Recently I submitted a link to an article on Trinifar to Reddit, one of the most active in a category loosely known as “social bookmarking” sites. These are sites where you can share with others links to websites or articles of interest. On Reddit, submissions are voted up or down. If one gets enough up-votes it moves to their front page and can send a lot of traffic to the site.  That happened with this one, driving a barrage of visits to Trinifar’s post. That was good as the article had a message concerning population and limits to growth which needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
But that’s not the end of it. On Reddit, users also comment on the links submitted. This one triggered a large and divided discussion on the question of limits to growth. Among the comments were some I found thoughtful and incisive. But there was also a range of arguments representing the “cornucopian” view popularized by the late economist Julian Simon. (Note: the Wikipedia entry is written, in large part, by devotees of Simon.)
Simon, an economist and libertarian icon, maintained the earth’s resources were limitless, at least in the sense that through advances in technology we would always be able to find substitutes for those we deplete. He insisted further, that the human population could and should continue growing indefinitely, again because technological innovation would always bail us out of any problems our growth might cause. He said, in fact, “We have in our hands now–actually, in our libraries–the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years.”
Today Simon’s words are revered by far right libertarians , free marketeers and übercapitalists, mostly in the US, opposing any whiff of government intervention in… anything. Address population growth? Could that mean government funded programs of any sort? Then they’re against it. Protect the environment? Could that mean any kind of government regulation? They oppose it. To oppose it as forcefully as possible, moreover, they even deny we’re at or approaching any limits to growth. It’s as if their underlying thought process were, “If we acknowledge population or environmental problems, then we have to argue over how to solve them. If we lose there, it’s over. Instead, let’s give ourselves two chances to win by refusing to acknowledge such problems in the first place. Then, if we lose on that, we have another chance on the ‘solutions’ question.” (If you’re familiar with the climate change debate, this strategy may sound familiar.)
This group tends to put their ideal of minimal government ahead even of the integrity of the ecosystem or the survival of most of its species. They are heavily represented by young males, active on the Web. Hence, Simon’s views, unknown to most, do get a good deal of play on the Internet.
I participated in the Reddit discussion under the name, “JFeeney.” I’d like to respond a bit further here. Let’s look at some representative comments from the discussion, starting with a couple which I believe demonstrate an accurate understanding of the limits to growth.
The earth can’t sustain infinitely many people. Therefore, zero-population growth will eventually happen. The only questions are when and why. If we’re smart and act in time, we can move to zero-population growth on our own terms. If we don’t, then nature will choose for us. Wars. Famines. Pestilence. The works.
From happyjuggler0, in response to commenters who sarcastically suggested the only solution to population growth was to kill people:
There are three tried and true methods for reducing population growth: increasing the amount of general education, reducing deaths from disease and viruses, and increasing wealth.
Both are good summaries, the first of the limits-to-growth issue itself, the second demonstrating that draconian measures have nothing to do with solutions to population growth. For more on possible solutions try these GIM posts. And see the discussion on Reddit for additional comments from those aware the earth is indeed finite.
What of the cornucopian Redditers? I’ve been involved in other Web-based debates with cornucopians on this topic, but this one stood out in offering a particularly wide range of cornucopian variations on the theme that human growth has no limits.
First, degustibus said: “Ehrlich already lost the bet.”
The reference is to a 1980 bet on future commodity prices between Simon and Paul Ehrlich. (It’s mentioned in the Wikipedia article above.) As a reference, degustibus linked to the site of a young male libertarian and population (and climate change) denier. 🙄 I pointed out on Reddit, and in more detail in the ensuing thread on Trinifar, that such bets mean little unless there are enough of them to have some statistical significance, and that Ehrlich’s general point that population is a serious problem which is causing profound ecological damage has obviously been confirmed. That Simon lost a subsequent, similar bet with David South and turned down an offer from Ehrlich and colleagues to bet on 15 additional future events, is only worth mentioning as a point of balance.
Many don’t take into account how easily we’ve been adapting. At the moment even with many more people on earth than during Ehrlich’s alamism food has been easier to produce and distribute since ever before. [sic]
Have we been adapting so easily? Today we have accelerating climate change, dwindling fish populations, massive deforestation, species loss at rates not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs, and a miles long list of other tragic ecological problems. We’ve done so much damage to ecosystems worldwide that we’re looking at a changed world for centuries to come. We have, in fact, little idea what problems the future holds as cascade effects are likely to occur at points we can’t predict. We might ask, “Have we adapted at all?”
But, just below that, kokey concedes population could become a problem (no concession it already is), saying:
As long as governments don’t limit the natural movement of markets, resources will naturally become expensive as they become scarce, which will bring us the necessary solutions. These solutions may include limiting birth rates, or other advancements in efficiency to reduce the particular scarcity.
This is an argument that we can approach or exceed limits to growth and the markets will take care of things for us as prices adjust and influence consumption trends. One problem with this notion is that, by then, the damage done may be irreversible or nearly so. Some of this has already occurred. (Consider species extinction and the time required to recover from climate change.)
The second problem with the idea is its reliance on ideal conditions, which never exist in the real world, for its neoclassical-economics-based free market capitalism. Given the capitalist system in place in much of the world today, and its far reaching impacts as a result of globalization, how well has it worked to protect the environment? Well, just look at the list of ecological catastrophes I began above. Our current economic system has failed miserably to prevent serious environmental degradation. And any thought that it might work better if only the markets were freer is not worth arguing about as we have only the real world in which to pursue our economic activity. As Molly Scott Cato observes, “Perfect competition is the central myth of the market system — Maria Mies called it capitalism’s ‘creation myth.’ ” (p. 33)
Ground control to major Tom
Perhaps the most common theme among these cornucopians, though, was the belief that limits to growth on earth don’t matter, as we will just leave earth to colonize other planets. (This is what Simon was getting at in his comment above.) I suppose it’s natural for a lot of tech-oriented Reddit users to enjoy thinking about space colonization, but it’s striking how quickly they jumped to this as a solution to population growth without, it seems, thinking the issue through in any depth. Here’s a comment from JulianMorrison:
[I]f we can keep running with one planet for another century, we’ll have several. Earth may be finite, but up in space it’s raining energy and snowing resources.
And one from Randallsquared:
It’s a choice between a future for humanity that’s stagnant and about decline, and a future where humanity (and humanity’s descendants) spreads off this planet and across the… universe, bringing life and intelligence to places that are now dead rock and ice.
As I said in the Reddit thread, both these commenters are saying, in essence, “No problem if we trash this planet and eliminate half or more of the other species on it as well as a large percentage of our own kind; eventually we can just move to another planet.”
Moreover, as Trinifar asked in the thread, “What evidence does anyone have to support humanity moving into space as anything but a dream?” (The reply he got is obviously based either on misinterpretation of his question or on a debate tactic of answering a question he didn’t ask.)
But what if we did continue pressing the limits to growth on the assumption that we could move into space? We’re at the limits right now. How close are we to space colonization? And as Trinifar implied, isn’t it also risky to count on such an option when we have no clear evidence it will materialize in the foreseeable future?
Randallsquared should realize that if humanity’s future “is stagnant and about to decline,” perhaps that’s because of our inability to live in harmony with the earth. Why not rectify that rather than fantasize about running away from it?
I’ll post a link to this article on Reddit. Perhaps some of the commenters from the thread there will stop by GIM to have another go. If the submission “hits” at all there will no doubt be another discussion there as well. Oh, where oh where will the levels of Redditness end? 😯
[Update: Here’s the link to the Reddit submission for this post.]
 You’ll now see a button at the bottom of any article here which you can click to submit the article to any of a variety of such services. (Registration on most of them, by the way, just means submitting a user name and a password.)
 In fairness, libertarians are a diverse group, and Simon’s status would logically be greatest among those with the most antipathy toward environmental regulation. There are no doubt some less committed libertarians who have never heard of him.
Coming soon… Might even a limits-to-growth approach be insufficient to secure a sound ecological future?
Image source: Reddit screenshot (with permission)