Yesterday’s post on climate change was pretty gloomy. A combination of scientific uncertainty, green ineptitude and the volume of other insistent global problems competing with the green agenda for resources and attention add up to near-certain for greens who think the only way to Save the Planet is to cut carbon use by international decree yesterday.
Worse, one of the reasons the climate change movement won’t get what it wants is that the constipated global political system is already in critical overload. We are too busy failing to solve problems like poverty, war, economic instability, the culture clashes between the worlds various civilizations and religions and, oh yes, the proliferation of nuclear and non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction to have the time or resources to deal with the climate issue as its backers would like. In other words, civilization may not live long enough to worry about the consequences of climate change, and even if we do, our solutions and strategies are likely to be as partial, corrupt and incompetent as most of the other things our somewhat dysfunctional species attempts.
With an outlook this glum, why am I not investing in Canadian real estate and fallout shelters? It’s not that I’m a skeptic about the science of climate change. It’s that I’m a skeptic about Thomas Malthus (right). In the many, many years that have passed since I was a promising young sprout in pundit school the world has suffered through one Malthusian panic attack after another. The population bomb was going to create mass famines and untold disasters as those senseless third worlders bred themselves and us into a terminal food crisis. (Overpopulation was the specter that caused the Reverend Thomas Malthus to make the original Malthusian disaster prediction back in 1798.) The glaciers were going to sweep down from the north as the anomalously warm and benign climate of the latest interglacial period moved inexorably to its predestinated end. Huge plagues sweeping out of central Africa (or, more recently, the duck and pig farms of southern China) were going to scythe through our overpopulated petri dish of a planet — an inevitable consequence of the combination of a rising population and greater international travel. As water supplies dried up (overpopulation again, more recently mixed with climate change), a new era of destructive water wars was upon us (or soon will be: Malthusian tenses shift from decade to decade). Oil shortages were going to cause uncontrollable energy wars and/or drive prices up to unsustainable levels.
At this point, an old and crusty pundit like me has too many joint pains to jump up from the front porch and join the procession every time Chicken Little runs past my house on her way to warn the king about the latest horror. I barely look up from the bridge column in the daily paper to watch the crowd run past, cackling in that senile, cynical way that idealistically Malthusian young people so deeply loathe. I have become so hardened that I might even reflect that most of the chicken’s earnest followers out there in the road are simultaneously running two Malthusian horror movies in their heads that have incompatible plots. One is the Peak Oil horror film, predicting havoc as our doomed and destructive dependence on hydrocarbons exhausts the natural supply, despoiling the environment and driving the prices to ruinous levels. The other is the Mass Burning horror movie, in which non-renewable hydrocarbons remain so cheap and abundant that we burn them in such accelerating, vast quantities that the CO2 they release dooms the planet. A graceless old reptile like me can’t help reflecting that one of these two ideas might be right, but that they can’t possibly both be. If we run out of fossil fuels, we will stop emitting so much CO2. If we keep emitting ghastly quantities of CO2, then fossil fuel must be pretty damn abundant, given the projected increase in developing world industrial activity.
The projection of statistical trends into disaster scenarios is as old as the modern science of statistics. People once worried that England’s nascent industrial economy would come to a sputtering halt because forests were disappearing at increasing rates, driven by the need for charcoal. The Peak Charcoal scenario yielded in time to Peak Coal worries before morphing into today’s Peak Oil and Peak Gas scenarios. My favorite Malthusian crisis scenario is the horse manure problem. Nineteenth century statisticians calculated how much cargo a horse could carry, and then looked at the daily needs of London’s population for food and other material goods. From there it was a short step to calculate the amount of manure produced by each cart horse, the number of horses required to operate the manure removal carts, and basically to calculate a choke point: the point where cart horse manure would pile up so high in London’s streets that urban life would come to a crashing halt.
Malthusians always have science on their side, and the science is usually pretty good. The processes involved are scientifically verifiable: the population is increasing at a certain rate; a single horse can haul so much freight so many miles in an eight hour day and, demonstrably, produces a certain amount of manure during that time. Do the math: the sums add up. And so, the Malthusians invariably say at this point, “What is wrong with you that you don’t panic? Are you a science denier, a dung skeptic? Can you not see that every day there is more manure on the streets? Do you realize that the dung isn’t just piling up in your neighborhood, but that dung removal totals are increasing all over the city? Are you a pawn of the cart horse industry, objecting to necessary regulations and taxes that are the only way to control the mounting road apple crisis before we all perish in a great stinking heap of horse hockey?”
The climate change panic (as opposed to the climate change concern) is a classic Malthusian panic. The facts of the case are somewhat complicated because the data is difficult to assemble and the climate system is fiendishly complicated, but overall the methodology is classically Malthusian. Do the math! Check the science!! We are all going to die!!!
For the student of comparative Malthusianism, the real question isn’t whether this particular panic has some scientific basis. They almost always do. The real question is why do these disaster scenarios, which over time tend to become more elaborate and more rigorous, not pan out? Why are there both trees and blacksmiths in England after so many centuries? Why have wages defied Thomas Malthus and kept rising for two hundred years despite the impeccable logic and math of his pamphlet? Why did the coal not run out? Why didn’t London perish ingloriously in the excrement of ten million carthorses? Why do the predictions of oil and water catastrophes keep getting deferred? Why haven’t we all died in a horrible plague? Why are these people so persistently scientifically and mathematically right but historically wrong?
It’s odd, when you stop to think about it, just how frequently things work out better than we had any right to expect. Who would have thought the brains of the descendants of savannah plains apes happened to be constituted in such a way that they could comprehend and even discover mathematical ideas that had nothing to do with the necessities for which their brains evolved, but apparently matched up at a profound level with the inner workings of the universe? Who would have thought that an animal evolved to live in small groups could learn to live in complex, multicultural societies? Or that ears evolved to detect danger should have the capacity to experience everything we hear and feel from music? Who would have thought that there was so much electric bandwidth, a spectrum invisible all these years that just happened to be beautifully suited to human communication? Theologians can dispute with atheists where this unearned benefit comes from or what it means, but you would have to be blind not to see the unexpected ways in which humanity fits into the universe we inhabit.
It’s not that a deus ex machina mysteriously steps into history from time to time, waves a magic wand, and gets us off the hook. It’s rather that human beings are really much more creative and adaptable than we sometimes realize. We are very good at solving problems, exploiting opportunities, and in general using what we’ve got to get what we need — but we are significantly better at doing this than we are at understanding how it’s done.
Perhaps one way to think of humanity is to think of a vast parallel processing computer network. Our species is constantly receiving vast quantities of data and constantly changing our behavior in response to it. When a big problem emerges, affecting us all over a country or the world, millions and billions of us start making changes in our behavior, trying new strategies and dealing with it in various ways. We are constantly monitoring one another as well; when somebody’s coping strategy is working, other people pick it up. When something is failing, we let it go. From moment to moment, all over the world, human beings are processing information, shifting behavior, collecting feedback and rethinking their behavior. A lot of this isn’t conscious; just as baseball pitchers can throw a curve ball without necessarily being able to understand the math that could describe the ball’s flight, so people who have no education or training in formal logic are able to process real world information and make good decisions.
Big problems like overpopulation or even carthorse overcrowding communicate themselves to many people, and they begin to shift their behavior. As, for example, people in developing countries take note that advances in public health are reducing infant mortality, both sexes adjust their behavior and reduce the number of pregnancies for each woman. As the changing balance of supply and demand alters the economics of family life and reduces the advantage of having additional children, people change their ideas about how many children they want — and the rate of population growth slows and, in some places, fertility rates fall below the replacement rate and the population starts to decline.
In London, the rising costs of supplying a growing city on the horse and buggy principle set people to thinking about different ways of managing the flow — and created a market for those horseless carriages that are now causing so much trouble.
The core point is that the fallacy of composition is overrated, as is its logical cousin, the problem of the commons. More often than we suppose, individual behavior responds to large forces. If oil is becoming scarce and the price of gas rises, people drive less and/or buy more efficient cars. If water is becoming more scarce, they conserve, they recycle, they start to think about more efficient ways to desalinate sea water or use less in agriculture and so forth. The bigger the problem, the harder we work on it — the more strategies we try, the quicker we are to adopt the ones that work, and the bigger rewards we pay to innovators who come up with new approaches.
My guess is that Malthusian panics are part of humanity’s coping mechanism. The problems to which Malthusians point are almost always real problems, but the solutions they advocate are usually not the way out. Malthusians classically go for big interventionist fixes, when humanity’s most efficient method of solving problems is to nibble them to death rather than swallow them whole. Billions of people change their behavior; innovators perceive the economic rewards of addressing a growing problem and little by little, bite by bite, we nibble the problem down to size.
In its lunge for the grand global solution, the climate change movement was making the classic Malthusian mistake. It was relying on a single dramatic solution to a vast problem, rather than working to prepare the way for a multitude of tiny fixes. The growing environmental footprint of human activity on the natural environment is a real problem; the industrialization of the developing world is going to greatly increase the potential for serious damage to the environment. Of all that I have no doubt.
But it is precisely because the problem is important that I believe that we need problem solving tools that are sharper, more flexible and more serious than the crude and blunt instruments now under discussion. Climate change is only one of a series of major environmental issues that will confront us in the coming decades. The unsustainable overfishing of the seas, the toxic waste being generated and almost certainly carelessly disposed of in rapidly industrializing countries, the loss of habitat for key species and the considerable problems of atmospheric cleanliness unrelated or only tangentially related to greenhouse gasses: these and many more will have to be dealt with.
Putting so much of the world’s environmental energy and talent behind a quixotic solution is a bad idea. That energy, creativity and commitment needs to work more efficiently and strategically if the world is to make enough progress on enough of its environmental issues. Malthusian panics are part of the process by which humanity comes to grips with big problems, but they are rarely the source of the fix. The climate change movement needs to move past Malthusian panic into broad engagement with social development. There are lots of people in the environmental movement who already think this way; we need more.