Saturday, August 18, 2012

On the 40th Anniversary of the "Limits to Growth"

It's the 40th anniversary this year of the 1972 release of the book "The Limits to Growth" from the Club of Rome, which used computer models to predict that world population growth and economic expansion would cause the Earth to "overshoot" its carrying capacity of finite resources, and eventually lead to overpopulation, mass starvation, smog disasters, pesticide-induced cancers, oceans devoid of fish, massive species extinction, and significant reductions in life expectancy among other inevitable calamities, disasters, and catastrophes.   

As George Will explains in his latest column ("Why Doom Has Not Materialized"), "We were supposed to be pretty much extinct by now, or at least miserable. We are neither."  He then asks, "So, what went wrong?" And responds (in the tradition of resource economist Julian Simon), "The modelers missed something — human ingenuity in discovering, extracting and innovating. Which did not just appear after 1972."

George Will's column and rebuttal of the exaggerated claims of The Limits to Growth is largely based on a detailed 18-page article by Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish academic and skeptical environmentalist in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs titled "Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now."  Here's an excerpt from that article on recycling:
Ask someone today whether he cares about the environment and what he is doing about it, and you are likely to hear something like, “Of course I care; I recycle.” The caring part is all to the good and a major positive change from a few decades ago. But the recycling part is often just a feel-good gesture that provides little environmental benefit at a significant cost.

When people think of recycling today, they often think of paper. This, too, is not a new idea; trash has been a resource for centuries, with the extent of its culling and reprocessing depending on the current market prices of the goods in question. Throughout the past century, about 30–50 percent of all paper was recycled, before the advent of public information campaigns or peer pressure.

But now, in the wake of jeremiads such as The Limits to Growth, recycling tends to be seen less as an economic question and more as a matter of personal and civic virtue. Children learn to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” as part of their official moral education. They are told that by doing so, they are “saving trees.” Yet in fact, well-managed forests for paper production in countries such as Finland and Sweden are continuously replanted, yielding not fewer trees but more. Artificially encouraging the recycling of paper lowers the payoff for such forests, making them more likely to be converted into agricultural or urban land. Nor does recycling paper save the rain forests, since it is not made with tropical timber. Nor does recycling paper address a problem of municipal waste: incineration can recapture much of the energy from used paper with virtually no waste problems, and even without incineration, all U.S. municipal waste from the entire twenty-first century could be contained in a single square dump that was 18 miles on each side and 100 feet high.

The effort to recycle substances such as paper and glass, however, consumes money and manpower, which are also scarce resources and could be expended on other socially valuable efforts, such as building roads or staffing hospitals. And so as the price of paper has declined and the value of human work has risen dramatically, today we pay tribute to the pagan god of token environmentalism by spending countless hours sorting, storing, and collecting used paper, which, when combined with government subsidies, yields slightly lower-quality paper in order to secure a resource that was never threatened in the first place.
In other words, Recycling is Garbage, as science columnist John Tierney explained in the New York Times back in 1996, and could also be described as a "fundamentally religious impulse" according to economist Steven Landsburg.

At the end of his article, Bjorn Lomborg concludes that:
Even though the Club of Rome’s general school of thought has mercifully gone the way of other 1970s-era relics, such as mood rings and pet rocks, the effects linger in popular and elite consciousness. People get more excited about the fate of the Kyoto Protocol (aimed at fighting global warming) than the fate of the Doha Round (aimed at lowering trade barriers) —even though an expansion of trade would do hundreds or thousands of times as much good as feeble limitations of emissions, and do so more cheaply, quickly, and efficiently for the very people who are most vulnerable. It is past time to acknowledge that economic growth, for lack of a better word, is good, and that what the world needs is more of it, not less.
Economic growth is good.  Amen.

18 Comments:

At 8/18/2012 9:12 AM, Blogger Methinks said...

The Club of Doom should be heartened. Not only is there a very real possibility that we'll get whacked by an asteroid, but our moon (which has a huge impact on climate and the stability of of the axis on which the earth spins) is moving away from us by about 1.5 inches every year. And there's nothing we can do about it. Plus, there's a 100% chance that we're all going to die. Eventually.

Until then, I'm not going to worry because I know that the one thing humans are really don't like is suffering and the one thing they are really good at is innovation. So, all I'm worried about is clowns like the Club for Growth, David Ehrlich, etc. squeezing the fist of government around humans so that they have no room to innovate. That's the impending danger, the rest we can deal with.

 
At 8/18/2012 9:14 AM, Blogger Bruce Oksol - oksol@yahoo.com said...

Common sense told me that about recycling, but, wow, that explanation is well articulated.

 
At 8/18/2012 9:43 AM, Blogger Scott Drum said...

Environmentalism is in every respect a religion. It offers stories about how man abandoned an Eden where nature was in perfect harmony and now must atone for his sin though rituals like recycling. It has high holy days (Earth Day) and shrines (recycling bins). There is always an Armageddon in the future where the Green God will deliver his revenge on us if we do not repent. As those dates pass without disaster, new dates are offered.
Skeptics who are unconvinced by any lack of evidence must be publicly shunned for their blasphemy (preferably in the NY Times) and forced to recant. After all, there is a CONSENSUS.
All children need religious training to provide meaning to their lives. As we discourage them from getting this in parochial schools, they will receive religious instruction in how to worship the Universal Green God by buying Green products and doing class projects in support of recycling.

 
At 8/18/2012 11:41 AM, Blogger Costa Vesos said...

Environmentalism is in every respect a religion.

Yes it is. But in a way so is Liberalism, Classical Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, Libertarianism, Scientism and any other political ideology.

 
At 8/18/2012 11:48 AM, Blogger Ken said...

But in a way so is Liberalism, Classical Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, Libertarianism, Scientism and any other political ideology.

False.

 
At 8/18/2012 12:55 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"False"...

Absolutely ken...

Environmentalism? Isn't that were the ingrained commies migrated to when the USSR finally hit the skids?

 
At 8/18/2012 1:40 PM, Blogger Costa Vesos said...

Common sense told me that about recycling, but, wow, that explanation is well articulated.

Most municipalities pay more to dispose each ton of recycled material than they do to dispose of ordinary trash. That tells you what the truth is.

 
At 8/18/2012 1:41 PM, Blogger Costa Vesos said...

"False"...

Absolutely ken...


You and Ken need some real world experience. Most ideologies are not much different than environmentalism; they rely on faith just as much as environmentalism and the obvious religions do.

 
At 8/18/2012 6:20 PM, Blogger Scott Drum said...

Not all ideologies rely on faith. Conservatives tend to rely on empirical evidence, not faith, to tell them that markets allocate resources more effectively than government. They observe the consistent track record of societies that move toward command economies and make the logical Bayesian inference that markets have a higher probability of making the best future decisions as well.

Environmentalists seldom even ask what are the cost-benefits of recycling. I am perfectly willing to recycle when, but only when the economics are favorable. I would be perfectly happy to support solar power if there were the slightest evidence that the discounted ROI of that investment were positive.

It is not faith that tells me that you won't improve K-12 education by hiring more people to work in school districts. It is not faith that tells me that you won't eliminate poverty with an expensive government "war".

 
At 8/18/2012 7:11 PM, Blogger Rufus II said...

In other words, it's logic that informs us that more teachers (ie. lower teacher/pupil ratio) has no bearing on improved learning. Got it.

 
At 8/18/2012 7:34 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

"In other words, it's logic that informs us that more teachers (ie. lower teacher/pupil ratio) has no bearing on improved learning. Got it."

Actually it takes very little logic applied to the simple observation that ever increasing expenditures per pupil since the 1960s has had no discernible impact in outcome, therefore more money for more teachers - or for anything else - probably isn't the solution.

 
At 8/18/2012 10:25 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Not all ideologies rely on faith. Conservatives tend to rely on empirical evidence, not faith, to tell them that markets allocate resources more effectively than government.

Really? Conservatives used to stand for small government and a modest foreign policy because the empirical evidence used to show that limited government and less meddling abroad produced a better outcome. Conservatives today are for big government and were instrumental in a huge increase in the size of the budget deficit as they supported unnecessary wars abroad and expensive domestic policies at home.

They observe the consistent track record of societies that move toward command economies and make the logical Bayesian inference that markets have a higher probability of making the best future decisions as well.

You are confused. Conservatives have no problem with command economies. They simply want to be in command. Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the two Bush presidents grew the size of government and meddled in the economy even as they pretended to be 'conservative.' The old right is dead and when it comes down the the issues of the size of government today's conservatives are not very different than liberals.

Environmentalists seldom even ask what are the cost-benefits of recycling. I am perfectly willing to recycle when, but only when the economics are favorable. I would be perfectly happy to support solar power if there were the slightest evidence that the discounted ROI of that investment were positive.

I am not. If the returns were really positive the market would produce all of the solar panels that are needed. Government has no place in deciding what gets funded and what gets ignored because government is incompetent.

 
At 8/19/2012 10:19 AM, Blogger juandos said...

"You and Ken need some real world experience. Most ideologies are not much different than environmentalism; they rely on faith just as much as environmentalism and the obvious religions do"...

Pull your head out costa vesos, you're starting to suffer from hypoxia...

 
At 8/19/2012 9:14 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

Pull your head out costa vesos, you're starting to suffer from hypoxia...

I think that the observation is valid. Too many people hold on to faith based ideologies that are little different than environmentalism or your typical religion. And, like a typical religion, when they are faced with some contradiction or inconvenient fact they rationalise it away. Didn't you notice how liberals who were screaming about civil liberties under Bush became silent when Obama continued the same policies? Or that 'conservatives' who are criticising Obama for his big government policies had little to say when Bush was the one expanding government? Or how some 'libertarians' compromised on principle on the issue of war or bailouts?

 
At 8/20/2012 3:05 PM, Blogger Tom said...

Limits to Growth was a bag of deliberate lies, exaggerations and deceptions. It was a political triumph because so many millions literally bought the book and the allegations. Its foolish and destructive mission helped ban DDT, drive Norman Borlaug out of many nations, and restrict the use of genetically modified seed. Tens of millions have died needlessly as a result. Needless to say, it was a left wing production.

 
At 8/20/2012 3:48 PM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

vangeiv: "Or that 'conservatives' who are criticising Obama for his big government policies had little to say when Bush was the one expanding government?"

Are you sure about that?

Here's what the conservative group CATO had to say about Bush spending way back in July, 2003:

"Sadly, the Bush administration has consistently sacrificed sound policy to the god of political expediency. From farm subsidies to Medicare expansion, purchasing reelection votes has consistently trumped principle. In fact, what we have now is a president who spends like Carter and panders like Clinton. Our only hope is that the exploding deficit will finally cause the administration to get serious about controlling spending."

Here's a December, 2003, passage from the magazine "American Conservative":

"Despite occasional exceptions, the Bush administration, backed by the Republican-controlled Congress, has been promoting larger government at almost every turn. Its spending policies have been irresponsible, and its trade strategies have been destructive. The president has been quite willing to sell out the national interest for perceived political gain, whether the votes sought are from seniors or farmers. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 encouraged the administration to push into law civil-liberties restrictions that should worry anyone, whether they are wielded by a Bush or a Clinton administration.

Back in in 2003-2006, William F. Buckley, Ramesh Ponurru, and others at National Review were consistent in their criticism of the Bush administration's expansion of government. Here's an excerpt from a 2006 CBS interview with Buckley:

“I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology — with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses by Congress, and in respect of foreign policy, incapable of bringing together such forces as apparently were necessary to conclude the Iraq challenge,” Buckley says.

National Review, The American Conservative, and CATO were the voices of conservatives during the Bush administration. They had more than "a little to say" about his inability to control spending.

 
At 8/20/2012 4:34 PM, Blogger VangelV said...

National Review, The American Conservative, and CATO were the voices of conservatives during the Bush administration. They had more than "a little to say" about his inability to control spending.

Which of these organizations were opposed to the very expensive and totally unnecessary, budget busting war with Iraq? Didn't the National Review and the Heritage Foundation support the Patriot Act? Didn't Cato push out Ivan Eland and Charles Pena, because they opposed the Iraq conflict, but kept the supporters of the war Tom Palmer, and Brink Lindsay? And Cato still has some Libertarian elements that were natural opponents to foreign meddling and more spending. We would expect any organization that calls itself Libertarian to oppose the growth of government spending wether it is domestic or foreign.

The fact is that Conservatives still talk one way but act another. As long as it is their guy (Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, or Bush II) they do not mind the expansion of government power too much. When it is a Democrat in office the small government talk is dusted off and polished for all useful idiots to see.

 
At 8/21/2012 10:28 AM, Blogger John smith said...

It's all incredibly straight forward. In 2012 we have access to the whole of human histories ingenuity, in the garage, the kitchen drawer, on google, or in your family's memory. Any difficulty we face today, could never possibly be as difficult as the sum total of all difficulties faced throughout history that neccitated the invention of any particular gadget, and therefore, everything is going well. Enjoy your tool shopping, boys and girls. P.s. ever noticed Clint Eastwood is pretty handy at maintaining cars. You 'll be okay.

 

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