Monday, June 16, 2014

Is Scarcity a Fallacy? Part Two

By Tom and Madeleine Kando

In our previous post, we introduced the environmental debate raging between what Matt Ridley calls the Ecologists and the Economists in his April 25 Wall Street Journal article 'The Scarcity Fallacy'. We wrote that this is the familiar debate between what is better called environmental Optimists and Pessimists, or Malthusians and Anti-Malthusian, or Environmentalists and Anti-environmentalists. We presented the “optimistic” position, listing and discussing nine of their arguments.

Today, we present the alternative position - that of the (neo-)Malthusians, or the ”pessimists.” This is basically the environmental position, and it is also our own position, by and large. The best-known modern-day neo-Malthusian is Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich. Here are some of the major arguments:

We concluded the first half of this article by pointing out the difficulty of predicting the future by studying the past. However, the pessimists remind us that probabilistically the past is the best predictor of the future. Someone who has often been a klutz is more likely to be a klutz again than someone who has not been one. And there are things that are 99.9999% sure to happen. For example, it IS a certainty that we will run out of fossil fuels.


Examples of depleted resources are innumerable and inescapable. Water among them, the wellspring of life itself. Aquifers are vanishing as we speak, especially in California, where one of us lives, and other even dryer regions. Will desalinization come to the rescue, or is its cost prohibitive? Sometimes, new technologies are no more than pie-in-the sky. Whatever happened to cloud seeding, a great promise when we were young?

Ridley’s position is that “There are NO limits to growth.” This is patently absurd. Here are some recent anecdotal news items which should give the optimists some pause:

Recent Anecdotal Bad News

The Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing
The newly discovered California Monterey shale oil reserve is  96% useless.
The environmental cost of beef and other meat production - grazing land use, water, etc. - is becoming prohibitive. For this reason alone, even apart from humanitarianism, vegetarianism must be the wave of the future.

And what about the following factoids?

Some Biodiversity Factoids

An area of rainforest the size of a football field is cut down or burned every second, or an  area the size of  Belgium every two and a half months. Nearly 2% of rain forests disappear every year.
Less than 5% of the earth’s land surface is protected in parks, reserves and wildlife sanctuaries.
On average, two new bird species are discovered every year.
Nearly one distinct group of the world’s people becomes extinct every week. Approximately fifty cultures disappear each year. 700 distinct languages and cultures exist on the island of New Guinea, one fifth of all those found on earth.
Fewer than 6,000 tigers remain in the wild. Poaching for use in traditional Asian medicines and habitat loss pose the biggest threat to these magnificent cats.

But there is no need to rely on anecdotes. The scientific community is 99% unanimous on the FACT of HUMAN-CAUSED GLOBAL WARMING. Climate change denial is widespread, especially in the United States. The rejection of global warming is part of the rejection of science in general, including Darwinism. In addition, powerful  economic interests are arrayed against environmentalism,including the fossil fuel industry and capitalism itself, which is predicated on endless economic growth. It was reported recently that the Fox TV network had the highest rate of factual errors in its news   reporting, namely 63%. Not a surprise, since that network is the most opposed to science.

There are now 7.5 billion people in the world, and about a billion cars. When the two authors of this article were in high school, there were 2.5 billion people - ONE THIRD of today’s population. Soon there will be 12 billion people. The Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians, the Brazilians and others all want to “come on board” as well. If things continue in that direction, there will be 6 or 7 billion cars in the world. How will mother Earth handle this, even if we all drive Smarts?

What about “technology to the rescue?” According to economist Joseph Tainter, innovation also suffers from diminishing returns. Recycling techniques, the introduction of new forms of energy, medical innovations, research and new inventions are all increasingly complex and costly. Eventually the cost of progress outweighs its benefit. Problems arise which require new solutions, which require higher levels of complexity, which creates new problems, and so forth.

Furthermore, the increasing cost and complexity which accompany growth contribute to increasing inequality,because they fall disproportionately on the masses, while the benefits accrue disproportionately to the elite.

Right now, there is a number of small and affluent countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark which are demographically stagnant and aim for very slow economic growth. They are also switching from bad energy (coal, oil) to good energy (wind). This is prudent and wise, and the rest of the world should follow their example.

The fact that Malthus’s and Ehrlich’s predictions have not yet come to pass doesn’t mean that they never will. What’s more, isn’t it probable that the Malthusian and environmental activists have made a significant contribution to the defeat of their own predictions? After all, isn’t their goal precisely that - to ensure that their prophecies become self-defeating?
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