Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Rise of the Cornucopians

In this time of increasing nationalism and barbarity: desperately overcrowded boats in the  Mediterranean, suicidal asylum seekers on Manus Island, crying children held in cages in Texas (some of them fleeing land degradation and violence in the dry corridor of central America, itself worsened by drought, land degradation, possibly by climate change and definitely by high fertility) and the criminalizing of providing legal advice in Hungary to the tiny number of refugees that manage to enter its territory I thought I would post a fragment below, explaining some of the factors that have led to this.

The idea of the name the “Cornucopian enchantment” came to me in about 1999, when I was reading E.O. Wilson’s book Consilience. The Unity of Knowledge. In it Wilson explains that the term 'Ionian Enchantment' (coined in 1995 by Gerald Holton) refers to the “belief in the unity of the sciences – a conviction, far deeper than a mere working proposition, that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws”.

I already knew that Julian Simon was called “a cornucopian” – and I had already written about the dangers of what Lester Brown (I believe) had called demographic entrapment; the idea of the cornucopian enchantment arose spontaneously, from that seedbed. The rest of this blog is a fragment of a recently published chapter (details at the end).

The Rise of the Cornucopians

In 1971, a committee of the US National Academy of Sciences (1971) considered the consequences of rapid population growth. It was chaired by Roger Revelle, who in 1957 had warned, regarding the increase of CO2: ‘human beings are now carrying out a largescale geophysical experiment’ (Revelle & Suess, 1957). Revelle, credited by Al Gore as his first instructor on climate change, was aware of the limits as well as the hazards of rapid population growth. The report warned, clearly, that rapid population growth was problematic. 

Yet only fifteen years later the same Academy held another enquiry into population (National Research Council, 1986). The composition of the committee, reflecting the influence of neoliberalism, was radically different from that of 1971, and was dominated by mainstream economists. Its report greatly obscured the previous report’s finding about the risk of population growth; at best it was considered a minor factor. What had happened to deliver this change?

After the oil shocks of the 1970s triggered the widespread ‘stagflation’ crisis, economic liberalism pushed the Keynesian doctrines (which had moderated capitalism) from ascendancy. As part of this process, corporations financed hundreds of ‘free market’ think tanks, promoting what is widely known as neoliberalism (Davidson, 1992; Higgs, 2014, pp. 91–3; Labonté et al., 2004; Szreter, 1997). 

Conservative think tanks employed many mainstream economists, a profession that gradually overtook science in its influence over government policy. By 1980, with Margaret Thatcher in power in the UK and Ronald Reagan elected President of the US, the ideological tide had turned. Neoliberals promoted deregulation, privatization, ‘small government’ and ‘free trade’. ‘Trickle down’ was claimed to reduce inequality. But neoliberals were as opposed to organized labour as they were in favour of ‘growth’ economics. Ideas about limits to growth, environmental or consumer regulation and environmental concerns in general were antithetical to this programme.

Julian Simon, associated with both the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, championed the denial of the environmental crisis in The Ultimate Resource (Simon, 1981) followed by The Resourceful Earth – a reply to President Carter’s Global 2000 report – which he co-edited with Herman Kahn (Simon & Kahn, 1984). Simon regarded the human intellect as the ‘ultimate resource’ and told interviewer William Buckley that ‘in the end, copper and oil come out of our minds’ (Simon & Buckley, 1982). Simon, the definitive cornucopian, saw no need to limit the growth of population or production and believed that the market price will manifest technological and social solutions for all shortages.
Simon’s influence was prominent in the 1986 National Academy Report, where his articles were heavily cited, without criticism. Central to his proposition was that additional people were a net benefit; because every extra person had two hands and a mind, they could help solve rather than hinder global development (Simon, 1980, 1981; Simon & Kahn, 1984).

But this argument ignored many factors needed to realize human potential, including education, nurturing and health. Undernutrition is associated with a decline in intelligence (Sokolovic et al., 2014). In well-organized, functioning societies, nutrition can be improved, roads built and teachers trained. Societies can escape their poverty. But harmful spirals may also occur, including by conflict, repeated disasters and terrorism, generating intractable difficulty. In such cases, it is hard to see how large numbers of young dependants are always of benefit. In the Rwandan genocide, ‘youth bulges’ (Mesquida & Wiener, 1996) of unemployed, unmarried and potentially violent young men were the main implementers of the genocide.

But if high numbers of young relatively powerless people block the ‘demographic dividend’ (Gribble & Bremner, 2012), they can be perceived as beneficial by some wealthy populations. This is plausible as high population growth in the global South acts to expand the ‘reserve army of the poor’, depressing labour prices and increasing the overconsumption of natural resources by those with the means to consume (Butler, 2007).

In Simon’s world, resources are virtually infinite. In 1992, the prominent economist Lawrence Summers claimed: 

There are no … limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future. There isn’t a risk of an apocalypse due to global warming or anything else. The idea that we should put limits on growth because of some natural limit, is a profound error and one that, were it ever to prove influential, would have staggering social costs. (George & Sabelli, 1994, p. 109)

In 2000, the influential economist D. Gale Johnson (2000), reminiscent of Simon and illustrating the ‘cornucopian enchantment’ (Butler, 2007), asserted that the ‘creation of knowledge’ had made possible ‘the escape from the Malthusian trap’. But, very often, knowledge does not trump resource scarcity. At the time of the Irish potato famine of the late 1840s, ample knowledge existed to provide nourishment. In Ireland, the calories being exported as grain could have been used to feed its native people. Johnson ignored the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which other commentators indeed interpreted in Malthusian terms (André & Platteau, 1998; Butler, 2000).

The role of cheap energy in the reduction of resource prices from 1950 onwards, and of cheap, easily recoverable oil in particular, was also ignored by cornucopians. All resource extraction depends on the application of energy, which has been called the ‘master resource’, essential to the recovery and production of every other commodity (Cleveland, 1991; Zencey, 2013). The probability of decline in easy access to fossil fuels was disregarded in the 1980s, when renewed exploration in the developed world combined with OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil to create an adequate supply again, greatly reducing prices.

From: Butler, C.D.; Higgs, K. Health, population, limits and the decline of nature. In The Sage Handbook of Nature, Marsden, T., Ed. Sage: London, 2018; pp 1122-1149.