Lester Brown vs. Broken Watch

It’s no contest.  A broken watch is correct twice a day.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of abject poverty in the last several decades but trust Lester Brown to see the downside (Brown, of course, is sadly joined by Paul Krugman and neo-cons itching for another cold-war).  In his latest book, Brown argues that the Chinese will soon be eating little children.  Well, not exactly, but he does think that Chinese eating will cause little children to die.  Writing in the Washington Post, Bill McKibben summarizes the Brown argument (which he endorses):

The Chinese, in particular, are constantly converting farmland to
factory sites (even as they learn to eat more meat), and they have
plenty of American cash stored up to pay for any shortfall. But if they
do so, the first casualties will be the world’s really poor nations,
already reeling from increases in the price of fuel.

Of course this is an old story for Lester Brown who in 1973 said:

The soaring demand for food, spurred by continued population
growth and rising affluence, has begun to outrun the productive
capacity of the world’s farmers and fishermen.  The result has been
declining food reserves, skyrocketing food prices, food rationing in
three of the world’s most populous countries, intense international
competition for exportable food supplies, and export controls on major
foodstuffs by the world’s principal food supplier.

Isn’t it amazing how rising affluence leads directly to mass starvation?  Some people just can’t be happy. 

To be clear, I do think that issues of food production and demography are important  (although what is most important is regional poverty – I have few worries about global food production per se), it’s just Lester Brown who should not be taken seriously.

Daily Ablution has some good links on these issues.  Comments are open.


Industrialization does not take farmland out of production. Farmland fals out of production as farms become more productive and marginal farms are transformed for other use.
In the USA, we produce as much food as we ever have but have less than 70% of the farm acreage we had in the immediate post war period. (can't remember where I read that number, but I think its close)

This is depressing evidence of OUR (economists') failure to make our case to the general public.

Has any group ever been so disastrously wrong the facts, yet so consistently successful at persuading the most educated segments of the public while claiming to be strictly scientific as the population/enviro alarmists? All their main predictions about population trends, food trends, cost of minerals, productivity, global cooling have been wrong. Yet their high priests have money, prestige and the ear of the MSM. In contrast, Intelligent Design is a fount of scientific integrity and positivist excellence (I only slightly exaggerate). It is as if the Flat Earth society dominated the boards of the major science journals.

Frankly, environmenatilists have beaten out socialists when it comes to gulling the "thinking" elites. And there is equivalent to the USSR collapsing to make our case for us.

On a tangent, I was amused to see tilapia, the 'inexpensive' food fish imported by hippies from Chinese communes, selling in my local supermarket for $7.99/lb.

In a food market so driven by trend and counter-trend, who knows how much capacity there will be for basic staples X years from now. We live in a world where chicken wings sometimes sell at a higher price-per-pound than whole chickens ... just because guys in a bar invented a recipe.

It's easy to mock Brown and Erlich. And yet I'm deeply uncomfortable with the free market economist's complacency about current global environmental problems. When the chuckling is over, I'd genuinely be interested to hear Alex's recommended reading for economically savvy yet non-complacent analysis of the global environmental prospect, as China and India follow our consumption path (automobiles, larger homes, and meat).

They aren't following our consumption path, they're free-riding on our technological solution path. Hardly any of the millions of Chinese who own cell phones ever had a land line ... and they never had to acquire or install the tons of copper required to make them work. Few of them will ever own a vehicle as inefficient as my family's commonplace 1974 Chrysler as they all acquire new cars. How many tons of trees will be "replaced" free of charge by Google?

And which member of the Club of Rome invented CFLs? Calling attention to problems is useful, but the solution normally proposed by the alarmists has already been proven to do more harm than good. Meanwhile, a thousand anonymous inventors and entrepreneurs have already been chipping away at the problems before the best-sellers come out, and none of them gets any credit. In fact, they are usually villified for having profited from their inventions.

Those of you concerned about the environment and especially about the effects of global warming, might be interested in Michael Crichton's most recent documentary-novel "State of Fear"

“about current global environmental problems.†

There are no global environmental problems. There are some regional and local problems, insignificant in the larger picture. It’s just a religion, you have convinced yourself with anecdotal evidence, almost never thinking quantitatively.

Since you people are so convinced, why not name ONE environmental problems that has seriously hurt life in America.

The only one they have left is global warming, which probably is good for us. The UN own report cited a 1-2% cost of global GDP if there actually is global warming.

Ooooh. Horrible, compared to say China adding 10% to world GDP?

What is interesting here is that people emotionally distrust markets but without any evidence accept ideas that prosperity is destroying the world.

Think about it. Someone writes a book telling us the world is “collaps†ing, based on 10 marginal societies that supposedly were destroyed by ecological problems. People
Immediately hail it as a masterpiece, and want to change our entire society based on this “threat†.

Meanwhile there were thousands of societies that were destroyed by war. Maybe I should write a book advocating massive military buildup and invading China before they threaten the US. Makes about as much sense as environmentalism.

There is really no room for debate, just like creationistm. The only question is why: leftist ideological strength in academia or some inherent biological propensity in our brains?

Maybe the idea of ever increasing wealth based goes against the world view of hunter. Their resources certainly were more likely to run out compared to electrons and services.

The whole thing about the impending food shortage is such a joke (as is all of the other environmental "doomsday" crapola). In fact, the world produces too much food. Thats why we have so many disagreements and arguments everytime we have a WTO round of trade talks. There is so much food being produced that everyone wants to protect their farmers from free trade in food.

The Malthusians end up in the press every now and then, but in reality, how many people do you know who aren't university professors who really think there will be mass starvations in the near future?

BTW, in the strict sense of the original article (will people starve?), we might not actually need living oceans. I'm just old fashioned enough to believe future generations will be happier if they have them.

Odo - Neither, they are retailers. They benefit from both the innovators and the alarmists, more from the former than the latter, since the latter are merely a marketing tool for selling the things the former would be making anyhow. BTW, I read that the early, early wave of first adapters of the Prius were about 60% non-treehugging, techno-geeks (back when I was on Toyota's mailing list for the Prius introduction). I started buying CFLs in the first wave for approximately the same reason (little/nothing to do with my concern about Gaia).

BTW, the mixture of hippies and establishment types pushing biodiesel provide another good history. Focusing on who did "more" would just corrupt the story.

1. Clearly the willingness to pay for clean air is lower when you are poor. This is not an environmental problem per se, and had little or nothing to do with the environmental movement.

But I do consider it vindication when you refer me to low GDP Mexico when I ask about environmental problems in high GDP US. Proves our point: no environmental problems in the world, the major problem is lack of economic growth.

2. What is the price of fish? Not very high is it. Fish is not scarce.

Overfishing is hype. One reason is just math, when you reduce the stock of fish the rate of growth goes up dramatically. So even if we reduce the cod to 1%, if you were to stop fishing a couple of years they would recover.

You kids don’t have to worry.

Why are all the same notorious doomsayers of 30 years ago still doomsaying today? Why can't there be ONE of these knuckleheads step up and say, "Yeah I really hosed it up back in the 70's, dunno what the hell I was thinking back then..."

there are intelligent environmentalists and there's Lester Brown. Fear of those swarming brown babies is one of the underlying anxieties for those of his ilk. Arturo Escobar has an excellent critique of Brown in his "Encountering Development". While not much of a fan of mainstream economists either, I find Brown a dunce. Once, freshly out of a master's program I interviewed to work with someone at WorldWatch and had the delightful opportunity to meet with Mr. Brown. He saw on my resume that I spoke Italian then proceeded to try to get me to kneel on his office floor to read an honorary diploma he had resting on the floor of his office that he received from some Italian university. I failed to go for his exercise in moronic interviewing behavior so he looked at me and asked, what is 435 x 78 (or something like that), obviously trying to see if I could think on my feet. The next question was asking me what a symbol on the periodic chart stood for. After this sophmoric exercise I checked out, thoroughly impressed with the guru and moved on to more intellectually stimulating research than the sky is falling, which it may be, but I doubt the way that good ol' Les sees it through his honorary doctorates....

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