Has the stunning economic progress of the last century come at a price?

Conference Secretary Maurice Strong at the 1992 world environmental conference in Rio said "It is clear that the current life styles of the affluent middle classes – involving high meat intake, consumption of large amounts of frozen and convenience foods, use of fossil fuels, ownership of motor vehicles and small electrical appliances, home and workplace air-conditioning and suburban housing are not sustainable." And, “This can only be [remedied] through fundamental changes in . . . international economic relations, particularly as between industrialised and developing nations". In other words, a drastic shrinking of First World living standards was necessary. The accusation, “We are poor because you are rich,” – repeated by Third World delegates like a mantra – went unquestioned.

The idea that humanity is on the brink of destroying its resource base is far from new. But it was not until the latter half of the twentieth century that the notion began to assume the fervour of a religious crusade.

Since the ‘60s, apocalypticism has become a growth industry. Green Guru Paul Erhlich's 1968 best seller The Population Bomb set the tone. He warned that unless economic growth in the developed nations was drastically curtailed, the world would face catastrophe. A spate of authors took up the theme in publications such as The Doomsday Book, Ecodoom and The End of Affluence. Government-sponsored reports such as the influential Club of Rome's Limits to Growth echoed the depressing predictions - as did Global 2000 – A Report to The President in 1980.

These predictions had one thing in common: they were all wrong! Ehrlich's predictions that hundreds of millions would starve in the 1970's and that many key minerals would face depletion by 1985 proved absurdly false. So did the Club of Rome's prophecy that oil would reach $100 per barrel by 1985. And predictions of "standing room only" on the planet now look ridiculously alarmist as fertility rates start to plummet in tandem with increased prosperity in most countries – and, most importantly, among the vast Asian populations.

Fortunately the developed nations have ignored the entreaties of the Erhlichs, the Commoners and the Al Gores to cut back on economic growth. But they have implemented a host of common sense measures to improve the environment – made affordable by the very economic growth and prosperity condemned by the doomsayers.
So there are some cheerful news items to counter the depressing predictions fed to the media by green pressure groups.

No other statistic reflects the vast improvement in nutrition, income, and a healthy environment better than life expectancy. In industrial nations it is now triple the historical rate. Even in poor countries it is rising at a rapid rate – as in India and China where it has risen from around 47 in 1950 to 63 today. In developed countries child mortality has fallen from 200 per 1000 to less than 10 per 1000. Gains in poor countries is reflected in the experience of India, where the deaths of first-year babies dropped by almost half between 1980 and 1996.

Thanks to the green revolution, world food production per hectare has approximately doubled since 1950. Prices fell by half between 1960 and 1995. UNESCO reports that global illiteracy is down from 52% for those born before 1952 to 20% for those born before 1970. The list of improvements is almost endless.

We find that many things, such as telephone calls, have become cheaper. The cost of a three-minute telephone call from New York to San Francisco has declined from $89,78 in 1930 to $12,66 in 1960 and 36 U.S. cents today. A coast-to-coast flight in America is down from $3000 in 1940 to $209 today.

We are often told that productive humanity is degrading the planet but the air in the USA, the most productive country on earth, is getting cleaner. There is an improvement in respect of almost every type of pollutant. Between 1976 and 1997 sulphur dioxide declined by 58%, nitrogen dioxides by 27%, ozone by 30%, carbon monoxide by 61% and lead by 97%!

There has been an amazing decline in pollution per unit of output. Modern industry achieves six times more output per ton of polluting emissions than in 1920. Equally impressive is that emissions per capita have fallen by almost half over the past fifty years – although we now produce and consume far more.

Lakes and rivers are cleaner because industrial water pollution has plummeted since 1980. The percentages of U.S. streams usable for fishing and swimming were: 1972 - 36%; 1982 - 64%; 1994 - 86%. Lake Erie, considered dead in the 1970's, has recently been yielding record fish catches.

Counterintuitive as it may sound, declining market prices indicate an increasing abundance of metals and minerals. Energy sources show no signs of depletion. Today we obtain twice as much production from one unit of energy than we did in the first half of the 20th century.

Urbanization is said to be covering precious land in concrete. Yet urban and suburban land covers only 3% of the USA. The rate of conversion is .0006% per year and the ratio of protected land to urban and agricultural land rose from 6.4% in 1959 to 22.9% in 1987.

There are more trees and forests, now a total of roughly 4 billion hectares on the globe, the increase being mainly in temperate forests – up from about 3.6 billion in the 1940's. Rain forests are currently shrinking but not at an alarming rate.

While areas of concern remain, it is reasonable to expect that the developed world will not countenance the drastic curtailment of industry demanded by the green activists and exemplified in the Kyoto Protocol. The developing world is also objecting to maintaining environmental standards that arose only when developed countries became rich enough to afford them. If reason prevails it is feasible to suggest that progress will continue at such a pace that in less than thirty years the whole world could be sharing the current affluent lifestyles of the developed world's middle classes.

Author: Alwyn Todd is an independent researcher and writer. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and they are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Article of the Week\25 March 2003 - Policy Bulletin / 04 August 2009
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