Saturday, May 26, 2012

Robert Zubrin & The Merchants of Despair - Initial Reaction

Robert Zubrin is perhaps best known for his pro-space lobbying and in particular his arguments for the human colonisation of Mars (ref. The Case For Mars, 1996). He is the founder of the Mars Society, an organisation to which I once belonged.

You see, I am also pro-space and in 1999 I even designed a board game called 6 Billion which depicts the human settlement of our solar system. Essentially this takes the human global population of 6 billion (12th October, 1999 was designated the Day of 6 Billion by the UN Population Fund) as its starting point for humanity as a nascent K-1 civilisation (refer Kardashev Scale) and then allows the players to experience our growth into a K-2 civilisation in which the solar system is fully populated. Zubrin describes exactly this scenario in his book Entering Space : Creating a Space Faring Civilisation (1999).

So far, so good. I'm a fan of Zubrin.

It was therefore a huge disappointment to me to discover Zubrin's latest book The Merchants of Despair. You see, where Zubrin and I differ is in our opinions of Malthus and Darwin and their valuable contributions to both population theory and evolutionary theory. Zubrin unfairly demonises both men. According to this article by Elliot Temple at Curi, Zubrin is also guilty of poor scholarship and misquoting.

In his book Zubrin presents a flawed summary of Malthus' argument (An Essay On The Principle of Population, 1st edition 1798 through to 6th edition 1826) and then uses this straw man fallacy to attack and demonise Malthus. I also criticise Malthus' argument (refer Malthus - An Exponentialist View), but do not reach the same conclusion as Zubrin that continued and sustained population growth here on Earth is a Good Thing. My conclusion is that sustained population growth on Earth is impossible (refer Human Global Ecophagy), even if we are able to colonise the solar system.

In Entering Space (p. 240) Zubrin is highly sceptical of K. Eric Drexler and his concept of self-replicating molecular nanotechnology. Yet Drexler's understanding of Malthusian limits to growth is far more balanced and mature than Zubrin's views (refer Drexler - An Exponentialist View).

Zubrin's claims against Malthus and Darwin in relation to various holocausts (including China's one child policy, the Nazi holocaust against the Jews, the Irish Potatoe Famine, famines in India and so on) rely heavily on overuse of the emotionally charged word holocaust to evoke outrage as Zubrin himself rages against anyone who believes that the Earth is finite and hence limits to growth do apply. Zubrin is right to rage against such events, but has failed to prove that limits to growth do not exist (they do exist) and is himself guilty of then viewing American history (in his various works) through rose-tinted glasses as he pines for a new frontier like the American West.

Here is what Malthus had to say about the "holocaust" against Native Americans in the context of limits to growth to continued population growth in the USA:

If the United States of America continue increasing, which they certainly will do, though not with the same rapidity as formerly, the Indians will be driven further and further back into the country, till the whole race is ultimately exterminated, and the territory is incapable of further extension.

Right again, Malthus. OK, perhaps not ultimately exterminated, but surely worthy of Zubrin's over use of the term holocaust. No doubt Zubrin would somehow contrive to blame this human holocaust on Malthus too.

If we round the current population of the USA off to 300 million then with a growth rate of roughly 1% per annum (using the Rule of 70 as a rough guide) the American population would double every 70 years and you'd have over 300 billion people living in the USA in 10 population doublings in just 700 years. That's over 42 times the current population of Earth, all living just in the USA! This is sort of stupidity that Zubrin is promoting.

In Zubrin's raging against population control he pays particular attention to China's one-child policy (see, for example, ZUBRIN: China's population-control holocaust), and highlights some of the resulting atrocities of said policy. It's odd then that he doesn't mention the previous practice of infanticide (particularly against female children) in China (and elsewhere) which is noted and criticised by both Darwin and Malthus as a barbarous practice. Surely as supposed demons of ant-humanism they would praise such a practice?

Zubrin also fails to note that even with the one-child policy China's population growth rate is still positive (about 0.5% per annum). Using the Rule of 70 as a rough guide, this would mean population doubling every 140 years and so in just 1,400 years China would need to feed not one billion people but one trillion people. This is sort of stupidity that Zubrin is promoting.

One  of Zubrin's heroes is Julian Simon, who won his famous bet on commodity prices against one of Zubrin's hated Malthusians, Paul R Ehrlich. The bet is irrelevant compared with Simon's idiotic claim (1995) that:

We now have in our hands - in our libraries really - the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years

Professor Albert Bartlett's answer at the time was:

"Assuming the present world population of six billion and the recent rate of population growth of 1 percent per year, how long would it take for the human population to equal all the atoms of the universe. The answer is shocking: just 17,000 years"

This is sort of stupidity that Zubrin is promoting.

Zubrin likes to claim that Malthus failed to take into account human ingenuity, but here is Malthus proving Zubrin wrong again:

The main peculiarity which distinguishes man from other animals, is the means of his support, is the power which he possesses of very greatly increasing these means.

Zubrin constantly claims Malthus' dismal predictions have failed, yet Malthus' main argument was in fact:

...this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist, unless some decided change takes place in the physical constitution of our nature.

Malthus is arguing that we have in the past, we do now, and we will always have periodic famine and poverty. Guess what, this is the reality of the world we live in. The last reference to a change in our physical constitution could reasonably be taken as a hint towards today's concepts of  transhumanism or even post humanism, both of which would support the view that some form of humanity could continue to experience sustained population growth (at least, for a while longer).

It may be prudent for Zubrin to re-read his Malthus (assuming he actually read him in the first place, rather than relying on second hand sources). I recommend he read the 1st edition, the 6th edition and A Summary View (1830).

Malthus even had something to say on the subject of the human colonisation of space:

The germs of existence contained in this spot of earth, with ample food, and ample room to expand in, would fill millions of worlds in the course of a few thousand years.

Put that one in your book, Zubrin.

Zubrin's arguments are both fallacious and hypocritical, and ultimately fail to demonstrate mathematically how the limits to growth of a finite Earth can be overcome by human ingenuity and more people. To claim that human ingenuity is limitless is pure simplistic rhetoric...sounds nice, it would be great if it were true, but is it? To Zubrin every additional person is a welcome addition and...."the world needs more people" (ref Welcome: Child Seven Billion) because they add to this limitless resource. But every additional human is made of atoms, not ideas, and the Earth only has a finite supply of atoms that can be turned into human flesh.

I think Darwin put it best in a letter to his friend, and father of geology, Charles Lyell (1860):

...It consoles me that -- sneers at Malthus, for that clearly shows, mathematician though he may be, he cannot understand common reasoning. By the way what a discouraging example Malthus is, to show during what long years the plainest case may be misrepresented and misunderstood.

I'm not sure which critic Darwin meant by "--", but it reads just fine if you substitute "Zubrin" here.

Lastly, my own view is that there are flaws in the arguments of both Malthusians as well as Cornucopians such as Zubrin. Read my articles Paul R. Ehrlich and the Prophets of Doom as well as  Albert Bartlett  - An Exponentialist View. You can also read my earlier Exponentialist blog Malthusians Vs Cornucopians.

Thanks for reading,

David Coutts

Note: this is just my initial reaction to the book, based on a careful preview of the book via Amazon, and a reading of various related articles that Zubrin has published to promote his book. I have also read numerous reviews and some criticisms of the book. And I've read Zubrin's pro-space books.

I have ordered the book and will demolish Zubrin's arguments further in due course.  However, I felt it was necessary to say something now in order to highlight the sheer stupidity of claiming that the finite resources of Earth can sustain indefinite population growth thanks to the apparently magical limitless ability of human ingenuity.  On this point Malthus is right, and Zubrin is wrong. 


Blogger bill said...

Thanks for your analysis. My initial reaction to Zubrin was of shock and dispair. Dispair in that a recognized science professional would discount the last 40 years of the biological sciences to conclude that population growth isn't a problem. When I was young I did a report for school on population growth and I referenced the book "The Limits to Growth" quite a bit. Basically Zubrin is saying that book was not only wrong, but "Antihumanist".


9:42 AM  

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