Peter Gleick Sticks Up for Malthusianism
2018 Sagan Prize winner, Peter Gleick, has written a review of Michael Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never and it’s been getting a lot of links from Shellenberger’s critics. He starts out with a description of the two opposed philosophies of Cornucopianism and Malthusianism and how they apply to environmentalism. The review is illustrated with side by side drawings of a cornucopia (a horn shaped basket full of goods) and a portrait of Thomas Malthus. A lot of Shellenberger’s criticism of environmentalism is that it’s slipped into an extreme Malthusianism. Malthus is sort of an embarrassment (or should be) for environmentalists. He argued in his famous essay (first published anonymously) that population would grow geometrically and outstrip resources, which only grew arithmetically. One would expect him to be more associated with villains such as Mel Profitt, the Kevin Spacey character in the late ’80s TV series, Wiseguy.
Go to 13 minutes in if it doesn’t start there.
Gleick doesn’t specifically identify as a Malthusian, but he does dismiss Cornucopians with a series of bland links:
Two Cornucopian ideas lie at the heart of this book: The first idea is that there are no real “limits to growth” and environmental problems are the result of poverty and will be solved by having everyone get richer. This idea isn’t original and has long been debunked by others (for a few examples see here, here, here, and here).
The second Cornucopian idea he refers to is Shellenberger’s advocacy of nuclear power. He quotes Shellenberger from the book: “Only nuclear, not solar and wind, can provide abundant, reliable, and inexpensive heat” and “Only nuclear energy can power our high-energy human civilization while reducing humankind’s environmental footprint.” He does not make any counter arguments.
While he severely criticizes the book, he does seem a bit uncharacteristically respectful of Shellenberger as opposed to his usual invective against people he disagrees with such as Donna Laframboise. He wields a lot of nitpicking and hairsplitting over distinctions between concepts like natural disasters and increases in extreme weather. Being something of a water expert, he catches Shellenberger in a technical flub of saying gas plants use 25 to 50 times less water than coal plants. He also points out wind and solar not requiring water as an important omission. Of course, the lions share of any backup for this limited share of the electricity mix will require water. He claims the book is riddled with a variety of such simple errors and that their “number and scope” is “problematic”. I doubt it. Shellenberger was an anthropology major, which is not considered a major STEM field, but he has a very good overview and lots of experience in energy and environmental issues. His arguments for higher energy density and availability are very strong and are his main arguments. If Gleick had anything to counter them, he wouldn’t leave them “beyond the scope of this review”.
He has a remarkable paragraph that sums up his views of Malthusianism vs Cornucopianism:
There is uncertainty about the best path forward. Those who believe the evidence shows our current path crosses dangerous planetary limits and may lead to severe environmental and social disruption can’t prove an apocalyptic future will happen – they’re arguing we must do what we can to avoid it. But neither can Cornucopians prove that narrow technological solutions and unconstrained economic growth will avoid those catastrophic futures. The imbalance of these viewpoints is key however: if Malthusians are wrong, all they would have done is made the world a better place. If Cornucopians are wrong, apocalyptic outcomes are indeed a real possibility.
If Malthusians are wrong, all they would have done is made the world a better place? Really? Does perpetuating energy poverty make the world a better place? If Cornucopians Can’t prevent apocalyptic outcomes, does that mean Malthusians can? I think Malthusians might be likely to cause apocalyptic outcomes. Shellenberger’s Policy prescriptions are based on decades of work and study in the fields of energy and environment. Gleick’s appear to be based on the popular but superficial Joel Pett cartoon.
Gleick quotes H. L. Mencken, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.” I’d like to suggest another Mencken quote that Gleick might consider for self examination:
Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
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