The first error is the Malthusian fallacy. In 1798, the English cleric Thomas Malthus predicted population would grow at an exponential rate, while food production would grow at a linear rate – resulting in disaster. I’ll explain.
Exponential growth means, by definition, population would grow by a constant percentage annually. Hence, population growth numbers each year would be greater than the growth numbers of the previous year. The linear growth of food available means the harvest each year would be a constant amount greater of crops and livestock than in the previous year.
With population growing by ever greater numbers per year and available food growing only at a constant annual quantity, the average amount of food for each person would decline until malnutrition and starvation would overtake many poor folks.
His population growth reasoning was that both human fertility rates and death rates were constant. So, population growth would continue annually at a rate equal to the difference between the fixed birth and death rates. Thus, exponential growth.
His food availability reasoning was that only a constant rate of arable land could be added each year to production of crops and livestock. This linear growth limit is implausible on its face, with population growing exponentially. However, his exponential assumption about population growth, which seemed obvious to him and his peers, also errs, as history has proven.
The Environmental Handbook was the bible for the first Earth Day. Its most remarkable prediction of disaster came from biologist Paul Ehrlich, who basically adopted and updated Malthus’ errors. In the Handbook and elsewhere, he claimed devastating famines would kill tens of millions of people in the 1970s and even 100-million to 200-million in the 1980s.
Like other environmental doomsday prophesies, his was wildly wrong. Thank goodness.
Many other Earth Day predictions were almost as spurious. The catastrophists essentially adopted some version of Malthus’ very limited supply forecast for minerals, metals, fuels and other resources. They also forecast people would be overwhelmed by various kinds of pollution, even as we exhausted resources, the use of which produces pollution.
They were spectacularly wrong on both counts, as the last half-century has shown. But even as early as 1972, John Maddox showed directly and in extensive detail many of their errors in his book The Doomsday Syndrome.
At the same time, economist and demographer Julian Simon explained their key error: The only meaningfully limited resource is human creativity. It extends theoretically finite resources via technological change and productivity growth to practically infinite levels, at least until substitutes are developed for those resources. Human creativity also finds more recoverable resources in the earth than the minds of catastrophists can imagine. And it hugely mitigates pollution.
Simon also showed that higher population concentrations produce higher per-person levels of creativity and thus more usable resources and less pollution.
A key element undermining the Malthusian fallacy is that government planning, command and control stifles this creativity and thus exacerbates resource and pollution constraints. People operating under individual liberty, private property rights and free markets, not the heavy hand of government, do remarkable things to solve these problems and promote aggregate human well-being and fairness.
They do things catastrophists cannot foresee due to their static, not dynamic approach to analysis and forecasting.
Besides the things people do to expand the supply side and mitigate pollution, on the demand side – that is, growth in population – they also make adjustments on their own. In the last half century, birth rates have fallen around the world. In fact, in half the countries, including the US and half the world’s people, fertility rates are now below replacement levels. So, the real population problem we now face is decline, not Ehrlich’s population bomb.
Another error environmentalists make is their forecasts and policy proposals are driven by ideological agendas, not by an unbiased quest for knowledge and service to the broad and true public interest. Essentially, environmentalism has become an apocalyptic religion or left-wing political ideology that’s predatory upon the public interest.
In next week’s column, on Earth Day, I’ll explain that and other errors.
Ron Knecht, MSc, JD & PE(CA), has served Nevadans as state controller, a higher education regent, economist, college teacher and legislator. Contact him at RonKnecht@aol.com.