Beware of giant hamsters

In: Uncategorized

26 Jan 2010

There is little new in yesterday’s New Economics Foundation (NEF) report arguing growth isn’t possible apart from its vivid metaphor about giant hamsters. The report draws an analogy between a hamster rapidly gaining in weight and the dangers of economic growth:

“From birth to puberty a hamster doubles its weight each week. If, then, instead of levelling-off in maturity as animals do, the hamster continued to double its weight each week, on its first birthday we would be facing a nine billion tonne hamster. If it kept eating at the same ratio of food to body weight, by then its daily intake would be greater than the total, annual amount of maize produced worldwide. There is a reason that in nature things do not grow indefinitely.”

Although Malthus did not use the hamster metaphor this is essentially his argument in a different guise. Malthus famously argued that population growth would outstrip the supply of food and mass starvation would result. If he had thought of the hamster metaphor he could have used it back in 1798 when he first issued his warning about overpopulation.

The NEF takes rising consumption resulting from economic growth (rather than population growth) and represents it by the hamster. What it forgets is that human ingenuity can increase the supply of resources more rapidly than demand.

As a result humanity can get richer and consume more resources at the same time. Failure to recognise this elementary fact has meant that – fortunately – gloomy Malthusian predictions have proved appallingly innaccurate.

All the NEF report proves it that its authors have a vivid imagination and a gift for public relations.

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