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Category — Resources for the Future (RFF)

Population, Consumption, Carbon Emissions, and Human Well-Being in the Age of Industrialization (Part IV – There Are No PAT Answers, or Why Neo-Malthusians Get It Wrong)

Editor’s note. This is the conclusion of a four part series by Indur M. Goklany, in which the Neo-Malthusian view of the adverse effects of industrialization, economic growth and technological change is contrasted with empirical data on the substantial progress in human well-being during the age of industrialization. Having established this, he appropriately warns about predicting the future. For ease of reference, links to the previous three parts are included at the end.

Neo-Malthusians believe that humanity is doomed unless it reins in population, affluence and technological change, and the associated consumption of materials, energy and chemicals. But, as shown in the previous posts and elsewhere, empirical data on virtually every objective indicator of human well-being indicates that the state of humanity has never been better, despite unprecedented levels of population, economic development, and new technologies. In fact, human beings have never been longer lived, healthier, wealthier, more educated, freer, and more equal than they are today.

Why does the Neo-Malthusian worldview fail the reality check?

The fundamental reasons why their projections fail are because they assume that population, affluence and technology — the three terms on the right hand side of the IPAT equation — are independent of each other. Equally importantly, they have misunderstood the nature of each of these terms, and the nature of the misunderstanding is essentially the same, namely, that contrary to their claims, each of these factors instead of making matters progressively worse is, in the long run, necessary for solving whatever problems plague humanity. [Read more →]

April 26, 2010   4 Comments

Population, Consumption, Carbon Emissions, and Human Well-Being in the Age of Industrialization (Part III — Have Higher US Population, Consumption, and Newer Technologies Reduced Well-Being?)

Editor’s note: In Part III of this four-part series, Indur M. Goklany applies the general analyses of Part I and Part II to the impact of U.S. industrialization on human well-being and environmental improvement.

In my previous post I showed that, notwithstanding the Neo-Malthusian worldview, human well-being has advanced globally since the start of industrialization more than two centuries ago, despite massive increases in population, consumption, affluence, and carbon dioxide emissions. In this post, I will focus on long-term trends in the U.S. for these and other indicators.

Figure 1 shows that despite several-fold increases in the use of metals and synthetic organic chemicals, and emissions of CO2 stoked by increasing populations and affluence, life expectancy, the single best measure of human well-being, increased from 1900 to 2006  for the US.  Figure 1 reiterates this point with respect to materials use.

Part III Figure 1

Figure 1: U.S. metal and chemical use, carbon dioxide emissions, population and affluence compared to life expectancy, 1900–2006.  Metals and chemical use exclude their content in imported goods. Sources: Matos (2009), CDIAC (2009), Maddison (2010), US Bureau of the Census (2010).

These figures indicate that since 1900, U.S. population has quadrupled, affluence has septupled, their product (GDP) has increased 30-fold, synthetic organic chemical use has increased 85-fold, metals use 14-fold, material use 25-fold, and CO2 emissions 8-fold.  Yet life expectancy advanced from 47 to 78 years. [Read more →]

April 24, 2010   10 Comments

Population, Consumption, Carbon Emissions, and Human Well-Being in the Age of Industrialization (Part I — Revisiting the Julian Simon-Paul Ehrlich Bet)

Editor’s note: As the United States commemorates the 40th anniversary of Earth Day we can expect to hear various commentators bemoan the growth in population, consumption, and carbon emissions driven by fossil-fueled technologies. We will be told that this is unsustainable, that we are running out of resources, that prices are inevitably headed up, and, worse, that such consumption reduces both environmental and human well-being. In this worldview, industrialization and economic development are the inventions of the Devil; de-industrialization and de-development will be our savior.

In this series of posts, Indur M. Goklany will compare the above Neo-Malthusian view of industrialization, economic growth, and technological change against empirical data on human well-being from the age of industrialization. First, he will revisit the bet made in 1980 by Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich on the direction of commodity prices, and examine long-term trends in the prices and affordability of various commodities, specifically, metals and food, going back to at least 1900. Parts II and III will compare long-term trends in population, consumption, economic development, and carbon emissions against trends in human well-being for the world and the United States, respectively. Part IV will provide an explanation as to why the empirical data is at odds with the Neo-Malthusian worldview.

This series of posts draws liberally from: Goklany IM (2009), Have increases in population, affluence and technology worsened human and environmental well-being? Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, vol. 1, no.3.

Based on the run-up in global commodity prices over the last decade, some observers speculate that Julian Simon lucked out in winning his famous bet with Paul Ehrlich. Paul Kedrosky, for instance, notes that had the bet been made in subsequent years, Simon would, more likely than not, have lost. And, indeed, there is an element of truth to that, but that would not vitiate Simon’s larger point, namely, that human ingenuity left to itself would probably reduce the the price of goods and, more importantly, advance the state of humanity.

In my opinion, the direction of commodity prices in the bet itself served as a surrogate for the fundamental difference between the worldviews of the two protagonists, namely, whether human well-being would advance over time considering increases in population, and economic and technological development. In fact, some Neo-Malthusians opine that present day populations are already too large, while others of the same ilk believe that continued economic and technological development is unsustainable (see, e.g., here).

But before getting into the larger and more important issues, let me first address the bet itself. Recall that the bet was made in 1980, and the late 1970s and 1980 had seen a spectacular increase in commodity price following the second oil shock. But what goes up is also likely to come down. Statisticians call this the regression to the mean. And Simon, being an economist and an entrepreneur at heart, took a calculated risk and “gambled” on that.

And, indeed, commodity prices reverted to trend and prices turned down during the 1980s. So fortune favors the prepared, and Simon was the better prepared and, perhaps, the wiser of the two protagonists. But he was also lucky, because 10 years is but a brief moment in the context of history. The appropriate period to determine whether Simon or Ehrlich’s worldview is better aligned with historical reality is to look at the matter over many decades, if not generations. [Read more →]

April 22, 2010   3 Comments

Cost/Benefit Analysis Cannot Justify Waxman-Markey's Aggressive Targets

Chip Knappenberger was perhaps the first analyst to demonstrate the negligible impact on global temperatures that would result from unilateral U.S. adoption of the pending Waxman-Markey bill. Knappenberger showed that even if the U.S. cut its emissions by 83% (of the 2005 level) by the year 2050, and then capped them at that level indefinitely, the schedule of global temperature increases would only be postponed by about five years.

Naturally, supporters of strong government action argued that the whole point of Waxman-Markey was to give American negotiators credibility when they demanded reciprocal action from other countries; Paul Krugman says as much in a recent blog post. Yet this leads to the next major problem: If the whole world adopted the stringent emission cutbacks in Waxman-Markey, then the costs to the global economy would far outweigh any reasonable estimate of the benefits (measured in avoided climate damage).

I explained this point in a previous post, but since then Resources for the Future (RFF) has released an excellent primer on climate mitigation policies. Even though two of the papers’ authors now work for the Obama administration, it too agrees with me: Standard economic analyses cannot justify the sharp emission cuts laid out in Waxman-Markey. Its costs far outweigh its benefits, as a simple perusal of the “consensus” models will show. [Read more →]

June 5, 2009   35 Comments