Just when you thought the cornucopians had all gone away, Redditors channel the spirit of Julian Simon

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. [1] 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.Reddit

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 [2], 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.

Recognizing finitude

From Ksero:

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.

Simon says

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.

From kokey:

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.]
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[1] 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.)

[2] 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.
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Coming soon… Might even a limits-to-growth approach be insufficient to secure a sound ecological future?
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Image source: Reddit screenshot (with permission)

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13 responses to “Just when you thought the cornucopians had all gone away, Redditors channel the spirit of Julian Simon

  1. What I said in the discussion was mainly just summarizing and paraphrasing Dr. Albert Bartlett’s one-hour lecture (realmedia. It’s seemingly available on Google video, but that doesn’t work for me). It’s a humorous yet eloquent summary of why the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function :).

    Dr. Bartlett has the following to say on Julian Simon:
    “”” Chief amongst these optimists was the late Dr Julian Simon, formerly professor of economics and business administration at the University of Illinois, and later at the University of Maryland. With regard to copper, Simon has written that we will never run out of copper because “copper can be made from other metals.” The letters to the editor jumped all over him, told him about chemistry. He just brushed it off: “Don’t worry,” he said, “if it’s ever important, we can make copper out of other metals.”

    Now, Simon had a book that was published by the Princeton University Press. In that book, he’s writing about oil from many sources, including biomass, and he says, “Clearly there is no meaningful limit to this source except for the sun’s energy.” He goes on to note, “But even if our sun was not so vast as it is, there may well be other suns elsewhere.” Well, Simon’s right; there are other suns elsewhere, but the question is, would you base public policy on the belief that if we need another sun, we will figure out how to go get it and haul it back into our solar system? (audience laughter) “””

    Regarding the “capitalism will solve overpopulation”-argument, that’s essentially letting nature choose for us. It means the fulfillment of the promises in the Dismal Theorem. If the price of food is the only thing that keeps the population in check, then we’ll continue to breed and populate the earth until we grow just enough food to sustain everyone at a hair’s width from the brink of starvation. Consider also, as John says, how pollution and other environmental degradations can permanently reduce how much food we can grow – the carrying capacity). Other species will have to settle for the few scraps of land that are too improductive for us to use.

  2. Hi Ksero,

    You picked a good writer to summarize and paraphrase. 🙂 I think Al Bartlett is one of the clearest thinkers and writers on population and sustainability. Those interested should try this link for his paper refuting Simon. Just reading Bartlett’s various papers would give one a good grounding in the issues involved.

    Regarding the “capitalism will solve overpopulation”-argument, that’s essentially letting nature choose for us.

    Yep, well said.

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  4. You have to remember that Space Colonization is generally viewed as a solution for the people still on earth. Only very speculative technologies would allow for any kind of evacuation.

    On the other hand we definitely can get a colony bootstrapped with the rockets we have. The issue here is not just saving the earth from us, but saving life and humanity from a very fragile earth. We’re not the only thing that can kill us all.

  5. [Admin note to commenter: I took the liberty of changing your name from “Me” to “Someone” so that you wouldn’t be confused with me. I hope you don’t object; I thought “Someone” was equally anonymous and nondescript. 🙂 ]

    I think seeing that 80% of foods are wasted in current first world countries (don’t ask me to quote the source, it’s midnight and I’m tired – but if not 80, it’s still a very high number), food will at no point have a population control effect.

    I must say quite to my dismay, as that would have been what we had coming for us. Instead, it seems economic stagnation (of the GM and Ford kind) and the ensuing resource wars will be a decisive factor. You have to realize that our current 1st world countries spend in a single day’s worth of war-mongering enough money to feed the entire planet properly.

    I think that unfortunately, the earth has quite a while to go before people start actually dying of over population. In fact, given that both China and India exist as they do now, I would argue that until most of the habitable planet reaches their densities of population, we’re far from hitting a real obstacle.

    What people don’t realize is that our quality of life is probably starting to regress from the peaks it achieved in the mid 1900’s and will do so for a long time to come.

    Another sad fact is that people will still be roaming this planet when there’s all of 79 other species left (not including cattle, fowl and pork).

    I’m all about sustainable development, but in this sense I’m a realist: people will live to see the ends of the desolation they create. For centuries to come. Nothing will stop them.

  6. PS. Damn no preview and 10×8 text box. I’m littered with spelling mistakes.

    [Admin again: I spell checked it for you and believe it or not Firefox only found one error. 🙂 Sorry, the lack of preview and small box are just what we have to live with on WordPress.com, though overall I really like the platform. Eventually they’ll probably build in some improvements on those things.]

  7. Hi James,

    Thanks for some interesting points. But I do want to make sure I understand what you’re saying. (They’re interesting even before I’m sure I do! 😆 )

    Do you mean that colonization could happen one day, but that we currently lack the resources that would be necessary for a quick evacuation? True, no doubt.

    Are you saying that with current technology we could get a colony started somewhere? I suppose that could be true in the sense that we could get a few people living on the moon, say (or possibly Mars). They’d have to be constantly resupplied with provisions from earth, right? I mean there’s not a lot on the moon or Mars.

    But I’m much, much more skeptical that we could get any large portion of the earth’s population colonizing the moon or, one would hope, some place more hospitable than that. Agreed? One day, yeah, but in the next few decades, nah.

    Now your final point raises some really interesting and important issues. (And I think this touches on “Someone’s” points too, which I’ll comment on soon.) I’m not positive you meant it this way, but you seem to be referring to the possibility that we might one day have to look seriously at leaving earth because it will become essentially unsupportive of life. (Or are you talking asteroids and such?) Our own actions could, in fact, make it that way.

    My response would be, “Do we want to let it go that far?” I mean, we might be able to turn things around and return to sustainability. I think all the press climate change is getting may help with that. It’s focusing people’s attention on issues of consumption, sustainability, and even population. My hope is that we’ll see a real sea change in thinking about how we live and a return to living in some sort of harmony with the earth. I can’t be sure it will happen, but it seems I’m seeing a bit of movement in that direction these days.

  8. If we were willing to spend the resources to get even a billion people off the earth, we could probably spend a fraction of that to fix whatever the problem was.

    I think we could get thousands of people into colonies that DON’T need resupply, and that are capable of building more colonies. We could do that on a relatively minuscule budget, it wouldn’t detract from solving any problem on earth. To be clear, the new colonists would mostly come from the population growth of the old colonies, not from earth.

    The moon has water rocks and free energy. Asteroids are even better because you don’t have to lift them. It may take time to establish ecosystems and we will probably had to start out with a lot of biomass from earth, but sooner or later we can convert rocks, water, and energy to food.

    I think there are a lot of threats that we shouldn’t be sure we will be able to prevent. Big asteroids are one, nuclear war is another. Things that are upon us and over before we have time to counter them.
    We may be entering an era when ordinary people can produce designer viruses (biological viruses) at home.

    Having space colonies buys us the insurance that if anything happens to earth, humanity and earth’s life can go on. (and probably repair the earth. ) It’s an existential asset more than an aid for us down here, although eventually the colonies would be more populous than the earth, and much richer, so they would be sending us resources.

  9. Hi Someone ,

    I think seeing that 80% of foods are wasted in current first world countries… food will at no point have a population control effect.

    Likely true, I think, unless we make the conscious choice to stop growing the global food supply. This was the topic of quite a bit of recent discussion here featuring comments from Russ Hopfenberg who has published a couple of studies on this question. See here.

    I agree with the general thrust of your other comments but will just quibble a little with a couple:

    I think that unfortunately, the earth has quite a while to go before people start actually dying of over population. In fact, given that both China and India exist as they do now, I would argue that until most of the habitable planet reaches their densities of population, we’re far from hitting a real obstacle.

    I understand what you’re saying, but think it depends on how you look at it. First, we first have to look at analyses of the earth’s carrying capacity. Estimates very widely, but it should be noted that those coming from ecological scientists are smaller than those from economists and demographers. And when we look at those from the first group, and factor in things like reasonable caloric intake and social considerations the estimates say we’re already beyond, or certainly close to that carrying capacity. In terms of sustainability, the ecological footprint model shows us that, globally, we’re using the resources of 1.25 planets (with the West, of course, consuming by far the most per capita).

    Now, for a time, as I understand it, we can be in overshoot like this and superficially appear to be doing okay, but it’s obviously not sustainable, and relative to human history our time at this level of consumption will necessarily be very short. (Note that the equation for total consumption globally or for a country is average annual per capita consumption times population size.) No that this, in itself, proves that people are now dying as a result of population growth, but surely we’ve set the stage for that.

    But beyond that I think we can’t actually say there are no people yet dying as a result of overpopulation. It’s not densities so much as carrying capacities of different areas (ultimately globally). I’ve seen a number of reports, for instance, that link the Dafur crisis to conflict over water shortages closely linked to population. I’ve also seen it linked to climate change, which in turn is definitely fueled by global population growth.

    More generally, the famines which occur in Africa all involve population as one factor. Yes, they result from distribution issues, but it seems also accurate to say they would not as likely occur without population growth. See Russ Hopfenberg’s comments on that.

    More generally still, see this article by Jared Diamond which makes the case that the advent of famine in human history was basically the result of the switch to agriculture which itself resulted from and then fueled population growth.

    Even more generally still 😕 , I think it’s fair to say that almost any deaths resulting from ecological degradation can, at this point, be linked in part to population growth as it is, in most instances, one of the key factors driving that degradation. (examples include any deaths attributed to climate change, the spread of toxins into the environment, wars for oil or other resources, etc.)

    But, clearly, if we continue to tear down the ecosystem, deaths resulting from population growth will eventually number many, many times higher.

    Another sad fact is that people will still be roaming this planet when there’s all of 79 other species left (not including cattle, fowl and pork).

    Probably, but very possibly in much smaller numbers. I mean, we’re a part of the ecosystem and the web of life too.

    people will live to see the ends of the desolation they create. For centuries to come. Nothing will stop them.

    I understand where your pessimism comes from. I try to remain hopeful, though, that we will manage to wake up and take corrective action before we have little choice but to face desolation.

  10. James,

    Sorry for the delayed reply.

    If we were willing to spend the resources to get even a billion people off the earth, we could probably spend a fraction of that to fix whatever the problem was.

    Agreed. The notion that we should pursue space colonization instead of fixing our problems on earth seems absurd. To pursue it in addition, as you describe is another matter, and has a lot more merit. As you mention it could be an insurance policy, and is worth pursuing merely for the gain in knowledge.

    One related idea I hear sometimes, but which I’m not sure I see the sense in, is the notion that we will or should spread our species throughout the universe. There’s something awfully grandiose about that. What would be the point? But the things you’re describing I have no problem with. There are of course serious questions of cost, priorities when comparing space projects with our problems on earth, etc. But ultimately those issues seem solvable.

  11. One point of spreading further would be further insurance. Eventually our sun will die. As I understand it, a nearby gamma ray burst would sterilize the whole neighborhood.

    We are prolific by nature. If we get colonies in orbit, we will likely take that with us. At that point we WILL spread through space because it will be nearly as ‘cheap’ and ‘easy’ as spreading all over the earth was back in the day.

    I think there are reasonable arguments that that would be a good thing. One is that intelligence and life are good, so we should make more of both. (I mean that is what we were insuring with the basic space colony, we want that insurance because we like those things.)

    Half a galaxy of humans would produce a _lot_ of culture.

    For me the most interesting aspect is probably the potential for freedom without revolutionary wars.
    In the past, if you are being oppressed, you fight, run away, or live with it or die from it. Space, if we can master it, offers infinite potential for running away. This I find more interesting than the infinite resources.

    To simplify: if you’re oppressed in space, you pack up, buy or steal a ship, and go.

    On the flip side, a two bit despot might take his whole domain out of range of practical interventions.

  12. James,
    Well, I’m not sure we’re really prolific by nature. It seems that under certain adverse social and economic conditions we’re prolific, but those countries (such as those in the EU) which have completed the “demographic transition” seem to hover somewhere around replacement level fertility rates. So if we can solve those social and economic problems, might we be more oriented toward a steady state?

    I do agree, though, that space colonization might be seen legitimately as an insurance policy. On the other hand, I could make an argument that there’s nothing so special about us that we should insure ourselves more than other species.

    But the idea of spreading throughout the universe carries some problems, it seems. First, what about all those other forms of intelligent life that may have the same idea? Seems we’d need to share the universe in some way. Or maybe we’d find that some of them are far more worthy of spreading or surviving. Who knows. I guess I would think an approach of tentative exploration without, at first, any very strong agendas other than gaining knowledge might make the most sense.

    Interesting idea, though, about space travel as an escape option.

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