home > archive > 2001 > this article
The doom and gloom will never stop
By Steven Martinovich
Back in Grade 10 geography class I was presented with a terrifying view of the world's future. According to a film documenting work by a group known as the Club of Rome, whose web site helpfully and somewhat disingenuously tells us is free of any political, ideological or business interest, the world was rapidly running out of food resources, was becoming so polluted that life would die off and chaos would soon spread as the competition for resources reached a fevered pitch.
My classmates took a blasé approach, became concerned but did nothing or were moved to become fervent environmentalists. I fell into that middle camp until a fact dawned on me: the movie itself was produced in the early 1970s and the dire predictions were to become no later than 1980. I saw the movie in the late 1980s. So much for predictions.
Of course, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Although the Club of Rome's predictions were - to be charitable - incorrect the doom and gloom prophecies haven't stopped. The prophets merely extend their timetables every now and then. The latest is University of Manitoba's David Tilman, lead author of a study in Science that claims that the changes produced by world agriculture are no less dangerous than those of global warming.
The study predicts that unless changes are made, "massive, irreversible environmental impacts" will be felt by 2050. Although a Green Revolution has fed the world's growing population, the authors argue that a "Greener" revolution is needed to rid the world of its reliance on things like pesticide and fertilizer which they claim are altering the chemistry of water and air. The future is so dark that report co-author and University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler stated he's glad he won't be around in 50 years.
"Even at best it's not going to be acceptable to me, so I might as well be gone," Schindler told the National Post in their April 24 edition. "I think most ecologists on the planet are suffering from the same thing. They know what the inevitable is. They see it happening all around them and they see very little being done to prevent it."
Tilman and Schindler's passions may be heartfelt, but they don't make the theories of Thomas Robert Malthus any less discredited. The sad thing is that iconoclastic Julian Simon effectively silenced the doom and gloom crowd in 1980 with his book The Ultimate Resource, updated in 1996. Of course, the idea of future being a lot like today except more expensive isn't news and it's much sexier to write about a future that journalists and pundits probably won't alive to see and proved wrong about.
Simon, who famously and successfully bet legendary doom and gloomer Paul Ehrlich about his predictions, argued that the price of natural resources throughout human history had been declining, evidence of greater abundance and not scarcity. He also showed that over time humanity was becoming cleaner and not dirtier and that the growth in population - which obviously drives increased agriculture - was due to a global reduction in infant mortality rates and longer life expectancy, or as Simon stated, "trends [which] are to be celebrated, not lamented."
Over hundreds of articles and several books Simon built an impenetrable case that life is getting better on earth because the planet's ultimate resource wasn't its crop yields or cleanliness but rather its people. "Human beings," Simon once wrote, "are not just more mouths to feed, but are productive and inventive minds that help find creative solutions to man's problems, thus leaving us better off over the long run." Human knowledge allows us to produce more finished products out of fewer raw materials, with the result that natural resources are becoming more available and the air and water in developed nations becoming cleaner. Agriculture isn't the problem, but a lack of economic freedom.
The world does face challenges and we would be blind if we ignored that fact. People like Tilman and Schindler, however, believe that the world is a zero sum game. If there are more people, they necessarily create more pollution. Simon's argument, which has been proved right time and time again, in the words of Ben Wattenberg, "was that natural resources are not finite in any serious way; they are created by the intellect of man, an always renewable resource."
All resources except optimism and human ingenuity apparently.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
Other related articles: (open in a new window)
© 1996-2020, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.