Forecasters of scarcity and doom are not only invariably wrong, they
think that being wrong proves them right
IN 1798 Thomas Robert Malthus inaugurated a grand tradition of
environmentalism with his best-selling pamphlet on population. Malthus
argued with impeccable logic but distinctly peccable premises that since
population tended to increase geometrically (1,2,4,8 . . . ) and food
supply to increase arithmetically (1,2,3,4 . . . ), the starvation of
Great Britain was inevitable and imminent. Almost everybody thought he
was right. He was wrong.
In 1865 an influential book by Stanley Jevons argued with equally good
logic and equally flawed premises that Britain would run out of coal in
a few short years' time. In 1914, the United States Bureau of Mines
predicted that American oil reserves would last ten years. In 1939 and
again in 1951, the Department of the Interior said American oil would
last 13 years. Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.
This article argues that predictions of ecological doom, including
recent ones, have such a terrible track record that people should take
them with pinches of salt instead of lapping them up with relish. For
reasons of their own, pressure groups, journalists and fame-seekers will
no doubt continue to peddle ecological catastrophes at an undiminishing
speed. These people, oddly, appear to think that having been invariably
wrong in the past makes them more likely to be right in the future. The
rest of us might do better to recall, when warned of the next doomsday,
what ever became of the last one.
In 1972 the Club of Rome published a highly influential report called
"Limits to Growth". To many in the environmental movement, that report
still stands as a beacon of sense in the foolish world of economics. But
were its predictions borne out?
"Limits to Growth" said total global oil reserves amounted to 550
billion barrels. "We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in
the entire world by the end of the next decade," said President Jimmy
Carter shortly afterwards. Sure enough, between 1970 and 1990 the world
used 600 billion barrels of oil. So, according to the Club of Rome,
reserves should have been overdrawn by 50 billion barrels by 1990. In
fact, by 1990 unexploited reserves amounted to 900 billion barrels-not
counting the tar shales, of which a single deposit in Alberta contains
more than 550 billion barrels.
The Club of Rome made similarly wrong predictions about natural gas,
silver, tin, uranium, aluminium, copper, lead and zinc. In every case,
it said finite reserves of these minerals were approaching exhaustion
and prices would rise steeply. In every case except tin, known reserves
have actually grown since the Club's report; in some cases they have
quadrupled. "Limits to Growth" simply misunderstood the meaning of the
The Club of Rome's mistakes have not tarnished its confidence. It more
recently issued to wide acclaim "Beyond the Limits", a book that
essentially said: although we were too pessimistic about the future
before, we remain equally pessimistic about the future today. But
environmentalists have been a little more circumspect since 1990 about
predicting the exhaustion of minerals. That year, a much-feted
environmentalist called Paul Ehrlich, whose words will prove an
inexhaustible (though not infinite: there is a difference) reserve of
misprediction for this article, sent an economist called Julian Simon a
cheque for $570.07 in settlement of a wager.
Dr Ehrlich would later claim that he was "goaded into making a bet with
Simon on a matter of marginal environmental importance." At the time,
though, he said he was keen to "accept Simon's astonishing offer before
other greedy people jump in." Dr Ehrlich chose five minerals: tungsten,
nickel, copper, chrome and tin. They agreed how much of these metals
$1,000 would buy in 1980, then ten years later recalculated how much
that amount of metal would cost (still in 1980 dollars) and Dr Ehrlich
agreed to pay the difference if the price fell, Dr Simon if the price
rose. Dr Simon won easily; indeed, he would have won even if they had
not adjusted the prices for inflation, and he would have won if Dr
Ehrlich had chosen virtually any mineral: of 35 minerals, 33 fell in
price during the 1980s. Only manganese and zinc were exceptions (see
Plenty of metals. . .: Metals and minerals prices (Source: World Bank)
Dr Simon frequently offers to repeat the bet with any prominent
doomsayer, but has not yet found a taker.
Others have yet to cotton on. The 1983 edition of a British GCSE school
textbook said zinc reserves would last ten years and natural gas 30
years. By 1993, the author had wisely removed references to zinc (rather
than explain why it had not run out), and he gave natural gas 50 years,
which mocked his forecast of ten years earlier. But still not a word
about price, the misleading nature of quoted "reserves" or
So much for minerals. The record of mispredicted food supplies is even
worse. Consider two quotations from Paul Ehrlich's best-selling books in
Agricultural experts state that a tripling of the food supply of the
world will be necessary in the next 30 years or so, if the 6 or 7
billion people who may be alive in the year 2000 are to be adequately
fed. Theoretically such an increase might be possible, but it is
becoming increasingly clear that it is totally impossible in practice.
The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo
famines-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.
He was not alone. Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute began
predicting in 1973 that population would soon outstrip food production,
and he still does so every time there is a temporary increase in wheat
prices. In 1994, after 21 years of being wrong, he said: "After 40
years of record food production gains, output per person has reversed
with unanticipated abruptness." Two bumper harvests followed and the
price of wheat fell to record lows. Yet Mr Brown's pessimism remains as
impregnable to facts as his views are popular with newspapers.
The facts on world food production are truly startling for those who
have heard only the doomsayers' views. Since 1961, the population of the
world has almost doubled, but food production has more than doubled. As
a result, food production per head has risen by 20% since 1961 (see
chart 2). Nor is this improvement confined to rich countries. According
to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, calories consumed per capita
per day are 27% higher in the third world than they were in 1963. Deaths
from famine, starvation and malnutrition are fewer than ever before.
"Global 2000" was a report to the president of the United States
written in 1980 by a committee of the great and the good. It was so
influential that it caused one CNN producer to "switch from being an
objective journalist to an advocate" of environmental doom. "Global
2000" predicted that population would increase faster than world food
production, so that food prices would rise by between 35% and 115% by
2000. So far the world food commodity index has fallen by 50% (see chart
3). With two years to go, prices may yet quintuple to prove "Global
2000" right. Want to bet?
GRAPHS: . . . Plenty of food: Food production; Food prices (Sources:
FAO; World Bank)
Perhaps the reader thinks the tone of this article a little unforgiving.
These predictions may have been spectacularly wrong, but they were
well-meant. But in that case, those quoted would readily admit their
error, which they do not. It was not impossible to be right at the time.
There were people who in 1970 predicted abundant food, who in 1975
predicted cheap oil, who in 1980 predicted cheaper and more abundant
minerals. Today those people-among them Norman Macrae of this newspaper,
Julian Simon, Aaron Wildavsky-are ignored by the press and vilified by
the environmental movement. For being right, they are called
"right-wing". The truth can be a bitter medicine to swallow.
Meanwhile, environmental attention switched from resources to pollution.
Cancer-causing chemicals were suddenly said to be everywhere: in water,
in food, in packaging. Last summer Edward Goldsmith blamed the death of
his brother, Sir James, on chemicals: all cancer is caused by chemicals,
he claimed, and cancer rates are rising. Not so. The rate of mortality
from cancers not related to smoking for those between 35 and 69 is
actually falling steadily-by 15% since 1950. Organically grown broccoli
and coffee are full of natural substances that are just as carcinogenic
as man-made chemicals at high doses and just as safe at low doses.
In the early 1980s acid rain became the favourite cause of doom. Lurid
reports appeared of widespread forest decline in Germany, where half the
trees were said to be in trouble. By 1986, the United Nations reported
that 23% of all trees in Europe were moderately or severely damaged by
acid rain. What happened? They recovered. The biomass stock of European
forests actually increased during the 1980s. The damage all but
disappeared. Forests did not decline: they thrived.
A similar gap between perception and reality occurred in the United
States. Greens fell over each other to declare the forests of North
America acidified and dying. "There is no evidence of a general or
unusual decline of forests in the United States or Canada due to acid
rain," concluded a ten-year, $700m official study. When asked if he had
been pressured to be optimistic, one of the authors said the reverse was
true. "Yes, there were political pressures . . . Acid rain had to be an
environmental catastrophe, no matter what the facts revealed."
Today the mother of all environmental scares is global warming. Here the
jury is still out, though not according to President Clinton. But before
you rush to join the consensus he has declared, compare two quotations.
The first comes from Newsweek in 1975: "Meteorologists disagree about
the cause and extent of the cooling trend . . . But they are almost
unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural
productivity for the rest of the century." The second comes from
Vice-President Al Gore in 1992: "Scientists concluded-almost
unanimously-that global warming is real and the time to act is now."
(The italics are ours.)
There are ample other causes for alarmism for the dedicated pessimist as
the century's end nears. The extinction of elephants, the threat of
mad-cow disease, outbreaks of the Ebola virus, and chemicals that mimic
sex hormones are all fashionable. These come in a different category
from the scares cited above. The trend in each is undoubtedly not
benign, but it is exaggerated.
In 1984 the United Nations asserted that the desert was swallowing 21m
hectares of land every year. That claim has been comprehensively
demolished. There has been and is no net advance of the desert at all.
In 1992 Mr Gore asserted that 20% of the Amazon had been deforested and
that deforestation continued at the rate of 80m hectares a year. The
true figures are now agreed to be 9% and 21m hectares a year gross at
its peak in the 1980s, falling to about 10m hectares a year now.
Just one environmental scare in the past 30 years bears out the most
alarmist predictions made at the time: the effect of DDT (a pesticide)
on birds of prey, otters and some other predatory animals. Every other
environmental scare has been either wrong or badly exaggerated. Will you
believe the next one?
Environmental scare stories now follow such a predictable line that we
can chart their course. Year 1 is the year of the scientist, who
discovers some potential threat. Year 2 is the year of the journalist,
who oversimplifies and exaggerates it. Only now, in year 3, do the
environmentalists join the bandwagon (almost no green scare has been
started by greens). They polarise the issue. Either you agree that the
world is about to come to an end and are fired by righteous indignation,
or you are a paid lackey of big business.
Year 4 is the year of the bureaucrat. A conference is mooted, keeping
public officials well supplied with club-class tickets and limelight.
This diverts the argument from science to regulation. A totemic
"target" is the key feature: 30% reductions in sulphur emissions;
stabilisation of greenhouse gases at 1990 levels; 140,000 ritually
slaughtered healthy British cows.
Year 5 is the time to pick a villain and gang up on him. It is usually
America (global warming) or Britain (acid rain), but Russia (CFCs and
ozone) or Brazil (deforestation) have had their day. Year 6 is the time
for the sceptic who says the scare is exaggerated. This drives greens
into paroxysms of pious rage. "How dare you give space to fringe
views?" cry these once-fringe people to newspaper editors. But by now
the scientist who first gave the warning is often embarrassingly to be
found among the sceptics. Roger Revelle, nickname "Dr Greenhouse", who
fired Al Gore with global warming evangelism, wrote just before his
death in 1991: "The scientific basis for greenhouse warming is too
uncertain to justify drastic action at this time."
Year 7 is the year of the quiet climbdown. Without fanfare, the official
consensus estimate of the size of the problem is shrunk. Thus, when
nobody was looking, the population "explosion" became an asymptotic
rise to a maximum of just 15 billion; this was then downgraded to 12
billion, then less than 10 billion. That means population will never
double again. Greenhouse warming was originally going to be
"uncontrolled". Then it was going to be 2.5-4 degrees in a century.
Then it became 1.5-3 degrees (according to the United Nations). In two
years, elephants went from imminent danger of extinction to badly in
need of contraception (the facts did not change, the reporting did).
Is it not a good thing to exaggerate the potential ecological problems
the world faces rather than underplay them? Not necessarily. A new book
edited by Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns at the University of Sussex
("The Lie of the Land", published by James Currey/Heinemann) documents
just how damaging the myth of deforestation and population pressure has
been in parts of the Sahel. Westerners have forced inappropriate
measures on puzzled local inhabitants in order to meet activists'
preconceived notions of environmental change. The myth that oil and gas
will imminently run out, together with worries about the greenhouse
effect, is responsible for the despoliation of wild landscapes in Wales
and Denmark by ugly, subsidised and therefore ultimately job-destroying
wind farms. School textbooks are counsels of despair and guilt (see
"Environmental Education", published by the Institute of Economic
Affairs), which offer no hope of winning the war against famine, disease
and pollution, thereby inducing fatalism rather than determination.
Above all, the exaggeration of the population explosion leads to a form
of misanthropy that comes dangerously close to fascism. The
aforementioned Dr Ehrlich is an unashamed believer in the need for
coerced family planning. His fellow eco-guru, Garrett Hardin, has said
that "freedom to breed is intolerable". If you think population is
"out of control" you might be tempted to agree to such drastic
curtailments of liberty. But if you know that the graph is flattening,
you might take a more tolerant view of your fellow human beings.
You can be in favour of the environment without being a pessimist. There
ought to be room in the environmental movement for those who think that
technology and economic freedom will make the world cleaner and will
also take the pressure off endangered species. But at the moment such
optimists are distinctly unwelcome among environmentalists. Dr Ehrlich
likes to call economic growth the creed of the cancer cell. He is not
alone. Sir Crispin Tickell calls economics "not so much dismal as
Environmentalists are quick to accuse their opponents in business of
having vested interests. But their own incomes, their advancement, their
fame and their very existence can depend on supporting the most alarming
versions of every environmental scare. "The whole aim of practical
politics", said H.L. Mencken, "is to keep the populace alarmed-and
hence clamorous to be led to safety-by menacing it with an endless
series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." Mencken's forecast, at
least, appears to have been correct.
Copyright of The Economist is the property of Economist Newspaper, NA,
[Source: The Economist, December 20th, 1997, 20/12/97-02/01/98, Vol. 345 Issue 8048, p19, 3p, 3 graphs]
** This material is reproduced for research and educational purposes only. **
CARTOONS from the Economist: added comment
The optimists, i.e. the anonymous authors and editors of "The Economist" in "Planet of Plenty" are dangerous dreamers.
Also compare "Club of Rome".