Refuting the Ehrlich of our Time

Back during the last American economic crisis, the stagflation of the 1970s, there came a prophet of doom named Paul Ehrlich.

Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, defined the fears of the time and set in motion policies that still exist today. His thesis was that uncontrolled population growth would quickly lead to mass starvation, and there was nothing that could be done to stop it.

There was something that could stop it. Prosperity. As China and India began entering the global middle class, their birth rates declined naturally. If you know your kids are likely to survive into adulthood, bigger families become a burden, not a boon. The population bomb, in other words, is defusing itself.

Now America has a new Minister of Doom. His name is Richard Heinberg.

Through his Post Carbon Institute, Heinberg has been banging the drum about peak oil for years. Now, through his book The End of Growth, he’s telling us that the current oil crisis means we’re all going to get poor and die younger.

In addition to noting shortages of fossil fuels, and the growing expense of bringing them to the surface and burn them, Heinberg’s thesis is based on the growing shortage of materials like rare earths, things like gallium and cadmium, which are used to power many renewable energy systems.

Instead of being characterized by a continuation of the upward trajectory we have all grown accustomed to, the 21st century is destined to be one long downward glide punctuated by moments of financial, political, and geopolitical panic. And in retrospect, we’ll all probably eventually agree that our descent began in 2008.

We really have reached Peak Everything . . . but we’ve barely had a chance to enjoy the view; how brief was our moment at the apex! From here on, it’s going to be a bumpy downward roller-coaster ride.

Heinberg’s view, like Ehrlich’s, is very popular among policy-makers. And it’s equally wrong.

While it’s true that it’s getting more expensive to find things to burn, and more expensive to mine rare earths, energy is in fact abundant. The Sun shines, the wind blows, the tides roll, and we live on a molten rock. Global warming means there’s just more energy in the air. It is not absolutely necessary to use rare earths to tap this abundance – there are a growing number of technologies that don’t need them.

Heinberg also ignores the economic potential of efficiency. What he sees as “using less” can also be seen as doing more with less, and since the U.S. uses more, it can get more growth from efficiency than any other country. Simply by reducing our use of fossil fuels to a level similar to that of our economic rivals, we can generate trillions of dollars in capital without a single technological improvement.

More to the point, Heinberg ignores technology, and the opportunities for creative change it offers. Every wind turbine installed anywhere in the world reduces demand for fossil fuels. So does every geothermal installation. Technology to harvest algae and other sources of cellulosic ethanol is coming onstream. Every year we see breakthroughs in the efficiency of solar cells, whether made of rare earths or more-plentiful materials like silicon.

The cost of harvesting energy is falling, that of fossil fuels is rising. Those costs are going to cross within a few years, and the cost of renewables are not going to magically increase thereafter. The amount of energy harvested is on an upward trajectory that, unlike fossil fuels, has no peak, and global policymakers are beginning to awaken to the opportunities.

Ehrlich had his purpose. He showed what might happen without action, but action came. Heinberg’s claims may well have the same impact, in retrospect. But history also shows that Ehrlich was wrong. Heinberg will be proven wrong, too.


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