In Denial: Thomas Friedman’s (Self) Limits to (Intellectual) Growth
“[N]eo-Malthusians like [Paul] Gilding resemble hypochondriacs who insist that they are at death’s door and see every sniffle as confirmation that the end is near. Rather than launch massive programs to sterilize the population or make everyone vegetarians, we should hand them a tissue and tell them to get over it. Or, as the English philosopher Pete Townsend said, ‘This is no social crisis, just another tricky day for you’.”
- Michael Lynch on Thomas Friedman et al.
Thomas Friedman’s New York Times latest column–The Earth is Full–quotes environmental-entrepreneur Paul Gilding (author: The Great Disruption) about the rampant denial concerning the world crossing of “growth/climate/natural resources/population redlines all at once.”
So just about all of us do not see what is so obvious to these smartest-guys-in-the-environmental room. Really. Is such not another example of shrillness that Fred Krupp of Environmental Defense Fund warned his own ilk against? And it is more wolf crying really going to end up any better than what Paul Ehrlich screamed in the 1960s?
Friedman/Gilding are part of a strange psychological mindset that is too often overlooked by critics of neo-Malthusianism. Cognitive dissonance is needed to explain how Ehrlich-to-Gilding can glaze beyond the repeated debunking of their work. They are, in the vernacular of the mental health community, in denial. And by supporting each other in their futile crusade, they are enablers. Bottoming-out and mid-course correction, anyone?
And there might be a new psychological syndrome among resource economists: ‘crisis-warning’ fatigue. These warnings have been appearing constantly for centuries, if not millennia, although often with a new twist. Robert Bradley, our humble moderator, recently put up a long two-part post (here and here) listing the many warnings about peak oil over the past century and more.
And any schoolboy or schoolgirl can see that there is a positive correlation, not negative one, between population and resources. Remember the title of Julian Simon’s last major public lecture given in late 1997? It was aptly titled: “More People, Greater Wealth, Expanded Resources, Cleaner Environment.” (Bradley, 2009, p. 278).
Gilding notes that ‘this isn’t science fiction,’ which is true: rather, it resembles what Robert Park calls ‘pathological science’ “in which scientists manage to fool themselves.” Having found their work again and again lacking, they circle the wagons and fire off insults.
Dan Gardner’s describes Paul Ehrlich wittily demolishing the views of Ben Wattenberg, who has been proved incontrovertibly correct, on the Tonight Show in 1970, to the amusement of the crowd. Sadly, Ehrlich missed his true calling as a comedian.
… and Intellectual Error
The primary mistake is one often seen in investment circles, namely thinking that a short-term problem represents a permanent change in the macro-environment. Every bubble has its defenders, from the famous Dutch Tulip bubble described by Charles MacKay, to the stock market boom in the 1920s, and the recent real estate boom. No matter how many times the so-called ‘new paradigm’ proves to be the ‘old cycle,’ hope springs eternal in the breasts of the fear-mongers.
Reality doesn’t seem to intrude on this class of characters, as failed doomsayers retain their rock-star status. John Holdren (ably outed and debunked at MasterResource) ends up as the science advisor to the president, and Paul Ehrlich, have received sixteen major awards (according to Wikipedia), nearly all from environmental organizations. Both have seen the end of civilization more times than a millenarianist who eats spicy food before bedtime.
Can the arguments of the Global Footprint Network that we are exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet be considered credible? The first shortcut is always to look at the background of the individuals involved. (An old trick of mine is to pick up a book on petroleum, and look at the sources. If Adelman isn’t listed, then the author isn’t familiar with petroleum economics.) The GFN lists two oversight committees, nearly all of whom appear to be environmentalists (based on their affiliations).
It might be expected that they would have some resource economists on board, but the primary focus seems to be on biodiversity (admittedly a problem) and the ability of the earth to replace the renewable resources consumed and plant new ones to absorb our carbon emissions. Based on this measure, we have exceeded the ‘carrying capacity’ since 1971—which should suggest just our useless the measure is.
Neo-Malthusian studies have some common tendencies, and are particularly prone to
1) make conservative assumptions about resources, partly out of ignorance about the technical terms, and
2) understate future likely technological progress.
Not being economists (generally), they often extrapolate demand trends ad infinitum, assuming no price response or substation effects will occur.
And of course, to observers like Tom Friedman, a run up in commodity prices is taken as confirmation that ‘things are different’ just as many saw the 1979/80 price increase as proving that petroleum resources were inexorably growing scarcer, and Lester Brown saw higher food prices in China in 1993 as proof that they had reached their capacity to feed themselves.
A New Hypochondria?
Instead, neo-Malthusians like Gilding resemble hypochondriacs who insist that they are at death’s door and see every sniffle as confirmation that the end is near. Rather than launch massive programs to sterilize the population or make everyone vegetarians, we should hand them a tissue and tell them to get over it. Or, as the English philosopher Pete Townsend said, “This is no social crisis, just another tricky day for you.”
Bradley, Robert. Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy, Scrivener Press, 2009.
Part, Robert. Voodoo Science, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Gardner, Dan. Future Babble, Dutton, 2011.