Sunday, February 20, 2011

Malthus Part II: Neo-Malthusians v. Neo-Institutionalists

Are we consuming too much? Is the earth capable of handling more consumers? For a quick recap about what is commonly believed about Malthus:  He assumed land and technology were fixed. He also assumed that passion between the sexes would lead to a geometric growth in population. These assumption implied that we could only coax so much harvest from the land and while production was flat population was increasing. Soon, we would enter doomsday scenario (see ominous photo below) because there would not be enough food supply. This dismal view has not come to pass; however, the central ideas have been carried forward by Neo-Malthusians.

The Neo-Malthusian perspective was popularized by Paul Ehrlich with his book The Population Bomb in 1968. The subtitle of the book reads, "While you are reading this book four people will have died from starvation. Most of them children." The notion that starvation and population growth are directly tied together is characteristic of the Neo-Malthusians which believe that growth in population causes poverty. Ehrlich himself predicted that, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate". In fact, the world death rate has "dramatically decreased" from 1970 to 2010. Yet, Ehrlich was not the only intellectual who held such beliefs. 

The Club of Rome, a group of scientists from a variety of fields which formed in 1968, commissioned "The Limits of Growth" from systems scientists at MIT (the book was published in 1972). On the Club of Rome website they discuss the impact of that publication, "The Report explored a number of scenarios and stressed the choices open to society to reconcile sustainable progress within environmental constraints. The international effects of this publication in the fields of politics, economics and science are best described as a 'Big Bang': over night, the Club of Rome had demonstrated the contradiction of unlimited and unrestrained growth in material consumption in a world of clearly finite resources and had brought the issue to the top of the global agenda." The report cited a number of scenarios some quite dismal. 

These thoughts however continued to persist even when data could not support such claims of catastrophe. In 1980 economist Julian Simon was so convinced of the wrong-headedness of claims about resource scarcity and population growth that he wagered Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich chose five metal resources: copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten that he believed would increase in price over the 1980s. Simon bet the prices of these commodities would all decrease. Simon won. The specifics of the bets and other subsequent bets are actually well documented on Wikipedia

In 1992 Limits of Growth came out with a renewed model that took account of new demographic trends in families, ecological realities such as soil erosion, and several other factors. The authors write, 

"If present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both 
population and industrial capacity" 

More doom and gloom. If I make it to 2092 I will know whether or not their prediction came true. But, there does seem to be a bewildering persistence in the message: Despite lower death rates, floundering predictions, and lost bets Neo-Malthusians still maintain the need for population control. For example, in Beyond Malthus (2002) the authors write, "What is needed, to use a basketball term, is a full-court press--an all-out effort to lower fertility, particularly in the high-fertility countries, while there is still time." The authors rationalize policies to lower fertility by citing the increased strain on resources. So, in the words of Gertrude Stein, "Is there any there there?" Are we overstraining resources?

The Journal of Economic Perspectives published a paper in 2004 called "Are We Consuming Too Much?" by Kenneth Arrow and massive list of co-authors including Paul Ehrlich. In the beginning of the paper they note the large increases in per capita consumption in the last 100 years. Energy has increased by a factor of 16. Fish Harvesting has increased by a factor of 35. Carbon emissions have increased by a factor of 10. There is no doubt whether consumption has increased. Also, there are concerns that we are consuming resources such as water at a rate faster than the aquifer will replenish. Once those facts are established we must ask the question, "Are we consuming too much?" And, "What would a sustainable pattern of consumption look like?" These authors characterize consumption as excessive if it limits the "productive base" for successive generations. The productive base consists of manufactured, natural, and human capital. They conclude that there is some excessive consumption but not by the rich countries ---generally by poorer countries. In the next post when I discuss the Neo-Institutionalists I will explain more about this conclusion. 

So, what is the moral of this story? The central point of this post has been to show that population growth is a concern to many people and has been persistent. The doomsday predictions have been failures. But, I suspect that those concerned about population growth are not crying at home with their head in hands. By writing such provocative narratives they have catapulted population growth into public awareness. And, they have many listeners regardless of how often they have been wrong. The next post hopes to illuminate why these arguments persist even in the face of hard data and past experience.   

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