Was Malthus right???

Looking toward mankind’s relationship with and use of natural resources (whether fossil fuels, water, air, or otherwise), one serious question we all must ask is whether humanity has overshot. Whether

Mankind has exceeded the carrying capacity of its habitat and will have to face some sort of adjustment to go back into balance with it.

Was Malthus right? Are there, simply, limits beyond which we can’t go beyond in a sustainable fashion? And, if we’ve exceeded those limits — if we’ve facing Overshoot — what can we do about it?

Over at The Oil Drum, Luis de Sousa has a quite interesting discussion Localism and some thoughts on Social Change following a lecture from Professor David Hess (who has just published
Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization (which I plan to review in the near future). A good part of the discussion focuses on overshoot. From Silva’s discussion

Mankind will face the Limits to Growth before mid-century. Eventually Mankind will have to shift the interaction with its Environment/Habitat to a Sustainable fashion.

And, the definition of sustainability:

* Rates of use of renewable resources do not exceed regeneration rates;
* Rates of use of nonrenewable resources do not exceed rates of development of renewable substitutes;
* Rates of pollution emission do not exceed assimilative capacities of the environment.

Well articulated, but nothing shocking here.

Societies can either deal with the Limits to Growth by “turning to the outside” or “turning to the inside”.

1. War: acquire resources abroad
2. Trade: exchange internal surpluses for needed items from abroad
3. Innovation: creating new processes and techniques taht allow further exploitation of the habitat
4. Social Change: rearrange Society to diminish its resource requirements

Historically, all of these have occurred and, generally, societies have multiple aspects of each of these ongoing at the same time even if one is dominant.

The challenge we face, globally, is a question as to whether the first two options will remain viable.

  • Peak Oil is upon us (either passed or in, generously, coming two decades.
  • Hard to believe, but we might face Peak Water due to the overreliance/abuse of million-year acquifers, growing population, and stressed water systems through most of the globe
  • Global Warming (in part as a sign of the ecosystem’s reducing ability to absorb the detritus of human industrial activity)

The above are three critical issues of the 21st century that should make us wonder whether Malthus was right. Are there real limits? Have we surpassed them?

Now, if Peak Oil and other resource constraints are making (or will make) the first two options unviable for dealing with localized constraints, the question becomes one of whether we can solve everything through Technology or Social Change or a mix.

In a somewhat unreasonable juxtopositioning, one could point to two major figures: Amory Lovins and James Kuntsler.

Amory Lovins, Rocky Mountain Institute, is one of the greatest advocates of the power of moving toward a more energy efficient and renewable energy society. And, he is right — there are tremendous inefficiencies in our energy system of system. We could be using FAR less power than we do currently, while maintaining our current (or even a better) lifestyle. And, we could (on an ever increasing basis) be meeting those energy needs from renewable power sources. Amory does not speak to pain, to changed life styles, to a need to “conserve”. One of Amory’s/RMI’s great achievements is working with Walmart to develop an aggressive program for energy efficiency in Walmart stores and in their transportation system.

As per Readers Digest

For three decades, physicist Amory Lovins has preached that America can wean itself from fossil fuels — and save money by doing so. Now businessmen and bureaucrats are beginning to listen. As founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit consultancy group, Lovins helped persuade Wal-Mart to switch to more fuel-efficient trucks, Texas Instruments to build a chip plant that uses 20% less energy, and the U.S. Army to give solar power a shot. “I don’t do problems,” this environmental visionary recently told The New Yorker. “I do solutions.”

Lovins has been right – for decades — about the power and value of energy efficiency, distributed power generation, smart design, and renewable power.
Winning the Oil Endgame provides a sensible and achievable set of options for seriously denting America’s oil addiction. (For a brief discussion, Getting Off Oil.) If Lovins had been more listened to, America and the world would be in a far better situation in respect to energy use, pollution, and global warming. And, his arguments still retain tremendous power … and merit (serious and concerted) action.

James Kuntsler, author The Long Emergency, argues passionately that we simply do not have the resources to maintain current ways of living, current ‘standards’, in the face of growing population, resource constraints (notably Peak Oil), and that we must change our path or change will be forced on us with disastrous consequences. He restated this in the context of arguing lack of leadership in the US presidential campaign with a strong discussion 4 June 2007, well worth reading, No confidence?

everybody seems to sense semi-consciously is that the status quo is dragging the US into an abyss. … all the premature debating and posturing will amount to a smokescreen of words meant to conceal the fact that we are a nation without confidence that any leadership can guide us into a plausible future.

truths that we seem unable to face

Very soon we won’t have the fossil fuel energy supplies to run the USA as it is currently set up, and no combination of wished-for alternative energy schemes based on so-called “renewables” will allow us to keep running it, either. Meaning, that we’d better start making other arrangements immediately for how we occupy the landscape, how we grow our food, how we move people and things from place to place, and how we reconstruct an economy consistent with these new arrangements.

The longer we put off making these new arrangements, the harder we’re going to slam into a wall of reality …

When it comes to Walmart,

The more interesting point in all this, for the moment, is that the media has still not put together the collapse of the housing bubble and the permanent oil crisis. These events will be happening simultaneously. The housing industry, so-called, will never recover because the oil crisis spells the end of the suburban build out. The cycle is over. The big production homebuilders will go down and never come back. We won’t need any more retail, either. We won’t be building anymore WalMarts and Target stores, and the thousands now running will die off just as the giant Baluchitherium of the Asian steppes crapped out in the early Miocene epoch.

In a parallel, Paul Prew

The question to be asked, really, is whether we proceed with capitalism until we reach an ecological bifurcation point that leaves the habitability of the earth in question for the vast majority of the population, or we reach a social bifurcation point that leads us to a social system of production that is dissipative, nonetheless, but does not threaten the flowing balance of nature.

Lovins is on the side of human ingenuity, of our ability to think and solve our way out of problems.  Kuntsler is from the school that argues that Malthus was right, but just did not see how stored energy (fossil fuels) enabled have far more people (for a period) than he saw as possible.

Pessimism or Optimism … Or both?

Truth is, both Lovins and Kuntsler are right to a tremendous extent. In my oscillating pessimistic optimism and/or optimist pessimism, my thoughts and priorities shift between these perspectives. Sadly, with each passing day, Lovins’ prescriptions become that much more urgent to implement and Kuntsler’s predictions that much more likely to come true.

Lovins’ is arguing Innovation as the key path toward a better future, Kuntsler is arguing that social change (mass social change) is the only course to steer through the ugly seas of Peak Oil.

Hess, perhaps, might actually falls closer toward Kuntsler. Hess asserts that Innovation can’t work, for a number of reasons.

doesn’t see Innovation as a better option, for it may not deliver on its promises, but above all because it implies sacrifices from the individual – wind energy, hybrid vehicles, they all represent extra burdens for those who opt for them.

Now, this is a question of Tragedy of the Commons, I guess. But, what, exactly, are the “extra burdens” for wind energy and hybrid vehicles? Far more interesting is this point:

there’s another issue not addressed by Innovation, the system that supports elderly people after retirement. Here prof. Hess focused on the US case where Pension Funds are either directly managed by Corporations or dependent on corporate results (through investment on stock markets). The individual becomes dependent on Corporations, and it’s their growth that guarantees future pensions. Once growth constraints set in this system is bound to failure.

Thus, the assertion that innovation requires the end of growth. The question might become what is “growth” and what is “value”. There are things valued — intellectual services — that move globally at the speed of ligth that were not part of the “market” just a few years ago. Can one have negative energy consumption while maintaining economic “growth”. Hess, evidently, does not see that.

Hess is calling for a move toward smaller communities, a change of society to foster Localism.

These are the pillars of Localism, as laid down by prof. Hess:

* Finish Corporations, freeing individuals from corporate economic growth, making them reliant on the local community;

* Promote Local Businesses, creating economies independent of Corporations;

* Sustainability, provided by a local scale economy that makes sustainability issues self-evident;

* More Local Power, an improvement to Democracy.

I certainly am not at this point … although Hess makes me think … and I certainly think that the general US (and European) society is far from embracing this type of future. But, perhaps it is something to be contemplated.

*Action now to forestall more drastic action tomorrow*

The challenges we face (oil, water, Global Warming, finances, etc) are mounting with each passing moment. Finding a way toward a better tomorrow will be difficult and requires serious action NOW!

Lovins has been right for 30 years, and remains right today: we can Innovate toward a better future.

And, well, Kuntsler is right, we need Social Change, an embracing of cultural shifts toward a sustainable energy future.

And, sadly, with each passing day, Lovins is less right and Kuntsler’s view of the future more prescient …

Energy Smart

Ask yourself: Are you doing your part to ENERGIZE AMERICA?


3 responses to “Was Malthus right???

  1. OK quick… someone grab some wooden stakes… a silver bullet blessed by a priest… some holy water… and a box of salt to fill and then stitch his dead mouth shut! Please for once can’t we just kill Malthus and let him stay dead?

    I agree he’s a much better read than Desert Dry Smith’s, Wealth of Nations but Malthus was WRONG!

    I’d rather see Hoffa rise from the depths on Nessie’s back while she was being reeled in by Sasquatch and the Chupacabra. At least it would give Art Bell something to talk to the crazies about.

    But not another dose of the oft’ debunked Shrinking-Pie, Marxist, Malthus non-sense… please, no!

  2. Steve Caratzas

    Jimmy: By the sound of your first sentence there, I thought maybe a long-overdue Dick Cheney hunt was in the offing.

    Oh well!

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