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Thanks, Bernie C for inspiring the topic for this episode!
..which this time begins with a famous quotation…
“Help, help the sky is falling! Help, help the sky is falling! I have to tell the King!”
Every time I come across something regarding the Green New Deal, I remember these famous words from Chicken Little of children’s story fame. Now… Before you mentally position me as some whack-job climate change denier, understand this… OF COURSE humans have had and continue to have a huge impact on the environment. Every house and road we build, every gallon of fuel we burn in our vehicles and aircraft – and every flatulent cow we allow to be flatulent has an impact on the natural world around us.
I fully embrace the notion that as a society, we must avoid polluting our environment, be wary of stripping the earth bare of its natural resources and wantonly consuming massive amounts of fossil fuel. These are all things that can contribute to climate change, and it would be insanely foolish to ignore the potential for catastrophic climate change.
That said, should we torpedo our economy and drastically reduce our standard of living by adopting the recommendations of the Green New Deal? That strikes me as naively reckless, mostly because it would in fact be …naively reckless.
Let’s add a bit of context to the debate, consider a few sets of data that never seem to get any attention anywhere any time, and see if we can discern a rational strategy to preserve both our environment and our economy.
Ever hear of Thomas Malthus? He was an English cleric and scholar, influential in the fields of political economy and demography. He wrote a book in 1798 book called “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” He based it on real, historical data that looked at prosperity vs. population. That data very clearly indicated that as prosperity increased, population increased. It also very clearly indicated that when population got to a certain level, disease and famine became rampant, causing the population to plummet.
From the 1400s through the 1600s, Europe’s population bounced up and down, continuously buffeted by epidemics and starvation. Overall prosperity, in fact, was greater in the 1400s than in the 1700s! Based on all that accurate data, Malthus did his Chicken Little routine and let everyone know that not only was the sky falling, it would continue to fall indefinitely.
What he didn’t do was wonder why European population throughout all of the 1700s, his own time, grew by 60%, from about 5.5 million to 9 million, while overall well-being stabilized, albeit at a relatively lower level.
I wonder why he didn’t wonder why? Were the potential royalties from a gloom and doom book more important to him than telling the full story? Did he crave the fame he figured he’d get with his catastrophic environmental predictions? Did he assume optimism would generate far less cash and attention?
We’ll never know, so let’s move ahead to a series of pronouncements from the 1970s. Dillon Ripley, then secretary of the Smithsonian Institution predicted that within 25 years, “somewhere between 75 and 80% of all the species of living animals will be extinct.”
Peter Gunter, a North Texas State University professor wrote, “Demographers agree almost unanimously on the following grim timetable: by 1975 widespread famine will begin in India; this will spread by 1992 to include all of India, Pakistan, China and the Near East and Africa. By the year 2000 or conceivably sooner, South and Central America will exist under famine conditions… By the year 2000, 30 years from now, the entire world with the exception of Western Europe, North American and Australia will be in famine.”
Life magazine published this: “Scientists have solid experimental and theoretical evidence to support the following predictions: In a decade, urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution… By 1985 air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth by one half.”
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Biologist and Nobel Prize winner George Wald estimated that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.”
Martin Litton, Director of the Sierra Club noted in a Time magazine special report that “We are prospecting for the very last of our resources and using up the non-renewable things many times faster than we are finding new ones.”
The New York Times reported on the day following the very first Earth Day in 1970 that, “Man must stop pollution and conserve his resources, not merely to enhance existence, but to save the race from intolerable deterioration and possible extinction.”
Remember when the threat of global cooling was a thing? How about killer bees or acid rain?
My point – if it’s not already obvious – is that I could go on for hours sharing the parade of Chicken-Little-Like predictions we’ve been hearing from Thomas Malthus back in 1798, up through Alexandria Ocasio Cortez in 2019. There’s no end to the catastrophic predictions, but we’re all still here living the most fabulous global standard of living in human history!
Now let’s take a look at some data that Malthus would almost certainly ignore were he alive today. (AOC and the Green New Deal crowd are certainly ignoring it…)
In 1990, 36% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, that percentage has been reduced to 9.9%. That’s a stunning reduction! But it’s even way more stunning than you think! Dropping the percentage from 36% all the way down to 9.9% is indeed amazing, but the total, actual, raw number of people living in extreme poverty has also dropped. From 1.9 Billion in 1990 to only 650 Million today. There are 1.2 Billion more people alive now than in 1990, but the total number of the extremely poor has decreased by 550 million! As I said, it’s stunningly positive progress.
Chicken Little pipes up though and says, “We may be pulling people out of poverty, but we’re also depleting our energy sources and fouling our air and water at an unsustainable rate.” Sorry, Chicken Little, but the data tells a different story.
Not that this particular data is at all well known. I personally had never seen such data until I stumbled across the work of Andrew McAfee. (Check out his book, More from Less….) It’s astounding stuff that is utterly absent from our political discourse. Not that facts are typically a significant part of our political discourse…
The first data set is shown below. It shows U.S. numbers for GDP, energy consumption and CO2 emissions from 1800 through 2010. Up to around 1880 – which was about 100 years or so into the industrial revolution – all three numbers grew at pretty much the exact same rate. They grew in lock step. At that point, energy consumption and CO2 emissions started to increase substantially faster than GDP. During the 1950s post-war boom years, all three began to turn sharply upward, AND – and this is a really important “AND” – the growth rate for all three went back into lock step. – they became equal again.
In the mid-1970s, something even more interesting happened. GDP growth again increased dramatically, but energy and CO2 growth stayed the same. By 1990, GDP was still skyrocketing, but energy consumption and CO2 emissions began to flatten out. Since 2000, total U.S. energy consumption has stabilized and total CO2 emissions are actually falling!
Got that? The graph of U.S. GDP growth points nearly straight up, while total energy consumption has stabilized and total CO2 emissions are falling.
Wondering if there’s any other data showing similar phenomena? There is!
Food, for example. The total tonnage of crops produced in the U.S. continues to rise. The total amounts of fertilizer and water used to do so??? They keep going down, down, down. The acreage of land required to grow all this bounty? It too keeps going down, down, down. Since 1980 an area the size of the State of Washington has been given back to nature.
Take a look at the graph showing total annual usage of aluminum, nickel, copper, steel and gold. Total annual usage for all of them is decreasing. Take a look at the graph showing total annual usage of stone, cement, sand, gravel, timber and paper. Total annual usage for all of them is decreasing. The U.S. Geological Survey, established in 1879, tracks usage of 72 minerals. Total annual consumption – not per capita consumption – total U.S. consumption – of 66 of those 72 is decreasing – and has been for over a decade!
What about oil? You’re familiar with the term “Peak Oil,” right? Are you sure? You do know that in scientific circles the definition has changed, right? Peak Oil used to refer to the point in time where the total world supply of oil would reach its peak and then decline. It now refers to the point in time where the total world demand for oil reaches its peak. Nobody – nobody – is worried about running out of oil any more! It’s a non-issue.
“Youngblood,” you say, “how can this be?” I’ll give you an example. When aluminum cans were introduced around 1960, they used 85 grams of aluminum. Now they use under 13 grams. The six-pack of beer I just bought has less aluminum than a single one of the beer cans of my youth. You think Anheuser-Busch did all that aluminum can research for the good of the environment? Or for the good of their bottom line? Hold that thought…
Let’s look at railroads. Ho-hum, right? Wrong! There are over 1.6 million freight cars rolling around the U.S. today. Using 1960s-vintage tools and techniques, railroads would know the location of 81,000 of them. That’s 5%. They’d only be able to take a wild guess at the location and contents of the other 1.55 million. With modern tools and techniques, railroads have real-time knowledge of the location and contents of every single one of them. With 1960s tools and techniques, we’d have at least an additional million freight cars in use. Oh, and did you know they’ve figured out how to move a ton of freight 473 miles on a single gallon of fuel? You think CSX, Norfolk Southern and the other railroad companies did all that for the good of the environment? Or for the good of their own bottom lines? Hold that thought…
I wonder why the Green New Deal crowd doesn’t consider the truly massive increases in energy efficiency and resource utilization rates generated by using these tools and techniques and focus on how to apply them in other ways. Is it because it was their enemy, the profit-focused capitalists, and not them who figured it all out? How can emphasizing that story buy them any votes? Hold that thought too.
There’s a similar story for passenger airlines. In the 1960s, about half of the seats on any given flight were occupied. Today it’s 81%. Without modern tools and techniques, we’d have 2/3 more airplanes flying around every day. I wonder why the Green New Deal doesn’t consider that potential source of increased energy efficiency and resource utilization. Is it because that set of ideas was also applied by profit-hungry capitalists? Because that won’t buy them any votes either? There’s yet another thought to hold on to.
And now my favorite example… The smartphone.
The more militant environmentalists decry the number of smartphones that are landing in landfills. True enough, but have you ever considered the vastly greater volume of stuff we’d be throwing into landfills if capitalists hadn’t invented and sold a gazillion smartphones? Here’s a partial list of devices that 20 years ago we all bought, used and ultimately threw away. Landline telephones, tape recorders, camcorders, cameras, answering machines, clocks, radios, calculators, GPS devices, guitar tuners, flashlights, levels, compasses, portable gaming devices, walkie talkies, barcode scanners, credit card scanners, thumb drives and portable video players. Can you think of any other displaced devices? I know there are more.
And how about all the ancillary products and supplies the smartphone sent to the dustbin of history? Like vinyl records, reel-to-reel and VCR tapes, CDs, DVDs, and camera film? And how about the paper? First, there’s all the packaging that the devices and supplies I just mentioned came in. Then there are airline tickets, calendars, notepads, books, newspapers, photo albums, board games, business cards, money and catalogues.
Yes, there are a LOT of smartphones ending up in landfills, but it’s only a minute fraction of the stuff that would be there otherwise.
The point is… The critical, amazing and vitally important point is… We humans are getting more and more and more health, nutrition and life-improving stuff using less and less and less energy and earth’s natural resources.
We’ve learned how to do so by intelligently using entrepreneurial capitalism to develop and deploy technology to make money AND, oh-by-the-way, achieve essential environmental goals AND maintain a robustly growing economy that relentlessly drives ever-improving global standards of living. Look at the freaking data, you Green New Dealers! Throughout the developed world, we’ve been doing so since the 1970s! For more than 50 years!
All that incredible progress is due to the intelligent combination of entrepreneurial capitalism, technology and environmentalism.
I’m your Intentionally Vicarious host Todd Youngblood – Not surprised, but exhilarated by the fact that capitalism and technology most certainly have been and still are driving ever-increasing global standards of living and ever-decreasing levels of energy use and pollution – Not surprised, but disgusted by the naive, “Chicken Little” recklessness and aggressive ignorance of extraordinarily relevant facts by proponents of the Green New Deal – Hopeful that collectively, we have the political will to learn more – much more – about how to successfully combine capitalism, technology and environmentalism to continue to get more from less and improve everybody’s standard of living – And to a great extent because of all this awesome human progress and potential… I’m still having more fun than anyone else I know.
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Thanks for paying attention…