Just randomly web surfing the other day I ran across a page promoting Lester Brown’s latest book, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. According to a promotional page at the Earth Policy Institute,
“Environmental scientist have been saying for some time that the global economy is being slowly undermined by environmental trends of human origin . . .,” says Brown, President and Founder of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based independent environmental research organization.
Although it is obvious that no society can survive the decline of its environmental support systems, many people are not yet convinced of the need for economic restructuring. But this is changing now that China has eclipsed the United States in the consumption of most basic resources, Brown notes in Plan B 2.0, which was produced with major funding from the Lannan Foundation and the U.N. Population Fund
China the world’s major consumption of basic resources? How can this be when Brown assured us in 1995’s Who Will Feed China? A Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet that China was on course for an imminent food disaster that, would see China’s food production fall drastically off.
China had, at the time, gone from being a net grain exporter to a net grain importer, and as far as Brown was concerned it was all downhill from there leading to massive worldwide increases in food prices.
Instead, China has done what Brown suggested was impossible — it has gone back to being a net food exporter and last year was taken off of the World Food Program’s list of countries that it provides food aid to, saying the Communist country no longer needed such aid.
As Robert L. Paarlberg noted in a 1996 review of Who Will Feed China? for Foreign Affairs, Brown was playing a bit fast and loose with his interpretations of data related to Chinese agriculture,
Brown justifies his extraordinary pessimism about China by predicting a massive loss of land now used for growing grain — roughly half by 2030 — through degradation or conversion to other uses. He argues that better crop yields will not be enough to offset the loss. This is misleading because switching from grain to high-value crops, such as vegetables, should be viewed as a gain for Chinese farmers, not a loss, and it is unjustified because it is based on an imperfect analogy to the experiences of countries such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. They converted land away from farming, including grain production, as their economies developed, but did so because they had fewer options for growth in agricultural production than China has today.
Not to say Brown ever changes his tune. In Plan B 2.0 Brown points to various rates of resource consumption — such as China’s voracious consumption of oil that has fueled steep increases in the price of that commodity over the past few years — and notes that if things continue as they are today (the one refrain from doomsayers that never changes) then the world is headed for a catastrophe.
But some of these alleged catastrophes are so silly that it is hard to believe Brown would even bring them up. For example he notes that if China reaches the U.S. level of per capita resource consumption,
China’s paper consumption would be double the world’s current production. There go the world’s forests.
Not. Most paper is harvested from trees specifically planted for such purposes (i.e., these trees would not even exist if it weren’t for the anticipated demand for paper). All that will happen if China starts demanding more paper is that paper companies will purchase land formerly used for other purposes and plant trees their for paper production.
The doomsayer formula is always the same. Take some trend that is current at a moment in time — the number of Pokemon cards being bought by kids is increasing by 250 percent annually. Then project that trend out over the next 30 years and note that if that trend keeps going then all of the world’s forests will be used up just printing Pokemon cards. And at no point ever take into account that people might grow tired of Pokemon cards (what economists call an elastic demand) or find different ways of obtaining them (these new fangled computers and portable game consoles) or find more capacity to produce them (planting more trees for Pokemon production).
The thing that distinguishes Homo sapiens is our incredible ability to quickly adapt and modify our behavior to ever-changing conditions. We’ve been doing it for 50,000 years rather successfully, and the doomsayers argument essentially says, “yes, but this time we’re really screwed” and the only solution is to adopt, as Brown pleads for in Plan B, “a restructuring of the global economy so that it can sustain civilization.”
Instead, perhaps Brown should focus on writing a book that could sustain its argument past a 24-month window when everything changes and his wild extrapolations are shown to have been for naught.
Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. Earth Policy Institute, Accessed: January 10, 2006.
Rice Bowls and Dust Bowls: Africa, Not China, Faces a Food Crisis. Robert L. Paarlberg, Foreign Affairs, May/June 1996.