Selling fairytales to the credulous

The Economist recently reviewed Superabundance, a book whose subtitle (The Story of Population Growth, Innovation and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet) evokes some combination of delusion and chicanery to anyone aware of our impact on the environment.

I wrote the following letter to the Editors:

Your review of “Superabundance” appears to written without engaging critical facilities.

The book argues that more people are good for our civilization. In doing so, it (or your reviewer) makes a few mistakes when recounting the story of “The Bet” between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simons, and especially in concluding that Simons’s victory “proved” that more people were a good idea.

First, The Bet was a “sucker bet” in the sense that it concerned resources traded in markets rather than ecosystems that are not. Simons, as a good economist, was right to believe that price signals would respond to scarcity, as they did. Ehrlich, as a ecologist, did not connect the dots between the supply of priced resources and the unpriced harm that their extraction and use inflicted on ecosystems that are not just beautiful to behold but essential to our survival.

Second, the authors’ argument that  “more minds mean more solutions” makes no sense to anyone thinking “on the margin.” We now number 7.75 billion people, many of whom are working on reducing the impacts of population and — more worrying — overconsumption. What is the likelihood of an 8 billionth person discovering the secret to nuclear fusion or direct air capture of green-house-gases? Vanishing, given the human resources already deployed.

In sum, most of our problems arise from our private consumption of goods produced and priced in markets overwhelming shared ecosystems that are not. Yes, there are efforts to price carbon and value ecosystem services, but those efforts are built on political foundations that are too weak and too scarce. Researchers have very clearly shown that our conversion of “natural capital” into private goods and services is not just unsustainable but also grossly unfair to the world’s poorest 6 billion people.

I am not disagreeing with the moral right to have children. I am merely pointing out that more children will not reduce the risks our species faces from climate chaos, ecosystem collapse and crashing biodiversity.

…and then I got to thinking “WTF leads authors to write such books?”

I can think of three reasons:

  1. The authors collect speaking fees from the “business as usual” crowd — memorably portrayed by the “mine-the-asteroid” folks in “Don’t Look Up”
  2. They want to be popular with the “humans are amazing” crowd
  3. They are so tech-optimistic (“it takes more people to fix the problems caused by more people”) that they forget about the limits of technology.

My one-handed conclusion is that a significant share of humans (including the Economist here) are out to lunch. That’s a problem when we should be at our desks, taking action against the consequences of lunch our destructive practices.

 

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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