Sometimes, if you want to see something in the present clearly it’s best to go back to its origins. This is especially true when dealing with some monumental historical change, a phase transition from one stage to the next. The reason I think this is helpful is that those lucky enough to live at the beginning of such events have no historical or cultural baggage to obscure their forward view. When you live in the middle, or at the end of an era, you find yourself surrounded, sometimes suffocated, by all the good and bad that has come as a result. As a consequence, understanding the true contours of your surroundings or ultimate destination is almost impossible, your nose is stuck to the glass.
Question is, are we ourselves in the beginning of such an era, in the middle, or at an end? How would we even know?
If I were to make the case that we find ourselves in either the middle or the end of an era, I know exactly where I would start. In 1793 the eccentric English writer William Godwin published his Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, a book which few people remember. What Godwin is remembered for instead is his famous daughter Mary Shelley, and her even more famous monster, though I should add that if you like thrillers you can thank Godwin for having invented them.
Godwin’s Enquiry, however, was a different kind of book. It grew out of the environment of a time which, in Godwin’s eyes at least, seemed pregnant with once unimaginable hope. The scientific revolution had brought about a fuller understanding of nature and her laws than anything achieved by the ancients, the superstitions of earlier eras were abandoned for a new age of enlightenment, the American Revolution had brought into the world a whole new form of government based on Enlightenment principles, and, as Godwin wrote, a much more important similar revolution had overthrown the monarchy in France.
All this along with the first manifestations of what would become the industrial revolution led Godwin to speculate in the Enquiry that mankind had entered a new era of perpetual progress. Where then could such progress and mastery over nature ultimately lead? Jumping off of a comment by his friend Ben Franklin, Godwin wrote:
Let us here return to the sublime conjecture of Franklin, that “mind will one day become omnipotent over matter.” If over all other matter, why not over the matter of our own bodies? If over matter at ever so great a distance, why not over matter which, however ignorant we may be of the tie that connects it with the thinking principle, we always carry about with us, and which is in all cases the medium of communication between that principle and the external universe? In a word, why may not man be one day immortal?
Here then we can find evidence for the recent claim of Yuval Harari that “The leading project of the Scientific Revolution is to give humankind eternal life.” (268) In later editions of the Enquiry, however, Godwin dropped the suggestion of immortality, though it seems he did it not so much because of the criticism that followed from such comments, or the fact that he stopped believing in it, but rather that it seemed too much a termination point for his notion of progress that he now thought really would extend forever into the future for his key point was that the growing understanding by the mind would result in an ever increasing power of the mind over the material world in a process that would literally never end.
Almost at the exact same time as Godwin was writing his Enquiry another figure was making almost the exact same argument including the idea that scientific progress would eventually result in indefinite human lifespans. The Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit was a book written by a courageous man while on the run from a French Revolutionary government that wanted to cut off his head. Amazingly, even while hunted down during the Terror, Condorcet retained his long term optimism regarding the ultimate fate of humankind.
A young English parson with a knack for the just emerging science of economics, not only wasn’t buying it, he wanted to actually scientifically prove (though I am using the term loosely) exactly why such optimism should not be believed. This was Thomas Malthus, whose name, quite mistakenly, has spawned its own adjective, Malthusian, which means essentially environmental disaster caused by our own human hands and faults.
As is commonly known, Malthus’ argument was that historically there has been a mismatch between the growth of population and the production of food which sooner or later has led to famine and decline. It was Godwin’s and Condorcet’s claims regarding future human immortality that, in part, was responsible for Malthus stumbling upon his specific argument centered on population. For the obvious rejoinder to those claiming that the human lifespan would increase forever was- what would we do will all of these people?
Both Godwin and Condorcet thought they had answered this question by claiming that in the future the birth rate would decline to zero. Stunningly, this has actually proven to be correct- that population growth rates have declined in parallel with increases in longevity. Though, rather than declining due to the victory of “reason” and the conquest of the “passions” as both Godwin and Condorcet thought they declined because sex was, for the first time in human history, decoupled from reproduction through the creation of effective forms of birth control.
So far, at least, it seems it has been Godwin and Condorcet that have gotten the better side of the argument. Since the Enquiry we have experienced nearly 250 years of uninterrupted progress where mind has gained increasing mastery over the material world. And though,we are little closer to the optimists’ dream of “immortality” their prescient guess that longevity would be coupled with a declining birth rate would seem to clear the goal of increased longevity from being self-defeating on Malthusian grounds.
This would not be, of course, the first time Malthus has been shown to be wrong. Yet his ideas, or a caricature of his ideas, have a long history of retaining their hold over our imagination. Exactly why this is the case is a question explored in detail by Robert J. Mayhew in his excellent, Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet, Malthus’ argument in his famous if rarely actually read An Essay on the Principle of Population has become a sort of secular version of armageddon, his views latched onto by figures both sinister and benign over the two centuries since his essay’s publication.
Malthus’ argument was used against laws to alleviate the burdens of poverty, which it was argued would only increase population growth and an ultimate reckoning (and this view, at least, was close to that of Malthus himself). They were used by anti-immigrant and racist groups in the 19th and early 20th century. Hitler’s expansionist and genocidal policy in eastern Europe was justified on Malthusian grounds.
On a more benign side, Malthusian arguments were used as a spur to the Green Revolution in Agriculture in the 1960’s (though Mayhew thinks the warnings of pending famine were political -arising from the cold war- and overdone.) Malthusianism was found in the 1970’s by Paul Ehrlich to warn of a “population bomb” that never came, during the Oil Crisis slid into the fear over resource constraints, and can now be found in predictions about the coming “resource” and “water” wars. There is also a case where Malthus really may have his revenge, though more on that in a little bit.
And yet, we would be highly remiss were we to not take the question Malthus posed seriously. For what he was really inquiring about is whether or not their might be ultimate limits on the ability of the human mind to shape the world in which it found itself. What Malthus was looking for was the boundary or verge of our limits as established by the laws of nature as he understood them. Those whose espoused the new human perfectionism, such as Godwin and Condorcet, faced what appeared to Malthus to be an insurmountable barrier to their theories being considered scientific, no matter how much they attached themselves to the language and symbols of the recent success of science. For what they were predicting would happen had no empirical basis- it had never happened before. Given that knowledge did indeed seem to increase through history, if merely as a consequence of having the time to do so, it was still the case that the kind of radical and perpetual progress that Godwin and Condorcet predicted was absent from human history. Malthus set out to provide a scientific argument for why.
In philosophical terms Malthus’ Essay is best read as a theodicy, an attempt like that of Leibniz before him, to argue that even in light of the world’s suffering we live in the “best of all possible world’s”. Like Newton did for falling objects, Malthus sought the laws of nature as designed by his God that explained the development of human society. Technological and social progress had remained static in the past even as human knowledge regarding the world accumulated over generations because the gap between mind and matter was what made us uniquely human. What caused us to most directly experience this gap and caused progress to remain static? Malthus thought he pinned the source of stasis in famine and population decline.
As is the case with any other physical system, for human societies, the question boiled down to how much energy was available to do meaningful work. Given that the vast majority of work during Malthus’ day was done by things that required energy in the form of food whether humans or animals, the limited amount of land that could be efficiently tilled presented an upper bound to the size, complexity, and progress of any human society.
What Malthus missed, of course, was the fact that the relationship between food and work was about to be severed. Or rather, the new machines did consume a form of processed “food” organic material that had been chemically “constructed” and accumulated over the eons, in the form of fossil fuels that offered an easily accessible type of energy that was different in kind from anything that had come before it.
The sheer force of the age of machines Malthus had failed to foresee did indeed break with the flatline of human history he had identified in every prior age. A fact that has never perhaps been more clearly than in Ian Morris’ simple graph below.
What made this breaking of the pattern between all of past human history and the last few centuries is the thing that could possibly, and tragically, prove Malthus right after all- fossil fuels. For any society before 1800 the majority of energy other than that derived from food came in the form of wood- whether as timber itself or charcoal. But as Lewis Dartnell pointed out in a recent piece in AEON the world before fossil fuels posed a seemingly unsurmountable (should I say Malthusian?) dilemma; namely:
The central problem is that woodland, even when it is well-managed, competes with other land uses, principally agriculture. The double-whammy of development is that, as a society’s population grows, it requires more farmland to provide enough food and also greater timber production for energy. The two needs compete for largely the same land areas.
Dartnell’s point is that we have been both extremely lucky and unlucky in how accessible and potent fossil fuels have been. On the one hand fossil fuels gave us a rather short path to technological society, on the other, not only will it be difficult to wean ourselves from them, it is hard to imagine how we could reboot as a civilization should we suffer collapse and find ourselves having already used up most of the world’s most easily accessed forms of energy.
It is a useful exercise, then, to continue to take Malthus’ argument seriously, for even if we escape the second Malthusian trap- fossil fuel induced climate change- that allowed us to break free from the trap Malthus’ originally identified- our need to literally grow our energy- there are other predictable traps that likely lie in store.
One of these traps that interests me the most has to do with the “energy problem” that Malthus understood in terms of the production of food. As I’ve written about before, and as brought to my attention by the science writer Lee Billings in his book Five Billion Years of Solitude, there is a good and little discussed case from physics for thinking we might be closer to the end of an era that began with the industrial revolution rather than in the middle or even at the beginning.
This physics of civilizational limits comes from Tom Murphy of the University of California, San Diego who writes the blog Do The Math. Murphy’s argument, as profiled by the BBC, has some of the following points:
- Assuming rising energy use and economic growth remain coupled, as they have in the past, confronts us with the absurdity of exponentials. At a 2.3 percent growth rate within 2,500 hundred years we would require all the energy from all the stars in the Milky Way galaxy to function.
- At 3 percent growth, within four hundred years we will have boiled away the earth’s oceans, not because of global warming, but from the excess heat that is the normal product of energy production. (Even clean fusion leaves us burning away the world’s oceans for the same reason)
- Renewables push out this reckoning, but not indefinitely. At a 3 percent growth rate, even if the solar efficiency was 100% we would need to capture all of the sunlight hitting the earth within three hundred years.
Will such limits prove to be correct and Malthus, in some sense, be shown to have been right all along? Who knows. The only way we’d have strong evidence to the contrary is if we came across evidence of civilizations with a much, much greater energy signature than our own. A recent project out of Penn State to do just that, which looked at 100,000 galaxies, found nothing, though this doesn’t mean the search is over.
Relating back to my last post: the universe may lean towards giving rise to complexity in the way the physicist Jeremy England suggests, but the landscape is littered with great canyons where evolution gets stuck for very long periods of time which explains its blindness as perceived by someone like Henry Gee. The scary thing is getting out of these canyons is a race against time: complex life could have been killed off by some disaster shortly after the Cambrian explosion, we could have remained hunter gatherers and failed to develop agriculture before another ice age did us in, some historical contingency could have prevented industrialization before some global catastrophe we are advanced enough now to respond to wiped us out.
If Tom Murphy is right we are now in a race to secure exponentially growing sources of energy, and it is a race we are destined to lose. The reason we don’t see any advanced civilizations out there is because the kind of growth we’ve extrapolated from the narrow slice of the past few centuries is indeed a finite thing as the amount of energy such growth requires reaches either terrestrial or cosmic limits. We simply won’t be able to gain access to enough energy fast enough to keep technological progress going at its current rate.
Of course, even if we believe that progress has some limit out there, that does not necessarily entail we shouldn’t pursue it, in many of its forms, until we hit the verge itself. Taking arguments that there might be limits to our technological progress is one thing, but to our moral progress, our efforts to address suffering in the world, they are quite another, for there accepting limits would mean accepting some level of suffering or injustice as just the “way things are”. That we should not accept this Malthus himself nearly concluded:
Evil exists in the world not to create despair but activity. We are not patiently to submit to it, but to exert ourselves to avoid it. It is not only the interest but the duty of every individual to use his utmost efforts to remove evil from himself and from as large a circle as he can influence, and the more he exercises himself in this duty, the more wisely he directs his efforts, and the more successful these efforts are, the more he will probably improve and exalt his own mind and the more completely does he appear to fulfil the will of his Creator. (124-125)
The problem lies with the justification of the suffering of individual human beings in any particular form as “natural”. The crime at the heart of many versions of Malthusianism is this kind of aggregation of human beings into some kind of destructive force, which leads to the denial of the only scale where someone’s true humanity can be scene- at the level of the individual. Such a moral blindness that sees only the crowd can be found in the work the most famous piece of modern Malthusianism -Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb where he discusses his experience of Delhi.
The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to the buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat, and the cooking fires gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened. (p. 1)
Striped of this inability to see the that the value of human beings can only be grasped at the level of the individual and that suffering can only be assessed in a moral sense at this individual level, Malthus can help to remind us that our mind’s themselves emerge out of their confrontation and interaction with a material world where we constantly explore, overcome, and confront again its boundaries. That the world itself was probably “a mighty process for awakening matter into mind” and even the most ardent proponents of human perfectionism, modern day transhumanists or singularitarians, or just plain old humanists would agree with that.