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Superabundance Book Review

Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley, Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet, with Foreword by George Gilder. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2022; xvii + 547 pages; $34.95.

The central thesis of Superabundance is very simple: Malthus was wrong!

What does this mean?

Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) was an economist and Anglican divine, who is most famous for his 1798 treatise, An Essay on the Principle of Population. In this book, Malthus argued, in a nutshell, that population has an inherent tendency to increase at a faster rate than the increase in food production, with the result that poverty, disease, and famine are endemic and irremediable features of the human condition (see pp. 53–56).

More concretely, neo-Malthusian thinking may be identified by the following set of propositions:

  • overpopulation is one of our most serious problems
  • the earth’s carrying capacity is fixed and is rapidly reaching a tipping point
  • the earth’s natural resources are finite and will soon be exhausted
  • climate change is an existential threat to humanity
  • human beings face global catastrophe if we do not radically change the way we live

These phrases are sure to sound familiar to my readers—which goes to show that for the past several generations, neo-Malthusianism has been steadily growing in popularity. Today, in 2022, the good Reverend’s ideas are probably more widespread, and certainly exert more political influence, than ever before in history.

The authors of Superabundance have written their book to expose neo-Malthusianism as the intellectual sham that it is. Their book unmasks Malthusianism as a highly destructive ideology with quasi-religious, apocalyptic overtones. They argue that Malthusian pessimism is in fact the greatest threat to mankind at the present time.

Superabundance is divided into three main parts, each consisting of several chapters.

Part One examines the psychological roots of Malthusian apocalypticism by looking at how optimistic and pessimistic ideologies have tracked real human progress and human decline over the course of history.

Part Two describes the technical concept of “time price”—what Tupy and Pooley call their “bespoke methodology” (p. 237)—which is introduced in order to provide their economic analyses with analytical rigor.

Part Three contains the authors’ broader philosophical reflections upon the nature of human flourishing.

The history presented in Part One covers an immense amount of ground, from Antiquity to the present. For instance, the authors discuss empirical evidence that human beings are psychologically primed to pay more attention to possibility of danger than to favorable circumstances (p. 44). This tendency is then confirmed by ample evidence of pessimistic thinking throughout human history.

It is well known that ancient civilizations from the Mediterranean basin and Western Asia all the way to China believed that there used to exist a “Golden Age” in which life was much better than in their own day. The Garden of Eden from the book of Genesis is the paradigm case of this tendency. The pessimistic thinkers reviewed in this early section of the book mostly regarded history as a descent from the Golden Age to a distinctly inferior present.

Next, the authors examine the historical evidence for the opposite view: that human material well-being has advanced enormously over the millennia, from the Agricultural Revolution to the present day.

In addition, Tupy and Pooley provide a thumbnail sketch of the relatively small number of intellectuals—such as the French Enlightenment thinkers A.-R.-J. Turgot and Nicolas de Condorcet (p. 31)—who understood this objective trend towards progress and wrote optimistic works designed to counter the pessimistic consensus. The authors pay homage to these far-sighted thinkers as the predecessors of the viewpoint advanced by Superabundance.

Well-versed readers will recognize most of the names presented in these early pages. Nonetheless, it is handy to have the entire “debate,” as it were, between pessimists and optimists passed in review in a single place. This material constitutes a valuable resource for anyone wishing a lucid and detailed, yet succinct, summary of this important strand within Western intellectual history.

In addition to these relatively well-known thinkers, a number of far less familiar but emblematic case studies of the harm done by Malthusian thinking are also presented in Part One. My personal favorite occurred in China in 1980. The incident centered on one Song Jian, a young Chinese government official who had recently returned from studying in Europe (pp. 61–67).

Some years previously, in 1972, the so-called “Club of Rome”—a self-appointed group of intellectuals and business leaders—had released its landmark study entitled The Limits to Growth, which argued what was to become the standard apocalyptic thesis that the earth was doomed if humanity did not take stringent measures to limit population growth.

During his stay in Europe, Mr. Song read The Limits to Growth and it made a deep impression on him. Song also read a manifesto signed by over 30 respected scientists, which had appeared in the American journal Ecology two years earlier, arguing the same thesis.

Back home in China, Song ended up on a committee charged with devising a policy to apply further pressure on Chinese families to limit the number of children they produced. The vast nation already supported a population of nearly a billion souls at the time, and it was felt that without government restrictions, the country was clearly headed for catastrophe.

Song’s contribution was to bring the committee’s attention to the two Western studies, with the aim of furthering the draconian policies that were already under consideration. As a result of Song’s intervention, the committee adopted the infamous “one-child policy.”

There is no space here to delve in detail into the enormous emotional suffering and the economic devastation produced by China’s one-child policy—and hence indirectly by Western enthusiasm for Malthusianism.

Suffice it to say that, while the one-child policy was abandoned in 2015 and the natural balance between the sexes is slowly being restored, in 2020 there were still around 5% more boys than girls in the most-marriageable age bracket of the early 20s. That translates into some 35 million men destined to live a life of solitude. And this is not to mention to the millions of forced sterilizations and abortions or the multitude of children born without official documentation, who must live as non-persons in the interstices of the all-powerful Communist Chinese police state.

Part One ends with a chapter recounting the famous Simon-Ehrlich wager (pp. 72–82). While this fascinating story is quite well known, it cannot be told often enough. Here, I will recount only the bare bones of the bet.

In 1968, a biologist named Paul Ehrlich published a highly influential book called The Population Bomb, which presented the standard Malthusian line. Ehrlich claimed, in a nutshell, that the earth’s resources were being rapidly depleted and that humanity was doomed if it did not change its ways. The Population Bomb was a publishing sensation that made Ehrlich into a household name.

Meanwhile, a little-known economic named Julian Simon read Ehrlich’s book and disliked it intensely. Simon was convinced that, because of human beings’ ability to adapt, innovate, and come up with new technological solutions, the earth’s natural resources were in effect limitless.

Simon entered into a public exchange of letters with Ehrlich in the academic journals, which soon degenerated into vicious ad hominem attacks on both sides.

Eventually, in 1980, Simon came up with a brilliant idea. To try to make his intellectual opponent “put up or shut up,” he challenged Ehrlich to a wager (p. 80). Each man would invest $1000 in a “basket” of five raw materials—namely, the metals chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten—at the going 1980 market price. Then, each man would sell the contents of his basket in 1990 at the market price in effect at that time.

Ehrlich’s pessimistic view of the rapid depletion of the earth’s resources predicted that the price of the five minerals would go up. So, if the price did indeed go up by 1990, then Simon would owe Ehrlich the difference between the 1990 price of the basket and $1000.

Simon’s optimistic view, on the other hand, predicted that the price of the basket would go down over the ten-year period. Therefore, if the price of the five metals did indeed go down, then Ehrlich would owe Simon the difference between S1000 and the lower 1990 price.

It will probably come as no surprise to the reader to learn that Simon won the bet.

Passing on to Part Two of Superabundance, in this section Tupy and Pooley explain their original view of the conceptual foundations of economics. They base their analysis on the concept of “time price” (pp. 106ff), which they define as a product’s nominal money price divided by the purchaser’s nominal hourly income (p. 113).

For example, if a product costs $1 and you earn $10/hr., then the time price of the product for you is six minutes. That is, six minutes is how long you must work to purchase the product.

Note that time price is measured in units of time—in minutes, hours, days, weeks, etc.—not in dollars and cents.

The authors maintain that time price is the most natural unit of value for economic analysis because it is the only finite and fixed resource there is. Why is that? Because all of us have only so much time on this planet.

As we have seen, Tupy and Pooley maintain that human adaptability and innovation mean that the abundance of all other resources is effectively limitless. However, human mortality makes human life an essentially finite resource.

For this reason, the authors contend, it makes sense to use time as the fundamental measure of economic value. Thus, in their modification to the classical subjective theory of value, the economic value of a thing is equivalent to the amount of time someone is willing to spend on acquiring it.

The concept can easily be extended to any size of group, so long as one has access to reliable statistics for average nominal prices and average wages. Much of Part Two is devoted to showing how the abundance of resources can be explained more clearly by employing the time price concept than by the usual economic theory.

Finally, the authors examine a variety of empirical (historical) and theoretical models of the relation between population increase and resource abundance, using the time price theory.

There is no space here to go into the fascinating details. However, the upshot of the authors’ analyses is that for a wide variety of inputs, the rate of increase of resources is greater than the rate of increase of population. The situation in which this relation occurs is defined by them as “superabundance” (p. 233).

The demonstration that superabundance is the expected result in a wide variety of economic circumstances, then, constitutes a direct refutation of neo-Malthusianism.

Finally, we come to Part Three of the book, which is basically an extended brief for optimism.

In this section, the authors attribute the lion’s share of human progress to the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. Then, they go on to document the manifold ways in which human life has improved over the vast expanse of time stretching between the transition from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens some 300,000 years ago until today.

Superabundance is nothing if not ambitious.

One section (pp. 285–321) is particularly persuasive in summarizing what the economist Deirdre McCloskey calls the “Great Enrichment”the vast increase in affluence of European societies beginning around 1750.

The authors demonstrate how this trend can be seen in one historical example after another, from overall life expectancy to maternal and infant mortality, to nutrition, to public sanitation.

But perhaps the most striking statistic attesting to the Great Enrichment—and particularly to the way in which it has recently become a worldwide phenomenon—is this.

In 1820, the percentage of the world’s population living “on the edge of survival” (that is, in uncertainty about tomorrow’s supper) was probably about 90%. Today, it is less than 10% (p. 287).

That single statistic is enough to refute neo-Malthusianism all by itself.

Next, the authors reflect upon the social conditions necessary for long-term growth, poverty reduction, and superabundance to occur. They agree with many other observers that the key factor is political stability and freedom—especially in the form of the rule of law.

Basically, what is required is that state power refrain from robbing investors, whether through crushing taxes, labyrinthine regulations, demand for bribes and kickbacks, or outright confiscation.

The last chapter of the book discusses what the authors take to be obstacles to freedom, progress, and the achievement of superabundance. The chief villains of the piece are the Romantics (pp. 360–372) and radical environmentalism (pp. 373–391), which seems to me about right.

However, I must differ with the authors regarding another chief villain that they identify: namely, religion (pp. 391–396).

It is a bit much to blame the Gaia worship practiced by so many contemporary climate alarmists and other secular pessimists on Christianity. Tradition-minded Christians today are quite as skeptical of the exaggerated claims of the alarmists as the authors are, if for different reasons.

Before concluding, I feel obliged to mention a few other problems I had with Superabundance. While I found its basic thesis to be quite persuasive, the book is far from perfect. (What book is?)

For one thing, the authors do not seem to realize that by tying the potential for superabundance so closely to political factors affecting the course of human history—as opposed to purely economic factors—they undermine one of the main justifications for their sanguine outlook on the human condition.

After all, it is not as though the evidence is overwhelming that political freedom is destined to carry the day. On the contrary, one might argue that the prospects for freedom of expression, freedom of association, free and fair elections, and the very rule of law are far darker today than they have been at any time since liberal democracy’s defeat of fascism in 1945 or its (Pyrrhic?) victory over communism in 1989.

In short, the year of publication of this book (2022) is a strange one in which to sound a triumphalist note regarding the fate of a Western democracy that is truly “liberal” (i.e., freedom-loving) in fact and not just in name.

Another problem with the book is, I think, a result of excessive ambition. The first few chapters sometimes have the feel of a forced march through an endless list of names with little real discussion.

Moreover, what discussion the authors do provide in this section is often supported by multiple references to a single secondary source. This is frustrating for the reader who might wish to look at the underlying primary sources.

That said, such problems are undoubtedly mainly due to trying to cover too much ground between the covers of a single volume. The general scholarly competence of the authors is not in question.

Indeed, I was able to find only one outright error in the entire book. On p. 348, the authors state that the word “bourse” in the sense of “stock exchange” derives from the name of the thirteenth-century Belgian merchant, Robbrecht van der Buerse, whose house in Bruges was a meeting place for merchants, and which became the first stock market.

But this is misleading. The modern French word “bourse” derives from the Medieval Latin word “bursa,” meaning “(anatomical) sac” or “purse.” This meaning obviously predates the meaning “stock market,” which logically must derive from the idea of a “place where the money bags are stored,” and not vice versa.

Thus, it seems more than likely that Robbrecht and his merchant forebears took their family name from their ancestral residence, and not the other way around.

But this is a very small mistake, and only reinforces the generally high degree of the authors’ expertise.

Finally, I was dismayed to observe the authors engaging in a certain amount of irrelevant virtue-signaling (“Our use of the word ‘civilization’ should not be read as a term of approval”—p. 255) and resorting to such a faddish field as “evolutionary psychology” (pp. 242–251).

Tuly and Pooley engage freely in what the late Stephen Jay Gould once witheringly dismissed as “Just So Stories”—essentially, unbridled speculation. My favorite example of this practice occurs on pp. 247 and 250, where the authors discuss the putative importance for human evolution of “storytelling”—without so much as a mention of the human language faculty or of the enormous difficulty it poses for our understanding of hominization.

But I see I am now descending into grousing about pet peeves, while it is the authors’ privilege to decide what to write about, not the reviewer’s! So, allow me to wind this up.

I wholeheartedly recommend Superabundance—for its wealth of interesting historical detail, for its exposition of the promising idea of time price, and, above all, for the persuasive case it makes in support of anti-Malthusian optimism—essentially, the idea that we human beings hold our future in our own hands.