Have We Finally Reached Peak Environmental Doom?

Have We Finally Reached Peak Environmental Doom?

Read three contrasting reviews of Ronald Bailey’s new book, “The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century,” and the author’s response.
The Federalist Staff
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The Centrist Position Is Correct But Can’t Win

Gregg Easterbrook

Outside your window, living standards are rising, crime is declining, pollution is down, and longevity is increasing. But in pop culture, we’re all doomed. “The Hunger Games” films have been box-office titans, joined by “World War Z,” “Interstellar,” “The Book of Eli,” “Divergent,” “The Road,” and other big-budget Hollywood fare depicting various judgment days. Over in primetime, the world is ending on “The Walking Dead,” “The Last Ship,” “The 100,” and “Under the Dome.”

The same outlook obtains in nonfiction literature. Books that foresee doomsday—“Collapse” by Jared Diamond, “The End of Nature” by Bill McKibben, “The Coming Plague” by Laurie Garrett among them—win praise from commentators and sell briskly. Books contending that things basically are fine don’t do as well. One might think that optimism would be marketable to contemporary book buyers, who live very well by historical standards, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Readers prefer material that depicts them dwelling in the final generation. Perhaps declining religious belief in Armageddon has been replaced by an expectation of some natural-world version of the event.

Bailey’s selection of research is fastidious and convincing.

Into this adverse market steps “The End of Doom” by Ronald Bailey, an impressively researched, voluminously detailed book arguing that the world is in better shape than commonly assumed. Bailey deflates doomsday by showing that human population growth does not mean ecological breakdown; that food supply increases faster than population and probably always will; that, far from depleted, most resources are sufficient to last for centuries; that air pollution in the United States is way down; and that cancer is in decline.

Specialists will argue about some of the studies Bailey cites to support these contentions. So much environmental research exists today, for example, that one can find a study to prove practically anything. But in the main, Bailey’s selection of research is fastidious and convincing.

Bailey spends too much time, though, on discredited trendy bleakness from the 1960s and 1970s—such as Paul Ehrlich’s global-famine predictions and the 1972 Club of Rome report. One can practically hear dead horses saying, “Stop flogging me.” “The End of Doom” redeems itself with a clever chapter on how precautionary principles boil down to this rule: never do anything for the first time. “Anything new is guilty until proven innocent,” Bailey writes, but he goes on to chronicle how many new ideas denounced as dangerous turned out instead to make life less risky.

‘The End of Doom’ redeems itself with a clever chapter on how precautionary principles boil down to this rule: never do anything for the first time.

The highlight of Bailey’s book concerns the most important issue in today’s environmental debate: climate change. During the 1990s, Bailey was a prominent skeptic of artificially triggered global warming. He declared the hypothesis unproven and called for more study. Although the instant-doomsday Left depicted this position as denialism, the 1991 National Academy of Sciences report, “Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming,” took the same view. Bailey’s position was quite reasonable back then. But if you call for more research, and that research proves the case, then you must switch sides—and Bailey does, to his credit: “The balance of scientific evidence indicate[s] that manmade global warming likely pose[s] a significant problem for humanity.”

Today, a near-unanimous scientific consensus exists on the existence of “artificially triggered global warming”—that clunky wording being necessary because most of the greenhouse effect occurs naturally. In a 2014 joint statement, the National Academy of Sciences and the United Kingdom’s Royal Society of Science found “clear evidence that humans are causing the climate to change.” Unless one knows more about science than the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society combined, one must accept climate change as scientifically established. The views of Sen. James Inhofe—chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee—and others that global warming is “a hoax” suggest despair regarding the science literacy of prominent Washington leaders.

Unless one knows more about science than the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society combined, one must accept climate change.

Here’s the rub. Although there is a scientific consensus that climate is warming—including warming during the now-discredited “hiatus” claimed by the talk-radio world—and that human action must play some role in it, that’s as far as the consensus goes. No scientific agreement exists on how much the climate will change or what kinds of problems this will cause. A broad range of outcomes, from warming being mildly beneficial (especially for agriculture) to huge calamity (flooding of coastal cities) is possible.

This makes the current state of climate-change debate distressing. The Left calls anyone who questions its crazed apocalyptic claims a “denier,” though many sound reasons exist to be skeptical of the worst case. The Right answers with an equally crazed contention that nothing has been proven, when this is clearly not so.

“The End of Doom” tries to take a middle position between the extremes. The problem facing political discourse is that the hard Left and the hard Right don’t want a golden mean to be found.

Gregg Easterbrook, a contributing editor of The Atlantic, is author of nine books, most recently “The King of Sports” (nonfiction) and “The Leading Indicators” (fiction).

Neither Doom Nor Optimism Will End

Roger Pielke Jr.

Reading Ronald Bailey’s “The End of Doom,” I was reminded that the debate between prophets of a looming apocalypse and self-styled cornucopians has a long history, the modern version of which can be traced to the writings of Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century warning that humanity’s ability to reproduce would outstrip its ability to feed itself. The twentieth century saw no shortage of Neo-Malthusians, countered by those—such as Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg, Gregg Easterbrook, and Bailey himself—with a far more optimistic vision for humanity’s future.

By now the combatants know their roles and lines too well. The debate has gotten pretty stale. It’s not that Bailey’s argument is totally off-base. In fact, I’m skeptical, too, about warnings of apocalypse around the corner and sympathetic to visions of a bright future for people and the planet in the twenty-first century. But securing that future is by no means simple or guaranteed.

By now the combatants know their roles and lines too well. The debate has gotten pretty stale.

In “The End of Doom,” Bailey takes on a series of issues that he believes have been vastly misunderstood by Neo-Malthusians and their fellow travelers: population, peak oil (and peak commodities more generally), the precautionary principle, worries about a cancer epidemic, genetic modification in agriculture, climate change, and species loss. For each, the argument is much the same. Concern is overhyped. Technology driven by “free markets” has always provided solutions and will do so in the future as well. But Bailey’s analysis never really gets beyond the cornucopian arguments that have been advanced many times before.

To take one example, Bailey accurately finds that the predictions about a “population bomb” advanced in the 1960s and 1970s were wildly wrong. Advocates like Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren—currently President Obama’s science advisor—warned of a global crisis that might require draconian action such as forced sterilization. History has proved these arguments ridiculous and even unethical. Yet, as Bailey shows, latter-day Malthusians are saying the same things.

But Bailey stands on shakier ground when he argues that the “population bomb” was diffused because of the so-called Green Revolution, which brought high-yielding wheat and other crops to India and elsewhere. Bailey asserts that Norman Borlaug, popularly known as the father of the Green Revolution, “is the man who saved more lives than anyone else in history” through “a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India.” In Bailey’s view, the “massive campaign” arrived just in time to prevent the famine Ehrlich predicted.

Bailey’s analysis never really gets beyond the cornucopian arguments that have been advanced many times before.

It’s a great story, but it’s wrong. A more accurate history shows that the specter of a looming famine in India was an invention engineered by President Lyndon Johnson to help sustain the U.S. Food for Peace program, which faced a politically skeptical Congress. Technological advances had led to a glut of crops in the United States, low prices for commodities, and unhappy farmers. Agricultural aid was also seen as a useful strategy in the Cold War. So Johnson wanted the shipments made. Thus, as historian Nick Cullather writes in “The Hungry World,” “through the fall of 1965 [LBJ] developed the theme of a world food crisis brought on by runaway population growth.”

In fact, official State Department notes reveal that when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Washington in spring 1966, one of her agenda items was to get the story straight about a crisis that didn’t exist. The Indian delegation noted that, “The situation in the United States is that to get a response, the need must be somewhat overplayed.” Scientists and the media jumped on the bandwagon, and a mythology of famine was born.

Bailey’s restatement of the Green Revolution mythology in fact gives Neo-Malthusians far too much credit, suggesting that they were correct in their forecast of global famine, only to be proven wrong by the wonders of technological and market innovation. In fact, the Neo-Malthusians were never right to begin with. Bailey is promoting a solution to a problem that never existed in the first place.

The specter of a looming famine in India was an invention engineered by President Lyndon Johnson to help sustain the U.S. Food for Peace program.

In 2003, the International Food Policy Research Institute asked what would have happened if the Green Revolution in the developing world never occured. They concluded that developed countries would have produced more and trade patterns would have evolved differently, but the situation “probably would not be considered a ‘World Food Crisis.’”

Perhaps ironically, it seems that the cornucopians need the Neo-Malthusians to be correct in their diagnosis of potential apocalypse so that they can argue that their preferred solutions provide answers. But what if both sides are wrong in significant respects? Is there room in our debates for a third perspective?

It’s easy to see the end of the world in every technological innovation. It is just as easy to look at the generally improving state of the world and conclude that things will always continue to improve, and that when problems do arise, they will be easily solved.

Our public debates over economics, technology, and political power deserve better than a tired rehashing of Neo-Malthusianism versus cornucopianism. Yet these polarities remain appealing to many. Bailey recounts a conversation he had with his editor back in 1992, when he brought an earlier version of these arguments to him. His editor said that he’d publish the book, but “if you’d brought me a book predicting the end of the world, I could have made you a rich man.”

The “end of doom”? Hardly. The end of Panglossian optimism? Nope, not that either. The dance of the two will no doubt go on.

Roger Pielke Jr., is a professor at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Man Is Not at War with Nature

Rupert Darwall

Environmentalist doom-saying, according to author Ronald Bailey, is not about scientific prediction but about ideology: one that says nature is good and humanity is evil. In “The End of Doom,” Bailey challenges modern environmentalism on its own ground. Cut loose from its scientific moorings, environmentalism attacks the human aspiration for a better life. Doing so, at the very least, it holds back the positive economic and social developments that, over the course of this century, will see nature become chiefly an arena for human pleasure and less a source of raw materials.

Environmentalists have long targeted globalization, which they see as destructive of local cultures and local habitats. As Bailey shows, they have it completely wrong. The emancipation of women, along with increased life expectancy, leads women to have fewer children, especially in wealthier societies. Bailey has a gift for letting the anecdotal illustrate the trend. A Johannesburg taxi driver remonstrates with Bailey for not having children and tells him that whereas his father had 12 children, he has six—but his children have none. Eureka. This is the demographic transition which, Bailey suggests, will see the world’s population peak at 9.6 billion in 50 years’ time and gently decline to 9 billion by the end of the century.

Cut loose from its scientific moorings, environmentalism attacks the human aspiration for a better life.

Capitalism and the rule of law are the key drivers of this development, and those countries most open to trade have seen the fastest decline in fertility rates. By contrast, the lawlessness, violence, and economic chaos of many countries in sub-Saharan Africa result in stubbornly high fertility rates. This state of affairs turns conventional environmentalist nostrums on their head. For example, in one of the most cited papers on ecology, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” biologist Garrett Hardin asserted in 1968 that human over-population would necessitate replacing Adam Smith’s invisible hand with government coercion. But Hardin was theorizing without facts. “Hardin’s fears of a population tragedy of the commons are actually realized when the invisible hand of economic freedom is shackled,” Bailey writes.

One after another, Bailey neatly picks off each “peak everything” fear. Even though commodity prices are now coming off the top of a super-cycle, since 1871, the Economist industrial commodity price index has sunk to around half its value. Thanks to improved energy productivity, in 2007, the United States consumed half the energy it would have if energy productivity had remained at its 1970 level. Technology will continue to make more efficient use of resources. 3D printing could reduce materials needs and costs by up to 90 percent.

Shortages arise when something is not available at any price and when governments intervene to stop markets working properly.

Bailey makes the crucial distinction between scarcity and shortage. Scarcity exists because human wants are boundless while the resources to satisfy them are limited. Shortages arise when something is not available at any price and when governments intervene to stop markets working properly. According to a survey on water access in major cities in the developing world, poor people pay a multiple of what those connected to the water mains do. How to improve water access for the world’s poor? Privatization. Only 3 percent of the poor in developing countries get their water from private-sector water suppliers, yet even this miniscule percentage has provoked an outcry against a “global water grab” by giant corporations. Bailey notes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is silent on the role of markets and prices in managing water scarcity.

“The End of Doom” marshals findings from a prodigious survey of scientific papers and other scholarly papers—about 220, by my count, or four for every five pages. But more often than not, Bailey himself provides the most thought-provoking ideas. “Resources are defined by human knowledge and technology,” he writes, which helps explain the fall in commodity prices. “Never do anything for the first time” says all you need to know about the precautionary principle. “History provides us with no models of sustainable development other than democratic capitalism” deftly skewers the 1987 United Nations Brundtland report and Pope Francis’s recent musings.

Bailey brands Rachel Carson’s cancer chapter in “Silent Spring” a “stroke of public relations genius,” and he condemns the Nixon administration’s “political” ban on DDT for taking away the most effective way to control malarial mosquitoes. Carson’s unwillingness to fairly balance costs and benefits became the hallmark of the modern environmental movement, which today is busy attacking genetically engineered Golden Rice—even as Vitamin A deficiency causes 1.9 to 2.8 million preventable deaths each year and half a million cases of childhood blindness. As Bailey notes, “environmentalist organizations raise money to support themselves by scaring people.”

Carson’s unwillingness to fairly balance costs and benefits became the hallmark of the modern environmental movement.

Once a climate skeptic, Bailey now sees the balance of evidence pointing to the likelihood that rising temperatures would become a problem by the end of the century. It would be hard to find a more evenly balanced account of the scientific uncertainties of global warming. The prolonged pause or plateau in global temperature is “something of an embarrassment,” Bailey writes, and he quotes a climate scientist cautioning against extrapolating long-term trends from it; but the scientist also concedes that “the inconsistencies we found among the models are a reality check showing we may not know as much as we thought we did.”

The best is saved for last, when Bailey provides a cool antidote to the emotional journey Elizabeth Kolbert took in “The Sixth Extinction.” With certain exceptions, the IPCC finds “very low” extinction rates during the last several hundred thousand years of climate change. It is a matter of faith, not science, that pristine ecosystems are superior to human-influenced eco-systems. Science, long a tool of environmentalist dogmatists, now shows the ecological notion of the “balance of nature” to be unscientific. In an often high-decibel debate, Bailey’s prose is soft-toned and reasonable. His is a voice that compels attention—and “The End of Doom” a book that provokes fresh thinking.

Rupert Darwall is the author of “The Age of Global Warming: A History” (Quartet, 2013).

A Response to ‘The End of Doom’s’ Critics

Ronald Bailey

First, I want to thank all three reviewers for taking the time and spending the intellectual energy to engage seriously with my new book. In general, I think both Darwall and Easterbrook fairly characterize and explain its contents and goals. Pielke has some reservations.

For the most part, Pielke agrees with me, admitting that he is “quite sympathetic to critiques of apocalypse around the corner.” He is impatient with my chronicling of environmentalist doomsaying over the past several decades, but he should remember that the more than 200 million of his fellow citizens who are younger than he is (46) do not know the sorry ideological history of Neo-Malthusianism. As philosopher George Santayana reminded us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” By reminding readers of the past, I hope to spare future generations from being duped by doom dogmas. I suspect that even Pielke would agree that that is a worthy aim.

By reminding readers of the past, I hope to spare future generations from being duped by doom dogmas.

Pielke further objects that I give Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution too much credit for forestalling the world-spanning famines widely predicted to occur in the 1970s. It bears noting that in 1970, the chairman of the Nobel committee explained why it had chosen Borlaug for its Peace Prize in this way: “More than any other single person of this age, [he] has helped to provide bread for a hungry world.” With regard to Nick Cullather’s historical revisionism: revisionists must revise. That’s what they do. By the way, India’s wheat harvest jumped 45 percent in 1968.

I certainly agree with Pielke that securing a “bright future for people and the planet” is “by no means simple or guaranteed.” I do explain in some detail how the technological progress and wealth generated by democratic free-market capitalism makes environmental renewal in this century possible. While Pielke strikes a world-weary pose of intellectual ennui over a supposedly “stale” debate, he oddly fails to mention that there is between me and the Neo-Malthusians one big difference: My predictions have consistently proven right and theirs wrong.

Ronald Bailey is the author of “The End of Doom” and a science correspondent for Reason magazine.

Forum reprinted from RealClearBooks, with permission.

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