The Case For Impending Ecological Doom Is Thin

As another Earth Day dawns, I can safely predict that one topic will dominate the news cycle: predictions of doom. Those predictions of impending ecological catastrophe, however, will likely turn out to be wrong.

As award-winning science writer Ronald Bailey points out in his recent book, The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century, "The foretellers of ruin have consistently been wrong, whereas the advocates of human resourcefulness have nearly always been right."

Predictions of doom have a certain perverse psychological appeal — and an undeniable political usefulness. When people are scared, they are more likely to give up power to those who promise to protect them. They shouldn't, because according to Bailey, luminaries like Norman Borlaug and Julian Simon who bet on human ingenuity are being vindicated.

Think we have a population problem? So did Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 book, The Population Bomb, who predicted global famines in the 1970s due to population growth outstripping food production. But despite tens of millions having tragically died of malnutrition over the decades, globe-spanning famines have not come to pass, even though population has roughly doubled from 3.6 billion in 1968 to over seven billion today.

The reason, as Bailey puts it, is quite simple: "Unlike deer that starve when their food runs out, people work to increase supplies." That's just what Norman Borlaug did, spearheading a Green Revolution that swept the globe in the 1960s. For his efforts to increase crop yields, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

At any rate, the world is undergoing a demographic transition. In premodern societies, life expectancy was below 40, and nearly one in three died before the age of five, so people had big families. When we stopped dropping like flies, population did explode — at first. But today, with global life expectancy above 70, and only one in 20 dying before the age of five, family sizes are shrinking fast. Population is still growing, but more slowly, and is set to peak around mid-century.

OK, so maybe population is not such a big worry, but we are running out of resources, aren't we? In 1980, Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource, made a bet with Ehrlich that the price of five commodity metals (copper, chromium, nickel, tin and tungsten) would go down over the next 10 years, indicating that resources were not dwindling. In 1990, Ehrlich admitted defeat and sent Simon a cheque.

Bailey notes that if the bet had been run from 2003 to 2013, Simon would have lost, but this is due in large part to rapidly growing demand from emerging economies like China and India. He cites convincing figures to show that fears of peak oil, peak water, peak fertilizer and peak lithium are all wildly overblown.

"Proponents of peak depletion get it wrong because they treat natural resources as fixed stocks, failing to take into account the inherent dynamics of market forces and technological innovation," Bailey writes.

One thing that has peaked in wealthier parts of the world is pollution. Beyond a certain point, richer is cleaner, at least when it comes to things like landscape degradation, water pollution, agricultural wastes, municipal-related wastes and several air pollution measures. We think the opposite is true, writes Bailey, "because activists make a living peddling fear."

We are also approaching peak farmland as increases in crop productivity allow us to leave more and more land to nature. The innovation of lab-grown meat promises to accelerate this process, as it would require up to 99 per cent less land, 96 per cent less water and 45 per cent less energy, and produce up to 96 per cent less greenhouse gas emissions. Summing up this chapter, Bailey writes: "While the production of some supplies of physical resources may peak, there is no sign that human creativity is about to peak."

Whether he's taking on the deceptively dangerous precautionary principle, what he considers the illusory cancer epidemic or the environmentalist movement's incongruous rejection of the broad scientific consensus on the safety of modern biotech crops, Bailey examines the evidence dispassionately and finds that the case for doom is thin.

Even when it comes to climate change, Bailey doesn't think we're doomed. He does think that the balance of the scientific evidence indicates that man-made global warming likely poses a significant problem for humanity, but he believes that human ingenuity can most likely solve that problem well before the end of the century.

What we shouldn't do, in his opinion, is try to deny the world's poor access to modern fuels, oppose safe hydraulic fracturing for natural gas or shut down all discussion of nuclear power, as many environmentalists do.

Instead, he is in favour of ramping up government spending on research and development on zero-carbon forms of energy — if only because he thinks that widespread government interference in energy markets is here to stay one way or another.

But most of all, Bailey thinks that the best way to help future generations deal with climate change is with policies that encourage rapid economic growth.

And he appreciates that free markets are the best way of delivering that growth: "What well-meaning activists and UN bureaucrats are trying to do is centrally plan the world's ecology. History suggests that that would work out about as well for humanity and the natural world as centrally planned economies did."

In the end, though, he is hopeful, because where bureaucrats will fail to bring about environmental renewal, human ingenuity will succeed.

Mathieu Bédard is Economist at the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.

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