The Earth is Full of Thomas Friedman's Hot Air

Paul Gregory
Posted: Jun 10, 2011 12:01 AM
The Earth is Full of Thomas Friedman's Hot Air

I thought that our esteemed and informed intelligentsia would be aware of the 1972 Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” debacle and Julian Simon’s winning bet with Paul Ehrlich in 1990. Respected New York Time columnist Thomas Friedman must have forgotten these earlier lessons in the haze of globe-trotting, closed-door conversations with world leaders, and speaking engagements.

In his “The Earth is Full” column (NYT, June 8), Friedman appears to concur with the warnings of Paul Gilding, identified as a veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur (What is an environmentalist-entrepreneur?). Gilding predicts spiking food prices, soaring energy costs, surging world population, tornados plowing through cities, floods and droughts setting records, displaced populations, and threatened governments. Friedman (or is it Gilding?) wonders: How can we not panic “when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?”

Friedman cites the Global Footprint Network (GFN), “an alliance of scientists, which calculates how many ‘planet Earths’ we need to sustain our current growth rates.” According to GFN, currently we are “using about 1.5 Earths” and that “having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem.” Personally, I am impressed that we have been able, according to GFN count, to wring 1.5 earths out of one. That is one for the record books.

Friedman brings clarity to the sources of impending calamity. First, population growth and global warming push up food prices, which leads to political instability, which leads to higher oil prices, which leads to higher food prices, and so on in a vicious circle. Second, higher productivity means fewer jobs, which requires us to produce more stuff to create jobs. The more stuff creates global warming. It appears we are scrambling like a frustrated hamster in an endless treadmill.

On a side note before I proceed: Friedman oddly shares Marx’s discredited belief in technological unemployment. Economists understand that there are more jobs in an economy of more productive workers. Following Friedman’s questionable economic logic, if we could reduce labor productivity by half, we’d have twice as many jobs! For that matter, if we could reduce our productivity to that of Pakistan, there would be jobs for all! I hope Friedman shares this insight with world leaders.

We hear a lot of talk of a “scientific consensus” about global warming. Skeptics (including some of the most respected climatologists) correctly question whether such a consensus exists. On the issue of running out of resources, there is more of a real scientific consensus. We will not “run out” of resources unless we think in terms of geological time.

The reasons why we not run out of resources have been spelled out before, but I repeat them here: First, Julian Simon and others use simple economics to explain that when a resource becomes scarce, its relative price rises, and we use less. (I’d like to ask Friedman what the price of the last barrel of oil on earth would cost?). Thus we will never run out.

Second, “population bomb” scares have fallen flat. If anything, we face depopulation in the future. Couples, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or location, choose to have fewer (but more educated) children as their education and material well being improves. A large percentage of the world’s population does not produce enough children to sustain the current population. When China rescinds its one-child policy, few families will have a second child. It is expensive enough to educate one. Europe, Russia, Mexico, and Ukraine have fertility rates below replacement. India’s fertility rate has already fallen to replacement levels.

Third, the agricultural Green Revolution has dispelled the threat of world hunger. Technological improvements, especially genetic modification, in agriculture appear unlimited and will allow agriculture to adapt to changes in climate and weather. As has been demonstrated by Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, famines are caused not by crop failures but by political failures.

Fourth, we do not know the effects of global warming either on world agriculture or weather. Although there is a rush to associate current weather with global warming, global warming is something that is supposed to happen in the future, and likely in the distant future. Russia, Ukraine, Canada, and the American Plains will become more hospitable for agricultural production. Other areas may become less productive. We have no idea of the balance. For that matter, we do not know the extent of global warming or (hopefully I will not be struck by lightning) whether it will occur at all over the long run.

It is a shame to have to “relitigate” issues that have been laid to rest. For Thomas Friedman, the message is that it is treacherous for non-economists to write economics.