Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Malthus, Again

This article on the increasingly perceptible "limits to growth" - appearing, no less, in the leading free market cheerleader, The Wall Street Journal - deserves to be read by everyone interested in continuing to live (I almost wrote "sustainable economy," but really, they are the same thing). While it maintains throughout the touching faith that innovation and technology will see us through the current encounter with limited resources across the board - petroleum, water, food, industrial materials, etc. - it also avoids the usual blithe dismissiveness toward longstanding fears that unfettered human appetite will end up completely devouring all provisions for our future survival, and even seriously entertains the question of whether Malthus was right after all.

The article concludes, "Indeed, the true lesson of Thomas Malthus, an English economist who died in 1834, isn't that the world is doomed, but that preservation of human life requires analysis and then tough action." We might replace the words "analysis" and "tough action" with "thoughtfulness" and "self-governance." Our future-disregarding assumptions of permanent growth has led us to what Wendell Berry has called "global ignorance" of the consequences of our actions, a kind of worldwide form of behavior that we have seen in a crystalline form in Bear Stearns. We have permitted ourselves the self-deception of thoughtlessness, particularly a willed and irresponsible ignorance toward the future. Believing that technology will solve any problems we might create, we accumulate literal and metaphorical debts, borrowing aggressively against the future in the belief that our children and theirs will be able to continue borrowing against their children's future. Is this how a civilization raises its young, is this the legacy we wish to leave?

Already we can see our tendency is to blame other people for this confrontation with limits. It's the Chinese and Indians. It's the oil companies. It's Bush/Cheney. It's the Islamofascists. In the felicitous phrasing of Jason Peters, "it’s like heavy traffic. Heavy traffic is always other people. When you say 'traffic was terrible' you’re never talking about yourself." Well, folks, the traffic is terrible. But the last thing we should be doing is building more roads.

Hat tip: Rod Dreher


Peter B said...

I wonder what you think on the distinction between material resource heavy growth and material resource light growth. In this sense, it can be argued that some types of economic growth are more taxing on the environment than others.

Take for example companies whose growth occurs primarily on the Internet... well take the primary example of google. This article addresses Google and Microsoft's energy use, and green commitment.

For Google... there is an extent to which their growth is taxing on the environment in that their growth requires more resources (energy to cool and heat buildings, etc). At the same time, their growth is coupled with increased green initiatives, and as noted earlier, the location of much of their growth is 'invisible' with regards to ecological footprint in that it is on the internet. Creating a new webpage for Google Maps, Gmail, and Google Docs is thus significantly less taxing on the environment than 3 new coal plants being opened.

How would you say we should deal with different types of growth? Should we applaud certain types of economic growth over others?

Scott D said...

Peter B,

This is a good question and I think the answer is YES, we must distinguish between different types of growth.

Hazel Henderson,

Robert Daly, Robert Costanza, Redefining Progress and Thad Williamson have been working on this for at least 15 years.

I think Deneen (and Wendell Berry) might say your light resource example Google is indeed different than a coal plant, though we should rather measure (and/or value) local production of goods and services (electricity, foods, arts) than get washed away in cyber-growth.

Anonymous said...

The article seeks to imply there is a correlation between population increase and the cost of resources. History shows exactly the opposite.

Even their graph denies it; population has grown exponentially over time, yet reources have rapidly decreased in cost when compared to GDP since we've kept records. In other words, our GDP goes up and up as population increases. Isn't it silly to expect for us to start conserving when things are cheap? Hardly "blithe dismissiveness"!

Finally, we expect world population to drop around 2050 due to people becoming more wealthy. There is not a single modern country who doesn't have a dropping population. This is the real fear: population drops could very well signal the end of our booming economy.

The reason why Malthus was so very wrong the first time is he forgets the importance of human capital. He believed Land, Labor, and Capital created wealth. This has proven false. Rather, it is People, Ideas, and Things that generate wealth. Resources are not what wealth hinges on. This is why a resource-empty places like Japan have 10 times the GDP as oil-soaked Saudi Arabia.

We have plenty of resources, but are always lacking in human capital to maniplate those reources. Note how resource rich Africa and Russia somehow keep starving while barren Europe and Japan somehow live well. While the WSJ worries about population increases, the intelligent person worries about the opposite, and looks not to anti-people ideology but rather to the facts of history as they stand.

Dave Gardner said...

The very fact that we're now discussing whether we might be able to identify some types of growth as okay or at least not as bad as others, indicates we still have not escaped our growth-centric paradigm. We need to stop trying to rationalize, excuse, or enable any kind of growth. It's just not a good goal.

As for growth lite, I've read that an information economy won't save us, as the value of most information is usually related to some type of extraction or production that is NOT light on the environment.

True sustainability has to leave growth at the door.

Dave Gardner
Hooked on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity

Peter B said...

David Gardner

I am going to have to disagree with you. I think taking the mindset that "all growth is bad" is just as dangerous as the mindset of "growth at the expense of all others." Should we not rather address the contingencies of the growth question... when is it valid? what are we hoping to 'grow'? what are the consequences of this growth?

It seems that the problem with the 'growth' paradigm as currently constructed is that it emphasizes growth AT THE EXPENSE of all other concerns. It is this mindset that we ought to be concerned with. At the same time, emphasizing no growth at all seems to fall into the same category mistake. It is a mistake in that it suggests that 'growth' is a normative rather than descriptive term... thus making it 'good' or 'bad.'

I am not opposed to arguments against growth, but I think we need to deal with them with a certain degree of nuance and clear argumentation.