Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Proclamations of Malthusian Prophets

Among the Jehovah's Witnesses, there is a pervasive sense of impending, eminent, armageddon. But in the early decades of this movement's history, the eschaton was not only eminent, but tied to specific dates. The first date was 1914. Observers noted at the time that the world did not end. So the leaders of the movement concocted an explanation for why the world had not ended but that they were not actually wrong to say so, and pushed the real date forward to 1918. Later, the same prediction was rolled forward to 1925, 1941, and 1975. At none of these points did the world end, and the failure of these predictions to come true did much to discredit the Jehovah's Witnesses -- at least among critics. Alas, the failed prophecies did not do enough to discredit the movement, and it is presently thriving and growing around the world.

I was reminded of this slice of history upon reading an article in Scientific American entitled "Another Inconvenient Truth: The World's Growing Population Poses a Malthusian Dilemma." It contains the usual doomsday predictions made by Malthusians for more than a century: that the world cannot support an increased human population, and that mass famines are inevitable. You may have heard of Paul Ehrlich, a major eschatologist of the 1960s and 70s, whose book The Population Bomb was a best-seller. His dire predictions, extended decade after decade, did not come to pass, yet he still thrives as a paid writer and speaker.

And now another generation of prophets makes the same predictions, based upon the same models, for the near future. Despite their track record, I'm willing to hear them out.

But this is absolutely critical: the current crop of prophets must explain why previous predictions have never come true. They must explain why the Malthusian methodology was flawed, and how their methodology is substantially different.

Otherwise, there's no reason to take them seriously.

13 comments:

Mark L. Kramer said...

John,
Join us at Zombie Living...

jockeystreet said...

I haven't read Ehrlich's book, though I recently borrowed a copy and plan to read it soon.

I think it's a mistake for anyone predicting doom to tie themselves to dates and numbers. Even if the reasoning is sound, there are just way too many variables, there are possibilities that one could not have imagined, and when a date or a number comes and goes, it tends to discredit the whole notion... even if the notion is basically sound.

So it's a mistake for Ehrlich or anyone else to pretend that they know exactly what the future holds.

But...

It seems to me absurd that people would discredit the general theory. The fact that Ehrlich's details were wrong does not mean that he was on the wrong track, just that he was perhaps too sure of himself. I mean, it's very, very basic. You can not have infinite growth in a finite system. In any tank, the fish can only get so big before it's too big. It is absurd to think that the population can grow and grow and grow and grow without negative consequences. And I think that we are already seeing those negative consequences. I think, inevitably, if we do not change course, it will get worse. Exactly how much worse, and precisely when we'll see that, is not something that I can say.

bob said...

The Malthusians are much like the global warming doom and gloomers. Seeing only negatives and dire consequences from population growth or warming of the planet.

Man is truly very adaptable and innovative when need be. Crop production keeps rising to fight the famines predicted. The earth's temperature has never been stagnate and no one is saying what the optimum temperature should be.

We will survive.

John said...

It seems to me absurd that people would discredit the general theory. The fact that Ehrlich's details were wrong does not mean that he was on the wrong track, just that he was perhaps too sure of himself. I mean, it's very, very basic. You can not have infinite growth in a finite system. In any tank, the fish can only get so big before it's too big. It is absurd to think that the population can grow and grow and grow and grow without negative consequences. And I think that we are already seeing those negative consequences. I think, inevitably, if we do not change course, it will get worse. Exactly how much worse, and precisely when we'll see that, is not something that I can say.


This would be true, if (a) we were living in a closed system and (b) 'finite' is definable as a concept.

A. We have an entire universe to subdue and exploit and are not limited to this planet.

B. As Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich's famous bet pointed out, we can't place any fixed number on the resources that we have available. The most obvious example is oil: as time has progressed, our available reserves worldwide have grown because we include hydrocarbons in the total that were previously left out because we lacked the technology to exploit them. What scientists and geologists had assumed was fixed and permanent proved to be flexible and growing.

I would add that while it may seem absurd to claim that Ehrlich's theory was wrong in general, it's worth noting that every single time the theory has been practically applied, it has been wrong. And yet Ehrlich and others are still using it. Should not their position, rather than those of skeptics, be considered absurd?

jockeystreet said...

Wait. Ehrlich and others are saying that we should slow down on this whole population growth thing because there's only a limited amount of resources on this planet, and eventually we're going to hit the end, find ourselves in rough shape.

You're saying nuh-uh, because we can leave in our spaceships and build cities on the moon? And people who still listen to Ehrlich are the silly ones?

Hmmmmm. As much as I love Star Trek, I'm going to go with the decision that doesn't require us to fly off in spaceships, even if that decision comes with the terrible inconvenience of having to make responsible choices right here and now.

John said...

Who's being silly? The population bomb has never happened, whereas we have actually travelled off-planet -- and brought stuff back.

The population bomb theorists advance an idea that has been specifically refuted using their own standards, over and over again. The believe it requires one to reject the available evidence. It is counterfactual. It is faith, not science.

Which side is being silly?

BruceA said...

There is this: More than a billion people are already malnourished. If the population continues to grow — particularly in the poorest countries — more people will starve.

But that's more a political problem than an agricultural one. We grow enough food to keep everyone on the planet well-fed, and even send enough aid to impoverished countries to end chronic hunger. But corrupt governments keep food away from the people who need it. Population control won't solve that problem.

jockeystreet said...

I disagree that population control wouldn't solve that problem. Maybe not solve completely, but it would help.

Jared Diamond did a good job in "Collapse" of tying the horrors that took place in Rwanda to overpopulation, over crowding. I won't try to replicate his fairly complex arguments/evidence in this tiny space, rather I'd suggest that anyone with time in interest read "Collapse," which is good on many levels (I'd also recommend "Plan B 2.0," can never remember the author's name though).

There's already enough food to feed the world, so population may not be directly responsible for starvation. But when you have overcrowding, tension, ethnic rivalries fueled by close proximity and scarce personal resources, people living on public assistance from other countries, the overpopulation aggravates the situation, people withhold access, etc.

Dan Trabue said...

I've read in places (and am not able to recall the whole argument now, nor do I have time to research it) and I believe the point has been fairly well made that Ehrlich's predictions weren't that far wrong and that his predictions/warnings were correct/valid (if overheated) based on data available at the time, but then some factors changed, thus changing the equation leading to Ehrlich's predictions.

Ehrlich did not know how "successful" the Green Revolution would be (I think there are many complaints one might have with it, hence "successful..."). We have been able to feed more than they foresaw thanks to using petrochemicals to artificially increase productivity. But this is not sustainable way of feeding 7 billion (9 billion? 10 Billion??) people. So, the point remains that we are living in a world with finite resources and can't continue growing without limits.

And, as the Ehrlich's point out: People HAVE starved to death - Millions of them - in the years since they predicted mass starvation.

Here's Ehrlich responding to the book today.

John said...

Bruce wrote:

There is this: More than a billion people are already malnourished. If the population continues to grow — particularly in the poorest countries — more people will starve.


Some, yes. A worldwide food shortage? No. It's important to keep this problem in perspective.

But that's more a political problem than an agricultural one. We grow enough food to keep everyone on the planet well-fed, and even send enough aid to impoverished countries to end chronic hunger. But corrupt governments keep food away from the people who need it. Population control won't solve that problem.


I agree. This is why we should promote capitalism and individual liberty as much as possible. Those are the surest guarantees against hunger.

John said...

There's already enough food to feed the world, so population may not be directly responsible for starvation. But when you have overcrowding, tension, ethnic rivalries fueled by close proximity and scarce personal resources, people living on public assistance from other countries, the overpopulation aggravates the situation, people withhold access, etc.


These are true problems, as Bruce describes. But they aren't worldwide Malthusian problems, and it's important to not blow them out of proportion, as Ehrlich and others do.

John said...

Dan wrote:

I've read in places (and am not able to recall the whole argument now, nor do I have time to research it) and I believe the point has been fairly well made that Ehrlich's predictions weren't that far wrong and that his predictions/warnings were correct/valid (if overheated) based on data available at the time, but then some factors changed, thus changing the equation leading to Ehrlich's predictions.


Ehrlich's major error -- and the reason why we lost his best with Julian Simon -- was that he assumed that resource quantities were knowable and that resource extraction and usage capabilities were fixed. This is why he was not only wrong in the 1960s, but has been consistently wrong every single time that he predicted a population bomb.

So, the point remains that we are living in a world with finite resources and can't continue growing without limits.


While it is true that there are limits to our resources, this is a meaningless assertion at the practical level because our capacity for detection, extraction, and usage of natural resources as only increased. This is why Ehrlich lost his bet with Simon and why his predictions never came true.

I hope that Seed Magazine author Steve Olson is inaccurate when he characterizes Ehrlich with these words:

Ehrlich would not be so circumspect. People need to be provoked to take action, he believes. If that requires enlivening the facts with a dash of speculation, so be it.


Because that means that it's okay to lie in order to advance a political cause. That's ethically on par with Sarah Palin's "death panels" comment. In my value system, that's unacceptable.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Isaac Asimov essay where he computed how long it would take for the weight of humanity to equal the weight of the planet. Unless the birthrate is ZERO, this WILL happen, the only question is when.