Tag Archive 'the human condition'

Mar 10 2009

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Malthusian Economics

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When ecologists speak of the limits of growth, conservative businessmen everywhere cringe.  It’s as if the tree-huggers were uttering blasphemy – as if the very tenets of capitalism were being dragged through the streets then nailed to a cross.  Ecology is just a cover for socialism, these conservatives say, and it will ultimately undermine all economic progress.  This attitude amazes me.  What amazes me even more is that so many ecologists also believe that capitalism and ecology are mutually exclusive belief systems.  Doesn’t anyone read Thomas Malthus anymore?

In 1798, the political economist Thomas Malthus published The First Essay on Population in which he stated quite clearly that population, when unchecked, increases geometrically, while the food subsistence increases only arithmetically.  This line of reasoning is ironclad, and it doesn’t take a math whiz to see where it leads.  Planet Earth is a finite quantity.  Eventually, given enough people gobbling away at it, we’ll use up all the resources here.  It’s only a matter of when.  The key phrase is “when unchecked.”  But that, of course, implies limits to population growth, either man-made or natural.

Malthusian economics isn’t so much a doomsday scenario as it is a way of quantifying human misery.  The prospect of starvation cuts right to the heart of the matter, but human misery can manifest itself in many other ways.  War, disease, famine, wholesale death – when the Four Horsemen ride, there is plenty of human misery to go around.  The real question is: why should the rich care?

Some rich people believe that their property rights are sacrosanct, yet there is nothing written in nature that prevents one life form from seizing the resources held by another. How easily we forget this as we go about our affairs in the complex web of relations that we call civilization.  The struggle for existence dominates all of nature.  In the wild, any anything goes.  It is only when we, as humans, think, plan ahead and make rules that the game changes.  So what will it be then?  What rules best promote the well being of all parties involved?  I think this is the point that Malthus was trying to make.

Green economics are coming hard and fast.  Why?  Because it’s in the best of interest of the vast majority of people on this planet to slow population growth, optimize natural resources, convert to renewable energy, preserve what’s left of wild nature, and create a world where our kind can be happy and healthy for hundreds of years to come, maybe even thousands.  The alternative to this, as Malthus was trying to show us, is wholesale misery and death.

We’re the ones in the driver’s seat.  We’re the ones with the big brains, thinking ahead, making plans, dreaming up new rules and living accordingly.  So what will it be then?  Green economics or Malthusian?  Civilization is a human construct.  The choice is ours.

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Nov 06 2008

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A Seismic Shift

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Like most people living in America these days, I am deeply concerned about the state of the economy and have been closely following the presidential election as a consequence.  A seismic shift in the political landscape occurred two days ago – there’s no doubt about that.  But it remains to be seen whether or not this shift signals a real change in the way we do things in this country.  Maybe it’s just another swing of the pendulum.

Partisan fighting has been the standard operating procedure in Washington for as long as I can remember.  I worry about terrorism, war, climate change, the mass extinction of plants and animals, a failing social net, and economic collapse, but what I fear most is the kind of left/right squabbling that has paralyzed our country for decades.  If we do not snap out of it soon, we are doomed as a civilization.  I sincerely hope that the current regime change will lead to a major shift in the way we do business.

The whole world is watching.  It begs for leadership worthy of the name.  It hopes that we can overcome our self-righteous, self-absorbed, bullying tendencies and get the global economy moving in the right direction again while addressing planetary matters that touch us all.  There will always be terrorists and tyrants among us, but they can’t get very far until all hell breaks loose.  It is up to us to minimize their impact by making both our country and the world a place where every man, woman and child has a chance, at least, to live a long, happy and healthy life.

I am just a woods wanderer.  I amble about the forests and fields while pondering the human condition, then sit down at this desk to verbalize my take on things.  I am not a voice from the wilderness, a religious or political leader, or an expert of any kind.  But this much I do know:  Either we go to the bargaining table with our foes and work up some kind of deal acceptable to all parties involved, or we fight them to the bitter end.  So what will it be then – conflict or cooperation?  I suspect that more can be accomplished by the latter than the former.  But not everyone shares this view.  Time will tell what those in our new government think.

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