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Earth Day: 40 years of imminent catastrophe

By Laura E. Huggins

On this 40th anniversary of Earth Day, prepare to be bombarded with apocalyptic tales of disaster. But don’t let the gloom-and-doom-fest get you down. Odds are the doomsters will be wrong.

To help "celebrate" the first Earth Day in 1970, biologist Barry Commoner wrote, "We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation."

In a speech at Swarthmore College that year, ecologist Kenneth Watt said, "If present trends continue, the world will be about 4 degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but 11 degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age." And a New York Times editorial proclaimed: "Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction."

Time has not been gentle with these prophecies. Four decades later, the world hasn’t come to an end. Most measures of human welfare show the Earth’s population is better off today than at any other time in human history. Life expectancy is increasing, per-capita income is rising, and the air we breathe and the water we drink are cleaner. And, of course, concerns about climate change have shifted from cooling to warming.

Yet fiction can be more interesting than fact. Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford professor and prominent prophet of population doom, predicted in his 1968 best-seller, The Population Bomb, that the world would have more than seven billion people by 2000, and that "massive famines" would occur soon, "possibly in the 1970s, certainly by the 1980s."

The world’s population in 2000 turned out to be six billion, and fertility rates dropped from about five children per woman in the 1960s to about 2.5 today. While too many people remain hungry, agricultural advances have helped head off massive famines. Even as the world population doubled, per-capita food consumption in poor countries increased from 1,932 to 2,650 calories a day, and malnutrition in those countries fell from 45 percent of the population in 1949 to 18 percent today. Yet Ehrlich continues to make his catastrophic projections, and people continue to buy into them.

This sort of faulty reasoning started some 200 years ago with the writings of Thomas Malthus, who argued that human population growth would run into constraints imposed by fixed natural resources, especially land for food production. But are resources really finite?

Stanford economist Paul Romer said: "Every generation has perceived the limits to growth that finite resources and undesirable side effects would pose if no new recipes or ideas were discovered. And every generation has underestimated the potential for finding new recipes and ideas.

"We consistently fail to grasp how many ideas remain to be discovered. Possibilities do not add up; they multiply."

New ideas and technologies proliferate at a much faster rate than population. They depend on individuals who are free to pursue their own interests and innovate with few constraints.

The trouble with sky-is-falling claims is that they can lead to more government regulation, suffocating the kind of advances that have improved the environment.

The truth is that there’s much to celebrate this Earth Day. One reason to rejoice is that the doomsters have been wrong for 40 years, and they will likely be wrong again.


Laura E. Huggins is a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and at the Property and Environment Research Center. She is the coauthor with Terry Anderson of "Greener Than Thou: Are You Really an Environmentalist?"

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