Misdiagnosing Earth

The Worldwatch Institute's gloomy Vital Signs 2001 can't bear good news.


This year, the Worldwatch Institute has teamed up with the United Nations Environment Program to issue its annual compendium of environmentalist soundbites, Vital Signs 2001 (Norton, $13.95). This 10th edition of the pessimistic Vital Signs series does offer some enlightening data about a variety of world trends, but tellingly ignores others that might brighten the report's gloomy picture of the earth and its people.

Vital Signs 2001 looks briefly at 49 global trends that, according to the report's subtitle, "are shaping our future." According to Worldwatch, humanity faces "decaying ecosystems" and the possibility of a catastrophic "unraveling of Earth's complex safety net."

But Worldwatch's future looks so dark because it has omitted so much that is promising about the present. Even Worldwatch admits that the world's economy continues to expand, rising in 1999 dollars from $6.4 trillion in 1950 to $43.2 trillion in 2000. Global per capita income (which is, to be sure, not evenly distributed) rose from $2,502 in 1950 to $7,102 in 2000. Yet, despite 192 pages of diagnosis, the report leaves out what many people would consider to be the most vital sign of all: longer human life. Global average life expectancy rose from around 46 years in 1950 to 66 years today and is expected to rise to 73 years by 2025, according to the World Health Organization.

Vital Signs does acknowledge that world population growth is slowing, but likely underestimates just how rapidly it's decelerating. For example, the new United Nations World Population Prospects, 2000 Revision (pdf) has dropped its medium world population projection for 2025 to 7.8 billion; in 1996 it had projected 8.04 billion. This impressive drop indicates that world population trends are likely to track the low U.N. projections in which world population would top out at around 8 billion people in 2040 or so.

Conspicuously absent from Vital Signs is any discussion of air pollution trends in the developed world. Since 1976 in the United States, ambient levels of sulfur dioxide are down 65 percent; nitrogen oxides, down 37 percent; ozone, down 27 percent; carbon monoxide, down67 percent, and particulates, down 26 percent. Keep in mind that air pollution fell while U.S. population grew from 218 million in 1976 to 281 million in 2000, and that the economy grew in real 1996 dollars from $4.3 trillion in 1976 to over $10 trillion today. Wealthier, it turns out, is cleaner.

Nor does Vital Signs note that, in both the United States and Europe, forest area is expanding. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Committee on Forestry, forests are expanding at a rate of 750, 000 acres per year in Europe and nearly 1 million acres per year in the United States. Forest area in the U.S. has increased by more than 10 million acres since 1987. Prosperity and ecological health are clearly not antithetical.

Vital Signs does acknowledge that "nonfuel commodities now fetch only about 46 percent as much in as in themid-1970s." Indeed, the editors note that "[f]ood and fertilizer prices are about one fourth their 1974 peak" and that metals are "at half their 1974 peak." Even the price of crude oil, which has risen lately, "nevertheless remains at about half the zenith reached in 1980." Over all, nonfuel commodities cost only a third of what they did in 1900. Vital Signs editors at Worldwatch, with due humility, neglect to mention that the Institute's founder, Lester Brown, joined The Limits to Growth crowd in the 1970s to predict that the world would face massive famines and run out of a lot of natural resources by the year 2000. The plain fact is that lower prices mean that most natural resources are becoming more abundant, not scarcer.

Cheaper food and commodities would seem to be boon for the world's poor, but Worldwatch and UNEP are always able to find a dark cloud around any silver lining. "Low commodity prices may be good news for consumers, but they tend to weaken incentives to use materials more efficiently and more sparingly," concludes Vital Signs. "All things being equal, greater consumption translates into greater negative environmental impact." Surely the editors are not suggesting that the poor in the developing countries pay more for food and fuel? And as the data on pollution and forestry trends above indicate, the wealthiest countries are the ones with the improving natural environments.

At several places, Vital Signs suggests that climate change due to burning fossil fuels has and/or will increase the intensity of storms. Is there sufficient evidence to support this? Not according to University of Alabama-Huntsville climatologist John Christy, who was a lead author for a chapter dealing with this issue in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Christy noted in a recent interview that, "we looked very carefully at hurricane frequency and intensity. That has not increased at all in the past 50 years. The same goes for thunderstorms, for hail, and for tornados. The same goes for major storms in Europe."

Amusingly, Vital Signs declares that in 2000 worldwide nuclear power merely "inches up" while the solar power market "surges." Actually in 2000, the world added 2 gigawatts of nuclear power (2 billion watts) which is 22 times more than the 87 megawatts of solar power (87million watts) that was installed. Surging?

Vital Signs also notes that deadly malaria infections are up in developing countries. It attributes the increases to global warming and other environmental disruptions, all the while playing down the harm caused by environmentalist efforts to ban the pesticide DDT, which is the most effective and cheapest way to combat the mosquitoes that carry malaria.

Worldwatch's report does identify some truly harmful environmental trends, among them the damage being done to coral reefs and wetlands worldwide. But the editors persistently fail to identify the chief cause of the harms that they deplore. In all cases, the imperiled resources are in open access commons where the incentive is for people to take as much as possible before someone else beats them to it. Since they don't own the resource they have no incentive to protect and conserve it.

In the end, it's not Vital Signs' sins of data commission that matter; it is rather the sins of data omission that will lead its readers astray.