In 1798, Thomas Malthus famously predicted that inexorable population growth would eventually surpass our planet’s ability to sustain humanity, leading to widespread famine, disease, and privation. He was wrong then, and he’s still wrong now, though there is no shortage of latter-day Malthus acolytes. Yesterday the New York Times wondered, “Might Thomas Malthus be vindicated in the end?” as it covered a recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):
[W]hat most stood out in the report from the panel, which gathers every few years to produce a synthesis of mainstream science’s take on climate change, was that it rolled straight into Malthus’s territory, providing its starkest warning yet about the challenge imposed by global warming on the world’s food supply. […][T]he new report is much more pessimistic about the prospect of extra grain production in the globe’s temperate zones, where more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase the rate of photosynthesis, raising yields, and warmer weather would lengthen the growing season.
The IPCC’s latest report does raise some very real worries about humanity’s ability to cope with a changing climate. But the Gray Lady gives the Reverend Malthus entirely too much credit—and humanity too little—when she says that “Malthus’s prediction was based on an eminently sensible premise: that the earth’s carrying capacity has a limit.” But this limit is not fixed; it’s elastic. And recent data suggest that this carrying capacity is not strictly a function of natural confines, but rather is dependent on humanity’s ability to innovate.Malthusianism is one of the most persistent delusions out there. It fails to grasp that people don’t just add cost—they add creativity and ingenuity. Population Bomb adherents think of people as bacteria on a petri dish that only eat their food supply, reproduce, and die. But people don’t just consume; they create. That creativity can never be predicted or measured in advance, which is why many projections into the future look like Malthusian doom scenarios. But thanks to adaptability and creativity, the human race always finds another way to thrive.We aren’t prepared to say that human creativity is infinite, but there aren’t many signs that we’ve yet glimpsed its limit. Indeed, the rise of biotechnologies and gene modifications suggest that we are on the verge of one of the greatest revolutions yet as IT and biology meet.Malthusianism is what you get when intellectuals lose touch with humanism, and forget just how creative and remarkable human beings are.