Listen to Jeff Goldblum, not Matt Ridley

Did you read Matt Ridley’s piece in the Wall Street Journal last month?    He was making a very compelling argument that the “World’s Resources Aren’t Running out”.   I have to admit that when I started reading it, I got a little seduced by his optimism. For a while, I was hooked.  I bought the idea that human ingenuity can overcome great things. I could imagine a world where human inventiveness and technology fixes everything.   But then I heard a small voice in the back of my head.  It was Jeff Goldblum’s voice.    You remember the bit in Jurassic Park, where Dr Ian Malcolm (the Goldblum character) says:   “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

I shouldn’t be too surprised that Matt Ridley is writing this stuff — he has books to sell, and a little bit of controversy always helps.  But what worries me about Mr Ridley is that he is very good at blinding you with micro-truths, and intoxicating you with his optimism and back slapping of humanity. So much so, that you become subtly misdirected from vast swathes of complexity that undermines his argument.  Whenever you read Mr Ridley’s stuff, please remember Dr Malcolm….

The core of Mr Ridley’s argument sounds reasonable — that human innovation and ingenuity has historically overcome most challenges that nature has thrown at us.  “We burst through such limits again and again”, is his claim, so don’t let ecologists tell you “that the world’s resources come in fixed amounts that will run out”.   He provides factual evidence which is largely correct — just not the whole story.

Take the issue of agricultural land, for example. While it is true that in many parts of the world agricultural land has mostly improved productivity rather than expanded in area, it is also the case that agricultural expansion is still occurring in the lower income countries.  This is partly due to local population increase, but it is also due to the displacement of production from high income countries to lower income countries.  Take a look a the grocery section in the supermarket and see where much of your fruit and vegetables are coming from.  Displacement also partly explains why “no country with a GDP per head greater than $4,600 has a falling stock of forest” — i.e. countries like the UK now import wood products from elsewhere, as well as importing food products from land that was, until recently, forested.  Land expansion is also not just about food — palm oil, rubber, tobacco, narcotics, being the obvious examples.

This graphic illustrates the diminishing land area to sustain humanity.  The number of people in each 50-year block corresponds to the global population.  By 2050 we expect to surpass 9 billion inhabitants.
This graphic illustrates the diminishing land area to sustain humanity. The number of people in each 50-year block corresponds to the global population. By 2050 we expect to surpass 9 billion inhabitants.

Mr Ridley continues: “Economists point out that we keep improving the productivity of each acre of land by applying fertiliser, mechanisation, pesticides and irrigation,” says Mr Ridley. “Further innovation is bound to shift the ceiling upward.”  Notable by its absence in Mr Ridley’s discussion on this topic is a description of what agricultural intensification typically entails.  He says nothing on the aggregation of small holdings and the relocation of rural inhabitants to poorer conditions in cities.  Nothing on battery farming and the impacts on disease, nor the industrial scale mechanical slaughter of livestock.  Nothing on the eutrophication of water courses due to nutrient run off.  Nothing on the impact on biodiversity and ecosystem function of pesticides and excessive fertilisation.  These are all examples of the “innovation” that has allowed many countries to limit the expansion of agricultural land, but with little or no concern for the wider impacts.   I can hear Dr Malcolm’s voice again…

Amongst all the shortsightedness in the article, one particular aspect especially illustrates Mr Ridley’s tunnel vision.  “Does that mean the world is running out? No: There are extensive lower grade deposits, and if we get desperate, all the phosphorus atoms put into the ground over past centuries still exist, especially in the mud of estuaries. It’s just a matter of concentrating them again.” [My italics]  Let’s gloss over for a minute all the social and economic elements ignored here — let’s not dwell on issues of sovereignty, or questions of who will pay for such extraction, or whether or not such (now) highly valuable minerals will be rationed and shared equally or will be reserved for the rich.   No, let’s just imagine for a minute that all these non-technical challenges will be overcome with ease — surely then, it is just a matter of technology.  Well, no.  Socio-economic challenges aside, the technology itself is only a part of any technological solution. The other factor is energy.

Mr Ridley ignores energy all the way through his article, which is a shame, because knowing where that energy is going to come from for these power-hungry behemoths of technological wonder is a pretty important part of the solution. And high quality energy is a finite resource that cannot be recovered.

I am sure technological innovation will be key to managing and maintaining stewardship of a healthy planet Earth, but it is not a panacea for the World’s natural resource problems.  And while you go away pondering the words of Dr Malcolm, also consider this: it was the introduction of technological advances in fishing that allowed for trawling over larger areas, to deeper depths and for longer times that was partly responsible for the collapse of the Atlantic Northwest cod population.  Twenty years later this cod population has still not recovered from the impact of that innovative technology.


  1. Really (scary) interesting. I will have to look up that article you mention. It would be a good topic for conversation in an upper level course.

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