For 35 years the one-child policy loomed large in Western perceptions of China, and news that Beijing will now permit all couples a second child has prompted a spate of commentary. The policy’s origins, however, are not widely known. Perhaps they are felt to be self-evident. This draconian measure might seem to have been a stereotypically Chinese response to a crisis of overpopulation, shaped by Asiatic traditions of state supremacy and implemented with Maoist brutality. But that description is almost entirely wrong.
This conversation with Patrick Allitt on his latest book, A Climate of Crisis, provides a historical judgment on the environmentalist movement in postwar America. We see its causes, self-understanding, and the motives and beliefs driving its adherents. Allitt, unlike most in this area, does not come to propose or critique policies, but to note the benefits and consequences that have resulted from the particular brand of environmentalism that emerged in America. Curiously, Allitt notes, environmentalism received its initial energy from the immense capacity for wealth creation that America generated in the postwar environment. This freed us to notice the damage…
In The Bet, Paul Sabin, a historian at Yale University, sets out to “tackle a huge issue: the future of humankind.” The book deals with the history of ideas and, as its subtitle indicates, is built around a famous bet that Julian Simon made with Paul Ehrlich in 1980. This wager, as well as the long and acrimonious debate between the two men, provides a paradigm for the environmental and political debates of the last five decades. The 1960s and 1970s marked the triumph of environmentalist and interventionist ideas. Paul Ehrlich, a professor of biology at Stanford University, epitomizes that era…
Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has gotten a better reception from left-liberals than any book since Limits to Growth. The books have important similarities. Both posit societies in the grip of a doomsday pincer. Limits foresaw a future of poverty and hunger, as inevitably declining resources outrun inevitably increasing population. Piketty sees a future of increasing inequality, as capitalists enjoy an ever-greater share of global income than workers. Both books are also used to justify government intervention. Limits to Growth was the basis of attempts to slow down population growth and require conservation of resources. Capital in the Twenty-First Century expressly calls for a global wealth tax.
Most importantly, both books share a similar, fundamental flaw, although Piketty’s book is far more interesting and sophisticated. They do not take sufficient account of innovation– of the manner in which human ingenuity again and again benefits us all. The mistake in Limits of Growth has already become clear, as Matt Ridley reminded us in the Wall Street Journal last week. We are not running out of energy, for instance. We have more usable oil than ever as we have learned to exploit shale. Innovators are creating wide variety of energy sources that were either not well understood or even imagined in 1972, when Limits to Growth was first published.
Piketty’s book has the same flaw. In his lucid and favorable review, Robert Solow shows that Piketty’s claim of increasing inequality is based partly on his belief that the rate of return on capital will stay constant, even as economic growth slows. In Piketty’s view, a sluggish economy means that people who own capital will gain a greater share of income than people who earn wages. This projection depends on a technological slowdown . But with the relentless increase in computational power, there are more reasons to believe in technological acceleration than stasis.
John Maddox (1925 – 2009) was for many years the editor of Nature, one of the two most important general science journals in the world. In 1972 he published a broadside against the radical pessimism then very prevalent with the title The Doomsday Syndrome: An Assault on Pessimism. In this book, which makes interesting reading today, Maddox attacked the propensity of scientists such as Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner to project current trends indefinitely into the future and to conclude therefrom that catastrophe must sooner or later (usually sooner) result.
Ehrlich – who is still predicting catastrophe with as much confidence as if all that he had predicted for the recent past had actually come to pass – famously, or infamously, asserted in his neo-Malthusian book, The Population Bomb, published in 1968, that the battle to feed mankind was over and that hundreds of millions of people would inevitably starve to death in the 1970s, irrespective of what anyone did to try to avoid it.