Optimism will save the world

The earth deserves more than doom and gloom

This week marks the 49th Earth Day, a celebration of the natural wonders of the planet. Started in the United States in 1970, Earth Day is now a global environmental movement with 192 countries participating. This year, Earth Day comes on the heels of announcements from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) that Americans used more energy in 2018 than ever before. While some see this as “troubling,” there’s a lot to be excited about.

For one, renewable energy use in the US hit an all-time high in 2018. In addition, coal use fell even more as low-cost natural gas pushed out more coal from energy markets. These two trends are why in January the EIA also reported that energy-related carbon emissions grew in 2018, but predicted a decrease in both 2019 and 2020. In addition, the US energy supply is likely to be even lower carbon each year going forward as renewable energy technologies become cheaper and better.

These changes reflect the distinction between what journalist Charles C. Mann calls wizards and prophets. As Mann described them in an interview with Nathanael Johnson:

Well, I coined them as a sort of shorthand. A philosopher friend of mine said that there was a very clear way to describe these groups, one of them is a Schumpeterian–technophiliac–meliorist (laughs). But that didn’t seem all that clear to me, so I call them wizards, as in techno-wizards. Wizards basically believe that science and technology, properly applied, can let us produce our way out of our dilemmas. Prophets believe that there are natural limits, and we transgress these limits at our peril.

Their recommendations are kind of the opposite of each other. One is saying, “Be smart, make more, and that way everyone can win.” The other is saying, “Hunker down, conserve, obey the rules, otherwise everyone is going to lose.”

This model of prophets and wizards is a useful tool to understand much of the debate around our environment. Many speaking out about Earth Day this year will be clearly on the side of prophets, others will be wizards.

Only time will tell, but the case for thinking like a wizard gets stronger every year. Technological wizardry repeatedly wins out over doom and gloom prophecies.

The case for optimism

There’s a historical case in favor of wizardry. It’s borne out in a variety of ways in which education, economic prosperity, and child mortality are improving. From Our World in Data to the late Hans Rosling to Matt Ridley’s brand of rational optimism all tell stories about how these measures have improved along with technology. It’s the same story for each metric; We are living in a wealthier, healthier, and more prosperous world.

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Source: Our World in Data

According to others, taking up the role of Mann’s “prophets,” none of this was supposed to happen. As Paul R. Ehrlich, the Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford predicted in the first lines of his 1968 book The Population Bomb,

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to “stretch” the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.

There’s a lot to unpack in just these four sentences. Luckily, the main takeaway is that the wizards won this round, all because of the Green Revolution.

The Green Revolution, led by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, dramatically boosted the yields of wheat through selective breeding. The hundreds of millions of people Ehrlich predicted would die were saved and Borlaug is routinely credited with saving around a billion lives with the improvements in the wheat he developed.

Yet, if you read Ehrlich’s opening words carefully — and charitably — you may think that Borlaug’s innovations were just the kind of programs that stretch the planet’s carrying capacity. They merely stay humanity’s execution, not prevent it. Overcoming one cause of famine doesn’t mean that humanity will survive the next.

Fair points, but they miss the underlying flaws in the mental model of prophets. People create more and more wealth over time, they’re not just resource-drains. More people means more innovators like Norman Borlaug. Efforts to control population growth misunderstand many of the problems that population growth poses for the environment.

Is There a Tragedy at All?

Ehrlich is far from the only person to make this pessimistic prediction. Historically, Thomas Malthus, a 19th-century economist, argued famines would destroy much of the world’s population because humanity’s ability to produce food would be outpaced by population growth. Malthus, like all the population naysayers so far, was wrong because he couldn’t have predicted the invention of fertilizers and the industrial revolution that allowed us to feed so many more people.

Garrett Hardin, a University of California professor of biology, was one of the most widely-known advocates of population control for the environment’s sake. Hardin’s concerns about population are stated clearly in his famous paper, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” If you’ve heard of it before, it was probably illustrated with a thought experiment of grazing on publicly owned lands. Hardin argued that if a pasture is open to all, then it will be overused and its productive capabilities destroyed.

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There were two solutions, according to Hardin, for preventing the tragedy of the commons from playing out in pastures and other common resources. One was privatizing the commons so that owners had better incentives to care for the pasture. The second was centralized control over common resources to determine who could use them and when. Fundamentally, Hardin saw the imposition of centralized control as necessary to prevent the tragedy of the commons.

Hardin wanted to apply the tragedy of the commons to more than pastures, he wanted it applied primarily to people. And not all groups of people equally. Hardin’s theory had a darker side as well that led to him advocating for eugenics. In fact, one of his subheadings in the short paper puts it clearly, “Freedom to Breed is Intolerable.” Hardin worked against sending aid to developing countries because their existence threatened Earth’s “carrying capacity.”

Luckily for humanity, Hardin had a variety of notable critics. For one, Susan Jane Buck Cox, a political science professor at Northern Arizona University, wrote a paper titled, “No Tragedy on the Commons,” which documents the ahistorical nature of Hardin’s thought experiment. Seeing the potential for overgrazing, local communities developed means to prevent that overgrazing.

Hardin’s greatest critic won a Nobel prize in economics for her work. In contrast to the necessity of centralized control in Hardin’s view, Elinor Ostrom made a career documenting bottom-up responses to commons problems like Hardin’s pasture. As Ostrom put her central thesis, “People self-organize common property institutions of a wide diversity of kind and sometimes solve problems very well.” Ostrom’s research showed that the idea that rules must be imposed on users by an external authority failed to grapple with the ways individuals design their own rules for common access resources. People aren’t trapped in the sort of prisoner’s dilemma that the pasture thought experiment presumes because they invent their own forms of governance.

In the case of population growth and whether or not there’s a tragedy of the commons worth worrying about, there’s a lot to learn from people like Ostrom. For example, much like the ahistorical accounts of overgrazed pastures, Hans Rosling argued that the world population will never reach 11 billion. That’s because wealthier people tend to have fewer children. The growth in developed countries will fall even as developing countries become more wealthy and have more children and then join rich countries in decreasing their family size. All of this happens without force, without government policies like family-size limits.

Ingenuity and wizardry win out over fear and prophecy

The past is littered with failed prophecies which all boil down to the failure of the prophets of doom to properly reckon with the power of human ingenuity. Concerns about resource depletion deserve consideration, but it’s more likely that they’ll be proven wrong than that humanity is truly in danger.

Henry George, an American economist, made the fundamental point brilliantly in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty:

Here is a difference between the animal and the man. Both the jay-hawk and the man eat chickens, but the more jay-hawks the fewer chickens, while the more men the more chickens. Both the seal and the man eat salmon, but when a seal takes a salmon there is a salmon the less, and were seals to increase past a certain point salmon must diminish; while by placing the spawn of the salmon under favorable conditions man can so increase the number of salmon as more than to make up for all he may take, and thus, no matter how much men may increase, their increase need never outrun the supply of salmon.

George’s arguments remain true today. Even the new problems of climate change have solutions that will come from human ingenuity and the development of new technology.

In the energy space, fracking enabled the growth of natural gas which contains about half as much carbon as coal. Now coal is being beaten in the energy marketplace, which is a boon to the environment. But natural gas is also an effective partner for renewables. Renewables like wind and solar cycle up and down outside of the control of those powering the electrical grid, but natural gas is better at varying its production to meet those fluctuations. That makes natural gas a bridge fuel to a cleaner future as it can back up intermittent energy sources better than coal. Researchers have found an almost one-to-one ratio of expanded natural gas generating facilities and expanded renewables.

More rational optimism about population growth and potential solutions to climate change are needed now more than ever. The threats of climate change are real, but so were the threats put off by the Green Revolution and the famines that Malthus warned about.

As the economist and optimist Julian Simon wrote, “The ultimate resource is people — skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all.”

This Earth Day we should celebrate the ingenuity and ability of the Earth’s most creative and innovative creature — human beings — to solve even our most pressing environmental problems.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.