Still Wrong After All These Years

Worldwatch misdiagnoses the planet again.


The World Summit on Sustainable Development will convene in Johannesburg, South Africa, this coming September. The World Summit is the 10th anniversary follow-up to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At the Earth Summit, ideological environmentalism achieved considerable success in advancing its agenda for reshaping the world's economy. The Earth Summit saw the adoption of the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the incorporation of the precautionary principle in international treaties.

In the 10 years since the Earth Summit, the FCCC has led to the Kyoto Protocol, which aims at setting binding (and costly) limits on carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels in order to slow projected increases in the world's average temperature. The CBD process has spawned the Biosafety Protocol, which mandates onerous and scientifically illegitimate international regulations on genetically enhanced crops and farm animals. Even more worrisome is the fact that the CBD and the new treaty on Persistent Organic Pollutants have incorporated the precautionary principle, which essentially declares that the expression of mere fears of potential harm provides enough basis to ban any new technologies and products.

The Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute has dedicated its annual compendium of environmentalist doom and gloom, the State of the World 2002 report, to "helping define the agenda for the World Summit." So what's on the agenda?

Among other things, Worldwatch wants to corral the United States into the Kyoto Protocol, encourage the widespread adoption of organic farming, and expand the reach of the precautionary principle.

The Kyoto Protocol would require the United States to cut the burning of energy-producing fossil fuels by around 25 percent of its projected 2012 level of consumption. Although the Worldwatch Institute treats global warming predictions as certain, satellite temperature measurements of the globe show far less warming than the climate computer models relied on by the activists predict. Extrapolating satellite measurements, it appears that the globe's average temperature might increase by as much as 1 to 1.5 degrees centigrade over the next 100 years. Such an increase would not be an environmental disaster, but implementing deep immediate cuts in fossil fuel use could well be an economic one.

How costly is the Kyoto Protocol? Estimates vary, but a recent analysis published in Science this past November concluded that adopting the Kyoto Protocol would cost the United States as much as $125 billion annually. In addition, Worldwatch activists well know that Kyoto is just the first cut, because the reductions mandated by that agreement would decrease potential global warming by an undetectable one-tenth of a degree centigrade over the next century. To stabilize carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would require that fossil fuel consumption be reduced by 70 to 80 percent.

Perhaps the most quixotic policy advocated by Worldwatch is the promotion of organic agriculture. Organic agriculture is generally only about two-thirds as productive as conventional modern agriculture. To raise the amount of food we now grow through other means organically would require plowing down 50 percent more land. This would clearly mean converting more wildlands like forests, wetlands, and grasslands into farms. Hardly an environmentally friendly prospect.

Other problems include the fact that there is only about one-sixth the amount of organic fertilizer (animal manure) necessary to sustain food production at current levels if we went all organic. Organic doctrine also forbids farmers from planting genetically enhanced crops. This means that among other things organic farmers must forego "no-till" agriculture, which prevents 90 percent of soil erosion by using herbicide-resistant crops so that farmers don't have to plow to control weeds.

The fact is that conventional agriculture using pesticides and fertilizers has nearly tripled global food production in the last 50 years. Food is cheaper and more abundant now than ever before in history. Dennis Avery, director of the Center for Global Food Issues at the Hudson Institute, notes, "One continent, Africa, practices organic farming and it is the only continent in which hunger is increasing." Sustainable development is often defined as "ensuring that human needs are met in a way that protects the natural environment without undermining the prospects of future generations." Organic agriculture is almost the opposite of sustainable development.

Worldwatch is still promoting one of the hoariest dogmas of ideological environmentalism: that modern synthetic chemicals like plastics and pesticides are reducing average lifespans through epidemics of cancer. This doctrine, popularized by Rachel Carson in her influential book Silent Spring in 1962, remains a bedrock tenet of environmentalism even though decades of scientific research have never shown it to be true. Worldwatch actually still maintains that breast cancer is increasing and that sperm counts are declining because of exposure to synthetic chemicals, although there is no epidemiological evidence for these assertions. In fact, epidemiologists conclude that 2 percent at most of all cancers can be attributed to exposure to man-made substances.

To control synthetic chemicals, the Worldwatchers want the participants at the World Summit to broaden the reach of the "precautionary principle," which would require manufacturers to prove that their products are completely safe before they would be allowed to sell them. The precautionary principle fails utterly to acknowledge that while there are risks in technological innovation, there are also risks in technological stagnation. In fact, history clearly shows that the balance of risks favors technological innovation over the harm-prevention strategy embodied in the precautionary principle. After all, since the advent of modern chemicals in the 1920s and whatever risks they pose, the average American's life expectancy has increased by 20 years.

There is one bright note in this 19th edition of the State of the World. Earlier volumes in the series regularly forecasted imminent global famine, but this year's chapter on population issues is much less alarmist. The new tone may be the result of the departure of the Institute's doomster founder Lester Brown. Or it may just be that this group of activists can no longer ignore the demographic and economic realities that show that many population trends are positive. Worldwatch now recognizes that if current trends continue, world population will likely peak at between 7.9 and 10 billion in the next 50 years.

Also, Worldwatchers are apparently beginning to understand that poverty, not population, is the chief source of environmental harm. Unfortunately, they do not show any understanding of how economic growth fueled by free markets, secure property rights, and expanding global trade is essential to alleviating poverty and protecting the natural world. However, the vision of a crowded, resource-depleted world promoted by early environmental fundamentalists may at long last now be fading.