IN THE DARK, waning days of the Carter Administration, the Council on Environmental Quality -- knowing it wasn't going to be invited to the party in the '80s -- laid a curse upon the land, like the wicked witch in Sleeping Beauty. Within 20 years, it said, the world would be overrun with pollution. Resources would be depleted, energy would dwindle, and poverty and mass starvation would invest the land.
So said the Global 2000 Report, printed in 1980.
Now, like the good witch in Sleeping Beauty, Julian Simon and the late Herman Kahn have come to lift the spell. In place of the dreary vision of Global 2000, they see a bountiful world, where pollution abates, resources multiply, energy sources are abundant, and the world's population becomes healthier and happier.
Well, maybe it isn't quite as simple as that. But in a Battle of the Books, these matters sometimes take on a fairy-tale quality.
Global 2000 was, in the eyes of many observers, an unjustifiably gloomy, almost retributive work.
Simon, Kahn, and the 27 authors assembled here are much more optimistic, if circumspect.
"We do not say that all is well everywhere, and we do not predict that all will be rosy in the future," says Simon in the introduction. "Children are hungry and sick; people live out lives of physical or intellectual poverty, and lack of opportunity; war or some new pollution may do us in."
But the authors do feel that, in general, things are getting better. "For the most relevant matters we have examined," says Simon, "aggregate global and U.S. trends are improving rather than deteriorating."
Generally, their effort is persuasive. World population is undoubtedly booming, notes Mark Perlman, professor of public health at the University of Pittsburgh. But this is because people are living longer. A growing population does not necessarily mean people are getting poorer. "Countries mostly feed (and) support themselves," he says.
The chapter on "World Food and Agriculture," written by D. Gayle Johnson of the University of Chicago is even more encouraging. The problem is not resources, he says, but human institutions. If necessary, Africa alone could feed 9.6 billion people, almost the limit of the world's projected population growth.
The real difficulty is that African countries are dominated by urban political elites, which rob the peasants by fixing agricultural prices artificially low. The "food shortages" in most Third World countries are purely government-created -- as India found out when it went from being a "basket case" to a net exporter of grain after deciding to pay farmers what their products are worth.
Energy resources are not a problem, either. The "energy crisis" of the 1970s was mainly the result of oil price controls we imposed throughout the decade. In fact, argues S. Fred Singer of the University of Virginia, the real problem in the near future may be "substantial price breaks on the world oil market," which would leave Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporters in trouble. (Recent price trends seem to be bearing this out.)
Minerals are nothing to worry about -- we are always finding better ways to extract and utilize them. Global forests are not disappearing anywhere as rapidly as feared. Water will always be there as long as we allocate it like a market commodity, and not like a commonly owned, unlimited resource. Generally, we are not going to "run out of resources."
Perhaps the most convincing case is made by A.E. Harper of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on world health. Despite what is popularly regarded at two long decades of "environmental deterioration," he argues, life expectancy everywhere around the globe is rapidly improving (except in the Soviet Union, where the problems are not environmental). If that isn't a measure of an "improving environment," asks Harper, then what is?
I'm certain that the authors of Global 2000 can come up with dozens of places where The Resourceful Earth has fudged facts, neglected consequences, or sloughed off difficulties. And I'm sure Simon and his contributors can return the favor. (The panel discussion between the two sides at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention this summer was airily entitled: "Knockdown, Dragout On the Global Future.")
What I find most compelling about The Resourceful Earth, however, is its restrained but sensible optimism. The authors are not out on a limb. They are not predicting apocalypses. They are just stating facts, and offering modest suggestions for how things can be improved. For as much as we can predict the future, this is probably the best anyone can do.
For those who think that humanity is fit to face the future, and that we can continue our steady, if uncertain progress -- or for anyone who would like to think that -- The Resourceful Earth is an essential text.