Disarming the Prophets of Doom


The Doomsday Myth, by Charles Maurice and Charles W. Smithson, Stanford, Calif: Hoover Institution Press, 136 pp., $16.95/$8.95

The environmental decade of the 1970s caught America off guard. Never had we encountered a philosophy that said economic growth is bad and industrial production is leading us down a road to disaster.

Moreover, environmentalists seemed to have contemporary events on their side. Pollution was becoming a problem. The earth's population was growing. And then there was the great resource event of the decade—the "energy crisis."

The Doomsday Myth, by Charles Maurice and Charles Smithson, is part of a growing body of literature arguing that environmental problems are not the death-knell of our civilization. In fact, just the opposite is true. Historically, they argue, societies' "great leaps forward" seem to have happened in response to environmental crises and shifts in the resource base, rather than during periods when people were prospering off the fat of the land. It is only by responding flexibly and imaginatively to changing economic conditions that societies have become creative enough to produce what we call "progress."

The book is one I've been waiting to read for years. In clear, simple prose, the authors take us back through nine "resource crises" of history. How did the Greeks respond to the loss of the tin that had produced the Bronze Age? How did England react to cutting down its medieval forests? Why did the technology of water power, which had been known for centuries, suddenly become widespread in Europe after 1300?

Maurice and Smithson, two economists at Texas A&M University, argue that in each of these cases there was a successful adaptation to a "crisis." The result was an even better economic prospect than the one that had already reached its limits.

• The Greeks, for example, took iron—a metal that had been regarded as a luxury ornament—and turned it into an effective substitute for bronze. The iron eventually proved far more useful.

• The English, after they had exhausted their wood supply, turned to coal. As a result, England, which had been a backward province of Europe, led the way into the Industrial Revolution and a great improvement in human well-being.

• The introduction of water mills, on the other hand, probably resulted from labor shortages produced by the Black Death. During the 14th century, nearly half the population of Europe died from the plague. Farms and manors were emptied of people, and the owners, forced to find substitutes for manual labor, turned to water power.

The lesson Maurice and Smithson draw from these historical experiences is simple—let the market work. In each instance, they show, it was the movement of wages and prices that led to the successful adaptations that overcame resource crises. Human ingenuity can solve scarcity problems if we have the right information—in this case, information about the relative scarcity of resources. Prices provide such information. And if governing bodies end up hiding resource scarcity through restrictions, wage and price controls, and so on, the result is likely to be disaster.

It was the Emperor Diocletian, after all—the "last strong emperor of Rome"—who imposed universal wage and price controls on the tottering system. After that, it was downhill all the way.

What would have happened, one wonders, if the American people had responded to the "energy crisis" of the 1970s by electing Sen. Edward Kennedy, who wanted to solve our recent economic problems by permanently imposing wage and price controls on the entire American economy?

The Doomsday Myth is myth-shattering—dealing with the kind of misconceptions that infect our everyday sense of reality. How many times during the 1970s, for example, did we hear about the "government crash program" that had led to the overnight invention of synthetic rubber during World War II? I recall reading it several times in Time magazine alone.

Maurice and Smithson show that it just isn't so. Through diligent research, they have discovered that all the basic research and invention needed to produce synthetic rubber had already been done in the 1930s. American rubber companies—alerted by a British attempt to cartelize the market for natural rubber in the 1920s—had long since anticipated the problem.

All the Roosevelt administration did to solve "the rubber crisis" was to start buying synthetic rubber. (It did provide some capital to start plant construction as well.) Meanwhile, the government's Rubber Reserve Corporation—the 1940s equivalent of the present-day Synthetic Fuels Corporation—rejected the idea of synthetics and spent millions in an unsuccessful attempt to develop natural rubber supplies in Brazil.

Maurice and Smithson's brief book is rich in overtones. In particular, although they don't mention it, their view of history is very similar to Arnold Toynbee's concept of "challenge-and-response." This concept led Toynbee to hypothesize that, within certain limits, it is the societies that have dealt with adversary and limited-resource bases that have made the most progress.

Altogether, The Doomsday Myth is an extremely satisfying work. Written for the general reader—with plenty of gentle forays into economic thinking—it is a primer in the rise and fall of civilizations.

In addition, it is a healthy tonic for the "pack of pessimists" who have been roaming the American landscape in recent years telling us that our relatively mild resource problems are ringing the knell of our own civilization.

Contributing Editor William Tucker writes extensively on science and the environment. He is the author of Progress and Privilege: America in the Age of Environmentalism.