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Comparing Three Prophetic Books
Before evaluating predictions of the future, an important perspective
is gained by looking at past predictions of the future. Here we
compare three 1980 predictions of the future; one by an optimist, one
by a moderate pessimist, and one by the Government at a time when, as
now, pessimism was considered politically correct.
Simon, Julian . THE ULTIMATE RESOURCE (Princeton, N.J.
University Press, 1981)
Brown, Lester, BUILDING A SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY,
U.S. Government, The Global 2000 Report to the President of the U.S.,
Pergamon Policy Studies
Here are the facts about Simon's book.
Here are some facts about Global 2000
- Simon is an economist. His arguments rely mainly on the
principles of economics and on economic history. He relies
much less than I do on facts about science and technology,
although he cites quite a few.
There is some justification for his not relying on science and
technology for predictions of human prosperity. Namely, until
nuclear energy became known, gloomy predictions about running out
of energy would have been plausible and in fact were made. Relying
on history would have given a result that corresponds better to what
actually happened. As I argue elsewhere in these Web pages, we can
now see very long term (i.e. billion year) prosperity for humanity.
- Simon's "ultimate resource" is people. He believes that the prosperity
of a country or of the world depends overwhelmingly on how many
people there are and on how well they work rather than on the
amount of any natural resource.
- My opinion, based on my reading of the facts about technology and
resources, is that Simon is right about this now and for at least
the next century.
Before World War II and shortly thereafter it
was widely believed that a country's prosperity depended essentially
on the resources it controlled politically. For this reason, Germany
and Japan, which had lost their colonies were expected to be
Experience refuted this. The prosperity of countries since WWII
has had little relation to their population densities or the natural
resources they possess within their borders. International trade
works just fine. Only water is still too bulky to have a global
- Simon carries the principle that population doesn't matter
farther than I would, taking it as just about
an absolute. He would convince more people if he agreed that
a continued exponential growth at a fixed rate would leave
the earth with no room to stand on and then pointed out how
far away this is at present declining rates of population
growth. He would also need a criterion for when a problem
should be left to our descendants.
- The economic history he cites includes the following facts.
- The reserves of a resource are always limited to a small number of
decades, because it doesn't pay to develop reserves until that close to
the time they are needed. He cites the history of the world's oil reserves.
He contrasts reserves with resources, the latter always being only partly
known. As to minerals, Simon saw the reserves as increasing and the price
declining. This caused him to challenge Ehrlich to their famous
bet about how prices would change
between 1980 and 1990.
- He cites a history of the failure of gloomy predictions ,
especially Jevons's prediction in 1865 that British civilization was
doomed, because it was just about to run out of coal.
- Simon devotes considerable attention to energy supply. It turns
out that he was unduly influenced by the sense of energy crisis common
in 1979 except in the oil and gas industry. He recounts the available
substitutes for petroleum and expected them to be used. In fact oil
has remained cheap until now, and the substitutes such as shale oil haven't
been put into use yet.
The book is in three volumes as befits a Government report. For now
anyway, I concentrate on the first volume, which is a summary.
President Jimmy Carter asked for the report and somehow a physicist
named Gerald O. Barney was chosen as study director. He divided up
the problem, and various Government agencies supplied sections.
Barney's preface found the estimates from the agencies too optimistic.
He argued that the problems seen as solvable by the agencies might
interact to give a worse outcome.
I suppose this preface set the tone for the press releases that gave
the media such a gloomy view of the future. The agencies undoubtedly
knew that gloom was wanted, and this may have affected the
probabilities they assigned to various outcomes. The probabilities
they assigned to the outcomes may also have been affected by the
probability they assigned to Jimmy Carter still being President in
Global 2000 has a lot of very useful information - much more
than I can possibly refer to. Often it can
be given two kinds of interpretation - the cup is half empty or the cup is
Here are some of the projections the agencies gave under ten headings
and also some of the information included with the projections. If
you want a more full picture of the report, you had better read it.
There was far too much to summarize.
Building a Sustainable Society by Lester Brown exudes gloom more
consistently than does Global 2000 as befits a book written by a
single individual. The gloom is often rather vague, but sometimes there
are some fairly definite predictions. Here are some of them.
- The report projects an increase in world population from 4.1 billion
in 1975 to 6.4 billion in 2000. Since we are only up to 5.6
billion in 1995, it doesn't look as though we'll make it.
- We'll pass on this one for now.
- The CIA was asked for a climate projection. Perhaps
eager to please, the CIA supplied three. The climate might stay the same.
It might get warmer. It might get colder. Possible consequences of these
were spelled out. The probability that climate would stay the same was
estimated at .30 and the probabilities that it would get warmer or colder were
each estimated at .25. I didn't see what the other .20 would cover.
- There is moderate enthusiasm for E. F. Schumacher's appropriate
technologies. This isn't happening to any significant extent.
- p. 94 - "The real price of food is projected to increase 30 to 115
percent over 1969-71 prices." I don't believe this is happening, but
I need to compare the projections with those of the 1994
CAST report. According to
Dennis Avery in (Bailey 1995), p. 50,
"Food is more abundant and cheaper today than at any
other time before in history. Per capita grain supplies have increased
24 percent since 1950, while food prices have plummeted by 57 percent
There is considerable concern with salination of irrigated land, but
since it is known how to fix the problems with subsurface drainage, we
need to compare the Report's worries with what has been done in the
last 15 years.
- The Marine Environment
- They list a large number of possible impacts but don't seem to be
very worried about any one. They project a fish production of
83.5 million tons in 2000. We'll compare this with 1994
when we find it.
- The industrialized countries had a wood stock of 142 m^3 per capita -
expected to fall to 114 m^3 by 2000. The less developed countries
had 57 m^3 per capita expected to "plummet" to 21 m^3. Overall land
cover by forest was expected to shrink from 1/5 of the land area to
1/6 of the land area. This seems to me to be enough to build many
houses for each person.
- The global water supply was 10 times demand and was expected to
be 3.5 times demand in 2000. Of course, water is the one commodity
that is too bulky to be transported easily from places with a surplus
to places with a shortage.
- Non-fuel minerals.
- The only problems the report anticipated were conflicts with
environmental considerations. Here's a table of American per capita
use of various substances.
- stone 8000 lbs
- sand and gravel 8000 lbs
- cement 650 lbs
- clays 450 lbs
- salt 430 lbs
- other nonmetals 1400 lbs
- iron and steel 1000 lbs
- alumninum 46 lbs
- copper 16 lbs
- zinc 14 lbs
- lead 11 lbs
- other metals 31 lbs
For energy we used per capita
- petroleum 7650 lbs
- coal 5200 lbs
- natural gas 4200 lbs
- uranium 1/7 lb
These materials are used to generate energy per capita equivalent to
300 persons working around the clock.
The total U.S. use of new mineral supplies in 1975 was 4 billion tons.
- "In Washington, the official position was that OPEC's 1973
increase in the price of oil was artificially high and that it would
shortly return to a more normal level." It wasn't shortly but it
did, via inflation, return to a more normal level.
- The section on food expects substantial price rises, although Brown was
even more vague than the Government about what rises are to be