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Page added on May 29, 2014

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Doomsday can wait a little longer


When it comes to predictions nowadays, there are no shortages about our way of life meeting an ignominious end.

Take Jim Leape, the director of the World Wide Fund for Nature International, for example, He recently said that “we are using 50 percent more resources than the Earth can sustainably produce and unless we change our course even two planets will not be enough to sustain life’’ on our planet.

 It is hard to find a more dire prediction. Future forecasts like this one raise the ire and cause great concern among the general populist, but many – particularly economists – oftentimes disagree with these doomsday predictions.

In a seminal article in the Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords and a writer for The Economist, traces some of the assumptions behind the most recent dire predictions for our world’s environment. It assumes there will be few technological advances in the use and production of energy. The assumptions also presume an immediate reversal in the global decrease in the rate of growth in the world’s population, few improvements in energy efficiencies, and only a tripling of per capita income globally.

Economic predictions that use accurate data, however, suggest up to a 10-fold increase in per capita income, positive changes in innovation and technological advancements, and an end to world population growth by 2100. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also makes dubious assumptions by forecasting an increase in temperatures of 3.7 to 4.8 degrees.

Doomsday predictions have frightened people for centuries. Thomas Carlisle first called economics the dismal science based on the projections of one of the first recognized economists, the Rev. Robert Thomas Malthus. Malthus’ 1798 essay, “Principles of Population,” suggested that population would expand geometrically, while food production could only grow arithmetically. The inevitable result would be world-wide starvation.

In a contemporary version of the Malthusian theory, ecologist Carl Safina estimates in his book, “The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World,” that if everyone in the world had the same standard of living as the United States we would need 2.5 Earths because the world’s agricultural system could not grow enough food to support everyone. The intergovernmental report is Malthusian.

These doomsday projections – and many more – assume humankind’s ability to innovate and address problems is fixed. This belief is held despite ample evidence that technology and innovation can solve almost any scarcity problem. In agriculture alone, world-wide productivity increases have been extraordinary.

It’s ironic that economics, a profession that defines itself as a study of the allocation of scarce resources, mostly disagrees that the world is limited by natural resources – including clean air and water. Instead, markets and prices will stimulate innovation and technological changes that will overshadow such scarcities. We have not run out of food. We actually pay farmers not to produce. Mass pandemics have been curtailed by significant advancements in science and medicine. Predictions of fossil fuel depletion have been offset by innovations, such as horizontal drilling and fracking that will provide an interim energy source until new technologies make it economically feasible to produce more sustainable energy sources. This list of examples can go on and on.

In his later years, even Malthus came to understand that it isn’t food that limits humankind. Rather, it is the lack of productive jobs caused by the business cycle and artificial constraints placed upon an economy. The ingenuity of humankind is limited only by the correct incentives and by the time necessary to bring new technologies to market. Doomsayers call this economic way of thinking Pollyannaish. History has shown otherwise.

The seemingly insurmountable problems presented by those who flaunt pessimism can be alarming and harmful in so many ways. This is particularly true when such scenarios have the ear of policymakers who would rather assume Armageddon is upon us rather than support unbiased research and create policies that stimulate innovation and economic growth.

21 Comments on "Doomsday can wait a little longer"

  1. Baggins on Thu, 29th May 2014 10:34 am 

    “….. it isn’t food that limits humankind. Rather, it is the lack of productive jobs caused by the business cycle and artificial constraints placed upon an economy.”

    This is pure economist-technocrat fantasy. Economists should be forced to take biology and environmental studies..

    “Past performance does not guarantee future results”, also applies to human society.

  2. Northwest Resident on Thu, 29th May 2014 10:40 am 

    “…ample evidence that technology and innovation can solve almost any scarcity problem.”

    Except that technology and innovation requires high energy input, and the source of that energy is oil, which is becoming increasingly scarce. You can’t solve a scarcity problem when the energy required to solve the scarcity problem is itself scarce. But don’t expect an economist to understand that.

    A feel good article for the aging white population in Bucks County, PA at whom this article is no doubt targeted.

  3. bobinget on Thu, 29th May 2014 11:16 am 

    There’s a good chance technology will have a go at ameliorating effects of global warming.. AKA ‘climate change’. If geo engineering efforts fail, doomsday will come-round sooner than optimists predict.

    Climate Scientists today, with a few notable exceptions, remind us of the warden in “Cool Hand Luke”
    “What we have here is a failure to communicate”.
    That Buck’s County author sure didn’t get the memo.

  4. shortonoil on Thu, 29th May 2014 11:18 am 

    Technology is the implementation of the known Laws of Nature, it is bound by them, and can not supersede them. One would expect an educated individual to understand this; unfortunately human hubris more than often takes preference to comprehension!

  5. Dave Thompson on Thu, 29th May 2014 11:26 am 

    Great propaganda for the masses headed to Disney world land.

  6. Northwest Resident on Thu, 29th May 2014 11:42 am 

    The real truth is:

    It was neither capitalism nor communism that made possible the progress and pathologies (total war, the unprecedented concentration of global wealth, planetary destruction) of the modern age. It was coal, followed by oil and gas. The meta-trend, the mother narrative, is carbon-fuelled expansion. Our ideologies are mere subplots. Now, with the accessible reserves exhausted, we must ransack the hidden corners of the planet to sustain our impossible proposition.

    The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious, will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world’s diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.

    As the philosopher Michael Rowan points out, the inevitabilities of compound growth mean that if last year’s predicted global growth rate for 2014 (3.1%) is sustained, even if we miraculously reduced the consumption of raw materials by 90%, we delay the inevitable by just 75 years. Efficiency solves nothing while growth continues.

    The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth’s living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century’s great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.

    Excellent article at:

    theguardian dot com/commentisfree/2014/may/27/if-we-cant-change-economic-system-our-number-is-up

  7. J-Gav on Thu, 29th May 2014 12:54 pm 

    “A ten-fold increase in per capita income by 2100.” Nearly soiled my drawers on that one!

  8. GregT on Thu, 29th May 2014 1:12 pm 

    “The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also makes dubious assumptions by forecasting an increase in temperatures of 3.7 to 4.8 degrees.”

    Dubious indeed, the ‘Intergovernmental Panel’ has watered down the message from the scientific community. They have completely omitted positive feedback mechanisms, and rapid, catastrophic, runaway climate change.

  9. Northwest Resident on Thu, 29th May 2014 1:27 pm 

    While techno-optimists and fairy tale makers like the author of this article float around in la-la land, the U.S. government and its military are getting ready to deal with reality. From the Washington Times:

    “Directive No. 3025.18, “Defense Support of Civil Authorities,” was issued Dec. 29, 2010, and states that U.S. commanders “are provided emergency authority under this directive.”

    “Federal military forces shall not be used to quell civil disturbances unless specifically authorized by the president in accordance with applicable law or permitted under emergency authority,” the directive states.

    “In these circumstances, those federal military commanders have the authority, in extraordinary emergency circumstances where prior authorization by the president is impossible and duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation, to engage temporarily in activities that are necessary to quell large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances” under two conditions.

    The conditions include military support needed “to prevent significant loss of life or wanton destruction of property and are necessary to restore governmental function and public order.” A second use is when federal, state and local authorities “are unable or decline to provide adequate protection for federal property or federal governmental functions.”

    Note: “…where prior authorization by the president is impossible…”

    I wonder what Doomsday scenario they are contemplating when they come up with that qualifier?

  10. meld on Thu, 29th May 2014 1:34 pm 

    Flatearthers at it again I see. What a load of nonce sense

  11. Pops on Thu, 29th May 2014 3:09 pm 

    “We have not run out of food.”

    Sure we have. Many times societies have outgrown their resources and died off to a lower, sustainable population. The only difference is that for now we have FFs to transport food globally rather than just locally or regionally.

  12. Plantagenet on Thu, 29th May 2014 3:19 pm 

    Yes we are going to see declining oil production. No that doesn’t mean civilization or even economic growth will come to an end

  13. GregT on Thu, 29th May 2014 3:30 pm 

    Economic growth is already grinding to a halt Plant, and declining oil production hasn’t even begun. We’re only seeing a decline in EROEI, so far.

    It is not only economic growth that will come to an end, it will be the end of our economies, period.

  14. Northwest Resident on Thu, 29th May 2014 3:30 pm 

    Plantagenet — Your post proves that you don’t understand the relationship between energy and economic growth.

    The short story is that without excess energy, there can be no growth. That is true in living organisms, and it is true in the economy.

    Declining oil production combined with increased demand (ever larger populations, more demands for food which require oil/energy to produce, more developing nation “demand” for electricity and running water and cars, etc…) can only lead to a situation where there is not enough oil to satisfy all those wants and desires (needs). And without enough oil to even satisfy wants and needs, where is the excess oil needed for economic growth going to come from?

    Please explain how in your opinion we can continue to maintain economic growth without excess oil.

  15. Juan Pueblo on Thu, 29th May 2014 3:31 pm 


  16. Adamc18 on Thu, 29th May 2014 4:06 pm 

    A ‘seminal article in the WSJ’ ! Hahaha.

    Lord/Viscount Matt Ridley was chairman of Northern Rock Bank in the run-up to the 2007/8 banking crash. His bank was offering 125% mortgages to borrowers. When TSHTF depositors were queuing in their hundreds to withdraw their cash. The UK government had to wade in with a £billion bail-out. Did he go to jail? -No he then wrote a cornucopian load of nonsense entitled ‘The Rational Optimist’. the title was only lacking 3 letters; ‘IRR….’.

  17. poaecdotcom on Thu, 29th May 2014 5:29 pm 

    “Yes we are going to see declining oil production. No that doesn’t mean economic growth will come to an end”

    Please google the Laws of Thermodynamics

  18. Makati1 on Thu, 29th May 2014 8:43 pm 

    “…rather than support unbiased research and create policies that stimulate innovation and economic growth…”

    Growth is dead. Real growth stopped in 2007. Debt growth has taken it’s place all over the world. No GDP number is real. To publish real numbers is economic and political death for any country.

    Perhaps Russia is still able to grow, until the West gets desperate enough to try to take it. Interesting times.

  19. SilentRunning on Thu, 29th May 2014 9:10 pm 

    Put all of the economists who believe in forever growth in a hermetically sealed chamber, and let them argue with each other about how their air supply can go on increasing forever on pure cornocopian fantasy power.

    It would be delightful to watch them drop dead one by one from lack of oxygen. Nothing less will cure these ass wipes of their delusions.

  20. Makati1 on Thu, 29th May 2014 9:47 pm 

    Zerohedge today:

    “Meet Directive 3025.18 Granting Obama Authority To Use Military Force Against Civilians” … “Abenomics Suffers Crippling Blow: Economy Sputters As Inflation Soars, BOJ QE Delayed Indefinitely” … “China’s Housing Bubble Desperation In Six Words: “Buy One Floor, Get One Free”” … “Dear Japanese Pensioners: You Are The New Proud Owners Of Global Junk Bonds” … ”
    How Britain Calculates Its Hooker “GDP Boost”: 60,879 Prostitutes x 25 Clients Per Week x £67.16 Per Visit” … “A Quarter Of Europeans Are At Risk Of Poverty” … “Stephen Roach Warns “The US Is Trapped In Perils Of Linear Thinking”” … “As Primary Dealers And Banks Bash Treasuries, Here Is What They Are Really Doing” … “Stocks Surge To Record Highs On Worst Economic Growth In 3 Years” … And on and on with the insanity. Doomsday is not far away.

  21. louis wu on Fri, 30th May 2014 10:47 am 

    Maybe the author should be deprived of food and lets see if it has any limiting effect on him.

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