Thursday, February 16, 2012

Taking the Scare out of Scarcity

Review of Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think, New York: Free Press, 2012.

The human community occupies a planet of finite resources. As population grows, people and nations will necessarily compete with increasing ferocity. Scarcity-driven crises will provoke dramatic oscillations in human welfare, leading almost inevitably to a collapse of civilization.

Got that?

Welcome to the world of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, author of An Essay on the Principle of Population. The core thesis of Malthus’s 1798 masterwork is neatly summarized in a line early in the book: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” 

The logic behind the argument advanced by Malthus was compelling. For over two centuries  An Essay on the Principle of Population has not only been studied, but has been endlessly copied and revived in various forms. Early twentieth century eugenicists employed Malthusian arguments to justify inhuman controls on the reproductive freedoms of other people ... and worse. Malthusian fears came back in a widely read book by Paul and Anne Ehrlich published in 1968 and titled The Population Bomb; the Ehrlich's message was updated as recently as 2010 in a lead essay in Foreign Affairs titled "The New Population Bomb."  Woven throughout this two-centuries old body of work is a single unifying theme: the reproductive power of people is a paramount problem for society as a whole. Beware the future.

So much for the theory of demographic doom. What of the facts?