Writing 200 years ago, anarchist theorist William Godwin observed that, before the publication of Thomas Robert Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population,“An Essay on the Principle of Population,” econlib.org.most people believed that an increase in population would deliver better days. Godwin saw “something exhilarating and cheerful” in this earlier spirit when humanity believed it could summon “the unlimited power we possess to remedy our evils, and better our condition.” Humans, he observed, felt they “belonged to a world worth living in.”William Godwin, Of Population: An Enquiry Concerning the Power of Increase in the Numbers of Mankind, Being an Answer to Mr. Malthus’s Essay of That Subject (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820), oll.libertyfund.org.Malthus, on the other hand, saw little but death and ruin in any attempt to escape our natural limits. Food supplies, increasing in a linear manner, would not keep up with the unchecked, exponential growth of human population. After an initial increase, every human population would hit the ecological limit of the land and crash.
Godwin and Malthus were far from the first to weigh in on these issues. Fears of massive deforestation and soil erosion as a result of demographic growth formed the backdrop of The Epic of Gilgamesh.K. Jan Oosthoek, “The Role of Wood in World History,” Environmental History Resources, October 15, 1998, eh-resources.org; The Epic of Gilgamesh, ia600400.us.archive.org.In another ancient epic, the Atrahasis, Babylonian gods deemed the Earth too crowded and addressed the problem by unleashing plagues, famine, droughts, and a gigantic flood.Center for Online Judaic Studies, “Atrahasis Epic: The Flood Story, 18th century BCE,” cojs.org.In 360 BC, Plato lamented in Critias that Athens’ backcountry, whose hills had once been “covered with soil,” the plains “full of rich earth,” and the mountains displaying an “abundance of wood,” had been turned after years of abuse into a landscape that could “only afford sustenance to bees” because all the “richer and softer parts of the soil [had] fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land [was] being left.”Plato, Critias, classics.mit.edu.The Greek philosopher also warned that “exceed[ing] the limit of necessity” and the “unlimited accumulation of wealth” would trigger territorial wars, especially in light of his compatriots’ fondness for meat, which required expanding the pastureland. Plato’s solution was to learn to live with less through a vegetarian diet.Plato, The Republic, classics.mit.edu.
Echoing Platonic thought on external limits, Niccolo Machiavelli argued in the early 16th century (circa 1517) that “when every province of the world so teems with inhabitants that they can neither subsist where they are nor remove elsewhere, every region being equally crowded and over-peopled,” and when “human craft and wickedness have reached their highest pitch,” the world would purge itself through floods, plagues, and famines. It was only then that men, “becoming few and contrite,” would “amend their lives and live with more convenience.”Niccolo Machiavelli, Titus Livius Chapter 5, online-literature.com.Writing in 1588, another Italian political theorist, Giovanni Botero, deemed that the world population had an upper bound because “the fruits of the earth and the plenty of victual doth not suffice to feed a greater number.” Societal collapse was guaranteed if humans opted to “increase and grow immoderately.”Giovanni Botero, The Greatness of Cities, socialsciences.mcmaster.ca.
Among more optimistic thinkers, the German alchemist Johann Joachim Becher observed in 1668 that through the “increase of population come increased facilities for subsistence, and through the latter comes influx of people; this in its turn causes further increase of population, and so on in an everlasting circle.”Quoted in N.G. Pierson, Principles of Economics, Volume II (London: Macmillan, 1912), 154, archive.org.In 1771, the French economist and cleric Nicolas Baudeau summarized the thoughts of many when he suggested that the “productiveness of nature and the industriousness of man are without known limits” because production “can increase indefinitely” and, as a result, “population numbers and well-being can go on advancing together.”Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, “The Terrors of Dr. Suzuki,” C2C Journal, February 6, 2019, c2cjournal.ca.Five years later, Adam Smith wrote in his Wealth of Nations that the “most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants.”Adam Smith, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Vol. I, 1776 (London: Methuen, 1904), oll.libertyfund.org.
In retrospect, then, Godwin and Malthus’s contributions are better understood as significant steps in fleshing out two coherent narratives — the optimist versus pessimist, the cornucopian versus Malthusian — each possessing a distinct set of assumptions, values, and goals.
The optimist narrative revolves for the most part around the notions that human beings are not only mouths to feed but also hands to work and brains to think of new solutions. People have the ability to act, individually and as part of coherent groups, and to apply their unique intellectual abilities to solving problems and facing the complex consequences of their actions. This perspective was arguably dominant for most of the 19th century, a time when agricultural innovations and the economic opening of new territories made possible by steamships, railroads, and telegraphy had seemingly discredited Malthus’s analysis. As summed up in an 1854 issue of The Economist: “Nobody, except a few mere writers, now troubles himself about Malthus on population… [but his] error may yet indeed linger in the universities, the appropriate depositories for what is obsolete.”Quoted in Henry C. Carey, Principles of Social Science, Vol. I (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1858), 36.
During the past two centuries, the key divide among optimists revolved around the best way to promote prosperity and environmental remediation. Traditional Marxists and numerous progressive and anarchist thinkers wished to control the means of production in order to limit greed, inequality, and waste.See Ronald L. Meek, ed., Marx and Engels on Malthus, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1953), ia801600.us.archive.org; William B. Myers, The Progressive Environmental Prometheans: Left-Wing Heralds of a “Good Anthropocene,” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); and Joseph Hansen, Too Many Babies? (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1960), ucf.digital.flvc.org.Free-market economists, on the other hand, favored personal freedom, secure property rights, and the economy-wide feedback provided by the price system.Terry L. Anderson and Donald R. Leal, Free Market Environmentalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment, juliansimon.com.Prices ensured that as a resource became scarce, its price would rise, thus incentivizing economic actors to use the resource more efficiently, seek out new supplies, or develop substitutes.
In the past two generations, the case for neo-Malthusian pessimism rooted in resource scarcity and environmental limits has been popularized by, among others, Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population BombPaul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1968); see also Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, “The Population Bomb Revisited,” Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development 1(3) (2009): 63–71, populationmedia.org.and the Club of Rome–sponsored 1972 report The Limits to Growth.Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, (Universe Books, 1972), clubofrome.org.According to this paradigm, humans are no different than other animal species involved in and dependent on an intricate and fragile web of linkages and feedbacks with other living things. More people and increased material wealth can therefore result only in vanishing resources and increasingly unmanageable environmental problems.
Faced with the absolute necessity of limiting the “planetary plunder” driven by burgeoning technology, human numbers, and overall consumption, neo-Malthusians have long put forward policies ranging from educational campaigns and tax incentives to forced sterilization and refusal to improve the lives of the poor.Matthew Connelly, Fatal Misconception: The Struggle to Control World Population (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008); Ian Dowbiggin, The Sterilization Movement and Global Fertility in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).Many holding these views also believe in the necessity of top-down governmental authority and intervention, including recent calls for a planetary institution “operating, with authority, above the level of individual countries” that would act “on behalf of humanity as a whole” and would be the “ultimate arbiter of the myriad trade-offs that need to be managed” in order to respect planetary boundaries.W.L. Steffen, Johan Rockström, and Robert Costanza, “How Defining Planetary Boundaries Can Transform Our Approach to Growth,” Solutions: For a Sustainable and Desirable Future 2(3) (2011): 59–65, pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu.
The track record of neo-Malthusianism, however, has been so dismal that even prominent environmental activist Bill McKibben acknowledged two decades ago that “[e]ach new generation of Malthusians has made new predictions that the end was near, and has been proved wrong.” But like many other pessimists before and after him, McKibben pivoted by arguing that the real issue facing humanity was “running out of... what the scientists call ‘sinks’ — places to put the by-products of our large appetites.”Bill McKibben, “A Special Moment in History: The Fate of Our Planet Will Be Determined in the Next Few Decades, Through our Technological, Lifestyle, and Population Choices,” The Atlantic, May 1998, theatlantic.com.
Today, neo-Malthusian claims revolve largely around the greatest pollution sink of all: the global atmosphere, which is said to be unable to absorb increased carbon dioxide emissions while sustaining conditions favorable to human life. Invoking frameworks like the Ecological Footprint and the Planetary Boundaries hypotheses,“Ecological Footprint,” https://www.footprintnetwork.org/our-work/ecological-footprint/; “The Nine Planetary Boundaries,” stockholmresilience.org.which propose to set hard precautionary limits on human consumption and pollution, some pessimists call for lowering standards of living, while others have reverted to population control because, as Bill McKibben has argued, “it’s easier to change fertility than lifestyle.”Bill McKibben, “A Special Moment in History.”
In redefining environmental constraints around pollution sinks rather than resource scarcity, today’s neo-Malthusians offer a new challenge to the optimistic view of human capacities to overcome limits. In a well-functioning market economy, resource scarcity produces its own solution: a price signal that incentivizes innovation. Sinks without well-defined ownership rights produce no similar mechanism. A better understanding of the long-standing optimistic case on behalf of population and economic growth, however, suggests that, to the contrary, more long-distance trade and technological innovation is the only way humanity can improve its living conditions while reducing pressures on other species and our shared environment.
At its roots, the optimistic narrative is based on the observation that humans have developed at least two unique abilities that set them apart from other animal species in a good way. The first is the trading of physical goods. As Adam Smith observed more than two centuries ago, the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” is “common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.”Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations.Because of this ability, individuals increasingly came to specialize in what they did best and traded with others, in the process producing far more, both in terms of quantity and quality, than if each individual or family had remained self-sufficient.
The second ability is humans’ unique capacity to address problems and innovate by (re)combining existing things in new ways. More people who specialize in ever narrower pursuits can therefore create more advances. As the British political economist Sir William Petty observed over a century before Malthus, it was more likely that “one ingenious curious man may rather be found out amongst 4,000,000 than 400 persons.”Sir William Petty, Essays on Mankind and Political Arithmetic (London: Cassell, 1888), 49, urn:oclc:record:1045274603.In 1844, a young Friedrich Engels stood Malthus on his head when he wrote that the “productive power at mankind’s disposal is immeasurable” and the “productivity of the soil can be increased ad infinitum by the application of capital, labour and science.” A key problem with Malthus, Engels argued, is that he was blind to the fact that science can also increase “in a geometrical progression” under “the most ordinary conditions.”Friedrich Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844, marxists.org.A century later, the American Institutionalist economist Clarence Ayres similarly explained the exponential growth or proliferation of technical devices in light of the fact that “the more devices there are, the greater is the number of potential combinations.” New and better technology, in turn, meant that natural resources were really “materials” that could become ever more abundant as “natural resources are defined by the prevailing technology” rather than what nature had made available to humanity.Clarence Ayres, The Theory of Economic Progress (New York: Schocken Books, 1962), 113.
Because of humanity’s unique abilities to trade and to recombine existing things in new ways, optimist writers argued, humans managed to escape the hard constraints that individual members of other species face. Godwin thus observed that in most places, humanity was “not living upon the wild fruits of the earth, or the wild animals of the field,” but upon the products of human industry. Every person born into this world was therefore “a new instrument for producing the means of subsistence, in the sense of provisions; and every member added to the numbers of the community, is a new instrument for increasing those means.” Furthermore, a human being “is the only animal capable of persevering and premeditated industry… the only creature susceptible of science and invention, and possessing the power of handing down his thoughts in those permanent records, called books.” The human species, he argued, is therefore “capable of improvement from age to age, by means of which capacity we have arrived at those refinements of mechanical production and science, which have been gradually called into existence; while all other animals remain what they were at first, and the young of no species becomes better or more powerful by the experience of those that went before him.”William Godwin, Of Population.
A few decades later, the free-market economist Frédéric Bastiat granted Malthus his key premise for “all living species, except man.” A human being, he wrote, “is perfectible; he seeks to improve his situation…. Progress is his normal state… hence, the means of existence increase more rapidly than population.” Bastiat argued his case “not only [based on] the theory of perfectibility,” but also on “facts, since everywhere we find the range of man’s satisfactions widening.”Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Harmonies (1850), ed. George B. de Huszar (Foundation for Economic Education, 1996), oll.libertyfund.org.Karl Marx wrote soon afterward in the first volume of Capital that an “abstract law of population exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them.”Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vo. I: The Process of Capitalist Production, econlib.org.
The economist Henry George observed in 1879 that of “all living things, man is the only one who can give play to the reproductive forces, more powerful than his own, which supply him with food.” George argued that it was “not the increase of food that has caused [the North American] increase of men; but the increase of men that has brought about the increase of food.” In the end, George wrote, the available evidence was clear, for “while all through the vegetable and animal kingdoms the limit of subsistence is independent of the thing subsisted, with man the limit of subsistence is, within the final limits of earth, air, water, and sunshine, dependent upon man himself.”Henry George, Progress and Poverty (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1912), 91–92, econlib.org.
In 1957, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises observed that only humanity has the power to escape from the struggles for survival, provided that people engage in social cooperation within the context of a market economy. As he saw things, an “eminently human common interest, the preservation and intensification of social bonds, is substituted for pitiless biological competition, the significant mark of animal and plant life.” As a result, humanity was “no longer forced by the inevitable laws of nature to look upon all other specimens of his animal species as deadly foes.” It was thus “inappropriate to refer to animals and plants in dealing with the social problems of man” because for “animals the generation of every new member of the species means the appearance of a new rival in the struggle for life. For man… it means rather an improvement than a deterioration in his quest for material well-being.”Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution (Ludwig von Mises Institute: 2007), 40, 56, mises.org.
Three years later, the American Trotskyist Joseph Hansen argued that Marxists had long taken “a decidedly different view of humanity” than neo-Malthusians because they “note that man has hands and a brain, the capacity to use tools and an inclination for teamwork. These have made him, in distinction to all other animals, a food producer.”Joseph Hansen, Too Many Babies?, 43. Emphasis in original.
Needless to say, the perspective developed by Godwin, Marx, George, and other optimist thinkers has long been decried by pessimist environmentalists as anthropocentric and amounting to a belief in human supremacy.Eileen Crist, “Reimagining the Human,” Science 362: 1242–1244, sciencemag.org.True, detailed studies of animal behavior and practices have shown that many use sophisticated means of communication, transmit tacit knowledge to their offspring, and use opportunity tools (e.g., sticks, stones, sponges, thorns).Thibaud Gruber, Lydia Luncz, Julia Mörchen, et al., “Cultural Change in Animals: A Flexible Behavioural Adaptation to Human Disturbance,” Palgrave Communications 5 (64) (2019): 1–9, nature.com.Some insects also developed agriculture tens of millions of years ago.“Humans Aren’t the Only Creatures That Grow Their Own Food. Leaf-cutter Ants, Trees, and Even Protists Do It Too,” Seed Magazine, July 15, 2017, seedmagazine.com.Beavers and other mammals, along with most birds and many insects, have also long combined various materials to create sometimes impressive structures. Even so, one can hardly argue against the contention that only humans engage in the trading of physical goods while continuously expanding and improving their stock of knowledge and physical capital by transmitting and (re)combining ideas and things in new ways.
Although pessimist thinkers seemingly believe that small populations of hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers didn’t have much impact on the environment, much evidence suggests otherwise as a result of (over)hunting and the large-scale use of fire to create landscapes more suitable to large game animals or agriculture.Lorraine Boissoneault, “Are Humans to Blame for the Disappearance of Earth’s Fantastic Beasts?” Smithsonian, July 31, 2017, smithsonianmag.com; Michael Williams, Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2006).Philosopher of science Maarten Boudry commented on the impactful lifestyle of hunter-gatherers, noting that their “ecological footprint was substantially higher, per capita, than [ours] today” because they laid “a larger claim on the ecosystem, in return for a much lower standard of living.”Maarten Boudry, “False Humility Will Not Save the Planet,” Quillette, January 2, 2020, quillette.com.As optimist thinkers have long understood, the more humans and the more minute and effective the use of everyone’s specialization and talents, the more sustainable economic development will become over time. Conversely, a reduction in the amount of brainpower and its consistent application can only deliver greater poverty and environmental degradation.
Whether they believed in the superiority of central planning or markets, optimists saw humanity’s unique attributes as delivering a virtuous circle of population growth and resource creation. In his correspondence with Malthus, the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say thus dismissed the notion that a reduced population would “enable those which are left to enjoy a greater quantity of those commodities of which they are in want” because a reduction in manpower would simultaneously destroy the means of production. After all, one did not see in thinly populated countries that “the wants of the inhabitants are more easily satisfied.” On the contrary, it was “abundance of productions, and not the scarcity of consumers, which procures a plentiful supply of whatever our necessities require.” This is why the most populous and densely settled countries were generally better supplied than the sparsely populated ones.Jean-Baptiste Say, Letters to Mr. Malthus (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1821), oll.libertyfund.org.
Building on Say’s argument, Bastiat posited three decades later that “[o]ther things being equal, increased population means increased efficiency in the means of production.” Large population numbers and an extended division of labor, he argued, were “the solution of the problem of population; here in this great problem is the element that Malthus has neglected.”Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Harmonies.Henry George similarly observed in 1879 that while one could see “many communities still increasing in population,” they were also “increasing their wealth still faster.” Indeed, “among communities of similar people in a similar stage of civilization,” the “most densely populated community is also the richest.” In the end, the “richest countries are not those where nature is most prolific; but those where labor is most efficient — not Mexico, but Massachusetts; not Brazil, but England.” Where nature is less abundant, George commented, “[t]wenty men working together will… produce more than twenty times the wealth that one man can produce where nature is most bountiful.” This was because the “denser the population the more minute becomes the subdivision of labor, the greater the economies of production and distribution, and, hence, the very reverse of the Malthusian doctrine is true.” George was therefore confident that “in any given state of civilization a greater number of people can produce a larger proportionate amount of wealth, and more fully supply their wants, than can a smaller number.”Henry George, Progress and Poverty.
One of the best short overviews of the optimistic stance was published anonymously in 1889 in the Westminster Review. The author first observed that the “Malthusian theory does not accord with facts” because as “population grows, instead of production being less per head, statistics clearly prove it to be greater.” The explanation for this counterintuitive outcome was that the “intelligence which is fostered in large communities; the advantages of the division of labour; the improved transit, which increases in efficiency with an enterprising people in proportion as numbers become large, and is impracticable until population has developed” were “more than a match in the competition of production for any advantage a thinly scattered community may in some respects gain on a virgin soil.” The problem with Malthusians was that “while bringing prominently forward the needs of an increasing population,” they kept “out of view the increasing means of supply which the additional labor of greater numbers will produce.” The available evidence, however, clearly showed that “so long as there are a pair of hands to provide for every mouth, with intelligence and energy ample production is assured, unless society erects artificial barriers by means of its laws.”The Westminster Review 131, January–June (Philadelphia: Leonard Scott, 1889).
In 1960, Joseph Hansen observed that, in “today’s world, hunger is completely abnormal. Humanity can produce all it needs and many times over. Moreover, man’s capacity to increase his food supply expands with the increase in population and at an ever higher rate than population growth.” A big population was therefore “an asset, not a liability. Failure to see this rather obvious fact is the basic flaw in the Malthusian argument.”Joseph Hansen, Too Many Babies?, 43. Emphasis in original.
Writing in 1973, a time when many academics and activists blamed population growth for pollution problems,Charles C. Mann, “The Book That Incited a Worldwide Fear of Overpopulation,” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2018, smithsonianmag.com.the chemist and economist Colin Clark observed that pollution of the environment was found in all industrial countries. He described it as “serious in France, and also in Sweden.” He singled out these two countries because “for a long time, they have had very little population growth.” The lesson they taught us, he argued, was that it is “our handling, or rather mishandling of sewage and industrial wastes, which causes pollution. If population growth stopped, but present industrial practices continued, pollution would continue. The converse is also true. An increasing population, with proper organisation of waste treatment could be quite free from pollution.”Colin Clark, The Myth of Over-Population (Advocate Press, 1973), 63.
To most pessimistic environmentalists, however, the notion that a greater human population can produce and consume significantly more resources than a smaller number of individuals while simultaneously improving its environment defies common sense. What they typically fail to account for is that developing societies do not simply keep on doing more of the same things, but rather continuously create less problematic ways of meeting and fulfilling human needs while remediating environmental problems.
The second chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Robert Watson, recently summarized the thought of many prominent sustainable development theorists and international bureaucrats when he argued that the “more people we have on the Earth and the richer they are, the more they can demand resources.” There’s more demand for food, more demand for water, more demand for energy. “So, there’s no question the threats on the Earth today are far more than, say, 50 years ago and in 50 years’ time, there will even be more threats.”Adam Wernick, “Biodiversity Loss Has an Enormous Impact on Humans, According to a UN Report,” PRI.org; Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, “Was Climate Change Alarmism Always About Fears of Overpopulation?” WUWT, February 11, 2019, wattsupwiththat.com.His successor, Rajendra K. Pachauri, was even more explicit when he stated in 2007 that humanity has “been so drunk with this desire to produce and consume more and more whatever the cost to the environment that we’re on a totally unsustainable path.” He was “not going to rest easy until [articulating] in every possible forum the need to bring about major structural changes in economic growth and development.” To Pachauri, this was “the real issue. Climate change is just a part of it.”Gabrielle Walker, “Newsmaker of the Year: Rajendra Pichauri,” Nature 450 (2007): 1150–1155, nature.com.
Co-creator of the Ecological Footprint concept William Rees similarly argued that “population growth toward 10 billion will accelerate the depletion of essential bioresources and the destruction of life-support functions upon which civilization depends.”William Rees, “Yes, the Climate Crisis May Wipe out Six Billion People,” The Tyee, September 18,2019, thetyee.ca.When thinking about “climate change, resource constraints and the increasing pressure on our most important ecosystems,” the main academic behind the planetary boundaries framework, Johan Rockström, insisted that “measures to reduce the number of births should be given high priority” for “[w]hatever issue we choose — greenhouse gas emissions, the lack of fresh water and energy, or the loss of biodiversity — the larger the population, the more difficult the problems will be to tackle.”Anders Wijkman and Johan Rockström, Bankrupting Nature (Abington, UK: 2012), 82.
However, what people like Watson, Pachauri, Rees, and Rockström fail to account for is how the innovative nature of human activities in market economies, while indeed handling greater volumes of physical materials over time, ultimately relieved overall pressure on flora and fauna in advanced economies.United Nations Environment Programme, Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth, 2011.
One underappreciated beneficial development over the past two centuries has been the creation of new and ever better resources from underground materials: think not only of various minerals and hydrocarbons, but also of the eventual substitution of materials like copper and steel by fiber optics, plastics, and composite materials. Our increased ability to create such resources eventually allowed humanity, in the words of historical demographer Sir Edward Wrigley, to “break free... from photosynthesis.”Tony Wrigley, “Opening Pandora’s Box: A New Look at the Industrial Revolution,” July 22, 2011, voxeu.org.Writing in 1944, the geologist Kirtley Fletcher Mather noted approvingly that a “hundred years ago, nearly 80 per cent of all the things men used were derived from the plant and animal kingdoms, with only about 20 per cent from the mineral kingdom. Today only about 30 per cent of the things used in industrialized countries come from things that grow; about 70 per cent have their sources in mines and quarries.”Kirtley Fletcher Mather, Enough and to Spare: Mother Earth Can Nourish Every Man in Freedom (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944), 55.
Although not perfect, carbon fuels and various minerals drastically reduced harvesting pressure on wild resources such as whales (whale oil, baleen, perfume base), trees (lumber, firewood, charcoal, rubber, pulp, dyes), birds (feathers), agricultural products (fats and fibers from livestock and plants, leather from livestock, dyes and pesticides from plants), and other wildlife (ivory, furs, skin). A growing and richer population in advanced economies made possible the development of modern transportation technologies (from railroads and steamships to trucking and container shipping), the replacement of work animals (horses, mules, oxen) by much more powerful and reliable tractors and agricultural machinery, and the creation of countless inputs (from synthetic fertilizers to plasticulture). It also was able to drastically increase agricultural productivity while simultaneously releasing a large amount of agricultural land in the process.
Another problem with the worldview of neo-Malthusians is their lack of understanding that market economies have always been engaged in a constant war on waste in all its forms. As the then chief chemist of the US Bureau of Mines, Arno C. Fieldner, wrote in 1925, “the object of all fuel research is either to eliminate waste and increase efficiency in the mining, preparation and utilization of fuels, or to convert the raw fuel by treatment or processing into a more convenient or effective form for use with, in many cases, the recovery of valuable by-products for other purposes.”Arno C. Fieldner, “Significant Progress in Research on Fuels,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 119 (1) (1925): 13–23.Indeed, even Marx acknowledged that capitalism financially rewarded the “prevention of waste, that is to say, the reduction of excretions of production to a minimum, and the immediate utilisation to a maximum of all raw and auxiliary materials required in production.”Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. III, Chapter V, 73, marxists.org.
Unfortunately, Marxist central planners failed to replicate capitalism’s success in this respect. As the economist and demographer Mikhail Bernstam observed three decades ago, market-based economies became wealthier and cleaner over time, while centrally planned economies stagnated, or even regressed, becoming increasingly polluted. Bernstam considered this outcome the “most important reversal in economic and environmental history since the Industrial Revolution.”Mikhail Bernstam, “The Wealth of Nations and the Environment,” Population and Development Review 16 (1990 Suppl): 334.Because of its inherent shortcomings, central planning created much more scrap, spills, slag, discards, refuse, and other processing losses; destroyed primary resources; and resulted in losses of intermediary and final output during transportation and storage.Ibid., 348; Pierre Desrochers, “Industrial Symbiosis: The Case for Market Coordination,” Journal of Cleaner Production 12 (2004): 1099–1110, utoronto.ca.It was this waste and its attendant pollution rather than increased production or consumption, Bernstam argued, that was the ultimate determinant of the impact of economic growth on the environment.Mikhail Bernstam, “The Wealth of Nations and the Environment,” 356.
A completely different outcome was observed in market economies. As discussed and illustrated by numerous writers, an increasingly complex market economy not only promotes more opportunities to develop new resources from hitherto useless physical stuff, but also opens up many new profitable niches for production residuals.Pierre Desrochers, “Freedom Versus Coercion in Industrial Ecology: A Reply to Boons,” Econ Watch Journal 9 (2) (2012): 78–99, econjwatch.org; “Promoting Corporate Environmental Sustainability in the Victorian Era: The Bethnal Green Museum Permanent Waste Exhibit (1875–1928),” V&A Online Journal 3 (Spring 2011).To many past optimistic analysts, what are now typically described as “environmental externalities” were better thought of as potential profit opportunities. Writing in Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words, the English journalist George Dodd described in an 1852 article titled “Penny Wisdom” many recent developments of “products once useless, but now of great value.”George Dodd, “Penny Wisdom” Household Words 134 (1852): 98, archive.org.A year later, an anonymous contributor to the Illustrated Magazine of Art observed that the “operations of chemistry have brought into employment a thousand substances which had otherwise been useless or pernicious.” Some of these had at first been dissipated through the erection of huge chimneys, but as “the best way of destroying an enemy is to make him a friend, so the best way of getting rid of a noxious gas is to find a method by which it may be retained in a useful form.” Once this had been accomplished, “those old chimneys remain[ed] as so many huge monuments of the ignorance of the past.”“Curiosities of the Chemistry Art,” Illustrated Magazine of Art 1 (1853): 358, 359.
In 1886, an encyclopedia entry described how, “in the earlier days” of many manufacturing branches, “certain portions of the materials used have been cast aside as ‘waste’,” but over time “first in one branch and then in another, this ‘waste’ material has been experimented upon with a view to finding some profitable use for it; and in most instances the experiments have had more or less satisfactory results.”“The Utilisation of ‘Waste Materials,’” Hazell's Annual Cyclopaedia (1886), Vol. 1, 464.Writing in 1904, the American industrial chemist Leebert Lloyd Lamborn observed: “If there is one aspect more than any other that characterizes modern commercial and industrial development. . . it is the utilization of substances which in a primitive stage of development of any industry were looked upon as worthless.”Leebert L. Lamborn, Cottonseed Products (New York: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1904), 16, archive.org.
As was widely understood at the time, the profit motive rewarded manufacturers who turned freely available polluting emissions into marketable by-products. The business and technology journalist Peter Lund Simmonds thus observed in 1875 that “as competition becomes sharper, manufacturers have to look more closely to those items which may make the slight difference between profit and loss, and convert useless products into those possessed of commercial value.”Pierre Desrochers, “Promoting Corporate Environmental Sustainability in the Victorian Era.”George Powell Perry later wrote that “the commercial spirit of [the] age has developed wonderful genius for utilizing waste products.”George Powell Perry, Wealth from Waste, Or Gathering Up the Fragments (F.H. Revell Co., 1908), 71, catalog.hathitrust.org.The “greatest source of wealth, in these days of great riches, has been acquired largely through the wise use of that which men term waste. In all departments of life men have studied how to utilize to the utmost the refuse and remnants that follow in the wake of legitimate enterprise.”Ibid., 12–13. Emphasis in original.Indeed, humans had found ways to turn “everything into a source of wealth,” and the closer they kept to this “law of nature,” the “wiser and wealthier [they would] grow.”Ibid., 28.
The early history of the American petroleum extraction and refining industry provides many such illustrations. The economic geographers Robert C. Estall and R. Ogilvie Buchanan thus observed that in the early 1860s, the leftover portions of the refining process that extracted kerosene out of petroleum “were waste products” typically dumped in rivers or burned.R.C. Estall and R. Ogilvie Buchanan, Industrial Activity and Economic Geography, a Study of the Forces Behind the Geographical Location of Productive Activity in Manufacturing Industry (London: Hutchinson, 1973), 281.In the first two decades of the industry, however, the proportion of petroleum wasted was reduced from about half of the original material to less than a quarter through the creation of lubricating oils, greases, paraffin, petrolatum (better known by the trademark Vaseline), candles, insect repellents, and solvents. Although gasoline found limited markets in the production of paints and varnishes, most of it was wasted until the later development of the internal combustion engine turned it into the main output of refineries. In the meantime, some of the heavier fractions of the petroleum barrels became sought after for road surfacing and roofing and, with the development of adequate furnace technology, as a heating fuel.Harold F. Wilson and Arnold R. Daum, The American Petroleum Industry: The Age of Illumination 1859–1899 (Northwestern University Press, 1959).
By the end of the 19th century, Standard Oil was selling approximately 200 by-products created from former polluting residuals, including “naphtas for local anesthetics, solvents for industry, fuel for stoves and the internal combustion engines, wax for pharmaceuticals and candles, oils and lubricants to free machines from friction, [and] heavy oils for the gas industry.”Newton H. Copp and Andrew W. Zanella, Discovery, Innovation, and Risk: Case Studies in Science and Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 156. In his early 20th century economic history of the company, the lawyer Gilbert Holland Montague observed that the main complaint voiced by John D. Rockefeller’s competitors was that the new “improved methods of utilizing by-products” had made them “as remunerative as the refined oil itself,” which gave the company a significant competitive advantage. As was widely understood at the time, the main challenge of by-product development was that it required “the greatest specialization of methods, encouragement of invention, investment of capital, and extension of plant,” something beyond the capacity of smaller refining operations. Montague concluded that the large profits Standard Oil derived from by-products was “owing entirely to its superior mechanical efficiency and organization.”Gilbert Holland Montague, The Rise and Progress of the Standard Oil Company (1904) (Kitchener, ON: Batoche Books, 2003), 30, socialsciences.mcmaster.ca.
After writing that more than 5,000 different products had been developed from crude oil, the economic geographer Joseph Russell Smith observed that the “meat-packing industry has long boasted that it uses all parts of a pig except the squeal. The petroleum industry sometimes adds the odor of oil to odorless gas to help detect leaks in pipelines. The petroleum industry claims that it uses everything in crude oil, including the smell.”J. Russell Smith, Industrial and Commercial Geography, 4th ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1955), 309.
The world is now faced with what some have called the greatest externality of all: climate change. In public letters written to prominent politicians, climatologist James Hansen famously described coal as “the single greatest threat to civilisation and all life on our planet,” that the “trains carrying coal to power plants are death trains,” and that coal-fired power plants “are factories of death.”James Hansen, “Coal-Fired Power Stations Are Death Factories: Close Them,” The Guardian, February 14, 2009, theguardian.com.Canadian author and columnist Murray Dobbin similarly warned against “the slow motion apocalypse of global climate change” and “the ever-increasing production and use of fossil fuels [that] will, over time, kill billions of us and irreversibly change all life on the planet.”Murray Dobbin, “Can You Imagine? Toppling the Fossil Fuel Empire,” The Tyee, June 30, 2014, thetyee.ca.Canadian climate scientist Andrew Weaver, now the leader of the British Columbia Green Party, is on the record as stating: “Technology itself will not solve global warming... infinite growth cannot occur in a finite system. Collapse is inevitable.”Andrew Weaver, Generation Us: The Challenge of Global Warming (Olympia, WA: Orca Book Publishing, 2011), 108.
In contrast with past problems such as air and water pollution, which were highly localized, climate change represents a pollution sink problem of truly global magnitude — one implicated in virtually every aspect of human life. Is it possible that markets might profitably find new uses for carbon dioxide at scales consistent with significantly limiting climate change, in the same way that market economies have converted other forms of waste into economically valuable products? There are in fact profitable carbon dioxide utilization processes in existence, and several efforts are under way to improve or discover new ones. These include everything from enhanced oil recovery and greenhouse plant production to advanced building materials and low-carbon fuels.Cameron Hepburn, Ella Adlen, John Beddington, et al., “The Technological and Economic Prospects for CO2 Utilization and Removal,” Nature 575 (2019): 87–97.
It is nevertheless doubtful that these uses will have much impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration in light of the current scale at which humanity is burning carbon fuels. Thus, dramatically limiting carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will require deeply reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.
But in our haste to do so, we should remember all the ways in which our present societies depend on fossil fuels for our well-being and, indeed, the ways in which today’s carbon-based energy infrastructure what makes us resilient to a changing climate. Carbon fuels have made possible large-scale urbanization, education, standard of living, and health care provisions: all of these, in myriad ways, have improved the resilience of human populations to natural disasters and crises such as climate change.
Indeed, the development of a robust technological infrastructure has allowed humans to thriveDecca Aitkenhead, “James Lovelock: Before the End of This Century, Robots Will Have Taken Over,” The Guardian, September 30, 2016, theguardian.com. in very harsh or warm climates, whereas their ancestors regularly starved in locations with much more benign environmental conditions. As the journalist Robert Bryce further reminds us, humans have had to cope with the climate and extreme weather events for millennia, and “every sensible ‘no-regrets’ climate policy recognizes the need to prepare for future storms and droughts.” “The hard reality,” he argues, “is that we must make our cities and systems more resilient” through “early-warning systems, flood-control measure, and evacuation plans.”Robert Bryce, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong (Public Affairs, 2014), 240.
We should be mindful, too, of the high social and environmental costs of the degrowth and population-control prescriptions pessimists offer. Less brainpower; localized agricultural and industrial practices; the replacement of synthetic products by biomass-based alternatives; and the displacement of high-density power sources by lower-density, intermittent, and unreliable power sources can result only in both greater material poverty and increased pressures on our ecosystems. After all, Haiti, Malawi, Nepal, Myanmar, or Nicaragua — countries with small “ecological footprints” whose resource use remains well within “safe biophysical boundaries” —are economically, socially, and environmentally destitute.
In the long run, the only truly sustainable option remains, as in the past, the development of new ways of doing things. Just as carbon fuels have created industrialized societies that are far more resilient to the effects of climate change than earlier agrarian societies, fossil fuels have created conditions in which we have the capabilities to develop new and better forms of energy that might allow us to continue to thrive.
Markets may be unlikely to find new uses for carbon dioxide at scales consistent with much slower global warming. But that does not mean that human societies are doomed to either limit their populations and aspirations or face collapse. In the same way that market economies have for two centuries now developed energy sources that are cleaner, cheaper, and more useful, there is no reason to think that market economies, in the face of climate change, will not be able to develop substitutes for fossil fuels over the long run.
Philosopher of science Maarten Boudry summarized this pithily: “The right way to look at anthropogenic climate change is as an unexpected side-effect of something that, by and large, proved an immense blessing to humanity. Sure, if we had left all those fossilized remains of ancient animals and plants under the ground, we would not now be stuck with rising global temperatures. But then our lives would also have remained solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, as they had been for the better part of world history until around 1800.”Maarten Boudry, “False Humility Will Not Save the Planet.”
Unfortunately, neo-Malthusians are giving humanity no room to maneuver. By discounting our drive to innovate and our ability to use the existing technological infrastructure, including the near-zero carbon emission boon of nuclear energy, they are relegating us to the tenuous life as one of nature’s other animals. Future flourishing, both for the Earth and for most living beings on it, demands that we tap into the extraordinary potential of creative individuals made increasingly more prosperous by ever more trade, collaboration, and opportunities to (re)combine existing things in new ways.