Apr 23rd, 2008 by ravi
The spectre of Malthus … again

Paul Krugman has been writing a series of excellent blog posts recently that dare question the techno-optimism crowd that sees any questioning of the unsustainability of human overconsumption as a return to Malthusian thinking (population control, etc) that explicitly or implicitly disfavours the poor. Here is Krugman’s latest post:

Limits to growth and related stuff – NYT Blog


You might say that this is my answer to those who cheerfully assert that human ingenuity and technological progress will solve all our problems. For the last 35 years, progress on energy technologies has consistently fallen below expectations.

I’d actually suggest that this is true not just for energy but for our ability to manipulate the physical world in general: 2001 didn’t look much like 2001, and in general material life has been relatively static. (How do the changes in the way we live between 1958 and 2008 compare with the changes between 1908 and 1958? I think the answer is obvious.)


I think the fear that responses to human overconsumption (a consequence of human population growth, but not just that — after all the United States with 5% of the world population consumes 20% or more of its resources) target the poor, is a legitimate one. However, techno-utopianism is fast receding as a respectable alternative [attitude] to solving these real problems.

Also see Krugman’s: Running Out of Planet to Exploit (NYT).

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  • Doyle Saylor says:

    Out here, some of my friends are heavily involved in various strands of renewable/sustainable resources. Which shows me a grassroots element is involved. Sustainable resources are related to climate change in that oil is a finite resource that also is dirty and crisis provoking. I would assume this is not something that will go away, and promises to develop wide implications. At the very least force a shift away from cars and therefore suburban sprawl. Which offers to my mind locally some promising outlets for social change.

    As the major U.S. model of living grows stale and decaying most people eventually get caught up in what to do. Which then is really a community process of re-building. It’s big enough to alter the political landscape because it is so tied to changes in present living arrangements. On a large scale I think this is the answer to why right now a left is dithering. There is no practical organizable way of harnessing that currently asleep population to change that they would form a consensus around. Somewhere the left needs to abandon old forms that don’t work and concentrate on a new process of combining people.

    I think it is a vast cultural question. So for example, what are people’s relationship to the landscape? This is not usually a union issue. And the Soviets were notorious about ignoring environmental issues. But Cuba seems to have adapted to because of the near collapse of their system due to the collapse of the Soviets.

    What would that social consensus look like? Why would people unite culturally in the U.S. about how the community is made? I think by focusing their attention locally to what they felt powerless to change in relation to a much larger national debate about the consensus. The debate can’t make a culture, people locally can’t understand the problems. A synthesis of culture seems to me the likely outcome. Which is quite different from previous class related efforts.

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