Catastrophism, Malthus, and Optimism

We are incomparably better off than we were in the past, and only concerted human effort can wreck it. We are richer than Rockefeller. Things have improved hugely in our lifetimes, and in the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents. This point of view was well expressed in a recent interview of Warren Buffet, who spoke of the enormous increase of wealth in American society and around the world in the space of three generations. Rockefeller had no flat screen, and had to go to a football stadium to see a game, nor did he have any antibiotics that cured me only weeks ago. Calvin Coolidge’s son died of a staphylococcus infection that would have been cured by a tube of non-prescription ointment.

If you want to see how much better things have got for everyone, see a video by Hans Rosling. Our ideas of human population, health, income and family size in the world are in the main obsolete by about forty years.

And yet….

Beyond the froth of electoral politics, and at deeper levels, a movement has arisen that, since the 1970s, has proclaimed a revolution against this wealth. Its success has been spectacular. It dominates governments. It has the majority of population in its grip. Highly intelligent people believe it to be based in incontrovertible fact. Policies are devised at the most minute levels to adapt to its dictates: plastic spoons are banned, grocery bags are switched from paper to plastic and back again, on lines of reasoning adapted to this theory. More than this, energy production is curtailed, pipelines not built, even when they are proven to be safe and effective, and vast tracts of land are turned over to solar panels and wind turbines which have demonstrably less effectiveness in generating energy than machines that burn fuels.

This doctrine announced itself in the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” paper in  1972. Earth’s carrying capacity is limited; we are overstepping natural limits; catastrophe lies ahead unless we do something; the population pressures we humans place on the planet need to be reduced – by reducing the number of people. You don’t have to dig to deep to find a deep pessimism in this doctrine.

The blurb for the Club of Rome’s book starts like this:

“Published 1972 – The message of this book still holds today: The earth’s interlocking resources – the global system of nature in which we all live – probably cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, if that long, even with advanced technology.”


The ideology is a combination of warmed-over Thomas Malthus (overpopulation) with a belief in central planning of the world’s economy that would cheer the heart of Karl Marx. It dominates political assumptions. It is the principal form that leftism took when the Communist system collapsed in the Soviet Union.

We have never been so wealthy, and we have never been so pessimistic about our collective futures.

This is the central contradiction of our times. Most western governments are busy harming the economies of our countries with a view to preventing climate change.  Pessimism may wreck the rising tide of wealth creation, which has been fueled by technology, energy production, and civic culture.

More than anything else, I remain a believer that things will get even better, if we only give progress a chance. The pessimists – in the form of Malthusians, limits to growthists – are now in charge. It is their day. We have federal ministers in this country who are seriously bent on wrecking the economy of the one province in Canada that pays the pensions of the rapidly aging populations of Ontario and Quebec.

For a more eloquent exposition of the optimistic view, I again recommend the recent interview with Warren Buffet by Charlie Rose. Buffett expresses the hopeful view, which I think is well justified. I don’t buy into the dark views of ecological doomists.