- Capitalism and Alternatives -

More directly w/respect to Simon himself

Posted by: Samuel Day Fassbinder ( Citizens for Mustard Greens, USA ) on April 05, 1999 at 17:03:27:

In Reply to: its possible to be interesting without signing up posted by Gee on March 31, 1999 at 19:17:12:

: I can see you never tackled "ultimate resource 2", whilst handing out book titles as answers yourself. If one set of data lead to a conclusion that world is at an end, and another set leads to the conclusion that it is not by a long stretch then there can be no contradiction.

SDF: Julian Simon's THE ULTIMATE RESOURCE 2 is located on the Web here, and it didn't take me long to discover that Simon himself was playing the same sort of shell game Herman Daly said he was playing. A chapter chosen at random reveals Simon's tactics:

chapter 28 we shall see that the supply of farm capital -
especially arable land - increases when population increases
because people respond to the demand for additional food with
increased investment, much of which is additional labor to clear
trees and stones, dig ditches, and build barns.

Stuff like this begs all sorts of questions: What about the effect that putting more land into cultivation has upon the supply of arable land, upon usable water supplies in a particular region, upon ecological interdependencies outside the farmland (that the farm is dependent upon -- for instance, flowering plants are dependent upon certain insects for their reproduction, and these insects are dependent upon other plants/animals for their survival etc.), upon soil fertility and the inputs needed to maintain it, upon land needed by human beings for other uses, upon changes in agricultural input needed because of the onset of the greenhouse effect? Look, I studied agroecology in college...

Sustainable agriculture is something that needs to be thought through, not merely assumed, and I don't think Simon has thought it through. The point being not that "we are all doomed," but that only certain forms of intellectual "investment" (to use Simon's word) will support increasing populations, and that merely increasing the number of people who think will not in itself produce this intellectual "investment".

The limitations of Simon's breed of argument, even when cleared of this simplistic intellectual shell-game of his, are revealed in a statement by Bill McKibben:

Simon and his ilk owe their success to this: they have been right so far. The world has behaved as they predicted. India hasn't starved. Food is cheap. But Malthus never goes away. The idea that we might grow too big can be disproved only for the moment -- never for good. We might always be on the threshold of a special time, when the mechanisms described by Boserup and Simon stop working. It is true that Malthus was wrong when the population doubled from 750 million to 1.5 billion. It is true that Malthus was wrong when the population doubled from 1.5 billion to three billion. It is true that Malthus was wrong when the population doubled from three billion to six billion. Will Malthus still be wrong fifty years from now?

McKibben's article, read it or not, offers some reasonable suspicions for why we might assume that the problem of "carrying capacity" really exists, and cannot just be wished away.

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