Good Life

Commentary: Environmental alarmists have a sorry record

The United Nations announced that the 7 billionth human probably arrived in our crowded world last week, so it was predictable that we would get another crash course on the threat posed by overpopulation.

Cartoonists cranked out sad images of hungry multitudes. Activists murmured about the planet’s limited “carrying capacity.” The New York Times ran a story rehearsing the link between birth rates and carbon footprints. The writer mentioned a study saying every American child, over his or her lifetime, emitted seven times as much carbon dioxide as a child in China. This was the polite version of the more extreme view, which sees human life as a “cancer” on the Earth.

Never mind that savvier commentators have been writing about the dangers of a “birth dearth” for more than 15 years. In Europe and Japan, the birthrate is below replacement levels and the worry is too many old people and too-few young to support them.

In much of the developing world, fertility rates have been dropping as incomes rise, a trend that goes back to the Industrial Revolution. As The Economist noted a couple of years back, it took 130 years for Britain’s fertility rate to drop from 5 births per woman to 2. In South Korea, a similar shift took place in 20 years. As prosperity rises, fertility drops — and concern for the environment increases.

Which makes you wonder why the greens loathe economic growth. Perhaps it’s because with prosperity comes the increased consumption that gives them heartburn. Many worry that we have lost contact with some imaginary virtuous past, and that if the inscrutable underpinnings of modern life were to go poof, we wouldn’t be able to get by.

I once knew a man who was determined to reconnect with this mythic past. He had a vegetable garden in his back yard and a little stand of winter wheat, which he turned into flour with a grinder in his garage. This sort of thing may be enjoyable for its own sake, but don’t tell me you’re doing it because you want to live simply. Living simply is picking up a cucumber at the store — no hoeing or watering required.

Another mystery is why environmental alarms are taken seriously, given how wrong so many have been. It turned out that despite a 1984 U.N. claim, deserts weren’t gobbling up millions of acres of land each year. Nor did acid rain eat our forests. Paul Ehrlich, co-author of “The Population Bomb,” predicted famines in the 1970s and said that by 1980, “all important animal life in the sea will be extinct.”

In 1914, the U.S. government predicted that in a decade, domestic oil reserves would be exhausted. Similar predictions were emitted by federal agencies in 1939 and 1951. Today, we’re looking at a U.S. petroleum boom and falling oil imports.

We’re constantly being warned that we’re running out of various resources. But as Matt Ridley wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal, not a single non-renewable resource has yet run out, “not oil, gold, uranium or phosphate.”

Given this record, it’s hard for me to get worked up over global warming. Certainly the theory is plausible. Some portion of it can be reasonably laid to human action, although I think the dominant variable is probably the sun and its periodic cycles.

But it’s well to remember that the scare story of four decades ago wasn’t global warming, but global cooling and the tale was told in the same portentous tone. As Newsweek put it in 1975, “Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.” Oh yeah: Almost unanimous.

At any given moment, we’re teetering on the edge of doom. Yet in spite of one catastrophe after another, here we are — the planet’s most adaptable species, the only one capable of raising its standard of living.