Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Dismal, utterly dismal or moderately cheerful

As the extent of the devastation in Haiti was becoming clearer, I happened to be listening to Al Bartlett talking to Tim Harford and giving his own gloss on three theorems of Kenneth Boulding:
"The Dismal Theorem"- If the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

"The Utterly Dismal Theorem" - This theorem states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

"The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem" - Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous.
Haiti, of course, is relatively self-contained and the situation may be salvageable through the efforts and wisdom of its own people, together with concerted external support. A nightmare is that Haiti's cycles of vulnerability, misery and destruction are a small prefiguring the global future for a civilisation that does not evolve to realise the moderately cheerful theorem.

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