The drumbeat for apocalypse can once again be heard in the media. Almost two decades after the publication of The Limits to Growth, the Club of Rome scenario that predicted ecological catastrophe, the WorldWatch Institute has picked up the mantle of leadership in the discredited field of what I have euphemistically called “millenarian studies.”
In its annual State of the World Report, Worldwatch, a Washington-based research group, contends that, taken together, the current trends in population growth, excessive consumption of wood, minerals, and other materials in producing energy, the release of toxic substances in the environment, and “exponential economic expansion” are eroding the natural systems for sustaining life on earth. As one might anticipate, the proposed answer to this febrile scenario is a “new global economy.”
Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch and chief author of the report, argues that we have forty years to make the necessary changes—or else. In 1972. the Club of Rome gave the world fifty years to make the changes required to avert catastrophe. Two years later it revised its estimates. One waits eagerly — though not with optimism — for Brown’s recantation. “If we have not succeeded by 2030,” Brown says, “environmental deterioration and economic decline will be feeding on each other, causing social structures to disintegrate.”
In order to sustain global vitality, Brown insists, we need to lower population growth rates and stabilize emission of the industrial gases that, as they accumulate in the atmosphere, are affecting global climate and eliminating the forest cover. He argues predictably for an equitable (i.e., egalitarian) distribution of wealth, a global population cap at eight billion people, and a reliance on solar, thermal, and wind power. Carbon emissions must be reduced to one-eighth of current levels to ward off havoc in the atmosphere, and the private automobile must be replaced by public transportation and the bicycle. All this cannot occur, of course, without fundamental change in “the social, economic, and moral character of human societies.” Above all, “individual priorities and values” must be altered, specifically in the form of a transition away from materialism.
Although these arguments have a familiar ring and find a receptive audience, most of the claims are misleading, misguided, or false. Thus, while the birthrate in East Africa is pressing against the limits of food supplies, that example is increasingly the exception as the rate of global population increase subsides and as food supplies increase. Even the Club of Rome conceded several years ago that the earth could sustain a population of 22 billion people with known food reserves, a population figure almost three times higher than WorldWatch’s proposed cap.
Most of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be attributed to volcanic ash rather than industrial gases or automobile emissions. This suggests that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere vary according to natural rather than man-made causes. In any case, the whole notion of global warming, to which the question of carbon dioxide levels is presumably related, remains an unproven hypothesis. In fact, temperatures in the northern hemisphere over this century have actually decreased slightly.
The idea that under current world conditions the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is easily disproved by tracking per capita income levels in China and India, two nations representing half the world’s population. In these two nations, per capita income has risen steadily in the last two decades. Moreover, the arrival of Pacific rim nations into the ranks of the middle class from what was formerly abject poverty is one of the extraordinary achievements of the century, apparent to everyone but Lester Brown.
Similarly, the bromides about materialism and consumption fly in the face of how people improve their standard of living and their environmental situation. Unless one assumes that people are simply gatherers taking from a finite earth and not restoring the natural bounty, the Brown view of environmental conditions is specious. In fact, the generation of wealth today is much less reliant on non-replaceable resources than was ever the case before. Artificial or man-made substances are everywhere replacing natural products.
If indeed the world should run out of fossil fuel — a virtual impossibility if one includes coal and coke — then the supply and demand equation would shape the direction of energy substitution. Under present conditions, the best bet would be toward nuclear energy rather than solar energy. Nuclear technology is better developed and cheaper than the solar alternative. Brown, of course, would not even consider such a possibility.
To buttress an essentially weak argument, Brown relies heavily on the presumed moral imperatives behind his position. His argument simply assumes that it is moral to consume less rather than more, to ride a bike rather than a car, to use replaceable rather than un-replaceable resources. But as far as human well-being is concerned, that view cannot be sustained, despite its appeal to neo-Calvinistic principles. Consumption is a reflection of preference and the ability to pay for what one wants. That desire is directed to products that are the result of human ingenuity, which Julian Simon describes as the ultimate resource. Should we be at the point of running out of anything, markets and pricing provide an incentive for alternative discovery. But that isn’t where we are as a people. The earth is far more fungible than the ecological Chicken Littles believe, and enterprise is far more effective in coping with strains on the environment than Lester Brown supposes.
This doesn’t mean one should adopt a pollyannaish view of the ecosystem. It doesn’t pay to be cavalier with nature’s bounty. But it also isn’t sensible to exaggerate the dangers to the environment, to underestimate mankind’s ingenuity, and to predict apocalypse—unless of course these predictions give you notoriety in the New York Times and benefactions from philanthropists. Come to think of it, Lester Brown may not be as absurd as he seems.
Herbert London is Dean of the Gallatin Division of New York University and a Senior Fellow of the Hudson Institute.