Friday, January 4, 2008

Production and Consumption

As I spent part of the day lazily flipping from link to link this article on the New York Times' website caught my eye. The article itself is well worded but somewhat deceptive in its presentation. It effectively presents the same style of Malthusian argument that we have been plagued with for centuries, merely using statistics rather than theoretical and philosophical statements. The problem I have always had with arguments based on statistics is that very few people understand the field of study of which those numbers are products. Therefore, a concrete integer, quantifying a problem in a way that looks simple and easy to understand, can be used to fool people into thinking that they know the basis of an argument without ever actually having to show them any real data. In the case of this article, the now-classic statement about dwindling oil supplies echoes the argument Thomas Malthus made over two hundred years ago about the human population outgrowing the world's capacity to supply food, thereby starving the population. In the same way, the argument that the world has x years before we deplete our fossil fuel supply has been around since the 1970's. Since the early 70's x has stayed roughly the same. Does that mean we have found better ways to extract oil? Does that mean we had horrible estimates of the world's reserves? Does that mean that we have better production methods? Or does it mean that we have no idea what forces are behind the creation of crude and are using fear as a motivator?

Essentially, the statement that we must cut our consumption in order for the rest of the world to be able to increase their own consumption has a few flaws that should be glaringly obvious to anyone who wishes to look at the argument from a purely logical perspective. First, the assumption that the world will run out of resources is flawed. Yes, the world has a finite amount of natural resources, that I will not argue. I will, however, take issue with the assumption that we know what those limits are. One, the estimates of the world's resources vary wildly from report to report, depending on who is running the numbers, how they run them, and the sort of outcome for which they are looking. Two, according to the science upon which these estimates must be based, there is no way to destroy matter. Therefore, we never actually use up resources, we merely convert them to another form of material. (Flippant and pedantic, I know, but true none-the-less.)

The next problem I have with the argument is the underlying elitism in the idea that we must cut back in order for the rest of the world to catch up. Do we really think that we are so far advanced that others can't make it to our level without us lowering the bar? Does it not seem unfair to developing nations that we impose the Kyoto Protocol on them? A plan in which we would be required to cut back on emissions, true, but also a plan which would restrict the use of technology that the developing world could use to bring themselves up the level of technology we take for granted in everyday use. One last thing about the pretension evidenced by this particular argument is the concept that all other people in the world want to live as we do. Even if one can define what it is to live as an American lives, given the disparity in lifestyles in our country, one can by no means claim to know that every one wants to have that way of life. Whether it is because they have a belief system which prevents them from aspiring to aspects of our culture, in the same way that the Amish in America have no desire to live the "American" lifestyle, or something as simple as they have a personality that militates for a simpler life, it is arrogant to assume that we live the ideal.

The simplest of the fallacies to notice, and the simplest to fix if necessary or possible, is the assumption that consumption and population will continue to grow while all other factors remain static. If population grows, then not only will consumption grow, manpower and the work force will expand. With the technological advances of the last century production grew at not merely proportional rates but at exponential rates relative to the workforce. To assume that this trend cannot continue as the rest of the world population grows would be foolhardy. Not only would production increase along with the increased demand of world markets, technologies also will multiply and improve at exponential rates.

While I think that the argument for conservation must be made, I believe it should not be made in such a way as to say that we must conserve or be forced to conserve, as in a statist's plea for the government to make our decisions for us. It seems that the economic remonstration for conservation is more effective than a pseudo-moral appeal to people's emotion. Does it not make more sense to say "Conserve, and you will save money through cutting your wasteful and unnecessary consumption," than to say "Conserve and cut your consumption so that those who are less fortunate may have more?"

1 comment:

  1. My respect for "Guns, Germs, and Steel" just dropped several notches. Realistically, people are going to listen more to "Use less gas because it's likely to hit $5 a gallon soon" than "Use less gas because kids are starving in China." How often did that same line get kids to finish their plates?

    One other flaw that I saw in his arguement is that many of the Third World nations don't just consume less - they have their natural resources typically managed by people like Bob Mugabe and the rest of the Funny Hat Dictator's Club. It seems as if he is assuming their production would not rise at the same time as their consumption, while it's usually been things like the Industrial Revolution that have spurred consumption.