Books Revel in an Excess Optimism on Environment
The recent outpouring of hefty "feel good" books has not let up.
Last year the book world was buzzing about Gregg Easterbrook's A Moment
on the Earth, which over 700 pages tried to make the case that most
of our environmental problems have already been solved. Close analysis revealed
that Easterbrook's optimism was based on errors, selective omissions, and
Now comes Julian Simon, a professor at University of Maryland with an even
rosier view of the human prospect. Simon's new book, The State of Humanity
(Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, Mass.), concludes that, "We have
in our hands now - actually, in our libraries - the technology to feed,
clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven
billion years. Most amazing is that most of this specific body of knowledge
was developed within just the past two centuries or so, though it rests
on basic knowledge that had accumulated for millennia, of course.
"Indeed, the last necessary additions to this body of technology-nuclear
fission and space travel -occurred decades ago. Even if no new knowledge
were ever invented after those advances, we would be able to go on increasing
our population forever, while improving our standard of living and our control
over our environment."
As you can probably tell from this quotation, Simon is the Crazy
Eddie of "feel good," and his latest book is nearly 700 pages
of optimism for the human prospect, including optimism for the natural environment.
The book is divided into 58 chapters written by 67 authors, crammed with
charts, graphs and tables. It is an information storehouse of prodigious
proportions, particularly historical information. When I began reading it,
I thought, "What a treasure! This is like finding a huge bag full of
$100 bills!" However, as I read deeper into the book, I began to discover
that much of the treasure is counterfeit, and many of the optimistic conclusions
are bogus. Worse, most readers may not be able to distinguish what's real
from what's fake.
Still the book has some value. It reminds us again and again of the real
progress that humans made between 1750 and 1950. Infant mortality decreased
dramatically, working conditions improved for tens of millions of people,
technology opened up vast opportunities for travel, education and enjoyment
of life for huge numbers. Diet improved, life expectancy increased, opportunity
expanded. Democracy and freedom spread. These things are true, and it is
worthwhile reflecting on the real progress humans have made.
However Simon is so determined to accentuate the positive that he ignores
almost completely the serious negative countercurrents that give our own
age its bitter-sweet tinge:
Humans now appropriate 25% of earth's total net primary production (NPP).
Net primary production is the amount of energy captured in photosynthesis
by primary producers (blue-green plants that photosynthesize, thus turning
carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates) minus the energy used in their
own growth and reproduction. NPP is thus the basic food resource for everything
on earth that is not capable of photosynthesis. Humans are now thought to
be using for their own purposes 25% of global NPP and 40% of NPP on the
land. If this estimate is correct, it means that 2 more population doublings
(which will occur in about 80 years), will leave nothing for any species
besides humans-a prospect that must give pause to even those with a totally
human-centered world-view. Simon simply ignores this trend. (Simon sees
us migrating into outer space on nuclear-powered rockets after we have filled
this planet. Interestingly, Gregg Easterbrook imagined the same "escape
hatch" for a humanity that can't seem to prevent itself from fouling
its own nest.)
- We live in an age of perpetual wars, with anywhere from 20 to 30 major
wars going on simultaneously around the globe. More than 90% of the people
killed in these wars are civilians, largely in developing nations supplied
with modern weaponry by the rich nations ($36 billion worth of armaments
in 1992 alone). At a cost of less than half their military expenditures,
developing countries could initiate basic health services and clinical care
that would save 10 million lives each year. For their part, the rich nations
spend on armaments each year an amount equivalent to the total income of
the world's poorest 2 billion people. In describing historical trends, Simon
hardly mentions the increase in wars, the buildup of armaments, and the
anti-life priorities, all clearly major byproducts of modernity. Simon merely
predicts that war will be less likely in the future as "land becomes
less important relative to other assets"-a prediction that seems dubious
at best because human population is growing and the amount of available
land is not.
In 1957, the U.S. government initiated the National Health Interview Survey;
each year some 100,000 non-institutionalized individuals in 40,000 households
are surveyed. Two measures of health have been taken consistently since
1957: "limitation of activity" and "restricted activity days."
Both are measures of the prevalence of ill health.
- In the developed world, human health is declining. On this topic, Simon
includes a surprising amount of bad news in an essay titled "Trends
in Health in the U.S. Population: 1957-1989," by Eileen M. Crimmins
and Dominique G. Ingegneri:
"Limitation of activity" is a measure of long-term disability,
disability that is due to chronic conditions and diseases and usually has
lasted at least 3 months. A person is limited in activity when he or she
has difficulty performing his or her usual activity, or the activity that
is normal for his or her age group.
"Restricted activity days" is designed to measure short-term disability.
The respondent is asked how many days during the past two weeks he or she
had to cut down on normal activity because of health. Because restricted
activity can be due to either acute conditions, like colds and sore throats,
or chronic conditions, like heart disease, it is an indicator of the level
of both acute and chronic illness. Among the whole U.S. population during
the period 1957 to 1989, "activity limitation" has increased 43%.
Between 1961 and 1989, the number of "restricted activity days"
increased 28%. These measures indicate substantial increases in both chronic
and acute ill health among Americans during the last 30 years.
Crimmins and Ingegneri note that, "...other empirical work has tended
to confirm the idea that the health of the population has deteriorated in
the United States in recent years. Findings of this nature have been reported
in a large number of studies based on National Health Interview Survey (NHIS)
data like those presented here. These include studies of health change at
all ages, as well as studies concentrating on segments of the population
including children, the working-age population, and parts of the older population.
Examination of health or disability change using other data, such as the
decennial [every 10 year] census and the Current Population Survey, have
reached similar conclusions for the working age population."
Health deterioration has also been investigated in a variety of other countries
where mortality is low and continuing to decline. Surveys have shown deteriorating
health in Canada during the 1970s, Australia during the 1980s, Great Britain
from the 1970s through the mid-1980s, and Japan from the 1950s through the
Simon's book offers only one hypothesis for this decline in health throughout
the developed world: More frail people are being kept alive. This hypothesis
is perhaps attractive to Simon and his colleagues at the Cato Institute
in Washington, D.C., where economic Darwinism ("only the fittest survive")
is still a popular idea. But alternative hypotheses are certainly possible:
the modern "junk food" diet that is so common among young people
may be partly responsible, combined with a lack of exercise. In addition,
chemical exposures, which are certainly occurring, seem to be degrading
the immune systems of humans, giving rise to increased infections and autoimmune
disorders such as asthma, arthritis and diabetes. Simon ignores these factors.
To maintain his ever-optimistic view, Simon relies upon the same
techniques Easterbrook employed: misinformation, specious comparisons, and
Misinformation: For example, Simon says, on page 15, "Fear is rampant
about rapid rates of species extinction. The fear has little or no basis."
But the evidence from the fossil record is that extinctions are occurring
today 10 to 100 times faster than natural background (pre-human) rates of
extinction, and in some regions the rate is 1000 times background. There
IS genuine cause for concern.
Selective omissions and specious comparisons: For example, Simon says, "The
Great Lakes are not dead; instead they offer better sport fishing than ever."
First, no one ever said the Great Lakes were dead. Second, in some of the
Lakes (Michigan and Erie, for example) sport fishing is only able to thrive
because governments stock the lakes with hatchery-bred fish each year. Literally
hundreds of studies have shown that fish, birds, and mammals in the lakes
have had their reproductive systems damaged by chemical contamination.
Third, each year state and provincial governments in the U.S. and Canada
issue book-length catalogs listing coves and bays throughout the Great Lakes
where it is not safe to eat the fish.
Fourth, there is substantial evidence that humans who often eat fish from
the Great Lakes give birth to children who are stunted physically and mentally.
Yes, humans made important progress between 1750 and 1950. Is the progress
continuing? The record is clearly mixed. Good news today is nearly always
accompanied by real side-effects that are genuinely bad. If we continue
on our present path, does the future look rosy? Simon thinks so, but, like
Gregg Easterbrook before him, to maintain this rose-colored view he is forced
to ignore or dismiss important trends, ask and answer irrelevant ("straw
man") questions, and make specious comparisons. It is probably very
rewarding to write "feel good" books, but the way these fellows
do it is intellectually dishonest.
Peter Montague is editor of RACHEL's Environment and Health Weekly. Contact
him by email at email@example.com, fax 410-263-8944 or mail at P.O. Box
5036, Annapolis, MD 21403.
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