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Dick Smith’s 'Malthus' Award

By Andrew Whitby - posted Friday, 27 August 2010

For a man presenting a Population Puzzle, Dick Smith seems awfully sure of the answer. He recently launched his so-called “Wilberforce” Award: $1 million for a young person under 30, who can impress him by showing “leadership in communicating an alternative to our population and consumption growth-obsessed economy”. Already in the terms of his award, Smith makes his position clear: population and consumption growth is flawed; an alternative must be found. Far from starting a discussion, Smith wants to buy a ready-made conclusion.

I am under 30, but I won’t be entering. William Wilberforce is remembered as a leader of the British abolitionist movement. By co-opting this name, Smith is equating “population and consumption growth” with the moral outrage of slavery. This is absurd. Slavery was one of the greatest moral challenges of the modern world. It was a gross infringement of the most fundamental right we recognise, to “life, liberty and security of person”. By contrast, population growth is a complex, multi-hued social issue, with subtle arguments both for and against - particularly in the moral dimension. The comparison Smith seeks to draw is worthy of ridicule.

(Consumption growth is a separate issue - a distraction in this debate. Briefly though, it generally makes us better off, and does not inherently depend on population growth as Smith asserts. The inclusion of consumption growth as one of his targets does, however, reveal much about his thinking.)


I will offer an alternative name: the Malthus Award. It was Thomas Malthus, a contemporary of Wilberforce, who pioneered population alarmism and is Smith’s rightful intellectual ancestor. Malthus’ idea was that population grows exponentially, while agricultural land could only be expanded at an arithmetic rate. The result, he predicted, was a subsistence society permanently on the brink of famine.

In many ways, this was not a bad model of the pre-industrial world, into the tail-end of which Malthus and Wilberforce were born. Unfortunately for Malthus (and like many a promising economic modeller), the world changed under him. In 1798, even as his Essay on the Principle of Population was being printed, an industrial revolution was gaining momentum, ushering in the era of unremitting technological progress that continues to this day.

Technology is what Malthus missed in 1798. That is forgivable, given the historical circumstances. It is less forgivable that Smith, in 2010, shares the same blindness (also ironic, given how he made his fortune). He speaks of the “population carrying capacity of a finite world”, as if that’s a simple number that we could write down. But our world is not finite, in one very relevant sense. Technology isn’t made up of finite things, but of ideas: boundless, infinite ideas, difficult to conceive, but costless to replicate. Ideas are the difference between the almost infinite possibilities of an iPhone, and the all-too-finite pile of sand, oil, and metals from which it was made. Technology allows us to grow the potential of our finite physical resources, without obvious limits.

Smith seems familiar with this argument, but some deep conservatism (or perhaps pessimism) prevents him accepting it. In one scene in his Population Puzzle, he ridicules the idea of wind turbines powering desalination plants to supplement Sydney’s water supply. Why? Isn’t it conceivable that by 2050 renewably-powered desalination and water recycling will be commonplace? That the traditional alternative - flooding hundreds of square kilometres to form artificial reservoirs - will seem just a bit … 20th century?

Dick Smith deserves credit for raising an important issue in the public consciousness. If genuine policy questions like this received anywhere near the political and media coverage of “stop the boats”, then we’d all be better off. But rather than promoting genuine discussion, his contribution is to push his own pre-conceived perspective - preferring experts that support his view, and rubbishing those who do not.

There is no doubt that our future population is worth thinking about. But Smith starts at the wrong place, assuming our potential must be finite then looking for the limit. I would argue we should do the opposite: acknowledge - as both theory and history suggest - that there may not be a meaningful long-term limit, but accept that sometimes we will face short-term or local hurdles on the path of growth (of which climate change is probably one), and work out how to overcome these hurdles.


So Dick, here’s my challenge. Drop your preconceptions, and allow yourself to hear a real argument. Rewrite the terms of your award: say, for leadership in communicating the challenges of population growth, and offering solutions to these challenges.

Australia needs both sides in this debate. And I could sure use the money.

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About the Author

Andrew Whitby is a doctoral candidate in economics at Balliol College, Oxford.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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