Sheldon Richman is a senior editor with the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.
In his best-selling book, Earth in the Balance, U.S. Vice President Al Gore wrote, “No goal is more crucial to healing the global environment than stabilizing human population” During the U.S. presidential campaign, Bill Clinton stated that global population growth poses the “sing1e greatest threat to ecosystems and the quality of life on earth.” Claims such as these can be found time after time in the writings of antinatalists. Paul Ehrlich and others repeat incessantly that the allegedly looming environmental crises will never be solved unless population growth is brought under control.
At first glance, these arguments have a surface plausibility. If the antinatalist establishment is right about the relationship between population and the world, and if they are right about the environmental crises, then it could seem possible that environ- mental problem will not be solved until population numbers are controlled. The antinatalists are, however, wrong about population and wrong about the environment.
What the antinatalist-environmental movement regards as a looming catastrophe is nothing of the kind. The movement’s claims are based on bad science, half-truths, and flawed economic analysis; and structured to convince the public that disaster is immanent unless people surrender their personal rights to government. Among the freedoms to be sacrificed is the deeply personal decision on the number of children they will have.
Such scare tactics are designed to increase pressures for the fundamental restructuring of the world economy. Described in glib, economic rhetoric, the ‘new’ economics will eventually depress economic growth, making a higher standard of living —perhaps even the survival of the world’s population — impossible. While people in the developed countries will face hardship, people of the developing world will face the destruction of their dreams and aspirations for a better life. Their hopes will be annihilated as national and international economic decisions are handed over to bureaucrats dedicated to the proposition that consumption is sinful and that people are the ultimate pollution.
I do not argue that we live in the best of all possible worlds. The world is full of problems, many of which are related to the environment — polluted water and air, inadequate sanitation in some places, the questionable cutting of forest land, etc. Where I differ with the environmentalists is on the causalities of the problems.
I also agree that if we are able to usher in a better world, we will need significant institutional reform; where I differ is the nature of the reform. Let me now begin by making what I hope will not be taken as a shocking statement: The world is not coming to an end. Pat Michaels, a University of Virginia climatologist, says that when he argues against the coming global environmental apocalypse, he is accused of being a cynic — because he doesn’t believe we are doomed. I guess that makes me a cynic, too. In this case, I am happy to accept the label.
I would like to examine four of the catastrophes predicted by the environmental movement: global warming, ozone depletion, chemical poisoning, and resource depletion.
The supposed threat from the enhanced greenhouse effect is too well known to need rehearsing here. The burning of fossil fuels and other carbon dioxide emissions are said to intensify nature’s benevolent greenhouse effect to the point that trapped heat will raise global temperatures to life-threatening levels, melt the polar ice, raise sea levels, flood coastal areas, destroy crops, and cause famines, The solution, it is said, is to cut back drastically on activities that produce carbon dioxide, in other words, to reverse the Industrial Revolution. Note the ‘Earth Day 1990’ slogan which stated, “We changed the world. New it’s time to change it back.”
It is important to realize that these predictions are based on computer models of the earth’s climate, and computer models are not clear-cut things. They are replete with assumptions and omissions because, frankly, reality — especially something like the weather — is too complex to model. It is a mistake to understand these models as genuinely predicting the future. They do not. The failure of the global cooling predictions of the l970’s provides an example of inaccurate modeling. Computer models are unable to provide depictions of either past or present with any degree of precision. Some of the models have actually shown rainfall in the Sahara Desert. In addition, models neglect some important factors, such as the increasing cloudiness that has been occurring; this neglect is not benign since clouds both brighten the atmosphere and reflect heat.
If we disregard computer fantasies and look at the satellite temperature data, we find no indication of an apocalypse on the way. Since 1979 there has been no significant warming in either hemisphere. The ground-based temperature records over the last century show virtually no net increase in temperatures; the only increase which has occurred is about one half a degree centigrade — and that is biased by urbanization. According to the models, a two-degree increase should have occurred. The slight warming that can be detected occurred in the arctic during winter and the polar night; it is not enough, however, to cause melting because the temperatures are 40 degrees centigrade below zero. Contrary to apocalyptic global warming scares, the Greenland polar ice has been growing! Curiously, most of the warming occurred before 1945 — before the great increase in CO2 emissions. Another anomaly has been the fact of more warming in the southern hemisphere than in the more heavily industrialized north, again contrary to computer predictions.
The warming predicted by newer models is entirely benign, because it will come at night and during the winter, delaying the first frost and extending the growing season. Since CO2 is a plant nutrient, agriculture may be enhanced by the very phenomenon that the environmental movement fears.
What we have, therefore, is no net global warming and no reason to believe even that this warming is caused by man. Indeed, for most of the earth’s history, the atmosphere has had more CO2 than it does now. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 1990, “It is not possible to attribute all, or even a large part, of the observed global-mean warming to the enhanced greenhouse effect on the basis of observational data currently available.” And Stephen Schneider from the National Center for Atmospheric Research has said, “At the level of global temperature change to date (about 0.5C degrees), the noise in the natural climate variability is simply too large to be able to clearly detect a greenhouse effect signal.”
Ozone hole scare
The story of the so-called ‘ozone hole’ is remarkably similar to the global warming scenario, i.e., “man’s industrial and consumption activities are dramatically changing the biosphere and jeopardizing life.” In this case, the apocalyptic predictions maintain that the production of chlorine, particularly from chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning, is destroying stratospheric ozone which shields damaging ultraviolet radiation from the earth’s surface. By depleting ozone, more ultra violet (UV) rays reach earth, causing increased skin cancer and other horrors. The solution: eliminate the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other damaging chemicals. In this case, the effect of both the prediction and the solution is an attack on modern life — nay, life itself — because refrigeration is vital for the proper storage of food.
The ozone scare is bogus. In mid-April 1993 The Washington Post announced that the ozone problem seems to be nonexistent. “In fact,” The Post reported, “researchers say, the problem appears to be heading toward solution before they can even find any solid evidence that serious harm was done or is being done.” The report pointed out that “attempts to detect the most feared effect of ozone depletion — increased bombardment of the Earth’s surface by UV rays — have failed to turn up any evidence of increased ultraviolet influx outside the Antarctic region during the few weeks a year that the ozone hole is open.” The article then quoted an atmospheric scientist at the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) saying, “We can’t show anything really catastrophic has happened yet, or that anything catastrophic will happen in the future.”
It wasn’t so long ago that another NASA official sat off a near panic by announcing that an ozone hole would probably open over the northeastern United States. It didn’t happen. Even he conceded that the area of predicted ozone thinning was the equivalent of the distance between Washington, D.C. and Richmond Virginia, 100 miles to the south.
Harold Lyons, an environmental chemist, sums up the problem with ozone doomsayers in his forthcoming book, Apocalypse Not:
Given the tremendous variety of things that can cause natural fluctuation in stratospheric ozone, it is not surprising that variations in the quantity of ozone were observed …as far back as the 1950s, when CFC emissions were less than a tenth of what they are today. Indeed, this fact alone calls into question the entire theory that ozone fluctuations are caused by CFCs, and we have no reason not to believe that ozone ‘holes’ existed even in prehistoric times.
It is now part of the conventional wisdom that our widespread use of pesticides and other chemicals used to produce enough food to feed the world’s 5.5 billion people is the cause of a rapid increase in cancers and other maladies. Two claims are made: that cancer rates are skyrocketing and that man-made chemicals are the culprit. Both claims are wrong. On the allegedly increasing incidence of cancer, Bruce Ames, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Berkeley, states: “As life expectancy continues to increase in industrialized countries, cancer rates (unadjusted for age) also increase; however, the age-adjusted cancer death rate in the United States for all cancers combined (excluding lung cancer from smoking) has been staying steady or decreasing since 1950 .… Cancer is fundamentally a degenerative disease of old age.…”
Contrary to the assertions of the environmental movement, man-made chemicals used in the westernized world do not represent the major exposure of human beings to carcinogens and other toxins, according to Ames; 99.9 percent of dietary pesticides are naturally produced by plants. Man has natural defenses, Ames tells us, against “normal exposures to toxins, both natural and synthetic.” A side effect of the campaign against synthetics has, in fact, stimulated a turn to plants with higher levels of natural toxins.
Ironically, the attack on man-made pesticides and other technological innovations could make fruits, vegetables, and cereals more expensive, forcing low-income people to cut back their consumption of foods that are believed to be effective combatants against cancer and heart disease. It is also possible that this attack could threaten the developing world with famines about which the environmentalists profess such great concern.
The link between population growth and air and water pollution is similarly fraudulent as evidenced by the increasing life expectancy nearly everywhere, especially in most of the developing world. In the last 200 years, life expectancy in the West has gone from under 30 to over 75 years with no sign of an end to the improvement. The increase in life expectancy in the United States during the 1980s was 1.7 years. In the developing world, life expectancy has increased by 15 to 20 years since 1950. Without that fall in mortality there could be no “population problem” to complain about. As the economist Julian Simon, has said, we’re decreasing our mortality rates but the antinatalist movement grieves rather than celebrates.
Those facts cannot be squared with a life-threatening environmental deterioration. Ames concludes: “There is no persuasive evidence from either epidemiology or toxicology that pollution is a significant cause of cancer for the general population.” In other words, causation has not been established. The exception is in the former communist bloc, where the government-controlled environment is in terrible disrepair.
The antinatalists see threats of resource depletion everywhere. Any bit of data that can be stretched into a hint of a possible future resource problem is seized on and proclaimed to the world with more than a little glee. And each time, they are wrong — just as their 19th century precursors were wrong when they predicted the immanent depletion of wood, whale oil, and coal — and when they predicted a shortage of oil in the l970s.
A population-related resource shortage could be expected to show up as increased prices of resources. Yet for centuries the trend of resource prices has been downward and reserves have grown steadily. Economist Thomas R. De Gregori writes, “If there is one characteristic that tends to define the world’s commodity markets, it is overcapacity and oversupply.” Almost without exception the prices of minerals and energy resources have fallen relative to wages. The real price of resources is 20 percent lower than in 1980, 50 percent lower than in 1950, and 80 percent lower than in 1900. Let’s be clear about this: an hour’s labor buys increasingly more resources. Conversely, a given amount of resources buys a diminishing amount of labor; labor is becoming more expensive. Since things become more expensive when they become scarce relative to demand, labor — and laborers — are, as Julian Simon points out, getting more scarce the world over. Oil and gasoline are cheaper in real terms than they were before the OPEC embargo in 1973 — indeed, before 1950. Real copper prices dropped 20 percent from 1980 to 1990. Even the Worldwatch Institute, which is constantly heralding the end of the world, said in 1992 that “recent trends in price and availability suggest that for most minerals we are a long way from running out.” This is not nearly the full story on resources.
Per capita production of food worldwide has been rising while costs have been falling for many years. Although the world’s population has doubled since World War II, food production has tripled. Since 1948 world food production has exceeded growth in population by an average of one percent per year. The price of wheat and corn has dropped by more than 60 percent. Average food prices fell more than 40 percent in the 1980s. Since 1950 food prices have fallen 74 percent. That progress occurred even while some of the best agricultural land in the world was under inefficient control within the communist nations. Nutrition in the developing world is better than ever. Parts of Africa, because of widespread civil unrest and collectivism, are the exceptions. The “green revolution” has made that dramatic improvement possible with fewer farmers and no more farmland than was used in 1960. Better seeds, irrigation, insecticides, and ways of improving soil have made the future of food production very bright, indeed.
Technological progress has freed up land that otherwise would have been devoted to agriculture. Had technology not advanced beyond 1910, in 1988 the U.S. would have required over a billion acres of farmland equivalent to over half of the United States including Alaska, instead of the 297 million acres which were actually harvested.
The late Roger Revelle of Harvard, the man Vice President Gore claims as his environmental mentor, estimated that with today’s methods, the world could provide an adequate diet for 40 billion people — eight times today’s population. Revelle also estimated that Africa could feed 10 billion people. Paul Ehrlich, whom Vice President Gore has praised, was wrong when he wrote in 1968 that “the world is rapidly running out of food.” Since that time, as David Osterfield has established, India and China have become food exporters, while Bangladesh and Indonesia have become self-sufficient in vital grains.
If a population/food imbalance really existed, surpluses would not be mounting everywhere and farmers in the United States and Western Europe would not have to lobby their governments to keep crop prices up. The result, described by Osterfeld, is that “relative to such key variables as food and resources, the world is actually becoming relatively less populated.”
Summing up, there is no environmental reason to limit population growth. The world is not coming to an end. And the non-apocalyptic problems that do exist are not caused by population growth. They are the result of deficient social systems which fail to delineate and protect property rights, creating vast commons for which there is no direct long-term responsibility. Social systems that subsidize the exploitation of resources similarly wreak havoc by tampering with the price system’s information function and making those resources — tropical trees, for example — appear cheaper than they really are. Those problems — which are real — will be solved by extending private property throughout society via the liberal market order.