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The profits of doom


THE Global Footprint Network, which frets about mankind’s impact on the environment, celebrates Earth Overshoot Day every year. This ‘marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year . . . Donate today so we can continue to help end ecological overshoot’. This year’s Earth Overshoot Day fell on July 29, last Thursday.

It’s a nice idea. Extrapolate our individual consumption to that of the earth’s entire population and work out how soon our global resources will be exhausted. The Earth Overshoot website has a handy questionnaire to estimate how fast you individually are draining the planet’s resources. My personal Earth Overshoot Day is April 13, and if we were all using up resources at the same rate as I am, we would need three and a half Earths to keep us going.

There is a tiny flaw in the Earth Overshoot concept. If your entries in the website questionnaire are those of somebody living en famille in a mud hut without running water, you will find that you are fine for the next twelve months; you require only one Earth. You will be, in World Bank terms, one of the two-thirds of mankind living on less than ten dollars a day. You will, however, says the same source, have much less chance of living through that year. You will die, on average, at around 60. I will die at around 80 (worrying: I am 81).

Earth Overshoot Day is an anxiety-inducing concept in the great Malthusian tradition (except that the Reverend Thomas Malthus did not ask for your money). To remind you, in 1798 he started the environmental doomsday movement with his pamphlet on population. This argued that since population tended to increase geometrically and food supply arithmetically, mass starvation was inevitable. It didn’t happen; more people grew more food more efficiently as demand increased and with it the price.

After the industrial revolution, the doomsters really got into their stride. In 1865 The Coal Question, an influential book by Stanley Jevons, argued that Britain would run out of coal in a few years. In 1914, the United States Bureau of Mines predicted that American oil reserves would last ten years. In both 1939 and 1951 the Department of the Interior said America’s oil would last 13 years. In fact US oil production roughly tripled between 2010 and 2020.

It is an indication of how much we relish worrying that another flat-footed prediction, from the Club of Rome, is still enjoying credibility. This group was created in 1968 as a self-appointed assemblage of the good and great to keep an eye on the health of the planet. In 1972 they said we were going to run out of stuff if we kept using it at the current rate.

The Club’s book arising from this, The Limits to Growth, received enormous attention. Particular interest was paid to its prediction that we would run out of oil (again) by 1990, along with just about everything else we extract. In fact, by that year known oil reserves were higher than they had been in 1972 and other minerals were equally abundant.

Exhaustion of our resources has not happened because when stuff gets short its price goes up and more stuff is worth mining (or farming for that matter) than before. So it is not going to come about for a very long time.

To give you a concrete example of what this supply and demand relationship means, take the lithium mines of Zimbabwe. There are four, three having come into existence since the success of the lithium-ion battery sent demand rocketing. These three are on long-known resources that became economic to develop as the price went up.

Lester Brown created the Worldwatch Institute in 1973 on the basis that population would soon outstrip food production. In 1994, after 21 years of getting it wrong, he was at last able to say: ‘After 40 years of record food production gains, output per person has reversed with unanticipated abruptness.’ Two jumbo harvests followed and the price of wheat fell to record lows. Nonetheless, Lester Brown continued to predict global starvation every year until he retired in 2015, when he was in his eighties. His success, like that of the Club of Rome, Earth Overshoot and the rest, depended on a highly reliable human attribute: bad news sells.

Since WWII it has been rather difficult to keep up the supply of bad news, for not only does economic growth push production up, it can also bring prices down. In 1980 Dr Paul Ehrlich, a prominent environmentalist and author (‘The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death’) bet an economist, Julian Simon, that shortages would drive the price of five minerals, tungsten, nickel, copper, chrome and tin, up in price over the next ten years.

Dr Simon won easily; all five minerals (and almost all others as well) fell in price during the 1980s. Dr Ehrlich, rather grudgingly, handed over a cheque for $570.07 in settlement.

Yes, we are the worrying animal. And make no mistake, this has been a vital contributor to our evolutionary success. Don’t bet on it, though.

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John Hollaway
John Hollaway
John Hollaway is a retired mining consultant, having worked in 35 countries. He is the author of the All Poor Together trilogy, a semi-autobiographical account of development assistance in Africa and the reasons for its failure.

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