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 deliberate misinformation.

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.)

  • 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.

    "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 1980s.

    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 selective omissions.

    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, fax 410-263-8944 or mail at P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403.

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