Average Annual Temperature In the United States
Figure X

Just as Thomas Malthus predicted in the 19th century that the growth of the human population would outstrip the world's food supply, so reactionary environmentalists have been predicting for decades that we will run out of food and all other natural resources. Malthus and the modern Malthusians are wrong for the same reason – they ignore the role of technology.

Perhaps because of their antitechnology bias, reactionaries are oblivious to the way in which technology makes it possible to use resources without exhausting them. For example, despite 20 years of predictions that the world was running out of oil, international oil prices fell during the 1980s, and the U.S. domestic price of gasoline (in real terms) hit an all-time low. [200] The reason is technological innovation which has allowed us to economize on the use of oil. For example, oil consumption over the past decade fell 9.3 percent in the United States andCanada and 158 percent in Western Europeand Japan. [201] Similarly, despite the fact that there is only a finite amount of copper in the world, copper prices are down, not up. The reason is the development of fiber optics, made of silicone (sand), which can carry thousands of times more messages than copper wire.

Satellite Measurement of Global Temperature
Figure XI

The reactionaries not only ignore the role of technology in making the supply of resources almost infinite, they also persistently ignore ways in which technology can mitigate many of the other disasters they keep predicting.

Case Study: Betting the Planet. [202] Ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich says population growth is outstripping the earth's resources. Economist Julian L. Simon says that human ingenuity keeps the planet's resources from being finite. In 1980, they put their money where their mouths were and made a bet. Simon offered to let anyone pick any natural resource and any future date, and he bet that the price would decline by that date. If the resource really became scarcer as the world's population grew, he reasoned, then its price should rise over time.

Ehrlich and two associates picked five metals – chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten – then worth a total of $1,000, and chose a ten-year period. If combined prices of the metals were higher in 1990 than in 1980, Simon agreed to pay the Ehrlich group the difference in cash; if the combined prices were lower, they would pay him the difference. Without ceremony last fall, Ehrlich sent Simon a sheet of calculations and a check for $576.07.

  • Over the ten-year period, each of the five metals had declined in price when adjusted for inflation.

  • The drop was so sharp that Simon would have come out slightly ahead even without the adjustment for inflation.

Prices of food and most natural resources have been falling for decades because of entrepreneurship and continuing technological improvements. Despite that fact, Ehrlich, who had predicted that "before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity" including food shortages, now says it will happen sometime in the next century.

Case Study: Using Technology to Prevent Global Warming. A recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency indicates that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will remain stable for decades. [203] But if further research fails to silence calls for emissions reductions, there are many sensible policies we could adopt.

Nuclear generation of electricity emits no pollutants and no carbon dioxide. About 110 nuclear power plants provide about 20 percent of U.S. electricity today. Yet more than 100 additional plants have been cancelled or deferred indefinitely since the early 1970s. [204] This was the direct result of an intense antinuclear-power campaign, carried out by many of the same individuals who are now demanding domestic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. The issues surrounding nuclear power are political, not technological. Before politicians wreck the economy with an international treaty on greenhouse gases, they should establish a rational policy on nuclear power.

Most of the proposals to deal with greenhouse gas emissions seek to eliminate them. Particularly with regard to C02 emissions, the economic costs of restrictions would be astronomical. [205] However, C02 is absorbed by plants on land and in the oceans. [206] The possibility of increasing the rate of absorption offers an alternative to draconian cutbacks in energy use.

Fertilizing the oceans to enhance their ability to absorb carbon dioxide may soon be technologically feasible. Man-made emissions of C02 are only about 5 percent of the size of natural carbon cycles, including volcanic emissions and oceanic absorption of C02. In fact, all of the fossil fuel C02 emitted since 1850 would equal only 2 percent of the carbon dissolved in the top 1,000 meters of the world's oceans. [207] Thus an increase of only 2 or 3 percent in the rate of uptake of C02 by the oceans could be sufficient to offset man-made emissions of carbon dioxide. [208]

The carbon cycles of the oceans and atmosphere are not well understood. Fertilizing the oceans to stimulate the natural process (akin to fertilizing terrestrial crops) should be explored as an alternative to unworkable international controls on energy consumption.