Scarcity and abundance

We are moving from a world in which resources are scarce towards a world of abundance. Many things that were once scarce are already abundant in developed countries and will soon be abundant everywhere, if trends continue.

There’s a strong counter-narrative telling us the opposite – that the world’s resources are almost used up, that population levels are unsustainable and that we must cut back now or face disaster. But Malthus said the same two hundred years ago, and so have countless others. Each has been proved wrong.

In 1798, Malthus published his paper, An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he predicted that population growth would soon outstrip food supply, leading to widespread famine and disease.

Although Malthus’s theory was technically correct, in practice he couldn’t have been more wrong. In the century following the publication of Malthus’s paper, the population in Britain increased by a factor of 4, and food supply increased to meet demand, thanks to new agricultural practices and increased foreign trade. Food sources became much more secure and diverse than before. Malthus’s analysis had completely ignored the possibility of advancing technology.

People seem to have a natural tendency to extrapolate problems and downplay the possibility of solutions. In the 200 years since Malthus, countless other thinkers have made the same kind of prediction. Yet the one lesson we should learn from the past is that humans are creative and adaptable.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published his famous book, The Population Bomb, which again predicted that human population growth would very soon lead to mass starvation because of finite resources. The disaster Ehrlich predicted did not happen.

human_pop

You only have to switch on the TV today to hear more voices repeating precisely the same claims as Malthus and Ehrlich. What all of these people ignore is the fact that technological developments are making resources more abundant than ever, and that there are sound explanations for why this happens and will continue to happen.

Food, medicine, energy and computing power are more available now than ever before, despite the doom and gloom pronouncements of environmentalists.

Even land is becoming more abundant. How so? Cities create land through the invention of multi-floored buildings, and more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. In Manhattan,  total floor space is 42,476 acres (1.85 billion feet) on an island of just 2,686 acres. That’s a floor area ratio (FAR) of 16, i.e. 16 acres of floor space per acre of land. Typical low-density urban areas have a FAR below 1.0, and the average for England is much less than 1. Interestingly, in 2012, China passed a law requiring all new buildings to have a FAR greater than 1.0. So despite the fact that people in England are constantly complaining about over-crowding, the usable land density in China is ten times greater, and in Manhattan it is thousands of times greater.

So to create more land, we just need to build taller buildings. The limit on land isn’t the actual amount of land on the surface of the Earth, but what we choose to do with it. And before you start protesting about the environmental effects, it’s widely known that high-density city living has a much lower environmental impact than low-density rural or suburban development, because of more efficient use of resources and transport.

But if we build more, won’t we destroy the natural world? Vertical farms are a new way to feed growing populations. And in Milan, a 2.5 acre forest has been created on two residential apartment buildings –  a vertical forest.

The city of the future is green, and more efficient use of urban space means more space for wilderness and forest.

Did you know that the total forested area in Europe and North America is increasing year on year?

As many things becomes more abundant, our world is changing for the better. A lot of people don’t seem to have noticed yet but the statistics speak for themselves:

  • Life expectancy has more than doubled in the past century.
  • Extreme poverty in the developing world is down by 40% since 1990.
  • Infant mortality in the developing world has halved since 1960.
  • Access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa is up 20% since 1990.

Of course you can look around the world and see endless problems. Those problems are well known and are not new. What’s not so easy to see is the problems that have gone away or diminished. They require us to look a little harder and not just jump to conclusions.

We’re living in the best time ever, and the truth is that it’s only going to continue to get better.

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20 responses to “Scarcity and abundance

  1. Are you a Meliorist Steve?

    • Wikipedia says, “Meliorism is an idea … that progress is a real concept leading to an improvement of the world. Meliorism … is at the foundation of contemporary liberal democracy and human rights and is a basic component of liberalism. Meliorism …is in favor of ameliorating conditions which cause suffering.”
      Yes, Hariod. I am in favour of improving the world and reducing suffering. Your question implies that you believe this to be an illusion of some kind.

      • I think we can safely say we’re all “in favour of improving the world and reducing suffering” Steve, or the majority are, anyhow. The central point about Meliorism, and again from Wikipedia, would be:

        “It holds that humans can, through their interference with processes that would otherwise be natural, produce an outcome which is an improvement over the aforementioned natural one.”

        I think that is quite possibly true in certain domains, and certainly true in some – healthcare being an obvious one. Yet when we look at what actually is happening in respect to environmental degradation – the totality of the natural world itself – then there is no proof in the pudding whatsoever.

        To assert that “we’re living in the best time ever, and the truth is that it’s only going to continue to get better” would appear to be a claim without evidence, and indeed one for which no evidence could ever obtain, as the future is necessarily uncertain. You may hold a belief that things will generally get better, yet that can never constitute a ‘truth’ can it?

        • Steve, here’s a good analysis of how we could be improving the natural environment, yet instead choose to do precisely the opposite:

          http://www.monbiot.com/2015/11/19/pregnant-silence/

        • As a rule I disregard anything I read in The Guardian, or written by George Monbiot. Here he repeats the Malthusian / Ehrlich analysis, this time predicting environmental catastrophe rather than starvation. However, he does suggest a solution – reduced consumption of meat, and that seems like a healthy lifestyle choice, which is recommended by most nutritionists, so I agree 🙂

        • Healthcare is an obvious example. Similarly the case is clear for areas as diverse as education, poverty, women’s rights, the spread of democracy, communication, and transport to name a few.

          On the environment, there have been many notable improvements in recent decades, once problems were noted. CFCs were banned once the ozone layer was observed to be damaged. The Clean Air Act of 1956 ended smog in London. New engine technologies make modern vehicles far less polluting than their older counterparts. More waste is being recycled every year, and the world is working hard to reduce CO2 emissions.

          I have provided a small selection of evidence here, with facts and links. My aim is to counter the current pervasive narrative that everything is getting worse. Almost every day I encounter something like this:

        • “My aim is to counter the current pervasive narrative that everything is getting worse.” Steve, the narrative on environmental degradation comes from two prime sources it seems. Firstly science, which overwhelmingly states there is a global, life-threatening problem, and secondly right-wing vested interests (Koch Brothers, the largely right-wing media, the political right who are sponsored by corporate vested interests). I know who I want to believe on the matter.

  2. While in general I very much agree that the broad sweep of history is a story of improving conditions, and there are many good reasons for optimism rather than pessimism, I think we have to keep in mind that past performance is no guarantee of future performance.

    The laws of physics mean that the planet’s ecosystem does have some limit to its carrying capacity for human population. Granted, no one really knows what that is. Is it 10 billion? 20 billion? 50 billion? Will we perhaps exceed it at 7 billion as people in developing countries get access to modern lifestyles?

    Blind faith that technology will always rescue us strikes me as dangerous. Technology will rescue us, until it doesn’t.

    • “past performance is no guarantee of future performance”
      Indeed, but there are good theoretical reasons to believe that:
      1. We are doing a lot better than we think we are (due to our tendency to always focus on visible and imagined problems, and the fact that solved problems are invisible – there is a strong cognitive bias that we must work against – plus the fact that the media reports only bad news.)
      2. Innovation creates the conditions necessary for further innovation. Those innovations may be technological, social, economic or other. Hence, the accelerating rate of progress throughout history.
      3. Problems are our greatest motivator!

      As for the population increase, two-child families are now normal in 80% of the world, thanks to decreases in child mortality, plus a move from subsistence agriculture to urban living, plus widespread birth control. Access to modern lifestyles for the world’s poorest nations ensures that we will not have to test these limits in the foreseeable future.

      You are correct that blind faith is always a danger. Reasoned argument, evidence and risk assessment are better tools to depend on. I wrote this article to counter the strong pressures against technological innovation and economic growth that I regularly encounter in conversations with friends, and when trawling the internet.

      • ” I wrote this article to counter the strong pressures against technological innovation and economic growth that I regularly encounter…”

        Totally agree here. While I think it’s dangerous to have too much faith in technology, it’s equally dangerous, perhaps much more so, to regard technological progress as the enemy. It always brings in new dilemmas, but we’re better off dealing with those than sticking our head in a hole and hoping the new knowledge goes away. In any case, it has to be weighed against the enormous benefits.

  3. My skeptic genes are tingling. As SelfAwarePatterns said above “…past performance…”. I can accept there will be regions of the world and segments of population that will see the improvements of which you speak. But, the bell-curve of statistics also assures there will be vast numbers of people suffering the opposite fate.

    I hope I am wrong.

    • Fortunately Jim, I believe that perception is wrong. As I draw attention to at the end of the article, it is the people at the bottom of the world’s income distribution who have seen their lives transformed these past 50 years.

  4. It seems we should have a little more confidence in our species ability to thrive.

  5. So this is sort of the Pollyannas versus the Cassandras…

    The world is complicated enough that I think you can make a case either way. The problem of past performance as a predictor is that so many trends are constantly upward trending. Future performance will depend on factors not currently present, and some factors (such a global warming, pollution, nuclear weapons) are not at all encouraging.

    It is an absolutely coherent thought to believe that the human race cannot possibly survive itself.

    But on the other hand, history has also shown we tend to find a way to muddle through, and even if billions die (as seems possible in the next century) the human race will almost certainly persist.

    So it’s an absolutely coherent though to believe that the human race will manage to survive itself.

    Frankly, to me it kind of looks like even money.

    And there are things, such as helium and oil, that we are using up.

  6. Thank you for this post. It made me think (a rare occurrence I’ll grant you!)

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

  7. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one out there who’s optimistic about humanity’s future. I know there are problems in the world, but I also know we can overcome them.

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