Cheer up, the world is getting better

Victoria Times Colonist, April 15, 2018, D4

Mark Milke

One of the fascinating things about modern debates in the Western world, where traditional religious affiliation has declined, is how many people take an essentially apocalyptic religious position about humanity and the Earth: Things are getting worse, environmental Judgment Day is coming and the world will soon end.

People reinforce themselves in such beliefs despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I witnessed this phenomenon recently when I posted a chart from the Danish academic, Bjorn Lomborg on Linked-In, on deaths from climate and non-climate related catastrophes. The graph, covering 1920 to 2017, showed a stark decline in deaths from climate-related activities over the decades.

Climate-related deaths come from floods, droughts, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures. (Non-climate deaths are from earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanos). The decrease in climate-related deaths was stunning: About 25,000 annually on average in the most recent decade, down from nearly 500,000 deaths annually, on average, in the 1920s, a 95 per cent decline.

Nonetheless, the data were disbelieved. One person asserted the data were “baked.” Other were also in denial about the figures. Actually, the source for Lomborg’s chart was the International Disaster Database, located at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the School of Public Health of the Université catholique de Louvain in Brussels.

The centre, in existence for 40 years, takes an evidence-based approach, compiling the data and sorting through it to help people and governments better prepare for and improve responses to natural weather disasters.

I note the Belgian university’s empirical approach, because people who note the state of humanity or the world has improved are often, reflexively disbelieved. That apocalyptic view shows up in Hollywood movies, in some environmental groups (correct on some matters, such as growing particulate pollution in China but wrong on global trends). This “we’re-all-doomed” view is also a widely shared but mistaken, anti-empirical belief among many in the media and in politics.

For example, the late Julian Simon, an economist with a specialty in demographics and population, assumed early on in his career that an “exploding” world population would harm living standards. “I assumed the accepted view was sound,” he once wrote, with reference to this Malthusian view and his earlier bias.

Then Simon did his own research. Contra his initial assumption, he discovered that the data did not support such a dour conclusion. Instead, he found that while short-term costs result when populations rise, population growth has positive, long-term economic effects.

Simon then expanded his analysis. In 1995’s The State of Humanity, an exhaustive examination of trends in human and environmental welfare, he and his colleagues found that often, the trends were markedly positive. This was in contrast to the “doomsayers,” as Simon labelled them.

One example: There was a sustained decline in child mortality in the developed world between 1800 and 1990 ––– a positive trend now replicated in much the rest of the world as economies and markets were liberalized after the Second World War.

Or another: At the time, in the mid-1990s, air pollution had been declining since the 1970s in cities across the U.S. That positive development has continued. In Los Angeles, for example, air quality again improved relative to the 1990s .

So what explains the improvement in the outcomes for humanity and the Earth?

Simon and others argued from empirical evidence that factors included technological advances themselves anchored in the entrepreneurial, problem-solving capacities of free peoples. The command-and-control nature of socialist economies spectacularly failed at this.

Back to the Lomborg chart anchored in the International Disaster Database. Should we be surprised that deaths from climate-related catastrophes have plunged? Not if one is familiar with the rise in wealth around the world in the last century and especially after the Second World War or even from the 1970s forward in the developing world. Growth has been good for both mankind and the environment.

As one example, transportation networks, food yields and per-person prosperity have continued to improve relative to previous centuries and also relative to 50 years ago.

That means the danger of drought is less, and where it exists, more prosperous populations can buy and more quickly transport food.

Or as Lomborg writes: “It shows that our increased wealth and adaptive capacity has vastly outdone any negative impact from climate when it comes to human climate vulnerability.”

Indeed, human beings and our ability to invent and create alternatives are why the world, and humanity, are much better than one century ago. Those in denial about such facts bet both against the evidence and the human capacity to improve their own lives and our world.


Mark Milke is an author, policy analyst and a writer for Canadians for Affordable Energy. Photo credit: Pixabay.

Mark Milke