Climate Change Despair

4th November 2019

You’d think after 200 years, folks would eventually say, “That Malthus guy? Kind of wrong.” Yet, with the (projected) birth today of the world’s 7 billionth occupant, there’s no shortage of media hand-wringing about the dim prospects of our world from here.

Thomas Malthus is famous (or infamous, depending on your view) for his belief that human population growth would outpace food production—and fast—which would lead to societal ruin. He was downright dismissive of the

Can there be “unlimited progress” in food production? Not sure. But Malthus would never imagine that, with 6 billion more people than in his day, we have a holiday dedicated to handing total strangers handfuls of free food. Utterly non-nutritional food at that!

You can’t really blame Malthus for getting this so wrong. Long-term forecasts are right devilish. Example, the London Times columnist who predicted in 1894 that by 1950, London would be buried under 9 feet of manure likely died before he could have any egg on his face. (Though, no doubt, he had enough time to surmise that the horse-dropping build-up was going awfully slowly.) There was no way for him to know in a few short years, the combustion engine would make horse-drawn transport a cute relic for honeymooners.

And that’s how these long-term forecasts go. The peak oil date certain (the point at which oil production hits an apex and starts falling) has come and gone multiple times over the past decades. Yet, since the concept of “peak oil” was first popularized by Marion Hubbert in 1956, the amount of oil we produce has increased vastly. So too has the amount of known reserves in the ground. There was just no way for him to predict we’d be drilling in thousands of feet of water—or “fracking”! (Heck, in 1956, “frack” was still what polite Dads said after their thumbs got in the way of their hammers.) Or that we’d even have the technology to find the oil (or gas) to deep-water drill (or frack).

The popular 1968 book the Population Bomb posited that in the 1970s, hundreds of millions would starve to death. The theory was that if food production is growing at X rate and the population growing at much faster Y rate, that could pose quite a problem. But then, along came Norman Borlaug, who invented high-yielding, disease-resistant dwarf wheat. (Thank goodness Norman’s mom wasn’t a Malthusian.) Now, dwarf wheat may make those who shun “frankenfoods” mad, but it also meant the emerging world’s burgeoning populations didn’t all starve.

(Not to mention that sticky question, if you buy whole-hog into Malthus’s [long-disproven] concept, of how exactly you get the population to that lower, appropriate level. Let’s move on.)

I don’t care what it’s on—economies, capital markets, wheat yields, hemline trends—long-term forecasts are fraught with peril. And ones that underestimate humanity’s ingenuity and ability to problem-solve are particularly faulty. Yes, pockets of the world face famine—usually in regions with corrupt, despotic governments. But overall, the world hasn’t outgrown its ability to feed itself. Someone invented the steel plow, the tractor, the threshing machine, better fertilizers. Handily, someone also discovered penicillin, the pasteurization process, the Polio vaccine and DDT so we have a better shot at getting past age 5. (And the iPhone too, so we can live, not starve and be entertained all the while.) Malthus didn’t think about the iPhone anymore than he thought about dwarf wheat or the MMR vaccine. That doesn’t make him a bad person, just rather unimaginative.

And while global population has grown, life expectancies keep increasing, quality of life keeps improving, and per capita GDP keeps expanding. So bring on number 8 billion! (Malthus will still be wrong then.) 

Thanks to Lara Hopkins

In complete contrast to Malthus' predictions here is a summary of the progress from just 20 years after his death - The World as 100 People

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