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Resources, Population, and Climate Change

Written and produced by Bill Stonebarger.

A Contrarian View or "it ain't necessarily so"

Forty years ago a world-famous biologist, Paul Ehrlich, and a world-famous physicist (now science advisor to the president of the United States), John Holdren, invented a special equation in honor of the first Earth Day. Their equation was simple --

I = PAT. "I" stood for environmental impact. "P" stood for Population. "A" stood for Affluence and "T" stood for Technology. In other words as people get more numerous, get wealthier and use more technology, the earth suffers. The moral of the equation so far as the earth goes is that it would be better to have fewer people, less wealth and less technology.

Eleven years later in 1980 a scholarly study commissioned by President Jimmy Carter, GLOBAL 2000, echoed this moral by claiming that "If present trends continue the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world's people will be poorer in many ways than they are today."

In a related vein, in 2007, an international panel of scientists (IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warned that increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would bring on global climate change. This, they claimed would lead to world-wide catastrophes in the 21st century as sea levels rose, rain patterns changed and climate-brought-on diseases became pandemic.

You have probably also heard the much repeated claim that "the United States with only 6% of the world's people uses over 30% of the world's resources and causes over 30% of the world's pollution." In other words the moral again seems to be that we have to live more simply, use fewer resources, reduce our population, and cut back on our wastes if we want to be good world citizens and protect the earth for future generations.

These claims and predictions have been blessed with such wide media publicity that many people today do not know that there is substantial disagreement about all of them within the scientific world. In fact, according to many experts, most of these claims and predictions are exaggerated, many are seriously misleading and others are simply false. As that comic song from the Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess goes, "it ain't necessarily so." This program will explain why.

Let's take the issues one at a time.

  1. Resources
  2. Population
  3. Climate Change

Resources

Natural resources are necessary for wealth, though not sufficient. Many of the richest countries in the world, like Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Taiwan, have few natural resources. Many of the poorest counties in the world, like Nigeria, Cuba, Peru and Russia have rich natural resources. What then is the connection between natural resources and wealth?

Many people today ("many" people does not include most scientists and economists) think that resources and wealth are a more or less fixed quantity. In other words, the world's natural resources and accompanying wealth are like a large pie. If I get a bigger piece you will have to be satisfied with a smaller piece. If a few get rich, the majority will have to be poor. If we in the United States use too many resources, others in the rest of the world will have to do with fewer.

Indeed in past agricultural ages -- before the scientific and industrial revolutions a few hundred years ago -- this view made sense. Wealth then was usually measured in two all-important natural resources--land and gold. Countless wars were fought over both land and gold because the only way one group could get wealthier was to steal land or gold from another group.

All of this changed a few hundred years ago when humans learned they could use natural resources to create wealth and then to multiply it, by using powerful new technologies in a free-market capitalist economic system. It was no longer necessary to steal from one another in other words to get more resources -- like land or gold. You could create wealth on your own. You could create new resources -- like steam, and aluminum, and electricity and plastics and new kinds of food -- and then multiply them and buy and sell them instead of just using or stealing them.

The wealth of the world, in other words, was no longer like a big pie where a few fat cats got the big pieces, leaving the crumbs to the poor. Instead the pie could be multiplied over and over again so potentially all could have a big piece!

This new view of resources and wealth did not take root in most people's minds however until quite recently. And it still is not widely appreciated in many parts of the world, including our western world of affluence. For instance, consider the following:

One hundred and fifty years ago the population of the United States was less than 31 million people. The average life expectancy was 43 years. There was a telegraph system but no one had a telephone. The average wage was less than 15 cents an hour. Even the very rich had no indoor plumbing, refrigeration, air conditioning, electricity or anesthetics when they needed an operation. There were railroads but less than 10 miles of paved roads in all the United States. There were no cell phones, television sets, radios, computers, airplanes or automobiles. As for education, less than 1 percent of the people graduated from high school and ninety-nine percent of all doctors had no college education. Most people, except perhaps the 800,000 men who died in the Civil War, rarely traveled more than a few miles from where they were born. Forests covered about a third of the US and Canada.

Today the US population is almost ten times as great--over 300 million. Life expectancy in the US (and most of the industrialized world) is more than twice as long --79 years. There are over 250 million automobiles and 2.6 million miles of paved roads in the US alone. Over 85% of the people in the US have graduated from high school and over 25% from college. Nearly everyone has a telephone, a TV set (usually more than one), indoor plumbing, refrigeration, air conditioning, electricity and anesthetics for an operation. Most people have a cell phone and a computer. And most people in the US and Canada ride regularly in automobiles, trains and airplanes for thousands of miles in their lifetimes. And forests cover about a third of the US and Canada.

All of these same sharp contrasts to a greater or lesser extent hold for just about any country in the world, including the two most populous countries, India and China. In other words people all over the world are hundreds of times wealthier, use hundreds of times more natural resources and yes, produce hundreds of times more waste than a much smaller population did a hundred and fifty years ago.

If resources are so limited, where did all the new resources come from that made this incredible new wealth? If wealth was like a big piece of pie, how come everyone has a bigger piece now than their great-great-great-grandparents did 150 years ago?

The answer to all of these questions, of course, is simple. Natural resources and wealth are not a fixed pie. Instead, the more we use, the more we can create. The more wealthy we are, the more wealthy our children can be. We should be proud, not ashamed, that we in the US use 30% of the world's resources because in the process we create more than 30% of the world's wealth! The truth is that the only limit to resources and to wealth is the ultimate natural resource--the creativity of human minds.

Here how it works.

As an important resource (say an important energy resource 150 years ago like whale oil) begins to become scarce and more expensive, this presents a challenge. Some people take up that challenge looking to make a profit. They begin searching for alternatives. Some people fail. But the failures are personal, society as a whole does not suffer. Some people succeed, make big profits-- and their success benefits all.

That is exactly what happened when whale oil began to run out in the middle of the19th century. People found petroleum in the ground that could do the same job as whale oil better and more cheaply. More important, humans soon found that oil could not only illuminate our lamps, it could power newly invented automobiles and trains and airplanes and bulldozers and tractors and ocean-liners. It (along with other fossil fuels like coal and gas) could provide the raw material for newly invented materials like plastics and medicines and fertilizers and pesticides and paints and cosmetics. It could replace wood and heat homes and offices and schools. It could create electricity and transform agricultural and industrial production. It could help create a world where everyone could get an education. It could be a key link in creating a new world where everyone could potentially be a winner!

You say yes, ok, but we will eventually run out of oil and then we will be in a pickle.

First of all, experts have been predicting the world will run out of oil ever since it was first discovered. In 1908 the US Bureau of Mines predicted a total future world supply of oil would be 22.5 billion barrels. (We have used three times that much since 1908 and have at least three times that much in known reserves). In 1939 officials predicted the US oil supplies could last only another 13 years. In 1979 President Jimmy Carter declared the imminent oil shortage a national crisis of survival dimensions. Like religious cults that have predicted over and over again that the world will end in the near future, that future keeps getting further and further away.

Today in the early 21st century new discoveries and new technologies to extract oil from the earth have convinced some experts that the US alone has enough oil under its soil and continental shelf to power the entire world for the next hundred years!

But let's say these optimistic experts are wrong and we do begin to run out of oil. Or, more likely, considerations of possible climate change from burning too much oil (or coal or gas) put a severe restraint on its use. What then?

As oil becomes more expensive and scarce (or governmental laws prohibit its continued use in order to prevent climate change and/or wean us from buying foreign oil) people will take up the challenge, find profits in developing new sources of energy like nuclear power, solar power, natural gas, tidal power, geothermal power, fusion power, hydrogen power, windmill power, large increases in efficiency and who knows what. Remember, no one predicted computers, cell phones or satellites fifty years ago. These new sources of energy will replace petroleum just as petroleum replaced whale oil. And this process of resource creation and wealth creation is already happening today.

The same story could be told about other important natural resources. Take wood. True, most of the original forests in the US and Canada have disappeared. When European settlers first arrived on this continent about half of it was forested. In the 18th and 19th centuries colonists, farmers and lumber companies cut down large sections of this natural resource and we used the wood to heat homes, to cook food, to fence farms, to make paper, and to build houses, barns, mills and factories.

In the 20th century, however, forests in US and Canada have for the most part come back. So much so that today forests cover about one third of the continent and every year they are increasing--not decreasing--in acreage. How does that happen? People plant more trees then they cut down. And nature too plants more trees after we cut them down. Trees are a renewable resource. And contrary to what many people think, despite the increased demand for wood and paper world-wide in the 21st century, forests in the US and Canada, are growing year by year in both quantity and quality.

Take food. Farms produced just enough food for 88 million people in the US in 1908. The same--or actually less, farmland produced more than enough food for 300 million people in the US in 2008 and there was enough left over to help feed many millions of people in India, China, southeast Asia and South America. How? People invented better ways to farm, better ways to genetically modify corn and wheat and soy beans, better ways to keep crops from being eaten by insects and molds, used tractors instead of horses, etc. A farm family in 1800 could produce just enough food to feed itself and half a person more. The average farm family in the US today can feed itself and fifty people more.

We have used immense amounts of iron, copper, aluminum, tin, lead, silver, gold and other metals. Yet today all of these metals are cheaper (that is, more plentiful) then they were a hundred years ago! How did this happen? People found better ways of extracting metals from their earth-bound ores. People found ways of using metals more efficiently. People found better ways of recycling metals. People found substitutes for many metals.

Let's not go too far too fast however. There is at least one exception to this good news story about resources. That exception is wilderness conservation and species preservation. New forests are not the same as old forests. A species lost cannot be regained. Theodore Roosevelt recognized this a hundred years ago when he pioneered in creating our first national parks and wildlife reserves. Today all over the world governments and individual citizens and non-profit organizations are carrying forward this important work.

Here in one of the poorest provinces of China, for instance, the Nature Conservancy is helping the Chinese government create its first national park. Despite the bad news from the Amazon basin in South America, people are rallying today to slow down and to eventually stop the destruction of the rain forests there and at other places around the world.

Here again the moral is not to denounce wealth, or populations or technology. Rather to welcome technology, to encourage wealth creation, and to enhance and improve the free-market economic systems that have brought such technology and wealth to the world. This intelligent use of technology and free markets to create wealth, as a matter of fact, is the very thing that will make it possible also to preserve more wildernesses and prevent more species extinctions in the future.

A Chinese proverb put it this way: "A peasant must stand for a long time on a hillside with his mouth open before a roast duck flies in." Natural resources are like that. To those who stand and wait, resources are few and far between and if we use them up too fast, there will be less for those who come after. But to those who search and work creatively, resources (and wealth) are unlimited.

Population

With some interesting twists what we just pointed out about resources is more or less true of populations.

The same biologist who helped coin the I=PAT equation, Paul Ehrlich (his specialty was insects), also wrote a best-selling book in 1976 called "The Population Bomb." In the first sentence of the book he boldly claimed that "In the 1970s and 1980s . . . hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." India, he claimed, was a basket case. He recommended what is called "triage." When there is no hope, we have to simply abandon the effort, steel ourselves to the inevitable and let people die.

He was wrong of course. Just as we haven't run out of oil, metals or wood, so "hundreds of millions of people" did not die of starvation. In fact the exact opposite happened. Even though yes, there are still hungry people in the world, many millions fewer are hungry today than they were when the population of the world was half or a quarter of what it is today. India can not only feed itself, it is exporting food in the 21st century! And the largest country in the world, China, is much the same story.

In the 1970s Ehrlich's view was the popular one among both scientists and citizenry. United Nations commissions in those days echoed the view that overpopulation was a serious problem, perhaps the most serious problem the world faced. The recommendation was that drastic measures were needed to control population in order to reduce environmental damage and work to a more sustainable state.

Today in the 21st century, after the world population has increased from 4.5 billion to over 6 billion, most scientists who have studied population issues say that at most overpopulation is a minor issue as world issues go. Some places, as in Europe and Japan today, we need to encourage population growth, not decline. And as for developing economies of Asia, Africa and South America, the rate of population growth has already radically slowed down. As these countries do become industrialized and richer, they will in all probability follow Europe, Japan and North America in having low birth rates and close to zero population growth.

How does that work?

When countries are poor, people have more children because most children die before they reach reproductive age. In England in 1600 half the children died before the age of 6. As industrialization and free-market economics make countries richer, people begin having fewer children. Most children do live to become adults. For example, in the United States in 1776 the average family had 7 children. In 1876 the average family had 4.6 children. In 2000 the average family had 2.1 children.

This same decline in average family numbers seems to be happening all over the world.

So long as free-market economics and democratic political systems continue to grow creative human beings will continue to solve resource challenges to create more wealth, more health, lower birth rates and believe it or not -- more open space, more wild areas!

Wait! Wait! That's going too far. How could that be? More people, more wild areas?

Well, look at New England today and compare it to New England 150 years ago. In the 19th century settlers cleared lumber from most of the hills and mountain valleys and farmed the marginal soils of much of New England. Where they couldn't raise decent crops they grazed sheep on the denuded hillsides. Populations were lower yes. But poverty was higher and pollution was more, not less.

Today farms in New England are many fewer (but much more productive), forests are much more common and much of the land is open to wildlife and recreational activities for harried urban dwellers from eastern metropolises where factories and service industries have created the wealthiest coastal region in the world. In New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington DC, populations are among the densest in the world, access to wilderness recreation is among the best in the world, and pollution is arguably at its lowest level in world history.

You don't agree? Well, let's look at the record.

Climate Change

Thirty years ago it is true that most experts claimed resource depletion and population growth were two extremely serious world problems, perhaps the most serious problems the world faced. Today however the majority of experts (not necessarily the experts who get the most publicity) agree with the views stated in this program. Resources are unlikely to ever "run out." Population growth is no longer considered the crises it once was. And finally, the majority of experts on toxic wastes issues (again not necessarily the ones who get the most publicity) also agree with the view in this program that toxic pollution is at most a minor problem today in the US, Canada and western Europe.

There are still many places on earth with serious pollution problems of course, but environmentalists can take credit for having spearheaded movements in 20th century North America and Western Europe that have made the air, water and earth cleaner and more healthful than they have ever been in human history.

The majority of experts today, however, do claim that there is one important exception to this claim. Carbon dioxide in the air is on the increase and possible climate change is indeed a serious world-wide problem.

Here too, as with resource and population issues of the past, the doomsayers like former vice president Al Gore, have received the most publicity and seem to be the most active and believable today. If you read the newspapers and listen to television news shows you might be pardoned for thinking it is the view of all reputable scientists.

Strangely though, despite the media hype, recent polls in the US and Canada show that most people put possible climate change very low in their estimate of problems we face in the 21st century. When asked to rate the 20 most serious national problems, for instance, climate change (or global warming) almost always comes out last. And when push comes to shove, most legislators put jobs and economic growth far above possible climate change.

When it comes to possible climate change and what to do about it the views in this program are admittedly in the minority. However you might be surprised to know this minority includes a substantial number of world-class climatologists, economists and Nobel Prize winners. These contrarians say that ordinary people may have a point.

These experts point out that (1) even though the climate may change and probably will, it is not the huge problem the majority claims it to be. And (2) when and if climate change does accelerate in the 21st century, humans will not only cope with it, they will probably end up richer, not poorer. Just as the decline in whale oil led to the discovery of petroleum, just as the explosion of population in the 19th century led to the wealth of the 20th century, so the possible warming of the earth may lead to extraordinary progress in efficiency, new energy sources, new ways of controlling nature, new progress in agriculture world-wide, and dramatic progress in health-care.

Let's be specific.

All informed scientists agree that carbon dioxide has been increasing in the atmosphere in recent decades. And all agree that the increase has come from humans burning fossil fuels in much larger quantities since the industrial revolution began a century and a half ago. They also agree that there is an atmospheric phenomenon called the "greenhouse effect." Gases in the atmosphere like carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor (the most important greenhouse gas) reflect infrared heat rays back to earth and make our planet a warmer place than it would be without these reflectors. Fortunately. If it weren't for these greenhouse gases earth would be too cold for life of any kind.

Clouds are even more important causes of temperature variations on earth but their influence is mixed and not well understood. On the one hand clouds cool the earth by reflecting solar rays back to space instead of letting them warm the earth. On the other hand clouds warm the earth by reflecting infrared rays back to earth as the greenhouse gases do. As you can see it is complicated and even expert climatologists disagree about many of the details. They do agree however that global warming today is real. The world has warmed in the 20th century, though only about one degree centigrade.

That said, many climate scientists point out that man-made carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere do not necessarily mean the climate will get still warmer in the 21st century.

They point out that

  1. carbon dioxide is a very minor gas in the atmosphere (less than 0.03%) and of much less importance to the greenhouse effect than water vapor or cloud cover for instance.
  2. Climate change has indeed occurred throughout earth's history. Many times over the last few thousand years the earth has warmed and cooled. In medieval times Greenland was green with a thriving agriculture and cattle culture. A few hundred years later there was a "little Ice Age" and people were ice skating on the Thames River in London. These warm and cold periods in the northern hemisphere may or may not have been true for the earth as a whole. The evidence is inconclusive. Some climatologists point out, however, that in past climate changes over many thousands of years the carbon dioxide percentage in the atmosphere has increased AFTER the temperature increased, not before. In other words it has been presumably been an effect, not a cause, of climate change.
  3. Climate is affected by a very large number of variables making long-term predictions unreliable even with the aid of modern computers.
  4. Detailed predictions about possible rain pattern shifts, sea level changes, disease vectors, destructive storms, etc. due to changing climates are even more unreliable.

All that said, this minority of climate scientists and economists, admit that yes, some of the doomsday scenarios might happen in coming decades. Sea levels may rise. Rains may change their pattern. Diseases may come to regions immune in the past. Polar bears may be threatened by habitat loss. They also point out however that some regions may benefit from a warmer climate. Farms in Canada, Russia, Scandinavia and northern US will have longer growing seasons. More carbon dioxide in the air will act as a stimulant to plant growth world-wide. And since far more people in the world die from cold than they die from heat, there will be a net gain of people if the climate world-wide gets warmer.

Benefits or dangers, what should we do about it now? How much of present wealth should we spend to prevent possible future changes in the world climate? And here many contrarian scientists and especially many mainstream economists say "go slow."

In the 21st century they point out there are now and there will be in the future many challenges, not just one. The earth's two largest countries, for instance, China and India, are both rapidly industrializing and the people there are growing richer, better fed, better health, lower birth rates day by day. Just a few decades ago, both countries were being written off as desperately poor, gravely overpopulated, and incurably polluted. Today there has been immense progress on all of these fronts.

Here in one of the poorest provinces of China, for instance, you can see super highways, new hospitals, lush farmers' markets bulging with produce, new apartments, internet cafes, lively schools with ambitious young teachers, productive rice fields, tourist attractions and first class hotels. Yes, there is still poverty and pollution but the progress over the past few decades has been truly remarkable. And this progress has been due to the same two forces that brought such progress to western countries in Europe, North America and Japan--industrialization using fossil fuels (mainly coal), and free-market economics.

If China or India were to drastically cut back on their energy supply by severely restricting the burning of fossil fuels, they realize they would condemn themselves to a heart-breaking relapse into poverty, violent political problems, soaring unemployment, and rampant pollution. Needless to say, they are unlikely to do this voluntarily.

Contrarians also point out that the world has other challenges as well, far more immediate and severe than climate change. For instance, disease epidemics like malaria, AIDS, tuberculosis and chronic diarrhea destroy millions of people every year. As do desperate shortages of drinking water and basic sanitation, poverty and malnutrition in many parts of the developing world. If we are to spend vast sums of wealth to help the world's environment, which after all includes its people, we would be wise to concentrate on what we know is here today rather than spending our wealth to protect against speculative dangers fifty or a hundred years from now.

Still, yes, with all of these caveats, contrarians admit that climate change is real. So can we do something to protect ourselves from the negatives of possible global climate change in the future while still maintaining and indeed increasing our industrial growth and our world-wide progress?

It is true that many scientists, economists and politicians agree with former vice president Al Gore that we do need to take drastic steps now to cut-back fossil fuel use as soon as possible even it is does slow economic growth and wealth creation.

Contrarians disagree. Using the same computer projections of climate change that the doomsayers use, they point out that reducing future climate warming by even a single degree centigrade would require trillions of dollars of wealth today and would severely stunt, if not reverse economic growth in both the industrialized and developing worlds.

Contrarians do agree that we should by all means increase our research into new energy systems and new ways of using energy (and all other natural resources) more efficiently. The best way to do this however may not be public subsidies that only too often fail to pick winners, but instead put our faith in the old-fashioned profit motive that solved so many problems like this in the past.

No one knows now, for instance, which new energy system or which new pollution controls will be the most effective. Given time the free-market will sort them out however. Some, probably most, approaches will fail. But some will succeed and that success will benefit us all.

We may find for instance that genetically engineering new kinds of plants that would be more efficient in removing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere will be successful. We may find that new ways of capturing carbon dioxide from power plant smoke stacks and sequestering it under ground or under the ocean will work well. Or we may want to build new nuclear power plants as an alternative way to create electricity as well as hydrogen for use as a vehicle fuel--a way that will not create any carbon dioxide at all. Or ... who knows? No one could have predicted computer power a hundred or even 50 years ago. We may find technologies to replace fossil fuels that no one can even dream of today.

Short of direct subsidies, rich countries of Europe, Japan and North America can encourage development of new carbon-free and carbon-sequestering technologies perhaps by putting modest taxes on fossil-fuel use in the form of carbon taxes or indirectly by cap-and-trade schemes. Modest, but not crippling.

It's a matter of degree. Contrarians use an analogy here. Just as we could dramatically reduce traffic fatalities by passing laws to reduce maximum speeds to 5 miles an hour, so we could reduce the chances of global warming by severely restricting fossil fuel use. But would that be wise? In other words, there is always cost vs. benefits no matter how you slice it. Yes, we may find climate change brings serious problems just as traveling 70 miles an hour leads to serious accidents. Do we want to give up the benefits of vehicle travel to save lives lost in accidents? Do we want to cripple economic growth for the as yet only possible benefits of reducing climate change?

In the end, as with resources and population, the most promising moral seems to be: Technology is a friend, not an enemy; wealth is good, not bad; free-market economic systems are not perfect but they have brought a new world of material progress and vigorous health to the western world in the last two centuries. It would be foolish to abandon them now just as they are doing the same to the developing worlds of Asia, Africa and South America.

Instead of the doomsayers equation that makes population, wealth, and technology bad things, we should be paying attention instead to a more promising equation -- E=WTC/E, environmental progress, that is, comes from (W) wealth, multiplied by (T) technology, multiplied by (C) human creativity in an environment of freedom.

In the end the Chinese sage was right: To those who search and work creatively, resources (and wealth) are unlimited. We need not fear more people to share the earth's bounty, and even climate change is to be welcomed, not feared. In truth and in fact in so far as freedom and science prevail in the 21st century, we--that is, all the people on this small planet--can will be winners.