Writing in the 18th Century, Thomas Malthus was an English cleric and scholar best known for his prediction of regular ‘Malthusian catastrophes’, whereby population growth outstrips agricultural capability and famine returns the population to a sustainable level. In contrast to some of the more utopian popular views of his time – which saw human society, technology and population as ever growing and improving – Malthus essentially predicted that the capacity of the soil to grow food will always act as a hard limit on population growth, and that there cannot be ‘unlimited progress’ in food production. His views carried stark ethical implications regarding treatment of the poor as well as Government policy on food prices among other matters, and influenced many subsequent thinkers including Darwin.
As with the case of Marx earlier, it’s unfair to simply call this one wrong. It is reasonable to assume that there probably is some sort of hard physical limit on how much food we can get from a square meter of soil – and the merit of Malthus’ ideas are still very much in debate. And some day we may even reach a real, practical limit that technological advances cannot surpass – but the point is we’re still waiting.
Malthus (like so many others before and after him) lacked vision regarding the possibility of revolutionary advancements in technology (agricultural, in this case), to the point that our globe can now support (poor distribution of resources notwithstanding) billions of people and counting, certainly beyond anything Malthus envisioned as possible. And it’s not the only time a similar prediction has reared its head. In the 1930s there were similar concerns regarding the ballooning populations in the developing world. But the ‘Green Revolution’ – a series of advances in the production of high-yield crops between 1930-70 – is estimated to have saved around a billion people from starvation. And advances continue to be made in areas such as GM crops. There may be a limit to food production techniques, but we have to be careful about our assumptions when considering it.
Malthus’ error is emblematic of the general type of error we commonly make when forecasting the future: overly rigid logical extrapolation from current circumstances with no allowance for game-changers or unknown unknowns. There are plenty of other similar notable examples from history that could easily take this place. Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 prediction of the ‘end of history’ is a topical case in point, as are various predictions of ‘peak oil’ from the 60s and 70s. More comically, The Great British Manure Crisis of 1894 (lots of horses around, you get the picture), prompted The Times to predict with trepidation that “in 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure”. Thankfully the automobile came along to save us from that particular future.
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