Paul Ehrlich, Part XIV: Will Centralized Control Save the World?

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Paul Ehrlich has had quite a career. He is the author of numerous books –  The Population Bomb from 1968 was a bestseller – a Stanford University professor, and a scholar of biology, entomology, and demography. He has recently authored a new book and, according to at least one interview, it is just as pessimistic about the global environment and the future of humanity as the previous works.

As always, Ehrlich’s method to save the world is a centralized, top-down approach. He advocates government control to change consumer behavior. He exemplifies the United States during WWII as a successful method to alter consumer behavior.  Nearly overnight the U.S. shifted production from millions of consumer autos to military vehicles instead. No mention is made of the required ration cards, price controls, and lower income.

Indeed, there are three general methods to impact behavior: the stick (government mandate), the carrot (market function through profit and loss), and moral suasion (using persuasion to convince). Empirical evidence does not support Ehrlich’s centralized approach nor his dismal outlook.

Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg are far more optimistic when it comes to rating environmental and life quality over time. Lomborg and others show that we live in a cleaner, healthier, and wealthier world than in 1968 – even with a greater population. Societies across the globe have done more to keep the air and water clean for citizens. We invest more in protecting wildlife, habitat, and biodiversity.

The late Julian Simon called humans “the ultimate resource.” He pointed out that every human not only uses resources but is a resource. Every new mind has potential to be that creator of a great new idea; an idea to put glass (or plastic) in front of the eye for better vision; to create the computer, the internet, the smart phone, or a new app; the idea that turns sunlight, wind, or waves into energy – at a cost less than fossil fuels.

Simon studied the institutions that help motivate more great ideas from the human resource. Good institutions like well specified property rights, honest government, and a good rule of law to enforce contracts. Good institutions that help lower the costs of transactions, help ensure the full costs and benefits of negotiations are internalized, and help motivate movement of resources toward their highest valued uses.

It is human ideas that will lead us to a better future. As we have seen in the past, centralized control tends to stifle innovation and the utilization of new ideas, rather than motivate them.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends

Holly Fretwell is a Research Fellow at PERC and an adjunct instructor at Montana State University where she has taught  introductory economics, macroeconomics, natural resources and environmental economics. She works with the Foundation for Teaching Economics, giving workshops for  high school teachers to improve their skills in teaching and...
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