Predicting the future is always in fashion but particularly so as we enter a new millennium.
Two new books give us starkly different views of what may lie ahead in terms of food availability and environmental quality. State of the World 2000 (W.W. Norton), by Lester Brown head of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental advocacy group predicts myriad disasters. Looking in his crystal ball, Brown sees poverty, famine, ecological destruction, and worldwide human misery. On the contrary, Earth Report 2000 (McGraw Hill), edited by Ronald Bailey for the Washington-based, free-market oriented Competitive Enterprise Institute, predicts a plentiful food supply, affluence, and robust environmental health.
The two books are polar opposites on one major theme: Bailey embraces technology and free-market solutions as our hopes for the future. Brown rejects these and accepts the classic Malthusian theories, which link population growth with an inevitable march toward starvation, environmental destruction, and death.
It was 200 years ago that Thomas Robert Malthus first published his Essay on the Principe of Population, arguing that human populations would increase at an exponential rate, always outstripping available food supplies, which could only grow at an arithmetic rate. He wrote that this clash of events would cause an inevitable epidemic of human starvation and misery. The Malthus theme has been picked up time and time again, by such doomsday authors as Paul Erlich (in such books as the 1968 Population Bomb), who extended the gloomy prediction on the consequences of population growth to include inevitable depletion of natural resources. The new Brown book, State of the World 2000 is just the latest in this ongoing gloom-and-doom series.
As environmental writer Michael Fumento concludes in a recent review of these two books (published in the magazine Reason), "Worldwatch suffers from an ailment common among environmentalist groups: an acute allergy to good news." Malthus was right on one point the population of the world did increase substantially, if not exponentially, in the past two centuries. But Malthus left out one essential element in his prediction formula: human ingenuity, a talent and eagerness to use technology to solve challenges such as food shortages.
As Bailey writes in Earth Report 2000, "We make ourselves better off not by increasing the amount of stuff on planet earth which is, of course, fixed but by rearranging the stuff we have available so that it provides us with more of what we want food, clothing, shelter and entertainment. As we become more clever about rearranging material, the more goods and services we can get from relatively less stuff. This process of improvement has been going on ever sine the first members of our species walked the earth. By using better and better recipes . . . humanity has avoided the Malthusian trip while . . . making the world safer, more comfortable, and more pleasant for both larger numbers of people as well as for a larger proportion of the world's people."
One of those "recipes" that will defy Malthusian predictions during this century is agricultural biotechnology. By genetically modifying crops worldwide, the growth of the food supply will likely outpace the growth of population while actually using less of the earth's non-renewable resources.
Sorry, Malthus, your theories were interesting, but ultimately they are proving to be wrong. As Bailey reminds us, "Misery and vice are not the inevitable lot of humanity, nor is the ruin of the natural world a foregone conclusion. Two centuries after Malthus, we now know that the exponential growth of knowledge, not of our numbers, is the real key to understanding the promising future that lies ahead for humanity and for the earth."