November 8, 2010


Think the Earth is finite? Think again: When modern Malthusians insist that resources are finite, they only expose their historical illiteracy, misanthropy and social pessimism. (Brendan O’Neill, 11/08/10, spiked)

On 30 October, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill debated Roger Martin, chairman of the Optimum Population Trust, at the Battle of Ideas in London. O’Neill’s speech is published below.

The main Malthusian idea I think we should challenge is the idea that resources are finite. The idea that the Earth itself is finite. The idea that we live on a finite planet and therefore we can only have a certain number of people, living in a certain number of homes, eating a certain amount of food.

Because it seems to me that the population-control lobby’s obsession with finiteness really exposes what it is all about. It reveals the historical illiteracy and the social pessimism that underpin the pseudo-scientific movement of Malthusianism. The Malthusians’ focus on finiteness explains firstly why they are always wrong about everything; secondly why they are so misanthropic; and thirdly why they put forward such illiberal proposals, dressed up, of course, in the language of ‘female empowerment’.

On the first point, Malthusians are simply wrong to say that resources are fixed, that we can measure and predict when they will run out. It seems commonsensical to say that the Earth is finite, and a bit mad to say that it isn’t, but it’s important to recognise how fluid and changeable resources are. It’s important to recognise that the usefulness and longevity of a resource is determined as much by us – by the level of social development we have reached – as it is by the existence of that resource in the first place.

Resources are not fixed in any meaningful sense. Resources have a history and a future, just as human beings do. The question of what we consider to be a resource changes as society changes.

So in Ancient Rome, one of the main uses of coal was to make jewellery. Women liked the look of this glinting black rock hanging around their necks. No one could have imagined that thousands of years later, coal would be used to power massive steam engines and an entire Industrial Revolution, forever changing how we produce things and transport them around the world.

Two thousand years ago, the only way people used uranium was to make glass look more yellow. It was used to decorate windows and mirrors. You would probably have been locked up, or subjected to an exorcism, if you had suggested that one day uranium might be used to light up and heat entire cities – or indeed destroy entire cities at the push of a button.

The exact same resource can do very, very different things, depending on social and technological development. It was social limits, not physical limits, which meant that Ancient Romans could not use coal to make things move and other ancient communities could only use uranium to make glass look yellow. And the main problem with resource-pessimists such as Malthusians is that they continually misinterpret social limits as physical limits.

Sic transit Darwinism.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 8, 2010 6:27 AM
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