Magstadt: Malthus, Mother Nature, and the "Myth" of Climate Change


The headline in the New York Times reads "Thin snowpack in West signals summer of drought." The reporter, Jack Healy, was in Denver. There's an aerial photograph of the mountains north of us, around Vail and Aspen. Not much snow on the ground.
Healy: "After enduring last summer's destructive drought, farmers, ranchers and officials across the parched Western states had hoped that plentiful winter snows would replenish the lakes and refill their rivers, breaking the grip of one of the worst dry spells in American history. No such luck."
Luck? That little word raises a mighty big question. Is the drought simply a matter of bad luck? Are the climate change naysayers right when they pooh-pooh the role of the millions of tons CO2 and other noxious gases vehicles, factories and power plants spew into the atmosphere around the globe all day every day year in and year out? Luck? Are the pictures coming out of Chinese cities engulfed in a thick pall of smog nothing more than a struck of bad luck? Or the traffic jam in August 2010 that lasted for 10 days. Or the holiday in September when 85 million Chinese hit the road at the same time?
That's not bad luck. That's TM coming back to haunt us, having his revenge.
It's not nice to ignore Thomas Malthus.
That's the Reverend Thomas Malthus, the guy who published a famous essay on population back in 1798. "Famous" but now largely forgotten when we talk about things like drought, famine and global warming. Malthus: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." Subsistence for Malthus meant food; to that we can now add fresh water—and clean air.
Malthus was an Anglican clergyman but he didn't use religion as an excuse to ignore or deny science. About the time Malthus was thinking and writing about it, the world's population hit the one billion mark—a milestone in human history. It took eons to get to one billion. The next billion came much faster and we hit the two billion mark around 1927 and three billion in the late 1950s; the population doubled in the next four decades; today, it stands at about 7.3 billion and counting. The population growth rate has slowed dramatically in recent decades, but the numbers are nonetheless projected to continue on the rise at least until 2050, nine billion in 2040 and, according to some projections, 11 billion in 2050. World population is currently growing by about 74 million per year—that's a country bigger than the U.K., France or Italy, slightly smaller than Germany, roughly the size of Turkey or Iran.
This isn't airy-fairy stuff. People everywhere have eyes, ears, noses. Counting noses is a lot easier than measuring the impact of an extra billion mouths, stomachs and lower digestive tracts on the world's vital resources. Food and fuel are at the top of everybody's short list of basic human needs and have been long before Malthus first put pen to paper. Owing in large part to population pressures, air and water really and truly belong on that list. Waste disposal and medical care (read: disease control) aren't far behind.
Mother Nature could care less about our personal preferences, political opinions, the color of our skin or what religion we embrace. Saying it's not nice to fool Mother Nature is beside the point; we fool ourselves about all kinds of things all the time. We can't fool Mother Nature, full stop.
Back to James Healy, the NYT reporter:  "This week’s blizzard brought a measure of relief to the Plains when it dumped more than a foot of snow. But it did not change the basic calculus for forecasters and officials in the drought-scarred West. Ranchers are straining to find hay—it is scarce and expensive—to feed cattle. And farmers are fretting about whether they will have enough water to irrigate their fields." See?
Our fates are interwoven. Who cares if there's a 10-day traffic jam or people are choking from pollution in China? Or if the U.S. is the largest passenger vehicle market in the world? Who cares if there are 250 million registered passenger vehicles in the United States or whether Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline? What does extracting oil from tar sands or natural gas from fracking have to do with driving, demography and drought?                    
Demography—overpopulation and its consequences—has a lot to do with drought (and driving). Saying it isn't so doesn't make the problem (or inconvenient facts) go away. It doesn't matter what anybody thinks of Al Gore; it's Malthus we have an urgent need to heed.
From beyond the grave, the good reverend admonishes: "…[A] careful distinction should be made, between an unlimited progress, and a progress where the limit is merely undefined." But for today's 7.3 billion pilgrims, the limit to the progress of which Malthus spoke is a whole lot less "undefined" than it was when he bespoke it.

Tom Magstadt writes and cooks in the log cabin of his dreams.  He lives on a mountain in Ouray County and frequents Colorado Boy almost enough to qualify as a regular Visit Tom’s blog at