The Corner

Economics

Why the Doomsayers Have the Upper Hand

Julian Simon. (Free To Choose Network/Screenshot via Youtube)

In 1980, the Council on Environmental Quality, part of the Executive Office of the President, released the Global 2000 report. During the 1970s, the consensus among many scientists was that population growth was a bad thing (and China listened to them), and the Council’s report to President Carter reflected that consensus. The report predicted:

If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world’s people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.

The year 2000 has come and gone, and the report’s predictions did not come true. Hindsight is 20/20, you might say. But economist Julian Simon knew the predictions would be wrong right when the report came out. In the Winter 1981 issue of The Public Interest, Simon wrote the article “Global Confusion, 1980: A Hard Look at the Global 2000 Report.” In that article, based on his then-forthcoming book The Ultimate Resource, Simon presents copious evidence on why the population doomsayers were wrong. But he also points to some of the dynamics that give doomsayers the upper hand in public discourse.

One factor is reflected in the somewhat defensive tone in the last paragraph in Simon’s introduction. He confidently asserts that the evidence demonstrates that population growth will not ruin the planet, but he feels the need to clarify:

Please note that I am not saying that all is well now, and I do not promise that all will be rosy in the future. Children are hungry and sick; people live lives of physical and intellectual poverty, and lack of opportunity; some new pollution may indeed do us all in.

It’s hard to be optimistic when the prevailing narrative is pessimistic because that can come across as being dismissive of suffering. Presenting the case that a problem is not as bad as it may initially seem puts the presenter on defense right away. The doomsayers can be on offense all the time. You never hear someone predicting catastrophe clarify by saying, “Please note that it might not be as bad as I’m saying it will be.”

Simon lists six reasons why the Global 2000 report was inaccurate. Two of them are especially generalizable to show why doomsayers have the upper hand. The first is that “organizational self-interest may have been at work.” By that Simon means that organizations that specialize in studying a particular problem have every incentive to say that problem is extraordinarily pressing. For government agencies, that’s how they convince Congress to give them more money when it comes time to make the federal budget. For private organizations, that’s how they convince donors to write big checks when it comes time to fundraise. Money is finite, and it has many alternative uses. You need to convince people that your cause is the best possible use, so blow up the negative and downplay the positive.

The second reason Simon points out is that “bad news makes headlines.” He writes:

Would the Global 2000 report have gotten a thousandth of the widespread publicity it received if it said: “More or less, and left to themselves without massive government interference, the world’s people are slowly but steadily improving their lot in food and resource supplies, life expectancy, and a clean environment?”

Clearly, the answer is no. U.S. news media have been especially bad on this issue during COVID-19. According to a November 2020 study, 91 percent of American news stories about COVID-19 have been negative, compared with only 54 percent of non-American news stories. The study also found that the degree of negativity did not track with changes in the status of the virus. It’s (almost) all negative, all the time.

Simon then runs through each point of the Global 2000 report’s intro and demonstrates why the evidence actually points in the opposite direction. Pollution was improving, resources were becoming more abundant, the relative price of energy was declining, and so on. The data were (and mostly still are) on his side.

In the conclusion, Simon asks how the authors of the Global 2000 report could get away with such shoddy work. He answers his own question with another question: “Who is there to stop them?”

The very best scholar is likely to judge that it is more important to get on with his or her own work rather than try to act as a one-person truth squad. Journalists seldom have the time and patience for deep digging into the scientific literature.

Fortunately for us, Simon pretty much did choose to act as a one-person truth squad, and many economists today look back on the ’70s population growth scare as an error-filled fad. Simon argued that humans are “the ultimate resource” because they figure out ways to solve problems and create value from things previously believed to be only bad.

But almost all the incentives give the doomsayers the upper hand. If you want to be seen as a caring, educated, good citizen (and who doesn’t), it’s advantageous to hitch your wagon to a negative prevailing narrative, whether it’s based on the evidence or not.

Simon put it well: “False bad news is a very real social pollution, and a dangerous one.”

Do read the whole thing here. Simon was a master.

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