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Renewable Resource
Ex-Malthusian Attacks Neo-Malthusian Shibboleths

In the Wall Street Journal this past weekend, Matt Ridley, an author, former Economist staffer, and member of the British House of Lords, penned an excellent essay on the case for optimism about future standards of living. Ridley once held to the Malthusian position that humans will soon run up against inescapable limits on economic growth. But today he believes we can outsmart the limits on population growth and rising quality of life by “invent[ing] new ways of doing more with less.” In his article he takes on the arguments of neo-Malthusians piece by piece, and lays out some of the many ways innovations are already allowing humans to live better, longer, and more efficiently:

 Jesse Ausubel at Rockefeller University calculates that the amount of land required to grow a given quantity of food has fallen by 65% over the past 50 years, world-wide […]

Indeed, Mr. Ausubel, together with his colleagues Iddo Wernick and Paul Waggoner, came to the startling conclusion that, even with generous assumptions about population growth and growing affluence leading to greater demand for meat and other luxuries, and with ungenerous assumptions about future global yield improvements, we will need less farmland in 2050 than we needed in 2000 […]

In many respects, greater affluence and new technology have led to less human impact on the planet, not more. Richer people with new technologies tend not to collect firewood and bushmeat from natural forests; instead, they use electricity and farmed chicken—both of which need much less land.

Read the whole thing—as a basic summary of recent Malthusian positions and their empirical refutations it’s not to be missed. The mistake at the heart of those who obsesses about overpopulation, food production, clean water, and the effects of climate change is that in counting up all the limits on our natural resources they miss the one resource we know is inexhaustible: the human mind.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Do read the whole thing! In addition to demolishing the Malthusian argument, it includes this gem, “It is striking, for example, that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
    Change’s recent forecast that temperatures would rise by 3.7 to 4.8
    degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels by 2100 was based on
    several assumptions: little technological change, an end to the 50-year
    fall in population growth rates, a tripling (only) of per capita income
    and not much improvement in the energy efficiency of the economy.
    Basically, that would mean a world much like today’s but with lots more
    people burning lots more coal and oil, leading to an increase in
    emissions. Most economists expect a five- or tenfold increase in income,
    huge changes in technology and an end to population growth by 2100: not
    so many more people needing much less carbon.” In other words, the report makes the assumptions necessary to produce the desired result.

  • Jim__L

    Why in the world do they assume that this one planet is all we get? We demonstrated fifty years ago that our technology puts more than that within our reach.

    • B-Sabre

      Because, obviously 1) we should dismantle the polluting space programs (I remember seeing complaints about how much greenhouse gas Branson’s Virgin Galactic launch system would introduce into the atmosphere) and use the funds to fight global climate change, and 2) humans shouldn’t be allowed to “contaminate” the pristine “environments” of the other planets. Because humans are icky.

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