Re: population resource imbalances

Fri, 7 Oct 1994 02:25:00 PDT

Wilson writes in reply my post:

"...improvements in sanitation and
medicine. These are also technological improvements that enable
culture(s) to reproduce at greater rates, although, assuming that the
carrying capacity of the land remains the same, the populations in this
instance may be catching up to Malthusian limit. Unfortunately, most
economists denote the Malthusian limit as a horizontal line. I think
that with technological improvement factored into the equation, the limit
should be somewhat elastic (more of a slant), or in realistic terms, more
of a halting climb."

My comment about "sanitation and medicine," of course, refers to the current
world situation in which many countries have undergone rather massive
population increases in the past 50 - 100 years that clearly are not
sustainable in the long run, and even in the short run have had distortions
that tend to negate the benefits achieved through better sanitation and
access to medical treatment. One only has to look at the slum areas of large
cities in countries that have had massive population increases to see some of
the costs of that increase. Wilson correctly notes that there is, indeed, a
Malthusian limit (ultimately resources are finite, hence ultimately all
populations are limited in their size regardless of how equitble may be the
distribution of resources)--a limit which is not a fixed, flat line but one
that can be changed via technological change (material and biological) (is
change necessarily "improvement"?), labor intensification, etc. But these
shifts are short term adjustments to an exponentially growing population that
will overwhelm, in the not so long run, whatever temporary benefits are
achieved by these changes.

What appears to be different about our present situation, in comparison to
how changes in the past affected populations, is the time scale and
geographic scale upon which we are operating. We are globally increasing
population size on a less than generational time scale that makes adjustment
to increasing population size difficult. Perhaps even worse, we assume that
reacting in a humanitarian way to current crises suffices without addressing
the harder problem of how to deal with the underlying reasons for that
crisis. Famine, for example, is not simply the consequence of crop failure,
but a more complex issue that has ramifications and causes ranging from the
level of the family to international politics. With hindsight we can see
that reducing mortality without addressing the PREDICTABLE consequences of
that reduced mortality in effect played a cruel hoax by giving people the
illusion that their lives would be better, yet knowing that the means for
impproving their lives, by itself, also carried with it the basis for making
the lives of their children and grandchilren worse. This hoax applies to our
society as well with regard to the way in which we willingly exploit our
resources (let alone resourcers of so-called third world countries) in a
manner that we know will create problems for future generations. Read some
of the literature on how we are depleting irreplaceable aquifers upon which
much of our agriculture depends and you will get a sense of how we are
knowingly creating a time bomb that can have disastrous consequences.

Will we find the political will to deal with the PREDICTABLE consequences of
current policies? To date, our record (both as a nation and as a planet)
does not leave a lot of room for optimism--and we know from the
archaeological record that other socieites facing similar problems have
either failed to address those problems or have been unable to find
solutions and sufferd the consequences. As anthropologists we have the kind
of perspective that is needed; whether that perspective is adequate is
another matter.