The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment

The Role of Political Economy The State of the Argument A Historical Afternote WHAT ARE THE REAL POPULATION AND RESOURCE PROBLEMS? Is there a natural-resource problem now? Certainly – just as always. The problem is that natural resources are scarce, in the sense that it costs us labor and capital to get them, though we would prefer to get them for free. Are we now “in crisis” and “entering an age of scarcity”? You can see anything you like in a crystal ball. But almost without exception, the relevant data – the long-run economic trends – suggest precisely the opposite. The appropriate measures of scarcity – the costs of natural resources in human labor, and their prices relative to wages and to other goods – all suggest that natural resources have been becoming less scarce over the long run, right up to the present. How about pollution? Is this not a problem? Of course pollution is a problem. People have always had to dispose of their waste products so as to enjoy a pleasant and healthy living space. But we now live in a more healthy and less dirty environment than in earlier centuries. About population now: Is there a population problem? Again, of course there is a population problem, just as always. When a couple is about to have a baby, they must prepare a place for the child to sleep safely. Then, after the birth of the child, the parents must feed, clothe, protect, and teach it. All this requires effort and resources, and not from the parents alone. When a baby is born or a migrant arrives, the community must increase its municipal services – schooling, fire and police protection, and garbage collection. None of these are free. For the first decades of its life, an additional child certainly is a burden not only on its parents but also on others. Brothers and sisters must do with less of everything except companionship. Taxpayers must cough up additional funds for schooling and other public services. Neighbors hear more noise. During these early years the child produces nothing material, and the income of the family and the community is spread more thinly than if the baby had not been born. And when the child grows up and first goes to work, jobs are squeezed a bit, and the output and pay per working person go down. All this clearly is an economic loss for other people. Just as surely, however, an additional person is also a boon. The child or immigrant will pay taxes later on, contribute energy and resources to the community, produce goods and services for the consumption of others, and make efforts to beautify and purify the environment. Perhaps most significant for the more-developed countries is the contribution that the average person makes to increasing the efficiency of production through new ideas and improved methods. The real population problem, then, is not that there are too many people or that too many babies are being born. The problem is that others must support each additional person before that person contributes in turn to the well-being of others. Which is more weighty, the burden or the boon? That depends on the economic conditions and institutions, which we shall discuss at some length. But also, to a startling degree, the decision about whether the overall effect of a child or migrant is positive or negative depends on the values of whoever is making the judgment – your preference to spend a dollar now rather than to wait for a dollar-plus-something in twenty or thirty years, your preferences for having more or fewer wild animals alive as opposed to more or fewer human beings alive, and so on. Population growth is a problem, but not just a problem; it is a boon, but not just a boon. So your values are all-important in judging the net effect of population growth, and deciding whether there are too many or too few people. From the economic point of view an additional child is like a laying chicken, a cacao tree, a computer factory, or a new house. A baby is a durable good in which someone must invest heavily long before the grown adult begins to provide returns on the investment. But whereas “Travel now, pay later” is inherently attractive because the pleasure is immediate and the piper will wait, “Pay now, benefit from the child later” is inherently problematic because the sacrifice comes first. You might respond that additional children will never yield net benefits, because they use up irreplaceable resources. We shall see that additional persons produce more than they consume in the long run, and natural resources are not an exception. But we can agree that there is still a population problem, just as there is a problem with all good investments. Long before there are benefits, we must tie up capital that could otherwise be used for immediate consumption. Please notice that I have limited the discussion to the economic aspect of investing in children – that is, to a child’s effect on the material standard of living. If we also consider the non-material aspects of children – their meaning for parents and for others who enjoy a flourishing of humanity – then the case for adding children to our world becomes even stronger. And if we also keep in mind that most of the costs of children are borne by their parents rather than by the community during the child’s early years, whereas the community (especially in developed countries) gets the lion’s share of the benefits later on, the essential differences between children and other investments tend to improve rather than weaken the social economics of children. Whether or not there is cause to believe that population, resources, and the environment are worse “problems” than in the past, the public believes them to be so. It has surprised me to learn, when preparing the second edition of this book, that the nexus of issues treated here is nowadays seen by the public as by far the most pressing set of problems facing society. (See Figure I-1) Figure I-1 [Roper Reports Feb 1989 “Serious Problems”] PREVIEW OF THE BOOK Here follow some of the main conclusions of the book. At the time of the first edition they seemed far-fetched to most readers, and they still shock many. But events since then have without exception confirmed the forecasts implicit in the trends and analyses made here. Food. Contrary to popular impression, food production per capita has been increasing for the half century since World War II, the only decades for which we have acceptable data. We also know that famine has progressively diminished for at least the past century. Average height has increased in developed countries in recent centuries, a sign of people eating better. And there is compelling reason to believe that human nutrition will continue to improve into the indefinite future, even with continued population growth. Land. Agricultural land is not a fixed resource. Rather, the amount of agricultural land has been increasing substantially, and it is likely to continue to increase where needed. Paradoxically, in the countries that are best supplied with food, such as the U.S., the quantity of land under cultivation has been decreasing because it is more economical to raise larger yields on less land than to increase the total amount of farmland. For this reason, among others, the amount of land used for forests, recreation, and wildlife has been increasing rapidly in the U.S. – hard to believe, but substantiated beyond a doubt. Natural resources. Hold your hat – our supplies of natural resources are not finite in any economic sense. Nor does past experience give reason to expect natural resources to become more scarce. Rather, if history is any guide, natural resources will progressively become less costly, hence less scarce, and will constitute a smaller proportion of our expenses in future years. Population growth is likely to have a long-run beneficial impact on the natural-resource situation. Energy. Grab your hat again – the long-run future of our energy supply is at least as bright as that of other natural resources, though government intervention can temporarily boost prices from time to time. Finiteness is no problem here either. And the long-run impact of additional people is likely to speed the development of cheap energy supplies that are almost inexhaustible. Pollution. This set of issues is as complicated as you wish to make it. But even many ecologists, as well as the bulk of economists, agree that population growth is not the villain in the creation and reduction of pollution. And the key trend is that life expectancy, which is the best overall index of the pollution level, has improved markedly as the world’s population has grown. This reflects the enormous decline during the past couple of centuries in the most important pollutions, diseases borne by air and water. The standard of living. In the short run, additional children imply additional costs, though the costs to persons other than the children’s parents are relatively small. In the longer run, however, per capita income is likely to be higher with a growing population than with a stationary one, both in more-developed and less-developed countries. Whether you wish to pay the present costs for the future benefits depends on how you weigh the future relative to the present; this is a value judgment. Human fertility. The contention that poor and uneducated people breed without constraint is demonstrably wrong, even for the poorest and most “primitive” societies. Well-off people who believe that the poor do not weigh the consequences of having more children are simply arrogant, or ignorant, or both. Future population growth. Population forecasts are published with confidence and fanfare. Yet the record of even the official forecasts made by U.S. government agencies and by the UN is little (if any) better than that of the most naive predictions. For example, experts in the 1930s foresaw the U.S. population as declining, perhaps to as little as 100 million people well before the turn of the century. In 1989, the U.S. Census Bureau forecast that U.S. population would peak at 302 million in 2038 and then decline. Just three years later, the Census Bureau forecast 383 million in 2050 with no peaking in sight. The science of demographic forecasting clearly has not yet reached perfection. Present trends suggest that even though total population for the world is increasing, the density of population on most of the world’s surface will decrease. This is already happening in the developed countries. Though the total populations of developed countries increased from 1950 to 1990, the rate of urbanization was sufficiently great that population density on most of their land areas (say, 97 percent of the land area of the U.S.) has been decreasing. As the poor countries become richer, they will surely experience the same trends, leaving most of the world’s surface progressively less populated, astonishing as this may seem. Immigration. The migration of people from poor to rich countries is as close to an everybody-wins government policy as can be. Countries in North America and Western Europe advance just about all their national goals thereby – higher productivity, a higher standard of living, and an easing of the heavy social burdens caused by growing proportions of aged dependents. And of course the immigrants benefit. Even the sending countries benefit on balance from the remittances that immigrants send back, and from improved ties between the countries. Amazingly, immigration does not even increase native unemployment measurably, even among low- income groups. This topic, discussed briefly in the first edition, now constitutes a separate book. Pathological effects of population density. Many worry that mental health is worse in more densely populated areas. This idea was reinforced by research on animal populations. But this putative drawback of population growth has been falsified by psychological studies of humans. Similar “common sense” convinces many people – including the powers-that-be in the CIA – that population growth increases the likelihood of wars. The data show otherwise. World population policy. [****If present Chapters 35 and 36 are deleted: The first edition documented – the material is not included here because the book became too long – how ] Tens of millions of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars are being used to tell the governments and people of other countries that they ought to reduce their fertility. The long-time head of the Population Branch of the U.S. State Department Agency for International Development (AID) – for many years the single most important U.S. population official – publicly said that the U.S. should act to reduce fertility worldwide for the U.S.’s own economic self-interest. And a secret policy assessment [***to be footnoted here if Chaps 35 and 36 are deleted] by the National Security Council in 1974 – finally declassified in 1989, but with many pages still blacked out – specifies population-control activities for U.S. governmental agents to carry out in various countries, especially Africa; this includes twisting the arms of foreign governments in a variety of ways to ensure “cooperation”. But economic data and analyses do not justify this policy. Furthermore, might not such acts be an unwarranted (and resented) interference in the internal affairs of other countries? Domestic population activities. [****If present Chapters 35 and 36 are deleted: The first edition also documented how ] Other millions of public dollars go to private organizations in the population lobby whose directors believe that, for environmental and related reasons, fewer Americans should be born. With these funds they propagandize the rest of us to believe – and act – in ways consistent with the views of such organizations as the Population Crisis Committee, the Population Reference Bureau, the Worldwatch Institute, and the Association for Voluntary Sterilization. Still other tens of millions of U.S. tax dollars target the fertility of the poor in the U.S. The explicit justification for this policy (given by the head of Planned Parenthood’s Alan Guttmacher Institute) is that it will keep additional poor people off the welfare rolls. Even were this to be proven – which it has not been, so far as I know – is this policy in the spirit or tradition of America? Furthermore, there is statistical proof that the public birth-control clinics, which were first opened in large numbers in the poorer southern states, were positioned to reduce fertility among blacks. Involuntary sterilization. [****If present Chapters 35 and 36 are deleted: Also documented in the first edition ] Tax monies are used to involuntarily sterilize poor people (often black) without medical justification. As a result of the eugenics movement, which has been intertwined with the population-control movement for decades, there were (when last I checked) laws in thirty states providing for the involuntary sterilization of the mentally defective. These laws have led to many perfectly-normal poor women being sterilized without their knowledge, after being told that their operations were other sorts of minor surgery. In the chapters to come, you will find evidence documenting these and many other surprising statements about resources, population, environment, and their interconnections. You will also find a foundation of economic theory that makes sense of the surprising facts. And you will find an offer to back with my own hard cash my forecasts about the things we can bet about – not only natural resources, health, and cleanliness of the environment, but also all other measures of human welfare. If you believe that scarcities or more pollution are in the offing, you can take advantage of my offer and make some money at my expense. (My winnings go to finance research on these and other topics.) You may wonder why the tone of this book is so overwhelmingly positive whereas that of most popular writings is so negative. The most important explanation, I think, is the nature of the comparisons that are made. The comparisons in this book mostly compare now with earlier times. The comparisons others make often show one group versus another, or contrast how we are versus how we think we should be or would like to be – situations that guarantee a steady flow of depressing bad news. As you reflect upon the arguments of the doomsters with which this book takes issue, you may notice a peculiar contradiction: On the one hand, the doomsters say that there are too many of us; on the other hand, they warn that we are in danger of most of us being wiped out. Usually, a larger number of members of a species is greater protection against being wiped out. Hence there is an apparent contradiction. The doomsters reply that because there are more of us, we are eroding the basis of existence, and rendering more likely a “crash” due to population “overshoot”; that is, they say that our present or greater numbers are not sustainable. But the signs of incipient catastrophe are absent. Length of life and health are increasing, supplies of food and other natural resources are becoming ever more abundant, and pollutants in our environment are lessening. In reply, the doomsters point to vaguer signs of environmental disruption. I confess that I see none of the signs that they point to except those that have nothing to do with the “carrying capacity” of the earth – I do see profound changes in society and civilization, most of which can be interpreted as either good or bad, and which are entirely within our own control. But you the reader will decide for yourself whether those claims of the doomsters are convincing to you in light of the issues that we can discuss objectively, and that are taken up in the book. NUMBERS, WRITERS, AND BELIEVABILITY There are many numbers and diagrams in the text. Bear with me, please; the arguments depend on them. If my conclusions were not backed with hard data as proof, some would be laughed away because they violate common sense, and others would be rejected instantly because they starkly contradict the main body of popular writings about population and resources. You may look skeptically at some of the data – such as the statistics showing that world food production and consumption per capita are going up, even in poor countries, year by year. You may ask, “But what about the evidence that supports what everyone `knows’ – that the world is headed toward starvation and famine?” There simply are no other data. The food data are from the UN and U.S. government, the only data there are. If UN and U.S. officials often make statements inconsistent with these data, it is because they have not checked the evidence or are purposely disregarding it. Some of the other data are more subject to argument. I have tried to give you an honest shake on the data, but you must be the judge. If after you read the book and still doubt the general theme that conditions have been getting better, I pray that you answer this question: What data would you cite to contradict the proposition that the material conditions of life have been improving? And if you cannot cite any data, ask yourself: what imaginable data could conceivably convince you? You will find that most relevant data are contained either in this book or in my forthcoming book, The State of Humanity. (If there are still other data that you might seek in this connection, please write me.) But if there is no conceivable set of data that might convince you to the contrary, then there is no scientific way to address your reservations. If no data could falsify your belief, then your position is a matter of metaphysical belief, on the same intellectual footing as theology rather than science. I invite you to research for yourself the assertion that the conditions of humanity have gotten worse. Stop at the nearest library and inspect the two basic reference books – the Bureau of the Census’s Statistical Abstract of the United States and Historical Statistics of the United States. Look in the index under “Pollution: Air,” and “Pollution: Water,” and examine the data for various years. Then do the same for world food production per person. Then world-wide availability of natural resources, as measured by their prices. While you’re at it, check the amount of space per person in our homes, and the presence of such amenities as telephones and indoor toilets, year by year. Most important, inspect life expectancy and the incidence of death. You will find that just about every single indicator of the quality of life shows improvement rather than the deterioration that the doomsayers claim has occurred. And things have gotten better for the poor as well as the rich, even through the 1980’s. But even based on first-hand evidence of your own senses – the improved health and later ages at which acquaintances die nowadays as compared with the past; the material goods that we now possess; the speed at which information, entertainment, and we ourselves move freely throughout the world – it seems to me that a person must be literally deaf and blind not to perceive that humanity is in a much better state than ever before. The trend toward a better life can be seen in most of our own families if we look. I’ll dramatize the matter with an anecdote: I have mild asthma. As an overnight guest in a home where there was a dog, in the middle of the night I woke with a bad cough and shortness of breath caused by the dog dander. So I took out my twelve dollar pocket inhaler, good for 300 puffs, and took one puff. Within ten minutes my lungs were clear. A small miracle. A few decades ago I would have been sleepless and miserable all night, and I would have had to give up the squashplaying that I love so much because exercise causes my worst asthma in the absence of an inhaler. And diabetes: If your child had diabetes a hundred years ago, you had to watch helplessly as the child went blind and died early. Nowadays injections, or even pills, can give the child as long and healthy a life as other children. And eyeglasses: Centuries ago you had to give up reading when your eyes got dim as you got to be 40 or 50. Then when spectacles were finally invented, only the rich could afford them. Now anyone can afford plastic magnifiers at the drugstore for nine dollars. And you can even wear contact lenses for eye problems and keep your vanity intact. Is there not some condition in your family that in earlier times would have been a lingering misery or a tragedy, that nowadays our increasing knowledge has rendered easily bearable? Travel to poor countries, but leave the capital cities and venture into rural areas. Ask farmers about their standard of living, present and past. You will find improvement everywhere, in all respects – tractors, roads to the market, motorbikes, electric pumps for wells, schools where there were none before, and children going to university in the city. THE ROLE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY Here we must address a crucial but touchy element in the economics of resources and population — the extent to which the political-social-economic system provides personal freedom from government coercion. Skilled persons require a framework that provides incentives for working hard and taking risks, enabling their talents to flower and come to fruition. The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all. The world’s problem is not too many people, but lack of political and economic freedom. Powerful evidence comes from pairs of countries that had the same culture and history and much the same standard of living when they split apart after World War II — East and West Germany, North and South Korea, Taiwan and China. In each case the centrally planned communist country began with less population “pressure”, as measured by density per square kilometer, than did the market-directed economy. And the communist and non- communist countries also started with much the same birth rates. But the market-directed economies performed much better economically than the centrally-planned economies. This powerful demonstration cuts the ground from under population growth as a likely explanation of poor economic performance. The role of government is discussed much more in this edition than in the first edition – and usually the discussion is critical of government intervention. This shift in emphasis is partly due to greater understanding of the issues through further study (especially the works of Friedrich Hayek, who in turn took advantage of the empirical findings about population in this and my preceding technical book to support his own research into long-run effects of population growth), partly a result of more research by others into the economic results of governments’ population and environmental activities, partly a result of more information becoming available about the situations in Eastern Europe and China, and partly a result of increase in government activities. THE STATE OF THE ARGUMENT To sum up the argument of the book: In the short run, all resources are limited. An example of such a finite resource is the amount of attention that you will devote to what I write. The longer run, however, is a different story. The standard of living has risen along with the size of the world’s population since the beginning of recorded time. There is no convincing economic reason why these trends toward a better life should not continue indefinitely. Many people find it difficult to accept this economic argument. Dwindling resources, increasing pollution, starvation and misery–all this seems inevitable unless we curb population growth or otherwise cut back consumption of natural resources. Thomas Malthus reached this conclusion nearly two centuries ago in his famous Essay on the Principle of Population, and popular thinking is now dominated by his gloomy theory (not widely accepted in Malthus’s own day). The new theory that is the key idea of the book – and is consistent with current evidence – is this: Greater consumption due to increase in population and growth of income heightens scarcity and induces price run-ups. A higher price represents an opportunity that leads inventors and businesspeople to seek new ways to satisfy the shortages. Some fail, at cost to themselves. A few succeed, and the final result is that we end up better off than if the original shortage problems had never arisen. That is, we need our problems, though this does not imply that we should purposely create additional problems for ourselves. The most important benefit of population size and growth is the increase it brings to the stock of useful knowledge. Minds matter economically as much as, or more than, hands or mouths. Progress is limited largely by the availability of trained workers. In the long run the basic forces influencing the state of humanity and its progress are a) the number of people who are alive to consume, but also to produce goods and knowledge; and b) the level of wealth. Those are the great variables which control the advance of civilization. Wealth is far more than assets such as houses and cars. The essence of wealth is the capacity to control the forces of nature, and the extent of wealth depends upon the level of technology and the ability to create new knowledge. A wealthy world can find remedies for a new disease more quickly than can a poor world, because the wealthy world possesses stocks of knowledge and skilled persons. That’s why wealthier groups live longer, with better health and fewer accidental deaths. A key characteristic of a wealthy society is a well-developed set of legal rules. Wealth both creates such rules and depends upon them to produce the conditions of freedom and security that progress requires. This subject is not developed in this volume; I hope that I will soon produce a proper treatment of it, in connection with population size and growth. *** That is the science of the matter. It was as far as the first edition could go. But now there is an important new element. The consensus of scholars of these subjects is on the side of the view which I just gave you. This is now quite the opposite of a single lone voice. The good news mentioned earlier about agriculture and resources represents the long-time consensus of economists in those fields. Every agricultural economist knows that the world’s population has been eating ever-better since World War II. Every resource economist knows that all natural resources have been getting more available rather than more scarce, as shown by their falling prices over the decades and centuries. And every demographer knows that the death rate has been falling all over the world – life expectancy almost tripling in the rich countries in the past two centuries, and almost doubling in the poor countries in just the past four decades. All that has been true right along. And by now even the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledges that our air and our water have been getting cleaner rather than dirtier in the past few decades. The biggest news is that the consensus of population economists now also is not far from the views expressed in this book. In 1986, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences published a monograph on population growth and economic development prepared by a prestigious scholarly group. This “official” report reversed almost completely the frightening conclusions of the previous 1971 NAS report. “The scarcity of exhaustible resources is at most a minor constraint on economic growth”, it said. It found that additional people bring benefits as well as costs. Even the World Bank, for many years a major institutional purveyor of gloom-and-doom notions about population growth, reported in 1984 that the world’s natural resource situation provides no reason to limit population growth. A host of review articles by distinguished economic demographers since the mid-1980s have confirmed that this “revisionist” view (a label I am not fond of) is indeed consistent with the scientific evidence, even if only some population economists go as far as I do in emphasizing the positive long-run effects of population growth. The consensus is more toward a “neutral” judgment: population growth neither helps nor hinders economic growth. But this is a huge change from the earlier consensus that population growth is detrimental. By now, anyone who asserts that population growth damages the economy must turn a blind eye both to the scientific evidence and the relevant scientific community. It is to be expected that you will begin by believing that population growth and density drag down economic development and foul the environment, both because the Malthusian argument makes excellent common sense and also because you have read and heard this idea all your life. Indeed, almost all scholars who have eventually come to see that population growth is not mainly a negative force began by believing the conventional Malthusian wisdom. In chapter 30 you will read how one early modern economist (Richard Easterlin) who made discoveries in the field describes the intellectual transit of another (Allen Kelley) as “representative…of many of us who have tried to look into the arguments and evidence about the `population problem'”. In Chapter 00s you will read how journalist-anthropologist Richard Crutchfield began “in the early 1960s reporting the seemingly hopeless crisis of people surplus and food scarcity in India and China” and gave up his beliefs in doom and gloom only after he revisited villages all over the world that he had studied earlier, and saw how they had progressed along with a growing population. “[T]here is a much happier ending than I ever expected to write when I set out ten years ago.” I, too, began work in this field in the late 1960s believing that rapid population growth was a major threat to the world’s economic development – along with all-out war, one of the two fearsome threats to humankind and civilization. So I enlisted in the effort to combat this threat. By 1970, however, my reading had led me into confusion. Newly-available empirical studies did not agree with the standard theory. I was shaken by the contradiction between the bare theory and the bare facts. I can ask of you that you, too, keep an open mind, and be willing to believe scientifically sound evidence based upon statistical data rather than remain transfixed by dramatic television pictures and newspaper anecdotes that are not in fact representative of the aggregate. One story I cannot detail for you is of a television journalist who began making a documentary about population growth with the conventional fears, but then altered her/his ideas in the course of gathering research to the extent that the program – though “balanced” in presenting the “sides” – left an impression not very different than this book. But the journalist is so afraid that he/she will be thought to espouse this viewpoint that I am sworn not to identify her/him. It may well be that the state of thought about the effect of population on the environment, is at the same sort of intellectual juncture that thought about the effect of population on the standard of living was at one or two decades ago. The evidence is now available, and fair-minded scholars are beginning to change their views on environmental changes. Indeed, in chapter 00 you will read how William Baumol and Wallace Oates began by believing that the environment was deteriorating, but their detailed long- term statistical studies brought them to doubt their original view. To repeat, every forecast of the doomsayers has turned out flat wrong. Metals, foods, and other natural resources have become more available rather than more scarce throughout the centuries. The Famine 1975 forecast by the Paddock brothers that we would see famine deaths in the U.S. on television was followed by gluts in agricultural markets. After Paul Ehrlich’s primal scream – “What will we do when the [gasoline] pumps run dry?” – there came gasoline cheaper than since the 1930s. The Great Lakes are not dead; instead they offer better sport fishing than ever. The main pollutants, especially the particulates which have killed people for years, have lessened in our cities. Though events have been entirely kind to the arguments made in the book, there has been little change in public opinion in past decades. Yes, a good many books have been written containing data and arguments concerning population, resources, and the environment consistent with the ideas in this book; some of the best are so annotated in the bibliography at the back. Yes, several “think tanks” have devoted some or all of their attention to rebutting false propositions about the environment, and offering market solutions to environmental problems (such as the marketing of pollution rights, which has now become public policy). Yes, there are now some sympathetic and knowledgeable journalists. Yes, we have even seen the 1986 National Academy of Science report on population. But the content of everyday newspaper and television reporting on these matters remains almost as one-sidedly doomsaying, with urgent calls for government intervention, as it was two decades ago. The doomsayers’ credibility with the press, or their command over the funding resources of the federal government, has not lessened. The very persons who were entirely wrong in the 1960s and 1970s, and who should have been entirely discredited by the total failures of their forecasts, continue to have the same credibility and prominence as before. That’s life, I suppose. The situation of the anti-population-growth environmentalists today bears much resemblance to the situation of Malthus and his followers. The predictions in Malthus’s first edition in 1798 were as wrong as any forecasts could be. The great historian of economic thought, Schumpeter, explains Malthus’s error of “pessimism” by saying about the vision that underlay the theory and predictions: “The most interesting thing to observe is the complete lack of imagination which that vision reveals. Those writers lived at the threshold of the most spectacular economic developments ever witnessed. Vast possibilities matured into realities under their very eyes. Nevertheless, they saw nothing but cramped economies, struggling with ever-decreasing success for their daily bread.” We, too, are at a moment when the world is creating new resources and cleaning up the environment at an ever-increasing rate. Our capacity to provide the good things of life for an ever- larger population is increasing as never before. Yet the conventional outlook – perhaps because of a similar lack of imagination – points in exactly the opposite direction. When the doomsayers hear that oil can be obtained from various kinds of crops, they say: Yes, but it costs much more than fossil fuels. They do not imagine the cost reductions from increased efficiency that will inevitably take place in the future, and they do not foresee that the total cost of energy, already a very small part of our economy, will become even smaller in the future. And when they hear that the rich countries are becoming cleaner and less polluted with each decade, the doomsayers say: But what about the poor countries? They do not imagine that the poor countries, when they become richer, will also eventually turn to becoming cleaner rather than dirtier, as the now-rich countries have done. Again and again they do not imagine the adjustments that individuals and communities make that create more resources, invent better technologies, and overcome environmental problems. Now let’s see if my facts and arguments persuade you of the claims I have made. A HISTORICAL AFTERNOTE The world and therefore the United States have never been in better shape at any time in history, by all the measures discussed in this book and in my forthcoming State of Humanity, most especially because the Cold War is over and the threat of nuclear holocaust has receded. The environment in Eastern Europe will be improving now that socialism is disappearing there. Yet there is much assertion to the contrary, and much hankering for the supposedly better times in the past. Let’s put this in perspective. This comes from an Assyrian tablet written many millennia ago: “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” And this from the Romans: You often ask me, Justus Fabius, how it is that while the genius and the fame of so many distinguished orators have shed a lustre on the past, our age is so forlorn and so destitute of the glory of eloquence that it scarce retains the very name of orator. Franklin Pierce Adams put it nicely: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory”. About the time that Great Britain was beginning to thrive as no country had ever thriven before, and was taking world leadership economically and politically, William Petty noticed a spate of public lament and doomsaying. He responded as follows: But notwithstanding all this (the like whereof was always in all Places), the Buildings of London grow great and glorious; the American Plantations employ four Hundred Sail of Ships; Actions in the East-India Company are near double the principal Money; those who can give good Security, may have Money under the Statute-Interest; Materials for building (even Oaken-Timber) are little the dearer, some cheaper for the rebuilding of London; the Exchange seems as full of Merchants as formerly; no more Beggars in the Streets, nor executed for Thieves, than heretofore; the Number of Coaches, and Splendor of Equipage exceeding former Times; the publique Theatres very magnificent; the King has a greater Navy, and stronger Guards than before our Calamities; the Clergy rich, and the Cathedrals in repair; much Land has been improved, and the Price of Food so reasonable, as that Men refuse to have it cheaper, by admitting of Irish Cattle; And in brief, no Man needs to want that will take moderate pains. That some are poorer than others, ever was and ever will be: And that many are naturally querulous and envious, is an Evil as old as the World. These general Observations, and that Men eat, and drink, and laugh as they use to do, have encouraged me to try if I could also comfort others, being satisfied my self, that the Interest and Affairs of England are in no deplorable Condition. Consider the situation as of George Washington’s Seventh Annual Address to the Congress, which his biographer tells us was awaited with “anticipations often sadistic” because many believed that everything was going wrong. So Washington said: I have never met you at any period when more than at the present the situation of our public affairs has afforded just cause for mutual congratulation; and for inviting you to join me in profound gratitude to the Author of all good for the numerous and extraordinary blessings we enjoy…Is it too much to say that our country exhibits a spectacle of national happiness never before surpassed if ever before equaled?” But as Washington said, “the restless mind of man cannot be at peace.” So instead of comparing their situation in 1796 with what it had been, say, 15 years before, when the country was in a desperate struggle for its independence, and instead of heeding Washington’s call that Americans “unite our efforts to preserve, prolong, and improve our immense advantages”, people focused on the existing problems, and sought out new ones. So it is today, it seems to me. This anecdote about Adam Smith is amusing as well as instructive: One day Sinclair brought Smith the news of the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga in October 1777, and exclaimed in the deepest concern that the nation [Great Britain] was ruined. `There is a great deal of ruin in a nation’ was Smith’s calm reply. David Hume suggested that the propensity to find signs of crisis has a genetic explanation, being rooted in “human nature” (see the headnote to chapter 00). There is a long history of agricultural experts and others being overly pessimistic in their assessments of current and future productivity. The great British agricultural historian Arthur Young traveled throughout Great Britain in the years before 1774, and found that agricultural productivity had been rising rapidly. His good news was greeted with disbelief and derision. This was his response in the introduction to his book: I am very sensible that throughout these calculations I have taken the unpopular side of the question. A work (unless conducted with uncommon abilities) rarely succeeds, whose principal aim is to persuade a nation to be easy and satisfied under present circumstances; and to convince them that they have almost every reason to be pleased: such a task has nothing in it that flatters the multitude — you run counter to public prejudice, and all the reward you can hope for, is the approbation of a few sensible individuals. Adam Smith noticed this bad-news syndrome: The annual produce of the land and labour of England… is certainly much greater than it was, a little more than a century ago, at the restoration of Charles II. Though, at present, few people, I believe, doubt of this, yet during this period, five years have seldom passed away in which some book or pamphlet has not been published, written too with such abilities as to gain some authority with the public, and pretending to demonstrate that the wealth of the nation was fast declining, that the country was depopulated, agriculture neglected, manufactures decaying, and trade undone. Nor have these publications been all party pamphlets, the wretched offspring of falsehood and venality. Many of them have been written by very candid and very intelligent people; who wrote nothing but what they believed, and for no other reason but because they believed it. Young also came to think that it was necessary that he provide a sound theoretical base for his evidence: The observations I made in my journies through the kingdom, fixed my opinions concerning population — the inclosure and division of landed property — the prices of the earth’s products, &c. I found the language of plain facts so clear, that I could not but listen and be convinced, and I laid the facts before the world on which I founded my opinions: In opposition to these facts, those writers have offered reason upon reason, argument upon argument, and have given elaborate disquisitions on subjects which demanded facts alone. This has occasioned my shewing in the present treatise how the facts I before gave are consistent with, and even naturally arising from first principles. So, too, in this edition I have placed more emphasis on the theoretical and institutional framework that explains the fundamental facts.

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