The Intersection

Some Ron Bailey Writings

Part of debating, of course, is knowing your opponent. In the case of Ron Bailey, I’ve appeared at three separate events with him in the past, so we do know each other’s arguments fairly well. Still, I’ve done a little background research now that we’re going to be going head-on (we’ve been more orthagonally aligned at the other events). And since I know there are some good brains out there, here’s your chance to react to specific arguments by Bailey that I’ve dug up…

First, Bailey has a long record of criticizing 1970s environmnentalists (the old school types) for exaggerating potential population and resource depletion crises. A typical example, from Congressional testimony that he gave in 2004:

First, let us look at concerns over depleting so-called nonrenewable resources. This thesis was most famously propounded in the 1972 Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome and later in President Jimmy Carter’s Global 2000 report. The Limits to Growth thesis got a big boost when the Arab countries unleashed their oil embargo in 1973. It didn’t hurt that the Limits to Growth report was also featured on the front page of The New York Times when it was released. Ultimately, the Limits to Growth report sold 10 million copies world-wide….

I did a series of reports when I was at Forbes magazine in 1990. I went up to MIT to interview Professor Jay Forrester and asked him, “I re-read The Limits to Growth report; what happened?” Basically, Professor Forrester, who was the god-father of this project, looked at me and said, “I think we stressed the physical resources side a little too much.” Of course, the report would not have made it to the front page of The New York Times had they not stressed the imminent de-pletion of nonrenewable resources.

Even the generally alarmist Worldwatch Institute acknowledged in its 2001Vital Signs report: “Nonfuel commodities now fetch only 46 percent as much as in the mid-1970s.” Indeed, Worldwatch admitted, “food and fertilizer prices are about one-fourth their 1974 peak.” Even the price of crude oil, which has risen in the last couple of years, “nevertheless remains at about half the zenith it achieved in 1980.” In fact, overall, nonfuel commodities cost only a third of what they did in 1900. As everyone knows, lower prices generally mean that things are becoming more abundant, not scarcer.

In short, Bailey, like many other libertarians, is a techno-optimist critical of “Malthusians” for exaggerating looming crises. In the same testimony he takes on Paul Ehrlich:

Now onto population growth. Let’s begin with a little walk down memory lane. In 1968 Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich famously predicted in his best-selling book The Population Bomb: “The battle to feed all humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines; hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”….

Well, what happened? First, let’s review a few things. Why did global population increase so dramatically in the 20th century, rising from about 1.6 billion in 1900 to a bit over six billion today? As Harvard University demographer Nicholas Eberstadt puts it: “Global population increased not because people started breeding like rabbits, but because they stopped dying like flies.”

What happened is that babies stopped dying shortly after being born, as had been the case throughout the millennia for human beings. The global infant mortality rate dropped from a couple of hundred per thousand to below 50 per thousand today. The result is that human life expectancy has more than doubled from an average of only 30 years in 1900, rising to 46 years by 1950, and is now 66 years in the year 2001. That is a global figure. The World Health Organization expects life expectancy to increase to 73 years on average by the year 2020. I would submit to you that this is truly evidence for the greatest improvement of the human condition in all of history.

Bailey has also been a big fan of the work of Bjorn Lomborg. From a 2002 article in Reason, here’s his defense of Lomborg’s species extinction arguments:

In his review [of Lomborg], Lovejoy simply ignores the many overblown assertions (including his own) during the past two decades that 40,000-or 100,000 or even 250,000-species are going extinct each year and that as many as half of all species on Earth would be extinct by the year 2000. Yet he declares that the biologist Norman Myers, who first offered the 40,000 figure, “deserves credit for being the first to say that the number [of species going extinct] was large,” even though Myers “did not specify the method of arriving at his estimate.” Lovejoy is essentially commending Myers for making up a number to get public attention.

Lovejoy notes that today environmentalists no longer give out a number of species going extinct and that instead “current estimates are usually given in terms of the increases over normal extinction rates….That science does not know the total number of species does not prevent an estimation of extinction rates.” These estimated extinction rates are derived from the species/area curve relation that predicts that if 90 percent of a habitat is cut down, half of the species living there will go extinct. As Lomborg points out, biologists who have tried to count species in three areas that have undergone such dramatic conver-sions in habitats–Eastern North America, Brazil’s Atlantic Coast forests, and Puerto Rico–have not found that the species/ area curve relation holds. In other words, the extinction rates of known species are far lower than predicted by theory.

Today the general estimate is that the rate of extinctions is between 100 and 1,000 times the “natural” rate. Lomborg points out in an endnote that “it is worth contemplating how most green organizations today have stopped talking about percentages and started talking about multiples of natural extinctions, although the latter is much less informative. It seems probable that this shift is due in no small respect to the latter sounding more ominous.” Lovejoy dis-misses this observation as “cynical.” Given Lovejoy’s easy acceptance of Myers’ alarmist claims two decades ago, he should know cynicism when he sees it. Tellingly, Lovejoy does not actually question Lomborg’s estimate that some 0.7 percent of species will disappear over the next 50 years if current trends continue. In fact, the rates of species extinction cited by Lovejoy and others are consistent with Lomborg’s estimate. The disappearance of 0.7 percent of species is lamentable, but it is a far cry from the extinction of half the world’s species.

Finally, from a 2000 piece in Reason, here’s his take on DDT:

At Earth Day 1970, many Americans feared that synthetic chemicals, especially pesticides, were killing them. No culprit was more singled out than DDT, a pesticide that had been first used in 1946. The World Health Organization originally hailed it as a miracle that had drastically reduced deaths from malaria; its inventor, Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Muller, was honored with a Nobel Prize in 1948.

By 1970, however, DDT had emerged as the symbol of all that was wrong with the modern world. DDT had been implicated in the decimation of several bird species due to eggshell thinning. It was also alleged to cause several human cancers, including breast cancer. DDT was banned in the U.S. by the EPA in 1972; other countries soon followed suit…..

Contrary to the conventional wisdom at Earth Day 1970, there’s a broad consensus that exposure to synthetic chemicals, even pesticides, does not seem to be a problem. In 1996, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, in a comprehensive report called Carcinogens and Anticarcinogens in the Human Diet, concluded that levels of both synthetic and natural carcinogens are “so low that they are unlikely to pose an appreciable cancer risk.” The National Cancer Institute reports that “increasing exposure to general environmental hazards seems unlikely to have had a major impact on the overall trends in cancer rates.” “Pollution appears to account for less than 1 percent of cancer,” concludes University of California biologist and cancer researcher Bruce Ames.

To be sure, the total number of cancer cases in the population did go up from 1973 to 1990, but cancer death rates declined owing to better medical treatments. Cancer incidence went up for some very prosaic reasons: We smoke too much tobacco, we eat too much fat, and we sunbathe excessively. We also live longer and cancer is primarily a disease of old age. In the U.S. since the early 1990s, both the incidence of cancer and deaths from cancer have been declining, not rising. Some analysts, such as Gregg Easterbrook, have recently hinted that this decline in cancer rates is the result of reductions in the amount of toxins released into the environment. Actually, a good bit of the improvement in cancer rates can be attributed to the decline in the number of smokers in the U.S.

Never mind. Cancer is scary enough (and ubiquitous enough–about one-third of Americans will get some sort of cancer during their lifetimes) that it still serves as a good tool for frightening people about alleged environmental contamination. Just this past January, Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown ominously noted, “Every human being harbors in his or her body about 500 synthetic chemicals that were nonexistent before 1920.” So what? Considering that American lifespans have increased by 20 years, from an average of 56 years in 1920 to 71 years in 1970 to 76 years today, one might be tempted to argue that those synthetic chemicals are prolonging our lives. Certainly, they’re not causing damage. Just last year, the National Research Council issued yet another report that found no evidence that synthetic chemicals are causing higher rates of cancer, birth defects, and other problems alleged by Brown.

Meanwhile, banning DDT allowed a resurgence of malaria-carrying mosquitos worldwide. The Malaria International Foundation estimates that there are between 600 to 900 million cases of malaria a year and that about 2.7 million people die of it annually. Spraying DDT had cut malaria deaths from 4 million annually in the early 1940s to 1 million in the 1960s.

Reactions to any of this are welcome. Note, I did not include samples of any of Bailey’s global warming arguments because he has recently changed his views on the subject….


  1. #1 Thomas Palm
    June 2, 2006

    The obvious counter to statements about how environmentalists were wrong is to show how industrialists have been equally wrong when they predict the costs of reducing pollution. Bring up the way the tobacco industry acted to distort research. The one thing that is sure is that when you try to predict the future you will be wrong in many respects, but there is a difference between honest mistakes and deliberate deception.

    Ron Bailey also argues that since we’ve gotten longer lifespans etc we should all be happy, and while it is true that we’ve gotten it better this leaves the question if we use that extra wealth in the best possible way. As we get richer it becomes sensible to invest in reducing even small risks.

  2. #2 Zeno
    June 2, 2006

    The argument about DDT and malaria has been thoroughly trashed over at Deltoid:

    DDT: The Untold Story

    Don’t miss the claim that banning DDT killed more people than Hitler!

  3. #3 Mark Frank
    June 2, 2006

    He is clearly right that environmentalists have cried wolf and made pronouncements based on very sketchy facts. I remember reading Limits to Growth in the early 70s and wondering how we would make it to the end of the century. You just have to accept this.

    However, that doesn’t mean there are no problems or that we can just ignore them and they will go away. On a percentage basis the world may be getting richer but there are still plenty of people starving. The extinction rate may have been exaggerated, but it is still far faster than the background rate and if we don’t do something about it – it will carry on. The harm caused by DDT may not be as great as feared but does some harm and is not a panacea for curing malaria either.

    Lomborg’s message is not “there are no environmental problems”. It is that we should base our reaction on real figures and prioritise our responses. If he had written the book in a slightly less critical vein, he could have used the same data and made much the same recommendations and been accepted as key figure in the environmentalist movement.

  4. #4 llewelly
    June 2, 2006

    hmm, I see: ‘… banning DDT allowed a resurgence of malaria-carrying mosquitos worldwide.’
    But according to the WHO’s FAQ :

    3. Can DDT currently be used for malaria vector control?
    Yes, DDT may be used for the control of the mosquito vectors of malaria. DDT use for malaria
    vector control is, however, strictly governed by the protocols of the Stockholm Convention
    on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) and the specific recommendations of WHO. The
    Stockholm Convention allows DDT production and use for public health purposes only (disease
    vector control). Countries opting to use DDT are required to provide information to WHO
    and the Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention on the amount of DDT used and conditions
    of such use every three years. Detailed reporting procedures have been jointly developed by
    WHO and the Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention.1, 2

  5. #5 M1EK
    June 2, 2006

    Re DDT – jog on over to Tim Lambert’s blog. Bailey’s opposition to most of this kind of stuff is based on a willing ignorance of the real facts so he can score cheap points against the environmentalists in his head.

    Global warming is no different – his latest writings on the subject (especially in Hit and Run on have shown that he’s still fighting a rear guard action, just from one step closer than he used to be.

  6. #6 SLC
    June 2, 2006

    You might also want to do a little research on peak oil. Even the oil companies agree that the rate of increase in demand in India and China is not sustainable.

  7. #7 Matt McIrvin
    June 2, 2006

    My impression is that from a modern perspective, The Limits to Growth comes off better than Ehrlich does. I haven’t researched this from the primary sources, so I could be as wrong as the critics. But Tom Fiddaman made an interesting comment on RealClimate a while ago in which he argued that most of the retrospective bashing of LtG comes from willful or accidental misreadings of a table of resource lifetime indices, which were not meant as actual predictions. Fiddaman says that none of the LtG simulation runs predicted a crash coming any time before the present. And the whole point of the exercise was that our behavior is a choice, not that we’re fated to destroy ourselves.

    Many simple projections cited in the 1960s and 1970s did have population continuing to increase exponentially up to the present, and it’s already not doing that; birthrates in developing countries have started to decline more rapidly than many people predicted. I think the difference in today’s population amounts to about half a billion people. But, again, the whole point of much of that doomsaying was that we had the opportunity to work on this and ought to do so.

  8. #8 Fred Bortz
    June 2, 2006

    The striking thing in all Bailey’s arguments is his confidence that catastrophes happen gradually.

    In fact, most are threshhold phenomena. The approach to the threshhold may be gradual, and it ususally goes unnoticed. People with atherosclerosis may not exhibit any symptoms until they have a devastating heart attack. Does that mean they were right to live as couch potatoes and eat fast-food burgers and fries all those years?

    Climate change has been looked at through a similar lens. In fact the evidence of a greenhouse-gas crisis may well have been masked by some particulate-induced global cooling in the mid-20th century. Now the world is showing symptoms that may lead to a catastrophic set of climatic events. Furthermore, our detection techniques and modeling are getting better, confirming our findings but suggesting ways to minimize the damage.

    Here’s an argument that I would make:

    The patient is now showing early signs of an impending heart attack. A cardiac catherization shows severe blockage in his coronary arteries, but he refuses angioplasty or bypass surgery and instead orders another supersized Big Mac with fries.

    This analogy is apt, as anyone who has had coronary angioplasty and stent insertion can attest. Five years ago, I didn’t exercise and occasionally indulged in mega-cholesterol foods. I was nearly at the threshold when symptoms finally became clear. I was literally hours from a debilitating, possibly fatal, heart attack. After my surgery, I changed my habits — not by a lot, but by enough to keep myself healthy.

    That’s the kind of behavior I am looking for from governments and societies around the world. Acknowledge the threshhold and step back before it devastates us all. The adjustments are manageable (perhaps even advantageous and profitable) and the consequences of not making them appear to be catastrophic.

  9. #9 TokyoTom
    June 2, 2006

    Chris, in addition to the comments I’ve already given, let me note the following:

    1. On Club of Rome and the Malthusian issue generally, the doomsayers were right to perceive problems that are still with us, but is failed to understand how market supply and demand work to call forth new supplies and technologies. Now we use sand instead of copper for our telecommunications. They were very wrong on commodity prices, but what were the consequences? We adapted, so it can hardly be said to be one of the “worst” abuses of science (in any case the projections were not an abuse of science, but mistaken modelling).

    In the big picture, Club of Rome was exactly right about a point on which we are still struggling – like any other species, humanity is a part of its environment and we must be concerned about our impact on the environment. Without the proper feedback mechanisms – which are provided now soleyl by disease, war and properly functioning markets – we will expand up to the Earth’s carrying capacity, overshoot and crash, as we have from time to time in the past, as Jared Diamond points out (but Diamond doesn’t understand environmental problems as market-failure problems either).

    Are all the feedback mechanisms working properly worldwide? There is still lots of misery and starvation in the third world, and where markets don’t work we have internecine slaughter like in Rwanda and constant instability in Haiti. Global ecosystems and environmental services are still at severe risk, and regional resources like Asian and South American tropical forests, tropical reefs and oceanic fisheries, and wild species everrywhere, precisely for reasons that Ron Bailey understands well – because markets do not work well where property rights – private or communal – are not clearly defined or not effectively enforced.

    On this, I recommend that you take a look at Ron’s piece last year on the problems and solutions for New England fisheries: How to Save New England’s Fishing Villages – If only the fishers will allow it. The solution? Creation of private rights that allow a market to function; here, “Individual transferable quotas” (ITQs) that are exactly the same as taken for SO2 trading in California under the Clean Air Act and the GHG emissions permits now trading under Kyoto. These tragedy of the commons issues persist globally and must be addressed, unless we wish to see ineffectively owned resources destroyed.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the Malthusians have been wrong only becuase our technological ingenuity has enabled us to wrest more and more from nature. Nature may be getting a break in the West, but it’s due not only to fossil fuels (and a AGW cost that is not being paid) but also because we’re sourcing more and more from the developing world – the oceans are being strip-mined, the Amazon being converted to soybeans and the Asian tropics to palm plantations, and the second/third worlds are definitely converting forests to food. Environmental services are not costed into the moder economy.

    I also recommend you look at the Business Rountable’s policy paper on how to help the developing world improve their economies and prepare for climate change – in particular recommendations 2 (kleptocracy – “public” resources are not protected but exploited to line the pockets of elites) and 5 (lack of effective propertty rights) specifically point out that these institutinal failures lie at the core of the third world’s problems.

    2. I think there is more recent information about one in seven of all bird species being threatened. Whatever the rate is, it is huge, and just like fisheries, it’s entirely due to the lack of effective property rights. The bright spots are where landowners have figured out that they can get a good income from using and protecting wild resources. We’re still fighting about whales, even though we have obvious solutions such as ITQs being applied to other fisheries in NZ and AK.

    Ron can argue with you about the numbers of species, but he really can’t disagree that the loss of this genetic information is a disgrace many worse than the burning of the library of Alexandria, and certainly is a result of failed markets that should be fixed.

    Since libertarians like Ron and others on the right actually know all about the problems of market failure, where is the big effort being made to fix these problems?

    3. On DDT, I imagine you know that Tim Lambert at Deltoid already has all of the answers handy.

    4. This isn’t one of your questions, but I think it is fair to note that the failures of the left relating to science have really been failures to understand the institutional reasons for problems and so failures to propose the right solutions. Those on the left who have been saying that we need to change human nature or abandon capitalism have been saying so because they simply don’t know otherwise how to “fix” capitalism’s flaws.

    But as I imagine you know, the misuse of science the right, on the other hand, has been entirely intentional, cynical and venal, and designed to allow favored interests (rent-seekers) to continue to pay cheap for dear public resources (including using the atmosphere as a GHG dump), for the financial and partisan benefit of those running the government. See John Baden, a grandfather of libertarian, free-market environmentalism for his take on the corrupt Republicans:

    Good luck!



  10. #10 Jon Winsor
    June 2, 2006

    The key here, I think, is the cynicism.

    You’ll always have eccentric professorial types speculating and coming up with theories that capture newspaper headlines. But futurists of all sorts tend to have bad records. (For instance, where is my personal air transport? Where is my vacation to Tycho Crater on the Moon?)

    And surprise, causes tend to want to present themselves dramatically. And sometimes they surpass the merely dramatic and overstate things. But ordinary product advertisement does the same thing. It’s how they get peoples’ attention. And in most cases, as is the case with species extinction, the cause happens to merit attention.

    But I think the key is the cynicism. Remember Paul Krugman on the think tanks:

    Back in 1978 Mr. Kristol urged corporations to make “philanthropic contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate preservation of a strong private sector.” That was delicately worded, but the clear implication was that corporations that didn’t like the results of academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say something more to their liking.

    …[The right] pour[ed] a steady stream of money into think tanks that created a sort of parallel intellectual universe, a world of “scholars” whose careers are based on toeing an ideological line, rather than on doing research that stands up to scrutiny by their peers.

    Now that’s cynical. Out of that you get the big tobacco “research” efforts, the manipulation of the public on climate change, and the Discovery Institute. These efforts have a premeditated quality that is different from someone getting overenthusiastic about their cause and being overly dramatic–often in an off-the-cuff way. Or some professorial type publishing speculative ideas and getting publicity.

    And take your man Tozzi. Taking the laws that our elected representives passed and totally under the radar making them ineffective–that’s cynical.

    And a miscellaneous item from one of the pieces you quote above:

    “Pollution appears to account for less than 1 percent of cancer,” concludes University of California biologist and cancer researcher Bruce Ames.

    It would be hard to question something like this while thinking on your feet, but I would question a statement like this telling the whole story. How many cancer diagnoses do we have per year? If it’s any significant number, 1 percent could be a lot. What counts as pollution? Are they counting toxins that get in food? And what percentage of cancer cases have no known causes? How do we know that they’re not “pollution”? (I know nothing about this field, let alone read the study, but often published studies like this have significant weaknesses.)

  11. #11 Brian S.
    June 2, 2006

    Worth noting that Ehrlich challenged Simon to a second bet over global warming, which Simon declined to take:

  12. #12 wswilso
    June 2, 2006

    A couple of approaches to a response that may be useful:

    1. There is often a penalty paid in credibility when a predictor is right too soon.
    There have been recent publications on resource depletion, (copper and fresh water are especially dramatic) that confirm the earlier concerns. The earlier degree of alarm was based simply on rationally conservative estimates about technological progress.

    2. It is now known better than was undertood in the ’70s that complex
    processes in the natural world proceed at exponentially incresed rates after a tipping point is reached. In many cases current obserrvations are of systems that have not yet reaached but more closely approach such tipping points.

  13. #13 Edward Furey
    June 2, 2006

    According Laurie Garrett, the malaria campaign began to fail long before the DDT ban, when the U.S. Congress, convinced it had been won, cut the funding way back. That was about 1967. Also, DDT was not foolproof, the bugs were already becoming immune to it, so other anti-vectors would be needed.

    The main argument against DDT was the birdshell case, not the cancer stuff, which was always suspect. It is a demonstrable fact that since the DDT ban went into effect, many bird species, especially raptors, have made spectacular comebacks. Ospreys had all but disappeared from Long Island, now they nest along both coasts all the way into Queens. Hawks of many kinds nest in New York City, with Pale Male and Lola only the best known pairs.

    And the essential arguments against all these pesticides is that they were wildly overused, due more to chemical company salesmanship than agricultural necessity. In moderate amounts, they posed little danger to human or wildlife, even while controlling infestations, but that is not what happened.

  14. #14 Chris Mooney
    June 2, 2006

    Thanks a bunch, everyone. Great food for thought.

    Just one more thing: Given the controversy on this blog over the Skeptics Society conference, I’m going to be giving a brief editorial statement at the beginning of the debate tomorrow about it. After the debate I will post here what I said.

  15. #15 Ken Goldstein
    June 2, 2006

    One way to look at it is that most of the distortions the left are accused of are simply cases of being wrong. Looking at the evidence and making a prediction based on it which doesn’t come to be. The very definition of an honest mistake. A lot of the time it’s based on overly cautious risk management philosophy. Environmentalists/pure food activists may have overstated the risks of some toxins, but nobody would argue that those substances were not, in fact harmful. Just that they did not pose a risk at the levels found or that the activists considered any risk too great to take. I’m sure you can find many examples of people overstating the consequences of very small risks.

    But, the right has been engaging in a very different campaign. At some point, somebody decided to erase the bottom two lines on Hanson’s graph and distort his findings. Whoever did must have known what Hanson was actually saying and distorted his data to make him look dishonest. The first person in a right wing think-tank to read the paper showing a thickening of the interior of the Antarctic Ice Shelf must have known that the authors of the paper believed it was the predicted result of a warmer (and therefore more humid), yet sub-freezing climate. Yet, they still submitted talking points stating that global warming had been disproved. This is not to be confused with the examples in your book in which conservatives take a single dissenting paper and use it to “debunk” the 50 other papers showing something else. That may be bad enough and an abuse of science, but it’s no where as bad as looking at a paper that shows you’re wrong and telling people it vindicates you.

  16. #16 Frank Lundburg
    June 3, 2006

    As simplistic as this sounds, no matter how much folks nit-pick about various studies, the preponderence of evidence shows that the world’s natural resources are diminishing, that the planet is getting warmer and that what humans have been doing the past 100 years is making the problem worse. Anyone can find anything “wrong” with any “study” but no one can deny that “stuff” is happening which wasn’t happening even a few years ago. That’s all which needs to be said. Talking about science is one issue. Talking about politics is another. Let’s not confuse them and let politics influence the science.