The Age of Scarcity?
Rising populations. Skyrocketing commodity prices. Strains on natural resources. Is this our Malthusian moment?
Is the ghost of Thomas Robert Malthus stalking the global economy? Sad to say, it sure seems like it.
Malthus was a key figure in the 18th and early 19th century in developing modern mainstream economics. (And Darwin hit on the idea of natural selection after reading Malthus' Essay on Population.) But Malthus is best remembered for his grim argument that there is a tendency from "the wretched inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego" to "the beggars of Teshoo Loomboo" for population growth to outstrip resources.
The grim dynamic runs along these lines: Growing incomes lead to increased fertility and reduced mortality. That means there are more mouths to feed on the same land. Growth and income fall. The process repeats itself, over and over again. Little wonder the Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle described Malthus as "Dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next."
Evidence for the Pessimists
In the 21st century, the worry revolves around the dramatic expansion of the global economy and consumer purchasing power in China, India, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Russia, and other emerging markets. The rise of the frontier economies is putting too great a strain on natural resources. The price increases we're witnessing aren't a temporary market dislocation, but a permanent shift into an Age of Scarcity.
Could the pessimists be right?
They have some evidence in their corner. Certainly, despite some recent declines, commodity prices are at nosebleed heights. The Rogers International Commodities Index, made up of 36 different commodities ranging from agriculture to energy to metals, is up 383% over the past 10 years. Oil prices have jumped from $23 a barrel in 2003 to around $100 currently. Part of that oil price hike could also reflect that the world is near "peak oil," the term used to define the transformative moment when global oil production starts declining gradually over time.
China Putting Price Controls on Food.
Food prices are skyrocketing, too. The Food & Agricultural Organization of the United Nations says its food index is at its highest level since its creation in 1990. High food prices are pinching household pocketbooks in developed nations like the U.S. But they are catastrophic to incomes in developing ones. That's why Mexico has seen mass protests about the cost of tortillas, Senegal, Mauritania, and other parts of Africa have had riots over grain prices, and children have marched in Yemen protesting child hunger.
Governments are also getting nervous. They're taking various measures to restrain price increases and secure supplies. For instance, according to the Asian Development Bank's latest outlook, import duties on food and cereals are being temporarily cut in some countries and in others exports are being taxed or restricted to increase domestic supplies of food. A number of countries, like China, are also putting price controls on food. "Artificial restraints on prices and inflation today that blunt market incentives are only likely to lead to higher prices in the future," worry the authors of the Asian Development Report for 2008.
Still, there's good reason to believe the Age of Scarcity isn't here. For one thing, the long-term impact of steep market prices and technological innovation shouldn't be underestimated. The late Julian Simon, an iconoclastic environmental optimist and professor of business administration, captured the essential dynamic in the introduction to his essay "Forecasting the Long-Term Trend of Raw Material Availability."