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Debunking the Overpopulation Alarmists

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

Debunking the Overpopulation Alarmists

"On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?"

Crowd of people, overpopulation worries

Is overpopulation a problem? Are we running out of resources? Where did the concern over population growth and resource depletion come from? How accurate were the past predictions of gloom by people who were concerned about the two issues? Will we manage to combine rising numbers of people and higher standards of living with decent stewardship of the planet in the future?

These are just some of the questions answered in Population Bombed: Exploding the link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change, an extensively researched, well-written and concise new book published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The book comes out exactly 50 years after Paul R. Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, in which the Stanford University biology professor famously claimed that population growth would result in resource depletion and the starvation of hundreds of millions of people. The authors of Population Bombed, Pierre Desrochers, who is an associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto, and Joanna Szurmak, who is a doctoral candidate in the graduate program in Science and Technology Studies at York University, Toronto, take stock of past scholarship on “depletionism” and provide a cheerful rejoinder to the doomsayers.

Desrochers and Szurmak begin by outlining the case for the prosecution. The “pessimists” claim that, on a finite planet, population and consumption cannot continue to expand forever; that, to maintain a high standard of living, the number of people will have to come down; that resource exploration and extraction are subject to the law of diminishing returns and will, therefore, become more expensive over time; that discoveries, inventions and innovations do not obviate the need for more resources; and, finally, that human successes in overcoming resource constraints in the past are not relevant to coping with environmental challenges today.

Conversely, the “optimists” claim that population growth makes humanity richer through division of labour and economies of scale; that human ingenuity enhances efficient modes of production and “delivers increasing returns … [through] progressively less damaging ways of doing things”; that, unlike other animals, humans use trade and innovation to get around resource constraints; and, finally, that there is no reason why our past successes cannot be repeated in the future.

To quote the British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

Depletionism has a long pedigree that goes back to the Atra-Hasis, an 18th-century BC epic in which the Babylonian gods deemed the world too crowded and unleashed a famine to fix the “problem”. Confucius, Plato, Tertullian, Saint Jerome and Giovanni Botero revisited the issue over the succeeding centuries.

The modern concern with overpopulation is usually traced to the British cleric Thomas Malthus who argued that the human population grows exponentially, while food production grows linearly. Thus, population will eventually outgrow the food supply, resulting in mass starvation.

Depletionism reached its apogee in the concluding decades of the 20th century, when Garrett Hardin pointed to the “tragedy of the commons” (i.e., overuse of resources that are not privately-owned), the Club of Rome predicted stratospheric prices of resources and Paul Ehrlich warned of mass starvation. It was Ehrlich who, unwisely, agreed to a wager with Julian Simon from the University of Maryland on the future availability of resources – and lost.

According to the wager, Ehrlich would choose a “basket” of raw materials that he expected would become less abundant in the coming years and choose a time period of more than a year, during which those raw materials would become more expensive. At the end of that period, the inflation-adjusted price of those materials would be calculated. If the “real” price of the basket was higher at the end of the period than at the beginning, that would indicate the materials had become more precious and Ehrlich would win the wager; if the price was lower, Simon would win. The stakes would be the ultimate price difference of the basket at the beginning and end of the time period.

Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. The bet was agreed to on September 29, 1980, with September 29, 1990, being the payoff date. In spite of a population increase of 873 million over those 10 years, Ehrlich lost the wager. All five commodities that he had selected declined in price by an average of 57.6 percent. Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07. Today, raw materials, including rare earths, are abundant and the concept of depletionism, as originally understood, has ceased to be the pessimists’ cri de coeur.

Instead, the pessimists have changed their tack (somewhat). Rather than emphasising depletion of raw materials, like Ehrlich used to do, they now warn of human overconsumption and the related loss of biosphere integrity (the destruction of ecosystems and biodiversity), climate change, ocean acidification, land system change (from woodland to cropland), unsustainable freshwater use, perturbation of biogeochemical flows (nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere), alteration of atmospheric aerosols (particulate concentration in the atmosphere), and ozone depletion.

Desrochers and Szurmak engage with many of these relatively new concerns by noting, for example, the methodological problems inherent in the overconsumption models, including the “planetary boundaries framework” that I described in the previous paragraph.

Wisely, the authors do not get bogged down in the science of global warming. Full discussion of global warming would, of course, require a book of its own. As it is, Population Bombed is 250 pages long, and includes 900 footnotes and an extensive 33-page bibliography. Instead, they call for honesty. They note that the use of fossil fuels is at the centre of today’s calls for population control and point out that the pessimists are simply taking the benefits of fossil fuel use, including environmental ones, for granted. Desrochers and Szurmak do not dismiss all concerns about CO2 in the atmosphere, but point out that getting rid of fossil fuels under present circumstances would have dire economic, social and environmental consequences – especially for the world’s poor.

To give just a few examples, production would have to become more expensive for businesses, the price of heating and cooling would become more expensive for households, and land, currently occupied by animals, would have to be covered by wind turbines.

That said, keep in mind that our species has addressed many environmental problems before and we will, probably, solve the future ones as well. Desalination, for example, can help with water shortages, while genetically-modified crops could eliminate the need for excessive use of fertiliser and pesticides. These breakthroughs, and the prospect of many more, make Desrochers and Szurmak’s book a reminder of humanity’s “can do” instincts and problem-solving ability.

This first appeared in CapX.

Blog Post | Cost of Technology

MacBooks Galore! Laptop Abundance since 1991

Since 1991, laptop abundance has increased by a factor of six up to a factor of infinity.

In 1991, Apple introduced the PowerBook 100 priced at $2,500. Blue-collar hourly compensation at the time was $14.93, so the time price was around 168 hours. Today you can pick up a 13.3-inch MacBook Air for $999. With blue-collar hourly compensation around $36.50 today, the time price is just over 27 hours. You can get six MacBook Airs today for the time price of one PowerBook 100 in 1991.

The PowerBook 100 weighed 5.1 pounds and featured a 640×480 monochrome LED screen, 2 megabytes of memory, and 20 megabytes of storage. The battery was good for three hours. The MacBook Air has 13.3 times more pixels (in millions of colors), 4,000 times more memory, and 12,800 times more storage than the PowerBook 100. It weighs 45 percent less, and the battery lasts six times longer. The MacBook Air has Wi-Fi, a 720-pixel camera, and stereo speakers and comes with 32 apps ranging from music programs to spreadsheets.

While it’s hard to make a direct comparison, a simple way to do an analysis is to ask MacBook Air users how many PowerBook 100s they would need to give up their one Air. Most users now think the PowerBook 100 has negative value due to the disposal costs. That would make the MacBook Air infinitely more valuable.

This article was published at Gale Winds on 11/7/2023.

Blog Post | Cost of Technology

Atari to Xbox

Get two Xbox Series X consoles for the time price of one Atari 2600.

The Atari 2600 was introduced in 1977 and was priced at $199. Unskilled wages at the time were $3.15 an hour, so the time price was around 63 hours. Today you can pick up an Xbox Series X for $499. With unskilled wages today being around $16.50 an hour, the time price is just over 30 hours. You can buy two Xbox Series X consoles today for the time price of one Atari 2600 in 1977.

Atari 2600 home video console system next to an Xbox series X

The Atari had a chip running at 1.19 megahertz (or 1,190,000 cycles per second) and had 128 bytes of random access memory. The maximum resolution was 160×192 with 128 colors.

Combat (video game) for the Atari system, and Gears 5 (video game) for the Xbox series x

The Xbox Series X graphics chip runs at 12 teraflops, or 12 trillion floating-point operations per second. It has 16 gigabits of memory and 1 terabyte of storage and can display billions of colors on an 8K display.

The Series X can display 1,080 times more pixels in millions of more colors 10 million times faster with 125 million times more memory. In the past 46 years, computer creativity has grown exponentially abundant—just as Gordon Moore and George Gilder predicted.

A version of this article was published at Gale Winds on 10/24/2023.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 37

Stephen Barrows: The Economic Madness of Malthusianism

The economist Stephen Barrows joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the intellectual history of population economics, the benefits of population growth, and what we can expect from a future of falling fertility.

Blog Post | Cost of Technology

Portraits Were Just Expensive Selfies

This was originally published on Pessimists Archive.

In the process of exploring reactions to the advent and development of photography, we came across a fascinating article about ‘sun pictures, ’an early name for photography. One notable observation—something we don’t think about today—was that photography extended portraits to everyone. What was once only for kings, queens and titans of industry became available to everyone. This got us thinking, weren’t portraits just expensive selfies? And aren’t selfies just the portraits of modern times?

The full article can be read here and is well worth your time.