US Political Thought

Notes on Julian L. Simon and Herman Kahn, “Introduction”

in Simon and Kahn, editors, The Resourceful Earth, 1984

Executive Summary

The Resourceful Earth is a response to Global 2000 Report to the President, which is “dead wrong” in its frightening environmental and social predictions.

They summarize the findings of Global 2000 using two paragraphs from its own summary:

“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.”

For hundreds of millions of the desperately poor, the outlook for food and other necessities of life will be no better. For many it will be worse. Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now - unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends (Global 2000, p1; in The Resourceful Earth, 1).

“To highlight our differences as vividly as possible, we restate the above summary with our substitutions in italics:

If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in now. Stresses involving population, resources, and environment will be less in the future than now... The world's people will be richer in most ways than they are today... The outlook for food and other necessities of life will be better. . . life for most people on earth will be less precarious economically than it is now” (1-2).

This is followed by a list of their major findings.

The basic message: continued techno-economic progress is assured provided that misguided ideas based on an irrational fear of science and its products do not interfere politically:

“We are confident that the nature of the physical world permits continued improvement in humankind's economic lot in the long run, indefinitely. Of course there are always newly arising local problems, shortages and pollutions, due to climate or to increased population and income. Sometimes temporary large-scale problems arise. But the nature of the world's physical conditions and the resilience in a well-functioning economic and social system enable us to overcome such problems, and the solutions usually leave us better off than if the problem had never arisen; that is the great lesson to be learned from human history.

We are less optimistic, however, about the constraints currently imposed upon material progress by political and institutional forces, in conjunction with popularly-held beliefs and attitudes about natural resources and the environment,” including belief that conditions are deteriorating, that physical limits “will increasingly act as a brake upon progress,” and “that nuclear energy is more dangerous than energy from other sources ” (3-4).

The Specific Conclusions

Population growth and the quality of life: Simon and Kahn argue, first, that the population growth rate has declined significantly from 1964-65 (2.2%) to 1983 (1.75%). Thus estimates of the population in 2000 are too high. But besides, “larger populations size has [historically] been a clear-cut sign of economic success and has accompanied improvement in the human lot. . . . And the increase in life expectancy, which is the main cause of the increase in population size . . . is the fundamental human good” (26).

“a growing population does not imply that human living on the globe will be more ‘crowded’ in any meaningful fashion.” World incomes are rising, allowing people to purchase “better housing and mobility” (7). US housing data are used to show improvements in floor space, plumbing, and person/room ratios.

“The world’s people are getting better roads and more vehicles; therefore they can move around more freely, and have the benefits of a wider span of area” (7). The US now has three million miles of roads.

Land devoted to national parks has increased in the US (though the chart suggests that much of this was due to a single act of Congress in 1975 (Alaska??)).

Pollution: The likelihood of increasing pollution is conceded, but dismissed as a transitory effect of industrial modernization in less developed countries: “In the early stages of industrialization, countries and people are not yet ready to pay for clean-up operations. But further increases in income almost as surely will bring about pollution abatement.” Besides, pollution increases are more than offset by improvements in disease control: “biological disease pollution has been declining, even in the poor countries, at a rate far outweighing any hazardous effect of man-made pollution, as seen in increased life-expectancy” (9).

They assert that air and water pollution have been declining in the “richer countries” (9). In the case of water quality the two articles which consider it seem neither to support nor refute them. They make much of the example of improvements in the Great Lakes. The problem with this, as with the overall assertion, is that it is based on only a few pollutant and/or quality factors and ignores the possibility that new pollutants are increasing as older ones are decreasing.

Ecological (in)stability and vulnerability to disruption: “These concepts are so diffuse that we have no idea how one would measure them directly” (11). In general, with increased human capacity to disrupt the ecosystem “humanity’s ability to restore imbalances in the ecosystem also increases” (12). “And the trend data on pollution, food . . ., and life expectancy suggest that the life-supporting capacities have been increasing faster than the malign disturbances” (12). Note that while the entire work is anthropocentric, the anthropocentrism of this passage makes its inconsistent. After all, increased human life expectancy does not speak to the question of ecosystem health, certainly not as directly as they seem to imply.

In light of the ecological destruction wrought by the Gulf War, it is interesting to note that the only exception they can see to their rosy expectations for the future is war.

Resources: Simon and Kahn reject the idea of physical limits to economic growth. They point to trends showing that the “cost trends of almost every natural resource have been downward over the course of recorded history” (14) (“Recorded history” seems to mean the duration of the industrial revolution). Not only do raw materials tend to require less and less work time to acquire, their prices “have even been falling relative to consumer goods and the Consumer Price Index. . . . This is a very strong demonstration of progressively decreasing scarcity and increasing availability of raw materials” (14). In the meantime, “We have learned to use less of given raw materials for given purposes, as well as to substitute cheaper materials to get the same services” (14).

Poverty: “average income for the world’s population has been rising” and “income in the poorer countries has been rising at a percentage rate as great or greater than in the richer countries since World War II (Morawetz, 1978)” (16). In addition, the “relative stability of their [poorer countries’] internal income-distribution shares suggests that the poorer classes of representative countries have been participating in this income rise along with the richer classes” (16).

Food: “Consumption of food per person in the world is up over the last 30 years. And data do not show that the bottom of the income scale is faring worse, or even has failed to share in the general improvement, as the average as improved” (16). “World food prices have been trending lower for decades and centuries . . . ” (16).

Moreover, “agricultural land will not be a bottleneck in the foreseeable future, even without new technological breakthroughs” (19). Water supply for agriculture “poses even fewer problems . . .” (19). The principal water problem is a ‘tragedy of the commons’ arising from defective property rights (speaking in of property rights problems in general, they mention “rights to pollute the air and water”).

Forests: “Forests are not declining at all in the temperate regions. In the U.S., for example, the total quantity of trees has been increasing, and wood production has been increasing rapidly” (20). Simon and Kahn do not understand the difference between “trees” and “forests.”

“The rate of deforestation in tropical areas has been far slower than suggested by Global 2000” (20-21).

Arable land: “Arable land has been increasing at a rate very much faster in recent decades than the rate Global 2000 projected for coming decades . . .” (16 percent versus its 4 percent). “Furthermore, each year [in the US?] more (and better new land is being brought into cultivation by irrigation and drainage than is being urbanized and built upon” (21). Manifest destiny as the ‘highest and best’ use? In any case, federal policy in the US is to reduce planted acreage to control overproduction. Aesthetics, not economics, is behind efforts to preserve croplands.

“Soil erosion is not occurring at a dangerous pace in most parts of the United States” (21). Even taken at face-value, far less reassuring than intended. “The largest social cost of social erosions is not the loss of top soil, but rather the silting-up of drainage ditches in some places . . .” (22). “In the aggregate, . . . the soil of American farms has been improving . . .” (22). No discussion here of the global situation.

Species extinctions: Simon and Kahn criticize Global 2000 for failing to provide evidence to support the claim that as much as 20 percent of all species may be lost by the year 2000, at which time 40,000 species/year may be driven to extinction. Other than this, they “note that the extinction of species . . . has been a biological fact of life throughout the ages, just as has been the development of new species, some or many of which may be more valuable to humans than extinguished species whose niches they fill” (23).

Climate change (specifically, ozone-depletion and global warming): Recent changes “may reasonably be viewed as normal oscillation” (23). “The CO2 question is subject to major controversy and uncertainty” about extent, causes, and effects. “It would not seem prudent to undertake expensive policy alterations at this time because of this lack of knowledge, and because problems that changes in CO2 concentration might cause would occur far in the future (well beyond the year 2000).” The need to control CO2 emissions is, however “an argument for increased use of nuclear power rather than fossil fuel” (23). Indeed, the only two feasible possibilities for reducing CO2 are to “reduce total energy consumption” or to “increase energy production from nuclear power plants” (24).

Acid rain: They grant that it appears to be getting worse, and there is “some evidence of limited local ecological damage,” but there is “no proven threat to agriculture or human life” (24). Of course, their recommendation is switch to nuclear power.

Regional water shortages: “an appropriate structure of property rights, institutions, and pricing systems, together with some modicum of wisdom in choosing among the technological options open to us, can provide water for our growing needs at reasonable cost indefinitely” (24).

Energy: Oil prices should go down. Nuclear electricity “is available at costs as low or much lower than from coal” even in the U.S., where “the price of coal is unusually low . . .” (25). “And nuclear power gives every evidence of costing fewer lives per unit of energy produced than does coal or oil. . . . Nuclear waste disposal with remarkably high levels of safeguards presents no scientific difficulties” (25). Solar power is “too dilute,” though it is the cheapest source for heating buildings and water in certain locations.

Opposition to enhanced governmental forecasting capacity: (This section follows one that summarizes their methodological criticisms of Global 2000.) Their rhetorical strategy is to contrast the expert “reliability” of independent scientific studies, and the unavoidable responsibility they entail of individual authorship, to the bureaucratic distortion, politicization, and evasion of “full responsibility” characteristic of government studies.

They claim that while “Other authorities probably would disagree with some of our emphases and evaluations, . . . few (if any) would disagree with the trend facts adduced here” (28).

The message is: don’t trust government forecasts.

Attack on Global 2000's institutional recommendations: This segues into an attack on the principal institutional recommendations of Global 2000, which they characterize as better integration of the government’s fragmented data-based models in the interest of creating a “‘government global model,’” thereby improving “‘global foresight capability.’” After giving several spurious reasons for opposing this (e.g., “Models . . . developed for one purpose often are fatally flawed for other purposes,” an objection which, were it taken seriously, would apply to virtually all attempts at complex modeling, which is why it shouldn’t be taken seriously), they return to their primary argument: “a larger place for government activity in this field [use of computers for complex modeling] implies a smaller place for outside assessments . . .” I suspect that what this amounts to is a desire to hamstring government vis-a-vis corporate science. Certainly the image they cultivate--of individual scientists nobly pursuing the truth--is a ludicrous anachronism in an era of “big science.”

“Studies performed inside government are more subject to manipulation by political pressure groups than are studies by independent scholars” (36).

They make a rather crude attack on computer modeling in general, warning that “we must not be seduced by the magic that computer modeling promises but cannot deliver” (38).

“We believe that the government should not take steps to make the public more ‘aware’ of issues concerning resources, environment, and population. We consider that the public has been badly served by having been scared by a very large volume of unfounded and/or exaggerated warnings about these matters. Many of these scientifically unsupported and injudicious warnings have derived from government agencies. . . . It is a matter of great public importance that we reverse these patterns of the 1960s and 1970s. The U.S. public must come to hear the truth that conditions have been getting better rather than worse . . .” (42-43).

They oppose any effort to use government action to stabilize population in the U.S. or elsewhere. Population control efforts “are not warranted by any facts about resources and population” (43).