Posted by: bkivey | 24 August 2010

Limits To Growth?

In the 1 August edition of The Oregonian an essay titled “The fallacy of growth in a finite world” was published, written by former Oregonian managing editor Jack Hart. Mr. Hart is apparently a Malthusian, and he trots out the usual Malthusian tropes in his arguments against societal growth: human desires are infinite, physical resources are finite, ergo growth must reach a limiting point, death and destruction will follow when those limits are reached. ‘Malthusian Catastrophe’ is the term used to describe this situation, and has been popularized by economists such as Paul R. Erlich.

Thomas Malthus entire construct was based on two postulates: Humans will always reproduce, and humans require food to survive. His conclusion was that because the desire was infinite and food finite, the limit to societal growth would come at the intersection of the two curves. Followers of Malthus have extended his hypothesis to other natural resources; an extrapolation not justified by the original thesis. 

Perhaps the most famous popularization of Malthus’ theory was the 1972 book ‘The Limits to Growth’, a study commissioned by the Club of Rome, and considered canon by the environmental movement. The book reports the results of the modeling of  then-current depletion rates of several mineral resources against known reserves and predicted that the world would run out of many natural resources by the mid-1990’s, including oil.

The primary problem with Malthusian thinking is that it doesn’t take into account human ingenuity and basic economics. Every doommonger in history, from the Neanderthal worried about wooly mammoth depletion to the neo-pagan practising global warmism, has mistaken conditions of the moment without change in parameters as an accurate model of reality. Despite the overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, there are people who can’t be swayed from this view. In the past several decades they have become increasingly vocal, despite the fact that they’ve been wrong about pretty much everything.

Addressing Malthus’ primary parameter, the food supply, food production has been increasing faster than population growth since 1961. World population has been growing exponentially for 150 years but the rate of growth has been declining since the 1980’s. The fact that much of the world’s population is malnourished is more a function of local government malfeasance than limitations in the world food supply.

It is worth pointing out that much of the growth in the food supply comes from discoveries and techniques developed in the Western world, and much of that from large corporations, two entities much reviled by the Left. As they say in Kansas, don’t complain with your mouth full.

People who profess concern over resource depletion display a fundamental ignorance of economics. For a given resource, demand will dictate the feasibility of resource exploitation. If demand rises, the price of the resource will rise, so it becomes economically viable to develop ever more ingenious ways to exploit additional reserves. If demand increases enough, then it becomes practical to develop alternatives to the original resource, thus opening new markets and increasing economic and thus societal growth.

Human beings as a rule aren’t very good at long-term planning. We are much more reactive than proactive, a function, perhaps, of our relatively short life spans and innate independence. This is why central planning has failed every time it’s been tried, much to the chagrin of social engineers on the Left. No one can predict or plan for the infinitely creative ways humans solve problems.

Mr. Hart severely weakens his argument when he likens growth to an ‘addiction’. This is a favorite trope of the Left, to liken a natural process to a medical condition. The implication is that people can somehow overcome what is a primary function of all organisms, indeed, of any organized system. The biological imperative is ‘Grow or Die’. Growth is inherent in any biological system, including social systems and organizations devised by humans. We are, after all, biological organisms.

In his essay Mr. Hart advocates a ‘steady-state’ economy which will somehow magically provide every person on the planet with a living income and ‘protect the planet’, whatever that means. He doesn’t bother to give even the vaguest idea of how this can be accomplished, I suspect because 1) he has no idea and 2) what he’s describing is impossible.

This view has three serious flaws. In the first place, humans are not steady-state organisms, for reason previously cited. Do Mr. Hart and his ilk seriously believe that people are going to be satisfied with a society where there is no possibility of personal economic growth? Perhaps he should talk to the majority of people who do not live in the developed world. He cites studies that show Nigerians with the same level of ‘happiness’ as the Japanese, but I’ve worked with Nigerians; there’s a reason they were living in the U.S. and not Nigeria.

The second flaw in the premise is that even if global resources were somehow divided among the population, population growth would still occur, so over time there would be fewer resources per capita; people would become progressively poorer. And historically even the most liberal governments have taken increasing shares of personal property, so economic growth is necessary just for people to maintain the status quo.

The third flaw is that for a society to work, there must be some economic disparity. I don’t know the actual name of this concept, but I call it the Carnot theory of economics. The theory is that there must be some mechanism to facilitate  individual aspiration in order to satisfy the basic human desire for self-betterment. In a steady-state system this can’t occur, and people will become frustrated and disruptive.

Near the end of his essay Mr. Hart cites several sources advocating for limiting growth. All of them cite the ‘one planet’ trope. It is demonstrable that we do not have only ‘one planet’. What we have is one middle-age, medium-sized star, seven other planets, hundreds of moons, and millions of asteroids conveniently cut up into pieces. The technology to exploit these essentially unlimited resources is either on the shelf or in near-term development. It is not currently economically feasible to go after these resources, but you can bet that as soon as someone can make money, they’ll be going after them. Solaren and Pacific Gas & Electric are already starting by putting solar power satellites in orbit in the next few years. It’s a start.

Despite the adolescent whining  and wishful thinking of Mr. Hart and his fellow travelers human societies are going to grow and human beings are going to want to have the opportunity to better their circumstances. That’s how people work. Far better to figure out ways to accommodate growth, and make some money doing it, than ignore the realities of biology.



  1. Have you read The Limits to Growth? I did, this past weekend. It does not say we will run out of resources by the 1990s. That was a lie, made up by Ronald Bailey, a writer. It went viral. The writers of The Limits to Growth were not, as you may suppose, stupid. They were well aware that resource discoveries were taking place, and that technology and efficiencies and recycling are dynamic. They said, with continued exponential growth of population and the economy, the world would run short of resources by 2070, or choke on its own pollution. They have 60 years to be proven wrong.

    • Robert,

      Thanks for reading. You are correct that the book does not specifically say that the Earth would be depleted of some specific resources by a date certain; as is pointed out here. As the author of the cited document points out (pg. 14): “The book then postulated that if a continuation of the exponential growth of the seventies (italics mine) began in the world’s population, its industrial output, agricultural and natural resource consumption and the pollution produced by all of the above, would result in severe
      constraints on all known global resources by 2050 to 2070.”

      My point was that one cannot make reasonable predictions about a dynamic system using static equations. Examples of the types of exponential equations used in statist modeling can be found here. A more accurate modeling of dynamic systems can be found in the Lotka-Volterra equations, familiar to anyone who has taken a DE course. While the initial assumptions in the most basic form of the equations are simplistic, they do allow for more sophisiticated modeling of supply-demand systems, especially when the instability of the fixed points in the system are taken into account.

      I stand by my assertion that many people look at dynamic systems in static terms and assume that those are the parameters under which the system functions. I would also like to make clear that I don’t think that the authors of “Limits to Growth” were stupid, far from it, nor do I think that people who disagree with me about current resource availability or utilization are stupid. But it is entirely possible to be smart and wrong, and it’s not unkown for very smart people to draw erroneous conclusions, willingly or otherwise, because they want to advance a certain narrative.

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