Environmentalism

The World Is Getting Better, Declare Op-Eds in Leading Newspapers

Doomslayer Julian Simon vindicated after 40 years.

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Dubovykand/Dreamstime

The human prospect is better than ever, declared a spate of op-eds as 2019 started. All I can say is: Welcome to the real world—I'm glad you guys have caught up.

"The World Is Getting Quietly, Relentlessly Better," headlined The Wall Street Journal's economics commentator, Greg Ip. "Why 2018 Is the Best Year in Human History!" exclaimed New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle warned: "Don't fall for the doomsday predictions." For economist Tim Harford in the Financial Times, the headline was "Why I predict we will be wealthier in the future."

As the author of The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century (2015), I'm glad to see these commentators embracing the state of mind that the great physician-statistician Hans Rosling called Factfulness.

Let's briefly review some of the facts about global trends that the four columnists highlight. At the Journal, Ip reports that "poverty around the world is plummeting; half the world is now middle class; and illiteracy, disease and deadly violence are receding." Indeed, the World Bank notes that the percentage of people living in extreme poverty rate—that is, living on less than $1.90—a day has fallen from 36 percent of the world in 1990 to 8.6 percent in 2018. The World Bank predicts that it will drop to just 3 percent by 2030.

To his credit, Times columnist Kristof devotes one column per year to detailing just how much better the world is becoming. In his latest, he points out that "Each day on average, about another 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time….Every day, another 305,000 were able to access clean drinking water for the first time. And each day an additional 620,000 people were able to get online for the first time." He points out that global average life expectany is way up too. Average global life expectancy was just over 52 years in 1960; it has now increased to 72 years. In addition, the global literacy rate has risen from 69 percent in 1976 to 86 percent in 2016.

Citing the wonderful new Simon Abundance Index developed by Marian Tupy of the Cato Insitute and Gale L. Pooley of Brigham Young University–Hawaii, the Post's Von Drehle observes that natural resources are tending to become more abundant even as world population continues to rise. Measured by global average hourly income, the price of a representative basket of 50 key commodities—food, energy, minerals, and so forth—has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 1980. Measured by the time it takes to buy the basket, the Earth's resources have become 380 percent more abundant as the human population grew by 69 percent.

Finally, over at the Financial Times, Tim Harford forecasts that "we'll be five times richer in 2118 than we are today. That would put global income at around $80,000 per person—roughly twice the current average salary in the UK today—and income in the leading economies will be more than $250,000 per person per year in today's money." He further notes that "$250,000 a year in 2118 should buy wonders that could not be had today for any money."

To get some idea of what $250,000 in 2118 will buy compared to that sum today, he suggests thinking about what $70,000 (more than $2 million in today's dollars) in 1900 could buy you then compared to today. In 1900, $2 million could not buy you antibiotics, a home refrigerator, an air conditioner, a movie in a cinema, a radio, a television, a computer, a smartphone, or internet access. A three-minute long-distance telephone call cost the equivalent of nearly $40 a minute. Just over 4,000 automobiles were manufactured that year; a gasoline-powered open canopy Duryea Runabout sporting a 15 horsepower motor cost $1,750—or $51,000 in today's dollars.

Ip, Kristof, Von Drehle, and Harford are following the analytical path pioneered by the late University of Maryland economist Julian Simon. The Simon Abundance Index is well-named after "doomslayer" Simon. As Simon once explained, he initially believed the dire predictions of coming civilizational collapse due to "overpopulation" and the imminent depletion of non-renewable resources. But his dogged pursuit of the data persuaded him that those apocalyptic forecasts were wrong.

The result was the publication of the brilliant The Ulimate Resource in 1981 and the magisterial The Resourceful Earth, co-authored with Herman Kahn, in 1984. These volumes made the case that human ingenuity operating under the rule of law in free markets will increase resources and generate the wealth that enables humanity to ameliorate environmental problems over time.

In his 1991 edited volume, The State of Humanity, Simon declared, "This is my long-run forecast in brief: The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations and most of humanity will be at or above today's Western living standards. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse."

If Harford is right—and he likely is—then Simon's forecast about humanity's future material prosperity will turn out to be too modest.

Disclosure: I read Simon's work in the 1980s and met him in 1990. He has been a major inspiration for my reporting for more than three decades. In my 1990 Forbes article on Paul Ehrlich's failing population doom predictions, "Doomsday rescheduled," I reported: "University of Maryland economist Julian Simon has tangled more than once with Ehrlich. He comments, 'Every prediction that Ehrlich made has been proved wrong. Is there any reason to believe him now?'"

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63 responses to “The World Is Getting Better, Declare Op-Eds in Leading Newspapers

  1. This is the true story?of seven strangers?picked to live in a house?work together and have their lives taped?find out what happens?when people stop being polite?and start getting real.

    The Real World.

    1. i miss Puck

      1. He put his fingers in the peanut butter!

      2. He’s still busy in L.A.

        On November 8, 2012, Rainey pleaded no contest to stalking an unidentified woman on February 22 of that year, and on November 8 was sentenced to two years in Wasco State Prison. Having received credit for 401 days already served, he was expected to be released in a little under a year.[29][30]

        As of 2013, Rainey was on felony probation and forbidden from leaving Los Angeles County, California.[4]

        1. >>>forbidden from leaving Los Angeles County

          is that a sentence?

          1. It’s Wikipedia. Is anything on that site a sentence?

            1. no more like Brer Puck

              “we’re gonna make you stay in LA County”

              “no no! don’t make me stay in LA County!”

              “that’s it! you’re staying in LA County.”

  2. >>he initially believed the dire predictions of coming civilizational collapse due to “overpopulation” and the imminent depletion of non-renewable resources

    can’t do anything about any of that on individual level anyway. what, me worry?

    1. can’t do anything about any of that on individual level anyway. what, me worry?

      Did the Jews say that at Auschwitz?

      1. Fuck off, Hihn.

        1. SEVO PROUD OF HIS ANTI-SEMITIC JEWISH HATRED … not JUST a fascist.

  3. The human prospect is better than ever, declared a spate of op-eds as 2019 started. All I can say is:

    Now I’m worried.

  4. He further notes that “$250,000 a year in 2118 should buy wonders that could not be had today for any money.”

    I’ll bet a new, modest house will cost $2B moneys.

    1. That is in fact perhaps the thing that has killed the “real” standard of living more than damn near anything else throughout much of the industrialized world.

      It’s all fine and well that a poorish person, working a modest blue collar job today can have a smartphone, microwave, big TV, etc etc etc… But that they can’t afford a house anymore, and somebody doing the exact same job 50 years ago could… That’s a MAJOR issue. There are reasons, but probably the biggest is simply the push to cram as many people as possible into as few of cities as possible.

      There are a few fundamentals in real estate that have held true for centuries according to economists. One is that the average home in an area tends to be 5-6 times the average income, if not in a bubble, or temporarily depressed in price for some reason. In other words long term stable prices always hang in that range barring something screwing with the market.

      That means we’ll have 1.25-1.5 million dollar houses as the median I suppose.

  5. The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely.

    Yeah, the material conditions. Big deal.

    The more people have the more people want. If even one person has one money more than another person then inequality and all the rage that goes with it.

    1. The rage comes from thinking that those other people got a step up by gaming the system, ie, crony government. Now they want the system to be gamed in their favor.

      People are in general hard working and honest. It’s when they think they’re being being taken advantage of that they get pissed off and try to take advantage of other people.

      1. Right, in ecenomicsland perception is reality. It doesn’t matter if everyone has more if some people have even more more. People will continue to be pissed off as long as some people have more. Because nobody deserves to have more.

        1. Eh, most people don’t begrudge doctors and the like their high salaries. People probably overvalue their relative worth, but that is less nobody deserves more, but everybody deserves more (except for bastards).

          If the system is relatively fair AND transparent, people accept their decisions and their consequences. The pitchforks come out when it is unclear why some people are compensated they way they are and it starts to look like graft.

          1. “The pitchforks come out when it is unclear why some people are compensated they way they are and it starts to look like graft.”

            Well, CEO’s compensation is pretty transparent; it’s in the quarterly report. And yet low-watt populists continue to whine that they get too much compared to the guy on the shop floor.

            1. Uh, no.

              CEO compensation is set by the board, and as a matter of fact there has been an ongoing push by shareholders (you know, the actual owners of the company) to severely discipline CEO pay (hence the novel pay for performance that’s come into vogue recently).

              Nor is it clear that CEO compensation has any relation to quarterly reports and the trend has been to decrease US compensation to be more in line with their European brethren.

              Over half of those “low-watt populists” own stocks themselves.

    2. The more people have the more people want.

      I’m sure that’s true in a general way, but I don’t know how linear the relationship is.

  6. Having lived through that decade, I can assert that the only way we survived the 1970s was to completely ignore the doomsayers. Otherwise we wouls have all blown are brains out.

    I still have a friend in the 60s who refused to have any children because he didn’t want to contribute to the destruction of the planet. Sigh.

    1. You know, perhaps it’s for the best that your friend had no kids.

    2. I’m going to say this cautiously, but I have a few friends that have never had kids. And almost to a one (and I dearly love these friends), when I think about what kind of parents they’d have made, my feeling is not having kids was a good call.

      1. I wish more people would make that call. No one is made worse off because someone didn’t become a parent. Many can be made worse off when someone becomes a parent.

        1. I don’t think you’re understanding that more people makes us all *better* off, not worse. So yes, someone is worse off because someone didn’t become a parent.

      2. Out of 100 kids I taught in a Brooklyn government run high school, about 95 did not have at least 1 parent willing and able to check the kid’s homework each night. Should inner city schools start handing out condoms to the parents that send their kids to government run schools?

    3. I think that’s also why it’s become much more common to substitute pets for children. They’ll even call the dog their kid and refer to themselves as “mommy” or “daddy”.

      Nevee mind the actual helicoptering of real kids

    4. I do think it is a sign of mental illness that people can be brain washed into not doing the thing that is essentially our SOLE biological imperative at the end of the day. Perhaps weak minded people shouldn’t breed… But it’s still troubling to know how many of them are out there. Also, despite people who will say otherwise to your face (which is most of them), pretty much every older person I’ve ever met without kids… I think they all realize inside it was a mistake. That they’ve missed out on perhaps the best thing in life, and there’s nothing they can do about it now. They have to lie to others, and themselves of course… But they know it was a bad call, and they’re going to die alone, and nobody will give a shit.

      My last girlfriend was older than me, and basically is right up against the can’t have kids anymore wall. I could tell she realized she fucked up on that one. Although she wouldn’t say it, I think one of the reasons we finally got around to breaking up is because I wasn’t willing to go all in and try to knock her up. She may have been infertile anyway, but I kind of let a few hints “slide right by me” because I didn’t want to have that discussion. She may be trying to make a last ditched effort to find some sucker to marry her or something, but the truth is her bad life choices on that front doomed her long ago to being a childless old cat lady. She’s a fairly sweet girl, and not a bad person, but everybody has to sleep in the bed they make for themselves.

  7. Factfulness is a great book to read and pass on in those front yard libraries.

    1. Is it a book to which you’re return for cites?

  8. NYT comment section’s crack me up. Five of the six top comments were basically, ‘we’re all going to die cause of ‘progress’ / global warming’.

    Gotta love a readership base that can’t stomach six paragraphs of good news without immediately going apocalyptic.

    1. If Hillary had won, the NYT commenters might not be so negative about good news. Oh, and the fact that this guy is from Cato, and probably, cis gendered white and Judeo Christian doesn’t help his case either

      1. No doubt! If she’d won it would all somehow be her fault for everything good in the world happening!

  9. Coincidentally, I just read a great column regarding the veracity of those newspapers…

    http://thezman.com/wordpress/?p=16125

    1. The veracity of your link is in question.

      1. Seems to be working fine. What’s the problem?

        1. Apologies, the first four times I clicked it, blank page came up. Now it’s showing.

  10. So what’s the consensus on the catastrophe of climate change which corporate humanity refuses to address?

    1. The recent IPCC in its most breathlessly bad interpretation warns that the economy may be 10% less than it otherwise would have been in 2100.

      Since the world economy conservatively grows 2%/year, that means that instead of being 5X richer than we currently are, in 2100 we will be 4.5X richer.

      “Catastrophe”.

      1. But if we just slow that economic growth NOW to only 1% a year, we’ll somehow be better off in the future! Math be damned!

  11. Each day on average, about another 295,000 people around the world gained access to electricity for the first time….Every day, another 305,000 were able to access clean drinking water for the first time. And each day an additional 620,000 people were able to get online for the first time.

    So only 20,000 of those 620,000 aren’t getting online for the first time to the water and electric companies’ websites trying to work out billing issues for their new utilities.

  12. And each day an additional 620,000 people were able to get online for the first time

    620,000 new AOC supporters a day

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  14. The greatest power on earth is an optimist,
    brandishing the club of Truth.

  15. “University of Maryland economist Julian Simon has tangled more than once with Ehrlich. He comments, ‘Every prediction that Ehrlich made has been proved wrong. Is there any reason to believe him now?'”

    And yet Ehrlich is the one that “everyone” has heard off, while Julian Simon is for all practical purposes unknown.

    One of the biggest problems in this world is that just about everything that “everyone” knows is wrong. 🙂

  16. Sadly all of this good news is overshadowed by the presence of Orange Hitler. His remaining policy objectives include killing all polar bears, destroying the rain forests and starting world war 3. It’s an ambitious agenda, but with Russia backing him up, odds are he’ll succeed. Our choices are, pray for impeachment or kiss the planet goodbye.

    1. I agree that you should kiss something. 😉

  17. If op-eds in leading newspapers declare the world is getting better then experience has shown the world almost certainy has been destroyed and we’re all suffering for eternity in Hell.

    I wish we could ask Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Morgan and Rockefeller if they really would trade it all for a bus pass, a Section 8 voucher, a SNAP card, SSI and an iPhone.

  18. “Canadian pharma prices are because Canada does not recognize US government grants of monopoly via our corrupt patent system.”

    And dimbulbs still show up here whining about ‘over population’.

    1. Correct quote:
      “Measured by global average hourly income, the price of a representative basket of 50 key commodities?food, energy, minerals, and so forth?has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 1980. Measured by the time it takes to buy the basket, the Earth’s resources have become 380 percent more abundant as the human population grew by 69 percent.”

      And dimbulbs still show up here whining about ‘over population’.

  19. This must have been some sort of editorial prank, or somebody hacked into these paper websites. There is no way our modern (or any) media ever intended to publish anything other than dire if not catastrophic “news”, and no way that any politcally active people on the left or right would admit that the world is doing well without their righteous plans to save it.

    1. This will be their “See, we’re not biased or ALL doom and gloom, look at this article!” article to point to for the next decade. They have to publish at least one! 🙂

  20. I’m not sure there’s a more important message that could be communicated (successfully) to people than this. Props to Stephen Pink and the like for continuing to relentlessly and frustratingly keep trying to balance all the negativity with the facts.

  21. Hard to tell what the world might be like in 50 or 100 years. If I’m still around, I’ll be 97 and probably won’t care much so long as am not wearing a diaper and can still chew my food.

  22. “The World Is Getting Better” doesn’t get votes, pass gun control laws, pass “tough on crime” laws, make a good news story, make advocacy groups any money, sell books, get clicks, make good TV and Movies, or satisfy the need of spoiled, ignorant pussies to play the victim.

    Too many people have a vested interest in the “Sky is Falling! Support my Agenda!” for this feel good shit to gain traction.

    1. It got Trump elected.
      Just like Obama before him.
      And Dubya
      And Clinton ….

      Left – Right = Zero

      1. Trump got elected by saying that “The World Is Getting Better?”

        Huh?

        1. You have replied to a sock on the tentacle of the hihnsane monster.

          Do not try to make sense of the mumbling of this creature. It seems to thrive on people pointing out its hihndiocy.

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  24. “In 1900, $2 million could not buy you antibiotics, a home refrigerator, an air conditioner, a movie in a cinema, a radio, a television, a computer, a smartphone, or internet access.”

    Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. On the day he died of a stroke, he was arguably the most important man in the world. On the morning he died, his blood pressure was measured at 330/190(!!!).

    http://www.adnanymous.com/blog…..pertension

    How could the most important man in the world have a blood pressure of 330/190 on his dying day? Simple…no availability of coronary bypasses or coronary stents, no blood pressure medications (no diuretics, ACE inhibitors, calcium channel blockers…nothing), and no statins. And of course no nicotine patches or vape pens for him to try to kick that terrible cigarette addiction.

    In short, the most important man in the world in 1945 did not have options that are available to hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. and billions of people worldwide in 2019.

    1. If only he’d died in 1925 instead of 1945 America would probably be a far better place!

      Also, they did have natural things they knew helped with those issues. Contrary to popular belief, there were REAL doctors who used lots of herbal things that were actually effective back in the day. Most of that stuff was not as concentrated as modern pharma solutions, but generally were decent for chronic stuff.

  25. To me, this kind of stuff is almost what makes things even MORE depressing. If it weren’t for the horrendously stupid politics we have, I would be a super optimist. We’ll certainly have issues to navigate, like if automation comes too hard and fast for the economy to adjust, how do we keep people employed? But by and large I think it will shake out very well in the end.

    At least it would if not for authoritarian politicians. And idiots who want to completely destroy every culture on earth, and be a world without borders. And people who want a global government to rule everything. And… Well you get the point. If not for the idiots running most of the industrialized world right now, things would be looking pretty peachy.

    I think people are coming to their senses that a lot of the bullshit they’re pushing is not a good idea, so hopefully we’ll pull things out. If we don’t, we could be heading into hell world. But if we do it just might end up being some badass Jetsons shit in 100 years!

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