Thursday, Dec 23, 2010

Thomas Malthus, the messiah of modern-day Malthusianism, argued in the early 1800s that food production wouldn’t be able to keep pace with human reproduction, and as a result there would be ‘epidemics, pestilence and plagues’ that would sweep off millions of people. Yet in his era, there were only 980million people on Earth – today there are more than that in China alone and they all have food to eat. Malthus’s problem was that he also saw natural limits where in fact there were social limits. His fundamental pessimism meant he considered it impossible for mankind to develop beyond a certain, nature-enforced point. And yet, shortly after he made his population pronouncements, through the industrial revolution and various social revolutions, mankind did overcome many social limitations and found new ways to make food and deliver it to people around the globe.

In Ancient Rome, one of the main uses of coal was to make jewellery. Women liked the look of this glinting black rock hanging around their necks. No one could have imagined that thousands of years later, coal would be used to power massive steam engines and an entire Industrial Revolution, forever changing how we produce things and transport them around the world.

The exact same resource can do very, very different things, depending on social and technological development. It was social limits, not physical limits, which meant that Ancient Romans could not use coal to make things move and other ancient communities could only use uranium to make glass look yellow. And the main problem with resource-pessimists such as Malthusians is that they continually misinterpret social limits as physical limits. They naturalise social limits, reinterpreting and re-presenting problems of social development as problems of nature’s shrinking bounty. They make the fatal flaw of arguing that the main barrier to progress and human comfort is the barrier erected by nature’s limited resources, when in fact it is the barrier erected by crises of social imagination.

That is why they are wrong about absolutely everything, why every prediction made by every population scaremonger throughout history has failed to materialise. A very early resource panicker was the second-century Christian philosopher Tertullian. In 200AD, Tertullian said: ‘We are burdensome to the world, the resources are scarcely adequate for us… already nature does not sustain us.’

But back then, there were only 180million human beings on the entire planet – about the same number that currently lives in the eastern part of the United States. The problem for Tertullian was his understandably limited imagination. In his time, pretty much the only known resources were animals, plants and various metals and minerals. Tertullian had no way of conceiving of the enormous abundance of resources inside the Earth, which lay dormant because of social limitations not natural ones.

It seems very clear to me that today, still, the main problem we face is absolutely social rather than natural. We now live under a cult of sustainability, a social and political framework which says that we should never overhaul what exists and should instead make do with the world as it is. The idea of sustainability is anti-exploration, anti-experimentation, anti-risk – all the qualities we need if we are going to make the kind of breakthroughs that earlier generations made with coal and uranium and other resources. In contrast to the past, today human society is accommodating to social limitations, and accepting the idea that they are natural, rather than trying to break through them. The Malthusian mindset is winning, and that is a tragedy for all of us.

Think the Earth is finite? Think again, Brendan O’Neill, November 8, 2010,