The Real World Is Better Off than Pope Francis’s Gloomy Vision of It

We should celebrate that global poverty and global income inequality are falling.

June 22, 2015 • Commentary
This article appeared in National Review (Online) on June 22, 2015.

In Laudato Si’, which was released officially on Thursday, Pope Francis draws a grim, even apocalyptic picture of humanity’s future. No doubt, his views on anthropogenic global warming will be hotly debated. But his gloom is unwarranted.

The pope, as the Independent sums up the encyclical, asserts that “the world’s poorest are the biggest victims of a web of environmental, human, financial and ethical degradation that puts the entire planet at risk,” . . . lambasts rich countries for ‘looting’ the world, . . . warns that the world is facing widespread crop failure, economic ruin . . . [and avers that] warming caused by the enormous consumption of some rich countries has repercussions in the poorest places on earth, especially in Africa, where the increase in temperature, combined with drought, has had disastrous effects on the performance of crops.”

Paradoxically, the pope’s encyclical comes in the midst of some excellent news. The world population is likely to peak in 2050 and then start falling, as was explained recently in an article in the New York Times. Also, the highly respected Harvard University professor Steven Pinker published a bestselling book showing that, in stark contrast with our violent past, the age in which we now live is one of unprecedented peace and security.

Contrary to Francis’s assertions, poverty is falling precipitously throughout the world. According to the Brookings Institution, absolute poverty (i.e., people living on less than $1.25 a day) has declined from 52.2 percent of the world’s population in 1981 to 14 percent today. In sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region, absolute poverty declined from 53 percent to 47 percent — a reduction not to be frowned on given that the region’s population grew from 393 million in 1981 to 937 million in 2013.

Incomes in Africa, Asia, and South America have never been higher. Increasing prosperity means lower infant and maternal mortality, higher calorie consumption, greater access to sanitation and information, etc. Surprisingly, rising prosperity in the developing countries has narrowed global income inequality.

Let us turn to the “looting of the planet.” The surest way to ascertain whether humanity is running out of natural resources is to look at their prices. If a price of a commodity increases over a long period of time, it is becoming scarcer. If it declines, it is becoming more plentiful.

The World Bank has been measuring an exhaustive array of commodity prices since 1960. Of the 15 commodity indexes measured, eight fell in price. Food, for example, was 8 percent cheaper in 2014 than in 1960. This is all the more remarkable given that the world’s population increased by 135 percent over the same time period. In five commodity indexes, prices rose but at a lower rate than income did. Only two indexes, energy and precious metals, showed an increase greater than the increase in income.

Overall, the all commodity index average rose by 88 percent. Discounting for the rise in energy and precious metals prices, it declined by 3 percent. Assuming that an average person spent exactly the same fraction of her income on the World Bank’s list of commodities in 1960 and in 2014, she would be better off in either case, because her income rose by 161 percent.

Commodity Index
Average (without Energy and Precious Metals) Relative to Population and Income, 1960–2014

Media Name: commodity-index-average-chart.jpg

Next, let us look at the state of agriculture in general and of African agriculture in particular. As previously mentioned, despite population growth, global food prices are lower today than they were 54 years ago. That is in large part due to massive increases in agricultural productivity. In 1866, for example, American farmers produced 24 bushels of corn per acre; in 2012, 122 bushels.

One reason why African calorie consumption rose from 2,150 in 1990 to 2,430 in 2013 is that African agriculture is becoming more efficient. Yields of cereals, citrus, pulses, and vegetables, are at a record high.

What does this mean for the world? Jesse H. Ausubel of the Rockefeller University points out that

if the world farmer reaches the average yield of today’s U.S. corn grower during the next 70 years, 10 billion people eating as people now on average do will need only half of today’s cropland. The land spared exceeds Amazonia. This will happen if farmers sustain the yearly 2 percent worldwide yield growth of grains achieved since 1960, in other words if social learning continues as usual.

Contrary to Francis’s vision of a dire future, the world is, in many ways, getting better. Those improvements ought to be celebrated, not mourned. A good man, who cares passionately about the plight of the least fortunate, the pope finds it impossible to reconcile his ideological presuppositions with the real world that surrounds him.

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