Zero Sum
How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress. — Neils Bohr
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Posted Sep 8th, 2008 by ravi    / Permalink /

Thomas MalthusApropos the name of this blog, some comments from Jeffrey Sach in SciAm:

Are Malthus’s Predicted 1798 Food Shortages Coming True? (Extended version)


Indeed, when I trained in economics, Malthusian reasoning was a target of mockery, held up by my professors as an example of a naïve forecast gone wildly wrong. After all, since Malthus’s time, incomes per person averaged around the world have increased at least an order of magnitude according to economic historians, despite a population increase from around 800 million in 1798 to 6.7 billion today. Some economists have gone so far as to argue that high and rising populations have been a major cause of increased living standards, rather than an impediment. In that interpretation, the eightfold increase in population since 1798 has also raised the number of geniuses in similar proportion, and it is genius above all that propels global human advance. A large human population, so it is argued, is just what is needed to propel progress.

Yet the Malthusian specter is not truly banished—indeed far from it. Our increase in know-how has not only been about getting more outputs for the same inputs, but also about our ability to mine the Earth for more inputs. The first Industrial Revolution began with the use of fossil fuel, specifically coal, through Watt’s steam engine. Humanity harnessed geological deposits of ancient solar energy, stored as coal, oil, and gas, to do our modern bidding. We learned to dig deeper for minerals, fish the oceans with larger nets, divert rivers with greater dams and canals, appropriate more habitats of other species and cut down forests with more powerful land-clearing equipment. In countless ways, we have not gotten more for less but rather more for more, as we’ve converted rich stores of natural capital into high flows of current consumption. Much of what we call “income,” in the true sense of adding value from economic activity, is actually depletion instead, or the running down of natural capital.


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