Topic: Energy and Environment

Why the Neo-Malthusian Worldview Fails the Reality Check

Why does the Neo-Malthusians’ dystopian worldview — that human and environmental well-being will suffer with increases in population, affluence and technological change — fail the reality check? Why has human well-being improved in the Age of Industrialization despite order-of-magnitude increases in the consumption of materials, fossil fuel energy and chemicals?

I offer some reasons in the last of a series of posts (1, 2, 3, 4) at MasterResource.

I note that although population, affluence and technology can create some problems for humanity and the planet, they are also the agents for solving those problems. In particular, human capital and greater affluence have helped the development and adoption of new and improved technologies, which empirical data show have reduced risks faster than the new risks that may have been created — hence the continual improvement in human well-being in the era of modern economic growth.

A corollary to this is that projections of future impacts spanning a few decades, but that do not account for technological change as a function of time and affluence, more likely than not will overestimate impacts, perhaps by orders of magnitude. In fact, this is one reason why many estimates of the future impacts of climate change are suspect, because most do not account for changes in adaptive capacity either due to secular technological change or increases in economic development.

Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Most analysts recognize this. They know that just because one can explain and hindcast the past, it does not guarantee that one can forecast the future. Neo-Malthusians, by contrast, cannot hindcast the past but are confident they can forecast the future.

Finally, had the solutions that Neo-Malthusians espouse been put into effect a couple of centuries ago, most of us alive today would be dead and those who were not would be living poorer, shorter, and unhealthier lives, constantly subject to the vagaries of nature, surviving from harvest to harvest, spending more of our time in darkness because lighting would be a luxury, and spending more of our days in the drudgery of menial tasks because, under their skewed application of the precautionary principle (see here, here and here), fossil fuel consumption would be severely curtailed, if not banned.

Nor would the rest of nature necessarily be better off.  First, lower reliance on fossil fuels would mean greater demand for fuelwood, and the forests would be denuded.  Second, less fossil fuels also means less fertilizer and pesticides and, therefore, lower agricultural productivity. To compensate for lost productivity, more habitat would need to be converted to agricultural uses. But habitat conversion (including deforestation) — not climate change — is already the greatest threat to biodiversity!

Read the whole post here.

U.S. Well-Being in the Age of Fossil Fuels

Elsewhere, I have shown data that, notwithstanding the Neo-Malthusian worldview, human well-being has advanced globally since the start of industrialization more than two centuries ago, despite massive increases in population, consumption, affluence, and carbon dioxide emissions. Here I will focus on long-term trends in U.S. well-being, as measured by the average life expectancy at birth, in the age of fossil fuels.

Since 1900, the U.S. population has quadrupled, affluence has septupled, GDP has increased 30-fold, synthetic organic chemical use has increased 85-fold, metals use 14-fold, material use 25-fold, and CO2 emissions 8-fold.  Yet life expectancy advanced from 47 to 78 years.

During the same period, emissions of air pollution waxed and waned. Food and water got safer, as indicated by the virtual elimination of deaths from gastrointestinal (GI) diseases between 1900 and 1970. Cropland, a measure of habitat converted to human uses — the single most important pressure on species, ecosystems, and biodiversity — was more or less unchanged from 1910 onward despite the increase in food demand.

For the most part, life expectancy grew more or less steadily for the United States, except for a brief plunge at the end of the World War I, accentuated by the 1918–1920 Spanish flu epidemic. As in the rest of the world, today’s U.S. population not only lives longer, it is also healthier. The disability rate for seniors declined 28 percent between 1982 and 2004/2005 and, despite quantum improvements in diagnostic tools, major diseases (e.g., cancer, and heart and respiratory diseases) now occur 8–11 years later than a century ago.

The reductions in rates of deaths and diseases since at least 1900 in the United States, despite increased population, energy, and material and chemical use, belie the Neo-Malthusian worldview.  The improvements in the human condition can be ascribed to broad dissemination (through education, public health systems, trade and commerce) of numerous new and improved technologies in agriculture, health and medicine supplemented through various ingenious advances in communications, information technology and other energy powered technologies (see here for additional details). The continual increase in life expectancy accompanied by the decline in disease indicates that new technologies reduced risks by a greater amount than any risks that they may have created or exacerbated due to pollutants associated with greater consumption of materials, chemicals and  energy,

And this is one reason why the Neo-Malthusian vision comes up short. It dwells on the increases in risk that new technologies may create or aggravate but overlooks the larger — and usually more certain — risks that they would also eliminate or reduce. In other words, it focuses on the pixels, but misses the larger picture, despite pretensions to a holistic worldview.

It was this mindset — legitimized as the “precautionary principle” — that led, for instance, to the premature reduction in DDT usage even in areas where malaria was endemic and could be reduced through its use.

Read the more detailed post, with figures, here.

A Reality Check for Neo-Malthusians

Neo-Malthusians bemoan population growth and view economic, technological, and fossil fuel development as inventions of the Devil. Yet between 1750 and 2007, despite an octupling of global population, and increases in affluence by an order of magnitude and CO2 emissions by three orders of magnitude, the average global life expectancy at birth — the single most important indicator for human well-being — more than doubled from 26 years to 69 years.

Not only are we living longer, we are also living healthier.

Read more  here.

Return of the Neo-Malthusians

This Earth Day we heard various commentators bemoan the growth in population, consumption, and carbon emissions driven by fossil fueled technologies. Once again we are told that this is unsustainable, that we are running out of resources, prices are inevitably headed up, and, worse, such consumption reduces  both environmetal and human well-being. In this worldview, industrialization and economic development were fashioned in the Devil’s crucible, and that de-industrialization and de-development will be our saviour.

I have started a series of posts at Master Resources that compares the above Neo-Malthusian view of industrialization, economic growth, and technological change against empirical data on human well-being from the age of industrialization.  The first post revisits the bet made in 1980 by Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich on the direction of commodity prices, and examines long term trends in the prices and affordability of various commodities.  Specifically,  for metals, I look at trends going back to 1800, while for food I examine trends from 1900 onward. Parts II and III will compare long term trends in population, consumption, economic development, and carbon emissions against trends in human well-being for the world (from 1750 onward) and the United States (from 1900 onward). Finally, Part IV will provide an explanation as to why empirical data is at odds with the Neo-Malthusian worldview.

Part I, which examines the Simon-Ehrlich Bet in the context of long term trends in the prices and affordability of various commodities, is here.

Oil Import Make Believe

A conversation with documentarian Robert Stone regarding Earth Day is featured today in The New York Times’s “Dot Earth” online column.  In the course of his conversation with the Times’s Andrew Revkin, Mr. Stone – who is quite alarmed about our reliance on foreign oil – asks:  “How many Americans know that we send about $800 billion to the Middle East every year for oil?”

Hopefully, not many. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. spent $95.4 billion on crude oil imports from OPEC sources in 2009.  But not all OPEC members are from the Middle East.  That $95.4 billion includes dollars spent on oil originating from Algeria ($6.3 billion), Angola ($9 billion), Ecuador ($3.4 billion), Nigeria ($17.7 billion), and Venezuela ($23.4 billion) – none of which are in the Middle East.  Subtract out that oil and we arrive at $35.6 billion spent on Middle Eastern crude oil (a figure rounded from the original nominal counts.  I have used the customs value – that is, the estimated value – of the oil being imported rather than the figures that include additional costs for insurance and transportation because money being spent on insurance and shipping goes to third parties that are not for the most part located in the Middle East.  But if one wants to use those slightly higher figures, it won’t change the numbers very much at all).

For what it’s worth, the total amount of dollars Americans sent abroad for crude oil from all sources was $188.5 billion last year.

Even if the figure were $800 billion, so what?  No one is forcing refineries to buy crude oil from foreign suppliers.  They presumably believe that the oil at issue is more valuable than the money that must be offered to secure said oil and that oil from other sources is more expensive than oil from the Middle East. Hence, they buy. This is by definition a wealth creating transaction for American business enterprises. Foreign trade, Mr. Stone, is a good thing.

The implicit claim, of course, is that there are negative externalities associated with foreign oil consumption. This, however, is faith masquerading as fact (an argument also well made by Cato adjunct scholar Richard Gordon).

Regardless, Mr. Stone overstates the alleged problem by orders of magnitude.

Earth Day Links

Today is the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, a time to highlight and discuss ways to work toward a cleaner planet. Cato’s energy and environment research promotes policies that would help protect the environment without sacrificing economic liberty, goals that are mutually supporting, not mutually exclusive.

  • Why we should thank capitalism for environmental gains: “It is businessmen — not bureaucrats or environmental activists — who deserve most of the credit for the environmental gains over the past century and who represent the best hope for a Greener tomorrow.”
  • Finding the right balance: “Today, America’s environment is cleaner—and Earth Day has indeed helped ensure that. …We should renew our promise to keep the environment clean—without adding to human misery or stalling improvements in the human condition.”

Ten Protectionist Senators Pay Lip-Service to International Trade Rules

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D, OH), along with eight other “usual suspects,” yesterday sent a letter to Senators John Kerry (D, MA), Joe Lieberman (I, CT) and Lindsey Graham (R, SC), outlining what’s necessary for their support of the latter’s climate green jobs bill (there seems to be some confusion about the precise purpose). The math, assuming that Republicans vote as a block to defeat the bill, requires that these senators’ demands be met if the Democrats are to overcome a filibuster and pass the bill.

So what exactly do they want? The main thrust of their demands seems to be for U.S. manufacturing’s competitiveness to be “addressed,” including by asking for the bill to “invest” (don’t you just love the way that word is used in the public policy context?) in retooling, R&D, and “support [for] American manufacturers of clean energy technology,” among other requirements.

Of course, no letter from these folks* would be complete without the obligatory  calls for a “level playing field.” Their wish-list therefore also includes provisions to ”apply border measures to prevent carbon leakage”. That, my friends, is a clear reference to carbon tariffs. The senators explain their concerns as follows:

An automatically triggered border measure is necessary to promote comparable action from other countries and prevent carbon leakage. To avoid undermining the environmental objective of the climate legislation, a WTO-consistent border adjustment measure, which the WTO has recognized as a usable tool in combating climate change, should apply to imports from countries that do not have in place comparable greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements to those adopted by the United States. A border adjustment measure is critical to ensuring that climate change legislation will be trade neutral and environmentally effective.

Much of these sentiments are familiar. Indeed, I have combatted some of the myths implicit in the statement, including why “carbon leakage” might be a bit of a red herring, in my paper from September 2009, “A Harsh Climate for Trade,” and at a Hill brief I gave on this topic last year.

There are a couple of new and interesting things here, though. First, the  almost convincing attempt by these senators to cloak their protectionism in green-speak about the need to ensure that climate legislation is environmentally effective. They will have to keep that up, too, if they are to stay on the right side of WTO law, which says there must be a clear link between a trade measure and an environmental purpose if the measure is to be at least prima facie legitimate.  Imposing border measures to address adverse competitiveness effects of domestic environmental regulations, in other words, probably won’t cut it. (“A Harsh Climate” has more on why unilateral border actions may in and of themselves be inconsistent with WTO obligations.)

Second, and related to the issue of WTO legitimacy,  is the reference to the WTO “recogniz[ing]” border adjustment measures as “a useable tool in combating climate change.” This is disengenuous and possibly misleading rhetoric from the senators, because the WTO has done no such thing. There has been no formal ruling on this issue from any WTO judicial body, because no such cases have come before it. The WTO members as a group have not issued a proclaimation on it, either. I suspect the senators are referring to a joint WTO/United Nations Environment Programme report that came out last year, but as I said in my paper, that report “merely summarizes the relevant provisions, precedents and existing literature on the question on WTO consistency–without reaching any prescriptive conclusion at all.” And the demand that this tool be “automatically triggered” may put it at odds with jurisprudence that says that certain administrative procedures–including the right for a WTO member to review and appeal any decisions made–must be followed (reference for the trade wonks reading this: I am referring to Shrimp-Turtle). 

In sum, while the senators are at least trying to appear as if they give two straws about international obligations (and for small mercies we should be grateful, I guess), I’m not convinced they fully understand the implications of their proposal. Shocking, I know.

* The first letter sent by the group let by Sherrod Brown was signed by Senators Russ Feingold (D, WI), Jay Rockefeller (D, WV), and Al Franken (D, MN). Those senators did not sign the latest letter, and were “replaced” by substitute protectionists Claire McCaskill (D, MO), Kay Hagan (D, NC), and Mark Warner (D, VA).