Doomsayers refuted yet again,
October 11, 2002 5:40 AM   Subscribe

Doomsayers refuted yet again, this time by the United Nations and the Institute for International Studies, who independently released studies declaring that humanity is, for the most part, in the best condition it’s ever been. (Former MeFi-er DenBeste comments here.) With more and more studies reaching similar conclusions as Bjørn Lomborg's "Skeptical Environmentalist" and the CATO Institute's "It's Getting Better All the Time", I'm on my way to buy myself a new pair of shades. The future does indeed look bright!
posted by dagny (32 comments total)
While its heartening to see that the world is progressing politically and economically, this report says next to nothing about the environment in detail. To be fair, I don't think that this report is focused that way, but I don't really see this report as reaching a similar conclusion as the "Skeptical Environment." And making the conclusion that things "have never been better" without considering the environment in detail just seems unjustified
posted by thewittyname at 6:01 AM on October 11, 2002

Thank you very much for the exclusive Fox News editorial explaining how Conservatism is the cause for all that is true and good in the world.

Boy, puppies sure are adorable!
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:04 AM on October 11, 2002

I found this bit from the article to be alarming, if true:

The Atlantic Monthly points out that since the ninth century, the Arab world has translated only about 100,000 books into Arabic. That’s equal to the number of books the nation of Spain translates in one year. Consequently, the Arab world is suffering a "brain drain," as its most promising minds migrate to societies more conducive to learning. Arab scholars have left in droves to pursue academic freedom in other countries. An astounding 51 percent of Arab adolescents told U.N. researchers they wanted to emigrate.
posted by Isamu Noguchi at 6:16 AM on October 11, 2002

Oh no, a FOX NEWS Link...

the whole thread must be burned before it contaminates the rest of MeFi....

quick get the lighter fluid, I'll get the matches...
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 6:22 AM on October 11, 2002

And yet the Doomsday Clock now sits at 7 minutes to midnight.
Here's a short progression over the last 10 years:
  • 1990 | Ten minutes to midnight
  • 1991 | Seventeen minutes to midnight
  • 1995 | Fourteen minutes to midnight
  • 1998 | Nine minutes to midnight
  • 2002 | Seven minutes to midnight
I'm noticing a trend there...
posted by PenDevil at 6:23 AM on October 11, 2002



"You're the reason we're running out of water in the first place!"

"Maybe if I didn't spend so much time yelling at you I wouldn't be so thirsty!"
posted by Stan Chin at 6:27 AM on October 11, 2002

This isn't a Fox News link to the weather or sports scores, Steve. What dagny failed to reflect in his FPP was that this article is, in fact, an opinion piece, not some story that's been routed through all the major media channels.

We do not need to have the entire debate again on the leanings and agendas of the majority of Fox News commentators, and said network's usual criteria for allowing someone's very voice to be heard through them in the first place.

If Fox is actually claiming this as a story and not an opinion column, judging by it's tone and lack of objectivitiy (or bias), then I don't see how it's complete lack of credibility or validity shouldn't be reflected.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 6:43 AM on October 11, 2002

First, I was attempting to be funny, I guess I am not. Sorry :(

If Fox is actually claiming this as a story and not an opinion column

It says "Views" right on the top banner and has a button to "Respond to the Editor" all things very common to an Op/Ed article.....

I didn't know that you had to mark Op/Eds in the FPP
Though, dagny did link to 4 other sites to back up his premise, one of which is the UN....

We do not need to have the entire debate again on the leanings and agendas
No, I don't want to do that either....
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 6:53 AM on October 11, 2002


And that's all I have to say in this particular trainwreck.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 6:54 AM on October 11, 2002

most sorry for the masculine pronouns
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 7:03 AM on October 11, 2002

I usually find that a reasonable position to take on any issue is to see what Den Beste thinks, and invert it.
posted by salmacis at 7:10 AM on October 11, 2002

I guess on MeFi, even right-wingers (though I'd say this writer in particular sounds quite moderate, if anything) who quote directly from multinational, UN-sponsored reports, with full deocumentation, are still giving information analogous to a trainwreck.

In any case, things *are* getting better. I can't name a single democratic nation, which encourages trade, that has actually become poorer anytime recently. It just hasn't happened. In fact, even some of the non-democratic ones are improving. 'magine That.
posted by Kevs at 7:24 AM on October 11, 2002

Lomborg has been shot down over and over.
posted by gottabefunky at 7:24 AM on October 11, 2002

Yeah Bjørn Lomborg is a weak link.
posted by stbalbach at 7:37 AM on October 11, 2002

posted by HTuttle at 7:44 AM on October 11, 2002

1. OK, has no one noticed that the UN report linked to in the FPP is wrong? It sends to the Arab human development report. The correct link is this. But if you go ahead and actually read the report (something I'm afraid the good people in FOX did not), it hardly justifies triumphalism.
2. I can't name a single democratic nation, which encourages trade, that has actually become poorer anytime recently. Argentina, Turkey, Russia, Mexico etc.
3. The IIE study is interesting, though there are a variety of problems with it. A main one being on what constitutes poverty. F.e. Chausesku nad Chinese style poverty reduction (obliterate self sustaining bartering village- send the inhabitants forcibly to work in industry for 2$ a day- count all of the aforementioned industry workers as "non-poor") can hardly be credible and has somehow to be taken into a account in a rational definition of poverty.
posted by talos at 8:01 AM on October 11, 2002

... and over. (Is it leftist to trust Scientific American rather than Lomborg?)
posted by win_k at 8:02 AM on October 11, 2002

salmacis made me laugh out loud
posted by y2karl at 8:02 AM on October 11, 2002

win_k: The way things are going it soon will be deemed leftist to trust science rather than industry PR campaigns.
posted by talos at 8:08 AM on October 11, 2002

I'd fully prepared to accept the "world poverty down" story at face value. But I wonder if Americans have figured out the implications of Globalization yet for the US economy - as in: why do all those customer service people on the phone have slight Indian accents (though they claim to be Americans). And where are all those computer jobs disappearing to, anyway.......

Lumping the world poverty story - from a reputable study - in with Bjorn Lomborg's dubious claims about the global environment simply makes the poster look like an idealogue.

It's boring and tedious to have to spend time refuting Lomborg's sort of pseudoscience. Lomborg doesn't actually do peer reviewed science. He couldn't subject his work to the peer review - scientists would laugh at it, for it's not really science. Lomborg serves as a convenient hero for those on the right who don't understand the process by which scientists gauge the validity of scientific research (peer-review).

Here's E.O.Wilson on Lomborg (Wilson is a two time Pulitzer Prize winner who has singleghandedly pioneered the creation of several new branches of scientific research): "My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media. We will always have contrarians like Lomborg whose sallies are characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists. They are the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval. The question is: How much load should be tolerated before a response is necessary? Lomborg is evidently over the threshold."

Or, check out Stephen Schneider, one of the world's top experts on climate: "It would take several pages to document how Lomborg lines up his citations to diminish the seriousness of climate effects while ignoring most literature that would stress the seriousness. (For that kind of documentation, see a review by my colleagues and me in the forthcoming January 2002 issue of Scientific American or Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey's review in the Nov. 8, 2001 issue of Nature"

On a more general note:

The Physicist A. A. Bartlett has been, for years, giving a now famous lecture called "The New Flat Earth Society"which trashes the "infinite economic growth" paradigm: "There was a time, long ago, when people thought that the Earth was flat, but now for several centuries people have believed that the Earth is round . . . like a sphere. But there are problems with a spherical earth, and a now a new paradigm is emerging which seems to be a return to the wisdom of the ancients.....A sphere is bounded and hence is finite, which implies that there are limits, and in particular, there are limits to growth of things that consume the Earth and that live on it."

In The Massive Movement to Marginalize the Modern Malthusian Message Bartlett observes: "Some non-believers assert that the predictions of Malthus have not come to pass, that the world population in 1998 is much larger than Malthus could have ever imagined, therefore the world population can continue to grow essentially forever. This is an example of the "flying leap syndrome" in which a person leaps from the top of a very high building. The free-fall is exhilarating. After each of the first few seconds of free-fall, the person concludes that all is well, and soon reaches the ( logical ? ) conclusion that free-fall forever is a viable option. The end comes when the person strikes the ground. The ground is a boundary condition, a limit that was built into the falling person's total environment"
posted by troutfishing at 8:35 AM on October 11, 2002

Take a peek at "The Ingenuity Gap" by Thomas Homer-Dixon. I think he does a good job of avoiding the "Chicken Little" phenomenon while pointing out how our belief in infinite growth and ability to control the entire planet may be flawed. Excellent read.
posted by tgrundke at 8:44 AM on October 11, 2002

Bartlett observes: "Some non-believers assert that the predictions of Malthus have not come to pass, that the world population in 1998 is much larger than Malthus could have ever imagined, therefore the world population can continue to grow essentially forever.

Classic straw-horse tactics. Which "non-believers" think world population can "essentially grow forever"? I haven't read anyone commenting on the topic that believes there aren't limits to growth. The quite legitimate question is what those limits are. (Though it is interesting that the phrase "non-believer" is used - a term common in fundamentalist religious sects, but hardly appropriate in scientific dialogue ...).

The trouble with being a "believer" is that there's now a fairly good understanding of what causes population growth to level off (or even fall), the two most salient variables being a nation's economic growth, and the education levels of women. Fertility rates are still quite high in undeveloped countries with brutal political regimes (where children are seen as additional labor, or parents have a lot of children because they simply don't expect all of them to survive), but in fully developed economies, the current worry actually is that fertility rates will fall below replacement levels (see the UN's Replacement Migration: Is It a Solution to Declining and Ageing Populations?).

The population "problem" has been used by all manner of folks to achieve all sorts of ends ... some of them having little to do with population itself. It needs to continually be a "crisis" however, because, as Mencken so aptly put it, "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and thus clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary".
posted by MidasMulligan at 9:47 AM on October 11, 2002

MM, I can think of a much more immediate example of what Mencken was talking about in the current news -- can't you?
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:21 AM on October 11, 2002

In any case, things *are* getting better. I can't name a single democratic nation, which encourages trade, that has actually become poorer anytime recently. It just hasn't happened.

Japan's been having that 15 year recession (with at least a couple years of negative GDP growth), so there's that. The EU experienced negative GDP growth in the early 90s. The emerging economies in Southeast Asia (not all democratic, granted, but very trade-oriented) lost a tremendous amount of wealth in the late 90s (something like -10% GDP growth for the region in '98). There was negative GDP growth in the US in the early 80s, I think (I'm not sure if you would count that as "recently", though). Yeah, and Argentina is certainly a democracy, and the World Bank/IMF has pushed them into being very open to trade in recent years; they're not doing too hot. So you need to read more, Kevs.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:00 PM on October 11, 2002

Trout, bit of a tangent here, but I'm curious to hear more on this "infinite economic growth" paradigm. I've read some on "limits to growth" and every time the subject comes up that the economy can not maintain exponential growth indefinitely, the subject seems to get changed. Do people just believe the economy, which is based on limited natural resources which are currently being depleted faster than they can be replaced, can grow indefinitely? Or is everyone just sticking their heads in the sand, figuring if/when it does happen it won't be in their lifetime so why think about it?
posted by humbe at 12:00 PM on October 11, 2002

MM, I can think of a much more immediate example of what Mencken was talking about in the current news -- can't you?

I know what you're probably refering to, but don't agree with Mencken that all threats are imaginary. I'm probably not fully reasonable about the topic, because I was working in the World Financial Center on 9/11, and barely escaped with my ass in one piece. Makes me take fanatical middle-eastern tyrants who call the US "the Great Satan", and attempt to obtain serious weaponry, rather a tad more seriously.
posted by MidasMulligan at 12:18 PM on October 11, 2002

MidasMulligan is right. We will not on the Planet Earth ever have infinite population growth. Such growth in a finite space is impossible...Thanks for pointing this out.

What is also similarly impossible to achieve is infinite economic growth, and infinite resource growth in a finite space yet these two principles seem to be the cornerstone of our worldwide economic and political systems. Capitalism is certainly not founded on any kind of zero percentage growth average quite the opposite it needs growth to survive.

If you examine in Nature any system that thrives on unchecked growth you'll see that they all fail and there are essentially 3 outcomes.

1. Total collapse. The all resources necessary to sustain the system are used leaving the system completely unsustainable and the entire system is destroyed as a result. (not the most common outcome but cancer, and certain parasites have this behavior).

2. Cyclical collapse. The system oscillates between periods of growth and periods of decline. The end result of course is zero growth, but through this process there is massive instability. This is a common method in Nature, think of rodent populations.

3. Minor cyclical collapse/Balanced system. No more resources are used than what is replaced by the system. There may be ebbs and flows of growth and decay but the system does not use up more that it can replenish.

I believe humanity will be facing one of these possibilities in the future (exactly when can be debated) but our current economy does not leave much room other alternatives.
posted by aaronscool at 12:32 PM on October 11, 2002

aaronscool, option 2 seems closest to "regression to the mean" where your use of the word collapsed is a bit too extreme. Not to mention very similar to what many call the business cycle.

In general, though, there is a slight upside bias over long periods of time and much of this is generated by more efficient uses of existing resources as well as discovery of new resources. New can also mean new understanding of already known materials such as petroleum in the latter part of the 19th century.

Further, your three choices all assume a closed system (that is, only the materials on Earth). Why not be optimistic and believe that before much longer we will be able to exploit non-terrestrial resources as well?

Sure, one could also suggest that the resources of Solar System (or even the entire Universe) are not infinite but I would reply that infinite is relative to timeframe.
posted by billsaysthis at 1:30 PM on October 11, 2002

I don't think the business cycle represents the same kind of zero growth pattern I suggested in option 2.

I am a bit of an optimist in the near term. I don't think we are going to be extending ourselves past most of our critical resources in my lifetime. I think it may be possible to gather more resources from outside the planet but realistically this will not be a viable solution for some time to come. Even then we may have trouble if we find that the resource we need to import

My point is I think it's foolish to believe that our current economic system and political structure which it seems can only be successful with sustained growth can continue forever in a closed environment (As optimistic as you may wish to be we currently do live in a closed system on this planet).
posted by aaronscool at 2:27 PM on October 11, 2002

Humby - I'll have to cover the "Infinite Growth Paradigm" issue as a post soon. It's called "cornucopianism", and was pretty much developed as a theory by the late Julian Simon. There are two schools among it's adherents. 1) The Stupid school (my term) which holds that resources really ARE inexhaustible and 2) The Smart school which holds that - obviously - Earth resources are not inexhaustible, but that through the power human intelligence and creativity (and free market dynamics) we can always create better substitutes than the ones made from the resources we exhaust in the natural world.

There is even an "enviro-friendly" permutation of this - because it is quite possible to decouple consumption of Earth resources from "growth". After all, "growth" is a measure of an increase in the monetary value of products and services. What does Microsoft make? Paper boxes? Plastic CD's? Of course not. It makes ideas (software).

There is a fully fleshed out vision of an enviro-friendly, market based capitalism available in a number of recent books. "Natural Capiutalism" is a good one.
posted by troutfishing at 3:35 PM on October 11, 2002

Why are leftists so gung ho for globalization and the UN?
posted by Budge at 5:01 PM on October 11, 2002

Good stuff, dagny -- thanks.
posted by davidmsc at 5:17 PM on October 11, 2002

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