Austin Bay

However, fear sells, and doom is fear on steroids. Numerous economically successful authors, academics and, yes, politicians have forged (in all senses of the word) economically rewarding careers based on predicting future doom. Paul Ehrlich serves as an example. Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" sold millions of copies, but the world was supposed to be starving and lightless by the end of the 1970s -- or was it the 1980s?

Foreign Affairs noted in its January 2010 issue that, "Thanks to innovations and efforts such as the "green revolution" in farming and the widespread adoption of family planning, Ehrlich's worst fears did not come to pass. In fact, since the 1970s, global economic output has increased and fertility has fallen dramatically, especially in developing countries."

In the 21st century, Ehrlich fights a rearguard action. Eventually, he says, he and other Malthusian doomsayers will be right.

Yeah, Thomas Malthus. Death by famine and disease, he argued, will eventually curb over-population. To his credit, Reverend Malthus (1766-1834) confronted idiot utopianists. He advocated economic policies that favored long-term stability over short-term needs. However, Ehrlich's bestseller is re-worked Malthusian catastrophe. Resources are limited. There is only so big a pie. When the resources run out, the future is hand-to-mouth Pleistocene subsistence.

However, the trend is bigger pie, whether the trend is two, six, or 100 centuries old (rough end of the Pleistocene, beginning of the Agricultural Revolution). Human creativity discovers new resources. Silicon chip? Silicon is sand.

The Gates letter contends foreign aid is not a waste (myth No. 2). For me, this is a bit of a straw-man argument, but a straw man with a point. Few people argue that aid is a total waste. The smart guys have always favored targeted aid. Many religious groups specialize in targeted aid, and their efforts have produced great successes. The Gates say their foundation focuses on "hard nosed" results. OK, the best targeted aid operations always have. Accountability matters, and it helps avoid the nemesis of corruption.

Gates' myth No. 3 is "Saving Lives Leads to Overpopulation." The Gates write: "Going back at least to Thomas Malthus, who published his "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can't keep up with population growth." A bit later, Mr. Gates writes, "The planet does not thrive when the sickest are allowed to die off, but rather when they are able to improve their lives. Human beings are not machines. We don't reproduce mindlessly. We make decisions based on the circumstances we face."

Indeed we do. Take that, Malthusian Catastrophe.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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