Posts tagged ‘limits to growth’

Back to the 1970s

I have argued for a while that the US appears to be regressing back to the 1970s.  George Bush is showing every sign of rivaling Richard Nixon for the award for most heavy-handed, misguided economic interventions by a President nominally espousing free market principals.  And there is no reason to think that Obama's outsider appeal and leftish economics will clean things up any better than did Carter.

Another sign the 1970's are back is Obama's appointment of Paul Ehrlich buddy John Holdren as his Science Adviser.   The Reference Frame has more on his work and "credentials", but suffice it to say there is very little there.

He is a strong practitioner of what I call post-modern science, where being fact-based and rigorous is far, far less important than coming to politically correct conclusions that are wrapped in just enough pseudoscience to wow science-illiterate media and most of the public.  His only highly cited works are Club-of-Rome type stuff with Ehrlich in the 1970s, and, not surprisingly, climate alarmist work today.   He is the type of scientist that is more comfortable (and better received) on an Oprah episode than in a detailed science debate.  He has a tendency to declare issues settled without having ever produced any evidence, and a history of eventually backing down from ludicrous positions he adopted without evidence in earlier phases of his life, only to then make the exact same mistake again in a slightly modified form.

The title comes from perhaps his most famous work, and is a great example of exactly what this guy is about.  I=PAT is supposedly an equation to measure man's impact (generally interpreted to be negative impact) on the Earth.  The letters stand for Impact (or Influence) = Population x Affluence x Technology **

The fact that he has an "equation" makes it look like science.  But in fact, it is not an equation at all.  He never tries to put any numbers to it, and in fact one cannot put numbers to it.  It is merely a political point of view popular on the left - that growth and technology and wealth are all bad - made to look like there is some science behind it.   It gives the scientific impremateur to something that is no such thing, so limits-to-growth supporters could yell back at their critics that is was "settled science."  Its a kind of voodoo, where activists could wave Holdren and Ehrlich at their critics, to try to keep the fact-Gods at bay.  Similar forces are at work in climate, though climate scientists have learned not to put their equations on paper (since then churlish outsiders can criticize it) but to bury them in a black box climate model.

In fact, even as a concept I=PAT fails.   Because at least two of the three terms have exactly the opposite relationship.  What do I mean?  Well, I guess I could be convinced that, all things being equal, rising human population has a net negative impact on the environment.   But affluence and technology should be in the denominator, not the numerator.  I won't bother with an extensive proof, since Holdren never proves his equation, but I will offer up a couple of thought experiments:

  • Imagine 6-7 billion people on the earth today but with the wealth and technology of the pre-Jethro Tull 17th century.  It would be a freaking disaster.  The catastrophe, to humanity and the environment, would be unimageable.   We are able to have the P we have today only because it is offset by A and T.  Or, in a point made in an earlier post, poverty is not "sustainable."
  • America is demonstrably less polluted and cleaner than in 1970, despite a higher population.  Many areas are cleaner than in 1920, and we have more untouched land and more forest coverage today than we did in 1920.  Why?  Technology and affluence.

If one really wanted to be scientific about it, and studied actual data, I think he would find that environmental impact follows a parabola with development.  Initial increases in population and industrialization lead to messy problems, which are then fixed with increasing wealth and technology.  There are many places in the world where halting growth would merely freeze the country at the top of this parabola.  China is a great example.  China's environmental problems will get solved through increasing wealth.  Stopping it from growing would actually increase the negative impact on the environment.

Anyway, I just spent more time on the proposition than it deserves.  If Holdren ever steps down, I suppose there's always Rosie O'Donnell to replace him.

** This is based on the popular interpretation of the equation.  In fact, in its original form, T was not technology but just a plug factor, something like impact per population-dollar.  At this level, the equation is certainly true, as mathematically it is hard to argue against the equation impact = population x dollars x impact per population-dollar!  So, at some level, the finding was not wrong but simply trivial.  However, in popular mythology, T was changed to technology, and the authors really did nothing to correct this interpretation, because essentially they agreed with it, even if they hadn't proved it.  (more here)  This approach, of proving one thing that is trivial and then claiming the proof is of something broader and more robust is now typical of climate science.

Great Moments in Muddled Thinking: I

I was excited this week to find a copy of the original 1968 version of Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb."  I have been itching to find such a copy so I can demonstrate just how wrong and wrong-headed his zero-sum limits-to-growth thinking is. 

Now, one may ask, why even bother?  You could argue that thoughtful folks have dismissed Paul Ehrlich and his ilk for years, particularly after Julian Simon owned him in their famous bet.  However, I find two compelling reasons to take the time to fisk a forty-year-old book:

  • Paul Ehrlich and his brethren actually have not been disowned by much of the intelligentsia.  The media still breathlessly reprints Ehrlich's and his cohorts' predictions of disaster, despite the fact that all their past predictions have utterly failed to come true.
  • The fundamental mistakes he makes in his analysis are constantly repeated today.  These mistakes include:
    • Static analysis - blind projection of trendlines without any allowance for individuals actually doing something to alter those trends, particularly in response to pricing signals.  This leads not only to predictions of disaster, but to the consistent conclusion that only governments coercing individuals on a massive scale can avert dire consequences for humanity
    • Zero confidence in humanity - every analysis implicitly contains the assumption that we will never know how to do more than we know how to do today.  Kind of an anti-Kurzweil mentality
    • Zero-sum economics - the common misconception that wealth can only come at the expense of poverty elsewhere.

I have not had a chance to dig into it, but I will leave you with this tasty teaser from the back cover:


  1. The right to eat well
  2. The right to drink pure water
  3. The right to breathe clean air
  4. The right to decent, uncrowded shelter
  5. The right to enjoy natural beauty
  6. The right to avoid regimentation
  7. The right to avoid pesticide poisoning
  8. The right to freedom from thermonuclear war
  9. The right to limit families
  10. The right to educate our children
  11. The right to have grandchildren

Well, that seems to cover it.  Anyone want to bet I don't find anything about property rights in this book?  Gotta go read the book now, since I have so many questions now:  Is it OK if someone kills me with a conventional bomb rather than a nuclear one?  Can I sue McDonald's on the basis that yesterday's lunch was a violation of my right to eat well?  And just how do I force my kids to have sex and procreate?  I can't wait to find out.