The End of Doom

Apocalyptic Thinking Is Wrong

A new book explains why optimism is amply justified.

|

"Let's not teach our children that apocalyptic thinking is right thinking," says Laurence Siegel. Apocalypticism "has always been wrong as a forecast, and it will continue to be wrong."

Siegel is a business consultant and the director of research at the CFA Institute Research Foundation. In Fewer, Richer, Greener, he argues convincingly that humanity has spent two centuries rising from our natural state of abject poverty, and that most of the credit for that goes market institutions and democracy. Parsing current trends, Siegel foresees world population peaking and then stabilizing by the end of this century. (Hence the "fewer.") He argues that economic growth will bring humanity much greater wealth and more adept technologies. (Hence the "richer.") And thanks to increased urbanization and steadily improving material efficiency, he thinks our species will tred more lightly on many natural ecosystems. (Hence the "greener.")

Let's take a closer look at each of those three forecasts.

"High death rates are the cause of high birth rates," explains Siegel. World population grew very slowly in the Malthusian past because, although people had lots of babies, more than half of them died before reaching adulthood. Modern sanitation and medicine and greater supplies of food meant falling death rates; that combined with still-high birth rates to produce a population explosion, with the number of people in the world rising from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.7 billion now.

The global total fertility rate—that is, the number of children each woman is likely to bear over her lifetime—has fallen from around 5 in 1960 to 2.42 now. The United Nations forecasts that world's total fertility rate will eventually fall below the conventionally defined replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman; the U.N. says population will then stabilize around 11 billion, and Siegel basically agrees.

So humanity is demographically transitioning from its natural state of high birth and high death rates to a more recent stage of high birth and low death rates to the low birth and low death rates seen in much of the world now. About half of the world's population currently lives in countries with below replacement fertility. The U.S.'s total fertility rate, for example, has dropped to a record low of 1.73 children per woman.

Why are more people around the world having fewer children? Incentives, explains Siegel. Rearing children in modern societies costs a lot, both in money and in foregone opportunities and pleasures. Given that about 99 percent of kids born in countries like the U.S. will make it to age 20, parents are choosing to spend more resources on fewer children, who will thereby be more likely to enjoy successful lives. "To put it just a little too crassly, in wealthy societies and increasingly in less wealthy ones, children have become a cost center (some would even say a luxury good), not a profit center," Siegel observes.

Siegel's projections of future population growth may in fact be excessively high. In a 2018 study, demographer Wolfgang Lutz and his colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis offer an alternative scenario projecting rapid economic growth, rising levels of educational attainment for both sexes, and technological advancement—all factors that tend to lower fertility. They expect that world population could peak at about 8.9 billion by 2060 and then decline to 7.8 billion by the end of the century.

In any case, these trends mean that there will be many more old people in the future. Having worked most of his life in finance, Siegel offers some good advice how to prepare for retirement. He recommends that one "save a predetermined percentage of one's income escalating over time, until enough money has been accumulated to replace (when Social Security benefits are also included) 70% of the pay rate one has been earning just before retirement." At retirement he suggests using 15 percent of your savings to buy a deferred life annuity that kicks in at age 85, thus making sure that you still have income once you've spent down your savings.

As world population exploded, so too did economic growth, resulting in what the University of Illinois at Chicago economist Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment. Siegel cites urbanist Jane Jacobs' trenchant observation: "Poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes."

The economic historian Angus Maddison calculated that global per capita income in 1 A.D. was $467 per year (in 1990 dollars). By 1820, global per capita income had risen to nearly $1,200 per year. Over the next two centuries, per capita GDP in current U.S. dollars rose to $11,300—or, taking purchasing power into account, to nearly $18,000 per person.

Income, of course, is not equally distributed across the world. Some places—Somalia, Niger, Malawi—are sadly stuck in Malthusian traps where per capita incomes are still below that global average from 1 A.D. The good news is that economic growth has taken off in many poor countries in recent decades, so their incomes are rising to converge with those of already developed nations. Inequality between countries is falling, and the global rate of abject poverty (people living on less than $1.90 per day) has fallen from 42 in 1981 to 8.6 percent in 2018. By one measure, half of the world's population is now middle-class or wealthier.

Siegel provides reams of solid data for similarly heartening global trends. Crop productivity, food availability, life expectancy, and education are increasing; violence is in decline.

So that explains fewer and richer. But is Siegel right that the world will be greener?

Economists have identified an inverted U-shaped relationship—the environmental Kuznets curve—in which environmental conditions initially deteriorate as economic growth takes off, then improve when citizens with rising incomes demand better environmental amenities. For example, research has found that rising incomes eventually lead to falling air and water pollution and the expansion of forests. Generally speaking, richer is cleaner.

These curves do not peak and turn downward by themselves. They do so with a mixture of private and government action, with the details differing from one country to another. In the U.S., the levels of six common air pollutants—soot, ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide—have fallen by an average of 74 percent since 1970. Meanwhile, gross domestic product grew by 380 percent.

Siegel acknowledges that man-made climate change could pose significant problems for humanity as this century advances. But he notes that billions of relatively poor people face more immediate problems, including unsafe drinking water, uncertain food supplies, a dearth of educational opportunities, excessive local pollution, a lack of sanitation, and—importantly—no access to modern energy services. With respect to how best to prioritize between longer term environmental threats and fulfilling urgent needs, he writes, "There is no single answer. Economic growth will help—a lot."

Siegel sees ecomodernism as the way forward to a greener world. "Intensifying many human activities—particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement—so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts," states An Ecomodernist Manifesto, a document written by 18 scientists and activists in 2015. "These socioeconomic and technological processes are central to economic modernization and environmental protection. Together they allow people to mitigate climate change, to spare nature, and to alleviate global poverty."

Humanity may already be approaching peak farmland, as we grow ever more food on ever less land. Although Siegel doesn't mention it, global tree cover has expanded between 1981 and 2016 by 7 percent. That's a territory of about 865,000 square miles, more than three times the size of Texas.

In 1960, only one third of people lived in cities. This has now increased to 55 percent, making this the first time in history that more folks live in cities than in the countryside. By 2050, nearly 70 percent of people will be city dwellers. Compact cities are much more energy-efficient, in addition to providing people with much better access to economic opportunities, education, and medical care.

While energy efficiency and renewables will play significant roles in helping humanity to decouple from nature, Siegel is also clear-eyed about the need for greater supplies of energy to alleviate poverty through economic growth. His solution: modern nuclear power. "For most applications, nuclear power dominates both fossil fuels and renewables in almost every aspect: efficiency, safety, reliability, carbon neutrality, fuel abundance, and eventually, price," he argues.

If we can maintain and spread the institutions—free markets, the rule of law, property rights, free speech, and democratic governance—that underpin the Great Enrichment, Siegel's forecast of fewer, richer, and greener will come to pass.

"Life has improved tremendously in the last 250 years; this book argues that it will continue to improve in almost every dimension; health, wealth, longevity, nutrition, literacy, peace, freedom, and so forth," he writes. "Without overlooking the many obstacles on the path of progress, my aim is to reinforce and help restore people's faith in the future—and help them understand why optimism is amply justified."

(Disclosure: Siegel quotes me in his book. Immodestly, I will note that my book The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century addresses many of these same issues and trends.)

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: December 24, 1798

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Apocalyptic literature is destroying this country unless we stop it in time!!!

    1. Apocalyptic literature will cause an apocalypse in this county!

  2. 😉

  3. U.S.S.R.
    China
    Cambodia
    Cuba
    Venezuela
    Vietnam
    USA?

  4. Apocalyptic thinking is wrong only because human beings are the most resilient plague ever visited upon our planet. Whatever happens we and the cockroaches will be around slugging it out for whatever is left. The embarrassingly Pollyannaish techno-utopianism you subscribe to is wrong because it’s nonsense. You cherry pick global statistics so that Americans losing income, losing standard of living, losing years of life expectancy, losing fertility, and increasing rates of suicide, mental illness, poverty and violence is balanced out by dramatic increases in standards of living among people who moved from $2/day poverty to $20/day ””””’luxury”””””. As if the people in America getting fucked by your globalist new world order should somehow be thanking you for so luxuriously enriching the lives of the Chinese children now performing the labor from which they were relieved.

    We needn’t look any farther to disprove your horseshit thesis of a causal relationship between wealth and fertility than the fact that every recession since the 1930s has resulted in a hard DECREASE in fertility, not an increase as your horseshit thesis would predict.

    We needn’t look any farther than Japan to disprove your horseshit thesis that sub-replacement fertility rates combined with high costs of living are somehow a social and economic benefit. Your entire open borders agenda hinges on your horseshit thesis of low fertility surveillance capitalism being an economic bonanza being false. We wouldn’t need your army of illiterate beaner replacements for America’s former work force if an exploding aging population with no replacements in the pipeline were a global positional good.

    1. In short, your head-up-the-ass Pollyanna vision is, well, exactly what it sounds like.

      By the way, you’re going to die a nice miserable death in the socialized medical system you so desperately want. That’s about the consolation for your utterly shitbrained globalist shilling. You’re going to die like a pathetic fucking serf. Equality! And even if you pay a hundred grand to have your brain put on ice, you’re not coming back.

      1. Daniel, you should consider helping hunanity by killing yourself.

      2. Haha you nailed it perfectly. Bailey just wants to replace you with a beaner, which given your screed, shouldn’t be too difficult.

    2. Quote: “Whatever happens we and the cockroaches will be around slugging it out for whatever is left.”

      My money is on the cockroaches.

      1. We will merge with the cockroaches and take over the galaxy.

        1. Cockmans or Huroaches? Personally I think the roaches are smarter than to merge with humans!

    3. “…You cherry pick global statistics so that Americans losing income, losing standard of living, losing years of life expectancy, losing fertility, and increasing rates of suicide, mental illness, poverty and violence…”

      You.
      Are.
      Full.
      Of.
      Shit.

    4. Put down the crackpipe, son.

  5. Humanity may already be approaching peak farmland, as we grow ever more food on ever less land.

    No.

    Humanity may have already rendered the idea of ‘peak farmland’ ridiculous, as we grow ever more food on ever less land.

    Yes.

    Things need to be looked at in the right light.

    1. “Things need to be looked at in the right light.”

      Also fertilizer use is growing more and more, presumably because these higher yields would be impossible without the ever increasing fertilizer boost. I’m concerned that the law of diminishing returns is set to come into play, and some day fertilizer won’t do what we want it to do.

      1. I bet you’re a riot at parties.

        Do you have any idea how many metric tons of horseshit were used for fertilizer in Medieval Europe, as just one example? Where are you coming across a metric that says “fertilizer use is growing more and more” and what timeframe is it taking into account?

        1. That’s trueman; don’t expect any support at all for his bullshit:

          mtrueman|8.30.17 @ 1:42PM|#
          “Spouting nonsense is an end in itself.”

        2. Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Fertilizer use is diminishing year by year if it’ll make you feel better.

          1. I’m reading Andrew McAfee’s “More From Less”. He presents data suggesting that fertilizer use in the US peaked around 2000. I’m looking at some other USDA sources and they make it look like it has at least leveled off. So, in the US (which is hopefully a bellwether for the rest of the world!), you may not actually be very far off.

            https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1K2hDd1jGxznxIWJXvtkW0vVyxLDBkVZSlZmtDMVFvHQ/edit#gid=1111912651

            1. The only way mtrueman is ever right is to take both sides of a binary question.

            2. Just a quick disclaimer that, while the thesis of the book really appeals to me, I’m still reading it and looking for some critiques, so please don’t interpret my post as a blanket endorsement.

            3. “I’m reading Andrew McAfee’s “More From Less”.

              I urge you to read it again or expand your sources. A simple search of the internet should set you straight. My sources indicate that 2019 consumption of fertilizers is some 20% higher than that of 2000. It also is costing close to 50% more. You are free to believe that every year less and less fertilizer is used if it makes you feel better.

              1. As you’ll note from my original post, I qualified my own statement by adding that other sources indicate flat use. Also, I was clear this was limited to the US. Here is chart from the USDA.

                https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/charts/56185/usfertilizeruse2015.png?v=5049.5

                Maybe you are looking at global numbers? What are your sources?

                I try to found my opinions on empirical questions like this on facts. But the facts I have found do indeed optimistic!

                Happy Holidays!

                1. The chart you link to indicates increasing use of fertilizers. It doesn’t indicate peak use of fertilizer in 2000 followed by a leveling off. You may be confusing fertilizer with pesticides, which have indeed leveled off in the recent years, not including glyphosate, which has increased dramatically.

                  1. I am not confusing it with pesticide use. Please go back and read what I wrote more carefully. I made some very specific claims:

                    1) McAfee claims that fertilizer use peaked in 2000
                    2) Other sources I looked at make it seem like it hasn’t quite peaked but has leveled off.

                    The chart I sent is from the USDA. I actually downloaded the data. Here is a summary:

                    1) Between 1960 (first year with data) and 1980 fertilizer use increased by 798 tons per year (from a simple linear fit over that range). If you normalize it by the amount used in 1960 it is about 0.1.
                    2) From 1980 to today the rate of growth *is* positive, but is only about 33 tons per year (again, from a simple linear fit). Again, if we normalize to the amount used in 1980 that is only 0.001. If you restrict it to 2000 to 2015 the trend is about +50 tons per year — still a dramatic decrease from pre-1980 rates.
                    3) We actually used *less* fertilizer in 2015 (last year of data) than in 1980. Granted, these are only the endpoints, but it is still instructive in light of the above numbers.
                    4) All of this is true despite increasing population and overall agricultural production.
                    5) Since you didn’t post your sources I can’t evaluate your claim that use in 2019 is 20% higher than in 2000. The last year of the USDA data set is 2015, and 2015 vs 2000 shows growth of only 1.8%.

                    I am quite comfortable saying that going from growth of 798 tons per year to less than 50 tons per year for over 25 years counts as leveling off, especially given year-to-year variations (one could choose reasonable ranges in which the trend was negative). I will admit that it does show some positive growth, but nothing even close to the level you claimed. If it makes you happy I’ll amend my statement to “almost leveled off”, but my main point stands.

                    If you have access to data I don’t, post it and I’ll be happy to reevaluate my position.

                    1. Here is some more supporting analysis.

                      I looked at year-over-year percentage rate of change (i.e. 100 x (y2-y1)/y1).

                      1) Between 2000 and 2015 the mean year-over-year rate of change is only 0.41%, and the median is only 0.33%. If you ignore a single year (2004, with pretty high growth) the mean and median become negative. I don’t think tossing out 2004 is good practice, *but* it demonstrates that the numbers are so close to zero that you are very sensitive to yearly fluctuations.

                      2) Between 2000 and 2015 you get 8 years of positive change and 8 years of negative change. Again, this indicates that we are very close to being in a pretty steady state.

                      3) Admittedly, 2000-2015 saw two recessions. So let’s expand it to 1980 to 2015. In that case the mean is only 0.2% growth and the median is still 0.33%. That’s still pretty darn close to zero! You get 18 years with positive change and 17 years with negative change. Again, this indicates we are pretty close to steady state.

                      4) Between 1961 (the first year for which you can do this analysis with the USDA data) and 1979, the mean rate of change is 6.2% and the median is 6.8%. There are only *two* years (1975 and 1978) with negative change.

                      My conclusion still stands: Between 2000 and 2015 (or, if you prefer, 1980 and 2015), we saw such little growth in fertilizer use that it is reasonable to say that our use has leveled off, or at least has come very, very close to leveling off.

          2. “Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Fertilizer use is diminishing year by year if it’ll make you feel better.”

            It’s hard telling when you spread bullshit from both sides which is which, bullshitter.
            Perhaps you just ought to STFU and allow discussions between adults.

            1. “It’s hard telling when you spread bullshit ”

              That’s not my fault. You’re free to follow up my claim and check on it yourself, if that’s of interest. But that’s ‘hard’ so you might want to be careful there. As I noted, you’re free to believe that fertilizer use is decreasing if that’s what you like. You’re free to believe that no fertilizer is used if that floats your boat.

              1. mtrueman
                December.25.2019 at 11:10 am
                “That’s not my fault….”

                Yes, it is, bullshitter.

                1. Of course, and you’re the poor aggrieved victim.

          3. Pathetic troll response that avoids the question. But since you clearly don’t have a real answer, continue to spread your interweb factoids as truth.

            1. Your question received the attention it deserved. It’s too boring for me, and you might be able to find somebody else to help you.

      2. GMO crops have been increasing crop yields per acre so we’re getting more bang for our fertilizer. Plus the world’s population growth is decreasing and the population will begin decreasing by the end of the century, so in 80 years we’ll need less fertilizer and less farmland to feed a shrinking population.

        In the meantime, scientists and innovators will continue to find new ways to get more from less. Remember how US oil production peaked in 1970 and our dependence on foreign oil increased? Thanks to American innovators inventing fracking, the US is now the world largest oil producer, again. Good thing they didn’t have your gloom and doom attitude.

        1. “Good thing they didn’t have your gloom and doom attitude.”

          It’s not a doom and gloom attitude to note that a technical solution has limitations. Understanding limitations is the basis of any engineering solution. It’s not doom and gloom attitude to note that agriculture yields have increased with fertilizer use, either. The hysterical reaction to my comments here are far more interesting than my banalities.

  6. Well, remember that many years ago we were warned that the world would soon be running out of whale oil and when’s the last time you’ve seen whale oil for sale at your local hardware store? The apocalypse-mongers get one right every now and then.

    1. Face it: Standard Oil saved the whales.

  7. “Racist” is an anti-White slur. It only ever means: “Shut up Whitey! Diversity and open borders for you only!”

    Whites are just 10% of the global population. They are the only people denied borders, homogeneity, and the right to self preference and preservation.

    Diversity is a strength really means White people are a problem.

    When does anti-White ‘diversity’ policy end? When can Whites have borders? If not at 10% like now, then when? At Five percent? Zero percent?

    1. “When does anti-White ‘diversity’ policy end? ”

      It’s just around the corner, comrade. The future promises to be richer, fewer, and greener.

  8. Apocalyptic Thinking Is Wrong

    IT’S IN REVELATIONS, PEOPLE!!

  9. “”Let’s not teach our children that apocalyptic thinking is right thinking,” says Laurence Siegel.”

    Greta’s parents pissed.

    1. That’s left thinking, not right thinking.

    2. How dare you!

      1. I miss the days when we could comment without logging in.

  10. Hey, if not for apocalyptic thinking some people would have to reason to get up in the morning.

  11. “Our children are our future, unless we stop them NOW!”—Homer Simpson

  12. Jane Jacobs’ trenchant observation: “Poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.”

    Our natural state is poverty, but in many countries poverty is caused by government. See Venezuela.

    1. I can’t see Venezuela, it is covered in smoke from the dreams being burned.

  13. Concerning retirement – people are living longer, and are healthier longer. We do need to get past the expectation of not working past the age of 65, or that workers are half out the door at 50 – aka we need to get over ageism. As they say, 60 is the new 50, and so on. My grandmother worked until she was about 72 and didn’t die until age 89. People don’t routinely die in their early 70s anymore.

  14. “Apocalyptic thinking is wrong”

    So I shouldn’t install these flamethrowers on my souped up Nova? Fuck that! I’m gonna throw in a couple of 50 Cal’s just for good measure.????????

  15. Countries like Germany, Venezuela, Cuba, and even Sweden show that wealth and human advancement can be reversed when socialists get in power.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.