Monday, May 05, 2014

Maybe Malthus Didn't Even Believe Malthus

I was very intrigued by this review of a new book on Thomas Malthus in the weekend section of the WSJ.  I haven't given Malthus much thought since college and, let's face it, his name is a throw-away pejorative for our ever-present self-loathing doom-and-gloomers.

Based on this, perhaps Malthus is a due further study and/or perhaps rehabilitation.
A further irony is that Malthus, over his lifetime, questioned his own principle of population and became, in many ways, its fiercest and most original critic. Malthus had an empirical cast of mind and did not turn away from contradictory evidence. He wrestled with the case of Russia, for example, where the fertility of the soil was unparalleled but poverty was extreme. ...
As time went by, Malthus was also more and more impressed by the way that population growth was proving to be a spur to innovation. Even in countries that were fully settled and cultivated, agricultural improvements kept boosting food production per acre—a phenomenon that has not since abated. Malthus could only conclude that "no country has ever reached, or probably will ever reach, its highest level of production." Rather, "it was want of industry, or the ill direction of that industry, [that] was the actual limit to a further increase of produce and population, and not the absolute refusal of nature to yield any more."
That last bit sounds a lot like this quote from modern day uber-optimist of human capacity, Peter Huber.
"'Energy supply' is determined not by 'what's out there' but by how good we are at finding and extracting it. What is scarce is not raw energy but the drive and the logic that is able to locate, purify, and channel it to our own ends." 


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