Reverend Malthus, Meet Doctor Faustus
In a hastily written pamphlet published anonymously exactly two centuries ago, the Reverend Thomas Malthus supplied the original script. Population increases geometrically, food supplies increase only arithmetically. Sooner or later, the widening gap between supply and demand must end in war, famine, and general misery. If there is one thing certain on earth, it is that geometric growth leads to disaster. The laws of mathematics guarantee it.
This remains the first and most fundamental tenet of modern environmentalism. Humanity’s natural tendency, argued Alan Gregg, a vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, in 1955, is to spread over the surface of the earth like a metastasizing tumor. “Cancerous growths demand food,” he wrote, “but, as far as I know, they have never been cured by getting it.” The same metaphor is invoked by the renowned Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich. “Growth,” he has declared, is “the creed of the cancer cell.”
In Malthus’s day, nature supplied men with all their food and fuel, and so it must have seemed both obvious and true that when man used up arable nature—land he could farm—he would starve. Two centuries later, the modern Malthusian has updated the script only a bit. We need the earth for food, for genetic stock, and to supply cures for disease. And we need nature to process our wastes, suck carbon dioxide from our air, and detoxify our countless other excretions and emissions. If we are to flourish, we dare not abuse it.
But abuse it is precisely what we have been doing. According to the neo-Malthusian, nature is also our biochemical sentinel: when eagles, frogs, and sandworts pine, they are warning us about pollution that we ourselves are causing, and that will kill us next. Pushed too far, moreover, nature, in the form of the geophysical environment we have altered to suit our pleasure, is bound to take its revenge.
The AIDS pandemic, writes Paul Ehrlich, is attributable to the “deterioration of the epidemiological environment which is quite directly related to population size as well as to poverty and environmental deterioration.” Global warming, concludes a Yale virologist, means more mosquitoes, which means new epidemics of dengue fever and yellow fever in North America. The human body is adapted to the background levels of radiation and ultraviolet light in which our Paleolithic ancestors evolved; unless we restore those conditions—by pursuing energy conservation and efficiency, by replacing technological complexity with natural simplicity—we will languish and die.
Nor is nature the only force that will do us in. The high technology that subdues nature so effectively will itself end by subduing man, too. Pesticides, nukes, and transgenic mice are inherently unstable. They are like so many sandpiles; in the end, as Vice President Al Gore concludes his 1992 manifesto, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, they are bound to crash down upon us.
To the Vice President, sandpiles, and the “complexity theory” that describes their behavior, explain a lot—from human personality disorders and midlife crises to ozone holes and much of environmental degradation. As in an egg timer, the grains of sand in a sandpile accumulate gently, or seem to, until they reach an abrupt and perhaps catastrophic “cascade of change.” This is the inevitable result, writes the Vice President, of the “dangerous bargains with the future” we have struck in our vain attempt “to escape the Malthusian dilemma”—bargains worthy of the “theatrical legend that haunted the birth of the scientific revolution: Doctor Faustus.”
Destroying the earth’s biodiversity, spraying it with pesticides, loading it up with fertilizers, depleting fisheries, damaging the atmosphere in ways that increase levels of ultraviolet radiation—these are some of the Faustian bargains with unstable technology the Vice President has in mind. And the most intrinsically unstable technology of all is that of the atom. The radioactive sandpile plunging out of control is what Chernobyl was, what Three Mile Island might have been. Finally, the human body is a sandpile, too: a single cell becomes cancerous and in due course the entire organism collapses. The tiniest trace of DDT disrupts the hormones or the immune system, and 60 percent of our cells are put in jeopardy as a result.
Make my day, whispers the technological sandpile. Al Gore hears it.
Are these neo-Malthusian assertions true? There are certainly skeptics, and there are certainly grounds for skepticism.
The skeptics typically begin with a damning quotation from Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller, The Population Bomb: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970’s and 1980’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Ehrlich was wrong, of course. Since 1968, famine has in fact declined sharply, around the globe.
The skeptics direct their scorn next to the Club of Rome and its 1972 study, The Limits to Growth. Humanity was scheduled to run out of gold by 1981, mercury by 1985, tin by 1987, zinc by 1990, petroleum by 1992, and copper, lead, and natural gas by 1993. The experts at the Club of Rome were wrong, too: the average price of all metals and minerals fell by more than 40 percent between 1970 and 1988. Oil is cheaper than ever before. With only a few comparatively modest interruptions, the real price of raw materials has been falling steadily for two centuries.
Indeed, for any commodity that is tracked by paper on exchanges in New York or Chicago, as for all capital, all labor, and all ordinary services like transportation or health care, predictions of pathological disequilibrium have invariably failed. People simply do not run out of tilings they can package as “property” and trade. With normal markets in command, scarcity always seems to be giving way to abundance.
Similarly with other prophecies of the neo-Malthusians. Every year we manage to grow more food on less land. We used to harvest fuel and rubber from the forest, but we need do so no longer, nor do we even need Brazil’s rain forest to supply genes; we can engineer them at will in laboratories in New Jersey. By the same token, doing things “naturally” does not automatically translate into doing them well, or even to the benefit of nature itself. If it is poor economics for a Kamba tribesman to shoot an elephant in Tsavo national park for his cooking pot, shooting the elephant for the entertainment of a wealthy Texan can make both economic and ecological sense: herds end up multiplying when you organize the shooting properly. Since the time of Noah, we have known that animal husbandry is a good idea; that does not mean we are or should be still floating in the ark.
As for swallowing our wastes, nature does indeed have an aptitude for that task, but performs it best under factory-like control, with septic systems run much like breweries. Growing new trees is an excellent way to pull carbon from the air; filling modern landfills is another. We do not maintain Central Park to absorb New York City’s wastes, we build dumps and treatment plants instead.
Besides, if nature is an excellent recycling plant for our wastes, it cannot also be a hypersensitive canary, imperiled by those same wastes. The tremblings of other species do teach us some useful things about human biology, but most low-level biochemical effects are genus-specific. A mouse is not a very good model even of a guinea pig; a frog is certainly not a good model of a man. When the Environmental Protection Agency declared DDT a human carcinogen, the administrator had to overrule the findings of his own scientific review committee. The ban was good for birds, but no serious evidence of benefit to human health has ever emerged.
Alterations to the geophysical environment? Visions of nature taking its revenge by way of mosquitoes, fevers, and such are as scientifically sound as a Jay Leno monologue. Why should only the species that hate humans thrive on our acts of despoliation? True, our bodies are undoubtedly adapted to the conditions in which they evolved. But they adapted to the Rift Valley and the Himalayas, to sub-Saharan Africa and the Arctic—which is to say, to wide ranges of background radiation, ultraviolet light, oxygen, ozone, and so forth. Technology, moreover, can easily shield us from environmental excrescences, as it has done since man mastered fire. People can wear dark glasses and suntan lotion if they must. They already do.
But this brings us to the technological sand-pile—a point about which many an ordinary citizen may well be inclined to agree with the neo-Malthusians. After all, we have seen it collapse, right there in the unworkable VCR that sits on top of our television sets. To judge by the popular press, the same hazard exists in jet-plane cockpits and nuclear reactors, with potentially far more devastating consequences. Hairball software and spaghetti hardware will break down because they must. The systems are so complex no one can analyze the possible paths to failure.
The trouble with the neo-Malthusian view is that lots of things are not sandpiles, but instead resemble quite stable gobs of honey. True, chips, gadgets, cars, power plants—the whole lot—keep getting more complex, more layered, more interconnected. But casual intuition to the contrary notwithstanding, they are not getting more brittle. If they were, catastrophic accidents would become more numerous year by year. The contrary seems to be the case: big, catastrophic failures of dams, power plants, jumbo jets, and chemical factories are growing less frequent, not more so. Most technology does not seem to be governed by the law of the sandpile.
Complexity, it turns out, can hide good news as well as bad. Alarms and human or mechanical failsafe systems do sometimes perform unexpectedly badly, but they can also perform unexpectedly well, and often do. Jet planes are never supposed to lose all their hydraulics, for theoretically they cannot be flown when so crippled, but it has happened, and resilient pilots have flown them. A nuclear reactor of U.S. design was never supposed to lose all its coolant and melt down, but one did. Its concrete containment structure was not expected to withstand the heat of meltdown, but it did, easily. There is simply no law, no engineering principle, no rule of thumb linking complexity and catastrophe.
Real systems generally adapt, heal, and compensate. A single photon may knock a single atom out of a critical strand of DNA, but our bodies have been bathed in background radiation for as long as we have lived on earth, and our cells have probably evolved means to repair DNA in much the same way they have evolved means to repair skin punctured by thorns. Similarly, the feedback loops of high technology are designed layer upon layer upon layer to be healing, and robust.
To the extent one dares generalize about technology at all, complexity correlates quite well with better, safer, and cleaner. More gates in a Pentium, more lines of code in WordPerfect, more parts in a Buick, do mean more opportunities for something to break, but also more opportunities to compensate. There is no empirical basis at all to conclude that software, reactors, or aircraft must be unreliable, dangerous, or dirty just because they are hard to analyze. Making things more complex certainly need not make them better. But making things better very often means making them more complex.
At its best, moreover, complexity is precise, compact, and frugal. Nuclear power extracts limitless energy from the tiniest amounts of material precisely because it extracts subatomically. Microwave ovens are efficient because their energy is tuned to the resonant frequency of water molecules. Improved genes in rice substitute for a chemical factory producing phosphates or fertilizers. Irradiation is an excellent preservative because its energy disrupts precisely the chemical bonds we want disrupted, the ones that the salmonella bacterium most needs to live. In medicine, the best drugs are likewise the ones most meticulously engineered to affect specific cells, or specific proteins on the surface of the cells. In that context, nobody dismisses complexity as “unreliable” or “brittle.” It is just the opposite.
Thanks to complexity, mankind’s energy-channeling systems will not inevitably collapse into destructive chaos, as the neo-Malthusians vaguely insist they must. To the contrary, each advance is likely to spawn another, complexity giving way to still higher complexity, and therefore still greater efficiency, indefinitely into the future.
Should we be happy about all this? That depends on what makes us happy. The fact is that, although skeptics have good answers to neo-Malthusian arguments about our predicament, and although they understand that efficiency and complexity are not enemies but partners, that does not really dispose of the matter.
For one thing, efficiency itself, especially in the form of energy conservation, hardly precludes “cancerous” consumption. Our ceilings today are insulated twice as well as they were twenty years ago, our walls 40-percent better, our floors four times as well. New furnaces, air-conditioning units, heat pumps, refrigerators, water heaters, furnaces, washers, dishwashers, and cars use much less energy than their predecessors. Nobody can dispute the real gains that have been made in this realm, any more than one can dispute the gains made with sweeteners that deliver no calories.
Alas, those gains are all around us. For years, Americans have been consuming more and more low-cal and low-fat substitutes, and, diet sodas in hand, they have grown steadily fatter. The diet refrigerators they have built to hold their diet sodas have resulted in still more gains: more power plants, and more coal mines, too. In 1975, the United States consumed 71 quadrillion BTU’s of energy; two decades later, the number stood at 91 “quads”—a gain of a quad a year, the arrival of all that wonderful efficiency notwithstanding.1 As for electricity, over the course of the 1990’s the average American has increased his annual consumption by about 2 megawatt hours—a bit more than the increase over the course of the 1980’s.
Part of the steady rise can be blamed on our growing population (from 215 million to 263 million in the same twenty-year period), and putting things in per-capita terms may make the numbers look a bit less dispiriting: the rate of growth of our overall per-capita energy consumption has indeed slowed a bit. But much of that is attributable to demographic change, an aging population in particular. And the slight slowing in the rate of growth provides an illusory sense of progress. If you were to gain five pounds a year every year, your “rate of growth,” calculated as a percentage of your current weight, would also shrink; but you would never know it from your waistband.
The real point, however, is that, as Malthus himself predicted, population increases to consume the resources available—and efficiency expands resources. At the turn of the last century, electrical generators operated at about 1 percent of their theoretical limits; today’s generators produce 50 times as much electricity from the same amount of fossil fuel. But, overall, they also burn 50 times more fossil fuel. However unlikely it may seem, the individual consumer ends up consuming more, not less, when all his motors and engines become more efficient.
Why? First of all, more efficient almost always means much less expensive. Since refrigerators are a lot more efficient, people can now buy bigger ones, and they do. And better ones: frost-free units with ice makers, which gobble up almost all the energy saved by the superefficient compressor at the back. It is the same with planes and cars: more efficient engines mean cheaper travel, so you travel more. And it is the same with just about everything else: today’s soda cans contain one-fifth the aluminum they did three decades ago, but the number of cans purchased has grown by an even larger multiple.
Second, and much more important, is the wealth effect. At some point people may grow tired of refrigerators, but they always want more money, and they will find ways to spend it. With the money saved by your efficient new gas furnace in the basement, you can fly to Aspen for a weekend in the snow. “Efficient,” in short, has nothing to do with “frugal.” Our atavistic appetites, our genes themselves, remember famine too well to be fooled by Nutrasweet. However plentiful our plenty, we will hunt and gather more. It may not be good for us, and it may not be good for the environment, but nothing stops it: not efficiency, not politics, not even war.
That, indeed, is why the neo-Malthusians are right to have replaced Malthus’s emblematic worry about starvation with its metaphoric opposites: obesity and cancer. Malthus said we would famish when we ran out of land; it now appears that if we run out of land, it will be because we gorge.
What this means is that any rejection of the neo-Malthusian argument must come with heavy qualifiers.
Mankind apprehends, today, the basic bioengineering mechanics of creation. We understand—not wholly, but largely—how the “blind watchmaker” (in the term popularized by Richard Dawkins) builds the eye itself. We understand the smallpox virus, an ancient, evil scourge of humanity—we understand it so well, in fact, that we have banished it from the face of the planet while simultaneously conserving a complete record of its genetic code. We are now poised to eradicate ancestral perils embedded in our own genes.
Give us another few decades—an inconsequential tick of the clock in the span of biological history—and our species’ mastery of the rest of nature will be approaching completion. After the Flood, God directs Noah to “subdue” creation, to take “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” To the extent we today can think of nature as benign, it is because we have obeyed that one command so very faithfully.
But the benignity of nature is hardly the issue. Indeed, the fundamental difference between the neo-Malthusian and the skeptic is that the latter declines to consider the whole of natural creation in the same light as a dairy cow. Cows have been bred to wish us well, but nature as a whole has not. Nature does not wish man good or evil, it does not wish him anything. It wholly lacks an attitude.
We know this on the authority of Charles Darwin. The gazelle’s genes have no interest whatsoever in the ultimate survival of cheetahs, and the same goes for the cheetah vis-à-vis the gazelle. The tapeworm evolves to reside in our intestines; our bodies evolve to expel it. There is no scientific reason to believe that “the balance of nature” is generally good for humans; indeed, there is no reason to believe in ecological “balance” at all.
To the skeptic, the one profound ethical fact that emerges from Darwin’s The Origin of Species is that nature as a whole is. neither benign nor malign, it just does not care. Science has a phrase for this moral blindness, this complete and absolute indifference to the interest of any and all. It is called survival of the fittest, and as far as the rest of nature is concerned, the trouble these days is that our species is very fit indeed.
We can subdue at will, and, with transgenic mice and cloned sheep, replenish at will, too. The fear of us, the dread of us, is upon every living creature that dwells on earth. If we ourselves were to conjure up new gods, it would be comic to imagine them dwelling inside redwoods or blue whales, as our more devout environmentalists tend to do. Genentech’s laboratories are more like it.
Trees and whales were designed by a blind watchmaker; vaccines and nuclear power plants were designed by watchmakers who can see, and very well. High technology is complex, but it is much less complex than nature. It is fickle, but much less fickle than nature. It is unstable, but it is much less unstable than nature. From pesticides to nukes, high technology is a peril not for the reason invoked by the neo-Malthusians—because it will turn against us—but because it usually does exactly what we ask of it. It makes us so very fit to survive that nothing else in creation really stands a chance.
The ugliest conclusion is also the most plausible: we can go it alone. All we need is energy, and we know how to get it from many more places than plants do. We do not need the forest for medicine; as often as not, we need medicine to protect us from what emerges by blind chance from the forest. We do not need other forms of life to maintain a breathable balance of gas in the atmosphere, or a temperate climate. We do not need redwoods and whales at all, not for ordinary life at least, any more than we need Plato, Beethoven, or the stars in the firmament. Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which have already invented ways to replace blubber with Olestra and pine with plastic. If humans multiply as the sands on the shore, the entire surface of the planet can end up like Manhattan, only without Central Park.
These thoughts of high-tech hell may sound repellent; they are meant to. If technology and complexity do not guarantee calamity, as the neo-Malthusians maintain they do, they also do not guarantee felicity, as the neo-Faustians among us—and there are neo-Faustians among us—tend to claim they will.
“We have entered a period of sustained growth that could eventually double the world’s economy every dozen years and bring increasing prosperity for—quite literally—billions of people on the planet.” So declare Peter Schwartz and Peter Leyden in “The Long Boom,” a 1997 article in Wired magazine. Four “great waves of technology” are already propelling huge increases in productivity and “explosive” growth, from chips and the Internet to the transformations wrought by biotechnology in medicine and agriculture. But the best is yet to come: a “fifth wave,” based on hydrogen as an alternative source of energy, that will save the environment.
All megatrend optimists, like all megatrend pessimists, sound much the same. Sweeping vision, exponential change, grand prescription; epochs, waves, general advancement. The human mind can assign no fixed limits to its own progress in knowledge and virtue, or even to the prolongation of bodily life. So said the Marquis de Condorcet in 1795; so say Newt Gingrich and Wired today. Flip all the highs to lows, and you have Thomas Malthus or Paul Ehrlich.
The fallacy that more technology automatically means more human happiness should have been laid to rest with the corpse of Marxism. To the Marxists, there were no limits to industrial progress, no social ills that could not be cured by a new dam, a new power plant, or a new salmon-canning factory. More coal, more steel, more engines, more smoke stacks, would lift humanity ever upward. They did, but only where the political environment remained healthy. Elsewhere, technological progress amplified the power of the gulag and the gas chamber.
This is another way of saying that high technology serves our known human propensities. Some human watchmakers are inept, and some are evil. We have to pick and choose among them with even greater fear and trembling than we picked and chose among the passion fruits and poison ivies. In this as in every other field of human endeavor, politics, in the broadest sense of the term, remains paramount.
But so does aesthetics. The natural world—a world infinitely more complex than the most complex piece of technology we have yet to devise—merits our solicitude not because it is safe, and not because it is stable, but because it is beautiful. Whatever Al Gore may say, there is no spirit of the sandpile, no irreducible instability in technology. But slashing and burning the rain forest is ugly anyway. We should revere life on earth not because we fear catastrophic failure but because life is a good that requires no further justification, and because it would be an abomination—an aesthetic abomination—to destroy the book of life before we have even found the time to read it.
1 A quadrillion is 1,000,000,000,000,000. A quad of BTU’s comes in 183,000,000 barrels of petroleum, 38,500,000 tons of coal, or 980,000,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas.