The New York Times Retro Report

I had not seen this feature before, but I wanted to give the New York Times some kudos for its "retro report" which apparently looks at past news articles and predictions and wonders what happened to those issues since.  This report is on the failure of Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb predictions.  It is the kind of feature I have wanted to see in the press for a long time.  Good for them.

Sort of.  They fairly ably demonstrate that this 1970's-era doomster prediction was overblown, but then simply substitute a new one: over-consumption.  Ironically, the "over-consumption" doom predictions are based on the exact same false assumptions that led to the population bomb fiasco, namely an overly static view of the world that gives little or no credit to market mechanisms and innovation combined with an ideological bias that opposes things like technological progress, increased wealth, and free exchange.  The modern "over-consumption" meme shares with the Population Bomb the assumption that the world has a fixed carrying capacity, that we have or will soon exceed this capacity, and that actions of man can do nothing to change this capacity.

In essence, the over-consumption doom scenario is essentially identical to the Population Bomb.  In essence, then, the New York Times ably debunks a failed prediction and then renews that prediction under a new name.


  1. Adam:

    I'm on board with you on most all of these topics, but do you not think there are certain areas in which the trend of over consumption (or at least poor species/habitat management) is there? I worry a lot more about those issues.

    I'd say that looking at the populations of large mammals species, particularly in Africa, are dangerously low due to habitat destruction. Global fish stocks are dangerously low from modern fishing methods. Modern farming is a more extractive than sustainable. Most of these things seem fixable by better management but they do exist. Or do you think that's completely off base or off topic?

  2. Hal_10000:

    Love the NYT readers, who are tying to pretend that overpopulation is still a problem. Most common lament is about poverty but global poverty has decline dramatically over the last two decades.

  3. SamWah:

    Consistent errors, you say? Is anyone surprised by that?

  4. Mike Powers:

    And overconsumption was, in fact, another one of Ehrlich's predictions.

  5. Joe:

    To be fair to the NYT, if governments move away from market mechanisms by restricting price fluctuations and the profit motives the prediction on over-consumption could come to pass.

  6. FelineCannonball:

    I figure there is some sort of limit out there. Maybe a monolayer of closest packed people on all the continents. Or a bilayer. Energy use must have some sort of limit short of the equivalent of the output of the sun, or maybe the energy density that would make the planet start to glow red. I looked at historic doubling rates once and projected we'd hit these levels in the next couple millenia. But if we invested our money in index funds we should all have plenty of money to fly to alpha centauri.

  7. David Zetland:

    Well, over-consumption IS a problem if you look at priced goods (crops) vs non priced goods (open access fisheries, atmosphere, rainforest, etc.). I've argued for "proper" pricing of people and activities (addressing both population and consumption) like many other economists, as that is a better option than command and control. More:

  8. LoneSnark:

    As humans don't eat endangered species, such extinctions would have no impact upon our productive capacity, sad as they might be.

  9. Ike Pigott:

    The best way to combat overconsumption is to keep things in private hands as much as possible. Markets provide signals that spur innovation and opportunity, and ultimately kill silly notions like Peak Oil.

  10. Ike Pigott:

    (and no, I am not for consumption for consumption's sake)

  11. slocum:

    Gad, the comments are predictably depressing and infuriating. For example, THIS is a highly ranked comment:

    "How many think the world would be a better place today, and have a much better future, if there were only 3 billion people rather than the 7 some billion we have? Me for one."

    The 7 billion alive today are now better fed than than 3 billion were in 1960 (and not just better fed, but healthier, smarter, better informed, entertained, and connected, living richer more interesting lives). And yet this appalling idiot thinks it would be better if more than half the people alive right now had never been born (fully assuming, I am sure, that one of the 4 billion lives blithely waved away would not have been his or her *own*). And Ehrlich? What a prick! He spent his life advocating for totalitarian methods that amount to crimes against humanity (coerced sterilization that were actually carried out in India, China, and elsewhere). And the wizened old f**cker regrets nothing and equates people being 'allowed' to have children to being 'allowed' to discard their trash.

  12. slocum:

    Think of consumption increases in terms of value rather than metric tons of coke and pig iron. Dematerialization of music, books, movies, photography, games and toys, etc has meant much more consumption using far fewer physical resources (not having to manufacture the things, not having to ship, distribute, and warehouse the things, not having to display the things in stores or have people travel around to find and buy them).

  13. JohnM:

    Why are you surprised?

    Millennial cults never revisit their assumptions when their predictions fail to come to pass. They just reformulate them and shift the date of doomsday

  14. Adam:

    I'm not really sure what your point is? I didn't imply that we eat endangered species. I also don't judge the merit of maintaining natural habitat and species by whether or not it affects productive capacity. That's insane.

  15. Adam:

    I'm not really sure how that applies to my concern. And movies/books are not primary uses of consumption. It's predominantly agriculture, energy, and construction, all of which are continuing to rise throughout the less developed world.

  16. HenryBowman419:

    Doomsday predictions are reliable ways to sell newspapers, that's all. The problem is that the folks making the predictions actually seem to believe their own rubbish.

  17. HenryBowman419:

    I suspect the comment "Me for One" doesn't actually believe it wholeheartedly, as he or she is apparently still alive.

  18. slocum:

    In the industrialized world, we've already past the point where increased prosperity means greater and greater use of natural resources--per capita energy has been declining:

    And China is just not that far behind. This period of rapid catch up by China will not last much longer, and there's no way that the Chinese will end up with American consumption patterns (just as the Japanese and Koreans and did not even as they became wealthy):

  19. Adam:

    This is a lot of what I was getting at below.

    Though I'd say many of your "priced" goods include huge amounts of unpriced problems that we all deal with (fertlizer run-off for example).

  20. Adam:

    I'm aware that the US and Western Europe are there, which is why I specifically said "developing world". While we may have peaked, we're a very small portion of global population and the rest of the world wants to catch up. That will continue to have a huge impact.

  21. obloodyhell:

    The world probably has a "maximum" carrying capacity, but it's improbable that we'll get anywhere near it anytime in our grandchildren's lifetimes.

  22. LoneSnark:

    I was addressing your mixing of over consumption and habitat loss. As we don't eat endangered species, consumption has no direct impact on habitat loss. As consumption has soared, habitat loss has reversed in the industrialized world.

    What matters to species extinction is not economics, but politics.

  23. Adam:

    Consumption doesn't have to literally mean eating rhinos. It means consumption of resources. The largest cause of species loss is habitat loss, which is largely caused by the expansion of agriculture and people in general, particularly animals that require a wide range for sustainability.