[FoRK] Malthusian machinations

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Fri Jun 11 05:50:35 PDT 2010


Since Frank brought up Malthus, it's worth asking ouselves:  why was  
Malthus wrong? (So far, that is.)

Anyone who thinks about this stuff had better have a handy answer  
already.

Lucky for Frank, I do:  the deeply intertwined notions of technology,  
energy, and economics are what Malthus missed.

We've batted around the notion of "carrying capacity" before.   
Carrying capacity is the amount of population that can be sustained at  
some level, given some technology, given some base of resources that  
the technology can exploit to that end with some degree of efficiency.

Study the definition closely; find the variables.  Those are the  
knobs; the relationships and constraints that bound the problem and  
its solutions.

Malthus didn't anticipate the carrying capacity increases that would  
occur due to advancing technology.  On the other hand, most cautious  
futurists who ponder such things these days *are* acutely aware of  
such things.  They know that a little tech goes a long way.

The fly in the ointment is in sustaining, much less growing, the per  
capita energy budget.  Given enough energy per capita, we are nowhere  
near the planet's population cap (for some set of values of the other  
variables.)

However, pointing out that e.g. we have vast presently underutilized  
energy availble in sunlight, if only we had cheap and efficient enough  
solar cells, misses the important point:  what does it *cost* in terms  
of energy and other resources to get there in the first place?

We have built a monocultute around oil, and our appetite for it is  
voracious and growing globally *even faster* than the population. The  
question is: can we hit "escape velocity" on that front before it's  
too late?

Perhaps the answer is yes, but that's far from certain.  To ignore the  
risks, particularly given the consequences of failure, is IMHO truly  
foolish and irresponsible.

Last bit: anybody catch the bit about wet-phase uranyl extraction from  
sea water that made the rounds last week?That was one of the first  
things I've seen in a while that makes me optimistic that the race  
against time can be won w/o a serious die-back.


jb


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