Malthusian’s never learn

In 1798 Malthus wrote a famous essay where he explains the argument that has since become legendary.

The argument is simple enough to explain. Malthus observed that population increases exponentially while food supply increased only linearly. Therefore in any given year a society with a population of 100, and food for 100, would increase to a population of 200 and only food for 110. Obviously heading for disaster.

Malthus realised that this would lead to the end of western civilisation in the 1800s. We know Malthus was wrong, because we’re still here, and even slightly overweight. But that hasn’t stopped people making this mistake over and over again.

Rarely a month goes by without a news outlet publishing some claim that one resource or another is about to end. If we don’t cut back on consumption and radically change our ways, this time our civilisation will end…

Except it wont. The mistake that leads to all this alarmism is one based on an incorrect assumption about the world, namely that resources are natural. This is not accurate.

Let’s return to Malthus for a concrete example. Malthus expected food supply to increase linearly based on historical evidence that showed how much time it took to plant new fields and grow new crops. His math was accurate.

What Malthus got wrong was that it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s no reason only those fields can be planted, and only in that way. Humans can learn how to change these limitations. Knowledge is the limiting factor, not land. And knowledge can be created, by humans. Most of the things commonly referred to as resources would be more accurately described as “resources currently made available by human knowledge”. The actual foundational resource is not scarce at all.

Just look at the amount of oil we have now compared to in the oil crisis of the 70s. The amount oil available as a resource is actually increasing. Despite “peak oil” being an alarmist trend every few months since the 70s.

Knowledge is a very interesting resource. Because humans couldn’t live anywhere in the world without it. There is no natural state for a human without knowledge. It is our only real limiting factor, and we create it ourselves.

Knowledge is not a process of random chance discoveries. But simply the result of a lot of humans trying to tinker and conjecture about how to do something. As long as there are creative humans with free time, there will be new knowledge.

The only humans who don’t seem to learn, are the prophets of doom in the guise of Malthus. How many times will they need to be proved wrong? How many times before we can simply tell every new person crying wolf about a scarce resource; you are wrong.