State of the World

Speech delivered at Foundation for the Future, August 12, 2001

First, I want to thank the Foundation for the Future for inviting me to give this talk. I am more than a little apprehensive giving it in front of such a distinguished group of thinkers. But here goes--the state of the planet, that is the environmental health of the Earth and that of its citizens is surprisingly good and likely to get better over the next century. Of course demonstrating this in the course of an half hour talk is going to be difficult, but here goes.

Since this seminar is devoted to trying to foresee the opportunities and problems that lay ahead for humanity over the next millennium, I think that looking back at forecasts of what the state of the planet was supposed to be at the end of the last millennium might be a good place to start. I will be looking chiefly at (1) global population, (2) non-renewable resources, (3) pollution, (4) climate change. And then I’m going to explain why there remain some environmental problems and how they are likely to be solved.

POPULATION--First, then population. In 1968, Stanford University biologist famously predicted in his best-selling The Population Bomb: The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." For the first Earth Day in 1970, Ehrlich in an article entitled "Eco-Castastrophe" in The Progressive magazine offered a scenario in which 4 billion people would starve to death between 1980 and 1989, 65 million of whom would be Americans. Ehrlich was far from alone, Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and Denis Hayes, one of the organizers of Earth Day and many others concurred in this grim forecast.

What happened? Well, first why did population increase so dramatically in the 20th century?--rising from around 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6 billion today. As Harvard University demographer, Nicholas Eberstadt puts it, "Global population increased not because people started breeding like rabbits, but because they stopped dying like flies." What happened is that babies stopped dying shortly after birth. The global infant mortality rate dropped from a couple of hundred per thousand to below 50 per thousand today. The result is that human life expectancy has more than double from an average of around 30 years in 1900 rising to 46 years by 1950 and is now 66 years in 2001. The World Health Organization expects that to rise to an average of 73 years by 2020. Surely this is evidence for the greatest improvement in the human condition in all of history.

What about future population trends? One still hears from activists that world population will rise to 12 to 15 billion by 2050 or if they’re more cautious 2100. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that that is very unlikely. First, let’s look back at the predictions made in 1970s. If famine were somehow miraculously avoided, both Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown predicted that world population in 2000 would be more than 7 billion. In actual fact, world population as noted earlier reached only 6 billion by the year 2000.

Keep in mind that there is no predictive theory of demography--but everyone now acknowledges that the rate of world population growth is rapidly decelerating.

The United Nations World Population Prospects, 2000 revision has dropped its medium world population projection for 2025 to 7.8 billion: Only four years earlier in 1996, it had projected a world population of 8.04 billion by 2025. According to many demographers, this impressive drop indicates that world population trends are likely to track the low variant trends in which world population will top out at about 8 billion in 2040 or so and then begin to drop. Even Nature magazine earlier this month published work which concludes that it is likely that world population will never exceed 9 billion or so.

What has happened of course is that women are having many fewer children than they did--dropping from nearly 6 children per woman in the 1960s to around 2.6 and falling today. Replacement is 2.1 children per woman--a rate that all developed countries have already fallen below.

Of course, the reason that Ehrlich and others predicted demographic disaster was their devotion of Malthusian theory--that population would always outstrip the available food supplies. What confounded their predictions of doom is the advent of the Green Revolution nurtured by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. The Green Revolution has been summed up as "making two blades of grass grow where only one could grow before." By the way, Ehrlich completely dismissed the Green Revolution, predicting in 1970 that it would "soon turn brown." What has been the result of the Green Revolution?

Since 1970, the amount of food per person globally has increased by 26% and as the International Food Policy Research Institute recently reported, "World market prices for wheat, maize and rice, adjusted for inflation, are the lowest they have been in the past century." According the World Bank, food production increased 60 percent between 1980 and 1997. In fact, food is cheaper and more abundant than it has ever been in all of human history. And more good news, the amount of land devoted to growing crops has barely increased over the past 30 years, meaning millions of square miles of land have been spared for nature with concomitant benefits for biodiversity. So Malthus and Ehrlich are spectacularly wrong, more food does not mean more people, in fact in turns out that more food means more old fat people.

NON-RENEWABLE RESOURCES--Another area of concern has been the depletion of so-called non-renewable resources. This thesis was most famously propounded in the 1972 Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome and later in President Jimmy Carter’s Global 2000 report. The Limits to Growth thesis got a big boost when the Arab countries unleashed their oil embargo in 1973. The Limits to Growth report in a handy table in the middle of the book projected at exponential growth rates which the reports authors expected, world supplies of gold, tin, zinc, copper, oil and natural gas would be completely exhausted by 1992. The Limits to Growth authors were not alone--In 1970, Harrison Brown, a respected member of the National Academy of Sciences, published a chart in Scientific American that looked at metal reserves and estimated that humanity would totally run out of copper by 2000 and that lead, zinc, tin, gold and silver would be gone by 1990.

Of course this didn’t happen. Even the generally alarmist Worldwatch Institute acknowledges in its Vital Signs report published this past May, that "nonfuel commodities now fetch only about 46 percent as much as in the mid-1970s. Indeed, Worldwatch admits that "food and fertilizer prices are about one-fourth their 1974 peak." Even the price of crude oil, which has risen lately, "nevertheless remains at about half the zenith reached in 1980." In fact, overall non-fuel commodities cost only a third of what they did in 1900.

As everyone knows, lower prices mean that things are becoming more abundant not more scarce. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated 2 years ago, that at present rates of mining that reserves of copper will last 54 years, zinc, 56 years, silver 26 years, tin, 55 years, gold, 30 years. and lead, 47 years. What about oil? The survey estimates that global reserves could be has high a 2.1 trillion barrels of crude oil--enough to supply the world for the next 90 years. These reserve figures are moving targets--as they get drawn down, miners and drillers find new sources of supply or better ways to exploit old sources, and technologist find more efficient ways to use resources or substitute for those that are becoming less abundant. More on the role technology plays in protecting the natural world a bit later.

POLLUTION--Another concern is pollution--as one contemplates the declining air quality of Shanghai or Bangkok, one is naturally concerned. Of course, these concerns were present at the birth of the global environmental movement. On the occasion of the first Earth Day in 1970, smog choked many American cities, sludge coated the banks of many rivers, and people were also worried that we were poisoning the biosphere with new synthetic chemicals, most especially pesticides. In 1970, Life magazine reported that "Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support ... the following predictions: In a decade , urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the earth by one half." The Limits to Growth report in 1972 declared that "Virtually every pollutant that has been measured as a function of time appears to be increasingly exponentially." Of course, Paul Ehrlich chimed in declaring that "air certainly going to take hundreds of thousand of lives in the next few years alone. He offered a scenario in which 200,000 Americans living in New York and Los Angeles would die in smog disasters in 1973.

So has air pollution gotten worse? Interestingly, when Americans are polled on this question the majority believe that air pollution in the U.S. is much worse than it was 30 years ago. I believe most of us in this room are old enough to know that this simply isn’t so. Environmental Protection Agency data show that for the so-called criteria air pollutants, that instead of rising exponentially as predicted by the Limits to Growth report, that instead ambient levels of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide have fallen by 75 percent, while total suspended particulates, like smoke, soot and dust have been cut by 50 percent since the 1950s. The chief constituents of smog, nitrogen oxides are down 37 percent and ozone down by 27 percent. In 1988, the particulate standard was changed to account for smaller particles and even under this tougher standard particulates are down an additional 15 percent. Keep in mind that the U.S. population grew from 218 million in 1976 to 281 million today, the economy grew from $4.3 trillion to $10 trillion, and vehicle miles traveled increased by 121 percent. The good news is that similar pollution trends are clearly evident in all developed countries.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties