Peter Gleick Sticks Up for Malthusianism

2018 Sagan Prize winner, Peter Gleick, has written a  review of Michael Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never and it’s been getting a lot of links from Shellenberger’s critics. He starts out with a description of the two  opposed philosophies of Cornucopianism and Malthusianism and how they apply to environmentalism. The review is illustrated with side by side drawings of a cornucopia (a horn shaped basket full of goods) and a portrait of Thomas Malthus. A lot of Shellenberger’s criticism of environmentalism is that it’s slipped into an extreme Malthusianism. Malthus is sort of an embarrassment (or should be) for environmentalists. He argued in his famous essay (first published anonymously) that population would grow geometrically and outstrip resources, which only grew arithmetically. One would expect him to be more associated with villains such as Mel Profitt, the Kevin Spacey character in the late ’80s TV series, Wiseguy.


Go to 13 minutes in if it doesn’t start there.

Gleick doesn’t specifically identify as a Malthusian, but he does dismiss Cornucopians with a series of bland links:

Two Cornucopian ideas lie at the heart of this book: The first idea is that there are no real “limits to growth” and environmental problems are the result of poverty and will be solved by having everyone get richer. This idea isn’t original and has long been debunked by others (for a few examples see hereherehere, and here).

The second Cornucopian idea he refers to is Shellenberger’s advocacy of nuclear power. He quotes Shellenberger from the book: “Only nuclear, not solar and wind, can provide abundant, reliable, and inexpensive heat” and “Only nuclear energy can power our high-energy human civilization while reducing humankind’s environmental footprint.” He does not make any counter arguments.

While he severely criticizes the book, he does seem a bit uncharacteristically respectful of Shellenberger as opposed to his usual invective against people he disagrees with such as Donna Laframboise. He wields a lot of nitpicking and hairsplitting over distinctions between concepts like natural disasters and increases in extreme weather. Being something of a water expert, he catches Shellenberger in a technical flub of saying gas plants use 25 to 50 times less water than coal plants. He also points out wind and solar not requiring water as an important omission. Of course, the lions share of any backup for this limited share of the electricity mix will require water. He claims the book is riddled with a variety of such simple errors and that their “number and scope”  is “problematic”. I doubt it. Shellenberger was an anthropology major, which is not considered a major STEM field, but he has a very good overview and lots of experience in energy and environmental issues. His arguments for higher energy density and availability are very strong and are his main arguments. If Gleick had anything to counter them, he wouldn’t leave them “beyond the scope of this review”.

He has a remarkable paragraph that sums up his views of Malthusianism vs Cornucopianism:

There is uncertainty about the best path forward. Those who believe the evidence shows our current path crosses dangerous planetary limits and may lead to severe environmental and social disruption can’t prove an apocalyptic future will happen – they’re arguing we must do what we can to avoid it. But neither can Cornucopians prove that narrow technological solutions and unconstrained economic growth will avoid those catastrophic futures. The imbalance of these viewpoints is key however: if Malthusians are wrong, all they would have done is made the world a better place. If Cornucopians are wrong, apocalyptic outcomes are indeed a real possibility.

If Malthusians are wrong, all they would have done is made the world a better place? Really? Does perpetuating energy poverty make the world a better place? If Cornucopians Can’t prevent apocalyptic outcomes, does that mean Malthusians can? I think Malthusians might be likely to cause apocalyptic outcomes. Shellenberger’s Policy prescriptions are based on decades of work and study in the fields of energy and environment. Gleick’s appear to be based on the popular but superficial Joel Pett cartoon.

Gleick quotes H. L. Mencken, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.” I’d like to suggest another Mencken quote that Gleick might consider for self examination:

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.


[Update:  This has been reposted at WUWT. Commenter Brian had a better Mencken quote. 

“The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.”

A couple other bloggers also reposted it. One of them translated it into French. ]


  1. A grifter fraud defending one of the the biggest losers of all time. Only Paul Ehrlich is a bigger loser.


  2. A statement like “…Cornucopian ideas lie at the heart of this book: The first idea is that there are no real ‘limits to growth’ ” tells me immediately he is arguing with a straw man.

    Stephensons Rocket was far less efficient than the Evening Star if we measure in tons per mile goods moved. The latter used less coal. was less polluting, and took less time. Achieving the same output with less inputs is growth.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. TDK
    I agree about the straw man argument. I don’t think Gleick’s portrayal of the book is reasonable or accurate. A closer short statement of the books emphasis would be that it uses data to show that the Malthusian view of the “climate crises” is not only wrong but unfounded . It appears Mr. Gleick is at best a poor reader and at worst up to his old tricks of trying to mislead the public for his personal gain or ideology.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mike,

    I haven’t read Shellenberger’s book and so I am unable to judge, in general terms, whether Gleick’s criticisms have any justification. However, having read through his critique, two things stand out for me:

    Firstly, Gleick accuses Shellenberger of misrepresenting the findings of extreme weather attribution studies. He says: “One of the most prevalent strawman arguments in the climate debate is that scientists claim climate change ‘causes’ extreme events, when in fact, climate scientists make careful distinctions between ‘causality’ and ‘influence’ – two very different things.”

    I’m sorry, but that is unadulterated crap, and I’m actually quite stunned that anyone in Gleick’s position could write such drivel. Causality is influence! If anyone wants to know the careful distinctions made by scientists in the field of causal inference, then they can read my Brief Primer on Causation. When Gleick accuses Shellenberger of strawman arguments he does so by offering his own. It is a classic case of an individual arguing for probability of necessity over probability of sufficiency and not even realizing there is such a distinction to be made. I weep to see the level of ignorance that supposedly learned individuals parade when they discuss such subjects.

    Secondly, Gleick says: “Shellenberger misunderstands the concept of ‘uncertainty’ in science, making the classic mistake of thinking about uncertainty in the colloquial sense of ‘We don’t know’ rather than the way scientists use it to present ‘a range of possibilities’.”

    Once again I find myself slapping my forehead in disbelief. To quote Gleick back to him, “This is both wrong and hardly comforting”. Has this guy never heard of the scientific importance of recognizing both epistemic and aleatory uncertainties in a given scientific context, and the necessity of determining the extent to which each features? Does he not have any friends who could have taken him aside and warned him of the public buffoonery he was about to commit when he approached his keyboard? For example, here’s something that his friends could have shown him before he made such a fool of himself:

    Click to access Fox%20Ulkumen%202011-1.pdf

    I’m sure that Gleick had a number of valid points to make but when he frames them with remarks that can only be categorized as crass stupidity, I have to admit that I quickly lose interest. If this is the standard to be expected from someone who is president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, a MacArthur Fellow, and winner of the 2018 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization, then God help us all. Listening to Gleick is like taking a lecture from someone with a false red nose and twirling dickie bow. It’s just too difficult to take him seriously.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Another point in Gleick’s critique worth challenging is his claim that linking Malthusianism with an anti-human sentiment is just ‘vile ad hominem’. Well here is a statement made in 1999 by Dr Christian Kirschteiger, who is currently responsible within the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CNECT) for the strategy development of EU policies for smart infrastructures, including energy and transport. Having wryly observed that ‘human beings need enemies’, he states:

    “With the majority of economical and social problems solved, the so-called “Club of Rome” gave (Western) mankind “The Limits of Growth” in 1972 (Anon, 1972), claiming that human use of many essential resources and generation of many kinds of pollutants have already surpassed rates that are physically sustainable for the survival of mankind. This would result in the coming decades in an uncontrolled decline in per capita food output, energy use and industrial production. Their 1991 follow-up publication, “The First Global Revolution” includes the following remarkable statement: ‘In searching for a new enemy to unite us, we came up with the idea that pollution, the threat of global warming, water shortages, famine and the like would fit the bill… All these dangers are caused by human intervention… The real enemy, then, is humanity itself’ (King & Schneider, 1991).”

    Yes, according to the Club of Rome, the real enemy is ‘humanity itself’. If Kirschsteiger is allowed to make this observation regarding Malthusians, without accusations of ad hominem, then so should Shellenberger.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. John, you stated,
    “I’m actually quite stunned that anyone in Gleick’s position could write such drivel.”
    In my observation, people in Gleick’s position tacitly depend on writing drivel like that as integral to their professional success.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hunterson7,

    As a water expert, Gleick could possibly get by without having a substantial grasp of the concept of uncertainty, but as an award winning communicator of science who is publicly accusing a fellow environmentalist of ignorance, it is reasonable to expect that he should not himself be so ignorant. It is for that reason that I choose to be so scathing in my criticism. Communicators should be held to higher standards, and yet, as you observe, they don’t seem to be as long as the message being communicated is culturally sanctioned. So I agree, quality can have little to do with popularity. Many people have linked to the article because they agree with its sentiment and they were suitably impressed by the author’s rhetoric and credentials.

    Liked by 1 person

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