Hard To Believe For Anyone Who Trusted The Media in the 1970s

The media in the 1970's was filled with Club-of-Rome, the world is over-populated and running out of everything, Paul Ehrlich Population Bomb, end of the world stuff.  We know they were wrong on resources and pollution, but it turns out they were wrong on population too.  Again, the power of growth and wealth:

"When people got richer, families got smaller; and as families got smaller, people got richer. Now, something similar is happening in developing countries. Fertility is falling and families are shrinking in places"” such as Brazil, Indonesia, and even parts of India"”that people think of as teeming with children. As our briefing shows, the fertility rate of half the world is now 2.1 or less"”the magic number that is consistent with a stable population and is usually called "˜the replacement rate of fertility'. Sometime between 2020 and 2050 the world's fertility rate will fall below the global replacement rate."

  • Gil

    How does this disprove anything? There's nothing wrong with the Malthusian limits - people prefer to limit personally population growth than have a significant proportion die from starvation or fighting. Thomas Malthus simply pointed out that baby-making is easy to do whilst improving agricultural technology is hard. Even Norman Borlaug forewarned against increasing the population just because food technology got better.

  • nom de guerre

    how does it "disprove" malthus and erlich and the club of rome, gil? geez, let me count the ways. we can start by using their own words. malthus started the ol' ball rolling by predicting, among other disasters, that "gigantic inevitable famine stalks (from) the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world." he wrote that in 1820 or so. world population has increased roughly 500% since then. erlich, never one to let reality interfere with a good theory, was even bolder and more specific: in 1968, he wrote, "the battle to feed all of humanity is over. in the 1970's and 1980's, **hundreds of millions** of people will starve to death (...) at this late date, **nothing** can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate." this epic FAILURE of prognostication has, curiously, not seemed to cause him any loss of prestige or credibility among (largely) the idiot left. they still idolize him, so - encouraged by their kind overlooking of his massively stupid numbers in 1968, he later wrote, "in 1973, smog disasters in LA and new york will leave 200,000 dead." and "water rationing will begin by 1974, and there'll be a 500% increase in hepatitis and dysentery rates." he also gravely intoned that the usa's population would drop to "22.6 million by 1999". viewed as a whole, pretty much EVERYthing the idiot warned of not only didn't come to pass, but the exact **opposite** ended up happening. amazingly, there are some people out there who still listen to the doddering old fool.

    you DO remember all those horrible disasters/food riots/mass dieoffs of the carter years, right? right?

    defending malthusian limits isn't really taking a huge risk there, bud: common sense tells us that if earth's population suddenly spikes to 50 billion in the next generation or so, then yeah, we'll have trouble feeding all those new mouths. in finance, this is known as "the problem with very large numbers", or "why warren buffett can't make 22% a year each and every year forever". (answer: because after about 100 years of 22% returns, he'd have all the money in the world.) but since human population *doesn't* suddenly jump by 1000% in a generation, this isn't a problem, is it. so what malthusians are worrying about is...an imaginary boogeyman.

    by and large, malthus' and especially erlich's ideas are as hugely discredited as they are laughable. the population has increased fivefold since malthus uttered his dire dirges of doom; and it's almost doubled since erlich squealed *his* cheerful calls for famine and death. they've been proven to be bunk for 180+ years now, and your defense of "it could still happen!" is just as valid as my 5-year-old nephew's defense of his "i can *too* fly by flapping my arms really fast" theory. in fact, they're the same defense: "just because it's never happened in all of recorded history doesn't mean it's not impossible!" i beg to differ: since malthus' ideas are now 0-for-**180 years**, i say it's time to retire them to the junkheap of ideas proven to be moronic.

    life is a little more complex than than an 8th grade 'compound interest' word problem.

  • Texas_Engineer

    Unfortunately, criticisms of the Club of Rome study (Limits to Growth) is done mostly by people who never read Limits to Growth. It is an easy read and remarkably accurate so far. It was very clear in stating it was not trying to accurately forecast the future but to try to understand how things will eventually play out. In doing that it presented a series of scenarios of a few key variables like population, industrial activity, non-renewable resources, etc.

    When you say it was completely wrong you are showing you have not read it. Back in 1970 when it was written it showed the most likely scenarios involved world population peaking the the middle of the 21st century. Which is what you just said may now happen! It also showed industrial activity and non-renewable resource starting to peak in the same time frame.

    Yet critics like you always say it predicted we would be starving to death by 2000. It said nothing of the kind - in fact it's graphs showed continued prosperity in the early parts of this century.

    You have a great website which I read daily - and I will continue to read. Because I consider myself a complete libertarian and you express libertarian ideas wonderfully. But I can be a libertarian and still understand that we do live on a finite planet and feedback loops do work. Eventually world economic growth will stop and go negative. Because growth requires cheap readily available energy and eventually we will leave that cheap energy life behind. That is not a liberal statist idea. It is the law. The Meadows (authors of Limits) did an important piece of work trying to help us understand how that will play out. We have had 150 years of cheap readily available energy and will have a few more. But it is almost over.


  • nom de guerre

    although i hate to disagree with anyone having the word 'Texas' in his handle, TE, you leave me no choice. your last sentences: "we have had 150 years of cheap readily available energy and will have a few more. but it is almost over." *sigh*


    change the word "energy" into "food", and what you've written is an almost perfect copy of malthus. we're almost outta food; people breeding too fast for crops to keep up; we're all gonna die starving; etc etc. only now what's going to kill us is...not enough oil. same song, different verse.

    each and every word of which time and history has proven to be wrong wrong wrong. rather than focus on (or even admit) that uncomfortable fact, you've merely chosen to change the point of the (entirely wrong) argument. "it's not FOOD we're gonna run out of and DIE DIE DIE!!! it's *energy*!!!" you have chosen an imaginary hobgoblin to try to frighten the people, in an attempt to get them to run to their good and wise governments for protection. why is that, i wonder? there wouldn't be a -you know - a POLITICAL reason for you doing this, would there?

  • Dr. T

    "It [Club of Rome] was very clear in stating it was not trying to accurately forecast the future but to try to understand how things will eventually play out."

    How is "understand how things will eventually play out" different from "forecast[ing] the future?" They made widely publicized predictions that were wrong. Writing a disclaimer doesn't give them a free pass on the errors.

    Though I was a teenager and young adult in the 1970s, I knew better than to trust the media. I've been a skeptic since age 10, when I started questioning Sunday school teachers about the contradictions within the Bible. The major media never have been accurate and reliable, though there were periods when reporters and editors were more ethical. Unfortunately, this is not one of those periods.

  • Dan

    I think Texas Engineer has a good point, though I'm not as pessimistic as he is. There are finite limits to growth, and we can't grow forever. If U.S. homebuilding rose 3% every year, continually, there'd eventually be nothing but houses on every square inch of the United States. At some point, growth doesn't make sense.

    The key reason Malthus and his followers have been proven wrong over the years is because they couldn't imagine the leaps in technology that allowed the world to grow its population to current levels and still feed (most) everyone. Much of this technology - fertilizers, bio-engineered seeds, diesel-powered combines, highway and railroad networks that efficiently deliver food from farms to population centers - is currently based on fossil fuels.

    I'm not a "peak oil" theorist, but I do think we need to acknowledge that none of the energy sources that have delivered this food revolution over the last 150 years is a renewable resource. So far, humanity has done a great job of finding ways to expand its energy production, and those who forecast imminent declines in energy output have always been wrong. But we can only continue to deliver the energy we need by continued technological leaps that allow us to access harder to find fuels, such as oil under the Atlantic and shale formations under the western U.S. Much of this is already happening, even as older fields lose production.

    We're not about to fall off a cliff, as Texas Engineer asserts. But continued growth depends on being able to find enough new energy sources to make up for the ones we're running out of. To date, humanity has proven very good at this, and I'm optimistic this will continue to be the case.

  • markm

    It depends on how long of a time frame you look at. There is no current overpopulation crisis, and no reason to expect one in the next century. But I expect that (assuming civilized free countries survive) in 500 years the current inverse relationship between prosperity and fertility will be seen as a temporary demographic blip.

    Americans are not all the same. Most of us look at the economics and time demands of raising children and decide that more than two is too much of a sacrifice. However, some couples value children more, and look at it not as how much they have to sacrifice to support more children, but rather as how many they can support. E.g., my aunt, married to a doctor who also has a quite good business sense, has four children because they decided that adds more to their lives than another $200K in spending money would. They are not religious, and I don't know if their kids will also choose large families. There are religious couples that have all the kids they can possibly support, a half-dozen or more, and are quite likely to pass their convictions on. Finally, there are those who depend on welfare to support their kids, including the irresponsible or too stupid and impulsive to use birth control as well as polygamous Mormons - and they get paid for each additional kid! I've got neighbors that are in the third generation of welfare-dependent poor white trash, so they're certainly passing on their breeding rate.

    If the rest of us are having two children per couple or fewer, and these other groups are having four to eight kids per woman, and even a few of them pass it on, what happens in the long run is that the low-breeding groups are submerged by the high-breeders. I don't see anything that can stop that aside from mandatory birth control and abortions, or a return to the days of letting the irresponsible starve to death with their kids, coupled with a steep rise in the cost of supporting kids so middle-income religious fanatics can no longer afford huge families even by giving up all luxuries.

    Secondly, technology will probably keep pace with population for several more doublings, but there are limits to geometric expansion. If somehow we keep expanding the population even at a small rate, eventually the mass of humans would equal the total mass of water and carbon in the atmosphere, oceans, and crust of the Earth. A few millenia beyond that, humans would outmass Earth, then the solar system, then the galaxy...

    Not that our greatgrandchildren will have to worry about that yet.

  • Texas_Engineer

    nom de guerre: Wow - that is a first - I have never before been accused of trying to frighten people to turn to their wise governments. You may believe we have wise governments but I certainly don't. Freedom of the individual, free markets, and limited government! Nothing else will work.

    But I also believe in looking at the data - and looking hard. It takes a lot of analysis but the evidence is convincing. Read my post a little more carefully. We are not running out of oil - there will be lots of it around in 2100. But it will be very expensive and that is the problem.

    Dr. T: Again, please read what I said. It is rather difficult to say that "Limits to Growth" has been wrong. Because it basically presented a case that said it will be business as usual (good economic growth and more than adequate resources) through the first half of the 21st century but that in mid-century both economic growth and population would peak due to declining resources. We can look back in 2060 and say they were wrong but we simply can't say that now.

    It is remarkable to me that so many writers, including main media writers, have repeated the notion that "Limits to Growth" predicted massive die off and starvation by the year 2000. The book simply did no such thing. Die off and starvation was a Paul Erhlich thing - not the Limits to Growth.

    What it did do though - and it bothers people - is to try to show the eventual result of continued economic growth and non-renewable resource depletion. And what they were trying to show is that it eventually results in a slowdown of growth. And that they could not come up with scenarios that changed that other than moving the slow down back closer to 2100 and into the 22nd century.

    They could be wrong. We will see.

    Dan: Appreciate your comments and agree with most of them. I may have sounded more pessimistic than I meant to sound. But I respectfully disagree with your views on alternate energy sources like deepwater oil and especially oil shale. I know oil shale rather well and it is not oil (nor shale). The problem with it is that it has to be mined (not pumped)and is incredibly slow to extract with massive investments. But that requires a dissertation. Deepwater oil is doable but again rate limited without massive investment.

  • nom de guerre

    well, let's see, TE. a quick google search of "massive oil discoveries" shows us that in the last 3 months or so, the following have been found/upgraded:
    1) anadarko is saying their west african offshore deposits will yield 200,000,000 barrels or so.
    2) BP gulf of mexico has upgraded their offshore gulf deepwater deposits to approx 50 *bilion* barrels or so.
    3) lastly,Petrobas of brazil is plying coy with *their* offshore deposit upgrades, but their CEO was quoted recently as saying he thinks they can increase their reserves an extra 21 *billion* barrels or so in 2 or 3 years.

    so, in the last 3 months, oil companies have "discovered" an extra 70,000,000,000 barrels of oil.

    in 3 months.

    rumor also has it the canadians have just about figured out a way to refine the 2.5 billion barrels of heavy oil they've got up there; peru just figured out they're sitting on 300 million barrels of the stuff; the washington post says angola just figured out they've got 20 billion barrels; mcmoran stumbled onto a 2-4 billion barrel field that exxon gave up on last year......and that's just the 1st 2 pages of google searches.

    ok, i'll admit it: *IF* we never find any more oil (not likely, based on recent events) and *IF* we never invent new technology that doesn't depend on oil (not likely, based on the ever-increasing avalanche of 3rd-world PH.D.'s, nanotechnology, and the ever-closer day in the pipeline that AI and massive-parallel-linked supercomputers merge), THEN we might someday be in trouble. of course....there were those who darkly predicted a worldwide technological crash based on the ever-decreasing supplies of whale-oil (they called it the "peak whale-oil theory") back in the 1870's, too. then along came john d. rockefeller to save us all. even the whales.

    pessimism is an entirely-justified mindset when it comes to things like politics and the prospects for world freedom, i'll be the first to admit. but when it comes to new inventions and new technologies - things driven by the profit motive that is INTEGRAL to human nature - i see no reason for anything but optimism.

  • Texas_Engineer

    nom de guerre: I appreciate your thoughtful response. We actually think a lot alike. And as I said earlier I am more of an optimist about our energy future than my be inferred from my first post. But I do not share your beliefs about oil discoveries. As long time follower of oil discoveries I have discovered that announcements of "massive" finds always are followed by much smaller realities once drilling begins in earnest years later. The key is to understand the parlance of the oil patch. A "discovery" or a claim of large new deposits is mostly marketing hype. The only number that matters is the term "proven reserves" which always turns out to be much much smaller - often 90% smaller.

    I just returned from an oil industry conference in which the numbers presented were that for the last 10 years, the world has discovered (proven reserves) 10 to 15 billion barrels of new oil each year - that includes the estimates for 2009 (a very good year). When compared against a 30 billion per year consumption rate that is a worrisome number. Discoveries of proven reserves(not production) peaked in 1964 and have been declining ever since.

    The average worldwide recovery factor for all oil fields is about 35%. This means that almost 2/3rds of all the oil in place is effectively stranded ─ it is not economically recoverable using existing technology. Despite great research & development efforts by the oil industry, recovery factors are not likely to increase much in the medium term. There is no applicable “miracle” technology, a silver bullet, that will increase production rates enough to offset natural declines. The "new" recovery technology technologies that some people cite are all 20 years old and have been used to achieve that 35% factor.

    The decline will be slow and may not be evident except in the rear view mirror, but we are slowly heading into decline.

    I do by the way share your beliefs about new inventions and technologies - having spent my career in technology development. It is just that I make a big distinction between technology and energy. Technology makes better and better use of energy - but needs energy.

    However - let's shut this debate down. We will only continue to disagree over numbers and I don't want to clog up the excellent Coyote Blog with a side issue.

    Thanks for your input.

  • Dan

    Hi Texas Engineer,

    Thanks for your feedback. Maybe I wasn't clear when I mentioned shale. I agree that getting oil from shale is not the answer. I was referring instead to shale gas wells.

  • nom de guerre

    TE, i like and admire your style. usually, when i disagree with someone on the web, it degenerates into a deal where i tease the troglodyte into tears, and they end up threatening to come "kill me and my whole family", which they seem to think is an argument-winner. (then i flex my muscles and mention how good i am with my beloved .45, and the wife is even better with her beretta, they THEY slobber that they "were in the SEALS before they got kicked out for being too aggressive".....)

    your way is much better. truly, an argument with a fellow Texan is one of life's underrated simple pleasures. (below sex or finding money or a really good chicken-fried steak, but better than.... tequila, say. or having to watch the aggies stumble around like drunk, confused chickens at football games.)("coach! all them big guys are chasing me!" "then RUN, you sorry little inbred peckerwood! no wait! NOT THAT WAY!!! head for OUR goal line!")