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COLUMN: Prophets, predictions and prospects, oh my!

Jackson Roger
Columnist Roger Jackson

Scholarship impresses me. Brilliant, well-read individuals with clear and insightful minds telling the rest of us what’s really happening in the world and what’s likely to happen. Two scholars who haunt me are two Brits: Thomas Malthus, an 18th to 19th century theologian and political economist, and James Lovelock, a 20th century scientist.

Malthus was only one of a number of critical economic thinkers in his time (he was a disciple of Adam Smith and somewhat contemporary of John Stuart Mill). What intrigues me about Mr. Malthus is his analysis of the interdependence of population and economy. He argued that greater food productivity aided increased population but that increased population risked lower food productivity, and a likewise relationship between labour and prosperity. He proposed that there are “preventative checks” on population, ones that involve proactive policy and action by citizens, which include birth control and, heaven forbid, celibacy. We must be reasonably good at the former as overall world population is in slow decline. 

Malthus accepted counter arguments that foreign trade would alleviate national pressure on mass production but also understood that it would have similar global implications. He also proposed “positive checks” on population, ones involuntarily occurring as a result of human behaviour and over-production, which are war, famine and plague. The former seems obvious since, as the Durants noted 52 years ago, “in the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war” (we can add 52 to the former number). War is essentially a violent land grab from an aggressor wanting more means of production and control. You would think that with improvement in land management and food production the risk of famine would be eradicated. Several famines in the last century, some politically influenced, and some already this century shows it’s still a danger. Spanish and other influenza outbreaks, HIV, HINI, SARS, 2019CoV show that epidemics and pandemics remain risks to global populations. In fact, there have been few years in history without an epidemic somewhere since first recorded in 430 BCE Athens.

Which brings me to Dr. Lovelock, a centenarian environmentalist known for discovering that CFCs were damaging the ozone layer and developing the Gaia Theory, which suggests that the Earth auto-corrects. It’s a theory somewhat similar to the Chaos Theory of ultimate random outcomes to controlled environments. Dr. Lovelock predicted 55 years ago that the environment would be the most important issue facing mankind and that demand for natural resources would cause dire circumstances for the world. He was an early proponent of nuclear power as a primary energy source for everyone. He considers wind and solar energy impractical for large-scale service. He says we can’t fix our problems. He’s not a socialist, not now anyway; he believes in free markets and natural selection, and that a natural balance between Earth and mankind will prevail, but with considerably fewer of us. He’s not a pessimist, he’s an optimist.

Roger Jackson is a former deputy minister and a St. Albert resident.