A free-market energy blog
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Category — Malthusianism/neo-Malthusianism

Bastiat on Malthus: Wisdom from 1850 for Optimism Today

“If we face the facts courageously, we shall see that a large area has been left open for the exercise of our initiative.”

The holiday season is not only a time to count our blessings, but also to imagine (or perhaps simply recognize) an ever-improving future for ourselves and the broader society. To that end, we can be thankful that the theories of doom-and-gloom are wrong, and the disastrous predictions drawn from those theories bear no resemblance to reality.

Being both a great fan of the 19th century classical-liberal political economist Frederic Bastiat and a critic of neo-Malthusianism, I was surprised to discover recently that Bastiat devoted an entire chapter of his work “Economic Harmonies” to Malthus’s theory on population. As Master Resource readers probably know, it was Malthus’s theory on population that prompted historian Thomas Carlyle to refer to economics as “the dismal science.”

It was also Malthus’s theory on population that spawned the still-thriving “neo-Malthusianworldview, which has been laughably wrong but still bleeds into discussions on energy policy. Fears of rampant population growth leading to environmental degradation and shortages in food, resources, energy, etc. were at the core of the environmental movement in the early stages, and neo-Malthusianism still colors the debate on energy abundance and the “sustainable” use of energy-rich resources such as fossil fuels. Prominent neo-Malthusian Paul Ehrlich has even said “[m]y view has become depressingly mainline!” Yes, depressing indeed. [Read more →]

December 7, 2012   2 Comments

Halloween: Neo-Malthusian Day

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children. It has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate.’”

– Joe Romm, quoted in Thomas Friedman, Is the Inflection Point Near?, New York Times, March 7, 2009.

“Is there any more single-minded, simple pleasure than viewing with alarm? At times it is even better than sex.”

—Kenneth Boulding (1970), p. 160. [1]

Are free-market optimists the dumb ones who jump off tall buildings and report that everything is fine, even breezy, on the way down? Or are those who fear, rant, and make this analogy bungee-jumping with reality?

The optimists have been jumping off buildings ever since Robert Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on Population was published in 1798–and not hitting the ground. More specifically, many in the Julian Simon camp have been jumping in regard to a variety of minerals ever since the 1960s and 1970s when Paul Ehrlich, The Club of Rome, etc. proclaimed the end was in sight.

Just maybe the doomslayers are well grounded with their trust in private property rights and the market process, including “creative destruction” where the better can replace the good. And maybe the neo-Malthusians are lost in a Haunted House with their (feel-good?) fears are joined by dreams of righting under-regulated, under-regimented humankind.

Three ‘Fearmongers’

Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, and James Hansen, among other prominent neo-Malthusians, have made doom-and-gloom predictions about business-as-usual in an attempt to shock humanity into immediate legislative action and lifestyle changes. [Read more →]

October 31, 2012   4 Comments

‘Peak Rock’: The ONION Goes Neo-Malthusian (Fixity/depletion curse expands)

“We are on a collision course to a world without rocks. Only take as many rocks as you absolutely need.”

        - Dr. Victoria  Merrill, author, No Stone Unturned: Methods For Modern Rock Conservation

“Think about it. When was the last time you even saw a boulder?”

         – Henry Kaiser (ge0logist and Onion expert)

The easy oil has been found. There are no more mega-fields. Costs up … prices up … economic stress … crises.

We have such certain knowledge from the smartest guys in many rooms: Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, Colin Campbell, Jean LaherrèreRichard Heinberg, Chris Skrebowski, Matthew Simmons, …. and Kenneth Deffeyes.

Oil output peaked on December 16, 2005, in case you did not know it, according to geologist Kenneth Deffeyes in his 2010 book When Oil Peaked, available at Amazon in hardcover for one penny (yes, one penny!).

Deffeyes in this book updated his analysis from his previous tomes, Hubbert’s Peak (2001) and Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert’s Peak (2005).

Two quotes from Princeton University-affiliated Deffeyes are highlighted at Wikipedia:

  • “Crude oil is much too valuable to be burned as a fuel.”
  • “The economists all think that if you show up at the cashier’s cage with enough currency, God will put more oil in ground.”

Onion Weighs In

Well, the Onion has taken Deffeyes logic to a new level. Yes, rock exhaustion is hard to imagine right now, but the fixity/depletion principle is indisputably at work. The article follows: [Read more →]

June 22, 2012   9 Comments

More Bad Neo-Malthusian Behavior (Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick joins the Climategate Gang, Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, etc.)

[Editor note: This November 29, 2011, post is updated in light of the admission yesterday by climate activist Peter Gleick that he is the source of the stolen Heartland Institute documents. Gleick's malfeasance continues the authoritarian, anti-intellectual behaviors exhibited by neo-Malthusians, most infamously revealed by Climategate, but also including the treatment of the late Julian Simon by Paul Ehrlich.

Updates on what is now being called GleickGate can be found on popular climate websites, including those of Andrew Revkin, Judith Curry, Watts Up With That, Climate Depot, and Climate Audit.]

I read all about it at Judith Curry’s blog (Breaking News: Gleick Confesses) and added this comment (now 250 and counting) at the midnight hour:

Wow–surely Peter Gleick understands that feedback effects are in dispute, and the difference influences the sign of the externality in terms of what some climate economists say (Robert Mendelsohn at Yale, for one).

And if he did not know before, Dr. Gleick should realize that 1) the Heartland side is heartfelt, 2) that energy affordability is key for just about everyone, 3) central climate planning all but gets the climate police to the door, and 4) corporate rent-seeking is handmaiden to climate alarmism/policy activism (remember Enron?).

Perhaps this episode will encourage the present generation of neo-Malthusians to check their premises and consider, just as an option, that wealth creating capitalism is the best insurance policy for whatever the future holds, anthropogenic or natural.

Of course I cannot really expect the mad-at-the-world, ‘smartest guys in the room’ intellectuals who just know the world is in peril (unlike the rest of us) to embrace a challenge culture and make fundamental midcourse corrections. But I can state the ideal for the open-minded to consider.

Peter Gleick, please read Charles Koch’s The Science of Success. [Read more →]

February 21, 2012   5 Comments

Population, Consumption, Carbon Emissions, and Human Well-Being in the Age of Industrialization (Part IV – There Are No PAT Answers, or Why Neo-Malthusians Get It Wrong)

Editor’s note. This is the conclusion of a four part series by Indur M. Goklany, in which the Neo-Malthusian view of the adverse effects of industrialization, economic growth and technological change is contrasted with empirical data on the substantial progress in human well-being during the age of industrialization. Having established this, he appropriately warns about predicting the future. For ease of reference, links to the previous three parts are included at the end.

Neo-Malthusians believe that humanity is doomed unless it reins in population, affluence and technological change, and the associated consumption of materials, energy and chemicals. But, as shown in the previous posts and elsewhere, empirical data on virtually every objective indicator of human well-being indicates that the state of humanity has never been better, despite unprecedented levels of population, economic development, and new technologies. In fact, human beings have never been longer lived, healthier, wealthier, more educated, freer, and more equal than they are today.

Why does the Neo-Malthusian worldview fail the reality check?

The fundamental reasons why their projections fail are because they assume that population, affluence and technology — the three terms on the right hand side of the IPAT equation — are independent of each other. Equally importantly, they have misunderstood the nature of each of these terms, and the nature of the misunderstanding is essentially the same, namely, that contrary to their claims, each of these factors instead of making matters progressively worse is, in the long run, necessary for solving whatever problems plague humanity. [Read more →]

April 26, 2010   4 Comments

Population, Consumption, Carbon Emissions, and Human Well-Being in the Age of Industrialization (Part III — Have Higher US Population, Consumption, and Newer Technologies Reduced Well-Being?)

Editor’s note: In Part III of this four-part series, Indur M. Goklany applies the general analyses of Part I and Part II to the impact of U.S. industrialization on human well-being and environmental improvement.

In my previous post I showed that, notwithstanding the Neo-Malthusian worldview, human well-being has advanced globally since the start of industrialization more than two centuries ago, despite massive increases in population, consumption, affluence, and carbon dioxide emissions. In this post, I will focus on long-term trends in the U.S. for these and other indicators.

Figure 1 shows that despite several-fold increases in the use of metals and synthetic organic chemicals, and emissions of CO2 stoked by increasing populations and affluence, life expectancy, the single best measure of human well-being, increased from 1900 to 2006  for the US.  Figure 1 reiterates this point with respect to materials use.

Part III Figure 1

Figure 1: U.S. metal and chemical use, carbon dioxide emissions, population and affluence compared to life expectancy, 1900–2006.  Metals and chemical use exclude their content in imported goods. Sources: Matos (2009), CDIAC (2009), Maddison (2010), US Bureau of the Census (2010).

These figures indicate that since 1900, U.S. population has quadrupled, affluence has septupled, their product (GDP) has increased 30-fold, synthetic organic chemical use has increased 85-fold, metals use 14-fold, material use 25-fold, and CO2 emissions 8-fold.  Yet life expectancy advanced from 47 to 78 years. [Read more →]

April 24, 2010   10 Comments

Population, Consumption, Carbon Emissions, and Human Well-Being in the Age of Industrialization (Part II — A Reality Check of the Neo-Malthusian Worldview)

Editor’s note: This is the second of a four part series. Part I provided a long-term view of commodity prices, their affordability and the impact on human well-being. Here, Indur M. Goklany looks in more detail at global trends in human well-being in the Age of Industrialization, from 1750 – 2007. (Part III and Part IV are here.)

In the worldview of many environmentalists and Neo-Malthusians, as population and economic development increase so does the consumption of energy, land, water and other natural resources. Originally, Malthusians feared that we would run out of these resources, and natural resource–based products, particularly food, would be in short supply, resulting in famine and a general decrease in human well-being. But as shown in the previous post, instead of becoming scarcer, resources (such as metals and food) actually have become more affordable, and the hunger and famine that had been foretold went AWOL. [I will out of charity, not beat the dead horse of Paul Ehrlich’s failed predictions.] Elsewhere, I have also shown that, at least before the enactment of government policies to boost biofuels, land and water use had, more or less, stabilized in the richer world and, possibly, worldwide (see here and here).

Today, Neo-Malthusians focus more on pollution, environment, and climate change, consumed by the notion that the by-products of all the production and consumption that underlies humanity’s economic activity would overwhelm the earth’s assimilative and regenerative capacities. This view is captured in the identity, I = PAT, where I is a measure of impact (usually, environmental impact); P is the population; A stands for affluence, and is measured by per capita production or per capita consumption and often proxied by the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita; and T, denoting technology, is a measure of the impact per unit of production or consumption. Notably, the product of P and A is the GDP, that is, consumption. Therefore, under the IPAT formulation: (a) T is the ratio of impact to GDP, which I will call “impact intensity,” and (b) the impact should grow in proportion to GDP.

As noted here:

The IPAT identity has been remarkably influential. It has intuitive appeal because of its apparent simplicity and seeming ability to explain how population, consumption or affluence, and technology can affect human and environmental well-being. It serves, for example, as the “master equation” for the field of industrial ecology (e.g., Graedel and Allenby 1995). One of its versions underpins the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s emission scenarios … (IPCC 2000, pp. 83–84)…

Despite recognizing that “benign” technology could reduce some impacts, many Neo-Malthusians argue, to quote Jared Diamond (2005, p.504), it is a mistake to believe that “[t]echnology will solve our problems.” In fact, goes this argument, “All of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology. The rapid advances in technology during the 20th century have been creating difficult new problems faster than they have been solving old problems…” Diamond (2005, pp. 505). Ehrlich and co-workers argue that for most important activities, new technology would bring diminishing returns because as the best resources are used up (e.g. minerals, fossil fuels and farm land), society would increasingly have to turn to marginal or less desirable resources to satisfy demand which would increase energy use and pollution (Ehrlich and Holdren 1971; Ehrlich et al. 1999).

According to the IPAT identity, if all else remains the same, an increase in population, affluence or technology would each act as multipliers for environmental impact (e.g., Ehrlich and Holdren 1971; Ehrlich 2008). And as that impact increases, human well-being would necessarily deteriorate. The IPAT identity has been used to support the contention that the human enterprise as currently constituted is unsustainable in the long run, unless the population (P) shrinks, we diminish, if not reverse, “overconsumption” or economic development (A) (particularly in the United States), and apply the precautionary principle to new technologies, which in their view essentially embodies a presumption against further technological change unless the technology involved is proven safe and clean in all respects (Ehrlich and Holdren 1971; Ehrlich and Ehrlich 1991; Myers 1997; Raffensperger and Tickner 1999).

But do empirical data support the notion that increasing population and consumption coupled with technological change reduces human well-being? [Read more →]

April 23, 2010   14 Comments

Population, Consumption, Carbon Emissions, and Human Well-Being in the Age of Industrialization (Part I — Revisiting the Julian Simon-Paul Ehrlich Bet)

Editor’s note: As the United States commemorates the 40th anniversary of Earth Day we can expect to hear various commentators bemoan the growth in population, consumption, and carbon emissions driven by fossil-fueled technologies. We will be told that this is unsustainable, that we are running out of resources, that prices are inevitably headed up, and, worse, that such consumption reduces both environmental and human well-being. In this worldview, industrialization and economic development are the inventions of the Devil; de-industrialization and de-development will be our savior.

In this series of posts, Indur M. Goklany will compare the above Neo-Malthusian view of industrialization, economic growth, and technological change against empirical data on human well-being from the age of industrialization. First, he will revisit the bet made in 1980 by Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich on the direction of commodity prices, and examine long-term trends in the prices and affordability of various commodities, specifically, metals and food, going back to at least 1900. Parts II and III will compare long-term trends in population, consumption, economic development, and carbon emissions against trends in human well-being for the world and the United States, respectively. Part IV will provide an explanation as to why the empirical data is at odds with the Neo-Malthusian worldview.

This series of posts draws liberally from: Goklany IM (2009), Have increases in population, affluence and technology worsened human and environmental well-being? Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, vol. 1, no.3.

Based on the run-up in global commodity prices over the last decade, some observers speculate that Julian Simon lucked out in winning his famous bet with Paul Ehrlich. Paul Kedrosky, for instance, notes that had the bet been made in subsequent years, Simon would, more likely than not, have lost. And, indeed, there is an element of truth to that, but that would not vitiate Simon’s larger point, namely, that human ingenuity left to itself would probably reduce the the price of goods and, more importantly, advance the state of humanity.

In my opinion, the direction of commodity prices in the bet itself served as a surrogate for the fundamental difference between the worldviews of the two protagonists, namely, whether human well-being would advance over time considering increases in population, and economic and technological development. In fact, some Neo-Malthusians opine that present day populations are already too large, while others of the same ilk believe that continued economic and technological development is unsustainable (see, e.g., here).

But before getting into the larger and more important issues, let me first address the bet itself. Recall that the bet was made in 1980, and the late 1970s and 1980 had seen a spectacular increase in commodity price following the second oil shock. But what goes up is also likely to come down. Statisticians call this the regression to the mean. And Simon, being an economist and an entrepreneur at heart, took a calculated risk and “gambled” on that.

And, indeed, commodity prices reverted to trend and prices turned down during the 1980s. So fortune favors the prepared, and Simon was the better prepared and, perhaps, the wiser of the two protagonists. But he was also lucky, because 10 years is but a brief moment in the context of history. The appropriate period to determine whether Simon or Ehrlich’s worldview is better aligned with historical reality is to look at the matter over many decades, if not generations. [Read more →]

April 22, 2010   3 Comments

Howlin’ Wolf: Paul Ehrlich on Energy (Part II: Failed Predictions)

[Editor's note: Part I in this five-part series examined Dr. Ehrlich's views on Julian Simon, growing energy usage, and depletion. Part III examines Ehrlich's conservation(ism) views.]

The Ehrlichs’ angst about the energy future was rife with forecasts that have been proven false–and embarrassingly so. As mentioned in Part I, the Ehrlichs’ protégé John Holdren has made similar radical pronouncements and wild exaggerations (see here and here) and even joined Stephen Schneider and other climate scientists in the global cooling scare.

Running Out of Oil

Writing in 1974, the Ehrlichs predicted that “we can be reasonably sure . . . that within the next quarter of a century mankind will be looking elsewhere than in oil wells for its main source of energy.” [1] Consequently, “we can also be reasonably sure that the search for alternatives will be a frantic one.” [2] He predicted that proved world oil reserves were no more than 35 years of supply at current demand levels. [3]

“The energy mini-crisis [of the 1970s],” the Ehrlichs confidently concluded, “illuminated once and for all the hopeless incompetence of our political leaders and our institutions when it comes to coping with fundamental change.” [4] More generally, the Ehrlichs predicted that “America’s economic joyride is coming to an end: there will be no more cheap, abundant energy, no more cheap abundant food.” [5] Thus, “continuing to increase our dependence on petroleum consumption is clearly a suicidal course of action.” [6] [Read more →]

March 20, 2010   10 Comments

Howlin’ Wolf: Paul Ehrlich on Energy (Part I: Demeaning Julian Simon; Energy as Desecrator; Doom from Depletion)

[Editor's note: Part II in this five-part series examines Dr. Ehrlich's failed predictions in energy. Part III examines Ehrlich's conservation(ism) views.]

“Most of our colleagues don’t seem to grasp that we’re not in a gentlepersons’ debate, we’re in a street fight against well-funded, merciless enemies who play by entirely different rules.”

- Paul R. Ehrlich, quoted in Stephen Dinan, “Climate Scientists to Fight Back Against Skeptics,” Washington Times, March 5, 2010.

“Everyone is scared shitless [about the attacks from climate-science critics], but they don’t know what to do.”

- Paul Ehrlich. Quoted in “Climate of Fear,” Nature, March 11, 2010.

Paul Ehrlich is back in the news regarding Climategate and the IPCC controversy.  How ironic!  Dr. Ehrlich’s multi-decadal over-the-top pronouncements of doom-and-gloom, and his arrogant behavior towards his critics (Julian Simon in particular), might qualify as Malthusgate.

And part of Malthusgate is Dr. Ehrlich’s protégé on energy, John Holdren, who has been prone to radical pronouncements and wild exaggeration time and again (and even joining in on the global cooling scare)–and with little remorse.

I do not know of any mainstream scientist who has been more errant in his worldview predictions and who has gotten away with more sub-intellectual behavior. When the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) dared publish an essay by Simon, Ehrlich fumed: “Could the editors have found someone to review Simon’s manuscript who had to take off his shoes to count to 20?”

Name calling, ignoring contrary evidence, perverting the peer review process–this did not start with Climategate.

Julian Simon–Ehrlich’s Victor

Julian Simon (1932-98) tirelessly examined the statistical record relating to human welfare[1] to conclude, “Malthusian diminishing returns theory does not fit these observed facts and is not compelling intellectually; a theory of endogenous invention is more persuasive, in my view.”[2] Elsewhere he added, “I’m not an optimist, I’m a realist.”[3]

For three decades, Paul Ehrlich (1932- ), a biologist at Stanford University, has been the arch foe of Julian Simon’s views of natural resource scarcity, population growth, and the future human condition. Ehrlich’s dissatisfaction with Simon carried over to the personal realm. He likened Simon to “an imbecile,” a “flat earther,” and a “fringe character.”[4] As late as 1991 Paul and Anne Ehrlich belittled Simon as “an economist specializing in mail-order marketing.”[5] Only in their 1996 book did the Ehrlichs refer to Simon by his professional affiliation—Professor of Business Administration at the University of Maryland.[6]

Ehrlich’s doomsayer worldview proved popular, drowning out Simon’s optimistic but less newsworthy view from the late 1960s until the early 1990s. Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s books attracted a variety of top publishing houses and sold in the millions. Simon’s empirically laden books, confined to the academic market, sold in the thousands. Paul Ehrlich appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson over a dozen times, reaching millions more with his message of impending crises. Simon was able to give some major lectures, but he was never able to share his views with a national audience in any medium.[7] Ehrlich, meanwhile, refused to give Simon an opportunity to debate him.[8] [Read more →]

March 13, 2010   6 Comments