Commentary

WaPo Embraces Its Inner Malthus

Washington Post political reporter Colby Itkowitz writes:

During floor debate ahead of a vote on the Green New Deal, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) told his colleagues that if they really want to address environmental concerns they’ll encourage people to couple off and have more babies. … This recommendation, to add more people to the planet, doesn’t track with science or reason. A 2017 research article determined that one way an individual could contribute to eliminating greenhouse gases is to have one fewer child.

That’s the nut from her snide web article, “Sen. Mike Lee Says We Can Solve Climate Change with More Babies. Science Says Otherwise.” Post national correspondent James Hohmann deemed the article noteworthy enough to be the “Hot [Read] on the Left” in his “Daily 202” newsletter.

Problem is, Itkowitz seems to not understand the point Lee was trying to make. Instead, she “talks past” him — something all-too-common in politics, but not something reporters should do. Worse, if history is a guide, her view is more likely to prove a-scientific and unreasonable than his.

Here’s the story: Last Tuesday, the Senate held a floor debate and vote on the so-called “Green New Deal” — which is to say the Senate engaged in silly Republican grandstanding over a silly Democratic proposal. As part of the debate, Lee delivered a floor speech that featured everything from a picture of a machine-gun-firing, bazooka-toting Ronald Reagan riding a velociraptor waving an American flag (no, really), to references to Star Wars tauntauns and the Hanna-Barbera Aquaman’s giant seahorse, to Sharknado 4 and Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil. That is, Lee met double-silliness with more silliness.

One can argue that this was inappropriate for a Senate debate, especially on a serious topic like climate change. But then, comedy can be an effective means to truth.

Toward that end, at the conclusion of his speech Lee offers a serious point. Itkowitz selectively quotes it; here’s the complete section:

The Green New Deal is not the solution to climate change. It’s not even part of the solution. It’s part of the problem. The solution to climate change won’t be found in political posturing or virtue signaling like this. It won’t be found in the federal government at all.

You know where the solution can be found? In churches, wedding chapels, and maternity wards across the country and around the world. This, Mr. [Senate] President, is the real solution to climate change: babies. Climate change is an engineering problem — not social engineering, but the real kind. It’s a challenge of creativity, ingenuity, and technological invention. And problems of human imagination are not solved by more laws, but by more humans.

More people mean bigger markets for innovation. More babies mean more forward-looking adults — the sort we need to tackle long-term, large-scale problems. American babies, in particular, are likely going to be wealthier, better educated, and more conservation-minded than children raised in still-industrializing regions. As economist Tyler Cowen recently wrote on this very point, “by having more children, you are making your nation more populous — thus boosting its capacity to solve [climate change].”

Finally, Mr. President, children are a mark of the kind of personal, communal, and societal optimism that is the true prerequisite for meeting national and global challenges together. The courage needed to solve climate change is nothing compared with the courage needed to start a family. The true heroes of this story aren’t politicians or social media activists. They are moms and dads, and the little boys and girls they are — at this moment — putting down for naps, helping with their homework, building tree houses, and teaching how to tie their shoes.

The planet does not need us to “think globally and act locally” so much as it needs us to think family and act personally. The solution to climate change is not this unserious resolution, but the serious business of human flourishing — the solution to so many of our problems, at all times and in all places: fall in love, get married, and have some kids.

No doubt, the Utah senator’s comments were, at least in part, his own virtue-signaling to his predominantly Mormon constituency. But he draws on an important economic idea: at the margin, human beings have a positive effect on the world. Human ingenuity, hard work, preferences, and values create goods, and among those goods can be improved environmental quality. Julian Simon popularized this idea in his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource, and it has been restated in recent years by, among others, Cowen in his new book Stubborn Attachments (reviewed by Pierre Lemieux here), Bryan Caplan in his 2011 book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, and my Cato colleague Marian Tupy and BYU economist Gale Pooley in their 2018 paper on the “Simon Abundance Index.”

Itkowitz claims “science and reason” say different. To justify that, she links to a 2017 paper that actually doesn’t determine “that one way an individual could contribute to eliminating greenhouse gases is to have one fewer child,” but rather examines Canadian high school science textbooks’ recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A possible strategy — one that none of the textbooks recommend, which the paper’s authors lament — is to “have one fewer child.” That paper, in turn, cites a 2009 paper that estimates the carbon emissions resulting from an offspring, including a share of the subsequent emissions of that offspring’s descendants. Not surprisingly, that’s a big number, dwarfing the carbon-reduction benefits of such common strategies as recycling, switching from gasoline-powered cars to hybrids and electric cars, and upgrading lightbulbs. (My takeaway from the 2017 paper is how pointless many of the commonly advocated carbon-reduction strategies are.)

The 2009 paper is a mathematical modeling exercise under various assumptions, resulting in different estimated marginal “carbon legacies.” But that doesn’t show Itkowitz is right and Lee’s being foolish because the paper ignores Lee’s point about the effects of population change on innovation and living standards.

From tin shortages in the ancient world, to William Strong Newberry’s 1875 (yes, 1875) warning that the world was running out of oil, to Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, to Jimmy Carter’s moral equivalent of war, population growth has placed humanity on the Malthusian edge of poverty and privation — or so we keep being told. But we never fall off that edge. In fact, we keep moving away from it: we grow fatter (alas), longer-lived, and more comfortable. The reason is simple: more people means more innovation and resource availability, which means a higher standard of living rather than the opposite.

That doesn’t mean humanity is guaranteed to find some easy, innovative way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As my Cato colleague Peter Van Doren noted, both Lee’s optimism and Itkowitz’s pessimism are attitudes (probably correlated to their politics) rather than testable, scientific hypotheses. That said, history suggests it’s more likely that humanity will find innovative ways to cut emissions, or geo-engineer around climate change, or accommodate change, than that reducing (or government constraining) population growth will save us from a much warmer world — or that there will be no future environmental quality innovations.

All that said, some legitimate criticisms can be made of Lee’s remarks. Government canbe a useful tool for addressing externalities, just as it can also be a terrible tool. And there are plenty more examples of people showing the “courage” to start families than there are of policymakers showing the courage to address difficult policy problems (e.g., entitlements insolvency, government debt, pork and rent-seeking, better childhood education…) Those criticisms would have made good reading, as would a broader discussion of Malthus and neo-Malthusianism, government intervention, and population change. Unfortunately, instead of that, readers got was the equivalent of the aforementioned Reagan-velociraptor picture.

Thomas A. Firey is a Cato Institute senior fellow and managing editor of Cato’s policy journal Regulation.