"Tivo-ifies the web" Paul Kedrosky

The Inability of Humans to Understand Growth

Albert Bartlett is a modern day Malthusian on a mission. Bartlett is physicist who claims that “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. He points out what is undeniable: that at current growth rates the world population will have to decline within a period of historical rather than geological time (i.e. not that long), or we will not have enough room to stand up, let alone farm, and that this decline can only come about through a finite number of means: contraception, abortion, disease, war, famine.

With this knowledge, people who are against contraception, the item on this list which will cause the least suffering, are extremely dangerous.

If you believe that the exponential rise in population which coincides exactly with the use of fossil fuels has something to do with fossil fuels; if you believe that the geometric (i.e. non Malthusian) increase in the efficiency of farming through oil based products has something do with oil, then its even more imperative to start listening to people like Bartlett.

Unfortunately a large percentage of the population would rather believe that the cause of our prosperity is due to either the Dancing Wuli Masters, the ascendancy of Mars in Capricorn or the miracle of the image of Jesus Christ in a damp stain on a shit-house door in Ohio. Many of the same people think that we absolutely must breed like rabbits because a garbled, Greek translation of a late Bronze Age folk tale, called The Bible, modified through centuries of the game of Telephone, says so. Is it surprising that these people fail to understand the exponential function?

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19 comments on “The Inability of Humans to Understand Growth

  1. Gorgonzola says:

    Yes, except no matter how much more “food” we grow, quality non-refined and health hazard free meals still are within reach of only those who can afford it. Either you eat too much and exhale finally or you never taste and fall off naturally. “Food” is the least of our concerns.

    Fuck Malthusian chicken little-ing.

  2. admin says:

    Well Chicken Little was the name of the vat-grown meat in The Space Merchants.

    Anyway, glib comments aside – I don’t understand your point. You seem to be saying that we either have plentiful but unhealthy food in rich countries and not enough to eat in poor ones. Surely food is a major concern, then?

  3. Anon says:

    This is why IVF and the likes has always bothered me, especially in women of a certain age who use it for their fifth or sixth child.

  4. Les says:

    yes, food is important, especially the food industry, because it’s one of those areas where economics and the environment come together, and that’s been the case ever since the 19th century (read “Sweetness and Power” by Sidney Mintz). but i don’t think that Malthus is the best guide here. in fact, the malthusian argument tends to be employed in anti-immigrant circles or just used against poor people in general, and has a hidden, but nonetheless strong class basis to it. it makes more sense to me to look at how the food industry operates, how food is produced, distributed, and consumed.

  5. admin says:

    Just because the Malthusian theory has been employed for spurious ideological reasons doesn’t make it wrong, any more than the hijacking of Darwinism by Social Darwinists, to refer to unnatural rather than natural selection.

    The basic premise of geometric population expansion and lagging food production is pretty much a fact, a fact sadly obscured because the history of twisting it means that anyone who mentions the term Malthusian risks being misunderstood.

  6. Tony says:

    Gorgonzola didn’t watch the video, methinks. Really, the lecture is worth watching in its entirety.

    Text, audio, and video: http://globalpublicmedia.com/lectures/461
    Video only: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-QA2rkpBSY&feature=PlayList&p=C886BC08D0B0469D&index=0&playnext=1

    It would do Les good to watch the entire thing as well. Just because Malthusian rhetoric is adopted by some idiots doesn’t discredit the mathematics these arguments are based upon.

    Since I first stumbled across the first link a few months ago I’ve been very excited to see that this lecture is quickly making its rounds through the internet. And it’s a shame that it took this long! He’s been doing it for years and years. Hopefully more people continue to read/listen to/watch it, and hopefully they actually understand what’s going on.

  7. Eric says:

    Malthusians don’t understand economic growth, that is to say, capital improvement.

    Dear Malthusian Physicist,

    Please stay in physics, or, get an economics degree.

    Thank you,

    The Economists.

    1. Dr M.C.Tapp says:

      Dear Economists,
      Just look at the current "Financial Collapse", the impending "Peak Oil" and refer to the Equation: Money = Energy. Unfortunately, Economic students don't study enough Maths and Physics to understand "Real World Systems`.

  8. admin says:

    The are two limits on growth: when we spill into the sea, and when we permanently damage the environment. After which the dismal scientists, the economists, will have no beans to count.

  9. anon2 says:

    @Eric: Economic growth is growth, which as a mathematician and physicist, is something Dr. Bartlett seems to have an excellent grasp on.

    Stay in La-la-land or get a degree in common sense. If you can’t see the role mathematics play in economics, you’re hopeless.

  10. Eric says:

    As a population grows transiently the demand for scarce resources against a slower growing supply would push prices upward increasing the price of having a family, discouraging some percentage, P, from having children. In the presence of capital and technological improvement food supply yield will increase to meet growing demand, putting a downward pressure on prices. Malthus’ great error is that despite his mathematical grasp of population growth versus food supply, he did not comprehend technological improvement. Malthus is typically held up in economic circles as an example of the silly things people say when they don’t understand capitalism. Even today we can witness the technological improvements that Malthusians ignore in the form of genetically engineered crops designed to be larger, more nutritious, and more resistant to disease. In the final analysis the Malthusian argument is fallacious, fitting the form of the Slipper Slope fallacy. Malthus was wrong in his time (he predicted a massive famine that never occured) and he is wrong in this time, for the same reasons. Shake your head all you like anon2, ruminating on exponential and geometrical growth, but I and 100 years of economists shake our heads back.

    As for you admin, it is my own opinion that economic growth will cease when humanity has a costless total command of the physical unverise, which I define as including all technologies capable of development now and in the future. The environmental concern is a worthwhile point of discussion and success in solving any problem is never 100% guaranteed. Even now however, we are seeing technological innovations that repair, conserve, or prevent further damage to the environment. Provided that free markets are encouraged rather than legislatively banned from participating in the process there is a great deal of evidence to suggest the outcome will be positive. The process will take time.

  11. admin says:

    @Eric. Great – this is exactly the reply I was hoping for as it states the standard Malthusian dismissal eloquently. i.e. Malthus: geometric population growth and artithmetic food/energy consumption = problem. Post Malthus reality: geometric population growth and geometric food/energy consumption. = no problem.

    And now for my problem with the Malthusian dismissal:

    Because we live on a finite sized planet (and possibly also because we have been exploiting finite energy resources), this cannot continue forever.

    The solution as you say, involves a massive leap – like the human race expanding beyond earth, or else dying out like the vast majority of other species. I’m not holding my breath here, and would argue that at this point its the Malthusian naysayers that start to look fanciful.

  12. Marty says:

    OK, so maybe “Malthusians” (realists; people who understand math, science, not limited to professors and scientists of all sorts; people who can recognize patterns; people who understands cause-effect relationships) don’t understand the development of technology.

    But the flaw of economists is much simpler, but probably more fatal. They just don’t know the definition of the word finite.

    We’re in a closed system here, folks. It’s won’t/can’t get any bigger. This is a limit to growth.

    Even if every resource is used as efficiently as possible, the depletion of those resources becomes a problem under conditions of continued growth. If the population on a given landbase gets too large, that population doesn’t haev enough supplies. No matter how efficient the technology gets, you can’t get more of a resource by using it. Even if the economy does its job and innovates to the very limit, it won’t create more land or more natural resources. This is the problem.

    Finite systems have limits. Period. Things can’t keep growing once they meet the edge. I think you know this. It won’t happen tomorrow, and it probably won’t happen next week, next month, or next year. But if we continue as-is, it will happen. Now watch the whole video. If you still don’t get it, watch it again.

  13. Alta says:

    Eric wrote: “Malthus is typically held up in economic circles as an example of the silly things people say when they don’t understand capitalism. … Shake your head all you like anon2, ruminating on exponential and geometrical growth, but I and 100 years of economists shake our heads back.”

    This reminds me of church doctrine, as in “…the silly thing people say when they don’t understand the trinity.”

    I am so looking forward to the day when capitalism is exposed as the religion that is is.

  14. Eric says:

    @Alta: The trinity is a theological construct started by Tertullian. Malthus’ theory of food vs. population growth was disproven by history and predicted by rationalist thinking. Here my friend, you need only faith in causality. Capitalism is an economic system characterized by the means of production being owned and controlled by private groups and citizens. What definition are you using?

    @Admin and Marty: You have hit upon the economic problem of mankind – the condition of scarcity, or as Marty described it, ultimately finite resources. Technological innovations can utilize resources more efficiently and they do, as history has proven time and time again and continues to be proven right now with the innovations in the food and automobile industries. Nevertheless there is indeed a finite limit on resources but where that limit exist in the future no one can say. So what will happen? Will there be food shortages? Maybe. If there are they would likely be caused my natural disasters, human mismanagement, or war related causes. Absent these things as more people are born during a period of fixed food supply the price of food will gradually increase making it increasingly expensive over time to have a family. Enough so to discourage people from reproducing. Think more like present day China and less like Mad Max.

    Or maybe star travel will become a feasible reality and the future will look more like a sci-fi movie with companies and governments mining asteroids and other planets and the like. At this point its impossible to tell. For that reason I don’t worry about it. Human beings can not understand growth because crystal balls do not exist.

    What disturbs me is the alarmism. Its a waste of time and a mental poison to boot. One day the sun will run out of nuclear fuel and as a result this planet will either freeze or be incinerated regardless of scarce resources, Jesus Christ, The Trilateral Commission, global warming, or Al Qaeda. The planet will not exist forever. That is a fact. Get over it.

  15. admin says:

    @eric. I picked the Malthusian clip because its one of the few areas where I find myself on the side of the milder of the alarmists and hysterics.

    The reason is similar to the peak oil case – not that we will run out of food, or space to live, but that at current population growth, compounded by the need to find an alternative form of energy, we will hit a population peak pretty soon at current growth levels. This is not nutcase stuff, standard population charts do show a leveling off this century, since the first order differential of growth has been declining since the 60s.

    I would suggest the neo-Malthusian argument is not that the population will be wiped drastically, but that there is a problem with growth based economics, when it stops growing.

    If I understand it correctly, where we are now is that the rate of population growth is declining globally, and the standard prediction are that the absolute growth rate will trend gradually to zero. If it picks up again the population will grow way beyond ten times the level it was when Malthus was alive in a time scale that is a problem (10B vs 1B), if it doesn’t then we will hit peak population.

    A downward trend in growth is an anathema to capitalism. As someone who believes that capitalism is the most efficient means for distributing wealth (albeit a lesser amongst evils) the only example of expansion of average wealth through negative population growth is the mid 15th century which resulted in a highly unfair society i.e. people who inherited money did ok and while the average wealth may have been improving the median was wildly off.

    What happens when we reach peak population?

  16. Guy says:

    If you don’t think population is a future problem your right, It is a problem now ! It does not take a genius to see that large populations create large amounts of social and economic problems. If the world population were half of what it is now, the quality of life for everyone on the planet would be far better than now.

    As far as the bible saying be fruitful and multiply ; That message was meant for the Israelites thousands of years ago, not for the world today. If you believe that should apply to today then;
    Stoning should be the punishment for adultery ( Leviticus 20:10)
    All gay people should be killed because they are an abomination (Leviticus 20:13)
    Any one who uses blaspheme should be executed on the spot (Leviticus 24:1)
    Laws and rules are written to guide and control a society that exist in a place and time.
    Using those laws and rules to guide a society over two thousand years later, makes about as much
    sense as Mosses coming down a mountain with Driving is a privilege not a right written on a stone.

  17. Steve Nordquist says:

    This is an awesome time to have such a discussion; if your trust system is rout with liquidity issues (nee’ $700B bailouts in the USA,) and food and energy markets have some heavily stupid currents bussed over them, then it is really decent while solving these to consider fundamentalist and developing nation neoteny. Getting market corrections via rotting slave farms shipping ZoneChefs coolers of contagion and eating the complaintants has been unacceptable in the past, anyhow. (Yet, FoxNews’ dedication to the math-denuded Malthus is abominous adultery being stoned by farmers’ rolls of ad money….)

  18. admin says:

    @Steve. OK, I’ve read it three times and still don’t understand?

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