The End of Doom

Malthusians v. Cornucopians, a more critical review of The End of Doom

Bailey responds to the criticism below


Ronald Bailey

I am cross-posting various reviews from over at RealClearBooks of my new book, The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century (St. Martin's Press) as a convenience for Reason readers (and a mild effort at self-promotion). This next one is a bit more critical of the book. I respond to the criticisms below.

Malthusians v. Cornucopians

By Roger Pielke Jr.

Reading Ronald Bailey's The End of Doom, I was reminded that the debate between prophets of a looming apocalypse and self-styled cornucopians has a long history, the modern version of which can be traced to the writings of Thomas Malthus in the eighteenth century warning that humanity's ability to reproduce would outstrip its ability to feed itself. The twentieth century saw no shortage of neo-Malthusians, countered by those—such as Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg, Gregg Easterbrook, and Bailey himself—with a far more optimistic vision for humanity's future. By now the combatants know their roles and lines too well. The debate has gotten pretty stale.

It's not that Bailey's argument is totally off-base. In fact, I'm skeptical, too, about warnings of apocalypse around the corner and sympathetic to visions of a bright future for people and the planet in the twenty-first century. But securing that future is by no means simple or guaranteed.

In The End of Doom, Bailey takes on a series of issues that he believes have been vastly misunderstood by the neo-Malthusians and their fellow travelers: population, peak oil (and peak commodities more generally), the precautionary principle, worries about a cancer epidemic, genetic modification in agriculture, climate change, and species loss. For each, the argument is much the same. Concern is overhyped. Technology driven by "free markets" has always provided solutions and will do so in the future as well. But Bailey's analysis never really gets beyond the cornucopian arguments that have been advanced many times before.

The End of Doom
St. Martin's Press

To take one example, Bailey accurately finds that the predictions about a "population bomb" advanced in the 1960s and 1970s were wildly wrong. Advocates like Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren—currently President Obama's science advisor—warned of a global crisis that might require draconian action such as forced sterilization. History has proved these arguments ridiculous and even unethical. Yet, as Bailey shows, latter-day Malthusians are saying the same things.

But Bailey stands on shakier ground when he argues that the "population bomb" was diffused because of the so-called Green Revolution, which brought high-yielding wheat and other crops to India and elsewhere.  Bailey asserts that Norman Borlaug, popularly known as the father of the Green Revolution, "is the man who saved more lives than anyone else in history" through "a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India." In Bailey's view, the "massive campaign" arrived just in time to prevent the famine predicted by Ehrlich.

It's a great story, but it's wrong.

A more accurate history shows that the specter of a looming famine in India was an invention engineered by President Lyndon Johnson to help sustain the U.S. Food for Peace program, which faced a politically skeptical Congress. Technological advances had led to a glut of crops in the U.S., low prices for commodities, and unhappy farmers. Agricultural aid was also seen as a useful strategy in the Cold War. So Johnson wanted the shipments made. Thus, as historian Nick Cullather writes in The Hungry World, "through the fall of 1965 [LBJ] developed the theme of a world food crisis brought on by runaway population growth."

In fact, official State Department notes reveal that when Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi visited Washington in spring 1966, one of her agenda items was to get the story straight about a crisis that didn't exist. The Indian delegation noted that, "The situation in the United States is that to get a response, the need must be somewhat overplayed." Scientists and the media jumped on the bandwagon, and a mythology of famine was born.

Bailey's restatement of the Green Revolution mythology in fact gives neo-Malthusians far too much credit, suggesting that they were correct in their forecast of global famine, only to be proven wrong by the wonders of technological and market innovation. In fact, the neo-Malthusians were never right to begin with. Bailey is promoting a solution to a problem that never existed in the first place.

In 2003, the International Food Policy Research Institute asked what would have happened if the Green Revolution in the developing world never happened. They concluded that developed countries would have produced more and trade patterns would have evolved differently, but the situation "probably would not be considered a 'World Food Crisis.'"

Perhaps ironically, it seems that the cornucopians need the neo-Malthusians to be correct in their diagnosis of potential apocalypse so that they can argue that their preferred solutions provide answers. But what if both sides are wrong in significant respects? Is there room in our debates for a third perspective?

It's easy to see the end of the world in every technological innovation. It is just as easy to look at the generally improving state of the world and conclude that things will always continue to improve, and that when problems do arise, they will be easily solved.

Our public debates over economics, technology, and political power deserve better than a tired rehashing of Neo-Malthusianism v. cornucopianism.  And yet, these polarities remain appealing to many. Bailey recounts a conversation he had with his editor back in 1992, when he brought an earlier version of these arguments to him. His editor said that he'd publish the book, but "if you'd brought me a book predicting the end of the world, I could have made you a rich man."

The "end of doom"? Hardly. The end of Panglossian optimism? Nope, not that either. The dance of the two will no doubt go on.

Roger Pielke Jr., is a professor at the Center for Science & Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado – Boulder.

Bailey Responds:

Author Ronald Bailey Responds

By Ronald Bailey

First, I want to thank all three reviewers for taking the time and spending the intellectual energy to engage seriously with my new book.  In general, I think that both Darwall and Easterbrook fairly characterize and explain its contents and goals. Pielke has some reservations. 

For the most part, Pielke agrees with me, admitting that he is "quite sympathetic to critiques of apocalypse around the corner." He is impatient with my chronicling of environmentalist doomsaying over the past several decades, but he should remember that the more than 200 million of his fellow citizens who are younger than he is (46) do not know the sorry ideological history of Neo-Malthusianism. As philosopher George Santayana reminded us, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." By reminding readers of the past, I hope to spare future generations from being duped by doom dogmas. I suspect that even Pielke would agree that that is a worthy aim.

Pielke further objects that I give Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution too much credit for forestalling the world-spanning famines widely predicted to occur in the 1970s. It bears noting that in 1970, the chairman of the Nobel committee explained why it had chosen Mr. Borlaug for its Peace Prize in this way: "More than any other single person of this age, [he] has helped to provide bread for a hungry world." With regard to Nick Cullather's historical revisionism: Revisionists must revise. That's what they do. By the way, India's wheat harvest jumped 45 percent in 1968.

I certainly agree with Pielke that securing a "bright future for people and the planet" is "by no means simple or guaranteed." I do explain in some detail how the technological progress and wealth generated by democratic free-market capitalism makes environmental renewal in this century possible. While Pielke strikes a world-weary pose of intellectual ennui over a supposedly "stale" debate, he oddly fails to mention that there is between me and the Neo-Malthusians one big difference: My predictions have consistently proven right and theirs wrong.   

Ronald Bailey is the author of "The End of Doom"