Commentary

The State of the World: Doom or Boom?

Every year at about this time, the Worldwatch Institute publishes its State of the World report. You’ve probably heard of it. It is translated into some 30 languages, has sold more than 1 million copies in English alone, is incorporated into hundreds of university curriculums annually and gets a lot of media attention upon release. The report’s findings are, oddly enough, always the same: the state of the world is dire and economic and environmental collapse is inevitable unless we undertake radical social change. The report’s findings, however, are always wrong.

Ascertaining whether material well-being is improving or worsening is not a particularly complicated matter. And you don’t need the Worldwatch Institute or any other lobby with an axe to grind to do so. Simply pick up a copy of the Statistical Abstract of the United States (published annually by the Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce) and flip to any of its 1,000 or so pages. You’ll find that, wherever trends in the data are presented, the long-run trends are positive. Want to look outside the United States? Then check out the data tables in the annual World Resources Report published jointly by the World Resources Institute, the U.N. Environmental Programme, the U.N. Development Programme and the World Bank. Or the Human Development Report published annually by U.N. Development Programme. Or the World Development Report published annually by the World Bank. Once again, wherever trends in concrete measures of human welfare (life expectancy, infant mortality, caloric intake, whatever) are presented, they are moving in a positive — not a negative — direction.

We can tell whether resources are becoming more abundant or more scarce by examining inflation-adjusted price trends. Whether we examine timber prices, food prices, energy prices or whatever, we see falling prices indicating increasing resource abundance. Why? Because resources are not like “buried treasure” that we go out and find and then use up. Resources are simply inert “stuff” (like petroleum) that is useless until human ingenuity discovers a way to harness it for human benefit. As our knowledge base grows, our ability to discover and create resources grows with it.


The Worldwatch Institute sees nothing but disaster ahead unless we abandon our wicked consumption habits and our Western industrial economy.


What about natural resources largely outside of the marketplace such as wetlands, endangered species, ocean fisheries and other environmental “commons”? The picture here is more mixed, but to the extent that there are problems surrounding resource overexploitation, they stem from exactly the kind of policies that the Worldwatch Institute has long advocated: government ownership and management of threatened flora and fauna. Ocean fisheries are in trouble, except in Iceland and a few other countries where fisherman have been given property rights in various schools of fish. Elephant herds are facing extinction, except in countries such as Zimbabwe where private villagers have been given some property rights in the elephant population. Tropical rainforests are disappearing, except in countries that have privatized forest reserves and resisted the temptation to subsidize development. Natural resource socialism and government mismanagement of the land — not the advanced consumer societies of the West — is the culprit.

What about air and water pollution? The data show that pollution is largely correlated with poverty. Rich countries are far less polluted than poor countries. Increases in per capita income are generally coupled with declining concentrations of pollutants of all kinds. Sure, the wealthy consume more than the poor. But the wealthy also have a greater demand for recreational activities (which creates a market for environmental amenities), pay the taxes to build advanced sanitation facilities and can afford products manufactured with costly end-of-pipe pollution controls. Western-style economic growth is not the enemy; it is the solution.

The Worldwatch Institute, however, avoids objective trend data like the plague. Instead, it’s the small, out of context, factual tidbit that doesn’t really tell you anything in and of itself that Worldwatch masterfully uses to construct its gloomy global portraits. Inflated soil erosion estimates, for instance, are always considered more useful indicators of global agricultural robustness than unmistakable production data or commodity prices.

What about the future? The Worldwatch Institute sees nothing but disaster ahead unless we abandon our wicked consumption habits and our Western industrial economy. But it’s not unfair to judge the value of a Worldwatch forecast by the accuracy of past Worldwatch forecasts. In brief, the Worldwatch Institute and its president, Lester Brown, have a track-record matched only by the late Jean Dixon of National Enquirer fame. For 15 years, the State of the World reports have predicted that famine, resource exhaustion and environmental collapse are on the near horizon. But like the horizon, the foretold apocalypse continues to recede as we advance upon it.

The Worldwatch Institute is less a serious policy think tank than a millennial cult. Why journalists and non-specialists in academia continue to take it seriously is one of the great mysteries of our time. The state of the world could stand improvement, to be sure, but it is improving and will continue to do so in the future. That is, unless we adopt the policies of Worldwatch. Then, all bets are off.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute.