Friday, November 04, 2011

Keynes on population pressures

Last week I reflected a bit here on the 7 billion human milestone and the place of several understandings of population increase in our attempts to create and sustain livable societies. Bluntly, our numbers and consumption are the problem -- and, if we don't hit the wall first, we have to invent the solution. Or so I believe.

In my ongoing reading about World War I, the epochal cataclysm that opened the last century and whose residue still leaches into this one, I decided to check out John Maynard Keynes' Economic Consequences of the Peace. The economist now remembered (or forgotten) for his understanding of how unregulated capitalism drove economies off a cliff in Great Depression of the 1930s was a whiz kid economic advisor to the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He was sure his political bosses were making a mess of things and quickly returned home to write this small volume, much of which has held up rather well.

One aspect of his argument that caught my attention was centrality of demographic concerns -- how many people were jostling each other in competition for resources -- to the way he understood societies.

He views pre-World War I Europe as an anomaly in human history because population growth had supported rising wealth rather than leading to catastrophe.

Before 1870 different parts of the small continent of Europe had specialized in their own products; but, taken as a whole, it was substantially self-subsistent. And its population was adjusted to this state of affairs.

After 1870 there was developed on a large scale an unprecedented situation, and the economic condition of Europe became during the next fifty years unstable and peculiar. The pressure of population on food, which had already been balanced by the accessibility of supplies from America, became for the first time in recorded history definitely reversed. As numbers increased, food was actually easier to secure. … In this economic Eldorado, in this economic Utopia, as the earlier economists would have deemed it, most of us were brought up. … [A comfortable Briton] regarded this state of affairs as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from it as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable.

In its essence, Keyne's post-Paris screed argues that the job of the victorious statesmen was to try to restore this happy prosperity to the world's shattered economies. Instead they had preoccupied themselves with retribution, boundary disputes and obscure nationalisms. They didn't understand that a world where people couldn't trust where their next meal was coming from would be unstable and potentially disastrous.

Along the way, Keynes offered some relatively light-weight but interesting observations on Russia where, most visibly, the 1914-18 war had overturned what had seemed unshakable verities. He thought expanding human numbers explained a lot of the inexplicable.

… the extraordinary occurrences of the past two years in Russia, that vast upheaval of Society, which has overturned what seemed most stable -- religion, the basis of property, the ownership of land, as well as forms of government and the hierarchy of classes -- may owe more to the deep influences of expanding numbers than to Lenin or to Nicholas; and the disruptive powers of excessive national fecundity may have played a greater part in bursting the bonds of convention than either the power of ideas or the errors of autocracy.

He doesn't fully develop this suggestion -- I'm not at all sure it could be developed fruitfully. But it is a significant marker of how one very smart guy thought about human numbers.

The image of Keynes is from a portrait by Duncan Grant, who, along with Keynes, was part of the Bloomsbury circle.


World War I still matters far more than we realize when we think about the contours of the contemporary scene. Previous posts on this history appear here, here and here.

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