Cassandra & Growth
February 18, 2017Posted by on
This week on Facebook: Am I a rabid follower of Malthus obsessed with an ever growing global population and a believer in Bartlett concerned about the consequences of ignoring the mathematical exponential function? I would like to think not, but I do suggest that a correlation between Malthus and Bartlett could be found the horse manure problem of the late nineteenth century driven by needs and wants of growing economies.
In his urban planning Masters thesis Eric Morris explored the reality of horse-based transportation in 19th-century cities, quoting the 1894 Times of London as estimating that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. In New York it was estimated that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows.
By the late 1800s, large cities all around the world were drowning in horse manure. In order for these cities to function, they were dependent on thousands of horses for the transport of both people and goods.The 15 to 30 pounds of manure produced daily by each beast multiplied by the 150,000+ horses in New York City resulted in more than three million pounds of horse manure per day that somehow needed to be disposed of. That’s not to mention the daily 40,000 gallons of horse urine. In 1900 London, to move people there were over 11,000 hansom cabs on the streets and several thousand horse-drawn buses that each needing 12 horses per day. Add to those the number of drays and wagons required to move goods that added to the great horse manure problem
Malthus could have predicted this outcome as driven by the increasing population with its needs and wants. In this case a means of transportation for people and goods. Bartlett could have predicted with a greater accuracy the inexorable rise — quite literally —of horse manure in cities. Both could have cited the collateral effects that the needs and wants of an expanding population raised.
The problem of the horse manure never happened of course, it simply disappeared with the advent of underground railways and the automobile. However, a problem didn’t disappear, it simply changed as the needs and wants of an expanding population changed, where the horse was replaced by the automobiles and public transport systems, which in turn led to even more complex crises.
Both Malthus and Bartlett are cited as being wrong in their Cassandra like predictions and that innovative solutions are always found before their predictions materialise. Yet the problem — it seems — is never in finding a solution to its cause or in finding a means of dealing with consequential results of the problem, rather it is always in defining its course and potential consequences of the solutions found.
In that: it appears foolish to ignore Malthus on population and the Bartlett exponential in terms of the challenges presented by global economic growth (see Wednesday and Thursday’s articles), with the inevitable needs and wants that it engenders. Friday’s article refuting the suggestion of economic growth being a free ride, despite most of us assuming there being no ceiling to economic growth, perhaps takes us back to horseshit.
Monday 13/2/2017 The Great Horse-Manure Crisis of 1894: The fundamental problem with most predictions and particularly the gloomy ones, is that they make a critical false assumption that things will go on as they are. This assumption in turn comes from overlooking one of the basic insights of economics: that people respond to incentives. In a system of free exchange, people receive all kinds of signals that lead them to solve problems.
Tuesday 14/2/2017 Hosed — Is there a quick fix for the climate? The horseshit story is told in a book by Levitt and Dubner as a prelude to discussing climate change. They claim that the anxieties over climate change are unwarranted as uncertainty always leads to the very worst predictions. Solutions to these uncertainties are bound to present themselves with technological fixes that are often far simpler than the doomsayers could have imagined.
Wednesday 15/2/2017 Are Malthus’s Predicted 1798 Food Shortages Coming True? The critiques of Malthusian pessimism have long seemed irresistible, Malthusian reasoning being a target of mockery, held up as an example of a naïve forecast gone wildly wrong. After all, since Malthus’s time, incomes per person averaged around the world have increased at least an order of magnitude according to economic historians, despite a population increase from around 800 million in 1798 to 6.7 billion today.
Thursday 16/2/2017 People are almost completely ignoring a looming crisis for oil: In a major new research note, HSBC argues that soon we won’t be worrying about there being too much supply and not enough demand, but rather, things will be the other way round soon enough, and that is going to cause huge problems. Given the finite nature of the physical amount of oil in the world, people should really be paying more attention to falling supply in the future, rather than oversupply right now.
Friday 17/2/2017 ’The Undercover Economist’ — thinks that the economy can grow forever: Nothing of economic value can be completely free of resource use and waste. And because no-one is saying that resource use and waste can grow forever (no-one sane, anyway), then the economy can’t grow forever.