Book Review: Gambling with Civilization

by S. Tom Bond on December 16, 2013

Book by William Nordhaus – The Climate Casino

Commentary by S. Tom Bond, Retired Chemistry Professor and Resident Farmer in Lewis County

Gambling with Civilization” is the title of an article by Paul Krugman, a Princeton Economics professor, Nobel Prize winner, which reviews a book by William D. Nordhaus called The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World.

Krugman recalls that 40 years ago  Nordhaus pointed out that in matters of exhaustible resources one must think far in the future.  Economics is a peculiar “science” in that it doesn’t give hard numerical relationships, like physics, or firm rules like biology.  From the beginning with Adam Smith, economics has been primarily an aid to investors, based on short term observations.  It often reflects one’s politics, rather than the real world.   You can find extreme differences of opinion in the discipline called economics.

One of the early ideas usually accepted as economics is Thomas Malthus’ theory presented in a book called “An Essay on the Principle of Population.”  The theory stated the population increase would overcome the capacity of the land to produce food.  I am going to introduce a farmer’s term herein restating this: the population would come to exceed the “carrying capacity” of the land.  The carrying capacity normally refers to the number of animal units you can put on a given pasture year after year.  This is a well known concept to livestock farmers.

Obviously, carrying capacity hasn’t been exceeded yet in “developed” nations (in the last couple of hundred years), but history and the world today is full of examples where it has happened.  If you read many economist’s accounts, Malthus is the example of a complete failure.  Many economists delight in debunking theories of resource exhaustion.  Take the Forbes article “You Worry. You Shouldn’t. Part 1: Overpopulation and Resource Exhaustion.”  Here the guy who writes it is thoroughly insulated by a good income from the horrors experienced in his own population: no worry about food, shelter, clothing and all the rest. And he makes it by writing for a publication that has it’s interest in extracting every last loose cent from anyone who wants to invest passively in some income generating enterprise without going to the trouble of management him/her self.  No overriding concern for society or national interest, just a social atom in there digging for himself.  This is what I mean by political views determining economic views.

Technologies do change, but not in time for everyone.  And the ultimate future is an open question.  New resource discoveries occur, but can not be expected to go on forever meeting new needs, especially when the world population is expanding.  Energy and food are particular worries, and since under the present paradigm with more energy needed year after year the result is more carbon dioxide, too.  The most misunderstood thing about global warming is that the gasses released previously continue to warm, and any new gases added increases the rate of warming.

It is an arduous task to build a model for either global warming or resource exhaustion.  Up to the present scientists researching each problem have largely avoided the other problem.

The third interconnected problem is the world’s increasing population.  Today it is about 7 billion, and by 2045 (32 years) it is reliably predicted to reach 9 billion.  Each billion is a thousand million. 

A million is a very large number!  It is bantered around so easily now the familiarity belies how big it really is.  When I taught high school Chemistry, I sought a way to demonstrate it to my students. I programmed a computer (one of the old types that printed out on a roll of paper as wide as a sheet of typing paper) to print out a million asterisks (*).  Each hundred was three or four rows across the paper,  then it left a blank row. After each ten blocks of one hundred asterisks it printed how many thousand had been printed….one thousand, two thousand, and so forth.  After one thousand thousand the program stopped, because that is a million.  This made a roll that went around my generous size classroom two and a half times.  If the computer had been programmed to print a billion, it would have gone around the classroom 2,500 times!

Population is certainly a part of the problem, because of demand of all those extra people for the necessities of life.  Some don’t have enough now.  That has been true all through history.  But demand is also rising, world wide.  Here is a graphic display of the demand situation now.  (You really, really should study that reference!) 

That’s today, not tomorrow, not some model projection or expert guess.  We, the human race, are going to solve the problem with a third more of us in 32 years?  The biological world has been going for 2.5 billion years because it recycles.  The economic world recycles very little.  It turns raw materials into trash. Going ahead the way we are now, only harder, won’t solve it.  There are enough historical instances of what happens when carrying capacity is exceeded to have a clear idea of what will happen.  There are population crisis deniers, too, of course.  Just Google “population crisis myth.”  Much the same mentality as global warming deniers.  Same hubris.  But the numbers are set up for a crash much bigger than any thing that ever occurred in the past.

“Folks, we got trouble right here in River City,” as the guy says in the Broadway musical “The Music Man.” We have energy, global warming, natural resource, political and security problems all rolled into one.  And the solution is not in sight. Do you want to help solve it, at least work to lessen the impacts and improve our future?

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