The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Past Performance Doesn't Predict Future Results


I actually am not a strong Malthusian, in the sense that I don't think a collapse is inevitable. I think a crash is avoidable, but only if we get down to the business of actually avoiding it.

Many people make much of the failure of Malthusian predictions in the past. I think that observation is not compelling.

It does seem foolish to predict an exact date for the collapse; we have escaped both Utopia and Oblivion nicely so far. But just like mortality, Malthusianism only has to actually operate once.

The story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf has two lessons, recall. The first is that it is not a good idea to raise a panic at the slightest provocation.

The second is that eventually there is a wolf.



Image: deviantart.net

7 comments:

Pangolin said...

I would say the people of Pakistan, Russia, Sri Lanka, Haiti, the drought stricken Amazon and Burma might disagree with you. The wolf doesn't have to come for everybody at once. It only has to wait until conditions have weakened the prey.

People who sit comfortably inside houses and declare that "Malthus is wrong because I'm still fat" while ignoring the frightfully thin people who are forced to live out-caste are missing the point. Hunger rarely kills directly preferring to open the door for the other three horsemen, Pestilence, War and finally Death.

Michael Tobis said...

Pango, that's a bit of a caricature. So far, objectively, things have been getting better, if slowly.

The question is whether it is sensible to extrapolate the trend.

Michael Tobis said...

Luddite friend Harvey Taylor (click on the news box on the upper right for his proto-feed) in email:

Did you ever watch Deep Space Nine?

There is an episode in which an alien character [a Cardassian, who happens to be an inveterate liar] is told the children's story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, with the aim of getting him to tell the truth. There is some back and forth and the Cardassian rejects that interpretation. "What else could it mean then?" he is asked.

"That you should never tell the same lie twice," he replies.

Not that that has much to do with Malthus...

PS. Sorry to use this out of band method of commenting, but I am a text surfer [no gfx unless I choose to look] and no javascript...

Pangolin said...

To refer back to your homily, people of good faith are stuck with stodgy, factual, reality as an offering while those who delay, deny and distract can sell an infinitude of lies. We're stuck crying wolf because, well, the metaphorical wolf, in this case climate change, keeps showing up and snagging a few sheep. (in Mongolia, actual sheep, otherwise resources, people, etc.)

Peter T said...

Michael

Yes things have been getting better - for a lot of people for the last 70 years or so. Trouble is, this is not a long time as civilisations go. A Roman in, say, 180 AD could say the same. By 280, life had been on the downslope for 100 years; it picked up for 100, then went down for 500.

People cherry-pick the history - someone somewhere is always on the up. But overall there may have been as many bad centuries as good ones. And there's survivor bias - "it must have been ok because I am still here" (forgetting that the ones who copped it can't talk).

Yes it's been good for a while. But now it's global - nowhere else to go.

Alexander Ac said...

"Things have benn getting better" - were not it for the coal, gas, and especially oil.

Person who start to take heroin might feel better and even try to extrapolate that trend ;-)

Aaron said...

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

In fact, there are 3 wolves. The wolf you see, momma wolf, and daddy wolf. The wolves you do not see, are more dangerous then the wolf that you do see.

Since 1995, some scientists have made a point of only discussing the the "wolf" that they had seen and had photographed multiple times. Discussion of wolves known only by their tracks, scat, fur, dens, kills, and such, has been considered "alarmist".