TANSTAAFL vs. Futurism
By Bryan Caplan
While writing my target essay for May’s Cato Unbound, I decided I ought to take another look at Edwin Dolan‘s TANSTAAFL: The Economic Strategy for Environmental Crisis.* First published in 1971, it is one of the earliest works of free-market environmentalism.
The book’s full of good material, and was very original at the time. But by modern standards, it’s amazingly Malthusian. For Dolan, the last two centuries of rapid growth of population and prosperity appear to be a happy coincidence. He’s skeptical that rapid growth can continue. Unless I’m missing something, never mentions the Simon/Kremer/Romer point that larger populations create more new ideas.
Most striking, though, is how Dolan reacts to the following scenario:
It has been estimated that the earth alone could accommodate twenty million times its present population, living at 120 per square meter in a 2000-story building covering the entire earth. It would take us 890 years, at our present rate of growth, to get to that point, and by then we may have solved the formidable technical and economic problems of interstellar travel, and be able to export our surplus to the stars…
Dolan responds to this scenario with derision, even contempt:
If people want to believe in this sort of thing there is no rational argument which can be presented to convince them otherwise. If one were to “prove” that it is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light and reach the stars, they could legitimately counter by citing “proofs” by eminent 19th-century scientists that heavier-than-air machines could never fly. For the present, however, [this] lies in the realm of pure speculation, not of reasoned discussion, so we will give it no further consideration…
Perhaps I’m out of touch, but my guess is that modern intellectuals across the political spectrum would take the prospect of space colonization by 2860 A.D. more seriously than Dolan did. Environmentalist values are almost certainly much more prevalent today than in 1971. But techno-optimism – especially about the far future – seems to have gained even more ground. Am I wrong?
* TANSTAAFL stands for “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”