Malthusian theory and New Zealand’s environment (2019 ed.)


This article was first published on 06 August 2017. The second edition of this article acknowledges some of the changes in understanding the potential for the collapse of civilization. It includes such factors as the onset of the Anthropocene which is the geologic epoch in which the impact of humans on the planet has become such that it will leave an imprint in the geologic record; reassessments of the rates of resource consumption.

— — —

Malthusian theory relates to the idea that exponential population growth and consumption of resources whilst food production remains arithmetical at best eventually causes a Malthusian catastrophe – the decline of the worlds population to a somewhat more sustainable level.

In 1983 with concern over the exploitation of natural resources around the world, and fears of a neo-Malthusian outcome for an accelerating human population, the Brundtland Commission was formed. It had the task of examining the problem on a global scale and how the world might address an increasingly intricate mish mash of environmental issues, economics, societal pressures and politics. It struck a chord with the then Labour opposition in the New Zealand House of Representatives, angered as it was by the antipathy of the National Government to environmental issues here.

The 1991 Resource Management Act was written in partial response to the Brundtland Commission findings. It was also written in partial response to the fact that New Zealand had an obsolete environmental framework of laws that when put together were unwieldy. The Act replaced 69 other Acts and amended Acts, as well as 19 regulations and orders.

In terms of neo-Malthusian theory, the Resource Management Act on its own is not able to change the rate of resource consumption. The ecological footprint of the average New Zealander 10 years ago was large enough that if the whole world had our rate of resource consumption, all of planet Earth and 94% of an equivalent planet would be needed to sustain it. In other words, quite simply our rate of consumption is not sustainable by a large population.

In 2016 it was informally acknowledged by some geologists that the Holocene, the most recent geologic epoch had ended. It was superseded by the onset of the Anthropocene, thus tacitly acknowledging that the aforementioned consumption, in New Zealand and elsewhere had developed a strong global footprint. It is so strong that in the 1 minute of the geologic day, that humans have in existence, they have wiped out 50% or more of the total known species.

In third world countries adults tend to have larger families for socio-economic reasons including that in their senior years older people have family members who are able to support them when they can no longer work. Every human being needs fresh water to drink, to cook, to clean themselves and their clothes. About 800 million have no access to clean drinking water worldwide. The causes of this are numerous, but as drinking water is the most basic and fundamental way of hydrating a human, it is very difficult if not impossible to overestimate the importance of clean drinking water. A collapse of this resource through overuse, pollution and wastage would have immediate consequences. This is perhaps the most important part of understanding how a Malthusian collapse could occur.

No such problem exists in New Zealand with the growth of families. However clean water is becoming a bigger issue with each year due to the large amount used for dairy farming. It has degraded in many areas across the country and the rise of water bourne bugs has increased (see Hawkes Bay crisis in 2016). The advent of changes to hydrology and climatology caused by climate change (man made or otherwise)mean that these issues are going to become more acute with time as weather patterns change how we farm and how we use our fresh water resource. It will not be the cause of wars here, but in arid parts of the world, such as the Middle East water shortages might well cause confrontations involving individual nations military forces.

Another major problem is the rapidly increasing carbon level in the atmosphere. Since 1700 the output of carbon based gases has gone in one direction: UP. Last week it sat at 410 particles per million in the atmosphere, which is the highest it has been in about 350,000 years. The sources of it range from the consumption of fossil fuels, the burning of forests causing stored carbon to be released and the large scale use of materials such as concrete which releases about 7% of the worlds total man made carbon emissions.

Malthusian theory has been discredited by some theorists. Some say it is a theory that is too pessimistic. Others acknowledge the socio-economic causes of the theory, but say that there will be positive checks and balances that stop it from advancing, which I assume to mean further work on international treatises including the development of new ones and further advancing existing ones relating to the environment. However a trend away in the countries with the most economic, military and political influence from global co-operation against these challenges means even if all of the small and medium sized nations collaborated to share knowledge and technology, larger powers could undermine it.

So how discredited is Malthusian theory after all? And should we be worried in New Zealand?