Shortly before the end of the 18th century, a British intellectual named Thomas Malthus made a prediction that turned out to be wrong. He suggested that because human population would grow geometrically and food production only arithmetically, absent a dramatic drop in birth rates or a dramatic increase in death rates (due to wars or illness), the world would no longer be able adequately to feed itself. What Malthus didn’t foresee was the tremendous technical advances in food production that would follow the writing of his essay. Over the past 220 years, we have seen dramatic improvements in agriculture, refrigeration, machines, you name it. This has enabled us to produce far more food than Malthus could possibly have envisioned, and so now, the poor chap’s name has come to be sullied with the label of doomsayer. We take him no more seriously than we take Chicken Little.
And therein lies a problem. Our world has become dangerously post-Mathusian. We live in an age where our movers and shakers feel duty bound to ignore doomsayers like Malthus. Especially in our more entrepreneurial classes, it has become an article of faith that the Chicken Littles should be ignored. Now, every time a man of letters preaches that the sky is falling, the barons of business simply laugh it off. “You sound like that silly ol’ Malthus,” they think to themselves. Or to be more precise, even if we personally have never heard of Malthus himself, we’ve all come to appreciate the existence of thinkers from yesteryear who’ve envisioned all sorts of future horribles, only to have failed to take into account the effects of human ingenuity as reflected in greater and greater technological prowess. This is why in some circles, it has become almost a religious imperative never again to bet against the ability of the human mind to solve what may appear on the surface to be an intractable technical problem.
Personally, I saw this phenomenon play out when I started my career as an attorney at the Federal Communications Commission in 1984. Back then, there was a real push to improve communications technology – to usher in the kind of “information age” that has come to characterize the 21st century. However, the Malthusians among us were warning that if we shook up (deregulate) the telecom industry, we may indeed bring greater prosperity to the rich but the poor may lose their ability to enjoy basic telephone service. That warning turned out to be bunk – we went ahead with deregulation, and our telecom technology continued to advance so dramatically that rich and poor alike were able to enjoy the fruits of this advance without the need for regulation. Once again, we all learned a lesson: don’t let the cluckings of Chicken Littles turn us into silly pessimists. Whenever we really need human technology to come through for us, we can assume that it will advance by leaps and bounds and stave off disaster.
But you know what happens when we “assume” – we make an ass of u and me. And so it appears that our post-Malthusian assumptions are leading us down a path of carbon-guzzling complacency. The barons of industry and the politicians they fund are well aware of the ubiquity of scientists who make Mathusian noises about the effects of climate change. But they just don’t care. They don’t want to hear about Chicken Little. They are obsessed instead with Mighty Mouse (“Here I come to save the day!”). Surely, they figure, we’ll be able to improve our technical ability to produce renewal and non-dangerous sources of energy so as to minimize the effects of human-induced climate change.
I don’t think so. Even if we stipulate advancements in the harnessing of solar and other renewal energy sources, that alone won’t solve the problem. For one thing, the demand for energy – and for the creature comforts it produces – won’t go away. You see, demand for creature comforts, once enjoyed, never seems to lessen, and the world’s population continues to rise significantly. As for the supply of energy, we are deeply addicted to the fuels that threaten our planet. Perhaps, with a bit more political will we could do away with coal. But oil? So many powerful and wealthy companies in so many powerful and wealthy countries are thoroughly dependent on producing oil (as opposed to renewable sources of energy) that it would take a true miracle to stop us from continuing to do so. Just consider how many people would stand to lose their fortunes – or their jobs – if we attempt a rapid transition away from oil. These individuals would fight to continue to make their livelihood in the same fashion, politicians would dare not stand up to such a powerful coalition, and demand would continue to surge for their services. Expecting a dramatic change under these circumstances is like expecting the Titanic to move rapidly to evade the iceberg. Quite clearly, this is a very different dynamic than the one faced by Malthus in the 1790s (where farmers of all types welcomed improvements in agriculture) or the telecom industry in the 1980s (where AT&T could easily enough transition from old-style phones to improved telephone technology).
I realize that it’s no fun to sound like Malthus or Chicken Little. It’s far more satisfying either to deny climate change like our President does, or to sound like one of those upbeat social reformers who talk as if we can still stop this freight train as long as we put our collective minds to the task. I’ll give you this – I think we should try to stem this horrendous tide. I think we should listen to our scientists, restrict our personal demand for carbon, support renewable energy sources, advocate international climate treaties and domestic regulation on carbon, etc. But Empathic Rationalism is a philosophy of honesty – both with others and with ourselves. And I won’t lie to you: I see dire consequences ahead. I believe we’ve passed the point of no return. And while I hope I’m as wrong as Malthus turned out to be, I’m no longer living in a post-Mathusian age. The central “article of faith” I’m following is simple logic.