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When Will the Catastrophists Learn?


The doomsayers never give up. Whats more, they are an ever-moving target. Refute one of their claims of catastrophe, and they are back with another before you can say, “The future is bright.”

Sometimes even the good news is bad. The global catastrophists, such a Paul Ehrlich, used to say, “The battle to feed humanity is over” and predict mass ecological starvation, even in the West. It never happened.

Did that cause the catastrophists to retreat? No. They simply found a new catastrophe. No one better epitomizes this than Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends. Rifkin concedes that there is no global food shortage. His complaint is that we are misusing the food.

Writing recently in the Los Angeles Times, Rifkin said, “Hundreds of millions of people are going hungry every day all over the world because much of the arable land now is being used to grow feed grain for animals rather than food grain for people. Grain-fed cattle, pigs, chicken and other livestock, in turn, are being consumed by the wealthiest people on the planet while the poor go hungry . . .. The shift from food to feed continues apace despite the growing hunger of an increasingly desperate humanity.”

He adds, “The world’s wealthier consumers . . . favor eating at the highest point on the global food chain while their fellow human beings starve.”

It’s all very bleak — and untrue. If Rifkin were correct, we’d expect to see it reflected in various statistics concerning global life expectancy, infant mortality, per capita food production, caloric intake, and so on. These should all be trending in the wrong direction. Yet they all show cause for optimism. In each of these departments, things are improved and getting better each year.

Do these sound like the statistics of “an increasingly desperate humanity”? (The statistics can be found in The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Greenpeace member and statistician Bjorn Lomborg.) The world’s population has doubled since 1961, but there is more to eat per person — and at lower prices — than ever before. Why do you think U.S. farm incomes are falling and grain farmers are demanding more government support?

The United Nations says total food production per person has increased 23 percent since 1961. The developing world has increased its agricultural production threefold in the last 40 years and has increased per capita agricultural crops 52 percent. Worldwide per capita meat production is up 122 percent since 1950. The daily calorie intake in the developing countries has gone from an average of about 1,900 in 1960 to almost 2,600 at the end of the 1990s. The price of food is falling — by over 66 percent since 1957.

“Fewer people are starving,” writes Lomborg. “Globally, the proportion of starving people has fallen from 35 percent to 18 percent and is expected to fall further to 12 percent in 2010. This should be compared to an estimated 45 percent of developing country people starving in 1949.” Starvation is diminishing in absolute numbers also, writes Lomborg. Undernourishment among children is declining.

Children in the developing world are also surviving infancy in larger numbers, an important sign of progress. “In 1950, 18 percent or almost every fifth child died; in 1995 only 6 percent died — a fall to just one third,” writes Lomborg. There is improvement throughout Africa, even where AIDS is rampant.

Increasing life expectancy is equally dramatic. In the developing world as a whole, life expectancy has gone from 41 in 1950 to 65 in 1998. None of this could be happening if Rifkin and his allied pessimists were right.

Rifkin’s concern about the diversion of grain to livestock neglects the fact that, thanks to technology, we get amazingly more grain from less farmland (which has permitted an increase in forestland). And the developing world has barely started tapping its potential. Freeing the entrepreneurial system by limiting government intervention in the marketplace will ensure there is ample grain for everyone. Moreover, as people get richer, they eat more meat.

But that is exactly what Rifkin doesn’t want. He’s against meat eating and thinks methane from cows causes global warming. So he uses every argument he can think of to stigmatize meat production, including the ridiculous claim that starvation is increasing.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.