We've always had it so good

The State of Humanity
March 7, 1997

On a recent visit to Canada I read a piece in the Toronto press which talked of T. S. Eliot firewatching during the second world war (which he actually did from the London roof of Faber and Faber) from the chapel roof at Little Gidding. The view of the world from North America, then, has its special qualities, one of which is a certain detachment from the actual nature of things elsewhere; the same feature pervades this book, which is written by 64 contributors of whom all but two give North American affiliations and about one third of whom are economists. The rest of the world is not ignored but the view from the roof of the Cato Institute is predominantly of the United States. The contributors provide 56 chapters, with an introduction and conclusion by the editor. Julian L. Simon suggests that we read it in conjunction with the second edition of his own The Ultimate Resource (1995), so together there is a great deal of material.

By way of organisation, the book (which focuses explicitly on material conditions) has six major parts: "Life, health and death", "Production and poverty", "Natural resources", "Agriculture, land and food", "Pollution", and "Thinking about the issue". Most of the essays are short, in the eight-ten pages bracket, and some have appended material by the editor, where he considers the points can be reinforced by additional data. They mostly describe statistical trends, mainly for the 20th century and largely for the US, but with some examples for European countries as well as a few developing nations with numerical data that are considered reliable. Simon's position on the population-resource-environment nexus is well known, and he restates it with bold simplicity: "The material standards of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely." This is derived from the numerical trends in the various sections, and from their general speculations that substitutions and technical progress will take care of shortages and pollution. In the case of the latter, as people get richer they will buy a cleaner environment, it is posited. The editor's argument clearly comes from a strong personal conviction of being right and that most of those who disagree are wrong.

As Simon sees it, material conditions improve but perceptions get worse. We will always find grounds for worry: we focus on ever smaller actual dangers. Fewer and fewer of our struggles will be against nature, and more and more will be battles of one group against another. He does talk, though, as if there had never been any optimists; as if Malthus for example had not been disenchanted with those who thought that the perfectibility of humankind was a distinct probability. He also ignores any cautionary views put forward by writers of the chapters in this book. It is difficult for somebody who is more inclined to be of the disagreeing tendency to argue back. Either you say "no, you are wrong" but clearly make no difference to the Simon viewpoint, as happened in his "debate" with Norman Myers, or else you have to try to counter the interpretations of 50-odd separate series of data, some in specialised fields.

It does seem a little odd, though, to talk about these relationships with no reference to the actual international scene: Rio is not indexed and the combative chapter on biodiversity does not record the accords reached there, nor indeed any of the discussions published after 1992. The Montreal protocol gets a single mention, for example. Equally, there is not much on biotechnology as a whole: a solid prop to the optimistic arguments in fields other than agriculture, I would have thought. The new information age of the world made possible by microelectronics is also given very little discussion. So there is a slightly dated air to much of the book, as if it were meant to have appeared some years ago; anybody who has edited a book will feel sympathy with Simon here.

At whom is this book aimed? The undergraduate needs a shorter and more unified treatment; the policymaker a more guided tour of the terrain. Environmentalists will see it as a one-sided interpretation of the physical evidence they have collected. Cynics would likely see it as a kind of believers' bible in which a statement backing their particular prejudice could be found somewhere.

Simon claims that he has got it fundamentally right in the past and that bodies of theory (found in his other book) give him the confidence to assert that he will be right about the future. By contrast, writers of other persuasions have so far got it wrong and so they must always be wrong. The theoretical question is clear: do population-resource-environment interactive systems (which are becoming increasingly global in scale), constitute linear systems? Or are they prone to discontinuities, to "flips"? Are natural systems prone to sudden and unpredictable changes, as described by theories of nonequilibrium behaviour? Are systems with a strong human interaction less likely to flip or more likely? Or both/and? And if so, do Simon's theories allow us to tell them apart? As a long-term summary of time-series data on the Nile by William J. Baumol and Wallace E. Oates puts it: "The moral should be clear: it is dangerous to extrapolate from a consistent trend in a data series, even one persisting over decades". But are systems with human involvement like that, even? How do the complex cultural webs of feedback (both positive and negative) work: will they always produce the US-centered position that benefits are illimitable? Do the many graphs of "getting better" identify the true costs of the benefits?

If we are to believe the Simon hypothesis (and how pleasant it would be to do so), then we need a wider perspective both on the ecology- economic interface and on the world outside its most powerful nation and its representation by that interface. Even if the "grounds for worry" notion were true of much of Africa or Bangladesh, for example, then "one group against each other" is scarcely heartening. That the "one group" of the book is the United States is confirmed by a footnote which contains the only reference to Chernobyl, and says: "A reactor of that type could never be licensed in the US." So tell that to Cumbrian hill farmers. If there were really any roof-top fire-watchers at Little Gidding (a precarious perch, I would think), they would not have seen what was happening near Russell Square.

I. G. Simmons is professor of geography, University of Durham.

The State of Humanity

Editor - Julian L. Simon
ISBN - 1 55786 119 6 and 585 X
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 694

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