Now that the world has survived the Y2K bug, doomsayers will be casting about for another looming catastrophe to scare us with. Many will settle on an old classic: We are outstripping the earth’s ability to support us.
This idea, which has been around for 200 years or so, has survived despite the many wrong predictions it has generated. Unlike the Y2K panic, it seems impervious to facts.
"The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man," the British economist Thomas Robert Malthus wrote in 1798. "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio."
Without deliberate population control, Malthus argued, there would never be enough food for everyone. A certain portion of the human race would always be condemned to a life of bare subsistence, with the population kept in check by starvation.
Since then, assorted critics of capitalism have embellished Malthus’s bleak scenario. Chicken Littles such as Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich and the Worldwatch Institute’s Lester Brown have warned that we are running out of just about everything that humans use, including water, fuel, wood, metals, and arable land.
In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Ehrlich declared: "The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked on now."
You don’t remember the famines? Then you probably also missed the "Great Die-Off" of the 1980s, when billions of people, including 65 million Americans, starved to death. Or so Ehrlich predicted in 1970.
In a less dramatic but equally decisive refutation of the anti-growth faith, the economist Julian Simon bet Ehrlich in 1980 that the inflation-adjusted price of "any standard mineral or other extractive product you name" would be lower a decade later. Ehrlich picked five metals, and in 1990 he had to pay up.
If the neo-Malthusians are embarrassed by such blunders, they’re not letting on. In Culture Jam, his recent critique of "our mediated, consumption-driven culture," Adbusters magazine publisher Kalle Lasn pushes "ecological economics," which holds that "the world is already ‘full’ and further expansion will lead us into an ecological nightmare, a prolonged and possibly permanent ‘age of despair.’ "
The Competitive Enterprise Institute offers a cogent response to that position in Earth Report 2000 (McGraw-Hill), a collection of illuminating essays edited by Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine’s science correspondent. As Bailey notes in the first chapter, the Malthusian view has been thoroughly discredited by experience.
For one thing, production has more than kept up with population growth. "Between 1820 and 1992," writes Bailey, "world population quintupled even as the world’s economies grew 40-fold."
Malthus was also wrong to think that "population...invariably increase[s] where there are means of subsistence." In fact, notes Bailey, "we find that the countries that are the wealthiest and have the greatest access to food--the United States, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, France--are precisely those countries that have the lowest birth rates, all of them below replacement levels."
Likewise, the neo-Malthusians are wrong to think that economic growth inevitably leads to environmental degradation. In fact, as Bailey’s book shows with data on air pollution and other indicators, "greater affluence means an improving natural environment, not a worsening one."
It’s true enough, as opponents of growth constantly remind us, that the earth’s resources are finite. But what Malthus missed, and what his ideological heirs fail to appreciate, is the human ingenuity that enables us to arrange those resources in an infinite variety of combinations.
The improvements in agriculture that we have seen in the last century, on a scale beyond anything that Malthus imagined, are just one example of that ingenuity. "The United States uses less than half of the land for farming in the 1990s than it used in the 1920s," Bailey notes, "but it produces far more food now than it did then."
Market incentives constantly drive people to find ways of doing more with less, to devise better "recipes" for the things they need and want. "Two centuries after Malthus," Bailey concludes, "we now know that the exponential growth of knowledge, not of our numbers, is the real key to understanding the promising future that lies ahead for humanity and for the earth."