Malthusians in the news - a good perspective

You may not know the works of Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus but you have certainly heard them from other mouths.

From the Wikipedia entryfor the Reverend:

Malthus became widely known for his theories about change in population. His An Essay on the Principle of Population observed that sooner or later population will be checked by famine and disease, leading to what is known as a Malthusian catastrophe. He wrote in opposition to the popular view in 18th-century Europe that saw society as improving and in principle as perfectible. He thought that the dangers of population growth precluded progress towards a utopian society: "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man".

It is telling that Rev. Malthus saw society as progressing towards a utopian society. The utopian state is also a communist state. It is controlled by central planers, administrated by a huge central government and the general population has little or no representation. They are too stupid to operate independently and must be managed by their betters -- the elite masterminds in government. Needless to say, there has not been one instance of a Malthusian prediction being correct. Matt Ridley at the Wall Street Journal has this to say:

The World's Resources Aren't Running Out
How many times have you heard that we humans are "using up" the world's resources, "running out" of oil, "reaching the limits" of the atmosphere's capacity to cope with pollution or "approaching the carrying capacity" of the land's ability to support a greater population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there is a fixed amount of stuff - metals, oil, clean air, land - and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption.

"We are using 50% more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce, and unless we change course, that number will grow fast - by 2030, even two planets will not be enough," says Jim Leape, director general of the World Wide Fund for Nature International (formerly the World Wildlife Fund).

But here's a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn't end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this "niche construction" - that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature's bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.
Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter's tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can't seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.
That frustration is heartily reciprocated. Ecologists think that economists espouse a sort of superstitious magic called "markets" or "prices" to avoid confronting the reality of limits to growth. The easiest way to raise a cheer in a conference of ecologists is to make a rude joke about economists.

Matt goes on to establish his bonafides and cites numerous examples of his thesis. He then brings up the infamous Club of Rome 1972 book "Limits to Growth" and says this:

The best-selling book "Limits to Growth," published in 1972 by the Club of Rome (an influential global think tank), argued that we would have bumped our heads against all sorts of ceilings by now, running short of various metals, fuels, minerals and space. Why did it not happen? In a word, technology: better mining techniques, more frugal use of materials, and if scarcity causes price increases, substitution by cheaper material. We use 100 times thinner gold plating on computer connectors than we did 40 years ago. The steel content of cars and buildings keeps on falling.

A long and well-thought out article by someone who knows what he is talking about. Matt's website is here: Rational Optimist
Here is his 2010 TED talk Near the end of this 16 minute video, Matt references this essay by Leonard E. Read: I, Pencil -- well worth reading.

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This page contains a single entry by DaveH published on April 27, 2014 12:27 PM.

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