In the past five decades there have been many, many forecasts of impending environmental doom. They have universally been proven wrong. Meanwhile, those who have bet on human resourcefulness have almost always been correct.
In his widely praised book Ecoscam, Ronald Bailey strongly countered environmentalist alarmism, using facts to demonstrate just how wildly overstated many claims of impending ecological doom really were. Now, twenty years later, the Reason Magazine science correspondent is back to assess the future of humanity and the global biosphere. Bailey finds, contrary to popular belief, that many present ecological trends are quite positive. Including:
Falling cancer incidence rates in the United States.
The likelihood of a declining world population by mid-century.
The abundant return of agricultural land to nature as the world reaches peak farmland.
A proven link between increases in national wealth and reductions in air and water pollution
Global warming is a problem, but the cost of clean energy could soon fall below that of fossil fuels.
In The End of Doom, Bailey avoids polemics and offers a balanced, fact-based and ultimately hopeful perspective on our current environmental situation. Now isn't that a breath of fresh air?
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About the Author
RONALD BAILEY is the author of Ecoscam and an award-winning science correspondent for Reason magazine and Reason.com where he writes a weekly science and technology column. He has also worked as a staff writer at Forbes and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, Reader's Digest and many other publications.
Read an Excerpt
The End of Doom
Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century
By Ronald Bailey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Ronald Bailey
All rights reserved.
"A MAN YOUR AGE WITH NO CHILDREN?" blurted out my flabbergasted Johannesburg taxi driver. I was then forty-eight years old and taking a long cab ride from Sandton, where the UN's 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development had convened, to a Soweto township venue in South Africa. As is my usual practice, I had gotten into the front seat to make conversation.
After we'd gone through the preliminaries about what had brought me to Johannesburg, my very hospitable driver, who looked to be in his fifties, asked me if I was married. "Yes," I replied. "How many children do you have?" he amiably asked. "None," I replied. My driver nearly veered off the road in shock. "Are there problems?" he carefully inquired. "No," I replied, "my wife and I decided not to have children." "Who is going to support you in your old age?" he wondered. I elected not to try to explain to him about retirement funds and Social Security and instead turned the questions around, asking him, "Well, how many children do you have?"
"Six," he replied with evident satisfaction. "Why so many?" I asked. "Because two of them are going to be rotters and just leave you," he genially explained. "Two others will support you when you get old. And you need two younger ones at home to fetch you beers from the fridge after work."
"How many children did your father have?" I asked. "I am one of twelve," my driver replied, adding that he had grown up on a farm in the northern part of the country. Then I asked, "How many children do your kids have now? "None," he replied with a hint of a frown. "City life is so expensive, a couple are still finishing up school, and good jobs are hard to find," he explained.
That's the demographic transition right there, I thought to myself.
Population researchers define the demographic transition as the change in the human condition from high mortality and high fertility to low mortality and low fertility. Initially, both birthrates and death rates are high and natural population growth is low. With the advent of modern medicine and sanitation, mortality rates fall and fertility remains high, producing a rapidly growing population. Eventually fertility rates also fall, leading to a reduction in the rate of population growth. "Population increases not because people start breeding like rabbits, but because they stop dying like flies," explains American Enterprise Institute demographer Nicholas Eberstadt.
In premodern societies, average life expectancy was under forty years, nearly a third of children died before reaching age five, child labor was vital to mostly rural families, and few women had access to education or contraception. Global average life expectancy is now over seventy years, only one in twenty children die before their fifth birthdays, urbanized child-rearing is costly, and many more women are educated and have access to contraception.
As a result of these trends, women in 1970 globally averaged 4.7 children over the courses of their lives, and that has fallen to 2.45 children in 2013. A population becomes stable when as many people are born as die. This occurs when the total fertility rate is approximately 2.1 children per woman; the extra tenth of a child takes into account pre-reproduction deaths, infertility, and people like my wife and me who choose not to have children.
Leading demographers expect that as the twenty-first century unfolds, women across the globe will be giving birth to fewer and fewer children. The upshot will be slowing population growth and eventually a reversal of trend in which world population begins to shrink. According to a long line of environmentalist doomsayers, this was not supposed to happen.
The Population Bomb
"The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now," predicted Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. Ehrlich was not a lone voice proclaiming the advent of imminent massive famines. A year earlier in their bestselling book, Famine 1975! America's Decision: Who Will Survive?, William and Paul Paddock warned, "By 1975 a disaster of unprecedented magnitude will face the world. Famines, greater than any in history, will ravage the undeveloped nations. A swelling population is blotting up the earth's food." They confidently added, "Our technology will be unable to increase food production in time to avert the deaths of tens of millions people by starvation."
In his famous 1968 essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," published in the journal Science, ecologist Garrett Hardin flatly declared, "The freedom to breed is intolerable." To illustrate the harms of the freedom to breed, he conjures up the arresting example of a pasture open to all people in a village. Each herdsman, seeking to maximize his individual gain, puts as many cattle on the pasture as possible, leading eventually to its destruction from overgrazing. "Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons," wrote Hardin. "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all." According to Hardin, ceaselessly breeding human beings treat the Earth like a village commons and would soon "overgraze" the planet. Hardin thus concluded that "the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy."
Another prominent prognosticator of population doom is Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute. Back in 1963, when Brown was a young bureaucrat in the US Department of Agriculture, he declared, "The food problem emerging in the less-developing regions may be one of the most nearly insoluble problems facing man over the next few decades." In 1967, Brown explained, "As the non-recurring sources of [agricultural] productivity are exhausted ... the rate of increase in yield per acre begins to slow." In 1974, Brown maintained that farmers "can no longer keep up with rising demand; thus the outlook is for chronic scarcities and rising prices." In 1989, Brown stated that "global food insecurity is increasing," and further claimed that "the slim excess of growth in food production over population is narrowing." Brown contended that "population growth is exceeding the farmer's ability to keep up," concluding that "our oldest enemy, hunger, is again at the door." In 1995, Brown starkly warned, "Humanity's greatest challenge may soon be just making it to the next harvest." In 1996, Brown again proclaimed, "Food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding." In a 2012 Scientific American article, Brown asked, "Could food shortages bring down civilization?" Not surprisingly, Brown's answer was an emphatic yes. Given his past record, he astonishingly claimed that for years he has "resisted the idea that food shortages could bring down not only individual governments but also our global civilization." Now, however, Brown said, "I can no longer ignore that risk." Also in 2013, Brown once again declared, "The world is in transition from an era of food abundance to one of scarcity."
The population doomsters offered stark plans to handle the impending global famines. The Paddock brothers advised a form of triage, in which the United States would pick countries worthy of food aid and leave tens of millions of people in India, Haiti, and Egypt to starve to death. In The Population Bomb Ehrlich compared humanity to a growing cancer on the Earth. "A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people," wrote Ehrlich. What must be done? "We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions." What sorts of heartless decisions? The November 25, 1969, The New York Times reported, "Dr. Paul Ehrlich says the U.S. might have to resort to addition of temporary sterility drugs to food shipped to foreign countries or their water supply with limited distribution of antidote chemicals, perhaps by lottery."
That was then, but what about now?
Though it is tragically true that over the decades tens of millions have died of the effects of malnutrition, the world-spanning massive famines predicted by Ehrlich and the Paddocks did not come to pass. Instead, world population since 1968 has essentially doubled from 3.6 billion to 7.2 billion today. While the overpopulation dirge has become somewhat muted as a result of their massive predictive failure, many of the more radical environmentalist ideologues still sing the same old Malthusian song.
Modern promoters of imminent population doom are the intellectual disciples of the eighteenth-century economist Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. In the notorious first edition of his An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus claimed that human numbers would always outrun the amount of food available to feed people. Malthus advanced two propositions that he regarded as completely self-evident. First, that "food is necessary for the existence of man," and second, that "the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state." Based on these propositions, Malthus concluded that "the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second." In other words, Malthus was arguing that population doubled at an exponential rate of 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and so forth, whereas food production increased additively, rising one unit at a time, like 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and so forth. Malthus additionally asserted that "population does invariably increase where there are the means of subsistence." Malthus therefore dismally concluded that some portion of humanity must forever be starving to death.
According to Malthus, there are two kinds of checks on population, preventive and positive. Preventive checks, those that prevent births, include abortion, infanticide, and prostitution; positive checks include war, pestilence, and famine. In later editions of his essay, Malthus added a third check that he called "moral restraint," which includes voluntary celibacy, late marriage, and the like. Moral restraint is basically just a milder version of the earlier preventive check.
If all else failed to keep human numbers under control, Malthus chillingly reckoned:
Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.
Reading Malthus in 1838 was a eureka moment for the founding father of modern biology, Charles Darwin, who declared in his autobiography, "I had at last got a theory by which to work." Darwin realized that Malthus's thesis applied to the natural world, since plants and animals produce far more offspring than there are food, nutrients, and space to support them. Consequently, Darwin noted, "It at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species." This insight formed the basis for one of the most important modern scientific theories, the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection.
Ever since, biologists have been entranced by the idea that if Malthusianism can explain the operation of the natural world, it should also explain the functioning of human societies. Are we not just complicated animals? Shouldn't this biological insight apply to us, too?
The most prominent among the neo-Malthusians is Paul Ehrlich. Despite his utter failure as a prophet, Ehrlich continues to preach that overpopulation is humanity's biggest problem. "The human predicament is driven by overpopulation, overconsumption of natural resources, and the use of unnecessarily environmentally damaging technologies and socio-economic-political arrangements to service Homo sapiens' aggregate consumption," wrote Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, in the March 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. During a May 2013 conference at the University of Vermont, Ehrlich asked, "What are the chances a collapse of civilization can be avoided?" His answer was 10 percent.
Even now the Ehrlichs are far from alone in propagating forecasts of overpopulation doom. "The world faces a serious overpopulation problem," asserted Cornell University researcher David Pimentel in his 2011 article "World Overpopulation." "The world's biggest problem?" asks a 2011 op-ed by researchers Mary Ellen Harte and Anne Ehrlich in the Los Angeles Times. "Too many people," they answer. "We are a plague upon the earth," declared nature documentarian Sir David Attenborough. "Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us." Attenborough expressed these dour sentiments in The Telegraph in January 2013.
In his 2013 rant Ten Billion, Microsoft Research computer scientist Stephen Emmott argued that humanity's growing population constitutes "an unprecedented planetary emergency." Emmott asserts, "As the population continues to grow, our problems will increase. And this means that every way we look at it, a planet of ten billion people is likely to be a nightmare." In the somewhat more hopeful 2013 book Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth?, journalist Alan Weisman declares that "this will likely be the century that determines what the optimal human population is for our planet." We can choose to limit population growth, argues Weisman, "or nature will do it for us, in the form of famines, thirst, climate chaos, crashing ecosystems, opportunistic disease, and wars over dwindling resources that finally cut us down to size."
More Food Equals More Kids?
In fact, the chief goal of most species is to turn food into offspring: the more food, the more offspring. "To ecologists who study animals, food and population often seem like sides of the same coin," wrote Paul and Anne Ehrlich in 1990. "If too many animals are devouring it, the food supply declines; too little food, the supply of animals declines." They further asserted, "Homo sapiens is no exception to that rule, and at the moment it seems likely that food will be our limiting resource." By limiting, they meant starvation.
Neo-Malthusians like the Ehrlichs, Pimentel, and Emmott cannot let go of the simple but clearly wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction. For example, in an article called "Human Carrying Capacity Is Determined by Food Availability," in the November 2003 issue of the journal Population and Environment, Duke University researcher Russell Hopfenberg wrote: "The problem of human population growth can be feasibly addressed only if it is recognized that increases in the population of the human species, like increases in the population of all other species, is a function of increases in food availability." More food means more kids.
Excerpted from The End of Doom by Ronald Bailey. Copyright © 2015 Ronald Bailey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 – Peak Population?
Chapter 2 – Is the World Running on Empty?
Chapter 3 – Never Do Anything For the First Time
Chapter 4 – What Cancer Epidemic?
Chapter 5 – The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?
Chapter 6 – Can We Cope with the Heat?
Chapter 7 – Environmental Renewal in the 2lst Century