Decoding The Malthusian Fallacy

Source: Competitive Enterprise Institute.

I took heat yesterday for suggesting that the resources needed for the production of goods are not really finite in any practical sense. It was a ham-handed suggestion because, of course, all things are finite. If we could drink the oceans, for example, the oceans would cease to exist.

What I really had in mind is that the argument from scarcity is wrongheaded. Just because we can imagine a Noah’s Flood doesn’t mean that one is imminent or certain.

More generally, it should be obvious that our planet and all the resources it contains are finite, but it should be just as obvious that resources exist off our planet. Presumably, we will become able to go to them and bring them back, refurbishing whatever meager supply our planet all alone once provided.

The essay provides a more terrestrial assessment of resource supply.

The Malthusian fallacy is a dreadful belief that human beings are net consumers of resources. Yet the productivity and ingenuity of humanity is presumably noticeable to those who do not hunt and gather their food barehanded. In 1974, two years after The Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, an apocalyptic treatise warning of overpopulation and environmental calamity (linked above, see “tizzy”), the global population reached 4 billion people. Thirteen years later, in 1987: 5 billion people. Twelve years later, in 1999: 6 billion. Twelve more years passed and as of 2011 the global population stood at 7 billion individuals.

At no point during this near-doubling of most important number on earth did the sky catch fire. Life got better. And resources became less scarce! Julian Simon handily won his bet that copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten would be cheaper in 1990 than they had been in 1980, even though he let his pessimistic counterpart choose those five commodities. Resources held as private property are, as a rule, diligently stewarded. Historically, resources have been abandoned on a global scale in favor of superior substitutes, not because they have been depleted.

After popularizing kerosene for heat and illumination, oilman John D. Rockefeller pioneered the commercial use of a substance that was previously discarded as industrial waste: gasoline. Rockefeller, a frugal man who lived quite modestly and reputedly hated waste with a white hot passion, figured out a way to turn trash into treasure.

The point to grasp is that resources are not only consumed, they are also produced. Because of this, it is conceivable for an economy to “grow” infinitely.

7 thoughts on “Decoding The Malthusian Fallacy

  1. ” If we could drink the oceans, for example, the oceans would cease to exist.”

    Clearly, you’ve not thought that through, or you never drank a beer. Give my wife a six-pack and the Sahara would bloom.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ” If we could drink the oceans, for example, the oceans would cease to exist.”

    The science of desalinization says otherwise. Happens every day on Navy ships at sea.

    I guess your lead-in to the link is another ham-handed idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. RE: “The science of desalinization says otherwise. Happens every day on Navy ships at sea.”

      No doubt. Had I said, “Eat a grape” instead of “Drink the oceans,” would the idea make more sense to you?

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      1. I am fairly sure that the amount of water we have on earth, total and everywhere, is finite. Or, more correctly, Hydrogen and Oxygen are finite. We cannot create or destroy either one, just rearrange them with regards to other elements.

        True, there is enough to support billions more when considering total amounts. Unfortunately, societies and nations have grown up and around areas of sustainability and that may be changing. Sure we can move, but that has its own major problems: refugees do not have access except through national humanitarian efforts and is fraught with complications. Just look at our southern border.

        So “doomsday scenarios” are not just about total amounts. It also concerns borders, mass movements, mass starvation, deadly droughts, etc.

        And if the scenarios for sea level rises are correct, or even partly so, the impact on low lying large population centers is going to be pretty intense. And we are talking about 40% of people on earth living within 60 miles of coasts.

        Climate changes that affect monsoons and other rainy season events which supply foods for billions can create a lot of problems.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. RE: “So ‘doomsday scenarios’ are not just about total amounts. It also concerns borders, mass movements, mass starvation, deadly droughts, etc.”

          Yes, of course. It remains, however, a fallacy to focus on scarcity as an absolute condition because resources are both consumed and produced.

          Sea-level rise offers a good illustration of the point. The seas won’t rise fast enough to drown anyone inescapably. We can envision the loss of some resources due to inundation, but chances are those resources will be replaced.

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      2. “No doubt.”

        Then why use it in the first place.

        And to change it to eat a grape, I would point out that grapes produce seeds, which in turn, produces MORE grapes.

        Once again, you throw things out there without giving any real thought to it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. My original statement was that resources are not finite in any practical sense. Your example of the grape is one type of proof of that. A better proof is that resources are both consumed and produced, as I keep pointing out.

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