Thursday, December 22, 2005


I wanted to write a little bit in response to J-Dub over at MOCOMMONSENSE's recent doom and gloom pontifications.

He has apparently stumbled on a book that has convinced him that the entire planet is in a downward spiral of scarcity and it is only a matter of years before our lives end as we know it, as we move into a Mad Max post-apopcolyptic economy that cannot do anything without oil and we quickly revert into a dark ages inspired barbarism.

If this sounds familiar, it has been a recurring theme of doom first officially introduced by a guy named Malthus in 1798...in response to poverty in Victorian england, but other authors as recently as the 60's and 70's were advising that by the year 2000 England's population would be wiped out by starvation, and the planet would be plunged into chaos as the lack of food would cause nations to war over food.

Another recent book: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, New York: Viking, 592 pages, $29.95 plumbs the debths of inanity regarding scarcity and populations with the same ridiculous and ominous predictions.

I tend to agree with Ronald Bailey who wrote in reponse to Diamond's book....in the United States producers use less than half the energy they used in 1949 to produce a dollar of GDP. In 2000 a report from the Cap Gemini Ernst and Young Center for Business Innovation calculated that the value of America’s GDP per pound of finished product rose from $3.64 in 1977 to $7.96 in 2000. This trend toward ever greater efficiency is driven by the relentless market process that pushes producers to economize on resources. The smart bet is that humanity’s steadily dematerializing economy in the 21st century will have less and less “impact” on natural systems while enabling much higher living standards.
Diamond admits that many previous Malthusian predictions were wrong but feels compelled to defend earlier doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich, arguing that “the reason that alarms proved false is often that they convinced us to adopt successful countermeasures.” That’s flat-out wrong. In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Ehrlich wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” Unfortunately, influential bodies such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations listened to Ehrlich’s population alarmism, and they diverted resources from their highly successful agricultural research programs and put them instead into largely fruitless efforts at direct (and often coercive) population control. It turns out that boosting food production through agricultural research is probably the best way to reduce population growth rates. The countries where food security is highest—Europe, Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S.—are precisely the places where one finds below-replacement fertility rates. Not only was Ehrlich wrong, but his false alarmist predictions probably made the world a worse place.
The only way to solve the allegedly impending global ecological crisis, according to Diamond, is “long-term planning, and a willingness to reconsider core values.” Although vague about whom he would put in charge of global planning, Diamond evinces throughout Collapse an alarming affection for authoritarian rulers who issue top-down orders restraining their citizens’ use of resources. For example, he praises China’s leaders for restricting “the traditional freedom of individual reproductive choice, rather than let population problems spiral out of control.” He approves of measures in feudal Japan that apportioned wood supplies based on social class. He applauds Indonesian and Dominican despots for establishing national parks.
Meanwhile, Diamond calls on Americans, Europeans, and Japanese to reject their “traditional consumer values.” So in essence, Diamond’s solution to the problems he believes humanity faces is to reduce the living standards of the world’s wealthiest societies (U.S., Europe, Japan) and curb economic growth in the poorer countries. This is Malthus’ legacy at its worst, and when Diamond embraces it, Collapse collapses into claptrap.
Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey is the author, most recently, of Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Defense of the Biotech Revolution (Prometheus).


Anonymous JW said...

OK, there are alternate theories. But I'm not sure I agree with the statement that plentiful food is why we have slower population growth. I think it probably has more to do with education and understanding of the problems. There's usually more than one answer, and acknowledging potential problems and trying to solve them works best. Japan's now decreasing population is a great example.

3:36 PM  
Blogger djobe said...

I think the argument can be made that the more "developed" the nation, the lower the birth rate...ie see the EU, which is not even procreating at a replacment level.

Also a variable that should be strongly weighted is the freedom of the people within the society. Why is it that in Haiti the GDP is tiny and they cannot feed their people, but in tiny neighboring Domincan Republic the GDP is MUCH higher and they can feed their people (and they have more people per square mile)?

12:00 PM  

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