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Energy Malthusianism in the Sweep of History (and Rockefeller, Insull, and Lay)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- September 12, 2009

[This excerpt from Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy prefaces a five-chapter review of energy Malthusianism from the time of Thomas Robert Malthus in the late 18th century through the Julian Simon/Paul Ehrlich debate of the late 20th century.]

“Here is a planet, whirling in sunlit space,” reads the opening of Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom: Man’s Struggle against Authority, penned during the dark days of World War II. “The planet is energy,” she continues. “Every apparent substance composing it is energy. The envelope of gases surrounding it is energy. Energy pours forth from the sun upon this air and earth.”

Energy is pervasive and liberating. It moves people, makes things, and provides incalculable services. It vanquishes darkness, literally and figuratively. “Since early men ignited the first fires in caves,” it has been noted, “the unleashing of energy for light, heat, cooking, and every human need has been the essence and symbol of what it is to be human.”…