Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Malthusian Engineering

We have two political parties in the U.S. that approach climate change in two different ways - - one that dismisses global warming as a hoax and one that avoids the subject at all cost.  Both break into similar camps in terms of sustainability, resource constraints, and economic growth. 

Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Grantham deserve attention in this void space.  Malthus being the 18-century doomsayer on unsustainable populations.  Timing was Malthus's problem - - cheap energy has extended the timeline which, partially removed the barriers to rapid population growth, wealth and scientific progress.  But cheap energy is ending. 

The second person is money manager Jeremy Grantham.  Grantham is founder and chief strategist of the asset-management firm GMO.  Grantham is a rare bird - - part environmentalist and part Wall Streeter (he intends to make money regardless of which environmental apocalyptic scenario we may face).  Both men see the world in terms of the same resource limitations that turns into win-lose, zero-sum contests.  As Grantham writes, "The faster China grows, the higher grain prices go, the more people in China or India who upgrade to meat, the higher the tendency for Africa to starve."

The New York Times Magazine (Sunday August 14, 2011) has an interesting profile of Grantham, A Darker Shade of Green (written by Carlo Rotella).  The article looked at several of his famous quarterly newsletters.  Rotella writes the following:

The letter is 19 pages long and dense with figures, but here's the short version: "The prices of all important commodities except oil declined for 100 years until 2002, by an average of 70 percent.  From 2002 until know, this entire decline was erased by a bigger price surge than occurred during World War II.  Statistically, most commodities are now no far away from their former downward trend that it makes it very probable that the old trend has changed - - that there is in fact a Paradigm Shift - - perhaps the most important economic event since the Industrial Revolution.

We might want to read Malthus's book.

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