Less is less, More are better

In a discussion around the virtual water cooler at work, "global warming" branched into "population control." One correspondent and I posted opposing views on what the world needs. He averred that p.c. was NOT the answer to the world's problems, but rather we should learn how to work together and make things wonderful. I'm oversimplifying a bit, of course.

This fellow has strongly-held religious views, and believes in revealed Truth, over the mundane, discovered variety. He believes the world was created by God. He denies the fact of evolution. When I observed that the evolutionary need for "being fruitful and multiplying" is over, he was not persuaded.

He thinks the earth can support 20,000,000,000 people, no problem. Just look at Japan at how well people can live at a real high density. (Or China?) Those who preach limits to growth are selfish, people who limit how many children they have are selfish, too; they just use their resources for a consumerist, hedonistic lifestyle, instead of devoting themselves to the next generation.

There was at least one other proponent of population growth who cited Julian Simon's 1981 work, The Ultimate Resource for support. I dipped into it briefly, but found it too verbose and poorly formatted for a workplace diversion, put it on my mental checklist for a later follow-up. (The link above is to Amazon.com; check out the reader reviews for more fun. "Isn't it funny how the Marxists and tree huggers all seem to congregate together? Why is that, do we suppose?")

Tracking it down on my own, later, I found that religion and economics were perhaps curious bedfellows in the "more people are better," anti-environmentalist crowd:

Capitalist Magazine, crowing about the Ehrlich/Simon bet that Simon won "easily" after certain resource prices went down in the ten years from 1980 to 1990:

The explanation can be partly attributed to the reversion in our culture to various forms of supernaturalism. Increasingly people are professing faith not only in God but in New Age mystics, psychics, faith healers, astrologers. That is, our culture is increasingly dispensing with objective reality and reason, for faith in alleged supernatural, paranormal phenomena, i.e., in the absurd. And, at root, environmentalism is a pseudo-science that must therefore engender faith. "Americans of all faiths increasingly are looking at the environment through a spiritual lens," reports Caryle Murphy of the Washington Post. "For them, 'care for creation' is much more than preserving wildlife and pristine scenery. It is a religious mandate." (Washington Post 2/8/97) Ultimately, then, environmentalist doomsayers are a logical outgrowth of religious apocalyptics, and their believers are just another sect of mystics.

I have read some of the authors who are Simon's critics. From Herman Daly's critique of Simon, published in 1982, and as part of his 1991 book Steady State Economics:

The difference is not, as Simon imagines, that he is "pro-life" and the neomalthusians are "anti-life." Rather it is that neomalthusians have a basic understanding of the biophysical world, whereas Simon still has not done his homework on Zeno's paradoxes of infinity, on the entropy law, on the importance of ecological life-support services provided by other species, and on the impossibility of the double maximization implied in his advocacy of "the greatest good for the greatest number."...

In this reviewer's opinion, Simon's book cannot stand up to even average critical scrutiny. Lots of bad books are written, and the best thing usually is to ignore them. I would have preferred to ignore this one, too, but judging from the publicity accorded Simon's recent articles, this book is likely to be hailed as a triumph by people who are starved for "optimism." Simon himself tells us that the optimistic conclusions he reached in his population studies helped to bring him out of a "depression of medically unusual duration," and he clearly wants to share the cure. But his cure is at best a sugar pill.

I dipped into Simon's opus in its 2nd and online edition, at the University of Maryland.

In chapter 18, "Bad environmental and resource scares," Simon takes a practical look at "Known killers," including plague, malaria, typhus, dozens of diseases carried by insects, spoiled food, cigarettes, poor diet, "overuse of almost anything." Then a short list of potentially dangerous threats, another short list of "questionable issues" and a long list of "definitely disproved threats."

According to Simon, DDT has a "clean bill of health," irradiated foods are OK, apparently because they've been approved for use by the U.S., PCBs are no problem (hey, nobody was hurt by them when an Italian PCB plant exploded), mercury in swordfish and tuna isn't a problem (are recommended limits on consumption of Great Lakes' fish a hoax too?), acid rain was "shown in 1990s not to harm forests," and Love Canal produced "no observable damage to humans."

Now, I haven't kept up on the history of Love Canal, and maybe all the horrid things I read about it were exaggerated. But would you really want to live in a neighborhood a few blocks away from a hidden chemical waste dump? Are all our fears about groundwater contamination irrational?

He insinuates that the asbestos scare was responsible for a material substitution that was the cause of the Challenger disaster. It's offensive when this economist thinks that biology is a parlor game he came play at, but engineering, too? They prosecute people for practicing that without a license. His standards of "disproof" seem to be fairly low; economics has different scientific standards than other disciplines, I gather.

(Another conflict with an anti-evolutionist supporting Simon's position: "...we should be extremely wary of altering evolved patterns of behavior lest we make such tragic blunders with our 'rational' assessments of what our social interventions may bring about....")

"Eventually, too little radon found dangerous, rather than too much."

The threat of "nuclear winter" was "soon found to be shoddy science."

And being patronized is so enjoyable:
"Reassuring people about environmental and resource scares is not easy. It is like reassuring a small child that night noises do not imply danger." His argument seems to be that if a boy cries "wolf" when there isn't one, then there are no wolves.

Disclaiming any technical expertise in atmospheric science, he surmises "given the history of such environmental scares -- over all of human history -- my guess is that global warming is likely to be simply another transient concern, barely worthy of consideration ten years from now should I then be writing again of these issues."

It's a fair guess, but it's also reasonable to be wary of inferring that since human populations have not been so great as to have a lasting effect on the environment, it is not possible for them to do so. To deny the observations of history -- that human populations in fact HAVE had repeated and profound impacts on the environment -- is disingenuous. Simon justified it all by his observations that on the whole, things have improved for humans. This feels like the "What me worry?" school of economics.

One of Simon's proponents (John Fulton Lewis, writing "Julian Simon Left You a Fortress of Facts" on http://www.allianceforamerica.org/0498004.htm) notes that The Ultimate Resource (published in 1981) was a needed antidote to the alarmist 1980 Global 2000 Report to the President. Just as a trivial bet between Ehrlich and Simon has come to be a proxy for all of Simon's arguments (and against all of Ehrlich's), the evidence that TUR trumped all alarmism is that the Global 2000 prediction didn't come true:

"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 (1980). 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 1984 (remember Reagan's version of the "environmental movement"?), Simon and Herman Kahn wrote the converse in The Resourceful Earth:

"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 (1984). 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."

I think the "less crowded though more populated" bit underlies much of Simon's argument. Feeling crowded is an attitude problem. No doubt Simon had access to all the open space he needed.

In spite of these generic sorts of measures of quality of life being practically untestable, Simon was content that he'd been proven correct by 1995, three years before his death. "Our species is better off in just about every measurable material way."

The Fortress of facts is in The State of Humanity, first published in 1995, and updated at least through 1997. The Cato Institute (and others) may make updates a regular thing. The bullet list of positives:

Lewis' "allianceforamerica.org" paean wraps it up with "That is what Julian Simon did best; face the issues squarely, see their solution thanks to the intellect and enterprise of free men and then move on toward new and greater accomplishments."

It seems that a little Objectivism will make this all easier to swallow. This bit from Quackgrass.com (subtitled "Reason, Egoism, Capitalism -- spreading underground"), seems as good as any:

A good thing about being right in philosophical principle is that it puts all the facts on your side, including the ones you don't know.

If Simon didn't convince you the first time around, you can read his Reply to my critics. He's relentless if nothing else.

April 16, 2000

Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org


Saturday, 31-Mar-2001 22:59:08 MST