Cornucopian versus New Malthusian perspectives

Some people think that our supply of resources is basically infinite. They argue that we could exploit outer space, or use as resources things that we can't imagine now. For example, they cite the fact that when humans first struck oil, they had no idea how useful it could be. They point out that, in the past, every time we have feared that we are about to run out of something, we have found more of it, or have found a substitute, and that that will continue. Thus, we can continue infinitely to support an infinitely growing population, in part because people are our ultimate resource -- resources are inexhaustible, owing at least in part to the infinite capacity of humans to think and thus to make substitutions of one resource for another.

Julian Simon, a noted econimist, claimed in 1994, "We now have in our hands - in our libraries really - the technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years." (N. Myers and J. Simon. 1994. Scarcity or Abundance: A Debate on the Environment. WW Norton, NY, pg 65). What optimism! (You can read a bit of Simon if you'd like check out the supplementary reading list for this point in the course.)

Calculations by Paul and Anne Ehrlich (see their "Betrayal of Science and Reason" on the supplementary reading list) indicated that it would take only 774 years for the 1994 population of 5.6 billion to increase to the point where there were 10 human beings for each square meter of ice free land on the planet! (The calculation assumes the 1994 rate of natural increase ("r") for the population.) After 1900 years at the 1994 rate of growth, the mass of the human population would equal the mass of Earth, and after 6000 years, the mass of the human population would equal the estimated mass of the universe! Even if population rates decreased dramatically to one millionth of their 1994 levels (a tiny, but non-zero, growth rate) the mass of humans would exceed the estimated mass of the universe before the 7 billion years was up. Clearly, Simon is quite an optimist!

This optimistic perspective is often referred to as "cornucopian," in reference to cornucopia, or the horn of plenty, a symbol of abundance dating from the ancient Greeks. Most adherents to this philosophy have roots in economics, which seems to believe that infinite growth is possible.

A contrasting perspective is termed NeoMalthusian, and it argues that limits are imposed by the environment. This school of thought is named after the Reverend Thomas Malthus, whose essay from the mid-1800's "An Essay on the Principle of Population" argued that populations can grow faster than food production can increase, with starvation the consequence if growth isn't limited. (The same essay influenced Charles Darwin in his development of the concept of natural selection as a driving force for evolution.)

Basically, to many people (me included), it seems that even if somehow we could meet energy and food needs, eventually the world would fill up. We would have to live stacked in huge towers, with no privacy, no nature... That is, it may be possible to feed far more people than we presently have on Earth, but is it desirable to turn Earth essentially into a giant feedlot for humans? Is it ethical to do so?

We must also remember that, as humans we depend on naturally functioning ecosystems for much more than aesthetic pleasure. As described in the course Introduction (click to move to those notes), we depend on intact ecosystems for accomplishing decomposition and driving nutrient cycles, maintaining the balance of gases in the atmosphere, pollinating crops, natural pest control, and much more. If those intact ecosystems were all gone, it seems obvious to me, as an ecologist that we would be too!

It is also important to remember that the current standard of living is poor for most people in world right now. If our population doubles in the next 58 or so years (as it would at current rates), food and energy production and other necessaries of life must at least double as well just to maintain the current standard of living, which is already poor for so many. Such a doubling of production (which is minimalist in terms of life style quality) would be very difficult to do even in a rich nation like the US, and seems impossible for many lesser developed nations, less well-endowed with natural resources than the US. Further, we are already running into many environmental problems that are related to overexploitation of resources, excessive production of wastes, etc. If the population doubled, many of these problems would increase greatly as well.

The UN has projected that the world population will eventually stabilize at something between 7 and 13 billion persons, or, potentially, more than nearly double today's population. How is this possible, when even now, one person in five lives in poverty, with insufficient food, and one in ten is suffering from severe malnutrition?

Muir's perspective is that exponential growth of anything cannot continue indefinitely on a finite planet. (Some argue, of course, that we are not stuck with a finite planet!)

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Page maintained by Patricia Muir at Oregon State University; last updated Oct. 4, 2011.