WASHINGTON, July 26 (UPI) -- The leading environmentalist Lester Brown, at the New America Foundation Thursday, provided a new take on our environmental dangers that's worth careful consideration for one reason: uniquely from an environmentalist in my experience, the short term danger is more salient than the long term one.
Brown began by expounding the danger the world is currently undergoing of exhausting its water tables, the underground sources of water that have been key to modern agriculture since exploitation of underground water resources began in 1950-70. The Ogalalla aquifer in the western United States is already reaching exhaustion in the southern part, although the northern part, which is deeper, has several generations of water left yet. India and China, more dependent on underground water than the United States, are showing signs of depletion; in particular the aquifers of northern China are a worry.
The effect of this may be seen quite quickly in a world shortage of grain and consequent rise in its price. World grain consumption has exceeded production since 2000; in 2002 by as much as 100 million tons, 5 percent of world consumption. Chinese grain production, which grew extraordinarily from 90 million tons to 392 million in 1950-1998, has dropped back quite sharply to 322 million tons in 2003.
Hence grain stocks have been drawn down, both in China and worldwide, to the lowest levels since immediately after the Soviet grain purchases of 1972, which caused a food crisis and high grain prices for several years thereafter. In 2004, current estimates in the world's grain producing areas are for a relatively good harvest, perhaps as good as comes along once a decade; if this were to happen the drawdown in world grain stocks in 2004-05 might be only around 20 million tons. However, according to Brown, this would still leave stocks below the levels of 1972-3, at the lowest levels in modern history. In any case, unless the 2004 harvest is unexpectedly good, a world grain inventory problem seems bound to occur in 2005 or 2006, particularly if China enters the world grain purchase market in a big way (it has already purchased 9 million tons in 2004.)
At this point, we get onto my expertise, which is markets rather than agriculture. If and when we get a sharp rise in world grain prices due to inventory shortages, this will cause a sharp rise in prices generally, particularly if it occurs in late 2004, at a time when the effects of the recent rise in oil prices are still working their way through the system. This in turn will cause a sharp rise in bond yields, a collapse of confidence in the Federal Reserve (which will be seen to have erred yet again on the side of over-optimism) and a sharp decline in world stock markets. Brown, who for some reason believes the free market currently "isn't working" is expecting a "wakeup call" from the water depletion and grain shortage; this would certainly provide one.
The next question arises: a wakeup call to what? Brown's next ecological worry, global warming, doesn't seem worth waking up to, at least not in the present generation. Global temperatures, according to Brown, have increased by 0.7 degrees Celsius (1.2 degrees Fahrenheit) in the 34 years since 1970, and can be expected to continue increasing at this kind of rate in the next century -- this would tally with the Cato Institute meeting I attended last year, at which the "best guess" was an increase of 2.1 degrees Celsius (3.8 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Brown expects the global warming problem to manifest itself first through world grain yields, which are estimated to decline by 10 percent for each degree Celsius of increase in global average temperature. Thus the 0.7 degrees global temperature increase since 1970 should have resulted in a decline in grain yields of around 7 percent.
This is not a very frightening number. Grain yields increased from 1950 to 2003 from 1.1 tons per hectare to 2.8 tons per hectare, an increase of over 150 percent, so a 7 percent decline in 34 years is not terribly significant by comparison. However, the rate of increase of grain production yields is slowing -- from 2.1 percent per annum in 1950-90 to 1.2 percent per annum in 1990-2000 to an estimated 0.6 to 0.7 percent per annum in the current decade, 2000-2010. Since world population is currently increasing at around 1.1 percent per annum, the downward trend in yield improvement is indeed of considerable concern. Brown believes this decline is primarily due to most of the obvious yield-improving developments in crop types having already been achieved; new developments are primarily in the areas of disease and insect resistance.
Where I would diverge from Brown is on the question of remedy. While Brown believes as I do that a carbon tax is the most efficient way to combat global warming, he wants a complete shake-up in economic policy to achieve this. His model is Franklin Roosevelt's State of the Union address of January 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, in which Roosevelt set targets for production of military materiel and ordered the shut-down of American automobile production -- one might expect, I suppose, an environmentalist to feel nostalgia for an economic policy that involved the shutting down of automobile production!
Brown's central long term worry, even more than global warming itself, is the continuing increase in world population, about 70 million new people a year on a current population of 6.4 billion. Here I agree with him -- we are already fairly close to limits in a number of resource and environmental control areas; the last thing the world needs is more people to speed resource usage and environmental degradation. He wants a global economic policy that would bring the future trajectory of population increase down from the United Nations "base case" forecast of 9 billion people in 2050 to their "low case" forecast of only 7.5 billion people in 2050, with global population peaking in 2044.
In Brown's view the most effective such policy would be a $62 billion per annum inter-governmental effort to provide primary education to every remote village in the Third World, thus educating Third World women both on contraception and in general, thereby reducing the world's birth rate -- he referred to this is a program for the eradication of poverty.
My problem with this is that I don't believe you can eradicate poverty for $62 billion a year, or even for $620 billion a year. The United States, Britain and France, rich countries, all have huge ghettos of poverty in their big cities. Maybe the only human society that didn't have such ghettos was the homogenous highly regimented socialist society of 1945-90 Sweden -- but its "eradication" of poverty also coincided with a high rate of alcoholism and the highest suicide rate in the world. Presumably the down-and-outs, given relatively generous state welfare payments and sequestered in beautifully designed Swedish minimalist state subsidized housing, became so depressed that they first took to the bottle and then to ending it all -- not necessarily a solution one would recommend.
In practice, of course, the ongoing problem of global warming, even if worsening only slowly, will eventually produce a massive political demand for a second version of the command-and-control Kyoto protocol to control global warming. This time, as well as controlling the rich world's pernicious and environment-threatening habit of driving SUVs, we must control the poor world's pernicious and environment-threatening habit of having more children than their impoverished economies and stretched ecosystems can support.
Almost no countries have both rich world consumption habits and excessive population growth. The richest substantial country with a population growth rate of over 2 percent per annum is Malaysia, with a 2001 gross domestic product per capita at purchasing power parity of $8,750, one third of the U.S. and Western European level. Conversely, Russia, with a GDP per capita of $7,100 and a population declining at 0.6 percent per annum is exceptional in its pursuit of environmental virtue, having neither truly Western consumption habits nor high population growth.
A world program of inserting fertility-retarding compounds into the drinking water should do it -- male fertility has declined quite sharply in the Western world since 1950, and this decline, like other benefits of modern civilization, needs to be extended worldwide. The cost of such a program, of course, would be a small fraction of $62 billion per annum, and it would have the benefit of extending the responsibility for controlling the world's environment to rich and poor countries alike. With appropriate fertility-retardation and a carbon tax, both aspects of the global warming problem should be readily controllable.
In the very long run, we need to decide what level of world population we want. World population in 1800, at the dawn of industrialization, was around 1 billion, and it is very hard to see what benefit the world has received from the explosive growth since then, which has been caused by the uneven spread of medical knowledge and better sanitation. Thomas Malthus' gloomy classic "Essay on Population" was written in 1798; it has been wrong so far, but must inevitably be proved right through environmental collapse if population continues to increase.
William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton both appeared within a century in a country of less than 5 million people. There is thus no reason to suppose that the advancement of human knowledge and happiness will be significantly retarded by restricting world population to 1 billion, particularly if the benefits of high quality education, modern medicine and a Western standard of life are extended to its poorer three quarters. Reduction of world population to around 1 billion, therefore, is the single environmental change that the thoughtful person should support; it will take 200 years, but it will be worth it!
Once this population level has been achieved, our descendants will be able to live as they please, driving whatever cars they choose on empty roads, using only moderate quantities of the world's resources, and free at last from the statist bossiness of environmentalists.
(The Bear's Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that, in the long '90s boom, the proportion of "sell" recommendations put out by Wall Street houses declined from 9 percent of all research reports to 1 percent and has only modestly rebounded since. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)
Martin Hutchinson is the author of "Great Conservatives" (Academica Press, June 2004) -- details can be found on the Web site greatconservatives.com.