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….