Wednesday, February 01, 2023

To the Last Breath: Population Growth, Superabundance, and the Problem of Oxygen on the Earth and Beyond the Earth

While I am in my office this morning before dawn thinking about the mind's dependence on oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere, I hear my 94-year-old mother-in-law in her bedroom a few steps away from my office struggling against death as she labors to breathe. 

I am reading a new book by Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley--Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet.  Tupy and Pooley challenge the common belief of many people throughout history that there must be an inverse relationship between population growth and available natural resources, so that as population grows, resources become increasingly scarce.  In his 1798 book Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus presented the most influential statement of this idea:  while population grows geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, . . .), food production grows arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, . . .), and consequently growing population must eventually outstrip food production, and many people must then starve to death.  The modern ecological and environmentalist version of this argument is that the unprecedented growth of world population, which recently surpassed 8 billion people, has long ago exceeded the supply of natural resources necessary to support this huge human population: such a population growth is "unsustainable."  For example, the Global Footprint Network has developed the Ecological Footprint as a measurement of human demand for natural resources.  They estimate that the world currently needs the resources of 1.75 Earths to satisfy the human demand for natural resources, and by 2030, this could rise to 2 Earths.  Obviously, they insist, since we have only 1 Earth, this proves that Malthus was right, because we have now gone beyond the Malthusian limit to human population growth; and to avoid ecological collapse, we must either severely reduce the human population, or we must severely reduce our high modern standard of living that is depleting the Earth's natural resources.

Tupy and Pooley argue that this is not really true.  Over the 225 years since the publication of Malthus's book, there has been a stunning increase in the global human population--from about 900 million in 1800 to over 8 billion today--and yet the Malthusian prediction of apocalyptic catastrophe from unchecked population growth has not come true.  The mistaken thinking in the Malthusian argument became clear in the debate between Paul Ehrlich and Juian Simon.

I have written previously about this debate and how it confirms the evolution of human progress through the Liberal Enlightenment.


In 1968, Ehrlich (a biologist at Stanford) began his popular book The Population Bomb with this paragraph:

"The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970's the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.  At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to 'stretch' the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production.  But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.  Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual families, but of society as a whole" (11).

Ehrlich's Malthusian prediction of catastrophe from unchecked population growth did not come true. Norman Borlaug's development of new high-yield varieties of food grains--the "green revolution"--allowed high-population countries like India to produce so much food in the 1970s that they actually became exporters of grain.  And while the world population in 1968 was three and one half billion, the world population today is over 8 billion, and yet the rate of global famine and poverty is much lower today than in 1968.

This confirms the prediction of Julian Simon--in contrast to Ehrlich--that population growth does not lead to a shortage of resources, because a growing population means not only more labor but also more ideas about how to solve our problems, and as long as there are the incentives of a free market economy, people will make resources more plentiful through more efficient uses of resources, increased supply, and the development of substitutes.  Consequently, Simon argued, a growing population creates not scarcity but abundance!

In 1980, Simon challenged Ehrlich to make a bet with him.  Ehrlich could select a basket of raw materials that he expected would become less abundant and consequently more expensive over some designated time period.  At the end of that time period, the inflation adjusted price of those materials would be calculated.  If the price was higher, Ehrlich would win the wager.  If the price was lower, Simon would win.  Ehrlich chose copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten; and he chose 1980 to 1990 as the time period.  By 1990, the world population had increased by 873 million from 1980, but all five of the commodities that Ehrlich had selected had declined in price by an average of 57.6 per cent.  Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07.

Some of Ehrlich's supporters have tried to argue that Simon was just lucky, because if they had selected a different time period, Ehrlich could have won the bet.  But in 2016, some economists pointed out that in 2015 Ehrlich's five metals were 22.4 percent cheaper than they were in 1980.

Recently, Gale Pooley and Marian Tupy have developed a new way to measure the availability of resources, which confirms Simon's argument.  They have compiled the latest price data for 50 important commodities covering energy, food, materials, and metals.  They then have calculated the "time-price" of these commodities--in terms of the global average hourly income, the "time-price" is the amount of time that an average human has to work in order to earn enough money to buy a commodity.  By that standard, the real price of Ehrlich's minerals has declined in every year from 1980 to the present.  Pooley and Tupy also found that from 1980 to 2018, the real price of their basket of 50 commodities fell by 36.3 percent, and the time-price fell by 71.6 percent.  As compared with workers in 1980, workers in 2018 were able to buy some 252 percent more goods and services with their hours of work. Over that same period, population rose by 71.2 percent.  Thus, a huge increase in population brought not a scarcity of resources, as Malthus and Ehrlich would predict, but a huge increase in resources, which is what Pooley and Tupy call "superabundance" (1-2).

Their explanation for why Simon won his bet with Ehrlich is based on their Hayekian understanding of how the price system works to generate abundance:

"The relationship between prices and innovation is dynamic.  Relative scarcity leads to higher prices, higher prices create incentives for innovations, and innovations lead to abundance.  Scarcity gets converted to abundance through the price system.  The price system functions as long as the economy is based on property rights, rule of law, and free exchange" (5).

As long as the price system functions in a free society, the ultimate resource is not the material resources of the Earth but the intellectual resources of the human mind.  Increasing population means more minds with new ideas for solving problems, and the pricing system provides the incentives for people to try out their ideas, and the best ideas will prevail in the marketplace.

As I have argued in a previous post, this shows how classical liberals recognize that liberty promotes the growth of population.  Many thinkers of the Liberal Enlightenment in the 18th century saw this.

David Hume, for example, in his long essay on "Of the Populouness of Ancient Nations," criticized ancient nations for having a lower growth in population than modern nations, and he argued: "every wise, just, and mild government, by rendering the condition of its subjects easy and secure, will always abound most in people, as well as in commodities and riches. . . . if every thing else be equal, it seems natural to expect, that, wherever there are most happiness and virtue, and the wisest institutions, there will also be most people" (Essays, Liberty Fund, p. 382).  Hume believed that population was growing faster in modern nations than in ancient nations because there was more liberty in modern nations: "human nature, in general, really enjoys more liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of Europe, than it ever did during the most flourishing period of ancient times" (383).  After all, the primary difference between the economic life of the ancients and that of the moderns was the practice of slavery among the ancients.  Like Hume, Etienne Damilaville, in his article on "Population" in the French Encyclopedia, edited by Diderot and d'Alembert, claimed that liberty fosters a growing population, because "it is under mild, limited governments, where the rights of humanity are respected, that men will become numerous" (Encyclopedic Liberty, Liberty Fund, p. 502).  It was this belief that growing population was a sign of human progress in a free society that was challenged by Malthus.

In his Foreword to Tupy and Pooley's book, George Gilder explains this Malthusian pessimism about population growth leading to a scarcity of resources as based on the "materialist superstition."

"The materialist superstition is this:  that wealth consists of things rather than thoughts, of accumulated capital rather than accumulated knowledge--that people are chiefly consumers rather than creators, mouths rather than minds."

". . . Thomas Sowell, expounding the argument that wealth is essentially knowledge, not material resources, wrote, 'The cavemen had the same natural resources at their disposal as we have today, and the difference between their standard of living and ours is a difference between the knowledge they could bring to bear on those resources and the knowledge used today.'"

What we need, Gilder observes, is an "economics of mind" that recognizes that wealth arises "not by accumulating matter but by replacing it with mind" (xvi-xvii).

This elevation of mind over matter as the source of wealth is only partially true, however, because it ignores the simple fact that minds depend on matter, and particularly matter as it exists in the biosphere of the Earth today.  It is not clear, therefore, that the "economics of mind" has any application to anywhere in the Universe beyond the ecological conditions of the Earth today.


What I mean by "matter" is displayed in Charles Cockell's "Astrobiological Periodic Table of Elements":

A larger image of this Table can be found online, which is easier to read.  Or you can click on this image to enlarge it.

I should say here that I am speaking of "matter" in the ordinary sense, which ignores the Dark Matter hypothesized to exist by many scientists, which might be over 95% of the matter in the Universe.  This exotic form of matter has no direct relevance to life.

Mind depends on matter in the sense that mind can exist only through a particular combination and structure of these elements.  For example, the element oxygen with atomic number 8 is essential for the human mind.  If my mother-in-law is deprived of oxygen for more than a few minutes, she will die, and her mind will disappear, because her brain cannot function without a steady supply of oxygen.  For that reason, we have a tank of oxygen next to her bed, so that we can artificially increase her oxygen.  The elements sodium with atomic number 11 and potassium with atomic number 19 are also essential for the brain, because the sodium-potassium pump found in the membrane of all animal cells provides energy for the firing of nerve cells.  My mother-in-law's low levels of sodium and potassium have caused her to be mentally confused, and so we have been trying to increase her intake of those elements.

Studying the Astrobiological Periodic Table tells us a lot about the material basis of the human mind and life, and how the Earth's biosphere might be unique in the Universe as the one place adapted for supporting human intelligent life, if only for a few million years.

Except for the artificial elements that must be artificially created in laboratories, the other elements found in nature originate from the astrophysics of the Universe--from the Big Bang, low mass stars, high mass stars, supernovae, or cosmic rays.  Most of these elements can have some use in supporting some kind of life.  But six of them are essential in all known life--carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur (known by the acronym CHNOPS).  Carbon is the most versatile backbone of molecules, which is why we speak of "carbon-based" life.

That all of these elements supporting life are found throughout the Universe might suggest that life is pervasive in the Universe.  But actually life requires a structuring of these elements that seems unique to the Earth beginning about 3.5 billion years ago.  If there is any extraterrestrial life, it has yet to be found.  Even if it is found, it is likely to be limited to microbial life, because the conditions for multicellular plant and animal life are so difficult to achieve.

Even life on Earth is likely to endure for what will be only a brief moment in the history of the Universe.  From what we know about the evolution of stars, we can foresee that the Sun will turn into a Red Giant star several billion years from now, and the Earth will be a dead planet.  Even before then, the increasing luminosity of the Sun will extinguish all animals and then all plants.

As indicated in some previous posts, all animal life, including human life, depends on the energy derived from breathing the atmospheric oxygen generated by oxygenic photosynthetic organisms such as plants, algae, and cyanobacteria.    There was little oxygen in the atmosphere until about 2.4 billion years ago, when photosynthetic cyanobacteria began to raise the level of oxygen, and now oxygen is about twenty percent of the atmosphere. 

Electrons are the source of energy for all life.  Like other aerobic organisms, we eat organic carbon as the electron donor, and we breathe in atmospheric oxygen as the electron receptor.  The electron transport chain in the membranes of our cells forms ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which is the universal energy currency for life.  This all depends on photosynthesis creating organic carbon and atmospheric oxygen.

Only a few kinds of organisms can live independently of photosynthesis.  Methanogens (microorganisms that produce methane) live in the deep subsurface of the Earth.  They use hydrogen as an electron donor and carbon dioxide as both an electron acceptor and a source of carbon for making methane (one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms).  Methanogens might show us the evolution of the first metabolisms, and we might look for that on other planets.

If there were not enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, photosynthesis would shut down.  Right now, that doesn't seem to be a problem because human activity has been raising the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past two centuries.  But scientists project that over the longer term--somewhere between a hundred million and a billion years into the future--this carbon dioxide will disappear, photosynthesis will then stop, and all the life that depends on photosynthesis on the planet will die.

If we're lucky, we can hope to prolong the life of our species and other species for a few more centuries or millennia.  But we cannot hope to prolong life forever, because we live in an evolving universe that does not care about us or for us, and the evolutionary conditions sustaining human life and all living beings are enduring but not eternal.  Eventually, everything we love and everything that lives will die, and the Earth will become just another dead planet.  That's what Leo Strauss identified as "the most terrible truth" of Lucretian evolutionary atomism.

But surely, we might hope, long before the extinction of life on Earth, human beings will have colonized other planets, perhaps even beyond the Solar System.  And if they establish free societies with pricing systems that reward innovative ideas for promoting a flourishing life on those planets, then they can generate the superabundance that sustains growing populations, and human life will proliferate in the Universe beyond the Earth.


But as we have seen, astrobiologists like Charles Cockell warn that achieving such extraterrestrial liberty will require that we solve the "problem of oxygen."  Cockell worries that the extreme conditions in the universe beyond the Earth's biosphere--especially, the lack of oxygen in a breathable atmosphere--will tend to promote tyranny, because those who control the technology for supplying oxygen and the other basic commodities necessary for life (such as water and food) will have tyrannical power over those dependent on this technology of life support.  To counter this tendency to extraterrestrial tyranny, he lays out proposals for how the liberal institutions for promoting liberty on Earth could be applied to the design of human settlements in space, particularly on Mars, the one planet most like the Earth.  As is characteristic of classical liberalism, he looks for ways to limit, divide, and decentralize power to protect liberty and avoid tyranny.

Consider how one might solve the problem of oxygen on Mars in a way that could promote liberty rather than tyranny.  Compared with the Earth, the atmosphere of Mars is very thin, and most of it--95%--is carbon dioxide.  It has only trace levels of oxygen (0.174%).  The Malthusian would conclude that such a severe scarcity of a natural resource necessary for human life must make human habitation on Mars impossible.

It is possible, however, to build machines that can extract oxygen from atmospheric carbon dioxide--by splitting carbon dioxide molecules into oxygen and carbon monoxide, so that the oxygen atoms combine to form gaseous oxygen.  NASA built such a machine--the MOXIE (Mars OXygen In-situ resource utilization Experiment) for the NASA Mars Perseverance rover.  On April 20, 2021, this machine successfully produced oxygen on Mars.  This demonstrated in principle that we could build personal oxygen machines for Mars that could be individually owned and mass produced.  A free-market pricing system with private property rights could create incentives for developing the most efficient machines.  And as long as the production and distribution of these machines is decentralized, there should be no central control of these machines that could be used for tyrannical power.

While this illustrates how mind depends on matter (the mind's need for oxygen), it also illustrates how mind creates innovative ideas about how to better secure those material resources such as oxygen, and how this can be done best through a pricing system that secures human life and liberty, and the growth of human populations, even on Mars.


Barto of the Oratory said...

I'm confused.
From reading Darwin, I have gotten the impression that Darwin held that Mathus' theory of scarcity is an absolutely necessary component of Darwin's theory of evolution.
It seems that if a person rejects or doubts Malthus' theory of scarcity, then he or she is in essence rejecting Darwin's theory of evolution, and therefore stands in need of a different theory to explain the origin of species.
Isn't it true that if Malthus' theory of scarcity is extracted from Darwin's theory, then the integrity and coherence of Darwin's theory is destroyed, just as assuredly as if the theory of Natural Selection were extracted from Darwin's theory?

Larry Arnhart said...

In the DESCENT OF MAN, Darwin makes it clear that human moral and social progress comes primarily not from evolution by natural selection but cultural evolution.

"With civilized nations, as far as an advanced standard of morality, and an increased number of fairly good men are concerned, natural selection apparently effects but little; though the social instincts were originally thus gained. But I have already said enough, whilst treating of the lower races, on the causes which lead to the advance of morality; namely, the approbation of our fellow-men--the strengthening of our sympathies by habit--example and imitation--reason--experience, and even self-interest--instruction during youth, and religious feelings."

That the Earth today supports a population of over 8 billion people is a consequence not of natural selection but of cultural evolution and symbolic niche construction based on the liberal ideas of free trade, free markets, and a pricing system.

Roger Sweeny said...

@ Barto of the Oratory - People often invoke Malthus or use the word Malthusian to refer to two different things.

One is the mathematical statement "Population increases geometrically (1 2 4 8 16) while food production increases arithmetically (1 2 3 4 5), so population will always outstrip food production." This is historically inaccurate and not necessary for Darwin's theory of Natural Selection.

The second is less confining. It is the idea that in almost every generation, more new living things are created--more animals are born, more seeds germinate--than can survive. A wolf pair might have a litter of 6 puppies and none of them survive. If they have 5 litters over their lifetime (30 puppies in all), on average, 28 of them will not reproduce!

Darwin's theory then requires that some times, the ones that survive and reproduce are different from the ones that don't. Specifically, they have genes that make survival and reproduction more likely. As long as conditions change and/or genes mutate, the species will change. Eventually the nth generation will be different enough to be considered a new species.

Just as capitalism is a profit AND LOSS system, Natural Selection requires some members of a species to live and other members of that species to die without reproducing. In most cases, the number of the latter is greater, maybe much greater, than the former.

The ones who die generally suffer from lack of food. They may die directly of starvation. Or, because they are weak from inadequate food, they may die of disease or from not being able to escape a predator. Any situation where population outruns resources can be considered Malthusian. Malthus was very concerned that this would happen naturally and that it would cause great death. It does and it drives evolution by Natural Selection. In fact, Darwin specifically said that reading Malthus got him thinking that way.

Barto of the Oratory said...

1. Professor Arnhart: Thank you very much for that quotation from Darwin's DESCEENT OF MAN, which included this:
"With civilized nations, as far as an advanced standard of morality, and an increased number of fairly good men are concerned, natural selection apparently effects but little..."
2. I was not aware of that passage, and I appreciate knowing of it.
3. But I can't help wondering if that passage is consistent with this other passage from DESCENT OF MAN:
“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world.”

Larry Arnhart said...

I have written many posts on this passage.

Barto of the Oratory said...

1. I am frankly shocked--shocked at my own ignorance and the ignorance of many who speak and write about Darwin’s discoveries.
2. Until I read this blog article, I had no idea that Charles Darwin stated the view “natural selection apparently effects but little” “With civilized nations.”
3. Wow! Charles Darwin himself said that the biological mechanism of “Scarcity+Variation+Natural Selection=New Species” no longer operates among human beings of the civilized variety. That’s big! How did I never come across that before?
4. Practically everyone, including apparently well-educated people, use the term “Darwinian” to refer to the operation of natural selection (among human beings and other biological beings).
5. This common understanding of the term “Darwinian” is one of the causes of rejection of the sciences of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology.
6. Practically everyone (including, I dare say, many Ph.D.s in biological and social sciences) think of a “Darwinian” worldview as one that views the wars of aggression and genocide carried out by the Hitler-led government as being either justified or inevitable.
7. I see that, up until now, I have been misunderstanding the title of this blog, “Darwinian Conservatism.”
8. So, I am thankful to this blog and to Dr. Arnhart for this information. It’s good to have one’s ignorance corrected! I learned something important here!
9. I will never again refer to Charles Darwin as an authority for the proposition that natural selection, survival of the fittest, and Malthusian scarcity are dynamics that go on among civilized human beings.
10. But now I wonder: Was Darwin correct in his statement that the biological mechanism of “Scarcity+Variation+Natural Selection=New Species” no longer operates (or operates “but little”) among human beings of the civilized variety? Does the weight of the evidence really support this view?
11. As I understand it, one way Darwin disagreed with Alfred Wallace (who some characterize as the co-discover with Darwin of the scientific theory of evolution) is that Wallace thought that natural selection could not produce human faculties such as morality. Wallace thought something like God or some supernatural intelligence or will had to be involved in endowing human beings with faculties such as morality.
12. But Darwin said that the “Scarcity+Variation+Natural Selection=New Species” dynamic/mechanism could and did fully develop civilized morality in human beings.
13. But, says Darwin (as I now understand him), once that civilized morality was in place, the “Scarcity+Variation+Natural Selection=New Species” mechanism ceased operation (or operated “but little”).
14. I find that rather surprising, and hard to immediately accept. There would need to be a great deal of evidence, carefully marshalled, to show that the “Scarcity+Variation+Natural Selection=New Species” mechanism is pervasive in all biological beings except one: the civilized Homo Sapiens.
15. Does the evidence and careful argumentation therefrom really exist to justify Darwin’s statement that “natural selection apparently effects but little” “With civilized nations”? I don’t know. I hope to know someday.
16. Thanks again to this blog for helping me see that this is even an issue to explore.

Larry Arnhart said...

What we see in Darwin's DESCENT is that he anticipated the modern theory of cultural group selection. We need to explain the evolutionary history of humanity at three levels: natural history, cultural history, and individual history. In shaping the nature of the human species, natural selection constrained and enabled, but did not determine, cultural history and individual history. I have written about this in various posts (such as the post on June 8th, 2021).

Barto of the Oratory said...

1. Darwin writes in DESCENT OF MAN: "With highly civilised nations continued progress depends in a subordinate degree on natural selection; for such nations do not supplant and exterminate one another as do savage tribes."
2. I find it hard to see how this dictum is not contradicted by the case of the highly civilized European Caucasians (in Germany, Austria, Denmark, France, Poland, Hungary, Italy, etc.) in the 1940s working strenuously to exterminate the highly civilized European Jews. The Nazis and their supporters in various nations came very close to succeeding with this racial extermination. They were stopped only by the opposing military powers of the USA and the USSR, which were not fighting to save the Jews from extermination.
3. Even today the leaders of Iran routinely make statements that seem to call for the extermination of the Jews living in the State of Israel. Had those Iranian leaders the means, it seems that they would carry out this objective.
4. Putin and his governmental officials in the last year have made numerous threats to annihilate the Western nations, and if the Russian government had the means of doing so without ending their own existence, it seems likely that they would do it without a quiver of conscience.

Jerry Johnson said...

The resource accounting does not take into consideration the costs of continued exploration and refining. If full cost accounting were employed I would think the cost structure of every single commodity would soar.

Larry Arnhart said...


How does this apply to the "time-price" of commodities? Can the "full cost" of all commodities soar while the "time-price" drops?