of this century there was a huge spike in food prices that came out of nowhere and led to riots in a score of poor countries and then went away again. Pretty much like the Great Recession showed the clay feet of the economic order I think that sudden jump in food prices was a sign for anyone paying attention that we don't really know everything we think we do.

  9. The big question is not of food production, but how it is shared? The state of Massachusetts imports 90% of its food. People would starve in weeks if something happened. How many nations could support their current populations if globalization stopped?

  10. Interesting video as always. Difficult to fit everything into such a short time, I would note Trevelyan wasn't the only British voice discussing the Irish Famine, more importantly 'Britain' not 'England' (not least because Scotland had its own smaller scale Famine at the time)

  11. I'm one of the millions of Americans whose ancestors immigrated from Ireland during the famine, so technically I wouldn't exist without Thomas Malthus.

  12. Malthus is unfairly maligned in my view. His motivation was to protect the poor…he said that the increase in population "tends to subject the lower classes of the society to distress and to prevent any great permanent amelioration of their condition."
    Yes he was wrong, but you can see why he thought it, after all history to that point had been small advance, plague, small advance, way, small advance, small pox (see what I did there 😛).
    Blaming him for the fact that others took his ideas and used them as a reason to kill off the poor, is like blaming Darwin for Nazi Germany, which used natural selection as a "reason" to wipe out "impure" and "weaker" peoples and races.

  13. If Malthusian theory was wrong so does the entropy law is wrong. Just like existence of life or machines doesn't violate the law of entropy, the same way few centuries of human history doesn't violate the law of scarcity. Thanks to technology the limits has been expanded but it doesn't mean that that physical and chemical constraints don't exist – namely our planet. When you think about entropy it is always about "closed system" the same applies to malthusian theory: it is valid in the CLOSED SYSTEM. If you keep injecting new resources into the system by extracting fossil fuels and using them for intensive agriculture or destroying more and more natural habitats to grow more food you didn't falsify the theory, because you didn't keep the variables constant in your experiment. When you think globally: taking whole planet, humans, animals and other organisms. Someone has payed price for our progress: 97% of land animals biomass is humans and their lifestock, while wildlife is only 3%. Since industrial revolution we killed off about 88% of existing species. The food we grow in empty, dead soil might be abundant but its poor in nutritional value, and what was considered in the past regular, essential food now is premium "organic" produces. The price is payed in oil, so we use the resources that dead organisms worked for in the past. And finally the price is payed by the future, because our children will pay for climate change with Blade Runner like reality. The infinite growth and omnipotence of technology are fallacies. The tipping point of resource shortage might be coming slow, but so does biological evolution is very slow and nobody says that Darwin was wrong. No surprise that our governments keep kicking the can down the road, when shills like economists and social "scientists" tell them its safe to do so.

  14. Human history has always been a zero sum game it may not always involve treading on other people but instead treading on the land through manipulation and abuse of the system or the systems that came before. And before you tell me that that is just evolution the Irish potato famine happened because the traditional Gaelic tannist system that had the ability for every member of a tuath to move from tuath to tuath had been outlawed by the English there by outlawing that adaptability they thought they were teaching us. The hope of a republic was that it would be similar to the tannist system without for some reason giving up modernity far all the good that's done Europe since then. So to conclude if people had traditional systems that lived symbiotically with the world around them as apposed to abusing it. people wouldn't be obsessed with zero sum games. Sometimes living symbiotically requires low intensity warfare but raids are better than world wars or total wars. Every time humanity supposedly progresses it comes at great cost for everything. Change is not ever without cost and I would really urge you to think, is more comfort worth less fairness and equitability, more intense warfare, the enabling of more helpful but also more destructive technology for every new weapon and thing that seems as mundane as a new advertising technique has to have an audience and a target.

  15. one child policy is the way to go

    high food production + low fertility rates = food surplus

  16. Malthus wasn't an A+ level student of humanity. He was a mathematician, making statements about things he had little to no idea. Like Marx talking about "work" and "production" as if they weren't completely alien concepts to him. It was common for Philosophers of the 19th century.

  17. population is affected by agricultural technology period…thanks China and other civilisations for that.

  18. This is one of the most frustrating episodes of crash course, not specifically because of the failure to recognize that the observation of current population growth does not constitute disproof a population limiting effects and the carrying capacity of Earth being limited, but in particular because, unlike John Green so often likes to say, they have not approached the issue complexly. While it's true that human intelligence ingenuity has coaxed massive improvements out of the world and enabled us to massively grow population without initiating a cycle of misery, at least on a global scale; the idea that human ability is infinite is not only unlikely to be true given the limitations of combinatorics and physics, but also a wholly dangerous idea which gives credence to continuing the cycle of implementation of inherently unsustainable technologies to earn another decade's growth at expense of unforeseen consequences for the planet in the long term. Even if human capability to expand and grow is in fact unlimited, there's little evidence that we aren't currently on a collision course with existential calamity if we keep approaching the problem working under the assumption that all our previous methods of finding those solutions are valid. The idea that we can continue to create problems in the long-term to solve short-term problems, where the long-term may be millennia and the short-term centuries, is the sort of thinking which has got us to where we are today: a situation in which our greatest sources of energy, defense against microbes, ability to safely protect people from the elements, and provide nourishment are all hastening the day when the limits of tomorrow become those of today. The fundamental problem may or may not be that humans have an infinite capacity to adapt and grow, but rather that we are, by not taking the hard road, are running ourselves out of time to develop the technologies that could sustain us indefinitely.

    It's not usually that the problems are too hard, only that they are too fast.

  19. Where can one learn more about the rise of the concept of private land in Europe? That it wasn't always taken as a given is facinating to me. DMs welcome.

  20. Another thing to note about the volatile food prices in recent years is that at least part of it is due to financial speculation. Yeah there's speculation on food like we have with other Commodities… and from what I understand it's gone just the same leading to Rising sometimes explosive prices with various crashes. Also I believe a good bit of food prices are derived from the price of oil cuz that's needed in both the production and transportation of food. Oil prices can be a little volatile themselves which is also been fueled by the fact that people also speculate on oil LOL so they're definitely has to be concern that climate change could finally be leading to some type of Malthus like Doomsday scenario. But there are definitely other factors involved and you're right human Innovation never ceases to amaze. Let's hope we can stop and reverse climate change damage before it manages to outstrip human Innovation and we really do have a massive population crash

  21. My takeaway from this video is that the Agricultural Revolution in the UK, which eventually led to the Industrial Revolution, wasn't as revolutionary as I thought 😂

    I mean, all it did was make use of previously unused land. Where before, the land had been used to grow animals, it was now used to grow plants, which were a more efficient food source. Huh.

  22. Be fruitful and multiply, god said.
    ‘The judgment of god sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson…it’s a moral evil…they must die,’ said Trevelyan.

  23. The Universe is finite it's resources are finite, if live is left unchecked it would cease to exist- Thanos, 2018

  24. If we are to accept the Holodomor as a genocide, doesn't that also mean the Great Famine of Ireland was also genocide?

  25. "Like most westerners he wasn't paying attention to China" Lol they have my full attention they're about to be the next super power.

  26. We've lost more than 50% of the wildlife biomass in the past 50 years. The natural world is collapsing in huge areas all around the world. And there is insufficient political will and international cooperation to solve the underlining causes like global warming, deforestation, pollution etc. So Malthus' idea that an exponentially growing population will eventually run out of resources and cause its own demise is likely to come true. We just do not know when. Nevertheless, I think we have a moral responsibility to sustain the natural world and not merely turn the planet into cities and farms for more and more humans.

  27. Yes, it is possible for everyone to benefit. It is also possible that a shortage of food will kick off a nuclear Holocaust. Let's just roll the dice and see what happens. Nothing like playing Russian roulette with a fully loaded revolver.

  28. 10:08 Hang on, haven't farmes been around for thousands of years prior to 'the seed press'. How did those farmers prevent people from damaging their crops? I'm not sure this line of reasoning has been fully thought through. My understanding is that farmers have always sought to increase their yields.

  29. Merci pour cet angle de vue sur l'influence de m. Malthus et sur sa vision étroite de notre démographie trop rapide selon lui.
    Que la théorie de m. Malthus soit entretenue tient au fait que les dominants actuels visent la régulation de notre démographie non pas pour une question de ressources, de climat ou d'environnement, mais bien pour justifier une purge humanitaire consistant à se doter du pouvoir de décréter lesquelles des lignées humaines auront le droit de procréer ou non !
    Il suffit d'un vaccin stérilisateur inoculé par force de loi à chaque humain et d'un antidote octroyé aux seuls humains qui les adorent et acceptent d'être leurs esclaves, pour générer une humanité dominée par un gouvernement sans opposant garantissant une hégémonie éternelle, impossible à remettre en question !

  30. I like that the character on the card for this video is wearing the same hat as Louise from Bob's burgers

  31. I think the crazy thing about today is how humans create starvation even we have more than enough food to feed everyone. I don't think overpopulation will lead to our end rather our stupidity either in war, genocide, bioweapons, nukes, etc.

  32. Have the Chinese not acknowledged the threat of overpopulation and attempted to mitigate it with their restrictions on child births to one child per family ?

  33. I think the reason that Malthus is popular is that it reduces poor individuals to a concept. The poor and the sick are always frightening because if we recognize them as people then we have to admit that we are only one mishap away from being in their shoes. If instead we can say that the Irish are just part of a wave of misery that should not be ameliorated then we are off the hook.

  34. check out jevons paradox and the role of the haber bosch process in enabling the population boom. Also, see ecological overshoot and the forecasts for how long this increased production can be sustained in light of the resulting soil degradation.

  35. The population of Ireland in 1841 was 8 million. not 6.5 million. by 1851 it was between 4 and 4.5 million. otherwise good job crash course

  36. GLOBAL WARMING, THE MALTHUSIAN MISTAKE OF THIS GENERATION. EVER TRY GROWING CROPS IN COLDER CLIMATE? BETTER START THINKING ABOUT THAT ONE.

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