Friday, September 10, 2004

Chucky's Back!

My polymath correspodent, Dr Charles Hymans, at the Ecole Polytechnique sent me some new links recently, including this paper by Garrett Hardin, coiner of the famous concept of The Tragedy of the Commons and I've just sent him a response.

I was very interested to read this paper. I hadn't realised Hardin was the author of "The Tragedy of the Commons", which must be one of the most quoted papers in social science. It's usually interpreted as arguing for the creation of property rights, with the implication that economic interest will then dictate that the externalities are borne by those with the strongest incentive to manage them.

However, I find the viewpoint here and in Tragedy shocking and disconcerting. I think a concern with overpopulation can easily degenerate into a hatred of the human race and often particular subsets of it. Many people espousing these views seem to be tainted by association with eugenics and race science, including the journal Population and Environment where this article was published. P&E was involved in some controversy after its editor acted as a character witness for David Irving in his 2000 libel trial. I'm not sure that it would be considered respectable; there is more background here.

I think there are a number of logical and empirical errors in the article, the chief one being that the Malthus theory doesn’t model any of observed historical progress of population. I've just finished an excellent non-technical book, The Elusive Search for Growth by William Easterly of NYU. His data and tests show that development in the third world is entirely uncorrelated - for good or bad - with population growth. The limits, such as they are, seem to depend on agricultural technology, the construction of good economic and political institutions and participation in international trade. To put it very simply: Production for export generates cash incomes. Then food imports and transport infrastructure give the ability to overcome local shortages with production bought and moved from other areas.

The Ethiopia storyline in particular is not consistent with the other studies on the country that I have read.

Hardin writes: "An ecological economist views the problems of poor countries in the following way. In a country like Ethiopia there are three major production factors: cropland, pasture land, and forest land. Cropland produces human food directly. Pasture land produces human food indirectly, through the conversion of (inedible) grass into (edible) meat and milk. The third production factor, forest land, is land that produces woody plants-bushes as well as trees, anything that can serve as fuel in the cooking of food."

The most detailed account of famine in Ethiopia I've read is the book by Indian economist A Sen, Poverty and Famine (OUP, 1981), which has a chapter looking at the crises there up to the mid-seventies. Sen delves into the figures and presents what seems to be a credible case that the total amount of food available in the country was not diminished by the droughts in certain areas. The transport network, mainly the roads that either their government or private traders could have used to distribute food was also unchanged. Here's a good review good review by his fellow Nobelist Ken Arrow.

Sen believes, based on his detailed case studies on Africa, India and Bangladesh, that famines may occur along with droughts and bad harvests, but they're CAUSED by lack of purchasing power on the part of the starving. If there is no cash economy available to subsistence peasant farmers, they simply cannot buy the food they need any other way, even though it is readily available.

The actions of indifferent or actively hostile governments compound this problem. Popular memory in Ireland attributes the millions of deaths and displacements of the famine of the mid-19th century to the callous disregard of the British. The cash was there and available in Britain, and even in Ireland in the form of bank deposits and financial investments to pay for the food. The rich were largely absentee Englishmen, most of whom owed their wealth to corrupt political patronage. The British electorate in general simply didn't care enough to pay the extra taxes for famine relief. Queen Victoria famously contributed more for London's stray dogs than her starving Irish subjects.

Robert Kaplan's book Surrender or Starve, published in the eighties and reissued recently is a more narrative account by an American foreign correspondent of the war and famine in Ethiopia. He interprets the catastrophe as one incident in a long line of imperial conquest and repression by the Amhara elite against the other peoples of the Abyssinian empire.

Many of the people of Ethiopia died, he reports, because their government wanted to starve their rebellious provinces of Tigre and Eritrea into submission during the thirty-year civil war. When the communist government then applied the classic Stalinist model - confiscating from the peasants to subsidise the urban working class and government elite - the result was starvation in the countryside, as it had been in the Ukraine and China. He writes admiringly of the Eritreans, who he says brought excellent organisation both to waging the war and to famine relief, largely feeding their own people and even manufacturing the pharmaceuticals they needed.

More passages in Hardin's article seem like are elliptical ways of saying "They're starving, it's their fault, screw 'em!":

'Sacred," like all old words, has many meanings and connotations. What we are concerned with here is its related meaning of sacrosanct or inviolable. When disputants say that human life is sacred they clearly mean that we should preserve every human being now living regardless of the cost, either now or in the future. Though not given to using emotionally charged words, an ecologist would be more inclined to say that the environment, not human beings, is sacrosanct. The moment this proposition is advanced the conventional moralist expostulates: "Oh! You mean you prefer the life of dickey-birds to human beings? You prefer redwood trees to people?"

Observing that people are starving is much easier to estimate than ecological "carrying capacity". Why should the repeatedly failed estimates of men like Ehrlich be taken seriously? There are no proper models of it as yet. In the meantime, perhaps Professor Hardin and his family will voluntarily starve themselves to death to leave more for the rest of us?

"This is the equilibrium of the pure Malthusian demostatic system, which holds for animal species in general..."

First, we're not animals and we’re certainly not microbes, although Hardin seems to find moving beyond the framework of his initial academic training impossible. As anybody will concede, we have a much greater capacity to manipulate our environment, whether intentionally or by accident, than any other species. These big wrinkly brains and a capacity for co-operation that is truly exceptional in nature make us unique.

"...and was true during most of historic time for the human species."

Oh, no it hasn't, and certainly not for the past three centuries, when technology and transport have improved to allow local shortages to be balanced by global plenty. None of these Malthusian scenarios of collapse have occurred anywhere in the modern world, so it’s at best a theoretical possibility that Hardin and Ehrlich are forecasting.

Population growth rates have been levelling off globally since the sixties and the UN projections now are for slow growth to a steady state level of 9-11bn people on Earth. The demographic transition is a long-standing fact in Europe. I come from a family of five and I've only one niece. As Ireland has become more prosperous, birth rates have indeed levelled off with economic growth to reach the rates normal in northern Europe.