Malthus at the Movies

An excellent article on the folly of overpopulation fears (h/t to CAEI):

Here is a sample:

The Population Bomb Fizzles

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Instead of running out of natural resources, they got cheaper. Population growth led to economic growth, not economic collapse. In the 1966 novel on which Soylent Green was based, earth’s population in the year 2022 has reached the staggering level of… seven billion. In other words, the book actually underestimated world population growth. Yet from 1961 to 2007, the food supply increased 27 percent per person, despite world population growing from 3.6 to 6.7 billion.

The real problem with the panicked predictions of Soylent Green and The Population Bomb was a failure of imagination combined with a lack of faith in the creativity and resilience of humanity. Predictions of imminent resource exhaustion based on currently known supplies is the equivalent of going to your local supermarket, calculating that there is only enough food there to last a couple of weeks, and concluding that we should see mass starvation by the end of the month. The math behind the calculations might be fine, but the inability to take into account human adaptability makes them nearly worthless.

Ehrlich’s strongest critic was the economist Julian Simon, and Ehrlich proved to be enough of gambler to make a public bet with Simon. In 1980, Simon argued that, contra Ehrlich’s doomsaying, commodities would become more plentiful and cheaper over the next decade. As Simon saw things, it was a mistake to think of natural resources as finite materials in the ground. Throughout most of history, having oil on your land was kind of a nuisance. It’s black and sticky and wasn’t good for much of anything. It’s only when people figured out some valuable use for oil that it became a natural resource. Human ingenuity, therefore, is the ultimate resource. More people means not just more consumers, but more problem solvers.

In 1990, Ehrlich was forced to admit his predictions were wrong and mailed Simon a check for losing the bet. You’d think that realizing mass starvation was not inevitable would have been a relief, but Ehrlich was hardly a gracious loser. If someone had to die in order to prove scarcity and overpopulation were legitimate concerns, Ehrlich had an idea about who that might be. Five years after losing his bet, he would tell the Wall Street Journal, “If Simon disappeared from the face of the Earth, that would be great for humanity.”

My comment:I suspect there are two reasons for the continued popularity of goblin-fears about Too Many Brown People which seem to choke Mr Ehrlich so oppressively that he sacrifices, with no hint of reluctance, every last speck of his honesty and integrity to preserve those fears. The supernatural reason is that Hell hates children, little images of the divine, and so anything which drives young girls into hating and fearing motherhood is a victory for the Darkness.

The natural reason is that science fiction stories are more exciting and dramatic if conditions in the future have changed for the worse, and the particular limitations of story telling make an over-crowded future easier to paint as painful than an under-crowded future.

Americans are a frontier people by nature, and science fiction is a typically American literature, so wide open spaces empty of people cannot be made scary to us, even if, by all logic and evidence, the danger of having too few hands to work, too few men to maintain civilization, is a more desperate danger than the alleged danger of having too many mouths to feed. America has never suffered a famine. Never. No other nation can make that boast.  So the natural reason is that it is just easier for lazy writers to make overpopulation seem like a scary and dramatic threat.

Such stories also pluck a deep chord in the American character. Ever since the West was won and the frontier was closed, a note of sorrow at the death of the wilderness, a sense of being expelled from Eden, hangs in the background of our psyche. It is interesting to note that this note has always hung in the background of the American psyche: you can read the regret of the passing of the Wilderness in James Cooper’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS, Francis Parkman’s OREGON TRAIL, and even a hint of it (if my memory serves) in TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MAST by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. These books were written before the California Gold Rush, when the wilderness was still wild.

One reason for the popularity of science fiction is the promise of space as the final frontier, a frontier that will never close. Outer space, or so science fiction promises, is a wilderness that will never be tamed. This goes nicely hand in hand with overpopulation worries, for it gives the race what seems a strong motive to expand to the stars.

But nonetheless, one thing I cannot fathom a reason for, natural or supernatural, is why the muggles (sorry, non-sci-fi guys) take seriously something we sciffy types freaking MADE UP as MAKE BELIEVE and now you are afraid of it. I am reminded of UFO cultists who are afraid of alien invasion from Mars or Alpha Draconis. It is something me and my clan of imagineers invented as play-pretend. You are not supposed to think it is real. The danger of overpopulation is the same level of threat as the danger of Martian invasion.

The popularity of overpopulation apocalypses in sci fi is a continuing wonder to me, especially since we live in an era of population decline, that is, underpopulation. It is like listening to a man dying of thirst in the Sahara worry about floods, or, to use a more pointed example, it is like the worries reported by that most honest of travelers, Lemuel Gulliver describing the intellectual disquiet of the Laputans:

These People are under continual Disquietudes, never enjoying a Minute’s Peace of Mind; and their Disturbances proceed from Causes which very little affect the rest of Mortals. Their Apprehensions arise from several Changes they dread in the Celestial Bodies. For Instance; that the Earth by the continual Approaches of the Sun towards it, must in Course of Time be absorbed or swallowed up. That the Face of the Sun will by Degrees be encrusted with its own Effluvia, and give no more Light to the World. That, the Earth very narrowly escaped a Brush from the Tail of the last Comet, which would have infallibly reduced it to Ashes; and that the next, which they have calculated for One and Thirty Years hence, will probably destroy us. For, if in its Perihelion it should approach within a certain Degree of the Sun, (as by their Calculations they have Reason to dread) it will conceive a Degree of Heat ten Thousand Times more intense than that of red hot glowing Iron; and in its Absence from the Sun, carry a blazing Tail Ten Hundred Thousand and Fourteen Miles long; through which if the Earth should pass at the Distance of one Hundred Thousand Miles from the Nucleus or main Body of the Comet, it must in its Passage be set on Fire, and reduced to Ashes. That the Sun daily spending its Rays without any Nutriment to supply them, will at last be wholly consumed and annihilated; which must be attended with the Destruction of this Earth, and of all the Planets that receive their Light from it.

A Laputian gentleman taking a walk.<br />
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909.

They are so perpetually alarmed with the Apprehensions of these and the like impending Dangers, that they can neither sleep quietly in their Beds, nor have any Relish for the common Pleasures or Amusements of Life. When they meet an Acquaintance in the Morning, the first Question is about the Sun’s Health; how he looked at his Setting and Rising, and what Hopes they have to avoid the Stroak of the approaching Comet. This conversation they are apt to run into with the same Temper that boys discover, in delighting to hear terrible Stories of Sprites and Hobgoblins, which they greedily listen to, and dare not go to Bed for fear.