Magazine | June 2, 2014, Issue

The Neo-Malthusians

Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong, by Robert Bryce (PublicAffairs, 400 pp., $27.99)

The earth is changing at a catastrophic rate. Oceans are rising, animals are dying off, and widespread drought and famine are on the horizon.

That’s not a summary of Darren Aronofsky’s big-budget, gnostic-environmentalist film Noah, but of a March report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warns of dire consequences if leading nations do not take steps immediately to curb the effects of climate change and contain the damage already underway.

The report claims, in the words of the New York Times’ summary, that “ice caps are melting, sea ice in the Arctic is collapsing, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying, and fish and many other creatures are migrating toward the poles or in some cases going extinct.”

That sounds pretty bad, but it gets worse. As greenhouse-gas emissions rise, the world’s food supply will come under threat, destabilizing developing countries and disproportionately harming the world’s poor: “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hotspots of hunger,” the report says, warning of widespread death, displacement, and mass migration.

Surely the IPCC’s scientists have an answer, or at least some idea of how to mitigate this impending disaster? Indeed: Major world powers must cut emissions, prepare for things to get worse, and increase aid to poor countries to about $100 billion per year. That last recommendation is designed not just to blunt the effects of climate change but also, presumably, to reduce poor countries’ dependence on the very fossil fuels that began the process of climate change in the first place. In other words, nothing less than a massive international welfare program can spare the world’s poor from the inevitable crop failure, deprivation, and societal collapse that climate change will unleash upon the earth.

An unabashed piece of neo-Malthusian thinking, the 2,500-page report might as well have quoted Thomas Malthus himself, the father of this kind of demographic fatalism, who declared in his work An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) that “the power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

Robert Bryce, whose book Power Hungry (2010) debunked the idea that renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar can be increased sufficiently to satisfy world energy demands, has a serious problem with the neo-Malthusians at the United Nations and elsewhere. His new book elaborates and broadens the arguments set forth in Power Hungry and constitutes a direct assault against the policies of “degrowth” advanced by those who peddle what he calls “collapse anxiety.” The book is also a sustained argument against the fundamentally pessimistic worldview that underlies those policies, a worldview Bryce aims to expose as cruel and dishonest. The world is getting better, not worse, he contends, and the primary reason is that “innovation is allowing us to do more with less”: “We are continually making things and processes Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.” (In an unfortunate attempt at organizational shorthand for his thesis, Bryce capitalizes these terms throughout, calling some technique or other “Smaller Faster,” or “Denser Cheaper.” One almost gets used to it, but not quite.)

Part of the point is to clarify what’s at stake in this debate. The claim that we can and should replace fossil fuels with renewables such as wind and solar is, Bryce says, a “damnable lie” that obscures the far more important question of what we should do to make more energy available to more people, especially “the more than two billion people who are still living in abject energy poverty.” For Bryce, the biggest problem facing the 21st century isn’t what the ideal level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be but how to accelerate the trend toward better, cheaper technology — especially when it comes to energy. Worldwide population growth and the emergence of a middle class in countries such as India and China, he says, will require better technology and more innovation because the world is going to need more energy and more electricity in the years to come — not less.

While he doesn’t deny that carbon dioxide emissions have increased dramatically in recent decades, Bryce argues that this increase is the result of growing electricity demand, mostly in the developing world. About 40 percent of global electricity production comes from coal, so increased demand for electricity in, say, India — where carbon dioxide emissions doubled between 2002 and 2012 — means that India will burn even more coal in the coming years as its population grows, and presumably increase its carbon emissions. The same goes for all developing countries, where a total of about 1.3 billion people currently don’t have access to electricity.

In essence, Bryce presents neo-Malthusian catastrophists with a choice: If climate change is the result of rising global demand for energy, and we all agree that we should address climate change, then world leaders can either limit the available supplies of energy — thus denying billions of the world’s poor the security and prosperity that ample, cheap energy brings — or they can figure out a way to make energy cheaper, denser, lighter, etc.

#page#The former requires replacing fossil fuels with renewables like wind and solar, an approach that effectively “rejects innovation and modern forms of energy [as well as] business and capitalism” — the very things that have done more to alleviate poverty and misery than anything else in human history. (The focus on renewables is trying, in essence, to force innovation in an area — wind and solar — that is today highly inefficient, instead of letting innovation happen naturally, as innovation is wont to do.) Such a policy therefore constitutes “an affront to human ingenuity and aspiration,” because it denies poor countries the one thing that will improve their condition: energy.

The latter, of course, is the author’s grand theme. In brief, heavily footnoted chapters, Bryce sets forth example after example of innovation leading to breakthroughs in almost every area of human endeavor. He opens with a series of historical vignettes on the invention of seminal modern technologies, from the printing press to the AK-47, the jet turbine to the roller-cone drill bit. Each of these had drawbacks and even harmful consequences, and Bryce doesn’t shy away from talking about them. But taken together, they illuminate an undeniable trend: We are figuring out how to improve technology and harness it to meet our needs, “transforming everything from computers and cars to medicine and sports.” The startling thing is how quickly we’ve managed to do so in the span of a few generations, how great the improvements have been.

Take computer chips. Intel Corporation produces about 5 billion transistors every second, which works out to about 20 million transistors per year for every person on the planet. That’s an impressive statistic in its own right, but even more impressive is a comparison of the relative density of computer chips over time. “In 1971, Intel was able to put 2,300 transistors on a microprocessor. By 2011, the company was installing nearly 2.3 billion on a single chip — a million-fold increase.”

Food production is perhaps a less abstract example of density achievement. Since 1950, the amount of grain produced per hectare of land under cultivation has tripled. That increase has allowed global food production to keep pace with population growth, which is now 7 billion (it was 2.5 billion in 1950). As the world’s population continues to grow, and as arable land for food production becomes scarcer, “farmers must be able to produce more food without increasing the size of their farms.” Fortunately, scientists are figuring out how to increase crop yields while improving nutritional quality through genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Bryce cites a company called Golden Rice that has figured out a way to infuse rice with beta-carotene, which the body converts to Vitamin A. Why is this important? Because about 250 million children around the world are deficient in Vitamin A, and half a million per year become blind because of it.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace are staunch opponents of GMOs, despite their manifest benefits, especially to the poor. Herein is the other big theme of Bryce’s book: The enemies of innovation, by and large, are environmentalists who claim to be defenders of the “natural” world — so long as it does not include humanity.

The data, which Bryce applies in heavy doses, add up to this: In almost every corner of the global economy, innovation is increasing efficiency and in the process driving up profits and creating wealth and prosperity. Bryce was patient enough to write an entire book full of examples that prove the point, and if his tone is at times pedantic, it’s because so much of what he’s describing runs counter to the prevailing consensus among policymakers and the mainstream media. We’re constantly being told that something must be done, right now, to curtail the use of fossil fuels and stop climate change because we probably cannot adapt quickly enough, we cannot really innovate any more than we already have, and, as Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich declared in 1968, “at this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

But of course Ehrlich was wrong then, and his ideological heirs are wrong now. We can adapt and in fact we are adapting — and doing a fine job of it, it turns out. As the climate-change debate morphs into a call for greater international wealth redistribution combined with restrictions on carbon emissions — as the recent IPCC report suggests it will — we’ll do well to remember what Bryce has now spelled out for us in great detail: “The availability of cheap, abundant, reliable energy is what separates the wealthy from the poor and fuels economic growth. That growth fosters both human liberty and environmental protection.”

In the Hollywood version of the Noah story, technology and industrialization despoiled the earth and ushered in famine, tyranny, and violence. But in the real world, technology and industry are proving to be the solution to human suffering, not the cause. The gloomy pessimism of the environmentalists has no place in a world made for human beings — where, as God said to Noah and his family after the deluge, “everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”

– Mr. Davidson, a writer in Austin, is a senior health-care-policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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