The Improving State of the World

by Don Boudreaux on May 13, 2007

in Environment, Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

The Boston Globe‘s Jeff Jacoby hits a home-run with his column today.  Here are some key passages:

FEELING CROWDED? Paul Watson is. The founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society writes that human overpopulation is “a virus . . . killing our host the planet Earth,” and so the number of people living in the world should be slashed by 85 percent…..

[Mr. Watson and those who share his apocalyptic delusions] should spend some time with Indur Goklany’s “The Improving State of the World,” a new compendium of data making the case that as nations grow wealthier, the quality of human life rises. Far from being a disaster for our species and the planet, Goklany demonstrates, economic growth and technological change have been a boon for both, making it possible for ever more people to live ever-improving lives in an ever-cleaner environment. And while the developed countries may outstrip the developing world in wealth, it is in the world’s poorest societies that some of the greatest strides are being made.

Take food. Since 1950, the world’s population has soared by more than 150 percent. Yet food has become so abundant that global food prices (in real terms) have plunged 75 percent. Over the past generation, chronic undernourishment in poor countries has been slashed from 37 percent to 17 percent, while in the United States, staples such as potatoes and flour have dropped in price (relative to income) by more than 80 percent.

Or take infant mortality. Before industrialization, children died before reaching their first birthday at a rate exceeding 200 per 1,000 live births, or more than one in five. “In the United States as late as 1900,” Goklany writes, “infant mortality was about 160; but by 2004 it had declined to 6.6.” In developing countries, the fall in mortality rates began later, but is occurring more quickly. In China, infant mortality has plunged from 195 to 30 in the past 50 years.

Life expectancy? From 31 years in 1900, it was up to 66.8 worldwide in 2003.

Health? We are more likely to be disease-free today than our forebears were a century ago. And the onset of chronic illness has been significantly delayed — by nearly eight years for cancer, nine years for heart diseases, and 11 years for respiratory diseases.

Education, child labor, clean air, freedom, famine, leisure time, global poverty — Goklany shows that by almost any yardstick you choose, humanity thrives as never before. Living standards do not fall as population rises. On the contrary: Where there are free markets and free minds — economic growth and technology — human progress and hope are all but guaranteed.

“Humanity, though more populous and still imperfect, has never been in better condition,” he writes.

Our lives are better than our ancestors’. Our descendants’ can be better than ours.

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dave smith May 13, 2007 at 11:11 am

Great Post Don. Thanks for sharing the article. But why are these facts not clear to everyone? Why are we still having this debate?

Sam Grove May 13, 2007 at 12:17 pm

There are actually people that hate humanity. They won't volunteer to leave though, they want others to go.

The Cynical Libertarian May 13, 2007 at 12:25 pm

World per-capita calorie consumpton has been rising non-stop for years. You could put the entire population of the earth into a pleasant suburban town that would fit into the land mass of China four times over, or give each person on the planet over a thousand square feet of Texas.

We're not overpopulated. Not even slightly. People have no idea how huge the planet is or just how ingenius and inventive humanity is. If we ran out of suitable arable land, we'd make double-decker fields with synthetic soil, or drain out lakes or build man-made islands, or build farms on the moon or invent Star Trek style replicators or grow super-nutritious genetically modified crops so that you only need to eat once a day… anything. It will take a hell of a lot for mankind to run out of options and have to start killing each other to make room.

Jason May 13, 2007 at 4:44 pm

Similar to Marx's economic ideas, Malthus' ideas remain popular despite hundreds of years of evidence to the contrary. The Cynical Libertarian makes great points: 1) We aren't overpopulated and 2) if we ever get to that point, don't underestimate future generations adaptability.

True_Liberal May 13, 2007 at 5:03 pm

Think about it: rising CO2 levels will work to favor flora, and make life more difficult for fauna.

The problem is therefore self-limiting. So what the h*** is Paul Watson worried about?

M. Hodak May 13, 2007 at 9:15 pm

Most people seem to underestimate the positive externalities of economic development.

Survival Acres May 13, 2007 at 11:35 pm

There are a great many falsehoods being portrayed in this article. There are a number of people in America that face starvation from a lack of food. Globally, world food supplies are down a whopping 30%.

Drought ravaged lands all over the world (including the U.S.) are going to have severe impact upon global food production. Arable land is in severe decline globally. Water will be the next "resource" war being fought as nation after nation fails to provide for their basic needs. Examine the news on Australia, this is happening right now as entire cities are facing collapse.

Food is the direct result of cheap energy (petroleum). Peak oil production has already happened, we are now on the downward side. Every refinery in the world is running at 100%, yet consumption and demand are up 25% this year alone. Over 100 bioethanol plants are being built in the U.S. alone to help meet our fuel requirements, these will be utilizing food (corn primarily) for feedstock to the bioethanol plants. Corn prices have jumped 70%. India, China, Zimbabwe are in desperate need for more food imports. The result will be global food shortages in just a few more years.

We have reached the apex of civilization, built upon cheap, available and easily extracted energy. Human "innovation" cannot and will not solve these issues, nearly 100% of these "promises" turn out to be energy sinks.

The era of expansion, development and growth is over, our descendent's won't know anything like we've known. It certainly won't be "better" for them as this article implies, it will be much worse.

The reality is, the world is far from improving, it's in serious decline and about to become severe. I have blogged hundreds of news stories regarding this issue from around the world. Boudreaux is living on a make believe cloud.

Mr. Econotarian May 13, 2007 at 11:56 pm

Regarding "There are a number of people in America that face starvation from a lack of food," could you please tell us how many Americans died of starvation last year because of lack of available food and the reference to that data?

My understanding is that death directly related to malnutrition in the West is fairly limited to geriatric patients mostly due to "voluntary" reductions in calorie intake due to loss of taste and smell, hormone problems, depression, and loss of appetite due to cytokine build-up from inflamatory diseases.

This problem should be solved, but it isn't a problem of lack of food. If anything, it is because modern medicine allows more people to live to ages way beyond reproductive years where we are not evolved to live well.

dave smith May 14, 2007 at 12:23 am

Survival Acres spouts the same stuff the my Social Work majors (who must take Macro) learn in their classes.

They say starvation is common in the US and blame Wal Mart and Pres Bush.

But they can't give any data with sources, not even non creidible sources.

I think that if someone starved to death in the US becuase of lack of food, the press would be on it for a week non stop. Since they aren't, I conclude no one is starving in the US.

By the way, I've seen the type of instrument they use to guage hunger in the US. One of the questions was: Have you been hungry in the past month.

Well, I've been hungry in the past month. It fact, I am hungry now. I think I'll go make a sandwich for myself.

Russell Nelson May 14, 2007 at 2:31 am

Survival Acres: the best thing you can do about this problem is to kill yourself and make more room for the rest of us.

muirgeo May 14, 2007 at 9:41 am

My point would be that at some time in the future we will have to achieve a stable population. I did the numbers once and found that if the rate of doubling of the population occurred every 50 years in some 1000 years there would be on person for every 1000 square feet of the land mass of the globe.

The idea that the economy can only thrive with continued population growth is silly in my opinion. The idea that our quality of life will improve with ever more people is also highly questionable to me as well.

The Cynical Libertarian May 14, 2007 at 10:52 am

There is more food being produced and consumed today than at any time in history, both gross and per capita. There is no reason to believe that this will not continue. Farming methods are becoming so advanced that we're using much less land to produce much more food than we have in the past.

The distribution of that food could be regarded as less than ideal – vast quantities of European and American produce are left rotting in warehouses and the developed world is getting fatter whilst Zimbabwians starve. However, it is true that people of all continents, Africa included, are eating more. Zimbabwians are eating less, not because there is a lack of food in the world, but because it's not getting to them due to the political policies of their government.

Protectionism and barriers to trade and development, invariably created by governments, are what stops Africans getting the food they demand, not a lack of supply.

Remember that, apart from water, food is the most essential saleable good in the world. People will always buy food and water over anything else. Thus, unless every square inch of land in the world that can be used for farming is being used for farming, there will be no shortage. As it is, vast swathes of land suitable for farming are used for factories and businesses and houses and power stations and so on. If people are starving, they will cease to demand shops and power stations and instead demand food so these things will dissapear. Yet they are still with us, so nobody need starve.

muirgeo May 14, 2007 at 11:44 am

Sure this is all good news for the most part the quality of life in all developed nations is improving. But every single one of the best 20 or 30 operate on a mixed economy. So how do these results toot the horn of free market liberal economies since no such thing exists in the real world?

Python May 14, 2007 at 2:22 pm


Again, I am confused by your confusion. Nothing in this post says that "free market liberal economics" are the only path to human success. What is being said is that when humans can make intelligent choices regarding how they live there is bound to be improvements. Versus the old way of thinking which can be summarized loosely as "When there is a problem we hope the rulers will do something about it."

Yes, there are no completely free markets. It appears as if you think there is some balancing point between free markets and regulation. If that is the case, please tell me, are there any countries that can raise the quality of life right now from more across-the-board regulation?

Most people on this board agree that a certain level of regulation is necessary, but that the optimal balance between regulation/freedom is in the direction of less regulation. And, that the increase in the quality of life has had its foundations in nations that have more personal/business freedom than those that don't.

Your term "mixed economy" is a red herring because you don't address what balance of mixing is going on. Uganda and the UK both have mixed economies so they must have the same role in improving quality of life. :-)

Sam Grove May 14, 2007 at 3:28 pm

The market functions so well that it can withstand fairly severe predation by theives and similar characters, even politicians. This is dependent, of course, the efficiency of production.

To boil it down, the problem is: how many people can be supported by what fraction of the whole. In a subsistence economy, the ratio can approach 1, that is, productivity is so low that everyone must produce.

If we could completely automate production of all goods and services, then the ratio may approach 0, that is, no one would have to work at producing goods and services.

What the state does, when it exceeds its charge of prohibiting aggression, is to require the productive sector to support the non-productive sector through sanctioned extortion.

A mixed economy succeeds only to the extent that individuals are rewarded for production. Viewed from a utilitarian perspective, it can easily be said that a mixed economy works well enough. But if we look at things from a moral perspective, it's quite a different matter.

Than again, if long term results are valued, the even a utilitarian perspective may recognize that a mixed economy is unstable and tending toward increasing political management to correct the (false) perception that the market isn't functioning well.

It is never the market that malfunctions, but rather, it is attempts by various interests to control the market for their own benefit that distorts market functions.

jorzo May 15, 2007 at 7:50 pm

As much as I agree with the gist of this post I think there's a great misunderstanding of the quote within Jeff Jacoby's column.

Imagine the quote was "AIDS…is a virus on …man." would it make sense the go on and on about how the AIDS virus is living better today than it's ancestors? I don't get how pointing out The Improving State of the World counters Paul Watson. What am I missing?

I don't agree with Paul Watson's quote, it sounds positively dangerous.

True_Liberal May 15, 2007 at 8:29 pm

Sam says: "What the state does, when it exceeds its charge of prohibiting aggression, is to require the productive sector to support the non-productive sector through sanctioned extortion."

Brilliant, sir! It certainly bears repeating.

Wacky Hermit May 16, 2007 at 2:06 pm

Jorzo, the difference is that it isn't the AIDS virus writing an article about how AIDS is a virus of man that should be eradicated. Mr. Watson's hatred of his own kind is countered by an appeal for him to consider the actual welfare of his own kind rather than his theory about his place in the universe.

I'm sure that if you asked Mr. Watson which 85% of the people he would want to see killed off, either he'd waffle, exposing himself as an idiot, or he'd have "a little list" and anyone who disagreed with him would be on it, exposing himself as a thug.

jorzo May 16, 2007 at 8:26 pm

I don't think Paul Watson will respond to any appeal, logical or not. He sounds so despondent especially over loss of the mega-fauna of Australia. He might just want to be a part of that 85%.

At least he's not buying in to "Noble savages" that take only what they need and leave the rest. Other than that, he's a nut.

My favorite part:

…Then agriculture was followed by industrial activities, and finally, by the burning off of vast amounts of fossil fuels.

He's bemoaning the loss of fossil fuels!

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