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The Dismal Science: Economics

It was Thomas Carlyle, who coined the phrase "Dismal Science". Carlyle was writing in criticism of John Stuart Mill's arguments that institutions were the root of European hegemony over the rest of the world during the 1850s. It was actually part of a very racist polemic by Carlyle.1 But many found it apropos to Malthus, Smith, and Ricardo. Today, most people think of Malthus when they think of the term. Malthus was quite skeptical about an economy's capability to keep up with population growth stating that population would always exceed the world's capacity for agricultural productivity. In the event, this has proved not to be a problem. Technology has remained far ahead of needs in the industrialized world.

Nevertheless, population growth has become enmeshed with the whole subject of economics, because people see it affecting markets especially with regard to the use of "limited" resources. It can be argued, at this point in our technological advancement, that the idea of limited resources is strictly a state of mind. Technology seems to be able to solve most of our physical problems. Growing populations are accomodated.

Editorial Note: When I talk to people about the prospect of living for centuries, which is becoming more and more likely as scientists find new ways to extend our life spans (the advent of resveratrol being merely a case in point), I find they put forward the notion that over-population would result and that this result would be bad. It is as if they would rather see people die than face the possibility that their extended existence might put a strain on physical resources. I doubt these people even consider their own demise as part of this equation. The fact is, that as humans become able to live longer, they have shown less and less desire to reproduce. Look even at the last couple of generations with the marked reduction in the size of families. Six to eight children were at one time common. Today the 2.3 births per couple needed to maintain population equalibrium is barely maintained in the U.S. and is NOT maintained in Europe and large parts of Asia.

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W.J. Rayment

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