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Malthus's Revenge


The graph above is, I admit, a bit weird. It comes from Brad DeLong by way of Paul Krugman and is meant to illustrate that, for the bulk of human history, the much-derided Thomas Malthus was right: Population growth consistently overwhelmed technological growth. As you can see from the clustering of purple boxes there, technology did not traditionally solve our problems. It merely kept us afloat. And sometimes, it barely did that. "We only think Malthus got it wrong because the two centuries he was wrong about were the two centuries that followed the publication of his work," writes Krugman. But his theory did a pretty good job explaining the first 58 centuries of human civilization.

Why am I talking about this? I spent some time today thinking about Brad Plumer's article asking whether the climate crisis can only be averted by massive technological breakthroughs. It's not a marginal viewpoint. Steven Chu, who now heads the Department of Energy, apparently believes it. We're going to need "technology that is game-changing, as opposed to merely incremental," he has said. We're going to need understandings of basic physics and chemistry that are "beyond our present reach."

We have, in ways that are pretty wonderful, a post-Malthusian attitude about technology. On some level, we trust that it will rescue us when necessary. We may not be able to predict the form of that rescue in advance. But in recent years, trusting that our knowledge will outpace our problems has been a pretty good bet. This has, I think, bred a certain background level of comfort with climate change. There are plenty who believe it a bad thing, but on some fundamental level, don't believe that really bad things still happen. We'll find a way out. We always do. If this were a television program, we're barely at the first commercial break.

And maybe that will prove true. Maybe the hydrogen breakthrough is just around the bend. There's no obvious reason to think otherwise. But it's worth remembering that for most of human history, our problems were at least as big as our brains, and technology rarely intervened to avert calamity. There's no iron law that human civilization can't be torn apart by catastrophe. It has happened before, as you can see on the part of the graph coinciding with the Black Death. It will likely happen again. Malthus could still be vindicated. So it's good to put policies in place that make a breakthrough on energy technology more likely. But it's probably not a safe idea to put such insufficient policies on carbon emissions in place that our real policy is to hope for an technological breakthrough.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2009; 3:32 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Jeffrey Sachs has a good treatment of the Malthus was right before he was wrong topic in his 2008 book "Common Wealth."

The only criticism I have of that book, however, is like Obama he treats "clean coal" as more than the mythical unicorn that it is. How much of Appalachia can we obliterate before we see some results or force them to move on?

Posted by: PPhilly | July 6, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

The solution to all of our problems is more tax. That seems to be the message from Washington.

Carbon - tax
Economy - more tax
Healthcare - tax 'em into submission

There is no problem that hefty tax increases won't fix. And that $250K income minimum for additional tax? Well, tha's just CRAZY TALK. Everybody gets to participate with Cap 'n Tax!

No taxpayer left behind

Posted by: ElViajero1 | July 6, 2009 3:45 PM | Report abuse

What frightens me most is this baseless conviction that human innovation is boundless, and that we will figure out a way to solve our problems before disaster makes it impossible. I have no doubt it's possible we'll find solutions to climate change, and to the exponential increase of the earths resources. We have the brains and the ability to do so. But if we wait until the bountiful resources we have access to become rare and hard to exploit, if we wait until the crises is upon us before doing everything we can to address it, by then it will be too late.

Posted by: RodericT | July 6, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

Well, one of the important things for political leaders, is to determine what we need to do and then lead towards that goal. If Chu said, "We need a radical revolution in our scientific knowledge to combat global warming, but, really, it's not likely to happen," he'd be failing as a policy leader.

Posted by: thomasoa | July 6, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

What "hydrogen breakthrough"?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 6, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

I'm certain technological advances will contribute to whatever efforts at mitigating climate change eventually are made, but this statement:

"We're going to need understandings of basic physics and chemistry that are "beyond our present reach."

Is unrealistic to the point of being bizarre. We will continue to use electricity for power. We will continue to generate electricity by rotating the armature of a generator. We need to improve the efficiency of the technology for storing and transmitting electricity, but there are no "breakthroughs" on the horizon, especially not those utilizing some heretofore unrecognized physics.

Fuel cells are not a whole new physics, they are a well understood and long used chemical process for producing electricity. Producing, storing and delivering hydrogen are economic problems, not technological ones.

Technology can help, as long as we understand that Star Trek is fiction...


Posted by: hemlok | July 6, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

and in the meantime, mostly it is only foreign students majoring in physics, chemistry and other sciences, and once they have their degree, there aren't visas for them to stay. Brilliant.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | July 6, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

Ezra the graph comes orginally from Greg Clarke's book A farewell to alms. Brad has also used this graph from the book that is easier to understand and makes the same point:

Posted by: Castorp1 | July 6, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Producing, storing and delivering hydrogen are economic problems, not technological ones.

This makes no sense. Right now, the problem is twofold: no form of energy works better than fossil fuels at the same cost point, and we can't keep using fossil fuels forever. Why? Because they're unhealthy, they're causing global climate change and because we're running out of them.

So, the problem is how to develop a technology that, within a reasonable transition time, works as well as fossil fuels the same cost point or lower. That's the essence of a technological problem.

The problem with hydrogen is that it's not as cheap or useful as digging up oil from the ground and burning it.

In order for us to maintain our standard of living, the energy source of the future must be as cheap or less cheap per unit of useful energy than fossil fuels are. Now, that doesn't mean it has to be as cheap to the consumer or to the end user. But it really does have to be that cheap overall, because if it isn't then people may have to live less well. That would be regrettable.

And it would be terribly stupid for us to burn through the rest of our oil doing exactly what we've been doing for the past 30 years, instead of using the remainder of the fossil fuel age to discover the next great energy age.

Or, you know, at the end of the fossil fuel age we just go back to the sun, the plow, and wood. But, uh, that energy economy can't sustain 6.7 billion people.

Posted by: theorajones1 | July 6, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

It's a bit reminiscent of the notion that you could never have a collapse of the financial system again because we had things like deposit insurance...

One key observation to make is that, whereas previous technological breakthroughs could raise living standards through a large variety of possible breakthroughs, we're currently looking for a very specific kind of breakthrough -- a breakthrough that allows us to cheaply produce energy without using too much carbon.

First of all, that assumes that this task is even possible -- which maybe we shouldn't be taking for granted. Even if it's possible, as seems most likely, we really have no idea how much thought and research it's going to take before we get there.

So, yes, absolutely, we should be trying to expedite the process as much as possible right now so that we can make intelligent choices sooner rather than later.

Posted by: davestickler | July 6, 2009 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Honestly I don't take anyone seriously on climate change until they are either willing to support nuclear power or a completely transparent carbon tax. Those are the only 2 routes I see for actually affecting the problem- for different reasons there are political problems with both but if you think that the problem is serious enough then you would be willing to take that risk.

Posted by: spotatl | July 6, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Right now, the problem is twofold: no form of energy works better than fossil fuels at the same cost point, and we can't keep using fossil fuels forever.

theorajones1, I agree with you on this, but would argue that this actually shows that we are talking about an economic problem instead of a technological one. We haven't included the cost of fossil fuel pollution in the cost of burning fossil fuels. Carbon taxes or cap and trade are both trying to fix that economic problem.

Posted by: rpy1 | July 6, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

"Size, social accessibility, history of ideas, design concepts, and technological developments can all be used to identify the first personal computer. The perspectives we use in our historical explorations will determine what machines receive the title of first. So many different social, historical, and technological factors came together in the making of personal computers that it is difficult to name one machine or person.

Nonetheless, despite the complexity of real historical processes, IBM’s recent public relations campaign could mislead some people into believing that the IBM-PC was the first in some real sense. For this reason, Siegfried Giedion argued in Mechanization Takes Command that we need to examine technologies during their developmental processes to make sure that inventions and inventors are not forgotten. Otherwise commercially successful products eventually come to dominate historical accounts unchallenged. As digitalization takes command, we should remember the myriad of people, ideas, and inventions that contributed to this new technological revolution."

There is a distinction and difference between technological progress and it use. It's quite possible to have technology available, and not be able to economically use it. And just as with famines, human conflicts can overwhelm resources or render them useless where needed.

Posted by: DonthelibertarianDemocrat | July 6, 2009 5:09 PM | Report abuse

It seems that pretty much everything Delong and Krugman say is some sort of shameless fearmongering to get some profitable attention and to scare people into accepting greater State control of everything. Quick! Give all of your economic freedoms to the expert politicians before it's too late and read my columns and blogs while you're at it so I can get paid.

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | July 6, 2009 5:15 PM | Report abuse

I think that the graph that AS linked to earlier tells the same story, without the confusion,

Posted by: crozierrj | July 6, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Doesn't seem complicated to me. Do we have the technology to build hydrogen fuel cell cars today? Yes, they're on the roads. Do we have the technology to produce hydrogen? Yes, we produce a great deal of hydrogen already. Do we have the technology for converting gas stations to hydrogen stations? Sure, nothing terribly complicated about that.

Why haven't we? Economics. Clearly, it is not a technology problem but an economic one. Hydrogen is more expensive than refined oil, but fuel cells are significantly more efficient, and when you factor in the carbon pollution costs and the rising costs of oil, that isn't a terrible cost differential. The HUGE investment would be in automobiles and infrastructure. And, as Ezra frequently points out, that is where government would have a role...


Posted by: hemlok | July 6, 2009 8:08 PM | Report abuse

I think you're making a weird mistake here: not looking for a reason why the three parts of that graph are different.

It looks like it covers at least part of the Roman Empire period, the fall of Rome and the Middle Ages, then the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. The reason that the last part is different from the middle one is that it is a time when science gets started, and then develops into something like its modern form - there was a cultural and institutional shift that allowed that change, and lead to the industrial revolution.

Posted by: albamus | July 7, 2009 3:08 AM | Report abuse

I am currently reading Steven Johnson's "The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and The Birth of America" after reading this review[1]. He shows that Joseph Priestly and his popular writings established the theme that 'science progresses'.

This theme is a myth in the sense that while as taken as a whole there is a tremendous progress in science, there is no reason to assume any particular science will progress. Just look at the lack of progress in generating power from nuclear fusion.


Posted by: RMcGuire1 | July 8, 2009 1:34 AM | Report abuse

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