This Weekend's Contmeplation - It Is Always Good to Get Some Historical Perspective
The article below from the WSJ gives an interesting prespective on some ideas that were popular 35 years ago and where they are today. I remember using the "Limits of Growth" and the "Population Bomb" as textbooks in graduate school in the the 1970s. Sometimes it is good to compare your ideas from 30 years ago to what is happening now.
I'm old enough to recall the days in the late 1960s when people wore those trendy buttons that read: "Stop the Planet I Want to Get Off." And I will never forget that era's "educational" films of what life would be like in the year 2000. Played on clanky 16-millimeter projectors, they showed images of people walking down the streets of Manhattan with masks on, so they could avoid breathing the poison gases our industrial society was spewing.
The future seemed mighty bleak back then, and you merely had to open the newspapers for the latest story confirming how the human species was speeding down a congested highway to extinction. A group of scientists calling themselves the Club of Rome issued a report called "Limits to Growth." It explained that lifeboat Earth had become so weighed down with humans that we were running out of food, minerals, forests, water, energy and just about everything else that we need for survival. Paul Ehrlich's best-selling book "The Population Bomb" (1968) gave England a 50-50 chance of surviving into the 21st century. In 1980, Jimmy Carter released the "Global 2000 Report," which declared that life on Earth was getting worse in every measurable way.
So imagine how shocked I was to learn, officially, that we're not doomed after all. A new United Nations report called "State of the Future" concludes: "People around the world are becoming healthier, wealthier, better educated, more peaceful, more connected, and they are living longer."
Yes, of course, there was the obligatory bad news: Global warming is said to be getting worse and income disparities are widening. But the joyous trends in health and wealth documented in the report indicate a gigantic leap forward for humanity. This is probably the first time you've heard any of this because -- while the grim "Global 2000" and "Limits to Growth" reports were deemed worthy of headlines across the country -- the media mostly ignored the good news and the upbeat predictions of "State of the Future."
But here they are: World-wide illiteracy rates have fallen by half since 1970 and now stand at an all-time low of 18%. More people live in free countries than ever before. The average human being today will live 50% longer in 2025 than one born in 1955.
To what do we owe this improvement? Capitalism, according to the U.N. Free trade is rightly recognized as the engine of global prosperity in recent years. In 1981, 40% of the world's population lived on less than $1 a day. Now that percentage is only 25%, adjusted for inflation. And at current rates of growth, "world poverty will be cut in half between 2000 and 2015" -- which is arguably one of the greatest triumphs in human history. Trade and technology are closing the global "digital divide," and the report notes hopefully that soon laptop computers will cost $100 and almost every schoolchild will be a mouse click away from the Internet (and, regrettably, those interminable computer games).
It also turns out that the Malthusians (who worried that we would overpopulate the planet) got the story wrong. Human beings aren't reproducing like Norwegian field mice. Demographers now say that in the second half of this century, the human population will stabilize and then fall. If we use the same absurd extrapolation techniques demographers used in the 1970s, Japan, with its current low birth rate, will have only a few thousand citizens left in 300 years.
I take special pleasure in reciting all of this global betterment because my first professional job was working with the "doom-slaying" economist Julian Simon. Starting 30 years ago, Simon (who died in 1998) told anyone who would listen -- which wasn't many people -- that the faddish declinism of that era was bunk. He called the "Global 2000" report "globaloney." Armed with an arsenal of factual missiles, he showed that life on Earth was getting better, and that the combination of free markets and human ingenuity was the recipe for solving environmental and economic problems. Mr. Ehrlich, in response, said Simon proved that the one thing the world isn't running out of "is lunatics."
Mr. Ehrlich, whose every prediction turned out wrong, won a MacArthur Foundation "genius award"; Simon, who got the story right, never won so much as a McDonald's hamburger. But now who looks like the lunatic? This latest survey of the planet is certainly sweet vindication of Simon and others, like Herman Kahn, who in the 1970s dared challenge the "settled science." (Are you listening, global-warming alarmists?)
The media's collective yawn over "State of the Future" is typical of the reaction to just about any good news. When 2006 was declared the hottest year on record, there were thousands of news stories. But last month's revised data, indicating that 1934 was actually warmer, barely warranted a paragraph-long correction in most papers.
So I'm happy to report that the world's six billion people are living longer, healthier and more comfortably than ever before. If only it were easy to fit that on a button.