Malthusians lack imagination?

One basic assumption of the modern era traces back to 1798 when Thomas Malthus published An Essay on the Principle of Population as illustrated by  the best-selling book “Limits to Growth” published in 1972 by the Club of Rome. It seems common sense: use something and you will run out of it. That is based on the zero sum presumption that all is fixed and nothing is created. The amount of wealth is fixed so rich are rich at the expense of the poor. The amount of oil is fixed so we will run out of that. The amount of land is fixed so we will run out of room for farms to feed the population. Matt Ridley says The World’s Resources Aren’t Running Out. “Ecologists worry that the world’s resources come in fixed amounts that will run out, but we have broken through such limits again and again.”

“In 1972, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University came up with a simple formula called IPAT, which stated that the impact of humankind was equal to population multiplied by affluence multiplied again by technology. In other words, the damage done to Earth increases the more people there are, the richer they get and the more technology they have.”

The problem for these Malthusians is that life isn’t a zero sum game.

“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.”

It is a lack of imagination, an immaturity of cognition, a concern grown to a paranoia. It is a part of that guilt that those in areas where the wealth was created seem to feel or the envy that those in other areas seem to feel. The feelings defy history and reality. 

The future is what we create. The U.S., in particular, has shown that the limits of the past can be set aside. The fight of the present appears to be whether or not we will regress to those limits, and poverty, of the past or proceed to create a future of our dreams.

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