Greta vs. Mann (and the Lessons of Julian Simon)

November 16, 2019

This one popped up in my feed yesterday:

All of the different dimensions of climate activism are fighting each other for the moral high ground. Greta is fighting for personal responsibility and individual changes; she warns against over-consumerism and requires us all to cut back on everything we use. Mann pushes exclusively for world governing and country-level policy and tax changes to force the entire population to change. Personal responsibility is not only not enough, he says, it’s almost a form of denialism that let’s the federal and world level leaders off the hook.

These are the only two views the climate movement offer. Make no mistake, both want to offer it by force. Extinction Rebellion proves that.

If this fight feels played out, that’s because it is. It was played out extensively in a conceptually similar debate 50 years ago.

Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968. He was a well-respected lepidopterist and biologist who gave a lecture on overpopulation. It was greeted with interest, and so he turned his thoughts into the very popular book. He testified to Congress and became a very popular figure, writing editorials and appearing on the Late Show many times. In his book, he makes a series of dire predictions based on our exponential growth rates and our linear food supply growth rates. The starvation and deaths of hundreds of millions was inevitable. It was cold, hard math. He advocated for people to have personal responsibility and use birth control and abortions to control the population. He also encourage social and political policy so that government could manage the coming disaster.

But no population disaster ever came. Growth rates have been declining for several decades and many first world countries are already below replacement rate. The Malthusian Apocalypse was not only wrong, but incredibly wrong. The world is wealthier and more well-nourished than ever despite the population more than doubling since the 1960s.

Paul Ehrlich may have been wrong, but Julian Simon was not. Simon was an economist who had a much different view of Ehrlich’s predictions. They even made a wager on the subject. (Although to be fair, the wager is not exactly representative and Simon was also wrong about the correlation of precious metal prices and demographics.)

Simon also wrote a book, called The Ultimate Resource. He provides a rationally optimistic framework for understanding why problems of resource scarcity and consumption are not generally a long-term problem for humanity. The Ultimate Resource, he claims, is the human capability to be resourceful and inventive. Therefore, the solution to problems of food and resource scarcity is not less people, but more people. The more people we have, the more technology, efficiency, and human ingenuity we can throw at the problem.

When I read about the warnings and catastrophism around population that Ehrlich helped foment in the 70s and 80s, I can’t help but make a corollary with the moralizing catastrophism we see in the Climate movement today. Greta and Mann are both wrong and too few are taking a Simonian approach. The solutions to climate change lie in technology, markets, and human ingenuity.

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