This Time He Means It

Okay, it’s a new year, which means another doomsaying tract from Lester Brown and the paranoid folks at The WorldWatch Institute. I’ll give you three guesses what Brown’s big prediction this time is. Give up?

That’s right, surprise surprise, Brown predicts the world is on the verge of suffering massive famine and global collapse– even the international monetary system could be threatened. According to Brown, “As the global economy has expanded, it’s begun to outrun the basic support systems. If it continues, we will find ourselves in serious difficulty.”

Given Brown’s track record, the only thing in serious difficulty is that Brown may run out of gullible people to keep believing his annual announcement of the apocalypse.

Update 2020: Ironically, World Watch itself appears to have been unsustainable. Wikipedia notes its websites are no longer reachable, presumably due to Brown’s retirement in 2015.

Is China really 300 million people in the hole?

A few weeks ago the Associated Press swallowed
hook, line and sinker a claim made by the Chinese government that had
it not been for that nation’s one-child policy, there would be an
additional 300 million Chinese alive today. As proof the Chinese government
pointed to the decline in birth rates from 1972 to today.

The only problem with this fairy tale is that
the decline in Chinese population growth took place for the most part
before the creation of the one-child policy. Specifically, Chinese
population growth declined dramatically from 1972 to 1979 where it stabilized
and experienced only minor fluctuations in the years since. Of course
the one-child policy took effect in 1979, after the decline in the population
growth rate had already taken place.

Although it has contributed to the extremely
high level of abortion and the wholesale abandonment of children in some
regions, China’s one-child policy doesn’t appear to have significantly
affected its rate of population growth.

Cloning could conserve animal genetic diversity

While the world’s political and religious
leaders were aghast at the announcement last year of new and easier techniques
for cloning mammals, scientists were busy finding ways to apply the discovery
to an important need — conserving the genetic diversity of some animal

According to a report by the Food
and Agricultural Organization
, about 1,500 different livestock breeds
are endangered or at a critical state, most of them in developing nations.
Since new cloning techniques allow clones to be made from skin and other
tissue, sampling and storage of genetic samples is far more feasible and

Population education

In an article for Political
Economy Research Center
Reports, Michael Sanera highlights one of
the main problems facing rational discussions about population — textbooks
used in the United States don’t provide a fair and accurate treatment
of population issues.

Sanera surveyed 23 textbooks used in science,
geography and environmental science which included sections on population
growth. Of those only three included any mention of common objections
to the neo-Malthusian view of population. Only three of the textbooks,
for example, bother to inform readers that world population growth has
been declining since the 1970s. Only one presents any criticism of the
notion of “carrying capacity” as applied to human populations,
even though such criticisms are leveled by even mainstream writers such
as Joel Cohen.

As Sanera notes, the North American Association
for Environmental Education published guidelines in 1996 for balanced
discussion of environmental issues in textbooks. Needless to say, such
balance is still lacking.

Leaving Las Vegas

One of the many critics of this site emailed me about a news story he thought contradicted my claims but actually bolsters them. The story, Water outlook revised, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal describes how the Southern Nevada Water Authority announced it could run out of water by 2003 rather than 2026 as it had previously forecast. The forecast changed after Arizona took some water under a water banking plan that Nevada had apparently planned on using.

The gentleman who emailed me the story is convinced it proves that uncontrolled population growth causes all sorts of problems — in fact the story demonstrates that inadequate markets for water lead to inefficient use of water resources. The problem in Nevada, and in much of the American West, is that consumers don’t pay the full market price of the water they use. Rather than create a system whereby consumers would pay the market price, politicians insist on subsidizing wasteful water usage.

Consider, for example, that the same story says the water authority is going to raise $750 million in bonds to partially fund a $1.8 billion water delivery system. How are they going to pay for it? Not by passing the costs on to water consumers based on usage, but rather by raising the state sales tax by a quarter of a cent.

Limits to Growth 25 years later

Twenty-five years ago a small group of scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a computer model at the behest of the Club of Rome to predict what would happen in the next generation. The report based on that computer model, Limits to Growth sold over 9 million copies worldwide, generated numerous books, editorials and commentaries devoted to its apocalyptic predictions of catastrophe. Looking back today, as the Associated Press did in an excellent survey of the report, we know the report wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.

It’s useful to take a look at some of the predictions Limits to Growth made which were accepted uncritically by environmentalists and others and compare that to what really happened.

Limits to Growth Prediction Reality
1. World population would hit 7 billion in 2000 World population will barely reach 6 billion by 2000
2. The world would run out of farmland to feed the rising population Agricultural production almost double while cultivated land increased only 5 percent
3. The world could run out of oil by 1992 Total oil reserves are twice as large (at 1 trillion barrels) than when Limits to Growth was published
4. The world would run out of copper, tin and silver by 2000 There is enough of each natural resource to last for the foreseeable future and mineral prices have actually declined in real terms

Of course at the time critics spoke out against the forecast made in Limits to Growth and the sort of draconian actions for which its proponents argued. But they were dismissed with the typical environmental arguments — “it may be wrong, but can we take that chance?”; or “it’s wrong and irresponsible to claim that natural resources such as oil will be in larger supply in the future, etc.”

But don’t think those who think we’re headed for the apocalypse will see the errors of their way. Like some religious cult which keeps rescheduling doomsday when their appointed god fails to appear, so extreme environmentalists and others will continue to claim we are doomed unless we follow their One True Path.