Malthusians v. Cornucopians

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Reading Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom, I was reminded that the debate between prophets of a looming apocalypse and self-styled cornucopians has a long history, the modern version of which can be traced to the writings of Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century warning that humanity’s ability to reproduce would outstrip its ability to feed itself. The twentieth century saw no shortage of neo-Malthusians, countered by those—such as Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg, Gregg Easterbrook, and Bailey himself—with a far more optimistic vision for humanity’s future. By now the combatants know their roles and lines too well. The debate has gotten pretty stale.

It’s not that Bailey’s argument is totally off-base. In fact, I’m skeptical, too, about warnings of apocalypse around the corner and sympathetic to visions of a bright future for people and the planet in the twenty-first century. But securing that future is by no means simple or guaranteed.

In The End of Doom, Bailey takes on a series of issues that he believes have been vastly misunderstood by the neo-Malthusians and their fellow travelers: population, peak oil (and peak commodities more generally), the precautionary principle, worries about a cancer epidemic, genetic modification in agriculture, climate change, and species loss. For each, the argument is much the same. Concern is overhyped. Technology driven by “free markets” has always provided solutions and will do so in the future as well. But Bailey’s analysis never really gets beyond the cornucopian arguments that have been advanced many times before.

To take one example, Bailey accurately finds that the predictions about a “population bomb” advanced in the 1960s and 1970s were wildly wrong. Advocates like Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren—currently President Obama’s science advisor—warned of a global crisis that might require draconian action such as forced sterilization. History has proved these arguments ridiculous and even unethical. Yet, as Bailey shows, latter-day Malthusians are saying the same things.

But Bailey stands on shakier ground when he argues that the “population bomb” was diffused because of the so-called Green Revolution, which brought high-yielding wheat and other crops to India and elsewhere.  Bailey asserts that Norman Borlaug, popularly known as the father of the Green Revolution, “is the man who saved more lives than anyone else in history” through “a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India.” In Bailey’s view, the “massive campaign” arrived just in time to prevent the famine predicted by Ehrlich.

It’s a great story, but it’s wrong.

A more accurate history shows that the specter of a looming famine in India was an invention engineered by President Lyndon Johnson to help sustain the U.S. Food for Peace program, which faced a politically skeptical Congress. Technological advances had led to a glut of crops in the U.S., low prices for commodities, and unhappy farmers. Agricultural aid was also seen as a useful strategy in the Cold War. So Johnson wanted the shipments made. Thus, as historian Nick Cullather writes in The Hungry World, “through the fall of 1965 [LBJ] developed the theme of a world food crisis brought on by runaway population growth.”

In fact, official State Department notes reveal that when Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi visited Washington in spring 1966, one of her agenda items was to get the story straight about a crisis that didn’t exist. The Indian delegation noted that, “The situation in the United States is that to get a response, the need must be somewhat overplayed.” Scientists and the media jumped on the bandwagon, and a mythology of famine was born.

Bailey’s restatement of the Green Revolution mythology in fact gives neo-Malthusians far too much credit, suggesting that they were correct in their forecast of global famine, only to be proven wrong by the wonders of technological and market innovation. In fact, the neo-Malthusians were never right to begin with. Bailey is promoting a solution to a problem that never existed in the first place.

In 2003, the International Food Policy Research Institute asked what would have happened if the Green Revolution in the developing world never happened. They concluded that developed countries would have produced more and trade patterns would have evolved differently, but the situation “probably would not be considered a ‘World Food Crisis.’”

Perhaps ironically, it seems that the cornucopians need the neo-Malthusians to be correct in their diagnosis of potential apocalypse so that they can argue that their preferred solutions provide answers. But what if both sides are wrong in significant respects? Is there room in our debates for a third perspective?

It’s easy to see the end of the world in every technological innovation. It is just as easy to look at the generally improving state of the world and conclude that things will always continue to improve, and that when problems do arise, they will be easily solved.

Our public debates over economics, technology, and political power deserve better than a tired rehashing of Neo-Malthusianism v. cornucopianism.  And yet, these polarities remain appealing to many. Bailey recounts a conversation he had with his editor back in 1992, when he brought an earlier version of these arguments to him. His editor said that he’d publish the book, but “if you’d brought me a book predicting the end of the world, I could have made you a rich man.”

The “end of doom”? Hardly. The end of Panglossian optimism? Nope, not that either. The dance of the two will no doubt go on.

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