A Free-Market Energy Blog

In Denial: Thomas Friedman's (Self) Limits to (Intellectual) Growth

By -- June 10, 2011

“[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?

Mind Games

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.


  1. NikFromNYC  

    Cold fusion featured in the LA Times in ’89 before it was debunked. Environmentalists were aghast at the possibility of cheap clean energy:
    “It’s like giving a machine gun to an idiot child.” – Paul Ehrlich (mentor of John Cook of SkepticalScience.com, author of “Climate Change Denial”)
    “Clean-burning, non-polluting, hydrogen-using bulldozers still could knock down trees or build housing developments on farmland.” – Paul Ciotti (LA Times)
    “It gives some people the false hope that there are no limits to growth and no environmental price to be paid by having unlimited sources of energy.” – Jeremy Rifkin (NY Times)
    “Many people assume that cheaper, more abundant energy will mean that mankind is better off, but there is no evidence for that.” – Laura Nader (sister of Ralph)


  2. NikFromNYC  

    The most popular AGW supporting blogs are owned by PR firms financed by green energy speculators:
    DeSmogBlog = green PR firm paid for by a $125 million online gambling site convicted money launderer who sells solar cells.
    RealClimate = left wing PR firm behind the junk science link of vaccines to autism.
    ClimateProgress = left wing think tank.

    CLIMATEGATE 101: “Don’t leave stuff lying around on ftp sites – you never know who is trawling them. The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone….Tom Wigley has sent me a worried email when he heard about it – thought people could ask him for his model code. He has retired officially? from UEA so he can hide behind that.” – Phil Jones

    Here I present The Quick Glance Guide to Global Warming:
    Denial: http://bit.ly/m6xySt
    Oceans: http://oi52.tinypic.com/x3e0es.jpg
    Thermometers: http://oi52.tinypic.com/2agnous.jpg
    Ice: http://oi52.tinypic.com/2upvlvm.jpg
    Earth: http://oi56.tinypic.com/2reh021.jpg
    Authority: http://oi52.tinypic.com/wlt4i8.jpg
    Prophecy: http://oi52.tinypic.com/30bfktk.jpg
    Psychopathy: http://oi52.tinypic.com/1zqu71i.jpg
    Icon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmPzLzj-3XY
    Thinker: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n92YenWfz0Y


  3. Ed Reid  

    I find it interesting that those who claim “The Earth is Full” typically refuse to discuss their preferred approaches to alleviating the perceived problem. Perhaps they refuse to do so because all of the obvious approaches are so repugnant in a civilized society. Perhaps they hope/believe that, if they point to the “problem” often enough and loudly enough, someone else will step up and propose a solution.


  4. Is radical environmentalism misanthropic? | PLF Liberty Blog | PLF Liberty Blog  

    […] be correct.  And you would also be correct in re-calling that numerous scholars and authors have debunked Limits to Growth.  Most recently, author Robert Zubrin’s new book Merchants of Despair […]


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