Ron Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine and a former CEI Warren Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism, sat down recently for a televised debate on the state of the planet with Christopher Flavin, senior vice president and director of research for the Worldwatch Institute. Bailey and Flavin are editors of competing new books on the subject of the environmental state of the planet. Ron’s Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet was jointly published by McGraw-Hill and CEI. Mr. Flavin and the Worldwatch Institute have recently published State of the World 2000.
The discussion, recorded for the PBS television show Think Tank and moderated by nationally syndicated columnist Ben Wattenberg, is scheduled to air in early March. UpDate is happy to give readers a small preview of what was a lively, entertaining, and sometimes contentious exchange.
BEN WATTENBERG: In a word, what is the state of the planet?
CHRISTOPHER FLAVIN, WORLDWATCH INSTITUTE: It’s a mixed picture, I think you’d have to say. There clearly are some trends where we’re making progress, for example, urban air and water pollution in the United States and most other industrial countries. There have been substantial improvements.
There are other areas where there are problems that are both out of control and in some cases getting a lot worse. For example, loss of tropical forest, loss of some northern forests proceeding at a rapid pace. The loss of biological diversity is described by many biologists as being one of the most critical problems the world is now facing. Environmental health is a real problem, particularly in many developing countries. Breathing unclean air, drinking unclean water. And of course climate change remains a real concern to many scientists.
The one point that I think we should all remember is that in those cases where things are getting better–for example, the lower population growth rates, or the improvements in local air quality–generally those are a result of government policy interventions that have occurred, and private citizens and companies have responded to those. That’s what we think needs to happen to deal with the other environmental problems such as climate change, which today remain unresolved.
RON BAILEY, CEI: Actually, what we find in Earth Report 2000 is that trends are fairly positive for the most part. There are some negative trends or local problems, which Chris has acknowledged, but overall the planet’s health tends to be getting better. As you’ve noted, world population–or, I should say, total fertility rates–are going down. Therefore, the world population should probably top out at around 8 billion. That’s very good news, most likely.
Food supplies are up, resource prices are down. Pollution trends in the developed world–that is, United States, Europe, Japan, so forth–as Chris acknowledged, are very, very positive. Also, the forests in the northern areas in the developing world are improving. Growing, as a matter of fact. Tropical forests are continuing to decline, but the problem has largely been misidentified by people in the environmental movement. It isn’t a population and it isn’t economic growth that’s causing the problems. It’s usually the result of something called open access comments.
That is, if you see an environmental problem, say fisheries, somewhere around in the world–fisheries are in fact declining. The reason fisheries are declining is not because there are too many people eating too few fish. The problem is that no one owns the fish. There’s no one there to protect the fish. And the same thing for tropical forests, biodiversity in general.
MR. WATTENBERG: Now wait a minute. Do I hear you, Ron Bailey, the arch-libertarian, coming out for further regulation of some global authority?
MR. BAILEY: By no means. What we need to do is to privatize these resources. We don’t have a chicken problem. We don’t have a Persian cat shortage because people own and control and protect those resources. We can do the same thing for the air, the water, for fisheries, for tropical forests. If we in fact move in that direction, we’ll see improvements.
MR. WATTENBERG: If private owners owned square chunks of the ocean and fishing rights thereon, and let’s say there was a huge school of cod there, why wouldn’t they fish out all the cod?
MR. BAILEY: The same reason that a cattle herder does not kill all his cows on his farm, because he needs to have more to reproduce later. In fact, we see already New Zealand and Iceland have privatized their fisheries and they’re rebounding quite smartly.
MR. FLAVIN: I think this is very interesting. We in fact believe in the use of market forces to solve a lot of these problems. We’ve advocated environmental taxes, for example. The interesting thing about the proposal–
MR. BAILEY: I’m sorry, environmental taxes are not market forces.
MR. FLAVIN: I believe they are. We can talk about that later, but government intervention is required to make the kind of market system for fisheries that he’s suggesting worked, because as your question suggests, fish are going to move around a lot. There’s going to have to be some way of allocating, some way of regulating. So I think basically we’re in agreement. I’m not against, in principal, some areas privatizing some fisheries. But only the government can make that happen.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let’s go back a step to the physical condition. I mean, the environmental movement has been claiming for several decades now, and I use that broadly, the environmental movement, that we are depleting the fisheries of the world, that we are going to run out of fish. You don’t believe that, do you?
MR. BAILEY: No, and part of the reason is that the problem with fisheries is that when you get to a crisis point they finally decide to privatize them and the fisheries rebound. Iceland and New Zealand are examples. But more importantly, the actual amount of fish that people are eating hasn’t gone down. The fisheries are under stress. There’s no question about that. But the gap has been filled by something called aquaculture. Instead of chasing after wild fish any more, what we’re doing is making new fish, the same way. People in Mesopotamia used to eat deer, wild deer, but then they started herding sheep and goats and cows, and then they had more meat. The same thing will happen with fish.
MR. FLAVIN: I think Ron is confusing a couple of things. I mean, in fact we have actually exceeded the sustainable yield on a lot of natural fisheries, and fish catch has declined in a lot of specific instances. Now I agree that we basically have to manage these fisheries better, which involves both the private sector and it also involves governments, and in some cases you might be able to get a little higher yield if you do it right.
Now there’s a second issue, which is, you’re right, that the response to this crash of many fisheries and the leveling off in oceanic fish catch is that the industry is moving to develop aquaculture. That’s wonderful. Aquaculture, which basically means feeding grain to fish the same way we feed it to chickens and hogs. And yes, you can produce meat that way with about the same efficiency that you produce a chicken today.
MR. WATTENBERG: And that’s the good news?
MR. FLAVIN: Well, it’s sort of good news, but it’s certainly not going to solve the world’s problems in terms of these oceanic fish catches.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let’s go to the granddaddy of all these topics, that it seems to me impacts on all of them, and I will frankly admit, as you both know, that I have a dog in this particular race, which is the issue of population. The environmental community has made the point over the last 35, 40 years with increasing intensity that there are too many people, there’s a population explosion, it’s growing malignantly. How can we feed these people, where will they get water? And I read the introduction in your book by Lester Brown and he says, well, yeah, the rates are coming down a little bit. Still we’re going to have another billion, another billion, another billion. There is this chaotic thing going on. You agree with that?
MR. FLAVIN: No. We say very clearly and directly, not only in this book but all of our writing, that there is great progress being made in terms of fertility. I think that it’s–I’m not sure–maybe you and Ron need to have a debate on this because Ron is not saying the population’s not a problem. He’s saying that it’s great that fertility rates are slowing down, and that we may stabilize it at 8 or 9 billion.
MR. WATTENBERG: Not just slowing down. They’re negative in almost half the countries of the world. And they’re coming down in the developing countries, and people who say you’re only going to reach stabilization are in effect saying the developing countries won’t end up behaving as developed countries, which are negative.
MR. FLAVIN: The key point here, Ben, is that you’ve got to ask yourself why is this happening. And the fact is that countries around the world have adopted policies, and individuals have made decisions to lower their fertility rates. There are some very strong United Nations population programs, for example. There are programs to help women in terms of education and health care. And so in effect the world has responded to the alarms that were raised by Paul Erlich and others back in the 60s, and this is wonderful.
MR. WATTENBERG: You said the magic words: Paul Erlich.
MR. BAILEY: I’m sure the women in Bangladesh have read The Population Bomb and are just enacting it throughout their lives. I don’t think so.
MR. FLAVIN: Their government might have.
MR. BAILEY: No. What does that–yeah, and the government created the fallen fertility in the United States, Germany, Italy, England, Japan? The government created that? No. People making their choices, realizing that they’re becoming richer, that their children are going to live longer, are making the choice themselves.
MR. FLAVIN: You support family planning.
MR. BAILEY: The US government does not have a population policy.
MR. FLAVIN: It supports family planning?
MR. BAILEY: What it supports is human beings having choices, which we all support.
MR. WATTENBERG: The European countries are actually pro-natal, trying to get higher fertility rates and ending up with lower fertility rates.
MR. FLAVIN: They’re doing that on the one hand, but they are subsidizing through their national health care programs a lot of birth control as well, Ben. They spend 10 times as much on that as they are on–
MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on a minute. Fertility rates are falling everywhere, whether there is United Nations presence, whether the government is encouraging a decrease in fertility or an increase in fertility. It’s happening now in sub-Saharan Africa, it is happening now in the Muslim world, where people said it never would. It is happening as a part of modernization. Now part of modernization is education in reproductive health. So it becomes sort of–
MR. FLAVIN: Is there a question that this is leading to?
MR. WATTENBERG: It was a comment on your thought that you put forward that this is happening because the good people of the world, like the Worldwatch Institute, Paul Erlich, and the United Nations, were telling people how to behave, and the nice little people were listening. I am saying it is happening organically as health gets better, as people move to cities, as women go into the workforce and so on and so forth.
MR. FLAVIN: If you look at the rate of progress, the rate of fertility decline throughout the developing world, what you find is marked differences between different countries. Some have fallen very rapidly. In fact, there are parts of China that have lower fertility rates today than the United States does. Then there are parts of Africa, much of the Islamic Middle East, and part of India with very high fertility rates. If you analyze what’s going on–I mean, take–
MR. BAILEY: Very high fertility rates falling sharply.
MR. FLAVIN: Take an example. Iran had rapidly declining fertility rates under the Shah. They then shot up after the Islamic revolution, and now they’re coming down again. So to say that there’s just some natural law in place here–this has to do with politics and it has to do with public policy. It has to do with cultural norms. It is not a simple social phenomenon that happens on an automatic basis.
MR. WATTENBERG: If over a period of 20 years it happens in 180 of the 180 countries, you’ve got to say something macro’s going on.
MR. BAILEY: And the other two things that are mentioned is that where you find high population growth rates or high fertility rates are in countries that are poor, where people don’t have–it’s not just getting resources and goods and services. They’re afraid for their lives. Therefore, they’re trying to, if you will, provide for their old age by having more children, those kinds of things. And the fact of the matter is that modernization and poverty alleviation through the creation of wealth is the way to lower population. Government policy sort of trails along behind that. It does something at the margins, that’s true.
MR. WATTENBERG: Time out for a minute. We have gone through a lot of issues, which I wanted to do so we hear both sides of these things. Let me ask both of you, what is the differing central principle that drives you each almost predictably to these differences?
MR. FLAVIN: Well, this is probably not the response you want to hear–
MR. WATTENBERG: I don’t want to hear anything special.
MR. FLAVIN: I heard your characterization of our views at the beginning of this program, and it’s simply unbalanced. Yes, we think that there are plenty of environmental problems. Yes, we think there are certain trends that are going in the wrong direction that need to be reversed, but we’re not saying everything is negative, and we’re certainly not against the basic notion that technological progress can and will solve many problems, that there are changes in social norms that are possible.
We believe very strongly in the use of market forces. So I mean, if you take that as being our point of view–and maybe Ron wants to describe if and why he would disagree with that point of view–which I think if you read through our entire book you will see that is in fact what we’re saying.
MR. BAILEY: Well, first of all I’d like to say I think that I’ve been reading Worldwatch’s studies since they started–
MR. WATTENBERG: In 1984. And they have sold–
MR. BAILEY: Millions of copies.
MR. WATTENBERG: It says over one million copies sold.
MR. FLAVIN: In roughly 30 languages.
MR. WATTENBERG: And that’s a hell of a job.
MR. BAILEY: I’ve been reading the report since 1984 and I’ve noticed a very salutary movement in the direction of adopting more and more markets to solve the problems. I congratulate them on coming to see that as the way to go.
One of the differences that I see between their approach and mine is that they want to use market mechanisms as parts of government policy. I would prefer to allow people to have free choice for markets, and I think they’ll make better choices that way.
MR. WATTENBERG: But Chris is right when he says that to have free choice you have to have some boundaries and regulations set by government. I find it so amusing that the conservatives go around saying what we really need in the developing world is transparency. Well, what is transparency? Transparency is a set of government regulations that says you shall transpare. Right?
MR. FLAVIN: You would not have a stock exchange without the SEC.
MR. WATTENBERG: Without regulation.
MR. BAILEY: Actually we do have stock exchanges all around the world.
MR. FLAVIN: And they’re run by crooks.
MR. BAILEY: Some of them are. Look, the fact of the matter is that of course you need governments to protect property rights and establish markets and prevent fraud, and the government does those things and privatizes the resources as opposed to minutely regulating the outflow of every plant, or trying to determine what the proper population size should be, or how many children you should have in your families in China, where you have those kinds of very intrusive government activities, then we’ll do fine.
We need markets and we need private property, and those things will bring about enormous changes in and of themselves if we will get the government out of the way.