Why the Malthusians always get it wrong

“We are about to starve to death” is a recurringly popular idea. And it is recurringly wrong.

Rich Karlgaard surveys the Malthusians of several ages before giving two reasons such folks always miss the boat in his article Bad News Bear at Forbes.

Mr. Karlgaard mentions four people in the we’re-gonna’-starve-this-afternoon camp.  I’ll add a fifth.

First, the Malthus who provided the name for Malthusian foolishness:

In papers written between 1798 and 1826 the British economist and demographer Thomas Malthus said the world would run out of food.  … Malthus said population growth would lead to catastrophe.

A second severe error:

 Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich wrote the bestseller The Population Bomb. It said hundreds of millions of people would die of starvation in the 1970s.

A third:

In 1972 another neo-Malthusian book appeared, The Limits to Growth, which was published for the Club of Rome. This book said economic growth could not go on forever because of scarce resources.

He mentions a current investment manager, which I won’t mention because this isn’t an investment site

I will add a fifth (wrong) Malthusian.

In 1949, Dr. M. King Hubbert wrote that world population would at best plateau very soon but more likely would drop substantially and could decline to the very low levels of agrarian agriculture of the distant past. Don’t take my word for it, check out his writings at “Energy from Fossil Fuels” in Science [scanned, 260 kb] where he said:

Among the inevitable characteristic of this future will be the progressive exhaustion of the mineral fuels, and the accompanying transfer of the material elements of the earth from naturally occurring deposits of high concentrations to states of low concentration dissemination. Yet despite this, it will still be physically possible to stabilize the human population at some reasonable figure, and by means of the energy from sunshine alone to utilize low-grade concentrations of materials and still maintain a high-energy industrial civilization indefinitely.

Whether this possibility shall be realized, or whether we shall continue at present until a succession of crises develop-overpopulation, exhaustion of resources and eventual decline-depends largely upon whether a serious cultural lag can be overcome.

The cultural lag, as I understand it, is the difference between his precise calculation of the total quantity of coal and oil on the planet (which was about to run out in 1949) when compared to our inexcusable, irrational, unsustainable, and silly desire to have a growing standard of living.

What are the two major errors of the Malthusians over the last 200 years?

Mr. Karlgaard identifies them as ignoring:

Exponential technology. Our brains were evolved to think in linear terms. Human fallacy, then, is to see the future as linear extrapolations. But technology often surprises us with exponential gains, from the steam engine to the microprocessor. (For more on this topic read Abundance by Peter Diamandis [Free Press, 2012].)

We think straight line. Technology develops geometrically or logarithmically.

I’ve seen articles lately suggesting that Moore’s law was in place a very long time before semiconductors existed (no ready links and I am not going to bother looking for one).

Human creativity. The second Malthusian error is to view people chiefly as consumers, not producers. For most of history the productive side of people has been hindered by lack of education, freedom and access to markets. But those barriers are falling around the world.

People are incredibly creative. When standing on the shoulders of those who came before, people can come up with amazing solutions. As one of many examples, consider hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.

New technology and human creativity open incredible opportunities. Hmm. That’s what I’ve talking about on this blog.

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