Growth as a process is ubiquitous. It is the hallmark of every living organism. It motivates much of what we as humans do, as often unspoken as it is outspoken. It is the narrative lens through which we examine societies and civilizations past and present. And it is the altar at which economists worship. You would think that nobody in their right mind would write a book that tries to encompass all of the above. Leave it to a deep thinker such as Vaclav Smil to prove to you otherwise.
The robot apocalypse has become a well-worn trope that will elicit laughter more than concern. But there is a far more direct threat from artificial intelligence or AI: economic disruption. Technology can and has taken jobs away from humans. I first started taking this idea more seriously after watching CGP Grey’s short documentary Human Needs Not Apply. If you enjoyed that video, this book is the must-read follow-up. Economist and historian Carl Benedikt Frey provides a soundly argued and clearly written book on the history of technological revolutions and what lessons these hold for future job security.
How many people can planet Earth support? That is the thorny question that economist Partha Dasgupta tackles in Time and the Generations. Or, as he asks: “How should we evaluate the ethics of procreation, especially the environmental consequences of reproductive decisions on future generations, in a resource-constrained world?” Given that I have previously called overpopulation the elephant in the room that few wish to address, my interest was immediately piqued.
More from Less makes the optimistic case that our impact on the planet is diminishing. We are past “peak stuff” and thanks to continued technological innovation our economy is dematerializing. That is to say, economic growth has become decoupled from resource consumption. Or, as the title puts it succinctly, we are getting more from less.
I was initially sceptical when I learned of this book. My outlook on the state of the world is not nearly as optimistic. So, from the blurb’s counterintuitive claim that “we’ve stumbled into an unexpected balance with nature”, to Steven Pinker’s triumphant endorsement that those who think we’re doomed by overpopulation and resource depletion are wrong – I was ready to go bananas on this book. But I would be a poor reviewer if I let my prejudices get the better of me.
Collapse is a feature, not a bug. This motto is almost like a mantra to physical chemist Ugo Bardi. He is interested in complex systems and how they collapse. Whether they be human-made structures, companies, societies, or ecosystems; he follows the thinking of Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BCE–65CE) who wrote, in Bardi’s words, that “growth is slow, but the way to ruin is rapid”. This led Bardi to write The Seneca Effect in 2017, which was reviewed here previously. Now he is back with Before the Collapse, a book aimed at a wider audience that promises to help readers understand and navigate collapses in their lives.
Thomas Robert Malthus, a man so praised and vilified that his name has been immortalised in the noun “Malthusianism”. Many people will have heard of him in the context of overpopulation, but how many of you know the title of his famous book? Robert J. Mayhew is a Professor of Historical Geography and Intellectual History and with Malthus: The Life and Legacies of an Untimely Prophet he makes the case that Malthus’s book is a good example of the unread classic. Deeply researched, this is a scholarly book for the patient reader that charts Malthus’s life and, especially, his intellectual legacy. As Mayhew shows, Malthus remains as relevant as ever, though he continues to be misinterpreted in manifold ways.
Given that I consider overpopulation to be the mother of all problems and, unfortunately, the elephant in the room that few wish to address, this book immediately drew my attention. Empty planet? Global population decline? Those are not words you often hear when the subject turns to future demographic trends. And yet, these two Canadian authors, Darrell Bricker the CEO of social and opinion research firm Ipsos Public Affairs and John Ibbitson a journalist for Globe and Mail, contend exactly this.
I am going to start this review on a tangent. The liner notes of the 1983 album Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T. of the German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten contained the slogan “Destruction is not negative, you must destroy to build”. I don’t expect that Ugo Bardi shares my taste in music, but, judging from this book, I’m sure that if we were to sit him down with the band members over a pint, they would have plenty to talk about. Because, according to Bardi, collapse is a feature, not a bug.
Speaking of controversial. As mentioned in my previous review of An Essay on the Principle of Population: The 1803 Edition, concerns about human overpopulation go back to at least Malthus, a name that has become synonymous with this topic. How do you tackle this incredibly thorny issue? Malthus believed moral restraint where having children is concerned should be encouraged, which strikes me as starry-eyed and completely out of reach, especially in the individualized societies of today. Simultaneously, we have seen some pretty drastic population control measures with ugly side-effects, such as China’s one-child policy and forced sterilization in India. The cry of eugenics if never far away when this topic is tabled. Can we have any sensible discussion to find a middle ground between utopia and dystopia? This small book does a serious attempt.
Overpopulation. Is there another topic more likely to bring about an uncomfortable silence during a dinner party? Possibly one of the last taboos even of our era, one name is intimately linked with this topic: Thomas Robert Malthus, author of the much-maligned An Essay on the Principle of Population. Originally published in 1798, Yale University Press here republishes the second edition of 1803, which is much expanded. As a bonus, they throw in five essays to place this work in context and discuss its relevance today. Why would you read a book that is over 200 years old? For the same reason evolutionary biologists still read On the Origin of Species – you cannot really properly discuss, let alone criticise a subject without reading its foundational text, now, can you?