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Bad Scholarship: Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin

After reading Merchants of Despair, I decided to do some fact checking and to learn about some of the topics in more detail. I started in chapter 1 about Malthus. I found serious scholarly errors. Next I skipped to material about population control and President Lyndon Johnson. Again I found serious scholarly errors. I have not fact checked the rest of the book; I did not fact check any other part and find it was OK. Topics I already knew something about (DDT, nuclear power, Julian Simon's bet about resource prices) seemed correct when I first read them. I think the book is approximately correct in general claims and has some good philosophical ideas, but it gets a lot of details wrong. Do not trust its specifics. Educate yourself by reading further books on the topics that interest you.

Below I detail some scholarly errors I found. I only checked a small amount of material to find these. If we assume the rate of errors is representative of the rest of the book, then that's really quite bad.


Zubrin does Malthus fast and hard, and then talks about what is "Malthusian" throughout the rest of the book, relying on the early presentation of Malthus in chapter 1. In chapter 1, he provides only two Malthus quotes. After that he moves on to quoting people he identifies as Malthusians. Both Malthus quotes are misquotes. He also provides a very clear and direct paraphrase of Malthus, which he cites to two Malthus chapters. But Zubrin's story is a fantasy not backed up by his cites. This is very poor and unacceptable level of scholarly research.

First Malthus Misquote

Malthus prescribed specific policies to keep population down by raising the death rate:

[blockquote] We are bound in justice and honour to disclaim the right of the poor to support. . . . [W]e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.[3]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 128-136). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Malthus' view as presented is despicable. But it's both misquoted and taken out of context.

The actual quote can be found here:

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.V

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.VIII

This is the same edition Zubrin cites, see here:

Principle of Population, Card Catalog Information

Why can it be found in two different chapters? Because Zubrin took two different Malthus quotes and combined them into one quote for his book. Then he cited it as if it was just one quote from book 4 chapter 5.

The first part of what Zubrin quotes, before the ellipsis, is actually from three chapters later. And it's edited. The bulk of the quote, starting at "[W]e should facilitate" is a correct quote in the literal sense but completely out of context and misleading. But besides being out of context, Zubrin doctored it by adding an initial sentence, from elsewhere in the book, which he also changed the wording of. This is an unacceptable distortion of the facts.

Besides moving a Malthus sentence out of context, Zubrin edited it. It actually reads (from 4.8):
As a previous step even to any considerable alteration in the present system, which would contract or stop the increase of the relief to be given, it appears to me that we are bound in justice and honour formally to disclaim the right of the poor to support.
Zubrin made the following changes:

He started mid-sentence while giving no indication of doing so.

He changed "we" to "We". This is especially misleading because immediately afterwards he uses "[W]e" to indicate the same type of change. Since he indicates it the other time, you would expect him to indicate it other times. This sort of inconsistency in quoting practices is extra misleading to the reader.

He deleted the word "formally".

He un-italicized the word "right".

These things make it a serious misquote. Plus he moved it three chapters earlier out of context. When he cited the quote, he did not cite the chapter this actually comes from, only the chapter the other part of his supposed-quote is from. This is very unscholarly.

But it gets worse. Did Malthus really want plague? No. His argument is structured like this: (I haven't read the whole book but I read enough to get the basic idea and see that Zubrin had this part wrong, you can get a lot of context from the two chapters prior to the one Zubrin quotes. 4.3 and 4.4)

What we need is moral restraint. Do not marry and have kids if you can't afford them. The poor laws are bad because they subsidize having kids you can't afford and they make promises they can't keep. What are the alternatives to moral restraint? Nothing good because of limited resources. Too big a population will lead to famine. Or if we don't want big nasty famines, then the logical consequence is we should keep people dying off regularly from plague, disease, dirtiness, crowding, malaria, etc... But Malthus is not advocating that, he's saying it's the consequences of lack of moral restraint. What he's advocating is moral restraint.

So Malthus was saying, "If we don't do what I'm suggesting, then what happens? All this bad stuff." And Zubrin has quoted that bad stuff out of context and said it's what Malthus was proposing. That's utterly wrong.

Second Malthus Misquote

In a letter to economist David Ricardo, Malthus laid out the basis for this policy: “The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.”[12]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 189-191). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
This is commonly misquoted. Maybe Zubrin didn't know any better. He cited a secondary source for this which I haven't checked. Regardless, he's guilty of bad scholarship. He should have checked a primary source whenever he could instead of relying on secondary sources. If I can find out the truth of this one just with Google, he ought to have been able to find out too using Google, book writing skills, libraries, and his swarm of interns:
I wish to acknowledge my debt to New Atlantis interns A. Barrett Bowdre, Elias Brockman, Nathaniel J. Cochran, Jonathan Coppage, Brendan Foht, and Edward A. Rubin, who put in many weeks at the Library of Congress verifying, and where necessary correcting, every fact, quote, and footnote in this book.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 3693-3695). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Many weeks of work verifying "every fact, quote, and footnote"? Well, I believe they tried, but it was shoddy work that, sadly, overall, failed at its task.

This Malthus quote is edited, truncated, and taken out of context. This gives the false impression that Malthus wanted lots of people dead. "Swept from the soil" sounds like killed or at least gone. He didn't want them to live and exist anymore. Except that isn't what Malthus actually said or meant. The full quote, in context, is completely different and is part of a dry, economics discussion. It has nothing to do with genocide. But Zubrin falsely presents Malthus as genocidal using this fake quote (twice).

The full quote can easily be found with Google by any researcher (no doubt libraries have it too! e.g. the Library of Congress which Zubrin sent a bunch of interns to). I found it on these four webpages: one, two, three, four.

The most informative one actually explains the issue of this passage being misquoted:
An examination of the full text of this letter finds Malthus's intent to be far different that [sic] the one implied by the truncated wording commonly used by Mokyr and others. As a reading of the whole letter makes clear, in this correspondence Malthus was conveying his surprise that the Irish economy was not as bad as he had been led to expect. He commented earlier in the letter that "[t]hough the distress was certainly great, it was I think on the whole less than I expected." Referring particularly to the south, where he had toured through Tipperary, Waterford, Kerry, and Limerick, Malthus noted that "great marks of improvement were observable." It is in this context that Malthus undertook his observation on the Irish population that Mokyr cites. In this section of the letter, Malthus was reflection not on overpopulation and hunger, but rather on employment and wages. He noted that Ireland possesses "a population greatly in excess above the demand for labor." In this context, Malthus went on to make an economic argument concerning the distribution of labor "[t]he Land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the this population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns."[11] In examining the unedited quotation, it is clearer why Malthus emphasized the word Land in his letter, to very explicitly contrast it to the towns mentioned in the frequently elided ending phrase. The central issue here for Malthus was not the absolute scale of the population of Ireland, but rather its concentration in agriculture rather than industry. As this example well illustrates, the tendency to misread Malthus as a Malthusian is strong, especially in the wake of the Great Hunger.[12]
I'm not sure what he means about misreading "Malthus as a Malthusian". But in any case, Zubrin lowercased the word "Land" (I'm unsure what is italicized in the original which I don't have a copy of), Zubrin omitted the context, and Zubrin incorrectly presented the quote as ending on the word "soil" without revealing that Malthus wanted to sweep them off the Land into Towns for economic reasons, rather than wanting genocide as Zubrin falsely implies. Overall, it means one thing and Zubrin misquoted it to mean something else very different.

Malthus False Summary

In short, Malthus argued that we should do whatever we can to encourage disease, and we should condemn doctors who try to find cures. In addition, everything should be done to keep the wages of working people as low as possible.[4]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 137-138). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
And the source on that:
3 Thomas Malthus, Essay on Population, 6th ed. (London: John Murray, 1826), bk. IV, chap. 5,300–301.
4 Ibid., bk. iii, chap.7, especially 371–375; ibid., bk. iv, chap. 1.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 3716-3718). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
So, to see if Zubrin's summary was accurate, I read those chapters (3.7 and 4.1), in the 6th edition from 1826. They are available here:

Principle of Population Bk.III Ch.VII

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.I

One of the problems here is it's hard to tell which text the citation is intended to cover. At first I thought it was covering both sentences. But what Zubrin says here about disease and doctors isn't in the cited chapters (3.7 and 4.1). I've now figured out the disease sentence is referring to the previous misquote (in which Malthus suggests we "court the return of the plague"). Whereas the wages sentence, which looks like it goes with the disease sentence, is actually separate and refers to a different part of the book, found in the footnote.

So far this is confusing but not actually a very big deal (though bear in mind that his summary about Malthus wanting to "encourage disease" is just as completely false as the implications of out of context quote. This is a summary only of Zubrin's total misreading of his misquote). But it gets worse. Zubrin summarized Malthus, "In addition, everything should be done to keep the wages of working people as low as possible." That is absolutely not what Malthus says in the cited chapters (3.7 and 4.1), which I read through specifically to check for this.

Zubrin provides primary source citations to give the superficial appearance of having done proper research. But he hasn't; he is misleading his reader. Books should not be traps to fool their readers!

I'd like to show you this with quotes but how do I quote Malthus to demonstrate that his text lacks the statements Zubrin says it has? Click the links and search them yourself on words like "wages", "low" or "possible". I did that in addition to reading the full chapters. Zubrin's claim about keeping wages as low as possible is just not there; Zubrin made it up and then falsely represented it as a summary of Malthus.

The closest Malthus comes is some economic arguments about how you can't make the poor rich with minimum wage laws. These bear no resemblance to Zubrin's supposed summary, but maybe Zubrin (who does not understand economics and praised minimum wage laws twice in the book) confused Malthus discussing facts of economics for Malthus trying to keep wages for the poor low. That's my best guess at what happened but there is really no excuse.

I'll try to give you a sense of what Malthus actually said when he talked about wages in 3.7 (I don't know why 4.1 was cited, it doesn't even mention wages and is irrelevant):
What I have really proposed is a very different measure. It is the gradual and very gradual abolition of the poor-laws. And the reason why I have ventured to suggest a proposition of this kind for consideration is my firm conviction, that they have lowered very decidedly the wages of the labouring classes, and made their general condition essentially worse than it would have been if these laws had never existed. [...]

To remedy the effects of this competition from the country, the artificers and manufacturers in towns have been apt to combine, with a view to keep up the price of labour, and to prevent persons from working below a certain rate. But such combinations are not only illegal, but irrational and ineffectual; and if the supply of workmen in any particular branch of trade be such as would naturally lower wages, the keeping them up forcibly must have the effect of throwing so many out of employment, as to make the expense of their support fully equal to the gain acquired by the higher wages, and thus render these higher wages in reference to the whole body perfectly futile.

It may be distinctly stated to be an absolute impossibility that all the different classes of society should be both well paid and fully employed, if the supply of labour on the whole exceed the demand; and as the poor-laws tend in the most marked manner to make the supply of labour exceed the demand for it, their effect must be, either to lower universally all wages, or, if some are kept up artificially, to throw great numbers of workmen out of employment, and thus constantly to increase the poverty and distress of the labouring classes of society.
Malthus wants to very gradually abolish the poor-laws, which he says have lowered the wages of the labouring classes and made their lives worse. His plan is to improve the lives of the workers and raise their wages by this reform! Zubrin said pretty much the opposite, that Malthus wants wages to be low; actually Malthus wants to improve wages. More generally, Malthus wasn't trying to make the poor miserable or kill them, and actually he wanted to improve their lives (by explaining moral restraint and reforming bad laws. Also by understanding resource limit, population growth and crop yield issues, about which Malthus was mistaken but not evil).

Malthus further discusses minimum wage laws, which he says are illegal, irrational and ineffectual. He tries to explain why they won't help the labourers. He basically says that if you force wages above the market rate, this causes unemployment and doesn't provide more wealth to the poor people overall as a group.

Zubrin's scholarship here was very bad and he misstated what Malthus was saying.

To clear things up about Malthus a bit more, in general, he meant well, at least according to his book (first edition preface):
If he [the author, Malthus himself] should succeed in drawing the attention of more able men, to what he conceives to be the principal difficulty in the way to the improvement of society, and should, in consequence, see this difficulty removed, even in theory, he will gladly retract his present opinions and rejoice in a conviction of his error.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi arrived in Washington in late March and met first with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who handed her a memo requiring “a massive effort to control population growth” as a condition for food aid. Then on March 28, 1966, she met privately with the president. There is no record of their conversation, but it is evident that she capitulated completely.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2508-2510). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
False. Indira Gandhi was already in favor of population control before meeting with Lyndon Johnson. She did not "capitulate". Zubrin presents a false, anti-American picture in which the US pressures Indira Gandhi into semi-betraying her country accepting unwanted population control, in return for food aid (India was having a famine at this time).

Zubrin's anti-American story is based on his imagination, not historical facts. I learned this reading books which Zubrin himself cites, so you might expect him to have read them too. They clearly tell a different story, but Zubrin changed the story to make USA look worse and bias his book to have more of a "USA and other first world countries screw over the third world" slant (which is a theme throughout, with some truth to it, but apparently Zubrin is so committed to this cause that it matters to him more than facts do.)

Here's the real story:

The Coming Population Crash And Out Planet's Surprising Future, by Fred Pearce, p 60 (this is a book Zubrin cites and therefore ought to have read):
Johnson found an unexpected ally: the newly elected Indian prime minister, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. As minister of information, she had run aggressive family planning propaganda for her father. Now she wanted to do more than exhort. After the two leaders met in March 1966, Johnson reported back to Congress... [that they agreed about the population control agenda]
Since I discovered Fred Pearce is himself a poor scholar, I didn't know what to believe yet. So I checked Zubrin's source for this specific passage. It's Fatal Misconception by Matthew Connelly, p 222. Connelly backs up Pearce (and then some), while contradicting Zubrin.

Connelly says nothing about Indira Gandhi capitulating. Instead he says, p 222, "Johnson did not have to insist." Why not? Because of stuff like this, "the local USAID administrator noted that, under Gandhi and Mehta's leadership, 'more punch in very recent weeks is being added tot he Central Government's family planning program.'" Indira Gandhi was already in favor of population control without Johnson having to make her capitulate. The US didn't need to pressure her into it, she already wanted to do it to her own people.

There are more details in Connelly, p 221.
[Indira Gandhi] had wanted to donate her family's ancestral home in Allahabad so that it could become an Institute for Family Planning. As information minister, she had pressed a plan to distribute hundreds of thousands of radios across rural India to transmit family planning information. And Gandhi together with Rama Rau was also among those who had been pressuring Nayar to pay women to accept IUD insertion. [70]
After being elected, "Gandhi's interest in family planning was apparent in her first meeting with Ambassador Bowles. So too was her evident need for American help." Bowles said good relationships would require three things: 1) "peace with Pakistan" 2) "genuine and positive neutrality in the Cold War" 3) Connelly quotes his own source for this one, which says, "pragmatic economic policies ... giving high priority to agriculture, education and population planning." Connelly continues:
Gandhi replied that managing relations on this basis would be any "easy matter," promising to
"press hard on such programs as family planning." On January 25, 1966, the day after she was formally sworn into office, the Ministry of Health was renamed the Ministry of Health and Family Planning, including a separate department with its own permanent secretary and minister of state. [71]
Indira Gandhi did not implement population control measures under US pressure. She didn't capitulate. She was eager to do these things and got started right away, months prior to meeting Johnson. Zubrin misleads us in a way that contradicts his own sources.

Lyndon Johnson

Zubrin tells a story in which Johnson gets in office and then population control advocates want to get him on board with population control and have to persuade him.
To get President Johnson on board, [people showed Johnson a fraudulent study]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Location 2281). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
In passing the study on to Bundy, Komer commented: “Here’s a little flank attack that I think might just penetrate LBJ’s defenses . . . . It might score.”[9]

It did. Johnson bought the claptrap, including the phony mathematical results. Two months later, he declared to the United Nations that “five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” Having succeeded in this policy coup, “Blowtorch” Komer was promoted...

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2287-2290). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
With the Johnson administration now backing population control, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act in 1966...

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2292-2293). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Notice the date of 1966. The thing is, Johnson was already in favor of population control before this. I learned this, again, from a book Zubrin himself cites and presumably read.

The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is a primary source book. California worked in the Johnson administration and tells about it firsthand. It says, p 154:
Previous presidents had either opposed mounting government birth-control programs, finessed the issue, or gingerly approved a little research on population control. Johnson himself had waited until he was elected in his own right to unveil his position. Then, in his January 4, 1965, State of the Union message, Johnson had said, "I will seek new ways to use our knowledge to help deal with the explosion in world population and the growing scarcity in world resources."
So who needs to trick Johnson with a "flank attack" and fraudulent study? He already agreed with their basic agenda enough to advocate it in major public speeches since since at least January 1965. Zubrin presents it as a "policy coup" to trick Johnson into believing a position he'd already been advocating. That's bad historical research, apparently including not paying much attention to Zubrin's own sources.


As we've seen, Zubrin has multiple misquotes and factual inaccuracies in the areas I checked. I fear the rest of the book may have a similar densities of serious errors. It strains credibility that I just happened to choose the only two poorly researched parts to investigate.

UPDATE: I sent this post to Robert Zubrin, author of Merchants of Despair. This is the full text of his reply:
So you are fine with the deaths of millions of Irish and Indians, under the
administration of British Malthusians, the murder of millions of Jews and
Slavs by German Malthusians, and the myriad ongoing worldwide crimes of
other Malthusians ever since.
I guess they were all misquoted too.

Elliot Temple on May 6, 2012

Messages (16)

I have lost all respect for Zubrin

Hi Elliot,

I think your article is an excellent expose of shoddy work by Zubrin, and his response shows what an unbalanced bigot he has become.

You can find my initial reaction to his work at my Exponentialist Blog (where I link to your article).

David Coutts at 3:42 PM on May 28, 2012 | #2149 | reply | quote

Limits on growth

Hi. Thanks. Yes Zubrin's reply is awful and irrational.

FYI I disagree with you about limits on growth. See:


Elliot at 4:05 PM on May 28, 2012 | #2150 | reply | quote

I'm a David Deutsch fan but...

Years ago I read The Fabric Of Reality by Deutsch and just loved it. I haven't read The Beginning of Infinity but I will order it.

At this stage then I am unclear how an Earth made of a finite number of atoms can support an infinite number of humans also made of atoms. It seems totally illogical to me.

I look forward to being enlightened.

David Coutts at 5:25 PM on May 28, 2012 | #2151 | reply | quote

Of course I agree with you that we can't have infinite people made out of atoms, using finite atoms. No matter how small we make the people.

But as I know you know, we aren't stuck on just the Earth. So I don't understand why the Earth's atoms are an issue. The Earth has more than enough atoms for a great deal of progress -- enough for spaceflight and colonization to be much much easier and cheaper.

And currently there's plenty of atoms to go around. As far as atoms go, we could easily have trillions of people. So overpopulation is not an issue. There's tons and tons of unsettled space even here in California, not far away from the Bay Area. To the extent trillions of people wouldn't work well yet, it's due to bad ideas, ignorance, lack of organizational knowledge, lack of wealth, etc, not limited atoms.

In BoI, one of the thought experiments is about living in deep space. Deep space, Deutsch explains, has enough resources *if* we have the knowledge and technology to use them. Whether we thrive in deep space, let alone on the ample supply of planets, is a matter of the quality of our ideas.

And to connect that to your question, ideas are something we have in basically infinite supply. Ideas are the real resource and they are unbounded and they *create* resources out of what used to be non-resources.

Also BoI is not about infinite people (slightly too many, I guess) but infinite progress (with plenty of people -- well that and it's about epistemology, physics, philosophy, math, etc).

Malthus thought the food supply would only grow linearly. But it hasn't and he was mistaken.

Actually I have a question about that. If population was growing exponentially, why wouldn't the food supply grow proportionally as 90% (or whatever) of the new people became new farmers? Until we ran out of land, yes, but before that I don't see why he would think there's an issue. Maybe you can clarify.

Elliot at 5:40 PM on May 28, 2012 | #2152 | reply | quote

Exponentialist web site

Hi Elliot,

Well, I bought the (Kindle edition) of Beginnings of Infinity (before reading your latest response) and after previewing it I can see that whereas Deutsch is discussing - as you put it - infinite progress I am discussing infinite people based on a finite resource base. Limits to Growth do apply to life on Earth, even if we colonise space, as a human population (presumably) remains on Earth.

Nonetheless, BoI still looks like (another) interesting Deutsch book and I don't regret buying it.

Please read my Human Global Ecophagy, or take a general tour through my Exponentialist website:


Read my article on Drexler for a better understanding of how limits to growth apply - but only locally - assuming we do colonise space.

I agree with your criticism of Malthus and make exactly the same point on my web site.

The short explanation is that Malthus' argument contained incompatible logical elements. On the one hand he argues that population grows exponentially whereas food supply grows linearly. Yet in his infamous Essay On The Principle of Population he clearly also provides examples (grain and sheep) of food supply growing exponentially.

Think about it...all food grows in populations and Malthus has already stated population grows exponentially (and that this is a universal law not just for human populations). Hence, rather than the exponential series for population (1,2, 4, 8 etc) "trumping" the linear series for food supply (1, 2, 3, 4 etc), we should see the exponential series for population being (mostly) matched by the exponential series for food supply supply. We do.

So you'd think Malthus has completely lost his argument. Not quite.

It all depends, for any discrete population, whether or not the exponential series for food supply matches the exponential series for the population being fed. If food exceeds population then nobody starves, and the mismatch may lead to problems like obesity if sustained, but not famine. On the other hand, if population exceeds food supply then a mismatch in two exponential series is just as devastating as a Mallthusian mismatch between linear food supply and exponential population growth. For example, food supply (say, in millions) might only be 1, 2, 4 (for whatever reason) whereas population might over the same time period be 1, 2, 4, 8. Now we have a famine scenario with a food shortfall of 4 million - result...localised famine.

Hence, my revised Malthusian explanation is that all populations of all species grow exponentially all of the time via variable rate compound interest all of the time (allowing for both positive and negative rates).

Once you pit exponential forces against one another (total food population[s] versus human population[s]) then you sometimes get localised human famine. The same applies for all populations of other species, with their own food supply populations.

But limits to growth always apply and so in local environments such as Earth we will need to learn how to live within limits to growth whilst at the same time exploring all possibilities for expanding human life (and potentially all life) beyond Earth.



David Coutts at 6:48 PM on May 28, 2012 | #2153 | reply | quote

While limits of various types apply in all finite contexts, I don't see the value in emphasizing this and I do not see shortages of atoms or living space in the foreseeable human future, or actually ever. I also don't see any special reason to remain on Earth once technology is sufficiently far advanced -- these particular atoms don't strike me as having long term importance.

I think there is a general philosophical flaw in the way of thinking behind your and Malthus' argument. I want to criticize one particular sentence because I think it can help reveal differences in how we think about people.

> If food exceeds population then nobody starves, and the mismatch may lead to problems like obesity if sustained, but not famine.

Logically the intended point here is fine, but I disagree that food surpluses lead to obesity. They *allow for* obesity, I will grant, but that's different.

Whether people become obese is a matter of their choices and ideas. Food surpluses will never make anyone obese, they will have to choose to overeat. Human choice is the central thing in whether anyone becomes obese or not.

Similarly, famines can be predicted and people can choose not to have children they can't feed. (As Malthus himself advised!) So famine from population growth isn't something inevitable and out of our control.

I think it's crucial not to leave the human choices out of one's analysis and thinking. Malthus does it when he says population grows exponentially. How it grows depends on how many children people choose to have, and also whether they believe in freedom or choose to meddle in other people's families as in China and India.

In BoI, Deutsch criticizes the same type of thinking in a different form. Someone said humanity has a 50/50 chance to survive the next century. But our future is a matter of human choices not chance. It's in our control, not something that just happens to us.

Elliot at 7:11 PM on May 28, 2012 | #2154 | reply | quote

Then we agree to disagree


"If food exceeds population then nobody starves, and the mismatch may lead to problems like obesity if sustained, but not famine. "

My sentence does, in fact, include the word "may"

which can be reasonably taken to infer "allow for" obesity. Yet you state "Logically the intended point here is fine, but I disagree that food surpluses lead to obesity." which is not my claim (..that food surpluses [automatically] lead to obesity).

My logic is just fine, thanks.

You then focus on this fallacious point as if it's the most significant part of my argument which is it not. No single comment on my revision of Malthus' theory?

I know what Malthus advised re moral restraint as I've read Malthus in detail whereas I thought I read that you had not...in fact Malthus was opposed to "meddling" in other people's families (as in China and India). Malthus was opposed to contraception, even though his writing so influenced Francis Place (1771-1854) that he wrote the first book advocating contraception in 1822.

I do not, in fact, ignore human choice in anything I have written.

However, the main area where we disagree, and I will no doubt also disagree with Deutsch, is your assertions ([which mirror Deutsch's):

"While limits of various types apply in all finite contexts, I don't see the value in emphasizing this and I do not see shortages of atoms or living space in the foreseeable human future, or actually ever. I also don't see any special reason to remain on Earth once technology is sufficiently far advanced -- these particular atoms don't strike me as having long term importance."

I never asserted that we, as a species, would be restricted to Earth. I agree that sufficiently advanced technology would allow our species to spread beyond Earth. This should already be clear. What is not yet clear is whether such technologies will be sufficiently available before we begin to overrun the resource base known as the Earth. I hope so.

However, it's your first sentence that's the real problem. History is replete with examples of human populations overrunning their local resource base with periodic localised famines being the result.

Deutsch may well criticise this "same type of thinking", and yes it is often in our control, but not as much as you'd both like to think. Famines occur despite human choice. Roughly one billion people today are starving, despite human choice.

Deutsch, perhaps deliberately, chooses to ignore the evidence in order to favour his own incomplete hypothesis (he ignores the real world of atoms and limits to growth). I'll read his book carefully, but that's the impression I get. Probably only 4 stars on Amazon from me (I read your review - 5 out of 5).

Anyway, I'll leave it there as I think we'll just have to agree to disagree on this last point that human societies have regularly overrun their resource base (and will continue to do so) with resulting periodic localised famines being the regular result....despite human choice.



David Coutts at 10:49 PM on May 28, 2012 | #2155 | reply | quote

Food surpluses do not lead to obesity though, so "may" is still wrong -- there is no way that they may do that. It's overeating that causes obesity (and a few genetic conditions, surgery to implant fat, etc). Food surpluses do not ever cause humans to choose to overeat, human ideas do that.

Regarding resources, the more we have used, the more we have. We have more resources available for use now than any time previously. Humans create useful resources and more people can create more useful resources out of non-useful things (of which there are plenty, there is no atoms shortage). When in the past societies have failed for what you consider lack of resources, they certainly had plenty of atoms, but they didn't know how to use most of them. Their issue was more like *accessible* resources, which is a matter of innovation, technology, etc, which are unlimited.

All famines and starvation today are caused by human choices (which often have results other than those intended), not by resource limits. We have the technology to grow more than enough food for the current Earth's population. When we don't grow that much, or we don't distribute it to everyone, or we turn a bunch of it into biofuels, that is a matter of human choices and ideas, not resource limits. Starvation, given today's technology, gets caused by things like violence, bad political systems, restrictions on trade, lack of defense of property rights, waste, and so on. It has nothing to do with acres of fertile cropland worldwide, nor with some pests destroying a portion of crops grown (which, by the way, would happen a lot less if not for the bad ideas reducing the use of better varieties of crops deemed "unnatural").

Elliot at 11:59 PM on May 28, 2012 | #2156 | reply | quote

Famine desipite human choice

David Coutts, you said: "[...] human societies have regularly overrun their resource base (and will continue to do so) with resulting periodic localised famines being the regular result....despite human choice."

You are using historical trends of human choice to predict future human choices; Popper called this historicism, and refuted it. BoI calls such predictions prophecies. It is prophecy because you are assuming that in the future we will not create new ideas that change the historical trends.

The reality is that in the far future (100 or 10,000 years), humans will choose better because they will have better ideas about how to live good lives.

Rami Rustom at 12:05 PM on September 21, 2012 | #2162 | reply | quote

More about Zubrin's book

I wish I had known about this a year ago. You've done a good job on Zubrin's misuse of Malthus quotes.

However, I think you are wrong about the rest. When you write, in your first paragraph, "Topics I already knew something about (DDT, nuclear power, Julian Simon's bet about resource prices) seemed correct when I first read them. I think the book is approximately correct in general claims..." you miss a great deal. Of course your disclaimer is appropriate and gets you off the hook; you did not check those topics.

I have checked some of them, and I find Zubrin badly wrong on DDT and Rachel Carson, and on climate change in general. Also, his choice of sources on the latter topic is suspect.

If you're curious, my review is here:


It links to supporting material.

Christopher Winter at 5:27 PM on May 24, 2014 | #2303 | reply | quote

I took a glance at your post but I didn't see any information to change my mind about DDT (which I am in favor of). You didn't seem to talk about DDT much. For info on what I think about DDT, see:


If this is wrong, I'd be interested in information, but it'd need to go into detail.

I suspect you came here expecting us to be on the same side. But I'm in favor of industrial progress, DDT, nuclear power, etc. I criticized Merchants because I care about scholarship, but I don't think the opponents of Merchants in general have acceptable scholarship either.

If you want to debate the issues, I'm open to it.

Elliot Temple at 11:03 PM on May 24, 2014 | #2304 | reply | quote

More about DDT

You "took a glance" at my post? Did you read the material at the last link ("Zubrin the Zealot")? That's where I talk about how Zubrin treats the issue of DDT and Rachel Carson.

(NOTE: I've reorganized my site. The review is now here:)


If you thought my intent was to condemn the use of DDT, you are mistaken. DDT has great value when properly used, as when it is applied to interiors of homes in Africa and used with bed nets. However, it has been over-used, and this has led to resistance in both mosquitoes and the malaria parasite.

For the record, I am also in favor of nuclear power -- if that is done in well-designed and competently operated plants. In the US, current PWR and BWR designs have a fair track record, but I think they should be phased out and replaced by Gen-IV designs.

Christopher Winter at 9:12 AM on August 3, 2014 | #2348 | reply | quote

So, you linked the wrong material in both your previous and current comments, while suggesting that you agree with Rachel Carson? Then act confrontationally towards me because I didn't read material at a different link that you didn't initially mention and didn't name in a way relating to DDT?

As to your comments:

Your position on DDT is: talk about DDT being over-used at a time when millions have been dying from its under-use, while not mentioning the main issue (anti-DDT irrationality, regulations, pressure)?

And your position on nuclear power is: don't mention the huge issue (too few plants, regulations preventing it, irrational fear of nuclear waste and meltdown), instead talk about phasing out existing plants in favor of new ones (ignoring that new ones mostly aren't being built, and why, and costs/prices)?

As to your DDT material on your website, I read one part of it where you gave a claim (along Silent Spring lines) sourced only to your own review of some other book. For the details, you gave a link and instructed that once there people should click on a different link, which you apparently decided not to link directly. And the link doesn't work. If you want to be taken seriously, do a better job.

Elliot at 10:36 AM on August 3, 2014 | #2349 | reply | quote

My Opinion of Merchants of Despair

FYI I think lots of the ideas in Merchants of Despair are good ideas despite the shoddy scholarship. I like the book.

Elliot Temple at 12:30 PM on September 16, 2017 | #9034 | reply | quote

I'm a David Deutsch fan but..

#2151 >At this stage then I am unclear how an Earth made of a finite number of atoms can support an infinite number of humans also made of atoms. It seems totally illogical to me.

You evade mans volitional mind with its virtually unlimited creativity. Material causes are not volitional causes.

Abe Nosh at 2:19 PM on January 2, 2020 | #15013 | reply | quote

There are atoms outside earth

Anonymous at 9:30 AM on January 3, 2020 | #15016 | reply | quote

Want to discuss this? Join my forum.

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