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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. : Princeton University Press, 1981)


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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 poor. 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 market.

  4. 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.

  5. The economic history he cites includes the following facts.
  6. 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.

Here are some facts about Global 2000

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 1981.

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 half full.

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.

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 since 1980."

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.

For energy we used per capita

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.

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.