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.
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!).