The Efficient Revolution

The efficient revolution is my attempt to write a ‘crowd sourced’ book about the story how humanity has been able to cut its chains of virtual slavery to the finite boundaries of earth. The success has been achieved via circumventing those boundaries with efficiency – by getting more out from less. Moreover there is plenty of evidence suggesting that this will be the way we can escape our current predicament.

Let me explain why this particular story and why crowd sourced.

One often hears that we are on the brink of this or verge of that. Be it peak oil, phosphorus, fresh water, employment or common sense. In effect, we are told that we are overshooting the environment’s capacity to replenish resources on par with our consumption.

While overconsumption does present major challenges, I would argue that this line of thinking constitutes a Malthusian thought trap.

Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus was an English economist, who predicted in his 1798 classic An Essay to the Principle of Population, that England would soon face severe food crisis due to quickly rising population. The idea was that while human population is growing exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8…), food production only grows linearly (1, 2, 3, 4…). The inevitable consequence of such development is that at some point food consumption will exceed food production and hunger will result.

This dilemma is known as a Malthusian trap.

What I call a Malthusian thought trap is the failure to appreciate the dynamics of developed human societies to innovate their way out of such traps, as happened in England in the 1800s and as is happening in the world today. A Malthusian prediction, such as the famous Club of Rome prediction (below) on the depletion of world’s resources, assumes that societies stand idly by as the proverbial house around them is on fire.

limits-to-growth-forecast

This is not the case of course.

The English (and coincidentally the world population) has grown seven-fold during the past 216 years and is better fed than ever. Incredibly, there are actually more obese than hungry people living on this planet! Malnutrition hasn’t disappeared but the trend is promising. Moreover, it is disease rather than the lack of food that is the greatest source of malnutrition in the world. Additionally, people do not breed exponentially as Malthus suggested. As human societies reach certain level of affluence their fertility rates quickly drop (some estimates even expect there to be fewer of us in 2100 than now). The same applies to resources – their use do not grow exponentially as societies develop. On the contrary, with technology it is entirely possible to decouple economic growth from consumption of natural resources. For example, with modern material science we can align single atoms into useful forms  that outperform steel or we can generate heat and electricity using atomic fission which requires several million times less fuel for the same amount of energy as burning traditional biomass.

While Malthus has been buried, some of his thoughts are still alive and kicking. During his time he suggested that the British government should prepare for the inevitable famine as there was nothing that could stop it: “The pressure of finite resources will always keep the overwhelming majority of human population on the edge of subsistence“. These words ring tone with words of the paragons of modern Malthusianism, Paul Ehrlich, who predicted in his 1968 book “The population bomb” that the world should prepare for mass famines in the 1970s (and has been repeating this warning with ever furthering dates to this day).

The central argument of this blog (and hopefully eventually book) is that human societies have been far better able to escape the traps of finite resources and environmental constraints (amid growing populations) than they get credit for. And that continuing success has been due to efficiency (in the broadest sense of the word). For example, farming used to require vast amounts of manpower yet today only few percent of developed countries’ population work the field to provide all the food we need without us really needing much more land than our far less populous ancestors. It could be argued that there are no real limits to growth at all but I will come back to that later.

In addition, it is intellectually fashionable today to blame economic growth for most of today’s problems such as the merciless exploitation of natural resources and human rights for profit. While there is some truth in this reasoning it ignores other more significant contributing factors. In reality, it is most often poverty and thus lack of economic growth that is behind the above-mentioned atrocities.

What I aim to illustrate is, that a lot of today’s worries over the state of the world are grossly inflated. Even the serious threat posed by climate change is too often viewed through the lens of Malthusian thought trap – we fail to sufficiently take into account human resilience and ingenuity to adapt in a changing world. Moreover, a further problem is that very often many of the well-meaning prescriptions of the (neo)Malthusians are exactly the recipes that would lead to the predicted disaster. They are unwittingly designed to switch off the mechanisms that have fueled humanity’s continuous escape from the finite boundaries of this planet.

Why crowd sourced? 

Simply put – I could be wrong.

I do not have any beliefs as such in regards to my statements, they are based on facts as far as I know. And as John Maynard Keynes put it: “If the facts change, I change my mind”. I thought that for the sake of intellectual honesty, these ideas should be tested with people who will very likely disagree with me.

Secondly, since I intend to write a book about this topic, I believe I owe it to the world that I ought to put these (somewhat provocative) thoughts under some scrutiny. Note, however, that if people do find this blog and comment on the pieces, I intend to be rather strict moderator as I hate poor argumentation and I simply despise ad-homini. One can disagree with me but only professionally.

Finally, I thought it would be fun. Who after all wouldn’t think on their death beds: “Oh, why didn’t I spend more time arguing on the internet!”

P.S. I know that many of the statements I have made might seem rather counter intuitive or even outrageous. I do admit that they require further elaboration and explanation. I will come back to those issues in later entries and the following discussions (assuming someone will be provoked enough to comment this piece!).

curiosity

12 comments

  1. Well… obviously it is VERY difficult to predict the future. (Almost) everybody that has tried has failed. On the other hand I believe, eventually, Malthus will “win.” If not in 300 years, then in 500 or 1,000. The Earth has been here for 4.5 billion years. But just take a look at what has happened in the last 2.2 x 10^-6 % of this lifetime. In other words, run a mental movie of the Earth through the past 1,000 years.
    However, black swans are always be there for the asking.
    Carl Sagan once said: “what is impossible in 100 years is inevitable in one million years.”
    So, Malthus or no Malthus, how long will our species continue to exist before it goes extinct?
    I think it is arrogance to say, “we will not go extinct, we will just move to another planet.” Really?
    Cosmically, it would be no great loss if humanity goes extinct.
    But again, this could still be thousands of years in the future.
    Today, probably, the main concern for us should be to reduce human population on Earth. We can only “decouple” to a certain degree resources use from the economy. People still have to eat, for example and possibly use loads of energy also.
    I would give anything to say, travel 200 years into the future and then come back…
    Let’s stay tuned.

    1. See Hans Rosling explain why population growth rates are declining rapidly nearly everywhere, and why humans are escaping the Malthusian Trap: http://www.gapminder.org/videos/dont-panic-the-facts-about-population/ It’s called the Demographic Transition. In many countries, an aging population is a far bigger problem than its total size. How, exactly, do you propose we “reduce the human population” otherwise- it is hard to even hear that phrase without thinking that some kind of coercion or even eugenics might be involved. Instead, the main concern should be poverty reduction, which also happens to be the fastest way to reduce birth rates- voluntarily. “Child survival is the New Green”- Hans Rosling.

  2. Thanks for your comment Luis. I will try to answer few points that I do plan to cover in this blog’s future posts – population and food.

    I believe population growth is taken care of since the growth rate has been declining for over 40 years and the absolute growth rate for the past 20 years. The main mechanisms have been (paradoxically) decreasing child mortality (http://www.gapminder.org/videos/will-saving-poor-children-lead-to-overpopulation/); putting girls to schools and urbanisation. All “symptoms” of economic growth and wealth one way or another. I think it is a very dangerous road to go and suggest reduction of human population.

    As to the fact that people have to eat, once today’s poor countries are wealthy enough and have instituted enforceable property rights, we will start seeing the end the outsourcing of environmental impacts which in turn will lead to higher costs for land use. That in turn will be a very critical signal for the market to come up with solutions for our desire for meat that do not require such huge areas land. We might get cultured meat on our plates http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_vitro_meat or simply cheaper vegan options that even the Michelin chefs can’t tell aren’t meat (I can’t find the link right now in English)!

    In terms of energy, I have one anecdote in mind. The world consumes around one cubic mile of oil every year. One cubic mile of seawater holds more energy within it (if the hydrogen would be “released” in a fusion reactor) than all the world’s oil reserves combined.

    I believe our societies do have the mechanisms in place to accommodate the rising demand for “finite” things as long as we keep our minds open.

    1. Great post and book project Lauri, more power to you! How does the crowd sourcing part work? just by comments on your blog? The key idea for me is that humans are not like other species in many important ways, which is why, contrary to Malthus, Limits to Growth, and most modern environmentalism, we are not subject to natural resource limits in the same way that other animals are.
      Not sure about the in vitro meat though- I did read a rather damning article at the time suggesting it was really a stunt that required a lot of animal protein inputs to produce- presumably you still have to feed it with something as it grows. A more fruitful line might be insects http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/34172/title/Why-Insects-Should-Be-in-Your-Diet/

  3. Thanks a lot Graham,

    I have been following your blog for some time and some of the ideas I present here might have partly originated from you as well!

    To be honest, I have no clear procedure in my mind as to how the crowd sourcing bit works apart from me including ideas (such as the insects above), corrections etc. to the final text in which I will give all the contributors their proper credit. I also want to see where this whole thing leads to. The more people find their way here and start sharing, commenting and giving ideas the better. I will just have to see where this goes!

    In terms of the meat – I suppose it doesn’t matter what the source or method is in the end as long as one understands the mechanism how the “limits” can be tricked.

  4. I see a lot of merit here. My comments:

    Resource depletion and environmental ravaging is not especially alleviated as people transition from poor to rich. The processes look different, a lot more benefit is gained from the damage done, a lot of the damage is outsourced to other places and the human condition improves a whole lot on average. Some protection and maintenance of environmental assets does also occur. The overall amount of environmental degredation, so far anyway, increases. Further decoupling is urgently needed.

    “Even the serious threat posed by climate change is too often viewed through the lens of Malthusian thought trap – we fail to sufficiently take into account human resilience and ingenuity to adapt in a changing world.”

    I agree with an important caution. I regard myself as quite the human optimist with a pretty good understanding of what we can and do achieve. Just as poorly understood though is the actual impact of potentially 4 degrees plus of warming by century’s end. To that end I would recommend Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees as a worthy introduction. I don’t lack faith in humanity, I just get what 4+ degrees actually means. Take care to ensure you do too or your arguments will be dismissed.

    My position is that can high levels of warming in such a short time frame be averted, near-all else is subjective in impact and there is nothing we can’t achieve.

    Good luck

  5. Thanks a lot Ben. You make some excellent points. I will be trying to cover the issues you raise. Hopefully you will be here to comment them then.

    I feel tempted to take that bait (on starting the discussion on climate) but I will wait for that a little bit longer. In the meantime I will add Lynas’s 6 degrees on my reading list. There are others there on this issue but I hope you will be here when I cover climate form my particular point of view.

    – Lauri

  6. Graham, I have to admit that I haven’t read any of Simon’s books but as you can see from the text it is clearly influenced by his thoughts (through other people’s texts). I am not trying to pretend that many (if any!) of the thoughts I am laying out here are somehow novel. Only the angle might be somewhat different from others, as I state in the About me section of the blog. Simon’s book is on my Amazon wish list as is the Bet http://goo.gl/1UETMX

    Thanks for the feedback.

  7. Interesting project. I am also a believer in human ingenuity and our ability to solve problems. However, I believe you are misled in arguing that on a global scale we have become more efficient. In a globalised world, a decrease in one country’s energy intensity is often the result of outsourcing production rather than true efficiency gains.

    Thought has moved on since Malthus and thought has even moved on since Ehrlich. The real place to start understanding the “limits” argument is understanding the field of energetics. A good introduction is provided by the following documentary: “There is no Tomorrow” http://vimeo.com/36624246 You would do well to address, or better yet respond, to the points it raises so that your work withstands serious scrutiny.

    Further and more in-depth discussion of “limits” thinking which you will need to convincingly address is outlined in the Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Reader.

    I look forward to following your work.

  8. Thank you Joshua, your comment is exactly the reason why I have laid out these thoughts here.

    I will have to watch that video later and cover the issues when I will look into energy issues. Regarding the Post Carbon Institute’s Energy Reader I haven’t been reading their publication but will definitely look into it. Looks like it is run by people involved with the Peak oil movement. My own environmental “awakening” actually started with an interest in the ideas behind the peak oil concept. I have to admit that at the moment I am rather sceptical about the ideas they put forward but they too will be covered in due time. Please be involved with the project when the time comes🙂

    In terms of outsourcing production – the outsourcing generally moves production to constituencies that lack regulation (that is actually enforced) that protects the environment as well as encourages sustainable use of resources. Lack of regulation on the other hand is often due to poverty and inequality. Without that regulation there is no upward pressure on prices that would promote efficiency of the processes themselves or find alternatives for the damaging practices altogether. I would love to go through some examples but I will do that in later posts.

    Thanks again for your constructive comment.

    P.S. I follow @avoidcomments account on twitter. It is dedicated to listing reasons why you shouldn’t read the comments of any news, blog etc site and it’s hilarious. However, I am starting to regain my belief in humanity’s ability to have civil discussions on the internet.

    – Lauri

Convince me I am wrong and I will promise to change my mind!

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