More than two centuries after Malthus first published An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, the long-running philosophical battle it triggered rages on. On one side are those who believe in biophysical limits to growth on earth; on the other are those who disparage any such “limits” as a fabrication of the faint-hearted and feeble-minded.
This is basically a struggle between those who accept that the earth is round and those who fantasize that it is flat. A round earth is by its very nature bounded and finite – a fundamental property of Euclidean geometry. In contrast, a flat earth could hypothetically extend infinitely in all directions. It beckons us onward and outward, forever and ever without limit.
The first model of reality entails physical limits to growth, while the second implies infinite and endless possibilities limited only by our imagination and ingenuity.
Only a killjoy could ignore Infinity’s invitation to grow into the garden of the gods. The only resource that really matters – the Ultimate Resource as the late guru of growth Julian Simon called it – is the unshackled human mind. Or as Toy Story’s beloved star Buzz Lightyear so memorably distilled the dream: “To Infinity…and Beyond!”
The Wall Street Journal has long been a den of flat-earthers, even before media mogul and growth ideologue Rupert Murdoch added it to his empire. Among other things, its editorial page pushes for open borders because there are no limits to the number of people and workers the United States can absorb, now or ever. Pack the people in and stack the dollars high.
The subtitle of a recent piece by Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens (“Does Environmentalism Cause Amnesia?” WSJ, Nov. 4) smirks: “Climate-change alarmists warn us about coming food shortages. They said the same in 1968.”
That was the year in which Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich’s best-selling bombshell book The Population Bomb was published. Like many non-scientist pundit boomsters, Bret Stephens gets his jollies out of showing just how silly Professor Paul and fellow doomsters William and Paul Paddock (authors of Famine 1975!) were.
Granted, Ehrlich’s penchant for bold and brash statements is what propelled his tidy little book to millions in sales, made him a media darling and garnered him many visits to The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. You’re going out on a limb when you make the audacious claim that:
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.
That hundreds of millions did not die in the 70s and 80s was due to the advances of biotechnologist and Green Revolution pioneer Norman Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 1970 for his efforts. Few would argue that the late Dr. Borlaug was an alarmist. Yet he himself said in 1997:
Though I have no doubt yields will keep going up, whether they can go up enough to feed the population monster is another matter. Unless progress with agricultural yields remains very strong, the next century will experience sheer human misery that, on a numerical scale, will exceed the worst of everything that has come before.
In other words, if Borlaug is right, hundreds of millions may yet die unless the “population monster” is tamed. So it may be that Paul Ehrlich’s timing was just off.
Furthermore, because of its dependence on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and heavy inputs of energy and water, the Green Revolution is not only environmentally very damaging but ultimately unsustainable, even without the threat of climate change.
Bret Stephens and others of his ilk can go on cackling all they like, but the last laugh will be on them. Unfortunately, their last laugh will be a tragedy for humanity and the biosphere.