A weekend ago, Matt Ridley wrote an engaging piece for the Wall Street Journal that was originally titled "The Scarcity Fallacy" - the title has since changed to "The World's Resources Aren't Running Out". The basic thesis of his essay is this:
Ecologists worry that the world's resources come in fixed amounts that will run out, but we have broken through such limits again and again
In the body of his essay, Ridley says:
Ecologists call this "niche construction"—that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature's bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.
Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter's tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can't seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.
I nowadays lean to the view that there are no limits because we can invent new ways of doing more with less.
I tend to generally agree with Ridley's premise that innovation of various kinds has allowed us to extend the use of resources or find alternate ways to meet our needs. I very much share this optimistic view of humanity and future possibilities.
That said, some of the claims in his essay made me wonder how well researched the essay is and how accurately it represents the facts or mainstream views on some of the areas of discussion. Since I write now and then on climate change, I figured I'd pick that as an example to discuss Ridley's essay - sure enough, a quick read of Ridley's claims makes it evident his discussion is amazingly superficial and creates many fallacies of its own in terms of how it represents the scientific/economic thinking on this subject. In fact, I would not be surprised if his discussion of topics other than climate change were likely as superficial and fallacy-ridden, because the last time he wrote on similar subjects in 2012, the claims were problematic to say the least.
Let's start with these two passages in his current essay (I've highlighted some portions in bold text):
This disagreement goes to the heart of many current political issues and explains much about why people disagree about environmental policy. In the climate debate, for example, pessimists see a limit to the atmosphere's capacity to cope with extra carbon dioxide without rapid warming. So a continuing increase in emissions if economic growth continues will eventually accelerate warming to dangerous rates. But optimists see economic growth leading to technological change that would result in the use of lower-carbon energy. That would allow warming to level off long before it does much harm.
It is striking, for example, that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recent forecast that temperatures would rise by 3.7 to 4.8 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels by 2100 was based on several assumptions: little technological change, an end to the 50-year fall in population growth rates, a tripling (only) of per capita income and not much improvement in the energy efficiency of the economy. Basically, that would mean a world much like today's but with lots more people burning lots more coal and oil, leading to an increase in emissions. Most economists expect a five- or tenfold increase in income, huge changes in technology and an end to population growth by 2100: not so many more people needing much less carbon.
Dictionary.com defines "fallacy" as follows: