Malthusian vs. Pollyanna-ism

Biologists vs Economists

Biologists face off against Economists over the issue of population. Economists are not considered scientists because they lack testable hypotheses; there is a lack of any consensus on their ideas, and inherent political objectives to every thing they do.i

Despite this; Biologist, who are scientists get into debates with economists and an excellent example of such a debate is the Simon–Ehrlich wager.ii The Malthusian articulated by Ehrlich in the “population bomb” analysis verses the business community backed by economists who state we will perpetually do more with less.

The problem Economists have is with reality, they tend towards magical thinking. This is described by their faith in “The invisible hand of the market”iii which describes the unintended social benefits of an individual’s self-interested actions, a concept that was first introduced by Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, written in 1759.

Other events of 1759; the Ottoman Empire had a Sultan and France had Louis XVI until the self interested actions of his peasants lead to his decapitation.

On the other hand Biologists make predictions that are continually wrong. While the underlying principle may be sound, it is hard putting a fixed date on a crisis. It is especially hard when humans are infinitely adaptable in over exploiting of resources due to the ever increasing incentives. That is to say, what we hunt and kill becomes more valuable as we hunt the last “what-ever” This is the point the Economist is making and he is correct. People are capable of getting every fish and cutting every tree. Biologist lament we are not smart enough to save some fish and some trees for our grandchildren.

How you respond to this debate defines you as either advocating Pollyanna ism using magical thinking to support your position, or you’re a Malthusian who continually makes bad predictions even though your analysis of the cause of current mass human migrationsiv and extinctions is correct.

A summary table of the positions of economists and Biologists.

It is easy to defend either position, the economists position is a high risk radical position used to justify the current concentration of the wealth of the super rich. The Biologist position is the conservative, responsible position that calls for stewardship of our heritage for our descendants.

Economists: political sycophantsBiologists: Scientists
Discoveries, like resources, may well be infinite: the more we discover, the more we are able to discover. Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate ResourceExponential growth does not occur in the natural world, except maybe for cancer—and that ceases once the host is consumed. Douglas Rushkoff, Team Human
Growth is inevitable and necessary to have a better standard of living for more peopleConservation is necessary to have a better standard of living for fewer people
We need to continue to grow to end povertyIf we continue to grow we will suffer from systems collapse
Has no practical solution to deal with the depletion of bio diversityHas no practical solution to deal with overpopulation and wealth distribution
Believes the other has the facts backwardsBelieves the other has the facts backwards
Julian Simon: Professor business; fellow Cato Institute; 1981 The Ultimate ResourcePaul R. Ehrlich: Professor biologist / scientist; 1968 The population bomb
Economics explains how resources are allocated; they study the efficiency of production, incentives and policies that are designed to maximize efficiency.Biology studies living organisms, their structure, chemical processes, molecular interactions, physiological mechanisms, development and evolution
They tend to work for banks, large corporations and government, and tend to be indirectly rewarded for consumption.They tend to work for universities, conservation groups, doing research and tend to want to preserve diversity
I forever see doing more with less, there is no limit to human creatively and hubrisWe have done enough damage already; we reached the limit 100 years ago.
Technology has always made our lives better and solved problems as they develop. Innovation will never endTechnology has allowed us to grow beyond our carry capacity. We are banking on never ending innovation vs planning.
Invisible hand of the marketGrowth until 1 key resource lacking
Believe in perpetual growthBelieve there is a limit to growth
Commons a place to externalize our waster: abundance thru desecrationSees damage to commons / shortages, other life forms are sacred

They agree on very little.

The economist, a faith driven political operative, believes in an “invisible hand” of a magical market that corrects problems thru endless innovation. It has worked so far and there are lots of examples to prove it.

The biologist, a scientist, observes nature, speculates and tests his/her hypothesis to develop facts. They have observed biological systems rise and collapse many times and they have lots of examples to prove it.

  1. You cannot increase the efficiency of photosynthesis. We improve the performance of farms by irrigating them and fertilizing them to provide all these nutrients. But we cannot keep on doubling the yield every two years. Moore’s law doesn’t apply to plants. Vaclav Smil
  1. The last words to Vaclav Smil

Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition and public policy.

He has published 40 books and nearly 500 papers. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy). He is a Member of the Order of Canada.

He has worked as a consultant for many US, EU and international institutions, has been an invited speaker in more than 400 conferences and workshops globally.v

The history of energy use is a sequence of transitions to sources that are cheaper, cleaner, and more flexible. Vaclav Smil

Is Germany’s solar revolution an example for the world to follow? An extraordinarily in-efficient approach, given how little sunlight the country receives, that hasn’t reduced that nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Vaclav Smil

A sobering denouement had to come; exponential growth is a potent delusion-maker, and in 1999, 10 years after the Nikkei’s peak, I was thinking about the Japanese experience…. I was thinking that every year after 1995 might be the last spell of what Alan Greenspan famously called irrational exuberance, but it was not in 1996 or 1997 or 1998….And even …. a decade earlier, there were many economists ready to assure American investors that this spell of exponential growth was really different, that the old rules do not apply in the New Economy where endless rapid growth will readily continue.” Vaclav Smil, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

You cannot increase the efficiency of photosynthesis. We improve the performance of farms by irrigating them and fertilizing them to provide all these nutrients. But we cannot keep on doubling the yield every two years. Moore’s law doesn’t apply to plants.

Vaclav Smil

i Economists are not scientists because they lack testable hypotheses, there is almost always a lack of consensus, and there are always inherent political overtones to the writings and justifications of economists, hence the term “the dismal science”.

It is my opinion economists are whores whose existence amounts to being sycophants for the rich; justifying the injustices they perpetuate on society. I could be wrong, possibly they are not whores, they may just be psychopaths.

ii Simon Ehrlich wager

The Simon–Ehrlich wager was a 1980 wager between business professor Julian L. Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich. Simon challenged Ehrlich to choose any raw material he wanted and he would wager $10,000 that the inflation-adjusted prices decreasing as opposed to increasing. Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten.

Ehrlich lost the bet, as all five commodities declined in price from 1980 through 1990, the wager period. If the wager period had been extended to 12 years Ehrlich would have won, but those were not the conditions of the bet.

iii The invisible hand and other magical thinking

iv Opinion: Sadly Malthus was right. Now what The Montreal Gazette Feb 14 2016 by Madeline Weld Special to the Gazette

v Profile of academic Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba: