Selling fairytales to the credulous
One Handed Economist David Zetland reviews a review by The Economist of the book Superabundance. I admit I did not read the book or even scan it. I will do so later when I have some time to do so. The subtitle kind of gives it away as it promotes (“The Story of) Population Growth, Innovation and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet.”
In the US there is a lot of noise about legal immigrants coming to the US. Our replacement rate has dropped to 1.7 which implies a decreasing population. The population did increase less than 1 million for the first time ever as recorded. It is the lowest increase there has ever been.
However, this does not imply nothing should be done. Carbon extraction should be minimized to where we are more efficient (I am not doing details here as I have given examples before). Unless our means of providing energy, larger populations leads to greater us and subsequently more threat to the environment. I hope you enjoy David’s post on The one-handed Economist.
“Selling fairytales to the credulous,”The one-handed economist (one-handed-economist.com), David Zetland
The Economist recently reviewed Superabundance, a book whose subtitle (The Story of Population Growth, Innovation and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet) evokes some combination of delusion and chicanery to anyone aware of our impact on the environment.
I wrote the following letter to the Editors:
Your review of “Superabundance” appears to written without engaging critical facilities.
The book argues that more people are good for our civilization. In doing so, it (or your reviewer) makes a few mistakes when recounting the story of “The Bet” between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simons, and especially in concluding that Simons’s victory “proved” that more people were a good idea.
First, The Bet was a “sucker bet” in the sense that it concerned resources traded in markets rather than ecosystems that are not. Simons, as a good economist, was right to believe that price signals would respond to scarcity, as they did. Ehrlich, as a ecologist, did not connect the dots between the supply of priced resources and the unpriced harm that their extraction and use inflicted on ecosystems that are not just beautiful to behold but essential to our survival.
Second, the authors’ argument that “more minds mean more solutions” makes no sense to anyone thinking “on the margin.” We now number 7.75 billion people, many of whom are working on reducing the impacts of population and — more worrying — overconsumption. What is the likelihood of an 8 billionth person discovering the secret to nuclear fusion or direct air capture of green-house-gases? Vanishing, given the human resources already deployed.
In sum, most of our problems arise from our private consumption of goods produced and priced in markets overwhelming shared ecosystems that are not. Yes, there are efforts to price carbon and value ecosystem services, but those efforts are built on political foundations that are too weak and too scarce. Researchers have very clearly shown that our conversion of “natural capital” into private goods and services is not just unsustainable but also grossly unfair to the world’s poorest 6 billion people.
I am not disagreeing with the moral right to have children. I am merely pointing out that more children will not reduce the risks our species faces from climate chaos, ecosystem collapse and crashing biodiversity.
…and then I got to thinking “WTF leads authors to write such books?”
I can think of three reasons:
- The authors collect speaking fees from the “business as usual” crowd — memorably portrayed by the “mine-the-asteroid” folks in “Don’t Look Up”
- They want to be popular with the “humans are amazing” crowd
- They are so tech-optimistic (“it takes more people to fix the problems caused by more people”) that they forget about the limits of technology.
My one-handed conclusion is that a significant share of humans (including the Economist here) are out to lunch. That’s a problem when we should be at our desks, taking action against the consequences of
lunch our destructive practices.
Evil usually pays better than Good, so let’s assume the author has received funding from GM, Exxon and Amazon, or hopes to in the futures.
The author is not alone in his belief in the Technology Fairy. Defenders of the Brilliance of Humanity have argued that technology and innovation have seen us through all our trials and tribulations over the past million years and so are proven solutions. More people=more ideas=more solutions=more people, in a virtuous cycle. Adam Smith and neoliberal economists use the same type of assumptions: resources are finite but not really; capital is finite but not really, and non-convexities (or diseconomies) can always be solved by the market.
One is reminded of the old joke about the man falling from the top of a forty story building. At every floor on the way down, someone shouts out a window, “how are you doing?” and the man replies, “So far, so good.”
Again Keynes understood— “ in the long run we are all dead”. We are genetically wired to exploit our environment and to think only in the short term. As a young lawyer, I was always amazed at corporate types looking no further ahead then the next quarter, but that was how they got paid and kept their jobs. If the company went belly up in 5 years that was not anything that concerned them.
Odd to bring up reactions about legal immigration to the US when such a discussion is massively dwarfed by conversations about immigration not per US law. Very similar population reasoning could be applied to those circumstances, so I struggle to understand the purpose of this distinction.
Were are the people flown to Martha’s Vineyard illegal? How about the others being bussed around by Abbott and
CostelloDeSantis? Illegals are stopped at the border. Has immigration increased in the last couple of months? The US general population increased by less than 1 million this last year. The lowest it has ever increased.
we should be at our desks, taking action against the consequences
In 1973 per capita per annum oil production was two barrels. by contrast the per capita per annum oil production is one barrel today. how many miles do you drive each year 12,000? 14 thousand? do you get about 400 miles on a tank of gasoline, about 400 miles on a barrel of oil? do you see how much Americans burn up? how little there is left over for everyone else on the planet? Now picture yourself living out one of their lives! That is the picture of your grandchild’s life.
When I went to Arabia in 1984 there were 11 million Arabs. Since then their population has doubled Twice. As the wells dry up they will regress back to the mean, the mean lives of Bedouins. So will your great grandson. We were blessed with oil but not with the wisdom to conserve our blessing, restrain our instinct to live beyond our means.
do not snub windmills! do not turn up your nose at photo panels in your neighborhood! Our blessing has now become :
See also: “Tom Murphy (physicist).
(2021). Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet. eScholarship, University of California. doi:10.21221/S2978-0-578-86717-5. ISBN 978-0-578-86717-5.
Based on his Do the Math blog postings.
The first link does not work. If you give it to me, I will fix it.
It’s just his Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Murphy_(physicist)
Hope the (free) book is of interest to people.
Fixed the link. Are you Prof. Tom? Interesting info. on the website. Have to say though, no one inexperienced does a level 5 rapids or the Royal Gorge. We were on the Arkansas doing 2, 3, and a couple of 4s. It was enough of a ride. Even then there is no turning back. In my early forties then and lifting weights, I could not force the raft to go in a different direction. I could only guide it around the rocks and avoid being tossed in the Arkansas.
Interesting post, The Ride of Our Lives.”
Well at least we have answered the age old question “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – Silent Spring – just as Rachel Carson told us so long ago.
Addressing the problems caused by the use of DDT and CFCs was a piece of cake compared to reducing our dependency upon oil for fuel and plastics. Thanks to Rachel there is an abundance of hawks and eagles once again. Fortunately for them there are also plenty of freshwater fish here, but saltwater fish have been on a rapid decline for half a century now due to both pollution and over-harvesting. Unfortunately for us and them, Rachel did not hang around long enough to lend us a hand with the climate change problem. She died of cancer just two years after Silent Spring was published. Plastics in our environment is a common carcinogen.
“…After a parable that begins the book by envisioning a future in which silence reigns over the world after pesticides have wrought their ultimate destruction on the environment, Carson lays out her basic thesis. In an interconnected world, she argues, man’s newfound power to change his environment needs to be wielded with extreme caution if we are to avoid destroying the very systems that support us…”
“…Given all of the information she presents, Carson argues that the only prudent way forward is to forego flashy, arrogant pursuit of the ‘easy’ solution and humbly return to the ‘road less traveled by,’ letting go of the conceit that nature only exists to serves (sic) the interests of humanity…”