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#485 - The State of Humanity, 13-Mar-1996

The recent outpouring of hefty "feel good" books has not let up. Last
year the book world was buzzing about Gregg Easterbrook's 700-page A
MOMENT ON THE EARTH, which tried to make the case that most of our
environmental problems have already been solved. Close analysis
revealed that Easterbrook's optimism was based on errors, selective
omissions, and deliberate misinformation.[1] (See, for example, REHW

Now comes Julian Simon, a professor at University of Maryland with an
even rosier view of the human prospect.

Simon's new book, THE STATE OF HUMANITY, concludes that, "We have in
our hands now--actually, in our libraries--the technology to feed,
clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next
seven billion years. Most amazing is that most of this specific body of
knowledge was developed within just the past two centuries or so,
though it rests on basic knowledge that had accumulated for millennia,
of course.

"Indeed, the last necessary additions to this body of technology --
nuclear fission and space travel --occurred decades ago. Even if no new
knowledge were ever invented after those advances, we would be able to
go on increasing our population forever, while improving our standard
of living and our control over our environment."[2,pg.26]

As you can probably tell from this quotation, Simon is the Crazy Eddie
of "feel good," and his latest book is nearly 700 pages of optimism for
the human prospect, including optimism for the natural environment.

The book is divided into 58 chapters written by 67 authors, crammed
with charts, graphs and tables. It is an information storehouse of
prodigious proportions, particularly historical information. When I
began reading it, I thought, "What a treasure! This is like finding a
huge bag full of $100 bills!" However, as I read deeper into the book,
I began to discover that much of the treasure is counterfeit, and many
of the optimistic conclusions are bogus. Worse, most readers may not be
able to distinguish what's real from what's fake.

Still the book has some value. It reminds us again and again of the
real progress that humans made between 1750 and 1950. Infant mortality
decreased dramatically, working conditions improved for tens of
millions of people, technology opened up vast opportunities for travel,
education and enjoyment of life for huge numbers. Diet improved, life
expectancy increased, opportunity expanded. Democracy and freedom
spread. These things are true, and it is worthwhile reflecting on the
real progress humans have made.

However Simon is so determined to accentuate the positive that he
ignores almost completely the serious negative countercurrents that
give our own age its bitter-sweet tinge:

** We live in an age of perpetual wars, with anywhere from 20 to 30
major wars going on simultaneously around the globe. More than 90% of
the people killed in these wars are civilians,[3] largely in developing
nations supplied with modern weaponry by the rich nations ($36 billion
worth of armaments in 1992 alone[4]). At a cost of less than half their
military expenditures, developing countries could initiate basic health
services and clinical care that would save 10 million lives each year.
[4] For their part, the rich nations spend on armaments each year an
amount equivalent to the total income of the world's poorest 2 billion
people.[4] In describing historical trends, Simon hardly mentions the
increase in wars, the buildup of armaments, and the anti-life
priorities, all clearly major byproducts of modernity. Simon merely
predicts (pg. 654) that war will be less likely in the future as "land
becomes less important relative to other assets"--a prediction that
seems dubious at best because human population is growing and the
amount of available land is not.

** Humans now appropriate 25% of earth's total net primary production
(NPP).[5] Net primary production is the amount of energy captured in
photosynthesis by primary producers (blue-green plants that
photosynthesize, thus turning carbon dioxide and water into
carbohydrates) minus the energy used in their own growth and
reproduction. NPP is thus the basic food resource for everything on
earth that is not capable of photosynthesis. Humans are now thought to
be using for their own purposes 25% of global NPP and 40% of NPP on the
land. If this estimate is correct, it means that 2 more population
doublings (which will occur in about 80 years), will leave nothing for
any species besides humans--a prospect that must give pause to even
those with a totally human-centered world-view. Simon simply ignores
this trend. (Simon sees us migrating into outer space on nuclear-
powered rockets after we have filled this planet. Interestingly, Gregg
Easterbrook imagined the same "escape hatch" for a humanity that can't
seem to prevent itself from fouling its own nest.)

** In the developed world, human health is declining. On this topic,
Simon includes a surprising amount of bad news in an essay titled
"Trends in Health in the U.S. Population: 1957-1989," by Eileen M.
Crimmins and Dominique G. Ingegneri:

In 1957, the U.S. government initiated the National Health Interview
Survey; each year some 100,000 non-institutionalized individuals in
40,000 households are surveyed. Two measures of health have been taken
consistently since 1957: "limitation of activity" and "restricted
activity days." Both are measures of the prevalence of ill health.

"Limitation of activity" is a measure of long-term disability,
disability that is due to chronic conditions and diseases and usually
has lasted at least 3 months. A person is limited in activity when he
or she has difficulty performing his or her usual activity, or the
activity that is normal for his or her age group. (pg. 73)

"Restricted activity days" is designed to measure short-term
disability. The respondent is asked how many days during the past two
weeks he or she had to cut down on normal activity because of health.
Because restricted activity can be due to either acute conditions, like
colds and sore throats, or chronic conditions, like heart disease, it
is an indicator of the level of both acute and chronic illness. (pg.

Among the whole U.S. population during the period 1957 to 1989,
"activity limitation" has increased 43%. Between 1961 and 1989, the
number of "restricted activity days" increased 28%. These measures
indicate substantial increases in both chronic and acute ill health
among Americans during the last 30 years.

Crimmins and Ingegneri note that, "...other empirical work has tended
to confirm the idea that the health of the population has deteriorated
in the United States in recent years. Findings of this nature have been
reported in a large number of studies based on National Health
Interview Survey (NHIS) data like those presented here. These include
studies of health change at all ages, as well as studies concentrating
on segments of the population including children, the working-age
population, and parts of the older population. Examination of health or
disability change using other data, such as the decennial [every 10
year] census and the Current Population Survey, have reached similar
conclusions for the working age population." (pg. 77)

Health deterioration has also been investigated in a variety of other
countries where mortality is low and continuing to decline. Surveys
have shown deteriorating health in Canada during the 1970s, Australia
during the 1980s, Great Britain from the 1970s through the mid-1980s,
and Japan from the 1950s through the 1980s. (pg. 77)

Simon's book offers only one hypothesis for this decline in health
throughout the developed world: more frail people are being kept alive.
This hypothesis is perhaps attractive to Simon and his colleagues at
the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.,, where economic Darwinism
("only the fittest survive") is still a popular idea. But alternative
hypotheses are certainly possible: the modern "junk food" diet that is
so common among young people may be partly responsible, combined with a
lack of exercise. In addition, chemical exposures, which are certainly
occurring, seem to be degrading the immune systems of humans, giving
rise to increased infections and autoimmune disorders such as asthma,
arthritis and diabetes. Simon ignores these factors. (See REHW #318,
#374, #414, #417, for example.)

To maintain his ever-optimistic view, Simon relies upon the same
techniques Easterbrook employed: misinformation, specious comparisons,
and selective omissions.

Misinformation: For example, Simon says, "Fear is rampant about rapid
rates of species extinction. The fear has little or no basis." (pg. 15)
But the evidence from the fossil record is that extinctions are
occurring today 10 to 100 times faster than natural background (pre-
human) rates of extinction, and in some regions the rate is 1000 times
background. (See REHW #441.) There IS genuine cause for concern.

Selective omissions and specious comparisons: For example, Simon says,
"The Great Lakes are not dead; instead they offer better sport fishing
than ever." (pg. 22) First, no one ever said the Great Lakes were dead.
Second, in some of the Lakes (Michigan and Erie, for example) sport
fishing is only able to thrive because governments stock the Lakes with
hatchery-bred fish each year. Literally hundreds of studies have shown
that fish, birds, and mammals in the lakes have had their reproductive
systems damaged by chemical contamination. (See REHW #263, #264.)
Third, each year state and provincial governments in the U.S. and
Canada issue book-length catalogs listing coves and bays throughout the
Great Lakes where it is not safe to eat the fish. Fourth, there is
substantial evidence that humans who often eat fish from the Great
Lakes give birth to children who are stunted physically and mentally.
(See REHW #411.)

Yes, humans made important progress between 1750 and 1950. Is the
progress continuing? The record is clearly mixed. Good news today is
nearly always accompanied by real side-effects that are genuinely bad.
If we continue on our present path, does the future look rosy? Simon
thinks so, but, like Gregg Easterbrook before him, to maintain this
rose-colored view he is forced to ignore or dismiss important trends,
ask and answer irrelevant ("straw man") questions, and make specious
comparisons. It is probably very rewarding to write "feel good" books,
but the way these fellows do it is intellectually dishonest.

--Peter Montague


[1] Gregg Easterbrook, A MOMENT ON THE EARTH (New York: Viking Penguin,

[2] Julian L. Simon, editor, THE STATE OF HUMANITY (Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1995).

[3] United Nations Development Programme, HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT 1995
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pg. 13.

15TH EDITION. (Washington, D.C.: World Priorities [P.O. Box 25140,
Washington, DC 20007], 1993, pg. 5.

[5] Peter M. Vitousek, and others. "Human Appropriation of the Products
of Photosynthesis," BIOSCIENCE Vol. 36 No. 6 (June, 1986), pgs. 368-
373. "Appropriation" includes direct use by humans (food, fuel, fiber,
timber) plus the reduction from potential NPP due to alteration of
ecosystems caused by humans. The latter includes desertification,
deforestation, paving over, and human conversion to less productive
systems (such as agriculture).

Descriptor terms: overviews; global environmental problems; human
health; julian simon; gregg easterbrook; war; population growth; land
use; species loss; great lakes; endocrine disrupters;

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