Niall Ferguson: Worry about bread, not oil





[Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University www.niallferguson.org © ]

The great demographer and economist Thomas Malthus was 23-years-old the last time a British summer was this rain-soaked, which was back in 1789. The consequences of excessive rainfall in the late 18th century were predictable.

Crops would fail, the harvest would be dismal, food prices would rise and some people would starve. It was no coincidence that the French Revolution broke out the same year.

The price of a loaf of bread rose by 88 per cent in 1789 as a consequence of similar lousy weather. Historians of the Left like Georges Lefebvre used to see this as a prime cause of Louis XVI's downfall.

Nine years after that rain-soaked summer, Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population. It is an essay we would do well to re-read today.

Malthus's key insight was simple but devastating. "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio," he observed. But "subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio."

In other words, humanity can increase like the number sequence 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, whereas our food supply can increase no faster than the number sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. We are, quite simply, much better at reproducing ourselves than feeding ourselves.

Malthus concluded from this inexorable divergence between population and food supply that there must be "a strong and constantly operating check on population".

This would take two forms: "misery" (famines and epidemics) and "vice", by which he meant not only alcohol abuse but also contraception and abortion (he was, after all, an ordained Anglican minister)....

Since the Fifties, the area of the world under cultivation has increased by roughly 11 per cent, while yields per hectare have increased by 120 per cent. In 2004, world cereal production passed the 2 billion metric ton mark.

Yet these statistics don't disprove Malthus. As he said, food production could increase only at an arithmetical rate, and a chart of world cereal yields since 1960 shows just such a linear progression, from below one and a half metric tons to around three....


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