The core prophecy attributed to Thomas Malthus and believed by the left is that the world population will grow until it overwhelms available resources, a huge dieback ensues, and survivors, if any, are permanently limited to a bronze age lifestyle because we've used up the energy and other resources they'd need to break out of that.
A 2014 essay by Mike Adams, from which I took all the excerpts below, makes an eloquent and heartfelt case for malthusian belief. Almost everything substantive he says in the essay is either wrong in itself or misapplied, but the fact that he says it clearly and with neither apology nor nuance gives it tremendous illustrative power in terms of what I want to do here: show both the essence, and the essential wrongness, of modern malthusian belief.
An Aside: I'm not picking on Mr. Adams because he's bad, or stupid, or dishonest -in this essay at least he's none of those things. I'm picking on him because he's very good at describing what he sees and thinks, even though almost nothing of what he sees and thinks is actually either there or correct. My impression is that Mr. Adams sees the world through the distorting lens of progressive belief and fairly presents what he sees - and, because that's what I want to explore here, I quote enough of his essay to give the reader as clear as possible an expression of what that is.
Here's his key introductory statement:
The question of overpopulation is not -- and has never been -- how many humans the planet can physically hold in terms of cubic meters and physical volume. The question is how many humans the biosphere can support in terms of sustainable life.
The Earth obviously has a finite amount of any given resource. The water volume is finite (but reusable if cleaned by nature). Oxygen production is finite. The amount of sunlight radiation reaching the surface of the planet is finite. Soil is finite. Rare earth minerals are finite. Oil is finite at any given moment in time, even if the Earth does produce more oil over long periods of time.
Given that all these things are finite -- and therefore not unlimited -- the global population that depends on these things for sustenance must obviously be finite as well. Anyone who argues that the human population can be "unlimited" even while depending on finite resources is being ridiculous.
No one would argue that the earth's physical resources aren't finite or that finite resources can support an infinite population - but what he presents as a logical argument proving that population growth will eventually overwhelm available resources depends on hidden assumptions that make this scenario the reductio ad absurdum of a highly simplified world view in which resources are used once and then gone, the population grows infinitely, and nothing about human behavior ever changes.
- it is wrong to assume that the earth's resources are like an inheritance that, once spent, is gone - the better analogy is to operating capital that once spent, is returned. The earth is not a lifeboat, there is no overboard - no matter how much of the earth's resources we use, we still have the same amount, albeit often in a chemically different form.
We can, for example, now make motor fuels by using fission energy to recombine carbon and hydrogen from sea water or the atmosphere - and that this could happen fairly soon has nothing to do with resource limits and everything to do with economics because engines designed to use synthetic gasolines can be about twice as efficient as those designed to use conventional fuels while totally eliminating thousands of micro-pollutants from the exhaust.
- it is wrong to assume that living space and nutrient/waste management seriously constrain the human population - what does constrain us, is the acceptance of economic change.
I assume it isn't going to happen, but we could, within the imaginatively foreseeable range of engineering and materials management advances, hide roughly 400 times the current human population of earth under a mile of water by building in the Marianas Trench - leaving more than 99.99% of the world completely unoccupied - and support them using nothing but fission and geothermal energy, minerals extracted from sea water, and food generated by recycling waste through the top twenty feet or so of the Philippine sea.
The reason it isn't going to happen is that people won't want to make it happen - and because generational increases in individual freedom at the national or regional level have always led to increased economic productivity with the latter then giving rise to both extended life expectancies and lower birth rates, any society capable of doing this isn't going to need to.
Conversely, however, every epoch and national or international region in which government extended the communications (and thus organizational) technologies of its time to increase its control over the masses has seen both decreases in economic productivity and long term degradation in living conditions among the masses as economic conditions force more and more to crowd into a decreasing number of important population centers and government then blocks their ability to advance. The same effect happens when government structures and cultural convention fail to keep pace with economic change - so when you look at places with the worst over-crowding and the deepest poverty, whether in India, Nigeria, or Latin America, the cause isn't over-breeding, it's governmental and social controls impeding adaptation to economic change.
In other words, a world in which people have the freedom to make their own choices will be able to deal with an over-population crisis but won't face one, while a world in which the socialist ethos dominates will face such a crisis but lack the means to deal with it.
Thus the bottom line on malthusian over-population is that this is a political choice: rely on market economics and human adaptability will make it a non issue; embark on an adventure in world-wide social planning and localized population driven catastrophes in the areas where central planners exert the greatest control become inevitable.
- it is wrong to assume that we stand apart from the planet's biosphere. It's a very old testament position, but in fact we evolved here as part of the biosphere. As a result it is wrong to ask how many people the biosystem can sustain - we're not uninvited guests over staying our welcome: we're part of the biosphere and so what we need to ask is not how the biosphere can sustain us, but how we will adapt as socio-economic conditions change.
Thus the Costco here in sunny Lethbridge serves more people every weekend than lived within two hundred miles of here 150 years ago. From the perspective of the people who lived here then, we are the promised Malthusian catastrophe. Except, of course, that we prosper - we live comfortably into our 80s and 90s, we export hundreds of thousands of tons of food and other products to the world, and we think of the region as underpopulated. They didn't: the tribes survived, but individuals died young - of cold, of starvation, in war, and in childbirth.
The land and its resources haven't changed, what's different is the way we use those resources - we now have many more people living much longer; but it's not a catastrophe, it's socio-economic evolution in action.
Thomas Malthus did not himself believe the scenarios he posited were real - what he studied was the means by which the invisible hand would shuffle the deck to avoid catastrophe - but the underlying mistake believers make is to assume that human socio-economic organization depends on resources; it doesn't, it depends on human interaction -on the power of ugh. Give people more choice, more freedom, more opportunity and they'll produce ever increasing wealth - and, in that process, drive both economic and social change to completely sidestep any threat of Malthusian catastrophe.
More from Adams:
What are the signs that we are living on borrowed time? Let me name just a few:
- In America, India and China, underground water aquifers that produce the food that feeds the population is plummeting rapidly. Many aquifers will be dry by 2040, including the Ogallala Aquifer that stretches from Texas to South Dakota and provides irrigation for the breadbasket agricultural hub of America.
Depletion of underground water aquifers has been declared imminent since they were first mapped out in the 1920s and 30s. It hasn't happened because the underground water system is not a stand alone system: it is a storage and transfer layer within the world's water cycle - connected to both surface and deep sub-surface water.
Transfers can be very slow with some aquifers running decades behind surface circulation, but the kind of concerted, long term, environmentalist action in removing water management infrastructure prevalent in California since the 1970s can only imbalance supply and demand in the short term; in the longer term the natural water cycle will continue largely unaffected.
Humans can, and do (as California is currently demonstrating) cause agricultural failures due to the drying up of water resources but almost all cases reflect the effect of, generally left wing, government policy; not natural change in the eco-system. The apparent drought in North Africa, for example, isn't mainly the result of reduced rainfall: it is most directly a consequence of the politically forced migration of millions of people and the skills they took with them from their home lands into areas too dry, too different, and too politically disorganized, to support them as they are.
- The pollution produced by the current population is murdering every ecosystem imaginable. Oceans are dying, coral reefs are dying, rivers are dying and rainforests are dying. If the human population were small compared to the total carrying capacity, we shouldn't see the natural ecosystems dying all around us.
Green mythology requires thousands of species to be dying out and organizations like the world wildlife foundation publish long lists of doomed species - usually subject to so many ifs, buts, assumptions, and other qualifiers that cynics can reasonably claim that nobody can name a single specifies of any significance driven to extinction by recent human activity.
Thus the reality is that, worldwide, reefs, like ice fields and polar bear populations, are growing rather than shrinking - and even the Micronesian islands are obstinately refusing to sink.
Rain forests are being cut back, but the driver for that is the green fuels hysteria - and many bird species, particularly raptors, are increasingly threatened, but mostly by windmills and solar plants. The American spotted owl is largely extinct, but only in areas where environmentalist success in stopping logging has fueled large fires - everywhere else, it's doing quite well.
In all of this diversity and distance are critical factors: there are significant problems, but most are localized and generally the result of political choices that cannot, in the long run, withstand the example of political and economic success outside the affected region or industry.
The bottom line on this is simple: you don't see ecosystems dying around you in any large scale way because it isn't generally happening - worldwide, economic prosperity is closely associated with personal freedom and sound environmental stewardship, not a rapine indifference to nature.
- Soils are disappearing across the world's agricultural centers. We are losing topsoil at a record pace around the world, and once those top soils are gone, food production yields plummet. (You can't feed the world by growing food in sand.)
Top soils are disappearing in some areas, but not where larger scale, mechanized, farming is practiced. Here in southern Alberta, for example, top soils are thicker and healthier now than ever before. Thus this is a real problem, but the answer is better farming practices, not depopulation.
The second statement is simply wrong: Israeli agriculture, built on sand, is among the most productive in the world.
- Humanity's voracious appetite for energy has led to the global proliferation of "Earth-killing" technologies such as nuclear power plants. The Fukishima disaster proved that demand for power has caused energy industries to risk the viability of human life across the planet in order to produce more power for humanity's artificial cities.
Fission power is the cleanest power source known. The total deaths attributable to all American nuclear facilities to date, including Three Mile Island, might be as high as one - and that one's doubtful. Wind, solar, and ethanol plant related deaths or injuries, in contrast, number in the hundreds.
A modern wind farm takes ten thousand acres, requires forty miles of road, produces power one third of the time, and requires over one hundred miles of high voltage transmission lines to connect to both the customer and the standby gas plant - in contrast a pair of GE reactor/turbines of the type used by the navy produces the same power, 24 x 7, and can fit in a corner of the typical office building parkade.
There have been fission industry disasters - but not in modern plants run according to engineering specifications. The Chernobyl reactors were an oversized copy of a long repudiated 1947 American design, and failed largely due to poor management practices - and the Fukishima disaster was triggered when a political appointee in Tokyo reacted to information about the failure of the under-spec standby power supply by ordering, against procedure and against engineering advice, the reactors flooded with sea water.
Similarly, there are specific and apparently increasing risks associated with a fairly large number of existing fission plants - but those plants are still using 1950s technologies in 1960s designs largely because NIMBY and environmentalist protest have prevented the adoption of newer, safer, technologies.
The solution is not to reduce energy use or shut down nuclear plants, but to bring world wide design and operational practices up to American standards while replacing older infrastructure with newer technologies.
- Hydrocarbons continue to drive the world economy, yet there's very good evidence that oil supplies in the Middle East are drying up (production is falling). While the planet can produce more hydrocarbons over millions of years, it cannot double its oil supply in a few decades. Thus, the demand for oil vastly outstrips the ability of the planet to produce it.
Peak oil has been declared on and off since about 1948, but so far both production and reserves have continued to expand. Eventually that will stop, but basic chemistry says that burning hydrocarbons has no effect on the earth's supply of hydrogen and carbon - so our ability to make synthetic hydrocarbons from air, seawater, and electrical power means that the supply is effectively infinite.
- Look at the outrageous crowding in cities like New York and Los Angeles. The highways exist in a seemingly endless logjam, and there's hardly a public open space left remaining anywhere in these cities, with New York's Central Park being the rare exception. Housing shortages and housing building materials shortages (wood, concrete, steel) are all very, very real. This is why building homes has become ridiculously expensive over the last few years. China is buying concrete and steel from the USA and shipping it overseas on large sea freighters.
Cities are more crowded, freeways more jammed, and home building more expensive than even twenty or thirty years ago but it is not because land is scarce or materials are running out, it's because (mostly leftist) regulation has made it so. In fact iron and the materials used to make concrete are among the most abundant found on earth - and, of course, more than 95% of the earth's surface has no one living on it.
- The depletion of ocean fisheries is also very real. As the human population over-fishes the oceans in search of food, ocean life is experiencing an unprecedented die-off. Many species have plummeted to "red alert" levels due to over-fishing.
Over fishing happens - and the recent discovery that perhaps 90% of the ocean's biomass had been missed in previous surveys extends the limits but does not alter the fact. The answer, however, is fish farming: impeded, of course, by environmentalists, but already rapidly taking over markets for specialties like shrimp, salmon, and trout. Fish farming does for fish harvesting what animal husbandry did for hunting.
I could go on, but the point is that when I look around, I do not see a world functioning with excess capacity. I see a world that seems to be over-tapped, over-exploited, over-farmed and over-populated. Nearly every river that empties into the oceans creates a massive "dead zone" of chemicals, heavy metals and pharmaceutical runoff. Chemical contamination has become so alarmingly bad that every person reading this carries 250+ synthetic chemicals in their bodies that don't belong there. Autism is skyrocketing, cancer is striking younger and younger children, and the food is increasingly tainted with pollutants caused by humankind.
This is not the description of a planet with excess carrying capacity. This is a description of a planet that is DYING.
Everything about this paragraph is both right and wrong. It's all wrong because what he sees happening, isn't; because the linkages he assumes are real are generally not, and because phrasing like "and the food is increasingly tainted with pollutants caused by humankind" gives away his deepest, and most incorrect, belief: that humans are both foreign to this world and a plague on it.
However, he's also right - Dan Rather, of course, was making stuff up to serve a political end when he publicized a fabricated story designed to hurt George W. Bush, but the words he used to defend his actions: "the facts were wrong, but the story was true" might reasonably apply to what Adams does here. Compare South Korea to North Korea or Haiti to the Dominican Republic, and it's immediately obvious under what circumstances the story Adams tells is sort of true - and under what circumstances it's completely wrong.
The world is not remotely "over-tapped, over-exploited, over-farmed and over-populated" but the communists in eastern Europe came close to making his nightmare real, those in south east Asia and China are still working on it, and the crazies killing each other over tribal, religious, or political conflicts in Africa and parts of Latin America have made parts of the story true for far too many.
The point about diversity made above applies here: North Korea cannot stand indefinitely against the example of South Korea; Cuba will eventually collapse; Venezuela is close to collapse now; and so on - everywhere the worst excesses occur the political system eventually recovers and, with it, both the environment and the human quality of life.
In that context, there's another reason I'm picking on Adams in this essay: he has a section I wanted to quote in full because, although many of the things he assumes as fact, aren't; I agree completely with all but one of the sentiments he expresses:
But beware of population control eugenicists
All this does not mean, by the way, that I support the globalist population control agenda. Governments and global controllers are seizing upon the overpopulation problem and using it to justify mass murder.
The population control agenda is being run right now, right under your nose, through programs like toxic vaccines, free abortions, Geo-engineering pollution (chemtrails) and GMOs. The point of all this is to collapse the human population and get it "closer to zero," as Bill Gates often explains.
People like Gates and Ted Turner openly admit they are pursuing population control measures, but they call it safe-sounding things like "reproductive health." In no way do I support their death agendas for the human race, and I do not support their contention that the global population should be reduced by 90% or so (depending on who you ask). Ted Turner wants the population to be no more than 1 billion people. That means somehow six billion people have to die.
So how do we solve this problem? Well, frankly, we don't. Because we're such an infantile race of stupid creatures just barely more intelligent than apes, we are going to ride this crazy train of idiocy right into the ground. We are going to burn out this planet, kill the ecosystem, poison the waters and taint the skies. And most of the population is going to giggle all the way to their own graves as they perish from the very same systems of self-destruction they voted for at the polling booths.
The exception, of course, is the business about not solving the problem. It's just politics, if we want to solve it, we can. I'm writing this during Passover - and the revolt against the pharaoh makes for a pretty good model on how to deal with this. So does Christianity, and, most importantly, so does the American Constitutional idea: treat people as responsible adults making their own decisions, and we'll collectively build that clean and shining city on the hill.