The Sky's Not Falling

As a break from all the negative news in the world today, I thought I'd start 2016 with an optimistic post: a review of The End of Doom by Ron Bailey. This review took a while to write so I hope someone finds it interesting.

The End of Doom is divided into chapters that each consider an environmental issue. The chapters can more or less stand on their own, although the book clearly has some common themes; tying the individual topics together more would improve the book, in my opinion. A number of the topics covered are rather controversial (e.g. climate change, GMOs), but Bailey remains very evidence-focused. In spite of the impression given by a lot of media coverage, he finds reason for optimism on most of the issues he looks at. This review will generally follow the same outline as the book.

The first two chapters get The End of Doom off to a strong start, covering worries about overpopulation and peak resources (oil, phosphorus, lithium, etc.), and pointing out the long trail of predicted catastrophes that never came to pass. Harkening back to Thomas Malthus in the 18th century, Bailey dismantles the "clearly wrong idea that human beings are no different than a herd of deer when it comes to reproduction": people can "work to increase supplies" which are also populations capable of exponential growth. In the 20th century, massive famines were also predicted, but the green revolution increased agricultural productivity faster than growing populations. Some statistics that stood out to me were a 400% rise in Mexican wheat yields from 1950 – 1965 and the fact that Pakistan and India now export grain. He also reviews various predictions of future population trends, with the most likely scenarios having global population peak by the end of the century. The evidence shows that freedom (especially for women to pursue education) and growing prosperity are better than strict controls for stabilizing population growth. Another really compelling point he makes about population (which becomes one of the themes of the book) is that people are not the problem, but rather could be part of the solution when it comes to impacting the environment—innovation is the most important resource. On this point, he quotes Ramez Naam:

"Would your life be better off if only half as many people had lived before you? Each additional idea is a gift to the future. Each additional idea producer is a source of wealth for future generations." (p.29)

This book was published in July 2015 and the trend in the price of oil for the second half of the year certainly supports some of the points Ron Bailey makes about "peak oil" (and other commodities) in the second chapter. In his view, prices—that were rising until a few years ago—have more to do with economic super-cycles than with approaching limits of absolute scarcity:

By February 2015, the International Monetary Fund's commodity index has fallen by about 57 percent from its July 2008 peak. If the past is any guide, commodity prices could well fall to levels even lower than the price nadir of the 1990s as the expansionary phase of the current super-cycle begins to fade. (p.38)

The current low price of oil is a signal that it is far from scarce, even though some prognosticators were expecting peak oil to have occurred by now. Also, as technology improves, at least for companies that are motivated to stay current with the state-of-the-art, the yield from existing fields increases:

Private oil companies currently recover about 35 percent of the petroleum in a typical field. If that recovery factor could be increased by another five percentage points, it would boost worldwide recoverable reserves by more than all of Saudi Arabia's current proven reserves. The oil recovery rates for government-owned oil companies are, however, much lower than those of private companies. (p.47)

I really liked this quote by David Zetland, who encourages governments to stop subsidizing people to waste water (applicable to other resources, too):

"Nature makes a drought, but man makes a shortage" (p. 48)

I don't have space here to go through all the statistics on mineral reserves that Bailey covers, showing how some estimated reserves have increased since the 1970s in spite of ongoing intensive mining. However, I'll share the following two excerpts:

On the supply side:

Why does the horizon of known mineral reserves never go out further than a few decades? Basically because miners and technologists do not find it worthwhile to discover new sources and develop new production techniques until markets signal that they are needed. (p. 54)

And on the demand side:

The invention of resource-sparing technologies is a pervasive feature of the modern economy, empowering people to get ever more value out of less material. (p. 56)

The declining material intensity of economic output is accompanied by a declining energy intensity:

Today it takes only 20 percent of the energy it took in 1900 to produce a ton of steel. Similarly, it now takes 70 percent less energy to make a ton of aluminum or cement and 80 percent less to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer than it did in 1900. (p. 61)

I thought I'd bring some other sources into the discussion of the first two chapters of The End of Doom. One book that put a spotlight on issues of population, poverty, and hunger when it was first published in 1978 (although not included in Ron Bailey's run-down of people who were forecasting doom) was Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. So I was very interested to see the following statement in the Preface to the Fifth Edition when I looked it up recently:

Market economies, on the other hand, have produced enormous wealth. And not only in Western nations. Many Asian countries have adopted market economies. The result has been a dramatic drop in poverty on the world's most populous continent. In 1970, chronic undernourishment plagued 35 percent of the people in the entire developing world. In 2002, thirty-two years later—in spite of rapid population growth—only 17 percent were chronically undernourished. (p. xiii)

This accords with the first chapter of The End of Doom. I also found a list of the worst famines of the 20th century, which mainly had political causes (i.e. war or forced collectivization) rather than resulting from populations exploding to the point they couldn't feed themselves.

Relating to agricultural commodities, I listened to an interesting podcast recently on the role of price signals in maintaining food security. Some of the statistics Ron uses come from the FAO, which maintains a convenient online portal. Food production is growing significantly faster than the land devoted to agriculture, thanks to rising yields.

A final point from Chapter 2 was the concept of Environmental Kuznets Curves:

Income and pollution data from around the world have revealed that there are various per capita income thresholds at which air and water pollutants begin to decline. This discovery has been dubbed the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). The Environmental Kuznets Curve hypothesis posits that environmental conditions initially deteriorate as economic growth takes off, but later improve when citizens with rising incomes demand better quality environmental amenities. (p. 60)

And I thought this was a very clever point:

Trying to forecast how much energy people living in 2100 will be using and what technologies they will be powering is like assembling a committee composed of luminaries like Thomas Edison, Madame Curie, and Albert Einstein in 1900 to accurately project how much energy we use today and how we use it. (p. 64)

Chapters three through five are about the precautionary principle, cancer (its age-adjusted incidence and mortality are falling), and GMOs—a particular interest of Bailey's. The discussion of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) effectively builds on other material in the book. Many of the arguments against using GMOs are based on the precautionary principle; Bailey criticizes it earlier for being based on the unsupported assumption that newer technologies are more dangerous than older technologies. In the case of GMOs, not using them also carries a risk, since they are able to lessen the impact of agriculture on the environment by requiring less fertilizer, pesticides, and land. He also give the example of a start-up that is trying to make cow-free milk from GMO yeast, potentially saving a lot of methane, a potent GHG. He sees GMOs as a continuation of the green revolution, trying to ensure the world can be fed by getting more food per resources consumed.

Chapter six tackles the topic of climate change, methodically going through many important studies—in places in reads almost like an annotated bibliography. Ron does a great service in bringing all of these sources together, although it does get rather dry. He quickly jumps past debate about whether anthropogenic climate change is occurring to look at quantifying its trajectory and looking at the costs & benefits of different mitigation and adaptation options.

In quantifying the trajectory of climate change, he looks at various published estimates of the equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), which has a big implication for how much warming should be expected:

This ongoing controversy is important because lower climate sensitivity would mean that the future warming will be slower, giving humanity more time to adapt and to decarbonize its energy production technologies. Higher climate sensitivity would mean the opposite. (p. 189)

Ron Bailey next asks how well the climate models have performed. At least some researchers think many of them run hotter than the actual climate (Nate Silver's book that I reviewed last year includes similar results).

On the subject of modelling and forecasting, but on a shorter timeline, The End of Doom mentions a NOAA forecast from a year ago (January 2015) that El-Niño conditions could subside to normal later in 2015. This didn't happen. Clearly we still have things to learn about the wonderful complexity of the oceans and atmosphere.

One of the strong points of the chapter on climate change is costing out mitigation (avoiding warming) versus adaptation (learning to live with it) scenarios. By Bailey's figures, these two paths have roughly the same economic impact when projected to the end of the century—when the average person should be better off than they are today in spite of climate change:

All of these figures must be taken with a vat of salt since they are projections for economic, demographic, and biophysical events nearly a century from now [in 2100]]. That being acknowledged, projected IPCC income losses that would result from doing nothing to adapt to climate change appear to be roughly comparable to the losses in income that would occur following efforts to slow climate change. In other words, it appears that doing nothing about climate change will cost future generations about the same as doing something now. (p.195)

Our current level of development has made extreme weather events less deadly than in the past:

The death rate from droughts is 99.9 percent lower than it was in the 1920s; the death rate from floods is 98 percent lower; and the death rate from big storms like hurricanes has declined more than 55 percent since the 1970s. (p. 197)

And future generations should be even richer than we are now (unless policies are put in place to prevent economic growth), and thus better equipped to handle weather events that climate change might throw at them.

Ron Bailey's preferred approach to dealing with climate change is to invest heavily in R&D on clean technologies (including nuclear) and when they are cheaper than fossil fuels (which is coming soon, he thinks) they'll be rapidly adopted without the need for mandates or subsidies (of course no other sources of energy should be subsidized either). A subheading in The End of Doom bluntly states "Make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels". A promising trend presented on this topic is that the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) estimates that the levelized cost of solar PV will be cheaper than coal within ten years; currently we are seeing exponential growth of solar capacity.

This question on the issue of making sacrifices is thought-provoking:

How much would you have demanded that your much poorer ancestors [in 1900] give up in order to prevent the climate change that we are now experiencing? We stand in exactly that same relation to people who will be living in 2100. (p. 212)

The final chapter investigates whether we're in an era of mass extinctions, as headlines sometimes scream. I learned that predictions of mass extinction are mostly derived from applying species-area-curve relationships to habitat loss, rather than actual field surveys; more recent research has found this method to lead to overestimates. Looking back at previous chapters, Ron identifies trends that are positive for biodiversity:

Since how people use land and water is the critical factor in protecting species from extinction, looking to the future there is good news with regard to strongly positive trends in population, farmland, urbanization, protected areas, and wealth. As we've seen in earlier chapters, human population will most likely peak in this century and begin to fall. Second, average wealth will also increase substantially, which will generate more demand for environmental quality, including the expansion and protection of wild areas. (p. 245)

Rising agricultural yields and stabilizing population sizes are predicted to lead to "peak farmland" and even reforestation in places. Apparently India increased its forested area from 1960 – 2000; Brazil and Indonesia are the main places where significant deforestation is still taking place. This final chapter also raises the idea of learning to live with wildlife more comfortably instead of trying to keep vast areas completely untouched. There is a nature documentary on PBS with this theme that I want to watch (I saw one episode when travelling in the US last year).

In the conclusion of his book, Ron Bailey writes,

The end of the world is not nigh. Far from it. Humanity does face big environmental challenges over the course of the coming century, but the bulk of the scientific and economic evidence shows that most of the trends are positive or can be turned in a positive direction by further enhancing human ingenuity. (p. 263, emphasis added)

To wrap up this post, I'll share a couple of recent articles that tie-in to some of the themes of The End of Doom:

  • This article in USA Today discusses positive trends related to poverty and health globally.
  • This article in the New York Times flips things around to show the benefits of economic growth by imagining/looking back at its absence:

Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation. It fostered an order in which the only mechanism to get ahead was to plunder one’s neighbor. Economic growth opened up a much better alternative: trade.