The Anti-Cassandra of Overpopulation

Regarding the eco-scaremongering which has been a constant force and clamor in modern life since at least 1950, a reader with the leviathanic yet flatulential name of KrakenFartz observes:

Thomas Sowell coined the term “Teflon Prophet” to describe the scientaster, Paul Ehrlich, because even though his predictions have turned out to be wrong every single time, nothing sticks to his reputation.

My comment:

First, I salute the use of the term scientaster as a clever play on the underused word poetaster — referring to an overly self-important versifier with underwhelming skills.

Second, I suspect nothing sticks to Ehrlich’s reputation as a prophet simply because those who believe him do so for unadmitted emotional reasons related to earth-worship, to discontent with freedom and prosperity, and to the Gnostic world-view that inverts moral values. He tickles their ears with what they want to hear.

You would think folks would not want to hear that they are doomed, and more doomed, and most doomed. To the contrary, prophecies of Armageddon and Ragnarok quell quotidian worries, open a vision of life’s larger issues, and firm the resolve to heed and follow one’s prophet of choice. Such prophecies set the stage with a large picture of the war between Heaven and Hell, and the battle for the soul of the nation.

The only problem is that the false prophets are on the wrong side. Those who follow heaven obey the command to be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it. The opposition wants to subdue man, cull the population like cattle, and worship the earth as an idol, a Carthaginian idol that demands human sacrifice.

Paul Ehrlich is a false prophet. It  has not eroded his support one iota.

Back in the day, no one behaved as if the threats of which he speaks are real: one did not hear rumor of a single Overpopulation scaremonger rushing emergency supplies to India in the 1980s to forestall the predicted coming apocalypse. We see a similar thing today, with Global Warming scaremongers, rich from their industry (and it is a full-time multimillion dollar industry) buying beachfront mansions while warning us of rising sea levels, or flying on jets while telling us to lower our carbon footprint.

To be sure, they are wiling to make small, meaningless gestures that would not actually solve the problem were the problem real, such as dividing household garbage into recycling bins. These are usually done as virtue signaling, or because required by law or custom: ritual gestures.

One cannot convince a votary to cease making a ritual gesture by pointing out its lack of practical use. Rituals are meant to be rituals: only when the cultist turns away from idols toward true worship will he put idolatry behind.

Evidence cannot change belief not based on evidence.

Third, Ehrlich made a notorious wager with economist Julian Simon. Ehrlich argued that population growth must outstrip available resources, leading to worldwide poverty and starvation: Simon argued that human ingenuity is a “resource” not curtailed by population growth, and that this is the overriding factor determining the wealth or poverty of human civilization. It is an infinite resource.

In October of 1980, Simon asked Ehrlich to pick any ‘non-government controlled’ resource. Simon wagered that, due to human ingenuity, the price would decrease.  Ehrlich chose five metals — copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Ehrlich reasoned that metals are a fixed supply — there is only so much in the Earth — and so the price would increase. The terms of the wager was set for a ten year period, long enough to smooth out local market variations.

As Simon predicted, the price of all selected metals went down, not up. Despite the population growth, the supply of metals on the market grew, and hence the price by October of 1990 dropped by fifty percent.

The clumsy mistake Ehrlich made was to conflate metals in the ground, which are limited in scientifically measurable terms like mass and volume, with metals on the market, which are limited only by the utility human ingenuity can derive from them.

Utility is expressed in monetary values not scientific units, dollars not kilograms. Monetary value expresses the ratio between priority of uses to which a good or service is put, and it cannot be measured scientifically.

How many pounds sterling a shipment of pig iron is worth on the British Market is unrelated to how many pounds it weighs.

So, for example, if pig iron is $500 per ton on the market, this measures the ratio of how much or little aggregate buyers of pig iron prioritize their desire for this good as against other uses they might make with their money.

This ratio changes if ore refinement techniques change, and to what uses it is put. If a war breaks out, for example, the demand for ore, hence the price, may rise. Or if a company opens a new refinery or foundry in a spot where shipping is easier, the transaction cost may drop, and hence ore price drop.

In any case, how much iron ore is in the ground has no necessary logical relation to how much iron ore is available on the market, or how valuable it is according to human valuation.

Human valuation is not a scientific fact, but a product of human imagination and planning. People buy ore because they imagine and plan a future use for the products of the ore.

The same tonnage of ore dug out of the ground might change in its value to human beings due to new industrial processes, or due to changes in the efficiency of organization or shipping, and so on.

Shale oil was not a trade good until hydraulic fracturing, for example, made it economical to extract. Hydraulic fracturing did not change the scientific measurement of the total volume of oil under the earth’s surface, but it did change the valuation of oil products on the market: the price went down dramatically.

For the record, measuring those same metals involved in the 1980-to-1990 wager under current terms, and correcting for inflation, renders the same result: by 2020, measured over 40 years, not 10, prices of those five metals fall. Ehrlich loses again.

Despite all this, Ehrlich went on to sell books and give lectures on overpopulation dangers long after all his predictions proved false. Simon called this “the Reverse Cassandra Effect.” Cassandra, you may recall, was the Trojan princess blessed with the power of prophecy, but cursed never to be believed. The more often her predictions of woe for Troy came true, the less people listened. Ehrlich is the opposite: the more wrong he is, the more eagerly the gullible flock to him.

And he did not take the loss well.

After his humiliation, Ehrlich publicly scoffed that “Julian Simon is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going as he passes the 10th floor.”

In other words, Ehrlich here says that trends cannot be extrapolated smoothly into the future by considering past trends. There are two logical errors here, and one error of character.

The first logical error: If it is true, as in in the example of defenestration from a skyscraper, that extrapolations may be dismissed when the future is discontinuous, as when past trends suddenly stop, then this same logic applies to Ehrlich’s extrapolations as well.

Ehrlich prediction a famine in India so apocalyptic that, or so he said, nothing could be done to halt the megadeath by mass starvation. But the predicted famine in India never eventuated. One reason may be human ingenuity. New techniques in soil-fertilization, irrigation and modern farming techniques revolutionize the traditional, pre-industrial farming techniques in India.

Rather than famine, India is a major agricultural exporter, shipping overseas tens of billions of dollars of rice, cotton, sugar, and beef, soybean meal, guar gum, corn, and wheat.

Second logical error: Julian Simon’s extrapolation is not an extrapolation from past performance, but an argument from first principles. It is a a logical, not an empirical, prediction. Paul Ehrlich’s extrapolation likewise is based on an argument from first principles — it is merely that his first principles are wrong.

Following Malthus, Ehrlich argues that since human population grows exponentially, while resources to feed that population, such as arable land, is limited, that inevitably population must reach that limit, whereupon starvation will cull the population. Population beyond the food supply is called overpopulation.

Malthus himself later pointed out the flaw in his prediction, which is that humans, unlike beasts or bacteria, can foresee coming disasters, such as starvation, and take steps to mitigate them, such as by opening new lands for cultivation.

Asking what happens when all the resources run out is like asking was happens when all the air is breathed up or all the food is consumed. The question makes sense only to an astronaut trapped in a space capsule with no way to resupply. On Earth, there are always other resources.

More to the point, such a question is like a man of the Victorian Age asking what happens when we run out of whales to hunt for whale-oil for our lanterns, or whalebone for corset stays or buggy whips?

Well, a waste product known as gasoline, as it turns out, thanks to John D. Rockefeller, can be used for kerosene lanterns. Electric bulbs can be used for lighting, or gas. Synthetic materials can be used for corset stays and buggy whips, which are, in any case, no longer in high demand.

Since Western civilization currently suffers from underpopulation of existential magnitude, the Regency Era science fiction thinking of Malthus and his Hippy Era epigones like Paul Erhlich seems gravely quaint and antiquated.

The third error here is one of character, or lack of it.

If Ehrlich knew, or even suspected, that limited resources could nonetheless grow less expensive over time as population grew, then his argument that population growth must lead to overpopulation is one he likewise should have known or suspected to be false.

In which case, he should not have made the wager.

But having made the wager, what he was wagering on was precisely what he says, in the quote above, he was not wagering on.

He was wagering on prices. Either he forgot the terms of the wager or never understood them in the first case.

Ehrlich shows his clownish vulgarity by not being a good sport. If you lost the wager, you lost. You shake hands and admit you were wrong.

What Ehrlich did instead was whine and lie. He pretended the wager had actually be about another issue: as if the wager had not been about prices, but about tons of ore mined.

He is not the only whiner. I came across another Ehrlich cultist who complained that Julian Simon tricked Ehrlich with a bait and switch, by luring Ehrlich into agreeing that prices measured unit of raw resources rather than measuring human needs and preferences for resource use.

The cultist fails to recognize, or fails to admit, that if the drop in the units of raw material is accompanied by a a drop, not a rise, in prices, than the material available to satisfy human needs goes up, not down.

If this is true of food resources also, the overpopulation is disproven as a concept. More people does not mean less food.

If, in 1850, I dug up a ton of pitchblende, the crust of the Earth clearly has one ton less. If, in 1950, I can extract sufficient uranium from a ton of pitchblende sufficient to power the city and county where I live for a century, allowing me to leave a hundred tons of oil in the ground the fact that the earth has one ton less is immaterial. The conditions have changed, including the technological progress which makes pitchblende a resource rather than a waste-mineral.

If human ingenuity allows me to get four dollars worth of use out of a resource where previously I got two dollars, I can cut my consumption in half with no loss to me. The amount of the raw material I am using up goes down, not up, while the utility I enjoy from its use goes up, not down.

Ehrlich’s quote, given above, is dishonest and weak-minded.

If the wager had been that, in ten years, every ton of ore mined is no longer in the ground to be mined again, then Ehrlich would have won the wager. One need not even wait ten years, or two hours. It follows by definition that if an ounce of ore is dug out of the ground, the ground contains one ounce less.

But those were not the terms of the wager because that was not Ehrlich’s argument. Ehrlich’s argument was not that digging ore out of the ground means there is less ore in the ground. His argument is that having less ore in the ground will lead to scarcity of resources will lead to human misery.

And the wager was that this is not so. Having less of a resource is not what makes it scarce. What makes it scarce is having more humans demands for that resource than human ingenuity can supply.

The physical amount of the raw material at hand is not the sole factor, and, so it seems, not even a major factor, in estimating available resources.

A resource is a factor of production available for use. A raw material is a physical substance from which a resource can be made. A raw material is a physical thing. It is made of matter. A resource is an economic good. It reflects a human intention for use. They are not identical.

The terms of the wager were that, if overpopulation is real, population growth outstrips resources, hence resources grow scarce, hence prices rise.

But if overpopulation means resources only grow scarce in the economic sense, not in the scientific sense, that is, if there are ever fewer tons of iron ore in the ground, while one ton of pig iron on the market costs ever less, then population growth does not cause economic scarcity.

Or, in other words, overpopulation does not exist.

Eventually we will stop mining iron from the Earth’s surface, to be sure. This will be when the extraction is no longer economically feasible. One factor, perhaps a major factor, will be the exhaustion of metal ores at depths and locations convenient for mining.

Of course, the amount of iron available for mining is unknown, as is the amount of oil. No mining company nor oil company seeks out untapped deposits until need calls for it. We may have decades of untapped reserves, or centuries, or millennia. No one knows. Also, which minerals, currently useless, may be classified as resources in times to come — the example of shale oil is pertinent here — is subject to change.

Of course, asteroid mining is technically possible even at our current level of technology, albeit far from economically feasible.

The total amount of resources in outer space is, not to put too fine a point on it, astronomical.  Human ingenuity is not infinite, but neither does it have clear limits. Even science fiction writers will be wary of saying to what level technology can grow, and, as it grows, making raw materials currently useless to us into resources.

So our remote descendants may find feasible ways, currently unimaginable, of mining minerals like pig iron from undersea trenches or orbiting asteroids.

But since, at that time, the race would have evolved into floating brain-monsters able to erect acrolithic mega-superstructures by psychokinesis, built of superdense neutronium-alloy artificial elements not occurring on the periodic table, the need for pig iron then may be a limited as our current need for whale-oil lamps.

But the idea that we should sterilize our women, even temporarily with contraceptive, or kill our unborn, or otherwise cull the human population like cattle, when that idea is based on a fear that is more hysteria than honest hypothetical extrapolation, is an egregiously stupid, evil and bad idea.

Overpopulation is an illogical idea, once that evaporates into nonsense when examined closely; and using overpopulation fears to herd the human race ever closer toward its own extinction is a bad idea.

How bad? Well … I would not bet on it.