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.