Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Mathusian Devil is Knocking

Thomas Malthus was a demographer who in 1800 predicted that human population was increasing so rapidly it would outstrip the Earth's resources. Famine and catastrophe would inevitably follow. But the calamity that Malthus predicted never arrived. Remarkably, the production of food—not to mention a cornucopia of consumer goods—has kept pace with population growth. And the standard of living, on average, has improved significantly.

So why was Malthus wrong? First, he did not count on the ability of new-world frontiers like North and South America to absorb people and provide resources. More crucially, Malthus vastly underestimated the power of human ingenuity, namely science and technology. Plant genetics, fertilizers and pesticides have increased crop yields enormously; synthetic materials have led to mass-produced clothes; and automated production lines have manufactured countless consumer goods.

But there is an ominous chill in the air, for the Devil is finally knocking. He didn't come in through the front door, for the world is not suffering for lack of resources, as was predicted. Furthermore, human ingenuity will continue to find ways of making do. Take energy, for example. When oil reserves become short, they will be replaced by solar, wind, nuclear, hydrogen, clean coal, and—if we are desperate enough—even dirty coal.

Instead, the Devil has snuck in the back door. He is quietly and surely contaminating our environment and destroying the natural ecosystems on which life depends. We humans are incredibly motivated to produce the necessities (not to mention our luxuries), but there is no motivation to clean up behind us. It's an inconvenience.

That's why everywhere we look, there is pollution. And now there is global warming, which we are incapable of stopping. With pollution and environmental degradation having reached global scale, the outlook is grim, especially since the number of pollution-creators continues to grow robustly.

1 comment: said...

Perhaps it would be useful to observe that 220 years have passed since Thomas Malthus presented his seminal work on human population growth. One thing I find remarkable is how often, in over two centuries, so-called and often self-proclaimed experts have repeatedly felt the need to 'disprove' this great (and dismal) work by one of the most thoughtful observers of the human condition since the period of the Enlightenment.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population, established 2001