Real Progress versus the Progressives

Depending on one’s perspective, technology can be viewed as either an opportunity or a threat. Some people celebrate technical advances while others show disdain. Entrepreneurs are frequently eager to capitalize on the potential advantages of new technologies, but where entrepreneurs see room for dynamism, naysayers see doom. In this story, entrepreneurs are akin to wizards who use the magic of technology to improve the world, and naysayers are prophets of pessimism.

In his insightful book The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World, Charles Mann illustrates the conflicts between wizards and prophets, who both advocate different approaches to solving problems. Wizards trust in the liberating power of technology to improve conditions, and prophets endorse restraining human behavior. Norman Borlaug and William Vogt are the main figures in his work. Both men had an interest in the issues posed by population growth, yet their proposals were opposite.

Borlaug, who is credited as the father of the green revolution, felt that innovations in technology would increase food production and minimize the burdens of population growth. However, Vogt proposed limiting consumption to save humanity. Unlike optimists who thought that affluence was a monumental achievement, Vogt felt that prosperity encouraged overconsumption, and this would lead to the demise of society. Luckily for society, Borlaug’s model became the catalyst for the green revolution, which resulted in the emergence of high-yielding plant varieties.

Scientific advancements in agriculture increased food supplies and staved off famines in developing countries. Despite population increases, the production of cereal crops tripled during the green revolution, and Malthusian predictions did not materialize. Developing countries managed to overcome chronic food deficits, and more crops were cultivated using less land space. Wizards have a better track record of performance than prophets, although the fearmongering of prophets is still influential.

In 1981, Julian Simon published The Ultimate Resource as a response to Paul Ehrlich’s doomsday manifesto, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich preached that population growth would lead to the exhaustion of resources, but Simon turned this argument on its head by contending that population growth churns out new ideas, and ideas lead to an abundance of products and resources. Simon foresaw humans innovating to compensate for shortages and, in the process, even creating superior alternatives. Ehrlich was unimpressed by Simon’s foresight and waged a bet in 1980 arguing that resources would become more expensive.

Ehrlich selected a basket of resources containing copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten. Fortunately for humanity, Simon emerged victorious, and by 1990, these resources were cheaper, despite fears of scarcity and population growth. Recent research by Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley has further vindicated the assumption of Julian Simon. Their research asserts that population growth is failing to halt the multiplication of resources. Notwithstanding the tremendous population growth from 1980–2018, resources not only became more abundant but also increased at a faster rate than population growth.

The positivity trend gets even better. Intuitively, we think that as the economy expands, people will begin to use more resources; however, Jesse Ausubel has been observing a wave of dematerialization. Although the American economy is generating more products, people are using fewer resources. Promoting the work of Ausubel in his fascinating book How Innovation Flourishes in Freedom, Matt Ridley touts the virtues of innovation:

By 2015 America was using 15 per cent less steel, 32 per cent less aluminium and 40 per cent less copper than at its peaks of using these metals, even though its population was larger and its output of goods and services much larger. . . . This is not because the American economy is generating fewer products: it’s producing more. It is not because there is more recycling—though there is. It’s because of economies and efficiencies created by innovation.

Innovations provide a world that’s more efficient and livable for human and nonhuman life. But the hysteria of prophets can deter progress by limiting discoveries, and they are powerful agents in the environmental arena. Environmentalists concerned about pollution are lobbying for the mining of minerals that they argue can limit emissions. Deep sea mining is the latest innovation in the environmental industry, yet if the passion of activists is not contained, then we will miss out on opportunities as the Economist suggests.

The Economist notes that the criticisms of activists are questionable and mining in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone will prove to be beneficial:

When it comes to nickel, mining the ccz is greener and cleaner than mining on dry land. Research shows that the amount of carbon stored in the ccz is negligible, meaning that mining will not stir up enough of it into the atmosphere to add to warming. Nor, according to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will the sediment churned up spread as far or as thickly as claimed. . . . The most serious concern is the threat to diverse organisms that are unknown to science. But life in the ccz is scarce—some 270,000 tonnes of biomass would be destroyed by mining—and mostly microbial. And because the ccz is the oceanic food web’s final stop, there would be few spillovers to other ecosystems.

But unfortunately, prophets of doom like Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have a disproportionate influence on policy. Therefore, the biggest threat to the survival of our species will not be social and political challenges that can be solved by intelligence but rather the unproductive influence of negative personalities who sway thought leaders with dangerous rhetoric.

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