Tuesday, January 22, 2013

A Warning From A Chinese Thomas Malthus

My Book Shelf # 23

In 1793 Hong Liangji, a bureaucrat in the Qing empire had an idea. He had been sent as an education inspector to Guizhou Province in the southwestern part of China. The arrival of crops from  the Americas like maize, potato and sweet potato, capable of thriving in marginal soils and steeper slopes, meant that more areas were coming under the plough and China was experiencing a population boom.

Hong Liangji worked out the consequences for a 8 person family:

Eight people would require the help of hired servants, there would be, say, ten people in the household. With the ten-room house and the 100 mu of farmland,  I believe they would have just enough space to live in and food to eat, although barely enough. In time, however, there will be grandsons, who, in turn, will marry. The aged members of the household will pass away, but there could still be more than twenty people in the family. With more than twenty  people sharing a house and working 100 mu of farmland, I am sure that even if they eat very frugally and live in crowded quarters, their needs will not be met. 

Hong conceded that the Qing had opened up new land to support China's population. But the amount of farmland had 

only doubled or , at the most, increased three to five times, while the population has grown ten to twenty times. Thus farmland and houses are always in short supply, while there is always a surplus of households and population... Question: Do Heaven-and-earth have a way of dealing with this situation? Answer: Heaven-and-earth's way of making adjustments lies in flood, drought, and plagues. 

Hong had described the Malthusian trap 5 years before the idea came to Thomas Malthus. He not only predicted that standards of living will stagnate as population increase outstrips resources but that there will be ecological consequences of the relentless drive to deforest and reshape the landscape for growing more and more food.

From 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created  - Charles Mann.

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