Malthusianism and all that
Malthusians are people who if they discovered a silver mine would go running around panicking about the dark cloud they expected to envelope them.

No matter how good things get they always view it as a sign that things are about to get worse.

Imagine the scene. It is Victorian London and a group of scholars is meeting to debate the forthcoming shortage of horseshoes. We have reached peak horseshoe production, one says. By the middle of the 20th century, perhaps as early as 1940, there will be no more horseshoes. London will come to a standstill. Agriculture will virtually cease!

One of the problems with predicting trends based on past events is that things change.

A century and a half ago there were towns in northern England with hundreds of factory chimneys pouring out an appalling cocktail of poisonous chemicals.

Even thirty years ago there were scare stories about acid rain (as a result of the smoke pollution) destroying the forests of Scandinavia.

But these days in England there are few large factory chimneys and many of those that remain are protected by preservation orders. There is still a lot of talk about acid rain (more than 4 million pages mentioning it can be found listed in Google) but somehow it is not the hot topic it once was.

Another problem with predicting trends is that people are not very good at it. When it comes to building computer models, for example, they seem to need a lot of tweaking to make them work. Just think of dark matter or the Higgs Boson, in astrophysics, for example. These are just correcting factors thrown into the pot to make the maths work.

Of course, just because Malthusians have generally proved to be wrong in the past, it doesn't mean to say they will be wrong in the future. But there does seem to be a pessimistic, fearful streak in human nature that needs to be factored into these discussions.

Posted by Jonathan Brind at 01:33