Malthusian maths

In: Uncategorized

10 Jan 2010

Listening to More Or Less or BBC Radio 4 I came across the Malthusian mathematics of Albert Bartlett. The emeritus professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder argues (video) that: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. This function describes anything that is growing steadily – for example at 5% a year.

Bartlett’s point is that most people how rapidly something will grow if it is increasing at an exponential rate. For example, at a growth rate of 5% a year a population will double every 14 years. He uses this simple mathematics to show that Malthus was essentially right: our population and use of natural resources is bound to hit natural limits sooner or later.

In reality it is not the critics of Malthus who fail to understand the exponential function. It is the Malthusians who fail to understand humanity. For example, it is true that if the demand for natural resources grows exponentially it will increase fast. But human ingenuity can also lead the creation and production of resources to also increase exponentially. Indeed the production of resources can increase faster than demand. As a result overall human wealth can increase rapidly over time without depleting resources.