Friday, June 6, 2014

Is Scarcity a Fallacy? Part One

By Tom and Madeleine Kando

On April 25, Matt Ridley wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Scarcity Fallacy." 
Ridley once again revives the debate which has been raging between (neo-) Malthusians and ant-Malthusians at least since the 1960s.

Ridley’s article is very good, yet it cries for critical analysis: He calls the two camps  the Ecologists and the Economists.

Ridley uses to term “Ecologist” as a synonym for  “environmentalist,” i.o.w. anyone who is worried about continued population growth, energy use, and the resultant harm to the planetary environment. He employs the label “Economists” in  reference to those who do NOT share that worry, and who  feel that our technological ingenuity will help us avert ecological  catastrophe.
These labels are somewhat misleading, because economists are by no means all anti- environmentalists. Only two economic schools  see continued  growth and  technology as the solutions to poverty and to other problems: Free-Market Capitalism, and Marxism. But many other economists disagree. Better dichotomies would be Optimists vs. Pessimists, or  Malthusians vs. Anti-Malthusians, or Environmentalists vs. Anti-environmentalists.

This is an important, fascinating and widely recognized controversy.  No course in Introductory Sociology or Social Problems fails to spend a great deal of time on this debate.  For example, one of us has often used in his classes the Dushkin/McGraw-Hill  annual editions called “Taking Sides,” which features articles by experts on both sides of this issue.

To refresh your  memory:  Thomas Malthus (1766-1834)’ main concern was overpopulation. His thesis was that the food supply grows arithmetically (straight-line curve), but population growth   is geometric (curvilinear). Therefore,   population eventually and inevitably overtakes the  food supply, and  humanity faces  the triple Malthusian catastrophe of starvation,  war and disease.
Neo-Malthusians -   the pessimists -  say (as Malthus did), that we are multiplying too much and that we are consuming too much energy, thus slowly  killing  the planet.
The environmental movement came of age during the late 1960s and the 1970s. Classic films such as “Soylent Green”  and  “Silent Running”  grasp well the political and cultural climate of that time. Major environmental groups and authorities  include the  Club of Rome ( founded  in 1968), the publication of Limits to Growth by Donella and Dennis Meadows  (1972) and  Lester Brown’s Institute and his many books (1960s-2011).  These were followed by many others, for example Jared Diamond. We summarize the thesis of Diamond’s  book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (2005) as the “Easter Island scenario.” It uses the Easter Islanders’ suicidal destruction of their environment as the model of what may  be in store for  the entire planet.

The most prominent guru of the environmental movement  was  Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich, a demographer and a biologist. To summarize humanity’s  destructive impact on the environment,   Ehrlich’s came up with  the  IPAT formula:  Impact = Population  x Affluence x Technology.

On the opposite side are authors such as Julian Simon, Thomas Sowell, David Deutsch and Matt Ridley. Simon and Sowell were economists who rejected and critiqued Malthusianism. Deutsch is a philosopher whose “optimism” is based on the assumption that human knowledge and ingenuity are infinitely expandable. Let us first list some of this group’s arguments:

●    In his April 25 Wall Street Journal   article, Ridley makes the reader question the widely held belief that if we don't stop breeding like rabbits and using up our finite resources, we are going to destroy the planet. In the past, the pessimists have been wrong in their predictions (we are still waiting for the Malthusian Catastrophe). The Stone Age didn't end because of lack of stones but because we found new ways of surviving.

●    Optimists such as Ridley  say that Malthusian doomsday prophecies are nonsense, because we have knowledge, ingenuity  and technology, and we will always find new ways to produce the energy and the goods we require for our satisfaction, no matter how many of us there are. For example, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek calculated as far back as  1679 that the earth  could sustain a population of  13.4 billion people, nearly twice today’s world population. So, no sweat.

●    According to Ridley, our age isn't going to end because of a lack of natural resources, since we will have moved on (thanks to technology) to a new way of meeting our energy needs before we have depleted our natural resources.

●    The author  uses global warming as an example of the optimist's point of view. Not only is economic growth not harmful to the planet, but it can even be part of  the solution. New technologies will result in the invention of lower-carbon emitting energy sources and we will be able to cook our way to progress without burning the pan.

●    Thomas Sowell puts it this way: “production” is not = “consumption” but “transformation.” In other words, we are not necessarily “running out of things.” Take water: Doesn't water return to the environment through sewage? Or  Tellurium: Once  used in solar panels, it  doesn't just disappear; it still exists in the objects themselves.

●    Even ecologists recognize that technologies supercede each other. They call it “niche construction.” For example,  the neolithic revolution  replaced hunting and gathering by agriculture. Economists call this “innovation.” In other words, we shall always have technology coming to our rescue.  For instance, today fracking and shale oil hold the promise of energy independence for America.

●    The optimists argue that knowing that you have a problem  is part of the solution. As David Deutsch explains in his book  “The Beginning of Infinity,”'  you cannot find a solution to a problem that you don’t know exists.  Our realization that climate change is real  may have come too late to reverse it, but it is not to late to  find ways to adapt to this fait accompli.  If you get  punched in the nose, your doctor is not going to fix it by teaching you karate to avoid being punched again. He will stitch you up and give you antibiotics.

●    Optimists also remind us that the  past consists only of one thing: It has made events 'collapse' into one reality. But the future contains an infinite number  of possibilities. 'Nothing is written' says Lawrence of Arabia,  and he is right. So in that sense, you cannot predict the future by studying the past, or by extrapolating the past into the future.  That is why the ecologist doomsayers have often been  wrong in their predictions. For example, Paul Ehrlich’s predictions have failed so spectacularly that he is often ridiculed in the media, to this very day.

    Here are a couple of funny examples of the perils of extrapolation:

    *     It was predicted in the 1880s that at the current rate of increase in the number of 

           horse-drawn  carriages, by the year 1960, New York City would be covered by a 75-foot 
           deep layer of horse manure.

    *    It was predicted in the 1960s that at the current rate of population growth, by the year 5,000 
          the earth would be covered by a solid mass of human flesh expanding into outer space at the 
          speed  of light. leave comment here

 (To be continued: Next time, we present the counter arguments).