Recently there has been much talk about resource scarcity, population growth, and environmental degradation; the extent of the standard conversation ranges along the lines of perceived problems and limitations. So, people will often say things like: the price of oil is going up because there is less oil, or they will often complain about the blight of poverty increasing given that there are too many poor people, the rich are consuming to much, or that there are not sufficient natural resources. People who engage such ideas usually succumb to immediate and intellectually myopic solutions that take the course of pithy economic reasoning. Some of these solutions involve pointing out the fact that given consumption and distribution problems related to a perceived population increase, we should limit births, or that we should ensure some type of distribution system to slow down the income differentials in such a way so as to create social and economic equality.
These solutions and considerations are not new. Indeed, since about the 1820’s talk of population excess was already running swiftly through political economy and philosophy. Thomas Robert Malthus’ famous treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population, argued that the dangers of population growth would preclude endless progress towards a utopian society: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Malthus wrote several editions of his work (six editions if memory serves me). Malthus attempted to update and respond to the many criticisms of his position; the most prophetic and, perhaps powerful, response that Malthus exhibited was his point regarding the enviable limitation of war, physical allments, and poor distribution systems. His exact point is seemingly poignant:
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world
My purpose of writing this post is not to provide an analysis of Malthusian thought in general, but to respond to what I call “neomalthusianism”. If you want a glimpse into neomaltusianism take a look here.
The two basic propostions that neomalthusians take up are as follows:
1) There is a a limit to economic growth. This limit is achieved largely by excess and over-consumption of natural resources.
2) Population overgrowth will eventually outpace technology and, thus, cause famine and pestilence.
Regardless of the metaphysics associated with limited resources and exponential growth, the malthusian world view is problematic given that (2) fails to account for how technology advances and that the human mind is, in-and-of-itself, a resource of infinite potential and capacity. For example, Marx and Engles predicted that science would solve the problem of an inadequate food supply by altering growing conditions, energy availability, and distribution inefficiencies; we see that Marx and Engles got the general idea correct: the mind can create solutions for any economic problem. Basically, to solve any serious economic problem, we need the most valuable resource of all: human minds. The solution-generating ability of the sciences and abstractions of the philosophers are only possible with the continued proliferation of more human minds.
Additionally, the neomalthusian ignores supporting empirical evidence for increased population influencing how fast and in what way science advances. Indeed, Ester Boserup wrote in her book The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, that population levels determine agricultural methods, rather than agricultural methods determining population (via food supply). A major point of her book is that “necessity is the mother of invention”. Ester’s point is extremely important because it demonstrates how innovation tends to actualize itself. Innovation is conditional, it depends upon a set of circumstances that drive necessity. This ‘necessity’ is the main claim behind Nassim Taleb’s recent conception of market fragility, in which the market is to be considered an anti-fragile object such that when it breaks, it strengthens -or, think of the clasasical Nietzschen conception of, “what does not destroy me, only makes me stronger”. So, even if we had exponential growth, and no natural celling (holding capacities) or Batman-like Gradient, we would merely become more motivated , as a species and as individuals, to innovate and evolve.
Neomathusaism also ignores some basic economic facts: incentives effect behavior. Case in point, Julian Simon one of the many economists who has challenged the Malthusian catastrophe, cites that there are two conditions that cause (1) to fail; first, the existence of new knowledge, and educated people to take advantage of it, and second, “economic freedom”, that is, the ability of the world to increase production when there is a profitable opportunity to do so. It is important to note that profitability is a product of human action, it moves with consumers; nix the consumers (and producers), you nix the profit motive and some of the innovation incentive. You add to the pool of possible consumers, you increase the incentives, and thus the possible innovations that may come to fruition. Now, in conjunction with Julian Simion’s point, it behooves us to address the common soapbox of “the free markets causes a malthusian catastrophe”. First, the free market, or the market being liberalized, has caused more wealth and better standards of living for the greatest number of people than any other human event since the birth of fire.
There is no good reason to fall back on the malthusian crux. His theory has been, and will continue to be, defeated and proven false by the actions of free men. I think Tolstoy had it right when he exclaimed:
It would seem as though they were scientific deductions, which had nothing in common with the instincts of the masses. But this can only appear so for the man who believes that science, like the Church, is something self contained, liable to no errors, and not simply the imaginings of weak and erring folk, who merely substitute the imposing word ‘science,’ in place for the thoughts and words of people, for the sake of impressiveness.