The Philosophic Roots of the Paris Agreement Part II: The Malthusian People Problem

Part I of this series related the Paris agreement to the Church of Climate, which takes the natural world as optimal, fragile, and sacrosanct. Any human influence on climate—regional or global; warming, cooling, or both—is a per se bad to the deep ecology movement.

A sister intellectual movement has also filled the pews of the Church of Climate. Malthusianism fears population growth and has a broad agenda in the name of sustainable development, such as these 17 goals of the United Nations.

From Malthus to Jevons

In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Thomas Robert Malthus saw “misery or vice” as the necessary equalizer between geometrically growing population and the arithmetically growing means of subsistence. His “incontrovertible truths” reached a gloomy conclusion: some mix of disease, famine, barbarianism, war, or forgone marriage/procreation would bring population down to the level of subsistence. The happy economics of Adam Smith was checked (Bradley, 190–92).

Two generations later, W.S. Jevons brought Malthusianism from agriculture to mineral energy. The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (1865) reached a gloomy finale: England’s coal abundance was coming to an end, and the nation’s industrial and competitive might was living on borrowed time.

Jevons considered “the necessary results of our present rapid multiplication [of demand] when brought into comparison with a fixed amount of material resources.” “For the present,” he found, “our cheap supplies of coal, and our skill in its employment, and the freedom of our commerce with other wide lands, render us … out of the scope of Malthus’s doctrine.” But the “painful fact” was that “in the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress” (Bradley, 195).

Jevons’s tome created the coal panic. The book’s factual detail, logic, and conclusion sparked a debate in British government about policy reforms to soften the coming decline. England’s minister of finance cited Jevons’s “grave and … urgent facts” as reason to retire the national debt, and Parliament established a Royal Commission on Coal Supplies to update Jevons’s findings (Bradley, 194).

As it turned out, Jevons’s prediction of a “threatening” increase in coal costs from depletion would prove illusory. It would take socialism after World War I to diminish and weaken the UK’s domestic coal industry, and by then the fossil-fuel family had expanded from coal to oil and natural gas for interfuel competition and substitution (Bradley, 199–202).

Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren

Fast forward to the 1970s. Energy shortages rocked the United States, and global population surged from three billion in 1963 to five billion 1987 (Bradley, 233). To a new generation of Malthusians, the causality was simple: more people, more problems.

In 1971, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren reduced Malthusianism to the mathematical equation, I=P⸱A⸱T, where (negative) environmental impact was linked to any combination of population growth, increasing affluence, and improving technology. Their “gloomy prognosis” required “organized evasive action: population control, limitation of material consumption, redistribution of wealth, transitions to technologies that are environmentally and socially less disruptive than today’s, and movement toward some kind of world government” (Ehrlich, Ehrlich, and Holdren, 1977: 5).

The Ehrlichs and Holdren also stated:

We find ourselves firmly in the neo-Malthusian camp. We hold this view not because we believe the world to be running out of materials in an absolute sense, but rather because the barriers to continued material growth, in the form of problems of economics, logistics, management, and environmental impact, are so formidable (1977: 954).

In Global Ecology, Holdren and Paul Ehrlich starkly concluded:

Only one rational path is open to us – simultaneous de-development of the [overdeveloped countries] and semi-development of the [underdeveloped countries], in order to approach a decent and ecologically sustainable standard of living for all in between. By de-development we mean lower per-capita energy consumption, fewer gadgets, and the abolition of planned obsolescence (1971: 3).

North America, and particularly the United States, was in the crosshairs of Holdren and the Ehrlichs:

A massive campaign must be launched to restore a high-quality environment in North America and to de-develop the United States … Resources and energy must be diverted from frivolous and wasteful uses in overdeveloped countries to filling the genuine needs of underdeveloped countries. This effort must be largely political (1973: 279).

When it came to energy, less was more to Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman:

Except in special circumstances, all construction of power generating facilities should cease immediately, and power companies should be forbidden to encourage people to use more power. Power is much too cheap. It should certainly be made more expensive and perhaps rationed, in order to reduce its frivolous use (1971, 1975: 72).

Holdren as Climate Planner

John Holdren recently completed eight years as science advisor to President Barack Obama, bringing Malthusianism to the mainstream. With Peak Oil refuted during his tenure, his overriding issue was climate change.

“Mr. Holdren’s influence can be seen in many of the administration’s policies, including its biggest on climate change — the plan to cut power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming,” the New York Times reported in 2014. “‘John was right at the heart’ of the deliberations, said the White House chief of staff, Denis R. McDonough.”

And Holdren was right there for the Paris agreement. What Al Gore under Bill Clinton started, Holdren significantly advanced under Obama.

Climate Change as Malthusian

Julian Simon saw climate catastrophism as another excuse for population control and governmental planning. In his words:

The old rationales for World Bank population-control programs—economic growth, resource conservation, and the like—having been discredited, a new “rationale” has been developed on the basis of speculative assumptions about global warming’s economic effects derived from controversial climatological science. (1996: 433–34)

Indeed. Population and affluence are behind the rise and growth of carbon-based energies responsible for the enhanced greenhouse effect. “We really should make every effort to change” projected global population growth, stated Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010–16), “because we are already—today—already exceeding the planetary carrying capacity.” Beyond fewer people, she advocates changing “the economic and social structure that we have.”

Similarly, former chair of the IPCC, rejected the goal of India’s becoming as prosperous as the UK: “Gandhi was asked if he wanted India to reach the same level of prosperity as the United Kingdom. He replied: ‘It took Britain half the resources of the planet to reach its level of prosperity. How many planets would India require?’”

Conclusion

“Misery or vice” … the “population bomb” … resource famines … “Peak Oil” … anthropogenic global cooling … anthropogenic global warming…. The Malthusian litany is now in its third century.

People remain the problem to the congregation of the Church of Climate, as much as they want to say that forced energy transformation is compatible with economic coordination and prosperity.

And here we are today. The Malthusian scares have been refuted one-by-one, leaving the daily sermons about the perils of manmade climate change. But trends are positive regarding the green greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. The ecological benefits of increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 is in the news. Climate sensitivity estimates to the enhanced greenhouse effect are falling. The Paris agreement has been exposed on the Left as “a fraud … a fake … worthless.” And the grassroots revolt against industrial wind turbines and solar farms is growing.

The good news is that the Malthusian bad news is wrong. May the Church of Climate find its pews increasingly empty.


Bradley, Robert. Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy. Salem, MA: M & M Scrivener Press, 2009.

Ehrlich, Paul, Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren. Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1977.

Ehrlich, Paul; Anne Ehrlich, and John Holdren. Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions. San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman Company, 1973.

Ehrlich, Paul, and John Holdren. “Impact of Population Growth.” Science 171 (1971): 1212–17.

Ehrlich, Paul, and Richard Harriman. How to Be a Survivor. Rivercity, MA: Rivercity Press, 1971, 1975.

Holdren, John, and Paul Ehrlich. Introduction to Global Ecology: Readings Toward a Rational Strategy for Man. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Simon, Julian. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

The post The Philosophic Roots of the Paris Agreement Part II: The Malthusian People Problem appeared first on IER.

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