Science and Public Policy

Our man in science goes to Congress

I am testifying at an oversight hearing before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on "The Impact of Science on Public Policy" today, Feb. 4, 2004. I was asked to submit testimony about how and why environmental predictions have gone wrong. What follows is the written version of my testimony. (I get a whole five minutes to speak.)

My name is Ronald Bailey. I am the science correspondent for the public policy magazine Reason and I have written and reported on scientific and environmental policy for more than two decades for various publications. I am also an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. I am the author of one book on environmental predictions and policy (Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse, St. Martin's Press, 1993). I am also the editor for three books on environmental issues: The True State of the Planet, Free Press, 1995; Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet, McGraw-Hill, 2000; and Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths, Prima Publishing, 2003.

Since this hearing is devoted to trying to assess the impacts of scientific information on public policy, I think that looking back at the forecasts of what the state of the planet was predicted to be at the end of the last millennium would be a good place to start. Here I will be looking chiefly at past predictions dealing with three topics: depletion of nonrenewable resources, global population growth and famine, and projected rates of species extinction.

First, let us look at concerns over depleting so-called nonrenewable 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. It didn't hurt that the Limits to Growth report was also featured on the front page of The New York Times when it was released. Ultimately, the report sold 10 million copies worldwide.

The Limits to Growth report includes a table listing all the resources that were supposedly going to run out. The report's authors projected that, at the exponential growth rates they expected to occur, known world supplies of zinc, gold, tin, copper, oil, and natural gas would be completely exhausted in 1992.

Harrison Brown, a respected member of the National Academy of Sciences, published predictions in Scientific American in 1970 which estimated that humanity would totally run out of copper by 2000, and that lead, zinc, tin, gold, and silver would all be gone by 1990.

In 1976, MacArthur Foundation Fellow and Heinz Award in Environment laureate Paul Ehrlich chimed in with his book, The End of Affluence. He stated that "before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion." In 1980, the Carter administration issued its gloomy Global 2000 report, which projected that the price of oil in 1995 would be $40 per barrel in 1979 dollars.

In the 1990s, textbooks like The United States and Its People told impressionable schoolchildren that "some scientists estimate that the world's known supplies of oil, tin, copper, and aluminum will be used up within your lifetime." Another textbook, Concepts and Challenges in Earth Science, asserts that once "nonrenewable resources are used up, their supplies are gone" (just try arguing with logic like that!). A science text, Biology, An Everyday Experience, connects the dots to draw the obvious conclusion: "Governments must help save our fossil fuel supply by passing laws limiting their use."

I did a series of reports when I was at Forbes magazine in 1990. I went up to MIT to interview Professor Jay Forrester and asked him, "I re-read The Limits to Growth report; what happened?" Basically, Professor Forrester, who was the godfather of this project, looked at me and said, "I think we stressed the physical resources side a little too much." Of course, the report would not have made it to the front page of The New York Times had they not stressed the imminent depletion of nonrenewable resources.

Even the generally alarmist Worldwatch Institute acknowledged in its 2001 Vital Signs report: "Nonfuel commodities now fetch only 46 percent as much as in the mid-1970s." Indeed, Worldwatch admitted, "food and fertilizer prices are about one-fourth their 1974 peak." Even the price of crude oil, which has risen in the last couple of years, "nevertheless remains at about half the zenith it achieved in 1980." In fact, overall, nonfuel commodities cost only a third of what they did in 1900. As everyone knows, lower prices generally mean that things are becoming more abundant, not scarcer.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that at present rates of mining, known reserves of copper will last 33 years; zinc, 25 years; silver, 14 years; tin, 23 years; gold, 16 years; and lead, 23 years. It may sound like humanity is running out of these minerals, but the fact is that these levels have remained about the same for the past three decades. Just as a householder doesn't stock all the groceries she'll need for the rest of her life, similarly mining companies don't look for new deposits and open new mines or develop new, more efficient, technologies until their larders are drawn down. What about oil? The survey estimates that global reserves could be as much as 2.1 trillion barrels of crude oil—enough to supply the world for the next 90 years.

Now onto population growth. Let's begin with a little walk down memory lane. In 1968 Stanford University biologist, the aforementioned Paul Ehrlich, famously predicted in his best-selling book The Population Bomb: "The battle to feed all 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-Catastrophe" in The Progressive magazine, offered a scenario in which four billion people would starve to death between 1980 and 1989, 65 million of whom would be Americans.

Ehrlich is not alone in making dire predictions of imminent global famine. Lester Brown, the founder of the Worldwatch Institute, declared in 1981 that "the period of global food security is over. As the demand for food continues to press against supply, inevitably real food prices will rise. The question no longer seems to be whether they will rise, but how much." In 1994, Brown wrote in his annual State of the World report: "The world's farmers can no longer be counted on to feed the projected additions to the world's population." And Brown warned in his 1997 report: "Food scarcity will be the defining issue of the new era now unfolding, much as ideological conflict was the defining issue of the historical era that recently ended." He continues: "rising food prices will be the first major economic indicator to show that the world economy is on an environmentally unsustainable path."

Well, what happened? First, let's review a few things. Why did global population increase so dramatically in the 20th century, rising from about 1.6 billion in 1900 to a bit over six 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."

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

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.