Quotulatiousness

April 26, 2014

We’re not “running out of resources”

Filed under: Economics, Environment, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:00

In the Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley explains that claims that we’re running out of this or that resource are almost always bogus:

How many times have you heard that we humans are “using up” the world’s resources, “running out” of oil, “reaching the limits” of the atmosphere’s capacity to cope with pollution or “approaching the carrying capacity” of the land’s ability to support a greater population? The assumption behind all such statements is that there is a fixed amount of stuff — metals, oil, clean air, land — and that we risk exhausting it through our consumption.

[…]

But here’s a peculiar feature of human history: We burst through such limits again and again. After all, as a Saudi oil minister once said, the Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone. Ecologists call this “niche construction” — that people (and indeed some other animals) can create new opportunities for themselves by making their habitats more productive in some way. Agriculture is the classic example of niche construction: We stopped relying on nature’s bounty and substituted an artificial and much larger bounty.

Economists call the same phenomenon innovation. What frustrates them about ecologists is the latter’s tendency to think in terms of static limits. Ecologists can’t seem to see that when whale oil starts to run out, petroleum is discovered, or that when farm yields flatten, fertilizer comes along, or that when glass fiber is invented, demand for copper falls.

That frustration is heartily reciprocated. Ecologists think that economists espouse a sort of superstitious magic called “markets” or “prices” to avoid confronting the reality of limits to growth. The easiest way to raise a cheer in a conference of ecologists is to make a rude joke about economists.

[…]

In 1972, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University came up with a simple formula called IPAT, which stated that the impact of humankind was equal to population multiplied by affluence multiplied again by technology. In other words, the damage done to Earth increases the more people there are, the richer they get and the more technology they have.

Many ecologists still subscribe to this doctrine, which has attained the status of holy writ in ecology. But the past 40 years haven’t been kind to it. In many respects, greater affluence and new technology have led to less human impact on the planet, not more. Richer people with new technologies tend not to collect firewood and bushmeat from natural forests; instead, they use electricity and farmed chicken — both of which need much less land. In 2006, Mr. Ausubel calculated that no country with a GDP per head greater than $4,600 has a falling stock of forest (in density as well as in acreage).

March 14, 2013

Reason.tv: Matt Ridley on How Fossil Fuels are Greening the Planet

Filed under: Environment, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Matt Ridley, author of The Red Queen, Genome, The Rational Optimist and other books, dropped by Reason‘s studio in Los Angeles last month to talk about a curious global trend that is just starting to receive attention. Over the past three decades, our planet has gotten greener!

Even stranger, the greening of the planet in recent decades appears to be happening because of, not despite, our reliance on fossil fuels. While environmentalists often talk about how bad stuff like CO2 causes bad things to happen like global warming, it turns out that the plants aren’t complaining.

February 4, 2013

Everything is cyclical — Baby Boom to Baby Bust

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:56

In the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Last looks at the demographic changes on tap for the United States as the fertility rate continues to drop below replacement:

The fertility rate is the number of children an average woman bears over the course of her life. The replacement rate is 2.1. If the average woman has more children than that, population grows. Fewer, and it contracts. Today, America’s total fertility rate is 1.93, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it hasn’t been above the replacement rate in a sustained way since the early 1970s.

The nation’s falling fertility rate underlies many of our most difficult problems. Once a country’s fertility rate falls consistently below replacement, its age profile begins to shift. You get more old people than young people. And eventually, as the bloated cohort of old people dies off, population begins to contract. This dual problem — a population that is disproportionately old and shrinking overall — has enormous economic, political and cultural consequences.

For two generations we’ve been lectured about the dangers of overpopulation. But the conventional wisdom on this issue is wrong, twice. First, global population growth is slowing to a halt and will begin to shrink within 60 years. Second, as the work of economists Esther Boserups and Julian Simon demonstrated, growing populations lead to increased innovation and conservation. Think about it: Since 1970, commodity prices have continued to fall and America’s environment has become much cleaner and more sustainable — even though our population has increased by more than 50%. Human ingenuity, it turns out, is the most precious resource.

Low-fertility societies don’t innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward health care. They don’t invest aggressively because, with the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They cannot sustain social-security programs because they don’t have enough workers to pay for the retirees. They cannot project power because they lack the money to pay for defense and the military-age manpower to serve in their armed forces.

Update: Kelly McParland on the plight of some older workers: “If they’d never worked at all, and gotten by on social assistance, they might still have a financial lifeline.”

It would be cruel (and maybe unfair) to say they made their own beds, but it remains the fact that a great deal of the trouble they face results from the refusal to brook a more prudent approach to public finances for so many years. Programs that were unaffordable were pushed through time and again, paid for by more and more borrowing. When crises developed, the borrowing increased while spending was only rarely curtailed. The curse of deficit financing is its snowball effect: annual shortfalls pile up, pushing up the carrying costs, creating a self-perpetuating ever-expanding spending crisis. When a recession inevitably arrives, there are no reserves to deal with it, and even more borrowing ensues.

After so many decades of pretending it could go on forever, without there being a reckoning, the generation that created it is discovering how wrong they were. Not only is it destroying the retirement dreams of so many near-seniors, it’s preparing a poisoned legacy to hand to the next generation, and perhaps the one after that, unless they recognize the need for greater discipline and finally accept the pain that will necessary to put the process back on a sustainable track.

Canada is fortunate that it faced up to its debt crisis 15 years ago and is still benefiting from that fact, but the public memory is short and there will always be pressure to turn a blind eye to debt, and legislate for today. No wonder people get more conservative as they get older. They understand the price that has to be paid for putting costs off to tomorrow.

August 24, 2012

The new Malthusian miserabilism

Filed under: Britain, Environment, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:18

Brendan O’Neill on the once-again popular theories of Reverend Thomas Malthus:

Malthusianism is back in vogue. Not only in theatres in Sloane Square, but across the opinion-forming spectrum. Last year, the human population hit seven billion, giving rise to a boom in handwringing commentary. BBC reporters tell us that ‘uncontrolled population growth threatens to undermine efforts to save the planet’. The Guardian’s environment reporters are forever warning of the dangers of our ‘rapidly growing global population’. Then there’s much-loved celebs like David Attenborough, who recently signed up to the population-panic group the Optimum Population Trust (OPT) and frequently declares: ‘I’ve never seen a problem that wouldn’t be easier to solve with fewer people.’

The New Malthusians are getting cockier. At the UN Rio+20 Earth summit earlier this year, 105 respectable institutions, including Britain’s increasingly Malthusian Royal Society, urged the international powers-that-be to look beyond the ‘ethical sensitivities’ around the population issue and ‘confront rising global population’. All those wailing babies mean we are now ‘living beyond the planet’s means’, they declared. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is pumping millions of dollars into the distribution of birth-control tools in the developing world. Well-off westerners can now even offset their carbon emissions by helping to prevent the birth of babies in less fortunate places. A website called Pop Offsets, launched by the OPT, allows you to work out how much carbon you emit in your daily life and then tells you how many births you must help to prevent in order to offset that carbon. You make a financial contribution to a reproductive charity; that charity encourages a woman somewhere not to have more kids; and, hey presto, your personal emissions are cancelled out by your contribution to the non-creation of resource-demanding babies. The Guardian’s report on this initiative was illustrated with a photo of babies, 12 of them, just lying there like the problematic drains on nature.

Malthusianism is so ingrained in the outlook of greens and other trendies that people can fantasise about loads of human beings dying off without anyone batting an eyelid. Population panic-merchants often claim that the ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet is two billion human beings, so at least five billion less than at present. In a discussion on Radio 3’s super-respectable Nightwaves a couple of years ago, the psychologist and writer Sue Blackmore declared: ‘For the planet’s sake, I hope we have bird flu or some other thing that will reduce the population, because otherwise we’re doomed.’ There were no complaints to the BBC: the idea that humans are a problem in need of a solution is widespread in respectable ­circles.

August 12, 2012

The (long awaited) growth in Indian manufacturing

Filed under: Business, History, India, Technology — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:59

The Economist on the relatively slow development of India’s manufacturing sector:

If India is to become “the next China” — a manufacturing powerhouse — it is taking its time about it. “We have to industrialise India, and as rapidly as possible,” said the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1951. Politicians have tried everything since, including Soviet-style planning. But India seems to prefer growing crops and selling services to making things you can drop on your foot.

Manufacturing is still just 15% of output (see chart), far below Asian norms. India needs a big manufacturing base. No major country has grown rich without one and nothing else is likely to absorb the labour of the 250m youngsters set to reach working age in the next 15 years. But it can seem a remote prospect. In July power cuts plunged an area in which over 600m people live into darkness, reminding investors that India’s infrastructure is not wholly reliable. And workers boiled over at a car factory run by Maruti Suzuki. Almost 100 people were injured and the plant was torched. The charred body of a human-resources chief was found in the ashes.

Yet not all is farce and tragedy. Take Pune in west India, a booming industrial hub that has won the steely hearts of Germany’s car firms. Inside a $700m Volkswagen plant on the city’s outskirts, laser-wielding robots test car frames’ dimensions and a giant conveyor belt slips by, with sprung-wood surfaces to protect workers’ knees. It is “probably the cheapest factory we have worldwide”, says John Chacko, VW’s boss in India. In time it could become an export hub. Nearby, in the distance it takes a Polo to get to 60mph, is a plant owned by Mercedes-Benz.

The initial demand for a domestic manufacturing base was more political than economic: it would serve to reinforce the newly won independence of India by showing that India could make its own goods rather than importing from the UK or other major manufacturing nations. It was also economic, in that it would provide relatively high-paying jobs for India’s rapidly urbanizing population.

Ironically, now that the manufacturing sector seems to be on the upswing, the one thing it isn’t going to do for India is provide lots and lots of jobs: as with the rest of the world, manufacturing “things” is being done with fewer workers every year (even when the total output increases, fewer workers are needed to produce that output).

May 26, 2012

Reason.tv interviews Robert Zubrin

“We have never been in danger of running out of resources,” says Dr. Robert Zubrin, “but we have encountered considerable dangers from people who say we are running out of resources and who say that human activities need to be constrained.”

In his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, Zubrin documents the history of dystopian environmentalism, from economic impairment inflicted by current global warming policies to the Malthusian concern over population growth. “Just think how much poorer we would be today if the world would have had half as many people in the 19th century as it actually did. You can get rid of Thomas Edison or Louis Pasteur, take your pick.”

Zubrin sat down with Reason Magazine Editor Matt Welch to discuss his book, the difference between practical and ideological environmentalism, and how U.S. foreign aid policy encourages population control.

May 17, 2012

Defining “sustainability”

Ben Pile explains what is really meant by the term “sustainability” and the real agenda of those who argue for it:

Another reason might be that the concepts of ‘global’ and ‘sustainability’ are at best nebulous. To what extent are ‘global problems’ really global? And to what extent can making and doing things ‘sustainably’ really address problems such as poverty and inequality? Poverty is not, in fact, a problem of too much exploitation of natural resources, but too little. And poverty is not a global problem, but a categorically local one, in which a population is isolated from the rest of the world.

We can only account for poverty and inequality in the terms preferred by environmentalists if we accept the limits-to-growth thesis and the zero-sum game that flows from it. In other words, that there are limits on what we can take from the planet and we can only solve poverty if we divide those limited resources more equitably. Such an argument for reducing and redistributing resources has the reactionary consequence of displacing the argument for creating more wealth.

But to date, the arguments that there exist limits to growth, an optimum relationship between people and the planet, and that industrial society is ‘unsustainable’, have not found support in reality. The neo-Malthusians’ predictions in the Sixties and Seventies were contradicted by growth in population and wealth. And now there is a growing recognition that the phenomenon most emphasised by environmentalists — climate change — has been overstated. [. . .]

‘Sustainability’ is not about delivering ‘what we want’ at all but, on the contrary, mediating our desires, both material and political. Accordingly, the object of the Rio meeting is not as much about finding a ‘sustainable’ relationship between humanity and the natural world as it is about finding a secure basis for the political establishment. The agenda for the Rio +20 conference is the discussion of ‘decent jobs, energy, sustainable cities, food security and sustainable agriculture, water, oceans and disaster readiness’. Again, noble aims, perhaps. But is the provision of life’s essentials, and the creation of opportunities for jobs and the design of cities, really a job for special forms of politics and supranational organisations?

The idea that there are too many people, or that the natural world is so fragile that these things are too difficult for normal, democratic politics to deliver, flies in the face of facts. It would be easier to take environmentalists and the UN’s environmental programmes more seriously if millions of people were marching under banners calling for ‘lower living standards’ and ‘less democracy’. Instead, just a tiny elite speaks for the sustainability agenda, and only a small section of that elite is allowed to debate what it even means to be ‘sustainable’. We are being asked to take at face value their claims to be serving the ‘common good’. But there is no difference between the constitutions of benevolent dictatorships and tyrannies.

Sustainability is a fickle concept. And its proponents are promiscuous with scientific evidence and ignorant of the context and the development of the sustainability agenda, believing it to be simply a matter of ‘science’ rather than politics. The truth of ‘sustainability’, and the meeting at Rio next month, is that it is not our relationship with the natural world that it wishes to control, but human desires, autonomy and sovereignty. That is why, in 1993, the Club of Rome published its report, The First Global Revolution, written by the club’s founder and president, Alexander King and Bertrand Schneider. The authors determined that, in order to overcome political failures, it was necessary to locate ‘a common enemy against whom we can unite’. But in fighting this enemy — ‘global warming, water shortages, famine and the like’ — the authors warned that we must not ‘mistake symptoms for causes’. ‘All these dangers are caused by human intervention in natural processes, and it is only through changed attitudes and behaviour that they can be overcome. The real enemy then is humanity itself.’

April 19, 2012

The Limits to Growth scorecard, 40 years on

Filed under: Economics, Environment, History, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:00

Ronald Bailey tots up the hits and misses from that 1972 dystopia manual, The Limits to Growth:

Industrial development: World GDP stood in real 2010 dollars at about $19 trillion in 1972 and has tripled to $57 trillion today. Average per capita incomes rose in real dollars from $5,000 to $8,100 today. Just to explore how incomes might evolve between 1972 and 2000, the researchers simply extrapolated the current growth, investment, and population growth rates to calculate GDP per capita for 10 large countries. They stressed these were not “predictions” but added that if one disagreed then one was obligated to specify which factors changed, when and why. A comparison of their extrapolations with actual GDP per capita (in 2010 dollars) finds U.S. GDP per capita $56,000 versus actual $44,000; Japan’s per capita GDP was projected to be $120,000 versus actual $46,000; the now defunct USSR would be $33,000 versus Russia’s $2,200; and China’s per capita income was supposed to grow to $500, but was instead $1,200.

Population: The Limits researchers noted, “Unless there is a sharp rise in mortality, which mankind will strive mightily to avoid, we can look forward to a world population of around 7 billion persons in 30 more years.” In addition, they suggested that in 60 years there would be “four people in the world for everyone living today.” In fact, average global life expectancy rose from 60 to nearly 70 years. On the other hand, the global fertility rate (the average number of children a woman has during her lifetime) fell from about 6 per woman in 1970 to 2.8 today and continues to fall.

[. . .]

Food supplies: According to the data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, global food production has more than tripled since 1961, while world population has increased from 3 billion to 7 billion. This means that per capita food has increased by more than a third. The latest figures from the United Nations show that as world population increased by a bit over 10 percent between 2000 and 2009, global food production rose by 21 percent.

[. . .]

Nonrenewable resources: Probably the most notorious projections from the MIT computer model involved the future of nonrenewable resources. The researchers warned: “Given present resource consumption rates and the projected increase in these rates, the great majority of currently nonrenewable resources will be extremely expensive 100 years from now.” To emphasize the point they pointed out that “those resources with the shortest static reserve indices have already begun to increase.” For example, they noted that the price of mercury had increased 500 percent in the last 20 years and the price of lead was up 300 percent over the past 30 years. The advent of the “oil crises” of the 1970s lent some credibility to these projections.

To highlight how dire the situation with nonrenewable resources was, the MIT researchers calculated how quickly exponential consumption could deplete known reserves of various minerals and fossil fuels. Even if global consumption rates didn’t increase at all, the MIT modelers calculated 40 years ago that known world copper reserves would be entirely depleted in 36 years, lead in 26 years, mercury in 13 years, natural gas in 38 years, petroleum in 31 years, silver in 16 years, tin in 17 years, tungsten in 40 years, and zinc in 23 years. In other words, most of these nonrenewable resources would be entirely used up before the end of the 20th century.

[. . .]

Environment: In most of the Limits model runs, the ultimate factor that does humanity in is pollution. In their model pollution directly increases human death rates and also dramatically reduces food production. In fact, as the world economy has grown, global average life expectancy has increased from 52 years in 1960 to 70 years now. It must be acknowledged that globally, pollution from industrial and agricultural production continues to rise. But the model assumed that pollution would increase at exponential rates. However, many pollution trends have not increased exponentially in advanced countries.

Consider that since 1970, the U.S. economy has grown by 200 percent, yet the levels of air pollutants regulated by the federal government have fallen by nearly 60 percent. For example, in both the U.S. and the European Union sulfur dioxide emissions have dropped by nearly 70 percent since 1990. Recent data suggests that sulfur dioxide emissions even from rapidly industrializing China peaked in 2006 and have begun declining. Earlier studies cite evidence for a pollution turning point income threshold (purchasing power parity) of around $10,000 for demands to reduce this form of air pollution.

February 27, 2012

David Friedman: The boy who cried wolf

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:15

Although it mentions the global warming debate, it’s really more about being skeptical in general:

A number of political commenters have compared the current Republican contestants unfavorably with Barry Goldwater. The current crop, we are told, are religious nutcases, or possibly pretending to be. Goldwater, on the other hand, was an intelligent and reasonable man, even if not on the right side of every issue.

I have been reading my parents’ autobiography, and recently got to the Goldwater campaign. Their description fits my memory. What we were being told then — by people almost none of whom could have done a competent job of explaining Goldwater’s positions or the arguments for them — was that he was a dangerous madman. There was even a piece by some large number of psychiatrists, none of whom had ever examined the candidate, explaining how crazy he was. And the TV ad with the little girl, the countdown, and the mushroom cloud.

[. . .]

I am not competent to judge the climate science behind global warming, but I am suspicious of orthodoxies pushed relentlessly in the popular media, orthodoxies that claim that everyone competent agrees on an urgent problem which requires drastic action immediately if not sooner. I remember when we were being assured that it was simply a scientific fact that overpopulation was the cause of poverty and a near term threat to our own well being, if not survival. Also when we were assured that the only way to get the poor countries of the world up to our level was central planning, if possible supported by generous foreign aid.

When I see news headlines about global warming having shrunk horses to the size of cats, along with a picture comparing a cat sized dog to a modern Morgan — you have to read down a bit to discover that the ancestral horses shrank to the size of cats from the size of dogs, from 12 pounds to 8 1/2 pounds, and spent tens of thousands of years doing it — I suspect that what I am seeing is driven at least as much by what people want other people to believe as by the evidence for believing it.

October 28, 2011

Malthus provides “cover” for racism

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:02

Tim Black explores why Thomas Malthus’ ideas have never been more popular than they are today:

Lisping, reclusive and reviled by the working class of his day, the Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) — the man behind the idea that the ‘lower orders of society’ breed too quickly — would probably be surprised by his current popularity. Because that’s what he is today: popular. Commentators, activists and academics positively fall over themselves in the rush to say, ‘you know what, that Malthus had a point. There are too many people and, what’s more, they are consuming far too much.’

Earlier this summer, a columnist for Time magazine was in no doubt as to the pastor’s relevance. The global population is ‘ever larger, ever hungrier’, he noted, ‘food prices are near historic highs’ and ‘every report of drought or flooding raises fears of global shortages’. ‘Taking a look around us today’, he continued, ‘it would be easy to conclude that Malthus was prescient’. Writing in the British weekly, the New Statesman, wildlife lover Sir David Attenborough was similarly convinced: ‘The fundamental truth that Malthus proclaimed remains the truth: there cannot be more people on this Earth than can be fed.’ Not to be outdone, the liberal-left’s favourite broadsheet, the Guardian, also suggested that Malthus may have been right after all: ‘[His] arguments were part of the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, and they have validity in the natural world. On the savannah, in the rainforests, and across the tundra, animal populations explode when times are good, and crash when food reserves are exhausted. Is homo sapiens an exception?’ The melancholy tone whispered its answer in the negative. Writing in the New York Times, Paul Krugman was less coy: ‘Malthus was right!’ shouted the headline.

Given the encomia that are currently coming the way of Malthus you may well wonder what exactly it was that he was meant to be right about. To find the answer to this it is worth actually taking a look at the work, first published in 1798, on which his supposed prescience is based: An Essay on the Principle of Population. It makes for surprising reading.

October 1, 2009

Back to the ’70s . . . it’s the return of the Population Bomb!

Filed under: Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:41

Ronald Bailey addresses the most recent outbreak of Globally Terminal Malthusianism from the Wall Street Journal‘s Paul B. Farrell:

Every so often, the overpopulation meme erupts into public discourse and imminent doom is declared again. A particularly overwrought example of the overpopulation meme and its alleged problems appeared recently in the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch in a piece by regular financial columnist Paul B. Farrell.

Farrell asserts that overpopulation is “the biggest time-bomb for Obama, America, capitalism, the world.” Bigger than global warming, poverty, or peak oil. Overpopulation will end capitalism and maybe even destroy modern civilization. As evidence, Farrell cites what he calls neo-Malthusian biologist Jared Diamond’s 12-factor equation of population doom.

It turns out that Farrell is wrong or misleading about the environmental and human effects of all 12 factors he cites. Let’s take them one by one.

But, in the same way that bad news always crowds out good news for headline space or television minutes, looming disaster stories will always attract attention . . . especially when they’re wrong.

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