Monday, August 30, 2004

The Dismal Scientist

"Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits", the New Testament counsels (Matthew 7:15-16).

Stanford's Paul Ehrlich has loudly and consistently publicised alarming predictions of catastrophes triggered by excessive population growth. His views might well be summarised as being that people are pollution.

Now, he is proposing that a body of scientists and thinkers come together to build humanity a new ethical framework, an authoritative body modelled on the IPCC group for climate policy.
"It would deal with tough questions," he said. "It could explore how to reconcile different ethical standards. It could discuss who should 'own' and have the right to exploit global resources like fossil fuels, whose use has consequences for all, including future generations. It could examine how to reduce racial, religious, gender and economic inequities and whether any nations can ethically produce or store weapons of mass destruction."
Luckily, people have thought of building such a framework - Moses, the Hebrew Prophets, Jesus, Rabbi Akiva, Mohammed, Buddha and John Bruton.

Exposing an overpowering emotional neediness, Ehrlich imagines it "would be sponsored by the United Nations and supported by the world's governments, which would work to provide wide citizen participation and substantial and continuous media coverage."

This modest proposal begs the question, how does Ehrlich measure up as a prophet of doom? In his essay Looking backward from 2000, published in 1970, he wrote of an imagined future America with a population of 23 million, after his four horsemen - infectious disease, radiation released from nuclear power plant accidents, chlorinated hydrocarbon residues (i.e. DDT and similar pesticides) and famine in America.

The only significant epidemic sweeping through America seems to have been AIDS, and avoiding high-risk behaviours acts as an effective defence.

DDT has not been shown to have any effect on humans whatsoever, although it can harm birds of prey.

The most serious nuclear incident in the US occurred in 1979 at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. According to an NIH report on the incident "the projected number of excess fatal cancers due to the accident ... is approximately one". Indeed, it seems that, "[t]he major health effect of the accident appears to have been on the mental health of the people living in the region of Three Mile Island and of the workers..."

As for sixty-five million deaths by starvation in America during the eighties, I think I can give google a rest and just baldly assert that no such thing occurred. Or perhaps MacDonald's and Burger King deserve the Nobel Peace Prize for successfully averting it?

While Prof. Erlich is a population biologist, it's apparent that his training and most of his publications, and virtually all those in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, are on insects. While I lack any knowledge of biology, perhaps the application of such methods to humans is somewhat of an overstretch. Beetles never organise themselves in liberal democracies, nor ants run their societies on free-market principles and wasps aren't known for reasoning using the scientific method.

Yale economist, William Nordhaus, wrote in a 1973 analysis that, "The Mathusian model of population growth has generally been rejected by demographers and economists as inadequate for a general explanation of the behaviour of human populations". William Easterly's recent book The Elusive Quest for Growth summarises the more recent resarch, again reports that there is no evidence, even going back to the neolithic age, that population increases threaten prosperity or economic growth.

Irish history shows the same pattern. Malthus himself wrote in 1817 that "The land of Ireland is infintely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country a great part of the population should be swept from the soil". Ireland had more cultivable land per person than most of Europe, including England and Wales. A detailed county by county comparisons before the famine of the 1840's showing that poverty was correlated with higher population growth. During the famine itself, when food was available and indeed continued to be exported, limited purchasing power spelled death for hundreds of thousands of the poor.

My old acquainance, TCD and Heritage Foundation economist Gareth Davis, acutely pointed out the government and market failures that turned a natural disaster into a catastrophe in a 1995 article for the journal of the Edmund Burke Institute.

I believe that, had Ireland been independent, the tragedy of the famine could have been avoided, in the same way India has successfully feed its people since independence and eliminated the periodic starvation under the British and Moghul epmires. A native government would certainly be more responsive to its electorate, even on a less than universal franchise. The means available, in the form of the country's domestic and external funds, would have covered the costs an extensive programme of relief.

Thomas Carlyle is famous for christening economists as "respectable professors of the dismal science". The economists' optimism about the benefits of more humans seems better supported by the evidence and perhaps shows more humanity than Ehrlich's pessimism.