We discuss the growth and maturity of the modern environmental movement from Rachel Carson to Paul Ehrlich and Naomi Klein. From overpopulation and pollution to pesticide use, mass animal extinctions and peak oil to global cooling and global warming (now climate change) and genetically modified food, there seems to be no shortage of potential catastrophes for us to fret over. Is humanity truly perpetually poised on the brink of destruction? Or are the solutions these environmental millenarians propose the true threat to our species?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Ronald Bailey’s new book The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century is a must read on this topic.
We also recommend Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves and Brink Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture to get a better understanding of the power of markets to allocate resources in increasingly efficient ways.
Paul Ehrlich’s 1971 book The Population Bomb is mentioned in this show. It reads as fantastic science fiction today, though the predictions Ehrlich makes were taken quite seriously when the book was first published. Similarly, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) predicted a world in which it was common for people to die of cancer-related illnesses (caused by pollutants) at the age of 45. The book was instrumental in launching the modern-day environmental movement.
Bailey also mentions an article he wrote in 2009 about the National Academy of Sciences predictions in 1980 of what the world would look like in 2010, “How Green Is Your Crystal Ball?”
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for Reason magazine and Reason.com and the author of the new book The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the21st Century. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Ron.
Ronald Bailey: I’m delighted to be with you. Thank you for having me on.
Trevor Burrus: In the beginning of your book, you start off with a character, maybe that’s the right word, a character, a person, who kind of fits into the general thrust of your book, Paul Ehrlich and you talk about a conversation you had with him when you were writing a …
Ronald Bailey: An earlier book.
Trevor Burrus: An earlier book about prognostications. But for those of our listeners who don’t know who is Paul Ehrlich and why does he sort of fit into the theme of your book.
Ronald Bailey: Paul Ehrlich has been a figure in environmental circles for almost 50 years at this point. He’s actually an entomologist who works at Stanford University, but he’s most famous for having written a book called The Population Bomb in 1968. It sold almost a million copies around the world at the time and in that book, he – and so ’68. He said hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in the 1970s despite any crash programs that could be embarked upon now, period.
There were no qualifications. It’s just going to happen. 1970, he wrote an article where he basically said, well, the famines are coming. I think the only thing I can do is my friends and I must retreat to the mountains and take care of ourselves.
Well, in the fullness of time, as we’ve seen, that didn’t happen and – may I tell the story how I came to write?
Trevor Burrus: Please.
Ronald Bailey: When I was in college back in the 1970s, that long ago, I was taught The Population Bomb among other things. I was also taught The Limits to Growth which was published [0:01:56] [Indiscernible] entered college in 1972 which basically said we were going to run out of all kinds of minerals and oil and gas by the 2000s. Of course in the early 60s, Silent Spring had been published by Rachel Carson where among other things she claimed that our exposures to synthetic chemicals are going to cause massive cancer epidemics.
So basically my professors were teaching me that my life was going to be short and miserable and the world was going to hell. Twenty years later, I was working as a staff writer at Forbes Magazine and I noticed that we were still here and I noticed not only that, that we were richer and people were living longer and there were a lot of very good things going on.
Pollution levels were way down in the United States. So I went to editor and said I would like to go back and reread the books and then go to the people who wrote them, ask them what happened. I read and naively expected them to go, “Well, thank goodness we were wrong.” No, that’s not what happened.
For example, Paul Ehrlich, when I was interviewing him in the 1990s said, “All right, Ron. I admit it. I got my timing wrong. The famines will occur in the future.” I go, “So when do you expect them to occur now?” and he confidently told me in 1990 that they’re going to occur between the year 2000 and 2010. It is now 2015 and still no famines.
I went to the people at MIT who had done the computer program for the Limits to Growth models and sat with them all day and they’re very friendly. We had a very good conversation but I went – kept going back to the table, in the center of the book, saying, “Well, you said this was all going to be gone by such and such.” Finally one of them turned to me and goes, “All right, Ron. I admit it. We probably overemphasized the material resources side too much.”
OK, fine. Have you called up the New York Times and told them that? They had your book on the front page of their newspaper. I couldn’t talk to Rachel Carson but fortunately Ehrlich had also outlined a scenario which people would be dying of cancer at such a great rate that the average life expectancy in the United States would be 45 years by the year 1980 because …
Trevor Burrus: Forty-five? So back to about 1890 levels.
Ronald Bailey: Basically, because of cancer though in this particular case and because we’re being exposed to synthetic chemicals. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Every year since, the average life expectancy of Americans has gone up. The more chemicals, the longer we live.
Aaron Ross Powell: Was this because Ehrlich and Carson and [0:04:22] [Indiscernible] scared us into action, that if it weren’t for their warnings …
Ronald Bailey: No, not at all. The – it’s – let’s look at what population is and what the trends are. In the book I point out the demographers are basically looking through the rest of the century. The trends are likely that world population will top out between eight and nine billion toward the middle of the century and start declining at that point. Why would that be happening? Largely because women are going to be having fewer children because they’re going to be more liberated. There will be more living in cities. They will be more educated. They will be participating in the market economies.
Frankly, they will have other things to do than sitting around in the home having babies. There was a fascinating correlation that some wonderful social anthropologists came up with, with regard to life expectancy and the number of children women have over the course of the lifetime.
If you expect to live under – if your life expectancy is under age 50 and there are unfortunately several countries in the world where that is the case, you have five to six children. Why? Because first of all, you don’t expect a lot of them to live very long. Two, you’re living at a very poor place, so the more children you have, the more resources your family might get or that kind of thing.
But then what happens is as life expectancy increases, in other words there’s more wealth that goes into society as women become more educated. From 50 to 60, it goes down to three children. From 60 to 70, it goes down to 2.5 and from 70 to 75, it goes down to 1.7.
Every rich country in the world – there are 80 countries in the world now that are rich enough where life expectancy for women is sufficiently high, that the average number of children they have is under two.
Trevor Burrus: Which makes it below replacement …
Ronald Bailey: Which makes it below replacement. So assuming that – and I do believe this will be happening. As the world becomes richer and more prosperous and new technologies come long and women are more educated, we are going to see women choosing to have fewer children and so world population will peak and start to decline and that’s a great part of liberty. I mean people are getting to choose the number of children they want to have.
Aaron Ross Powell: So when people like Ehrlich – and he certainly is not the first to make predictions of catastrophe and then revise them and revise them and revise them …
Trevor Burrus: Also Christians. That’s a very common religious prediction too, so not just environmentalists.
Aaron Ross Powell: When they do this or when he tells you, “Oh no, I was a little bit wrong and it’s now going to be in this decade,” what’s the motivation behind that? I mean is he saying – there has got to be a little bit of professional pride and like if I admit I was wrong, but I can always keep pushing it off in the future and the future never actualy arrives if I keep saying it long enough.
Is that some of the motivation or is there – does he genuinely believe this – and this is I mean of course asking to psychologize. It can’t be done accurately. But does he genuinely believe in – does he have good reason at least to continue to believe it or at least plausible reasons or is it just kind of transparently – you know, I don’t want to look like a fool?
Ronald Bailey: Actually, I think he has his reasons. I should mention that as recently as this past year, he was asked how likely it is that human civilization will survive. This century he said less than 10 percent chance. So he’s still out there saying it’s all over. But his particular – I think the problem is he’s enthralled to a particular theory and the theory that was revised by a guy named Malthus, an economist back in the late 18th century, where he basically was arguing that the population of humans was regulated by the food supply.
His argument was is that population pressure would always outstrip our ability to produce more food and up until actually that century, that was the case. Science and technology and ingenuity had not come along to be able to produce more food over that time.
But what was interesting about it is that a lot of these people were talking about Ehrlich. There’s one who is a biologist. Charles Darwin took that theory and it works for animals. It works for animals brilliantly. Their populations are related to the food supply. In fact one way to think about it is that every species, except human beings, the whole goal is to turn food, more food into more offspring. The more food, the more offspring.
Humans don’t do that and the problem is, is that Ehrlich wants to apply that biological theory to a creative species that can use and use its freedom to choose other choices. He just can’t see that he’s wrong, that that particularly does not apply to us. So he is enthralled to a theory.
Trevor Burrus: Does it seem sometimes – this is kind of dovetailing off Aaron’s question and I actually think this about doomsayers of all types including Christians, that people like Paul Ehrlich and other Malthusians and other doomsayers, it seems that part of them almost wants it to become true, because they will be vindicated as being correct, which is sort of perverse.
Ronald Bailey: I don’t know that they want to be vindicated so much. I’m sure there must be some of that there. But there is a – I do talk about this a bit in the book. There’s an attraction to millenarianism. There is this notion that my generation is at the hinge point of history. What we do matters crucially for all time. That’s more important than any previous generation. As a baby boomer, I completely agree with that. Yes.
Trevor Burrus: The real …
Ronald Bailey: I mean baby boomers are the most important generation in history ever and we continue to stay that way. But – and I hate to say it but a lot of this doom and gloom stuff is a baby boomer phenomenon. There, I admit to it. But there is that attraction. You see that on all kinds of religious millenarian movements as well and environmentalism has adopted that very largely.
Trevor Burrus: I see also as the underlying ideology which we can get into more about what that is, but when you make a prediction about some sort of catastrophe that is often based off of the idea that right now we’re doing things incorrectly. So it’s really a critique about now. There’s some sort of fatal flow in the way that we’re behaving. We’re not behaving authentically human. You could say like Christians. You could say with some Marxism back in the – therefore there will be – it will come up and it’s a day of reckoning that will show us the error of our ways. So listen to me now. It’s kind of the thing.
But it’s interesting the overpopulation thing, which I do think, which I remember hearing growing up. I mean I think Aaron probably remembers that like in – but I don’t hear about it as much anymore.
Ronald Bailey: No, it has receded into the background though if you follow the debates, it is still in the background always and the context of still resource usage and particularly climate change. The fewer people, the less warm the planet will be.
Trevor Burrus: Now moving on because the book is full of highly suggested – it’s full of a lot of different areas but you also talk about peak oil, which is something that I used to hear about a lot too I think ten years ago.
Ronald Bailey: Only ten years ago.
Trevor Burrus: That was supposed to be the peak and occasionally you will hear about it. But what is peak oil? What was the original concept? How are they updating it?
Ronald Bailey: I’ve been through three peak oil fears in the course of my life so far. The idea is by an ideology, a guy named Hubbert in the 1950s where he basically said that oil fields, once you produce about half of what you can get out of it, it starts to decline steeply.
He predicted that US oil production would peak in the early 1970s and it did basically. He was right about that. But he was all wrong about the technology and economics as it turns out. So on the most recent one, my favorite prediction was by a geologist who wrote a book called Hubbert’s Peak named Kenneth Deffeyes who is at Princeton University where he said the production of oil and planet Earth will peak on Thanksgiving Day 2005.
Well, I happen to look it up. The world produced 85 million barrels per day in 2005, 85 million barrels in 2005 and as of last week, the world was producing 95 million barrels per day. So we got nowhere near to the peak at that point. Now the projections are that we’re going to be able to produce at least 110 to 120 million barrels per day and of course for people who worry about climate change, that’s bad news.
Aaron Ross Powell: I mean the math seems to support that there will be a peak oil at some point. I mean we consume a lot of oil and oil takes a long time to make more of. So at some point, we’re going to run out.
Ronald Bailey: I think that we will be – I understand. Yes, obviously it is a limited supply of some sort. The problem is, is supply is limited by our technology. If we had retained the same technology that we had producing oil in 1975, we would have already peaked. There would be no question about that.
But then we had this wonderful new revolution in fracking and horizontal drilling and all of a sudden it unlocked a huge supply of oil that will probably last for another 30, 40 years at least.
Aaron Ross Powell: This seems to be in a lot of environmental issues. So we – I mean we came up with a talk of the population. It comes with the peak oil. But like assume that technology is static. Assume that culture is static, which seems on the one hand a very odd assumption because we have human history to look at and see that is most certainly is not.
But also it’s potentially I guess a little bit understandable because imagining how things will be different in the future is very hard and our big predictions – I saw something on Twitter, a line about how science fiction authors, a lot of them predicted the moon landing but none of them predicted that it would be televised. How much of this doom and gloom is driven by this just bad ability we have for predicting the future?
Ronald Bailey: My species is terrible. We are just terrible at forecasting. We have no ability to prophesize whatsoever. The amazing thing is that we developed in the Western world two – well, three institutions that underlie our society. This was outlined by Jonathan Rauch 20 years ago. The brilliant idea was that capitalism is how we decide who gets what. Democracy is how we decide who wills power and liberal science is how we discern what the truth is, how we figure out what is true.
But two of those institutions are information-gathering institutions. Excellent markets are perfect institutions for marshalling and supplying information and getting it to the right person at the right time. These biologists and ecologists have no view of that. They do not understand markets as information collecting and dispersion devices. Because we have that device coupled now with scientific research, a method of figuring out when something is the case, we have no idea what the new technologies are going to be.
Our forecast will always be wrong and they will always in my humble opinion be way short of what will eventually occur.
Trevor Burrus: I wanted to go back to the question that Aaron asked because I think it’s important – oil and other things are finite. When I have discussions with environmentally-conscious people – I mean I’m environmentally-conscious but the kind that we’re talking about.
Ronald Bailey: I’ve just been accused by the National Review both being a libertarian and an environmentalist and that’s a problem.
Trevor Burrus: I had this conversation where I talk about technology and I say all those things. Well, we don’t know how much oil there is or how much we can take out or zinc or name your thing.
Ronald Bailey: Sure.
Trevor Burrus: But they say – but it is limited. It is limited. You can’t deny that. We will run out of oil. We will run out of zinc. I mean on a basic level, if we use it all. So – I say, OK, yes, I admit that. Well then, why do you want to keep going and just cannibalizing the earth’s resources? What about sustainable development? It’s a big watchword but this seems to – it’s like the very baseline assumption that because it is a finite resource, we have to figure out a better way of not using it.
Ronald Bailey: But what is a resource? Take a copper rock. You give me a rock with copper in it. What can I do? I could crack a nut with it or I could throw it at somebody. That is not a resource to me. It’s a rock. What you take is the elaboration of someone in markets and technologists to spend thousands of years figuring out how to get the copper, purified, refined, shaped, alloyed, whatever you want to do to make it into parts of a computer chip.
A resource is basically what your mind can do with something. It is not just the stuff. We don’t get richer because we keep doing the same recipe. We get richer because we make better recipes and we are slowly but surely dematerializing the economy. We’re using less and less stuff to get more and more value all the time.
I talk to – I discussed some work done by Vaclav Smil for example, the polymath out of Saskatchewan of all places. But anyway, who basically says that the – if you did pound per pound, it took basically one pound to get – of material to get, I don’t know, a dollar’s worth of value. Now it takes a quarter of a pound to get a dollar’s worth of value of just any random material you want. We’re using less and less stuff to get more and more value all the time.
Trevor Burrus: But Smil, I have a quote from him I made a note of, which I guess is pretty much the same question, but it is what you hear all the time. He says the pursuit of endless growth is obviously an unsustainable strategy.
Ronald Bailey: That’s because I don’t think …
Trevor Burrus: It’s a common thing.
Ronald Bailey: I know. But I think that he doesn’t understand what growth means and we don’t – what we want is light and heat and food. So we don’t want to have more candles. We don’t want to have more horse-drawn carriages. We want to have other kinds of transportation and I take on Smil actually on that direct quote in the book where I’m pointing out one – and I’m not prophesying but I’m suggesting one of the ways that we could overcome a lot of material usage is just moving to a fleet of self-driving electric cars.
Wonderful simulations were done. Basically we could reduce the size of the world’s transportation fleet from what it is now and supply enough transportation for everybody on the planet Earth, nine billion people, using a fleet that’s smaller than what we have now, powered by electricity and people would have to wait on average 15 seconds for a car to show up.
That would be dematerialization of a huge sort and I can’t elaborate all of the other ways that the world is going to go this way. Another way I think about it is energy use. If we had asked Einstein and Edison and Madam Curie to sit around in 1900 and go, “So, what will people be using for energy and how much will they be using in 2015?” these are the smartest people on the planet. There’s no way.
I mean the radio hadn’t been invented at that point. Podcasts hadn’t been invented. Computers, air conditioners, refrigerators, airplanes, on and on and on. They would have no clue. We are in exactly the same relationship to generations in 2100 with regard to what they will be using.
Aaron Ross Powell: But even if – or even unless we can drive say our efficiency at manufacturing computer chips to the point where they use zero copper, don’t we have some obligation to leave some of those copper rocks alone, rather than – for future generations rather than putting them all in our own iPhones?
Ronald Bailey: No, our obligation is to do what our ancestors did, which is to make a more prosperous, richer, more knowledge-intensive world, because that gives them the resources and the ability to figure out what it is that they want to do much more easily than if they remain poor. I mean if – should our very poor great-grandparents have not used up resources so that we would be able to use them? No. Instead what they did was create a world that was much richer with possibilities and material things that we’re getting to enjoy and that is our obligation to future generations, to do exactly the same thing.
Trevor Burrus: What does the term “sustainable development” mean to you? I hear it an awful lot and I’ve been trying to figure out …
Ronald Bailey: Well, I don’t want unsustainable development. Who does?
Trevor Burrus: I agree. Is it like – we don’t use anything or we put …
Ronald Bailey: I think it’s like a word like social justice. You just throw it on because it sounds nice. I suppose – I talk again about what this concept might mean, sustainable. The plain fact of the matter is that all prior societies to democratic capitalism, the one that we live in, were unsustainable. They all collapsed at some point or other.
If we’re not sustainable, I don’t know who – there are no examples of another sustainable society and I actually believe that we will be that society again because of the harnessing of human ingenuity to solve problems as they arise. We cannot figure out what all the problems are going to be.
What human beings do is learn from failure. We do not learn from success and so there will be failures, but we will learn from them and the more resources that we have, the more knowledge we have, the more likely we are to solve them.
Aaron Ross Powell: Should we proceed with caution in that?
Ronald Bailey: No.
Aaron Ross Powell: So I mean it’s not just that like – say when we turn these copper rocks into copper for our computer chips that we’re using up the copper. But doing that has negative externalities, pollution, and it may have things we aren’t even aware of. So how much should we factor those kinds of things into our thinking about the future?
Ronald Bailey: Are you thinking about the precautionary principle?
Aaron Ross Powell: Sure.
Trevor Burrus: Something like that, yes. Real possible cataclysmic effects for some of these things.
Ronald Bailey: There – and exactly. It is the case that running the Super Collider over in France, you might create strangelets and the entire planet will be sucked into a black hole instantly. I can’t guarantee that there will be no catastrophic effects by technology. I mean a nuclear war would be a very bad thing.
But the bombs don’t go off by themselves in that particular case. I think it would be really hard-put to find a side effect of an industrial process that would lead to anything like the catastrophe of a nuclear war for example.
Trevor Burrus: But the precautionary principle you mentioned …
Ronald Bailey: Which I like to summarize as never do anything for the first time.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly. You do a very good job of explaining how it is really incoherent and people like Cass Sunstein have said this is incoherent. It actually often reminds me of Pascal’s wager in the sense of you’re supposed to do something to appease – have a possible infinite reward or infinite punishment. But there’s a non-zero chance that almost anything could give you an infinite reward or infinite punishment or inaction. So precautionary principle to inaction. If you don’t do it, this is a huge problem. So do you just regard it as sort of a non-starter?
Ronald Bailey: It’s a complete non-starter. The fact of the matter is, is that what we’re – what it advises us to do ultimately is to stick with old technologies rather than find new technologies and we know that that doesn’t – that recipe doesn’t work. How do we know that? It’s because as we switch to better and better technologies over time, we’ve gotten richer. We’ve gotten healthier. We have longer lives. We have less disability. We have less disease.
So we know for a fact that our process of using markets and human ingenuity through science are having vastly more beneficial effects than deleterious effects.
Trevor Burrus: And the precautionary principle applies to say building a coal plant instead of burning wood. That would have been catastrophic. Wood is …
Ronald Bailey: They’re trying to apply it to genetically-modified crops which would also be catastrophic in the sense that you’re preventing people from developing a technology that so intensifies agriculture that you can leave forests standing, that you can use less farmland.
In fact we are probably at peak farmland now and if Jesse Ausubel at Rockefeller University is right, by 2060, an area the size – double the size of the United States east of the Mississippi will be returned to nature.
Trevor Burrus: You mentioned Rachel Carson a few minutes ago, which I think was worth going back to or at least who she is. You kind of identify her as maybe the founding mother of modern environmental movement. Who was she and how was she so instrumental in the way environmentalists practice now?
Ronald Bailey: Rachel Carson was a US government scientist. She wrote a book called Silent Spring. She was extremely concerned particularly about the use of pesticides in agriculture and the harm that they were causing to wildlife. So in that – the chemicals she particularly disliked was called DDT and DDT had been developed as a pesticide with a kind of a miracle chemical in the sense that it really more or less eliminated malaria including in the United States.
People don’t remember this but up until the early 1950s, malaria was endemic to the southern states of the United States and DDT applied to the breeding places of mosquitoes, plus screens of course, finally eliminated malaria and – by using this chemical saved literally tens of millions of people’s lives.
On the other hand, she was right to point, as it turns out, that using the chemical as a widespread insecticide in crops probably was harming raptors, most particularly eagles, ospreys, brown pelicans for example, because what happens is the chemical in some way was causing their eggshells to be thin and then they would crack and they would – the population was plummeting.
So she was probably right that it had to be brought back as an agricultural chemical. But the other thing, she did recognize that a lot of people in suburban United States wouldn’t care very much about this. So the thing that she was really on to was, well, these chemicals are going to cause an epidemic of cancer and she would say – she had anecdotes. Like there was a guy who was very embarrassed that he had spiders in his garage and so he sprayed it one day. Three weeks later, he came down with aplastic anemia.
Another case, a woman came down with a brain tumor and she just uses these anecdotes and in a certain sense in the 1950s, cancer was very mysterious and I’m not accusing her of bad faith. But most cancer doctors would go, “You’re crazy,” now.
What we do now know – in fact the American Cancer Society every year puts out a nice report and every year they point out that exposure to “chemicals” both natural and synthetic are responsible for – between two and maybe four percent of all cancers. It doesn’t say they can’t cause cancer, but the reason you have cancer is because you eat too much, you drink too much, you smoke too much, you don’t go to the gym enough. Basically it’s slashed off. It’s not chemicals.
Aaron Ross Powell: How much is just age? I mean the aging population. Old people die somehow.
Ronald Bailey: Right. Basically – I can’t recall from the top of my head but something like 65 percent of all cancers occur in people over age 55. Again, as a cancer researcher once told me, Ron, if you live long enough, you will get cancer.
Trevor Burrus: Rachel Carson you also identify as kind of the spiritual core, the political with an idea of kind of natural is good. But beginning of – I don’t know if spiritualism is the right term, but some sort of idea about the environment and sort of poetic appreciation for natural or artificial which kind of gets inaugurated by Rachel Carson and then the 60s movement and things like that. Has that become kind of – it sort of takes on the religious tones maybe …
Ronald Bailey: Yes. She was – again, I think part of what was happening was there was a – the United States was rapidly industrializing and there was higher pollution levels and so forth. We were just getting into that point which I will call the environmental transition or environmental Kuznets curve where the idea is, is that as countries get – begin the process of industrialization, more pollution occurs. The air gets dirtier. The water gets dirtier because people are more anxious to get some of the good things of life, some of the new refrigerators, cars, get good jobs for their children, get educations kind of thing, build bigger houses.
But then the 1950s when Carson was coming along, people began to go this is – the air is really filthy. I can’t go swimming in the Potomac. I will tell you a story about that in a little bit. But anyway – so when people get to a certain level of affluence, they start to demand a cleaner environment. That was what was happening when Rachel Carson was there.
So she was in a certain way I think expressing the zeitgeist but she also didn’t understand the process that once again it was the creation of wealth and technology that was going to enable the clean-up of the environment that she treasures.
Trevor Burrus: How much did the clean-up – I remember growing up in Denver that the smog cloud was pretty big in the 80s and we have the Cuyahoga River fire, a very famous story. How much of that should the government stand up and say, “Well, we did this. We put in air quality mandates and we cleaned up the rivers and we put all these mandates in”?
Ronald Bailey: It’s quite controversial. One of the things – and probably you know this – is that when you’re looking at air pollution trends in the United States, before the existence of the Clean Air Act, there was no change in inflection. It was just increasing.
But that being said, we have to admit that – I will make this statement. Wherever you see anywhere in the world what you think is an environmental problem, whatever you think it is, I don’t care what it is, is occurring in an open access commons. It is occurring in property or in places that nobody owns it and the air is like that or the – because the way our property laws work in the United States, rivers, lakes, estuaries are like that. No one owns them.
So everybody dumps them. This is why you see trash on the side of the road instead of in people’s yards and so there are two things you can do with the commons. You can privatize them which would be my preference or you can regulate them. Unfortunately, we chose to regulate them and I think that probably cost more to get the environmental quality than we would otherwise have had. But it would be wrong to say that it didn’t help.
Trevor Burrus: You also write about GMOs in the book which – I mean I don’t know what is the most controversial chapter in the book and the global warming one is probably controversial enough. But the GMO thing is just more and more prominent.
Aaron Ross Powell: It feels like the – it’s the current panic attack after peak oil seems to have slipped a bit from the …
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, maybe they just need a new one every 10 years or something. But the GMO crowd – GMOs are going to kill us all with Franken-foods or is there nothing to be worried about?
Ronald Bailey: Every independent, scientific organization on planet Earth that has ever evaluated these modern biotech crops, the current versions of them, that includes the American Medical Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. It includes the European Food Safety Administration for god’s sake.
All of them have found them completely safe for humans to eat and safe for the environment. No one on planet Earth has gotten so much as a cough, wheeze, sniffle, belly ache from eating any ingredients made from biotech crops, period.
Aaron Ross Powell: How are genetically-modified organisms different if they’re different from crossbreeding or selective breeding? One of the comebacks from people who criticize GMOs is to say, “Well, we’ve always been doing that. What do you think corn or bananas used to look like?” Are they the same thing? Is that a fair comeback or not?
Ronald Bailey: Actually, genetically-modified crops are much more precisely made. You know exactly what’s going on with them. When you’re breeding particularly wide crosses between various plant species for example, you don’t know what’s going on, what genes are going where. One of my favorite ways of making a lot of organic crops, and these are approved organic crops, is called chemical and radiation mutagenesis. What happened in the early part of the 20th century is that a lot of biologists are going, “Why don’t we take these crops that we have here and we will just eradiate them or we will mutate them using chemicals? We will plant the seeds and see what comes up. If we like something, then we will start cross-breeding it.”
So basically they were rearranging thousands of genes, thousands of genes and then cross-breeding them with conventional plants and a lot of the organic plants that are approved were made exactly this way, which is not to say it’s not safe because as far as we can tell, nobody suffered any problems from this.
But if that wasn’t dangerous, think about changing one or two genes and how safe that would be and that’s what genetic – modern biotech genetic modification does is changes one or two genes, not thousands of genes.
Trevor Burrus: That seems kind of mad scientists in its own way. We massively eradiate with unpredictable effects at knocking DNA off of different things and then see what happens. Isn’t that the concern that we’re – that the stuff is going to get out, the ecosystem is a sort of carefully-balanced – or, you know, organic structure, spontaneous order, that if you throw something in there, a corn – it’s like an invasive species, right? Rabbits went to Australia. They completely – green snakes, all this sort of invasive species.
So we don’t really know, so we need to at least have something in place to make sure the stuff doesn’t get out or if nothing else, we’re not going to release a zombie apocalypse disease out there, that escapes from these mad scientists experiments.
Ronald Bailey: With regard to diseases, we will set that aside for the moment. But the thing about crop plants, why do we put them in fences? Why do we till and so forth? No one seems to be worried about wheat plants taking over a forest or a corn escaping into your lawn and taking over. It’s because basically crop plants can’t live without us protecting them.
That’s why we use pesticides. That’s why we do these things. They’re not a problem in that regard. If we could get them to be perennial and growth and so forth, well, that probably would be a great thing. But as it turns out, crop plants are almost defenseless and we made them defenseless because it turns out if you’re defenseless, you’re a lot tastier.
Trevor Burrus: So who is more anti-science, the left or the right on this? It is a general rule because the left is very anti-GMO. The right is not so good on global warming. Is it just a toss-up?
Ronald Bailey: I’m close to a toss-up when I go at it frankly. The problem is, is that – in a modern secular society, what has happened is, is that a lot of the authorities that people use to trust their preachers, their politicians, their [Indiscernible] corporate leaders, it turned out they weren’t all that trustworthy and we’re very cynical about them.
So what is left standing is a way of trying to determine what the true things are and that is science. So whenever a new issue comes up, the first thing that people do, partisans do, is rush to claim science is on my side.
They were really, really adept and in fact the more – the better you are at understanding scientific information, the faster you can go find the stuff you want to prove your point. It’s a great disservice to both the policy process but a huge disservice to the only institution that we know how to find out what the truth is and that is science.
Aaron Ross Powell: How much of this modern environmentalism is signaling? Because I’m struck by there’s no evidence that GMOs are harmful and there hasn’t been. So it’s not necessarily clear why we would all of a sudden start caring about them. The trend lines for populations seem to completely contradict the doomsayers, the stuff we talked about with cancer rates that just seemed to completely go against it. So it’s not like there’s – oh, there’s solid evidence on both sides and this is a fuzzy issue.
But it’s always striking how many of these things, the solution seems to be what you now – because these are catastrophes that you have an obligation to prevent. What you now are morally obligated to do is to someway either restrict what you’re doing or – and/or spend more money. So organic, non-GMO food, or whatever is typically more expensive and then on top of that, it seems you have a moral obligation to tell everyone that you’re doing it and make sure they know. So you drive a car that says “hybrid” or whatever else.
So how much of this is just simply cultural feedback loops and people wanting to appear like they really, really care to their neighbors?
Ronald Bailey: Most of it unfortunately. I think that people are very sincere about what they think, but it really is, as you say, a lot of signaling that says, “I am a good person. You can trust me because I believe all this other stuff.”
It works for both the right and the left for signaling. Fortunately as libertarian, we don’t need to signal. We just need to tell the truth and then we’re OK.
Trevor Burrus: I guess. We don’t signal at all. It’s fine.
Aaron Ross Powell: Well, that I think raises the obvious question of – you said the more adept you get at understanding the science, the easier it is for you to go out and find the data that agrees with you. So is your book just a fat stack of data that agrees with you?
Ronald Bailey: Good question. I do address that actually in the introduction of the book. What I’ve tried to do is to stay away from anything that would be considered controversial. I use only peer-reviewed science, published in reputable journals, government reports, international reports, reports from reputable think tanks, even Cato.
But I’m very clear signposting the data that I’m using and I’ve already seen complaints going, “Too much data!” But my point is, is I don’t want to ever be accused of cherry-picking. But I also say, look, upfront I’m a libertarian and you should take that into account when you read my book. But you should also take into account your own tendencies for confirmation bias when you read it.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a thing you mentioned a few times in the book is the Yale Cultural Cognition Project, which has shown that what people believe about scientific issues is chiefly determined by their cultural values and it makes me – the thing that always strikes me when I think about environmental issues, especially global warming, which we can turn to now, which I pretty much try to have no opinions on that are scientific because I’m not a scientist which is a rare thing.
But a lot of the people who talk about global warming, the catastrophists, it’s really anti-capitalism in a – they’re talking about policy prescriptions that they would believe in the absence of global warming. I mean Naomi Klein …
Ronald Bailey: Whatever the problem, is the solution is always socialism.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly, Naomi Klein is not – did not become an extreme – let’s call her a socialist rather. I don’t know if that’s accurate but a very, very left wing person because of global warming. She saw global warming and seems like, oh, this is like the reason why we have to undercut the capitalist system, because it just consumes, it consumes, it consumes and destroys the world. So in terms of global warming, do you see that as a lot of it being just anti-capitalism?
Ronald Bailey: Yes. I do. Let’s talk about Naomi Klein. She wrote a book last year called This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. So I mean she’s putting an eye out there, what she’s up to.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, I haven’t put words in her mouth.
Ronald Bailey: She absolutely said it and she’s in favor of small decentralized solutions supposedly and yet it’s very amusing because she’s also in favor of a plan that was devised by two economists at the universities in California, a guy named Jacobson, another guy named Delucchi where from 2015 to 2030, you could transform the entire energy system of the world off of fossil fuels into entirely renewable supposedly.
She’s – I’ve seen her on various media guides. This is it! We have to plan. We know how to do it. So I actually reviewed the plan and got – went through it. The plan would cost $100 trillion. It would be $100 trillion over the next 15 years. That would be 11 percent of the entire world’s output for every year for the next 15 years. It required building 6300 megawatt solar plants per year.
Trevor Burrus: Sixty-three hundred per year.
Ronald Bailey: Six thousand three hundred megawatt plants per year.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, OK, OK.
Ronald Bailey: I should point out that that is in a year’s work. That is also ten times more than all the solar panels on planet Earth currently. So imagine and then it would also require building a quarter of a million new wind turbines per year for the next 15 years. There are only 225,000 wind turbines on planet Earth currently.
So this is a feasible plan. I think we could do it but I don’t think it’s a delightfully decentralized community-based plan. I think it is a top-down, centralized, horrific, if you will, corporative scheme. But anyway …
Trevor Burrus: Well, if she’s a catastrophist – I mean if the catastrophe is big enough, which I want to ask you what is the likely enough catastrophe. But if it’s like an asteroid, if we found out ten years from now there’s an asteroid. It’s like the entire productive capacity of the Earth has to be churned and to just this, fixing this asteroid problem. Like, oh yes, we should. It doesn’t matter how much it costs.
So on the catastrophe side, global warming, is that a problem and what should we do about it?
Ronald Bailey: It is a problem. I used to think it wasn’t and then I changed my mind sometime around 2005. The way I would like to think of it is, is it’s a balance of the evidence for me. It’s that it’s a problem. It will grow to be a problem by the end of the century. It is not a slam dunk. It is not a beyond reasonable doubt analysis of the data.
Part of the reason I think so is, is that the planet has been warming since 1950. It has gone up basically in degrees centigrade about 1.6 degrees on average. What you also see is sea ice has been melting for the last few decades. Glaciers all around the world have been receding, all 130,000 of them practically.
The temperature difference between night and day has been shifting. Spring is earlier, fall is later all around the world. The oceans are warming. I mean all of these things – now they could be coincidences but they’re all happening at the same time. We’ve loaded up the atmosphere with extra carbon dioxide from 280 parts per million to 400 parts per million now.
It could be a coincidence. I don’t think so. But trust me, as a good libertarian, I would love the problem to go away. It would save a lot of changes in the economy in energy shifts we’re going to be making. But I do think it is a problem. Is it an asteroid style catastrophe? Probably not. We have at least until the end of the century I think to solve it and I think we’re already well on the way to doing it.
Aaron Ross Powell: What does solving it look like? Is that something where – is this one of these instances where we need the state? Is this a tragedy of the commons kind of issue …
Ronald Bailey: I think there is a tragedy of the commons portion to it and there are various ways you could do it. In the book I call it the new energy climate consensus and I think basically the cheapest and best way to address it is to try to mobilize human technical ingenuity to figure out how to make low carbon and no carbon energy supplies. That would require a bit of government research.
Trevor Burrus: So the research, the kind of investment in new green technologies for the future …
Ronald Bailey: The government should deploy not a single thing.
Trevor Burrus: OK.
Ronald Bailey: It’s research and development, not research, development and deployment. The government should be completely out of that. Part of the reason, if I may explain, is during the first energy crisis, I used to be a government regulator.
Trevor Burrus: Even the 70s …
Ronald Bailey: Yes, in the 70s. I worked for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and I was part of the team that was going to solve our energy crisis by among other things turning millions of tons of coal into natural gas. So I was on the team that was regulating the setting up of the Great Plains Coal Gasification Plant in Beulah, North Dakota.
We were going to make 20 of those, actually 40 – equivalent to 40 of those and that was going to solve our natural gas crisis because we were closing down schools and businesses in the winter because we were out of natural gas, because we were running out of natural gas.
It turns out we were running out of natural gas at the government-mandated price of a dollar, not out of natural gas. But I just imagine what our carbon footprint would have been had we built those 20 government-mandated plants.
So the government is not very good at figuring out what we should do and not very good actually at figuring out how to develop new technologies. But it won’t be completely wasted.
Aaron Ross Powell: Is this the fear that – I mean there’s this possibility that global warming will have really bad effects. But there’s – government has a track record of let’s call them often really bad effects. We have …
Ronald Bailey: You must always ask yourself. Is what government likely to do about global warming more likely to be a problem than global warming? That is – should always be in the background.
Trevor Burrus: I have a precautionary principle against government.
Ronald Bailey: Right.
Aaron Ross Powell: Because the question then is about the funding of research because it tends that research either comes as strings attached or at least is somewhat guided by its funding. I mean this is the knock that goes against all sorts of – everyone you disagree with who produces research. They’re producing research because their corporate overlords told them to.
So if the government is funding research, then the chances are they’re going to produce exactly those results the government wants which will likely be the ones that will say the government should either spend more money or get more involved.
Ronald Bailey: I don’t know that it does that so much with technologies. We should always keep in mind if you are worried about government subsidizing energy technologies – particularly I would like our [0:48:24] [Indiscernible] to think about this. One power source the government subsidized into existence was …
Trevor Burrus: Nuclear?
Ronald Bailey: Nuclear power. How does the environmental community like that?
Trevor Burrus: They’re not a big fan, which I’ve never understood.
Ronald Bailey: Exactly. But the point is, is that we want to avoid the thing like Solyndra where you’re basically subsidizing a manufacturing plant. What you want to do is for somebody to figure out how to make a solar cell 40 percent efficient as opposed to 20 percent efficient. Then see if some company will find that useful to do.
That will be much cheaper than wasting tons of money on deployments like coal gasification or Solyndra. So – and I think that would be – it’s an insurance policy. It wouldn’t cost the taxpayers that much. I know it’s controversial but considering the other schemes, for example what the EPA is planning to do with the Clean Power Plan and regulating coal-fired plants in the United States, my little research plan is a lot cheaper and you might get a lot more bang for the buck. I can’t guarantee it. Government is a failure in many ways.
Trevor Burrus: On the question of nuclear power which is a vexing opposition the environmental movement has had against it and that has always made me think that it seems like they want a perfect energy source. They’re not really thinking about tradeoffs, the sanctity of the environment that they’re – why is the opposition to nuclear power – was it before Chernobyl was hit strong or was it kind of a Chernobyl thing and now we had the Fukushima and so they’re probably not going to come around still?
Ronald Bailey: Right. It started early on but Chernobyl and Three Mile Island certainly didn’t help. The good news right now is that for example some of the more catastrophic – the people who are more worried about catastrophic climate change, someone like James Hansen who was one of the first people to argue catastrophic climate change is going to happen or Ken Caldeira or Kerry Emanuel at MIT. They actually had an open letter last year saying we have to – there’s no past to a clean energy future without nuclear. We have to have nuclear power.
I do see some portions of the – at least environmentally changing their mind on that.
Trevor Burrus: Now I have friends tell me when I mention that, that they’re – one of the reasons they’re opposed to that is because really they don’t want to give people more consumables. You’re just encouraging people to suck more and more from the environment and just consuming, consuming, consume.
Ronald Bailey: Well then, they should just say that as opposed to bring up bogus fears about science behind nuclear power. Vastly, vastly more people have died producing coal-powered energy than anyone has died producing nuclear energy. But the great news is there are all these other fabulous new designs out there that I don’t see how we’re going to get past the regulators right now unless someone feels like there’s a crisis.
The traveling wave reactor which has been designed by TerraPower which is – Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft is a supporter, basically uses nuclear ways to create essentially a nuclear battery. I won’t go into the technical details of it, but you could fuel it and it will run for 50 years. OK? You don’t have to do anything and when you – when it’s done, the isotopes that are left over are much less radioactive than the current nuclear fuels that we have. So you don’t need to store it forever, like we do now.
It would be a wonderful design. Unfortunately our regulators are going, “We don’t have enough people to evaluate this. We need more money, more power.” Anyway, that typical story. But assuming something like that worked – and I think that there’s a good evidence that it might. Myhrvold has argued that we have already mined as much uranium as we will need to supply everyone on planet Earth with as much electricity as Americans use today for a thousand years. Just going back and using our nuclear ways that has been stored. Why don’t we try that?
Trevor Burrus: So would that be a sort of good libertarian position to have on global warming is the government is doing too much to subsidize fossil fuels probably and doing too much to retard the innovation of other types of clean technology, choosing winners like Solyndra, putting money in the wrong place? So we’re not getting innovation.
Ronald Bailey: A very good insight, yes.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Ronald Bailey: I think you’re right. I think you’re right. It is a problem again because as I say, we’re trying to pick the winners of coal gasification and I hate to think – here’s another thing to think about it. I’ve looked at this ages ago. One of my favorite articles and it never got much traction, anyway, was …
Trevor Burrus: We will put a link up on the show notes.
Ronald Bailey: OK. It was a – back in the 1970s, the National Academy of Sciences got nearly a thousand of the smartest scientists together and asked them to figure out what the energy future of America would look like in the year 2010. OK?
So I went back and reread that report and we were going to have a thousand nuclear power plants, a thousand, believe it or not.
Aaron Ross Powell: How many do we have now?
Ronald Bailey: We have a hundred. There’s a hundred now and if you think about it, we had a thousand nuclear power plants. How much lower our carbon output would be now compared to what it is, it’s amazing. We’re going to – and 200 of them are going to be fast breeder reactors which means they make more fuel than they burn and they can supply the other reactors as well. That would have been a completely different world than the world we live in and far less carbon-intensive. But that was killed off by the environmental movement of the time and it’s really strongly against that.
So they have now put us in a world with – a higher carbon world than we would otherwise have had. Thank you environmental movement.
Aaron Ross Powell: But is there anywhere that the environmental movement comes out ahead? Any issue they’re on where they’re not only probably right but also have probably at least in the right direction solution or aren’t doing more harm than good?
Ronald Bailey: Well, it would be rude of me to say no.
Trevor Burrus: Maybe try to preserve certain animals …
Ronald Bailey: Let’s go to the extinction crisis for example. Again, it’s an example of something happening in open access commons. Now one owns the animals and therefore no one protects them and one of the – and I think extinction is forever and it is a problem that we need to take care of. Again, the top-down solution is they’ve been offering – the Endangered Species Act for example has not been super successful, though it has not been a complete failure either in being able to preserve species and protect them.
Very expensive, very litigious. There are better ways to do it. But one of the things I do have a chapter on – whether the ark is sinking is the way I put the question and there’s a lot of – a lot of good news I think is, is that – let me give you a couple of trends.
One is I mentioned earlier peak farmland. As agricultural productivity goes up using among other things genetically-modified crops, we will use less land. As we move to plantation forestry, we will use less forest land. In fact there was a new report out just this week, not obviously included in the book, but Food and Agriculture Organization showing the global deforestation rate has been dropped in half over the last 25 years.
We’re going to, if you will, native forest. We’re going to be growing back in the next couple of decades or so. The other thing that’s great is urbanization trends. More people are moving – for the last five or six years, for the first time, more people live in cities than not. That’s going to probably go to 80 percent by 2050, 2060. There’s about – if that is the case, we will have – with a world population of nine billion people, say, we will have less than half than there were people living on the landscape that we have now.
So the 3.6 billion people living on the landscape are basically subsistence farmers and what have you. They will only be 1.8 billion people living on the landscape. That also has a very good, big effect on the possibilities of sustaining species over time.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that books like yours – which again I commend to our listeners. It’s very good.
Ronald Bailey: It’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-First Century. You can’t have too many copies.
Trevor Burrus: That’s true, yes. Do you think they change people’s minds or do you find that this sort of cataclysmic …
Ronald Bailey: Are you trying to depress me?
Trevor Burrus: It’s so embedded. I mean we were talking before the show started about how much I learned this stuff growing up and how much I was told that [0:57:24] [Inaudible] just like you and I don’t think that that message has changed much even though there has been a lot of research, how it’s not the case. It’s just a firmly embedded thing that the cataclysm is coming in the environment. So you get down every now and then that like …
Ronald Bailey: No. No. To a certain extent, I understand what you’re saying, yes. There’s this perpetual meme. Another quick story if I may. My first book was called Ecoscam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse, which is the one I was describing a bit earlier.
When I was signing the contract for that book, my editor turned to me and said, “Ron, we’re going to make some money with this book. It’s a good book. No problem.” We did make some money. But he did say, “But I want to tell you right now. If you had brought me a book saying the world was coming to an end, I could have made you a rich man.”
Doom sells. It always will sell. I mean news is things that don’t go right. The fact of the matter is for almost all Americans, 99.9 percent of the time, things go right and when things go wrong, that’s when you hear about it. So by hearing about it, it distorts your sense of reality. You think things are a lot worse than they are. I would like to assure your listeners things are much better than the newspapers portray them as being.
Trevor Burrus: Thank you for listening. If you have any questions, you can find us on Twitter, at FreeThoughtsPod. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.