How does your garden variety Malthusian react if a resource he has predicted to run out manifestly refuses to do so?
1. He rejoices, begins questioning his doomsayer philosophy, looks out for alternative explanations, and devours the works of authors like Julian Simon and Bjørn Lomborg. Eventually, he turns into a free-market progress enthusiast, and writes a big cheque to the Institute of Economic Affairs.
2. He jumps right to the next imagined catastrophe, updates his texts using MS Word’s ‘find/replace’ function, and keeps predicting the apocalypse albeit for a slightly different reason.
3. He regrets. Not the fact that he was wrong, but the fact that the resource does not run out. He would rather have it run out, because of the economic disruption and a sharp reduction in prosperity that this implies.
You’re right, of course. It is number 2. But it could also be number 3, and here’s a recent example. George Monbiot has just revoked the once commonplace we’re-running-out-of-oil prediction:
‘Peak oil hasn't happened, and it's unlikely to happen for a very long time. […] The constraints on oil supply over the past 10 years appear to have had more to do with money than geology. The low prices before 2003 had discouraged investors from developing difficult fields. The high prices of the past few years have changed that.’
New investment, combined with the mobilisation of alternatives and higher energy efficiency, has prevented the Malthusian crisis. Hip, hip, hooray, George?
On the contrary:
‘The automatic correction – resource depletion destroying the machine that was driving it – that many environmentalists foresaw is not going to happen. The problem we face is not that there is too little oil, but that there is too much. We have confused threats to the living planet with threats to industrial civilisation. […] There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground.’
I’ll never quite understand how somebody who treats the tiniest reduction in government spending as an assault on the poor can, at the same time, yearn for an end to industrial civilisation. But that’s a story for another day.
This text is remarkable for a different reason. Monbiot grudgingly concedes that our species is so ingenious and adaptable that we can, almost without anyone realising, avert one predicted resource crisis after the other. But apparently, the thought that we might also use that very ingenuity to cope with a warmer planet is still totally beyond him. It is hardly a new idea, though. Both Nigel Lawson and Bjørn Lomborg have shown - in very different ways - that many adaptation measures are neither expensive nor challenging from an engineering perspective.
True, that does not necessarily apply to all adaptation measures. True, just because a measure is not challenging to adopt in the West doesn’t mean it is not challenging in Africa. True, not every consequence of warming is foreseeable. But then, we are not talking about a temperature rise that will suddenly happen overnight. And sending some Western engineers to build flood control installations in threatened spots elsewhere strikes me as a less roundabout measure than ‘destroying the machine’ and ‘leaving the oil in the ground’.