Friday, March 29, 2013

Abundance and Overpopulation

I've finally gotten around to reading Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. The book is divided into six parts, and so far, I've only read the first. What follows is, therefore, only my preliminary reflections.

You might expect a blog with "optimism" in the title to have a certain amount of mood affiliation for a book like Abundance, and it's true. Nevertheless, I have a few points of contention with the opening chapters. The first is overpopulation.

In the first chapter, the authors approvingly cite Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. They say that among "scientists who study the carrying capacity of the Earth," the "wild-eyed optimists" think the carrying capacity is two billion, with the "dour pessimists" saying 300 million. Call me crazy, but I don't think someone counts as a wild-eyed optimist if they believe 5/7ths of the world's humans are doomed to die.

There is one simple reason I am not concerned about drastic overpopulation. With some exceptions, food is generally produced on an annual basis. Crops are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Some crops take longer, especially animal crops, but food production generally takes place on annual time scales. By contrast, food demand is daily for the vast majority of the population. Hunger strikes or religious fasts may put off food demand for short periods, but not for most people, and even then not for very long. (Although this guy may be an exception.)

If our population is really so much larger than the carrying capacity of the planet, why haven't we already died? Food is produced very slowly compared to our demand for it, so if we're really going to run out, it would happen quite quickly. We should start dying out when our population is just slightly larger than the carrying capacity, not when we're 3-20 times larger than the carrying capacity! There are more than 7 billion of us right now, most of us eating every day. The carrying capacity of the planet therefore has to be at least 7 billion!

Of course, the central premise of the book is abundance, and it's possible that the section on overpopulation is just a fluff tactic to get the majority who are (sadly) overpopulationists to lower their guard and be receptive to abundance. I will have to read the rest of the book to find out. But so far at least, the possibility of lower population through birth control is considered a good thing, and a static future population is cited as a reason for abundance. Diamandis and Kotler also don't seem to be the kind of authors to use fluff tactics in that way. Indeed, the third chapter explains that people often don't agree with abundance because they have cognitive biases preventing them from agreeing, which is not exactly a claim that would make someone lower their guard.

1 comment:

  1. Completely agree. Global food trade illustrates so many economic concepts, not just the emptiness of overpopulation fears, but also how trade nullifies devastating local famines, and how supply/demand/price signals make markets work as farmers plant more or less of different crops and billions of people are fed a variety of foods daily without anyone coordinating it.