Good News, Bad News

By Michael Fumento

Reason, June 2000
Copyright 2000 Reason

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You can get a quick handle on these two new books about Earth’s environmental health by imagining them as science fiction movies. Earth Report 2000, edited by Reason Science Correspondent Ronald Bailey for the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, would be a Star Trek film: The collection presents an essentially rosy future with problems that human ingenuity eventually solves. State of the World 2000, put together by Lester Brown and the Worldwatch Institute, would be Blade Runner: It imagines a dark, dreary world where it’s always raining and the sidewalks are so crowded that you have to walk on cars to get anywhere.

Yet pairing these books is appropriate, since Earth Report 2000 and its predecessor, The True State of the Planet (1995), were written as a foil to Worldwatch’s yearly tidings of gloom. Bailey’s book asks, contra Worldwatch, Can things be all that bad? He and his colleagues find that a brighter environmental future is possible if fresh ideas and free markets are permitted to take their course.

The philosophy Bailey and his writers espouse is known as free market environmentalism — the belief that private markets and property-rights enforcement are a more certain and less costly means of preserving the ecosystem than central government control. Thus, if everybody "owns" African elephants, then nobody really does and nobody has a special incentive to protect them. Grant ownership of the elephants to a tribe and they will protect them as fiercely as a farmer protects his hogs or chickens. It’s growing not just as an intellectual movement but in application, and has even been given a bit of a nod by a few major green groups.

Bailey’s own essay, "The Progress Explosion: Permanently Escaping the Malthusian Trap," is one of the best ripostes to Malthusian theory around. Thomas Malthus, writing in the 18th century, predicted that population would inevitably outstrip food supply, because he believed the former grows exponentially while the latter grows only arithmetically. "Two centuries after Malthus," notes Bailey, "it is now clear that the exponential growth of knowledge, not population, is the real key to understanding the future of humanity and the earth."

Malthus’ prediction is simply wrong. Neo-Malthusians, smart enough to see that reality has made a mockery of Malthus’ dark fantasy, have fallen back on a different but equally glum contention: Forget that part about food supplies, they say; growing population will instead outstrip our supply of all other natural resources. Much of Earth Report 2000 duels with the neo-Malthusians on these grounds. A clear look at the current record suggests many reasons for optimism.

One especially positive chapter is about garbage, of all things. Written by Reason Public Policy Institute Executive Director Lynn Scarlett, "Doing More with Less" shows how packagers keep finding ingenious ways to "dematerialize" products — to do the same, or more, using less material. Scarlett writes, "A basket of typical U.S. grocery items fell from over 2,750 pounds of packaging per gross production unit in 1989 to approximately 2,100 pounds in 1993-1994." Thus packaging becomes less of a disposal dilemma each year.

What drives this dematerialization? Neither command-and-control environmental dictates nor corporate good-heartedness. The real motive is the classic one of economizing. Use less material, and you save money on transportation and warehousing, on the cost of the material itself, and on the energy cost of making the product. Scarlett describes an elegantly interdependent business venture in Scandanavia, one that conserves resources precisely because it boosts productivity.

"In Kalundbor, Denmark, in the 1980s, Asnaes, a large coal-fired electricity-generating plant, began providing process steam to a refinery and a pharmaceutical plant located nearby," she writes. "The refinery, in turn, provides cooling water and purified wastewater to Asnaes. A wallboard producer, Gyproc, had long been buying surplus gas from the refinery; Asnaes joined in the purchase of surplus gas in 1991, absorbing all the refinery’s surpluses and reducing its need for coal by 30,000 tons per year. Purchase of the surplus gas by Asnaes became possible when the refinery began removing excess sulfur in the gas. The ’waste’ sulfur was, in turn, sold to a sulfuric acid plant. Asnaes also uses surplus heat to warm a seawater fish farm, which produces trout and turbot primarily for French markets. Sludge generated at the fish farm becomes fertilizer for local farmers."

"We are the Borg. We hate the free market."

Could the best and brightest at our Environmental Protection Agency or Denmark’s equivalent bureaucracy have thought of something so intricate and yet so efficient? It’s highly unlikely. As in Star Trek, despite the generally sunny and positive outlook on the future, a crisis-producing menace threatens. The Borg Collective of Bailey & Co.’s free market environmental vision goes by the name of Government Regulations. Nowhere is this more evident than in Michael De Alessi’s chapter, "Fishing for Solutions." De Alessi, director of the Center for Private Conservation, discusses one of the Worldwatch Institute’s bogeymen, overfishing. He discovers that, although it’s not the crisis Worldwatch thinks, overfishing is indeed worrisome in some areas. But De Alessi finds that property rights, when allowed to work, have proven the most efficient means of coping with overfishing.

Maryland, for example, tries to limit oyster catches by allowing fishermen to use only decades-old sailing ships, making it America’s most backward fishing industry. Yet overfishing of oysters continues to the point where harvests are at 1 percent of historic levels. Similarly, Alaska tried to impose limits on halibut catches by progressively shortening the fishing season, all the way down to a mere two days. That didn’t stop industrious fishermen from making a season’s haul in 48 frantic, dangerous hours.

Conversely, where waters and beds have been allocated to private parties, as in Washington state, harvests have exploded, with the haul doubling since heavy-handed regulations enacted in the 1970s were lifted. New Zealand began using transferable quotas (legal allocations, which can be bought and sold, of certain numbers of fish that can be caught) in 1986 and saw its total marine catch go from fewer than 180,000 metric tons that year to a net-ripping 452,000 by 1995.

A favorite mantra of the free market environmentalist is that "wealth equals health." Indur Goklany, a researcher at the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis, takes that argument further in his chapter "Richer Is More Resilient." He argues that a wealthy country isn’t just a healthier country but also a cleaner one — and also more able to deal with adversity such as natural disasters.

The Aftermath of Hurricane Mitch

While global warming as an overhyped threat is dealt with at length in other sections of this book, Goklany is most inventive in using it as a standard by which improvements in industrialization and wealth should be measured. In other words, assuming that global warming is taking place and will cause problems, he shows that such potential problems — increased disease, higher sea levels, etc. — are easily outweighed by the benefits of industrializing. Goklany notes, for example, that though Hurricane Mitch hitting relatively undeveloped Central America in 1998 killed 10,000 people, Tropical Storm Claudette, dropping the same amount of rain, killed only nine in wealthier Texas.

Other chapters run the gamut of popular environmental fears and fancies, from government-sponsored "soft" energy to endocrine-disrupting chemicals to the population explosion to species extinction. In every case Bailey’s authors present convincing, well-documented arguments that the fears are unwarranted and that state-directed solutions do not solve problems, and may even create them.

Fittingly, Earth Report 2000 opens with CEI President Fred Smith’s affectionate tribute to the late Julian Simon, the University of Maryland professor who was a tireless advocate for the idea that the ultimate resource is not minerals or food or water but the human mind and its ability to learn, adapt, and innovate. Earth Report 2000 concludes with dozens of charts indicating that it’s OK to keep saving for retirement. Not only is the end of the world not nigh, in many ways the environment and our ability to sustain it keep getting better by the year.

The book ignores, though, an essential topic that has already affected, or will soon affect, many of its concerns: biotechnology. Biotech (the subject of a book I am now writing) will affect our environmental future everywhere from packaging (making new plastic packaging materials out of plants) to food (tremendously increasing the per-acre yields of farmland). That criticism aside, this is a smart, useful book — proof of its own assertion that ideas are the greatest natural resource.

As for The State of the World 2000, what can you say about a book that says the Luddites were really good guys, just misunderstood? The Worldwatch mavens dismiss progress as "nonsustainable" and propose "solutions" that may advance regulatory regimes but do nothing for humans or the environment.

Traditional environmentalists, such as those at Worldwatch, are just that — traditional. While they may sometimes favor regulations that allow industry to choose the cheapest and most efficient course of action in protecting natural resources, they have undiminished faith in the government (federal rather than state or local) to set standards even when powerful scientific evidence indicates those standards are needless or even do more harm to the environment than good.

The book gets off to an inauspicious start, claiming that, when the first edition appeared in 1984, there were "record rates of population growth, soaring oil prices, debilitating levels of international debt, and extensive damage to forests from the new phenomenon of acid rain." Back then, though, writes Brown and his two co-editors, at least there was hope that things would be considerably improved by the end of the century. So has the world improved at all over the past 16 years? "Far from it," declare Brown and company.

Really? By 1984 population growth rates were already below their record levels, and since then they have plummeted around the world (if anything, it’s the specter of depopulation that haunts many nations). Oil prices had long since stopped soaring by 1984, despite Brown’s bold declaration in 1980 that "it would be prudent for any American contemplating the purchase of a new car to assume that gas will cost $2 per gallon within a few years and $3 per gallon during the vehicle’s lifetime." Notwithstanding the recent spike in gas prices, by last year inflation-adjusted gas prices were as low as they’ve ever been.

Although Worldwatch has been a loud voice in the chorus exaggerating the effects of acid rain, even The State of the World admits that the main constituent of acid rain, sulfur dioxide emissions, has been declining in the developed world. It also admits forest growth is booming in the Northern Hemisphere — but says that doesn’t count because so much of the forest is commercially used. While it’s true that forests are shrinking in the Southern Hemisphere, that’s mostly because of government incentives to slash and burn them away. But don’t look for a discussion of that from Brown and friends.

Worldwatch suffers from an ailment common among environmentalist groups: an acute allergy to good news. The book begrudgingly admits that the wretched hand of starvation has essentially lost its bony grip on the earth, but says it has only been replaced by the new problem of obesity, even in underdeveloped countries. Sure, obesity is a problem (I wrote a book on it, The Fat of the Land), but wouldn’t this have been an appropriate place to acknowledge that the Malthusian predictions put out by the Worldwatch Institute and others (such as Paul and Anne Ehrlich) were completely wrong?

Unlike Earth Report 2000, State of the World 2000 mentions biotech agriculture in three places, twice neutrally but once surprisingly favorably. It says it "may reduce insecticide use." Actually, it has done so remarkably where applied. Further, it says biotech "offers little potential for raising yields." That it’s already doing so in the United States is somehow missed. Every single crop problem the book mentions — such as salinization of irrigated lands, the declining availability of fresh water, and the problem of getting enough calories but not enough of the right nutrients — are already being targeted by biotech botanists. For example, a variety of rice and of canola are already in test plots that will pack vitamin A — desperately lacking in the Third World — into the crops.

A common theme throughout the State of the World series is that no problem is really on its way to being solved, as much as it may seem that way. Hence, starvation has been replaced by obesity. Sure, massive overpopulation dooming us all to the living space of a Manhattan cockroach no longer looms large. Now the real problem is that the ecosystem can’t handle the numbers we have now.

"Cuisinarts of the Air"

Similarly, the Worldwatch crew no longer talks of fossil fuels running out or $3-a-gallon gasoline. These days, the very abundance of fossil fuels is posited as the problem, since burning them allegedly causes global warming. So we’re given a lengthy treatise on the wonders of "soft energy," without being given the per-kilowatt costs that Jerry Taylor and Peter VanDoren of the Cato Institute offer in Earth Report 2000. Taylor and VanDoren find, for example, that while "soft energy advocates and the Department of Energy continue to confidently assert that wind power will soon dominate the U.S. energy market...wind-driven electricity from the very best locations" is triple the price of existing underutilized fossil fuel generation. Worldwatch is especially tickled by wind energy, even though it’s far more efficient at killing predator birds than producing electricity (the Sierra Club has dubbed wind towers "Cuisinarts of the air").

As in any compilation by diverse authors, the quality of State of the World 2000 can’t be consistently bad. "Harnessing Information Technologies for the Environment" by Molly O’Meara is worth a read, though it gives the idea that these technologies emanate from the ether rather than from entrepreneurs. The chapter on "micropower" — fuel cells and other small-wattage, decentralized power plants — is fascinating and carries only trace amounts of green polemic. Indeed, the advantages of micropower mimic the advantages of a decentralized energy strategy and the general decentralization of approaches to environmental problems.

In fact, a consistent emphasis on decentralization — and the discovery processes it fosters — is exactly what you get in Bailey’s book and what’s lacking in the Worldwatch Institute’s. "We know how to keep the Malthusian trap from closing," Bailey concludes in Earth Report 2000. "Humanity, represented by our governments and international agencies, must make sure that individuals, corporations, and research institutions have strong incentives to explore, discover, and invent the innovations that will supply our future energy, agricultural, medical, and materials needs."

Generally speaking, that means getting out of the way of entrepreneurs and ignoring the doomsayers whose recommendations usually lead only to more roadblocks on those entrepreneurs’ paths. While that message is slowly gaining ground, it’s sorely missing from State of the World 2000.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on environmental issues and on biotechnology.