Paul Gregory

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.

Paul Gregory

Paul Gregory is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an expert on the history of economics and author of numerous books, including Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina (Hoover Institution Press, 2010).