Chapter 1: Is There an Environmental Crisis?
Chapter 1 Preface
In 1980, Julian Simon, then a professor at the University of Illinois, placed a bet with Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich and two of Ehrlich’s colleagues. The wager involved the future price and availability of five metals. Simon bet that the price of these metals (adjusted for inflation) would be lower in 1990 than they were in 1980, indicating that they were not scarce resources. Simon won the bet.
The wager was one of the most publicized examples of the opposing views Simon and Ehrlich had of the environment and the future of the planet. Simon had long argued that the environment and living conditions were improving and would continue to do so. According to Simon, human intelligence and ingenuity were the keys to improving the environment. He wrote: “Human beings are not just more mouths to feed, but are productive and inventive minds that help find creative solutions to man’s problems.”
In contrast, Ehrlich has written for over thirty years on what he sees as the danger of overpopulation and the depletion of natural resources. For example, he contends that the available cropland will not yield enough food for the projected future population. Ehrlich did not interpret the drop in the price of metals as indicative of their abundance. Writing in 1996 about the bet, Ehrlich asserted that the recession of the early 1980s reduced the demand for the metals, thereby driving their prices down.
A second wager, proposed...
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The Environment Is Deteriorating
Despite all the promises made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro [a gathering of world leaders and environmental experts that focused on environmental conservation], the world has added 450 million people, the climate is changing and deforestation is even more serious a problem, especially in the Northern Hemisphere. Canada is losing a million hectares of forest a year, and so is Russia.
In spite of pledges to return to 1990 levels, carbon emissions have drastically increased—altering the earth’s climate. The U.S. is up 6%, Japan up 9%. Germany has reduced emissions by 10%, primarily by ending the industrial inefficiency in Eastern Germany. Russia has reduced its emissions by 28%, but economic production is down by 40%. Other problems are species loss, soil erosion, overfishing, water pollution, etc. Poverty is a serious issue as over 1.3 billion people are trying to live on $1 a day or less.
Eight countries together include 56% of the world’s population, 59% of its economic output, 53% of world’s forested area, and 58% of the carbon emissions. We call these environmental heavyweights the E-8—they include Brazil, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, and the United States. We suggest the meetings of the major industrial nations, the so-called G-7 countries, which include only a small fraction of the world’s population, become E-8 meetings.
A Success Story
The biggest success in the...
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Capitalism Has Worsened the Environment
Periodically, during the last several decades, groups of scientists engaged in the study of varied phenomena vital to the existence and well-being of the manifold forms of plant and animal life that inhabit the planet earth have been prompted to issue warnings that irreversible damage is being done to the planet’s fragile life-support system, and that the consequences for the human race could be catastrophic. For example, in the 1970s, the British magazine, Ecologist, published an article entitled, “Blueprint for Survival,” bluntly warning of a possible worldwide environmental catastrophe “if [then] current trends were allowed to persist.”
Within days after publication of the “Blueprint” article, a group of 187 British scientists wrote a letter to The Times of London, which, though critical of some aspects of the “Blueprint” article, agreed that there was indeed a “growing ecological crisis,” adding that there was “now no escape from the necessity for a fundamental rethinking of all our working assumptions about human development in relation to the world we live in.”
Barely a month later came a third warning, this time from the Club of Rome, an international organization of scientists and intellectuals, suggesting the need for a “system” that would stabilize population and industrial capacity. This, in turn, was followed by the first of three reports issued by the...
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Global Warming Is a Serious Problem
Global warming is no game. The risks to human beings—to our health, our food supply, and our housing—are great. And the risk to the animals and plants with which we share the earth is also enormous. We are standing at a crossroads. Continuing on our current path will lead us down the road to ruin. But we don’t necessarily have to choose that path. We can choose a different road and a different destination if we make the right choices soon.
Global Warming Does Exist
Evidence. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of climate scientists brought together by the United Nations, concluded that global warming is already a serious problem. The average surface temperature of the earth has already increased by 0.5° to 1.1° Fahrenheit (0.3° to 0.6° Centigrade) since the last half of the 19th century. And the climate has already begun to change: all of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1982.
Could these changes be due only to the climate’s natural variability? The Intergovernmental Panel thinks not. Their Second Assessment Report provides evidence that heat-trapping gases related to human activities—such as carbon dioxide from burning coal, oil, and gas—are in part driving global warming by increasing the amount of the sun’s heat trapped in the earth’s atmosphere. This extra heat is making the global climate system unstable. The Intergovernmental Panel...
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Environmental Change Poses a Threat to Food Production
Ever since Reverend Thomas Malthus at the end of the eighteenth century warned about the dangers of overpopulation, analysts have been concerned about maintaining a balance between human numbers and the human food supply. That concern remains valid today in a world where a tenth of the population goes to bed hungry each night and millions die every year from hungerrelated causes. Few subjects have been closer to our hearts and minds for the past three decades than the race between population growth and increasing food production. That race was a major focus of Paul Ehrlich’s first popular book, The Population Bomb, published in 1968; it was also the principal focus of our 1995 book, written with our colleague Gretchen Daily, The Stork and the Plow.
The world food situation has been a favorite arena for brownlash [people who lead the backlash against pro-environmental policies] writers and spokespeople who deny, often vehemently, that a growing population might someday run into absolute food shortages. The essence of their argument takes two forms: population growth is not a problem and (for some of them) is even virtually an unmitigated blessing; and food production can be increased more or less forever without constraint. Some of the more extreme holders of the latter view still occasionally quote an old and long-discredited estimate publicized by Catholic bishops several years ago that theoretically 40 billion people could be fed on...
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Some Journalists Understate the Environmental Crisis
“Earth Day alarmists had it wrong,” proclaimed conservative columnist Joseph Perkins of the San Diego Union-Tribune in a pre–Earth Day commentary (5/1/95).
Drawing on a New Yorker article (3/10/95) written by veteran Newsweek writer Gregg Easterbrook, Perkins takes to task liberals and “greenies” for “grossly overstating the prospects of global warming, the threat of species extinction and the health risk of pesticides.”
Gregg Easterbrook’s Views
“We have heard similar alarmist rhetoric on Earth Day,” wrote Perkins, a onetime aide to Dan Quayle. “The warnings of environmental calamity should be greeted with skepticism.”
Perkins is hardly alone in his use of Easterbrook’s work to denounce the environmental movement. Writing for Newsweek (3/10/95), Robert J. Samuelson asserts, “Easterbrook is a true environmentalist. He loves to hike and observe wildlife. But Easterbrook is also an acute reporter offended by ill-informed doomsayers. While environmentalists constantly discover a new ‘crisis,’ he finds dynamic progress and few impending calamities.”
Since the publication of the New Yorker article and his recently released book, A Moment on the Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism, described by one critic as “745 pages of feel-good optimism” (Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, 3/13/95), Easterbrook’s work has...
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The Environment Is Improving
Predictions of ecological doom, including recent ones, have such a terrible track record that people should take them with pinches of salt instead of lapping them up with relish. For reasons of their own, pressure groups, journalists and fame-seekers will no doubt continue to peddle ecological catastrophes at an undiminishing speed. These people, oddly, appear to think that having been invariably wrong in the past makes them more likely to be right in the future. The rest of us might do better to recall, when warned of the next doomsday, what ever became of the last one.
The Club of Rome’s False Predictions
In 1972 the Club of Rome published a highly influential report called “Limits to Growth”. To many in the environmental movement, that report still stands as a beacon of sense in the foolish world of economics. But were its predictions borne out?
“Limits to Growth” said total global oil reserves amounted to 550 billion barrels. “We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade,” said President Jimmy Carter shortly afterwards. Sure enough, between 1970 and 1990 the world used 600 billion barrels of oil. So, according to the Club of Rome, reserves should have been overdrawn by 50 billion barrels by 1990. In fact, by 1990 unexploited reserves amounted to 900 billion barrels—not counting the tar shales, of which a single deposit in Alberta contains more than 550...
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The Threat of Global Warming Has Been Exaggerated
I believe that the best available evidence argues strongly against any rapid and substantial changes to the planetary temperature. Since 1989, a fascinating spectrum of opinions has emerged in the global warming debate. On one end of this spectrum are scientists and some policymakers suggesting that an increase in greenhouse gases will not create any catastrophic climate changes in the decades to come. Their assessment leads to the conclusion that the most probable climatic changes (for example, increasing nighttime temperatures, lowering afternoon temperatures, increasing precipitation) may not be disastrous and could even be beneficial to life on the planet.
A Spectrum of Opinions
Some scientists at this end of the greenhouse-opinion spectrum note that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not a pollutant at all but rather a valuable fertilizer for the growth of plants. Their view is that increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 levels may result in the direct benefit of increasing productivity throughout much of the biosphere. The scientists who are at this end of the spectrum tend to be driven by data-based arguments—they seem to be more impressed with the facts than with the predictions from theoretical models.
From a policy perspective, many of these same scientists feel that no “corrective” policy is needed at this time; there is no urgency to rush into immediate policy action and that any realistic policies are likely...
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Environmental Scarcity Is a Myth
It has become a virtual article of faith that the Earth’s population is about to surpass the planet’s “carrying capacity.” Ecological collapse looms; the only hope is an aggressive effort to reduce runaway birthrates. Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute, says the “day of reckoning” has already arrived as soil erodes, aquifers empty, pesticide pollution spreads and range lands are overgrazed. “I personally do not think we are ever going to get close” to a world population of 10 billion, Brown told the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1994. The reason? “Ecosystems are already starting to break down,” he says.
Even President Bill Clinton has joined the neo-Malthusian bandwagon; he was riveted by an apocalyptic jeremiad that appeared in February 1994 in the Atlantic Monthly. The piece, written by foreign correspondent Robert Kaplan, envisions a world of growing chaos, anarchy, disease and corruption as hungry refugees surge across borders in search of food and nations fight over scarce resources. Humanitarian disasters such as the one in Rwanda are a herald of the new era of resource limits.
But if these apocalyptic prophecies come true, it will not be simply because man has been too fruitful and has been multiplying too fast. True, Rwanda was the most densely populated country in Africa before the civil war erupted. But its Hutu and Tutsi peoples are battling over...
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The Media Exaggerate Environmental Crises
Apocalyptic predictions are always a sure bet to capture the public imagination. And because seizing the public’s attention is one of the media’s driving goals, such predictions are often in the news.
This is certainly true of the environmentalist movement. Since its advent in the 1970s, the movement has generated countless headlines about global warming, disappearing ozone and forests, and dire health threats posed by asbestos, radon, and even water.
The Manipulation of the Media
In the United States and around the world, people are highly dependent on the media but are also particularly vulnerable when the information is inaccurate. Few editors and reporters have a background in science with which to make informed decisions, and thus they, too, are easily manipulated.
Since the first Earth Day in 1970, a vast public relations campaign has been in place to influence public support and generate environmentally friendly legislation— which has had the collateral effect of slowing economic growth.
Fully 30 percent of all federal regulations have been generated by the Environmental Protection Agency. When the EPA was established in 1970, it had a budget of $205 million and a staff of about 4,500. Today, it controls a budget of $4.3 billion, and its staff has quadrupled to almost 18,000.
The Price of Environmental Regulations
According to EPA estimates, the cost to citizens and the...
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