Posts tagged ‘paul ehrlich’

Great Moments in Alarmism

From March 21, 1996 (via Real Science)

Scientists studying Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in the field are still deeply divided about whether BSE can be transmitted to humans, and about the potentially terrifying consequences for the population.

"It's too late for adults, but children should not be fed beef. It is as simple as that," said Stephen Dealler, consultant medical microbiologist at Burnley General Hospital, who has studied the epidemic nature of BSE and its human form, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, since 1988.

He believes that the infectious agent would incubate in children and lead to an epidemic sometime in the next decade.

"Any epidemic in humans would start about 15 years after that in cattle, and about 250,000 BSE-infected cows were eaten in 1990. There could be an epidemic of this new form in the year 2005. These 10 cases were probably infected sometime before the BSE epidemic started."

His worst case scenario, assuming a high level of infection, would be 10 million people struck down by CJD by 2010. He thought it was now "too late" to assume the most optimistic scenario of only about 100 cases.

One of the great things about the Internet is that it is going to be much easier to hold alarmists accountable for wild scare-mongering predictions that prove to be absurd.  Though, I suppose Paul Ehrlich still gets respect in some quarters despite being 0-for-every-prediction-he-has-ever-made, so maybe its too much to hope for accountability.

Worst Sentences of the Day

From Clive Hamilton

Last month, Americans were shocked at the attempted murder of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six bystanders. The local County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik captured the immediate assessment of many when he linked the attempted murder to the rise of violent anti-government rhetoric and imagery, observing, “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

When asked if the Congresswoman had any enemies her father replied: “Yeah. The whole Tea Party”. Many, including Giffords herself, had had a premonition that the inflammatory language of radical right-wing activists would sooner or later find real expression.

The same hate-filled rhetoric that created the circumstances in which Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down also stokes ferocious attacks on climate scientists and environmentalists in the United States.

Wow, you know you are in for a load of really stupid crap when someone, at this late date, still is out there blaming the Giffords shooting on political rhetoric.   When someone writes this, you can be sure they are about to attempt to shut someone up, most likely someone the author disagrees with.

The author goes on to relate how nearly every climate scientist (up to and including the serially-wrong Paul Ehrlich) is quaking in their house behind locked doors waiting for some crazed skeptic to gun him or her down in their sleep.  Look, just about every interest group develops a mythology, and this notion of bravely seeking truth in the face of crazed irrational wackos is part of the internal mythology of many interest groups.

I have no doubt that these guys get nasty comments and abusive emails.  But Hamilton is absolutely wrong to imply that climate alarmists are somehow unique in this.  He is not describing an unfortunate aspect of the climate debate perpetrated asymmetrically by one side in that debate, but an unfortunate aspect of all politically charged online debates by nearly every side of every issue.  Seriously, Hamilton has discovered the Internet troll in 2011?  What is next-- agriculture, fire, the wheel?

Welcome to the political arena.  Alarmist climate scientists expressly went political a number of years ago.  I could put up pages of quotes from climate alarmists like James Hansen urging their brethren that doing scientific research was not enough, that they had to get out there and openly advocate, be a part of the political process.   And politics is messy, especially when you are advocating what is in effect the most expensive single government program every proposed.  You can't be political when you are on the attack, and then claim you are a scientist immune from political debate when there is a response.

I am but a second-rate player in the climate debate at my site climate-skeptic.com.  I am not going to be one of the names of skeptics most alarmists would rattle off.  And none-the-less I get threatening emails about my climate positions.  In fact one of the reasons I am pretty sure bad behavior on the Internet crosses all political lines is that my top two threatening and irrational email sources are from anti-immigration conservatives and climate alarmists on the left.   But I grew up in a household where my parents worked for a major oil company.  Every time oil prices would rise, some crazed leftist would send us death threats, and several of our friends actually got letter bombs.  So its hard for me to wet my pants over a few anonymous threatening emails with poor grammar.  And unlike Mr. Hamilton, I don't attempt to tar the many people who disagree with me with the actions of a loony few.

I am sorry for folks on both sides who get such crazed threats.  But what Mr. Hamilton wants is to not have to deal with the specific arguments made by skeptics.  This is the whole history of the climate debate, with alarmists trying one technique after another to avoid engagement.  Skeptics are funded by Exxon -- Don't listen to them, they are just shills!  The science is settled -- No need for debate!  Skeptics are violent and helped kill Gabriella Giffords -- everything they say is hate speech and must be ignored!

Oh, and here is one more parting shot in his last paragraph

Like those whose opinions they value — shock jocks and television demagogues — climate deniers are disproportionately older, white, male and conservative — those who feel their cultural identity most threatened by the implications of climate change. While the debate is superficially about the science, in truth it is about deep-rooted feelings of cultural identity. This makes deniers immune to argument, and their influence will wane only as they grow old and die.

LOL, its all white male suppression!   I don't even have the energy to deal with this, except to repeat the obvious:  Capping white male American fossil fuel use at 1990 levels would be costly and reduce economic growth, but could be done.  Capping Indian or Chinese or African fossil fuel use at 1990 levels basically sends them back to the stone age.   So don't tell me who is shilling for the arrogant white male perspective.

Anyway, his last paragraph is a fantasy, a part of the internal alarmist mythology that gives them a smug feeling of superiority, that skeptics are all crude evolution-denying anti-science old cranks.  And, frankly, some are.  Just as some alarmists are human-hating totalitarian neo-communists.  To some extent, Hamilton's article is an exercise in self-esteem building among alarmists, making them feel better about themselves by supposed superiority to the incivility he enumerates.  Fine as far as it goes, all groups engage in the same kind of behavior.  But there is a lot of thoughtful work that goes on in the skeptic community that in a non-broken scientific process would be considered productive challenges and/or replications of various studies.   To the extent he is trying to hide this work from view and shut up skeptics in general, tarring those of use who are science-based with actions of the fringe, he is doing a severe disservice to the science he is supposedly defending.

Obsessing over China?

Chinese exceptionalism, or do we just notice it because it is so large.  I clicked through to this chart from a link on Instapundit that said to note how Chinese fertility fell off the map.  When I watched the video though, what I saw was ALL the fertility rates falling at roughly the same pace, at roughly the same point.  The lesson seems to be that fertility tends to drop with increasing mortality, wealth, and technology -- which is what many of us have been saying in response to Paul Ehrlich for years.

I am probably over-reading this, but I am sensitive that there is a sort of storyline of Chinese exceptionalism -- due to their taking some sort of totalitarian third way -- that seems to be admired among certain US socialists and environmentalists and Thomas Friedman.  This hearkens back to all the admiration for the Japanese MITI-managed economy, right before their economy crashed for two decades or so.

China flourishes because it has a culture, never fully suppressed by Mao, whose people take well and quickly to capitalism -- much of the development around Southeast Asia in previous decades was led by expat Chinese.  The totalitarianism that is, depressingly, so admired by the US intelligentsia is just going to lead China into the abyss.  Already we can see bubbles emerging due to the state's forced mispricing of key economic inputs, from capital to oil.  The burden of spending on triumphalist projects like super-bridges and mega-buildings and Olympics and high speed trains is going to start appearing over the next few years.

Here is my prediction:  The Chinese are going to have a bubble burst that will rival any such economic explosion that we have seen in the last century.  I have been looking at the situation and by a number of metrics, the bubble is already huge.  I would bet against China, but the problem (as with all shorts) is timing.  Government officials, if they really dedicate themselves to the task, can extend bubbles for a long time.  Even in the US, which is less authritarian and more transparent, it can be argued that Fannie and Freddie and Barnie Frank and Alan Greenspan helped push off the reckoning by at least 5 years.   Of course, the longer you push it off, the worse it gets.  Which means the Chinese bubble is going to be a doozy.

Postscript: Here is a nice example -- admiration from US environmentalists for China gutting their economy to make arbitrary goals

It's interesting to note the dedication China has displaying in achieving its [energy efficency] target -- shutting down entire operations and even executing rolling blackouts. Surely there would have been some amount of embarrassment for the nation on the world's stage if it had missed its target, but that likely would have been minor. It's worth noting the difference in political culture: What do you think would have happened if the US had such an energy-reduction target to hit, but a sagging economy got in the way?

I can tell you with some certainty: We would have missed that mark.

Will there never be an end to Americans who take advantage of our uniquely strong speech protections to laud totalitarians?

The End is *Not* Near

Matt Ridley discusses some of the themes from his new book the Rational Optimist.

I now see at firsthand how I avoided hearing any good news when I was young. Where are the pressure groups that have an interest in telling the good news? They do not exist. By contrast, the behemoths of bad news, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF, spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year and doom is their best fund-raiser. Where is the news media's interest in checking out how pessimists' predictions panned out before? There is none. By my count, Lester Brown has now predicted a turning point in the rise of agricultural yields six times since 1974, and been wrong each time. Paul Ehrlich has been predicting mass starvation and mass cancer for 40 years. He still predicts that `the world is coming to a turning point'.

Ah, that phrase again. I call it turning-point-itis. It's rarely far from the lips of the prophets of doom. They are convinced that they stand on the hinge of history, the inflexion point where the roller coaster starts to go downhill. But then I began looking back to see what pessimists said in the past and found the phrase, or an equivalent, being used by in every generation. The cause of their pessimism varied - it was often tinged with eugenics in the early twentieth century, for example - but the certainty that their own generation stood upon the fulcrum of the human story was the same.

I got back to 1830 and still the sentiment was being used. In fact, the poet and historian Thomas Macaulay was already sick of it then: `We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us, and with just as much apparent reason.' He continued: `On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us.'

Check out the article for more.  I am currently reading his book -- good stuff so far.  He quotes both my college roommate Brink Lindsey as well as yours truly in the book.  How can you go wrong?

A Tribute to Norman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug, the founder and driving force behind the revolution in high-yield agriculture that Paul Ehrlich predicted was impossible, has died at the age of 98 95.  Like Radley Balko, I am struck by how uneventful his passing is likely to be in contrast to the homage paid to self-promoting seekers of power like Ted Kennedy who never accomplished a tiny fraction of what Borlaug achieved.  Reason has a good tribute here.  Some exceprts:

In the late 1960s, most experts were speaking of imminent global famines in which billions would perish. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich famously wrote in his 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." Ehrlich also said, "I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971." He insisted that "India couldn't possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980."

But Borlaug and his team were already engaged in the kind of crash program that Ehrlich declared wouldn't work. Their dwarf wheat varieties resisted a wide spectrum of plant pests and diseases and produced two to three times more grain than the traditional varieties. In 1965, they had begun a massive campaign to ship the miracle wheat to Pakistan and India and teach local farmers how to cultivate it properly. By 1968, when Ehrlich's book appeared, the U.S. Agency for International Development had already hailed Borlaug's achievement as a "Green Revolution."

In Pakistan, wheat yields rose from 4.6 million tons in 1965 to 8.4 million in 1970. In India, they rose from 12.3 million tons to 20 million. And the yields continue to increase. Last year, India harvested a record 73.5 million tons of wheat, up 11.5 percent from 1998. Since Ehrlich's dire predictions in 1968, India's population has more than doubled, its wheat production has more than tripled, and its economy has grown nine-fold. Soon after Borlaug's success with wheat, his colleagues at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research developed high-yield rice varieties that quickly spread the Green Revolution through most of Asia.

The contrast to Paul Ehrlich is particularly stunning.  Most folks have heard of Ehrlich and his prophesies of doom.   But Ehrlich has been wrong in his prophesies more times than anyone can count.  Borlaug fed a billion people while Ehrlich was making money and fame selling books saying that the billion couldn't be fed -- but few have even heard of Borlaug.   Today, leftists in power in the US and most European nations continue to reject Borlaug's approaches, and continue to revere Ehrlich (just this year, Obama chose a disciple of Ehrlich, John Holdren, as his Science czar).

Continuing proof that the world moves forward in spite of, rather than because of, governments.

Update: More here.

Update #2: Penn and Teller on Borlaug

What "Progressives" Are Really After, Part 2

Climate activist Adam Sacks at Grist:

We must leave behind 10,000 years of civilization; this may be the hardest collective task we've ever faced.  It has given us the intoxicating power to create planetary changes in 200 years that under natural cycles require hundreds of thousands or millions of years"”but none of the wisdom necessary to keep this Pandora's Box tightly shut.  We have to discover and re-discover other ways of living on earth.

We love our cars, our electricity, our iPods, our theme parks, our bananas, our Nikes, and our nukes, but we behave as if we understand nothing of the land and water and air that gives us life.  It is past time to think and act differently.

If we live at all, we will have to figure out how to live locally and sustainably.  Living locally means we are able get everything we need within walking (or animal riding) distance. We may eventually figure out sustainable ways of moving beyond those small circles to bring things home, but our track record isn't good and we'd better think it through very carefully.

Likewise, any technology has to be locally based, using local resources and accessible tools, renewable and non-toxic.  We have much re-thinking to do, and re-learning from our hunter-gatherer forebears who managed to survive for a couple of hundred thousand years in ways that we with our civilized blinders we can barely imagine or understand.

Yep, let's all return to that sustainable world of 8000BC, scrap the worldwide division of labor and all our technology, and go back to subsistance farming and travelling by horse.  Gee, what a happy time that was...

Interestingly, this guy is making an incredibly common failure among physical scientists -- the attempt to apply conservation of mass/energy physical models or bacteriological growth models to economic growth:

Endless growth is an impossibility in the physical world, always"”but always"”ending in overshot and collapse.  Collapse: with a bang or a whimper, most likely both.  We are already witnessing it, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.Because of this civilization's obsession with growth, its demise is 100 percent predictable.  We simply cannot go on living this way. Our version of life on earth has come to an end.

Here is what I wrote, in a post titled "Physics, Wealth Creation, and Zero Sum Economics"

My guess is that this zero-sum thinking comes from our training and intuition about the physical world.  As we all learned back in high school, nature generally works in zero sums.  For example, in any bounded environment, no matter what goes on inside (short of nuclear fission) mass and energy are both conserved, as outlined by the first law of thermodynamics.  Energy may change form, like the potential energy from chemical bonds in gasoline being converted to heat and work via combustion, but its all still there somewhere.

In fact, given the second law of thermodynamics, the only change that will occur is that elements will end in a more disorganized, less useful form than when they started.  This notion of entropic decay also has a strong effect on economic thinking, as you will hear many of the same zero sum economics folks using the language of decay on human society.  Take folks like Paul Ehrlich (please).  All of there work is about decay:  Pollution getting worse, raw materials getting scarce, prices going up, economies crashing.  They see human society driven by entropic decline....

[But] the world, as a whole and in most of its individual parts, is wealthier than in was in 1900.  Vastly more wealthy.  Which I recognize can be disturbing to our intuition honed on the physical world.  I mean, where did the wealth come from?  Out of thin air?  How can that be?

Interestingly, in the 19th century, scientists faced a similar problem in the physical world in dating the age of the Earth.  There was evidence all around them (from fossils, rocks, etc) that the earth had to be hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years old.  The processes of evolution Darwin described had to occur over untold millions of years.  Yet no one could accept an age over a few million for the solar system, because they couldn't figure out what could fuel the Sun for longer than that.  Every calculation they made showed that by any form of combustion they understood, the sun would burn out in, at most, a few tens of millions of years.  If the sun and earth was so old, where was all that energy coming from?  Out of thin air?

It was Einstein that solved the problem.  E=mc2 meant that there were new processes (e.g. fusion) where very tiny amounts of mass were converted to unreasonably large amounts of energy.  Amounts of energy so large that it tends to defy human intuition.  Here was an enormous, really huge source of potential energy that no one before even suspected.

Which gets me back to wealth.  To balance the wealth equation, there must be a huge reservoir out there of potential energy, or I guess you would call it potential wealth.  This source is the human mind.  All wealth flows from the human mind, and that source of energy is also unreasonably large, much larger than most people imagine.

Back to the 1970s

I have argued for a while that the US appears to be regressing back to the 1970s.  George Bush is showing every sign of rivaling Richard Nixon for the award for most heavy-handed, misguided economic interventions by a President nominally espousing free market principals.  And there is no reason to think that Obama's outsider appeal and leftish economics will clean things up any better than did Carter.

Another sign the 1970's are back is Obama's appointment of Paul Ehrlich buddy John Holdren as his Science Adviser.   The Reference Frame has more on his work and "credentials", but suffice it to say there is very little there.

He is a strong practitioner of what I call post-modern science, where being fact-based and rigorous is far, far less important than coming to politically correct conclusions that are wrapped in just enough pseudoscience to wow science-illiterate media and most of the public.  His only highly cited works are Club-of-Rome type stuff with Ehrlich in the 1970s, and, not surprisingly, climate alarmist work today.   He is the type of scientist that is more comfortable (and better received) on an Oprah episode than in a detailed science debate.  He has a tendency to declare issues settled without having ever produced any evidence, and a history of eventually backing down from ludicrous positions he adopted without evidence in earlier phases of his life, only to then make the exact same mistake again in a slightly modified form.

The title comes from perhaps his most famous work, and is a great example of exactly what this guy is about.  I=PAT is supposedly an equation to measure man's impact (generally interpreted to be negative impact) on the Earth.  The letters stand for Impact (or Influence) = Population x Affluence x Technology **

The fact that he has an "equation" makes it look like science.  But in fact, it is not an equation at all.  He never tries to put any numbers to it, and in fact one cannot put numbers to it.  It is merely a political point of view popular on the left - that growth and technology and wealth are all bad - made to look like there is some science behind it.   It gives the scientific impremateur to something that is no such thing, so limits-to-growth supporters could yell back at their critics that is was "settled science."  Its a kind of voodoo, where activists could wave Holdren and Ehrlich at their critics, to try to keep the fact-Gods at bay.  Similar forces are at work in climate, though climate scientists have learned not to put their equations on paper (since then churlish outsiders can criticize it) but to bury them in a black box climate model.

In fact, even as a concept I=PAT fails.   Because at least two of the three terms have exactly the opposite relationship.  What do I mean?  Well, I guess I could be convinced that, all things being equal, rising human population has a net negative impact on the environment.   But affluence and technology should be in the denominator, not the numerator.  I won't bother with an extensive proof, since Holdren never proves his equation, but I will offer up a couple of thought experiments:

  • Imagine 6-7 billion people on the earth today but with the wealth and technology of the pre-Jethro Tull 17th century.  It would be a freaking disaster.  The catastrophe, to humanity and the environment, would be unimageable.   We are able to have the P we have today only because it is offset by A and T.  Or, in a point made in an earlier post, poverty is not "sustainable."
  • America is demonstrably less polluted and cleaner than in 1970, despite a higher population.  Many areas are cleaner than in 1920, and we have more untouched land and more forest coverage today than we did in 1920.  Why?  Technology and affluence.

If one really wanted to be scientific about it, and studied actual data, I think he would find that environmental impact follows a parabola with development.  Initial increases in population and industrialization lead to messy problems, which are then fixed with increasing wealth and technology.  There are many places in the world where halting growth would merely freeze the country at the top of this parabola.  China is a great example.  China's environmental problems will get solved through increasing wealth.  Stopping it from growing would actually increase the negative impact on the environment.

Anyway, I just spent more time on the proposition than it deserves.  If Holdren ever steps down, I suppose there's always Rosie O'Donnell to replace him.

** This is based on the popular interpretation of the equation.  In fact, in its original form, T was not technology but just a plug factor, something like impact per population-dollar.  At this level, the equation is certainly true, as mathematically it is hard to argue against the equation impact = population x dollars x impact per population-dollar!  So, at some level, the finding was not wrong but simply trivial.  However, in popular mythology, T was changed to technology, and the authors really did nothing to correct this interpretation, because essentially they agreed with it, even if they hadn't proved it.  (more here)  This approach, of proving one thing that is trivial and then claiming the proof is of something broader and more robust is now typical of climate science.

Accountability to Forecasts of Doom

Activists are always making exaggerated statements on current problems and extrapolate these into forecasts of doom.  One thing activists really, really hate is when people come back later and hold them accountable for these forecasts.  You can see it as NASA officials squirm and fire off condescension at skeptics who have the temerity to actually check their global warming forecasts against actual temperatures.

If I had a newspaper, I'd have a special regular feature where I dig back 10-20 years in my archives to find such forecasts of doom and check them against reality  (actually, if I had a paper, I would not allow activist's press releases to show up virtually unedited as "news" stories, but that is another matter).  Heck, I could have a regular feature just reality-checking old Paul Ehrlich forecasts.

Well, I don't have a newspaper, but I do have a blog, and this is a new feature I am working on.  I am still trying to play with various search engines and news libraries (such as the NY Times) to see if I can come up with some kind of query format that efficiently digs up such predictions that are at least 10 years old.  I am still a little stumped on this, but I am working on it.

But, as a sort of beta-test of the feature, one such comparison fell into my lap today.  I remember my feminist wife reading a book published in 1994 called "Failing at Fairness."  This work was a big, big deal at the time.  Media such as the NY Times fawned on it.  I will let a 1994 review on the Society for Women Engineers' site summarize the book:

Failing at Fairness: How American Schools Cheat Girls eloquently describes the results of years of research into sexism in schools. The study began as an examination of gender bias in textbooks, and evolved into a decade of painstaking classroom observation uncovering a "hidden curriculum" in classroom interaction.   Authors Myra and David Sadker present a compelling tale of gender bias in education at all levels.

Taken at face value, the book more than proves the point of the subtitle: our schools cheat girls out of an education equal to that received by boys. The authors do an excellent job of pointing out some of the more subtle ways of favoring boys over girls. However, so many descriptions of incidents of sexism -- blatant, subtle, by old teachers, young teachers, male teachers, female teachers, and even by one of the Sadkers' own "trained" researchers -- are included that it can seem like overkill at
times. In addition, the wealth of statistics can be overwhelming, and yes, even slightly depressing.

One of the more horrifying aspects of Failing at Fairness is the discussion about standardized tests, their historical deliberate design as culturally biased for exclusionary purposes, and the dive in the scores received by girls as they progress through their education.

Current standardized test administrators claim to be more sensitive to cultural prejudices in today's tests, although minority students still score less than white students (at least on the SAT). Also, the book states quite plainly, "Regardless of ethnic or racial background, all American girls share a common bond: a gender gap in test performance that leaves them behind the boys." The prevailing opinion of the discussion group is that the tests are still exclusionary; they are not measuring achievement, but are rather reflecting the way students are taught.

I don't doubt that they found their share of anecdotal issues.  I am sure I could find them today.  But their overall premise that girls were getting hosed by primary education and that standardized tests were structured to exclude girls from college education made no sense even at the time the book was published:

male_female_jobs

The chart is from Mark Perry, and he shows a similar picture for bachelor's degrees, where women blew past men in 1981, and in PHDs, where women passed men in 2006.  People would laugh at this book today, as most discussion is about under-performance of boys.

I don't know the authors, but I would interpret this as the classic inability of activists to declare victory.  I am fairly certain that their hypothesis was far more correct in 1969 than in 1994.  But society really went through a step-change in the 1970s vis a vis attitudes about females.  The previous generation of women's activists did great work to make these issues plain and help lead change in societal attitudes.

But activists have a really hard time declaring victory.  From a quite personal standpoint, declaring victory as an activist is exactly the same as walking into your boss and telling him that the company really doesn't need your job position.  Money, prestige, academic advancement, and attention, and (self-esteem, for certain types of people) are all tied to there being a major problem.  If there is no longer a big problem, then all this stuff goes away.

Burning the World's Food in Our Cars

It is good that doom mongers like Paul Ehrlich have been so thoroughly discredited.  But could anyone have imagined that not only are we not facing "Population Bomb" style famines, but we are in fact spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money to promote burning food in cars?

I am not sure how anyone thought this was a good idea, since

  1. Every scientific study in the world not conducted by an institution in Iowa have shown that corn-based ethanol uses more energy than it produces, does not reduce CO2, and creates new environmental problems in terms of land and water use.
  2. Sixty seconds of math would have shown that even diverting ALL of US corn production to ethanol would only replace a fraction of our transportation fuel use.

Apparently, Nebraska has reached a milestone of sorts: (HT Tom Nelson)

With three new plants
added in November, annual corn demand for ethanol production in
Nebraska passed the 500-million-bushel mark for the first time, using
37% of Nebraska's corn.

How much fuel has this produced?

"Today, that ambitious
directive has become a reality." Sneller says "At current rates,
Nebraska plants will use 514 million bushels of corn annually to
produce 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol. By the end of 2008, Nebraska
plants will process 860 million bushels into 2.3 billion gallons of
ethanol. Distillers grain, a co-product of ethanol production, is
widely accepted and marketed as a superior livestock feed."

This is enough ethanol to replace about a billion gallons of gasoline (since ethanol has less energy content than gasoline).  This represents about  0.7% of US gasoline usage.  The cost?  Well, I don't know how many billions of subsidy dollars have flowed to Nebraska, but there is also this:

Corn prices have
remained virtually unchanged since World War II. Increased demand from
ethanol production has raised average corn prices by 70% and is driving
an economic resurgence in rural Nebraska, according to Todd Sneller,
administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

So we have spent billions of taxpayer dollars, have diverted about 40% of Nebraska's corn output, and we've raised prices on corn 70% all to replace less than a percent of US gasoline usage.  If we could really do the fuel balance on the whole system, we would likely find that total fossil fuel usage actually went up rather than down through these actions.

Never have I seen an issue where so many thoughtful people on both sides of the political aisle united in agreement that a program makes no sense since... well, since farm subsidies.  Which, illustratively, have not gone away despite 80 years of trying.  As I wrote here:

Companies are currently building massive subsidy-magnets
biofuel plants.  Once these investments are in place, there is going to
be a huge entrenched base of investors and workers who are going to
wield every bit of political power they can to retain subsidies forever
to protect their jobs and their investment.  Biofuel subsidies will be
as intractable as peanut and sugar subsidies and protections.

Immigration Opponents Depend on Bad Public Schools

I have been spammed several times with messages breathlessly telling me I have to watch this video about why the free flow of people from poorer nations into the US looking for opportunity is so disastrous.  I had nothing else to do in my hotel room, so I watched a bit.

The video clearly relies on the fact that American students have had crappy education into US history.  He uses the period of 1925-1965 as his base period, to show how much higher immigration rates are today than in these years.  To try to make current immigration seem out of line, he gives us the first real whopper of the video - he actually calls 1925-1965 the "golden age of American immigration", implying it was an era of free and open immigration and representative of a high rate of immigration.  Anyone with any sort of history education should be able to smell a rat - after all, wasn't the late 19th and early 20th century the real period of immigration into this country? 

In fact, 1925-1965 was, on the metric of immigration as a percentage of US population (the correct way to index the number) the LOWEST and most restrictionist period of immigration in our entire history.  In fact, 1925-1965 was the golden age of xenophobic restriction laws (aimed mainly at that time at southern and eastern Europeans).

So, after the lecturer began his talk by saying that white is black, I was obviously not really interested in the rest  (not to mention the fact that he for some reason reminded me of across between Rutger Hauer and Crispin Glover playing a creepy takeover-the-world villain).  He tries to take an environmental approach, I guess to try to lure the Left into the nativist camp.  I will say his upward sloping population charts are pretty funny, given that they have absolutely no relationship to any credible forecast.  He seems to take the global warming modeler's approach to shifting assumptions to get that big hockey stick.  His argument is ridiculous, though.  If you believe that a unit of population brings with it a measure of environmental harm, then immigration doesn't really change the net harm to the globe, it only moves its effects around.  And I would argue that the US with its wealth and attention to environmental matters is in a far better position to mitigate these effects than say Mexico.  I addressed this conservative retread of Paul Ehrlich population bomb panic here.

The Connection Between Paul Ehrlich and Immigration Opponents

Reason's Hit and Run points to this article by Chirstopher Hayes that helps connect the dots.  The founder of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA, both prominent conservative anti-immigration groups, is John Tanton.  Apparently, Tanton's roots are in Ehrlich style population bomb limits-to-growth zero-sum fearmongering.

In 1968, a Stanford biologist named Paul Ehrlich made these ideas mainstream
with his book, The Population Bomb. With terrifying certainty, Ehrlich
argued that the exponential growth in population and the incremental growth in
food could only mean one thing: mass famine. "The battle to feed all of humanity
is over," the book begins. "In the 1970s "¦ hundreds of millions of people are
going to starve to death."

It was an instant sensation, turning "overpopulation" into a hot topic and
landing Ehrlich repeatedly on "The Tonight Show." Tanton had been ahead of the
curve. As early as the '50s, he avidly read reports from the Population
Reference Bureau, and by the time Ehrlich's book was published, he and Mary Lou
had already started work on the first Northern Michigan chapter of Planned
Parenthood. "I believed in the multiplication tables," says Tanton. "Since I was
a physician and could do something about birth control, it struck me that this
was where I could make my contribution to the conservation movement."...

Tanton, whose worldview was forged in this intellectual milieu, is haunted by
the spectre of an apocalypse just over the horizon, and the thought that he is
one of a select few who see it coming. Sitting at his desk during one of our
interviews, he reaches into a drawer, withdraws an electric metronome and flicks
it on. As the device pulses at 135 beats per minute, he explains that each beat
is a new birth (at the 1969 rate), and each new birth requires resources: food,
clothing, education. It's a trick he used when he gave talks on population in
the '70s, and it's effective. His voice barely rises over the percussive
onslaught, and after just 30 seconds you want to yell: "Make it stop!"

I never really realized this connection or Tanton's roots (for reasons outlined below, his public message has moved on from environmentalism and overpopulation).  Tanton's real reason for being anti-immigration is this:

He explains that reducing immigration will force countries like Mexico to
confront their own population growth rates. "Each country," he says, "ought to
try to match its population to its resource base."

Whatever the hell that means*, since the amount of population the
world's "resource base" is able to support has grown exponentially over
the last 100 years.  But the really, really nutty part, the part that
separates him from the just-plain-wrong Ehrlich types, is the fact the
he thinks this resource matching has to proceed country by country.  No
global markets for this guy, I guess.  Somehow people crossing an
immaginary line in the Sonoran desert makes the population less
sustainable?  On the south side, things are OK, but move 100 miles
north and suddenly the world is doomed? 

In fact, the reality is just the opposite, for the same reasons that
Ehrlich's population bomb theory went bust -- which is that increasing
wealth and technology always tend to lower birth rates.  So I would
argue that immigration from Mexico to the US, with the wealth creation
potential that provides the immigrants, is  likely to result in a net
reduction of world birth rates.

Of course, Tanton has moved on, because the immigration movement could
not get excited about his environmental message and environmental
groups couldn't make heads or tails of his immigration message.

Crisscrossing the country, Tanton found little interest in his
conservation-based arguments for reduced immigration, but kept hearing the same
complaint. ""˜I tell you what pisses me off,'" Tanton recalls people saying.
""˜It's going into a ballot box and finding a ballot in a language I can't read.'
So it became clear that the language question had a lot more emotional power
than the immigration question."

Tanton tried to persuade FAIR to harness this "emotional power," but the
board declined. So in 1983, Tanton sent out a fundraising letter on behalf of a
new group he created called U.S. English. Typically, Tanton says, direct mail
garners a contribution from around 1 percent of recipients. "The very first
mailing we ever did for U.S. English got almost a 10 percent return," he says.
"That's unheard of." John Tanton had discovered the power of the culture
war.

The success of U.S. English taught Tanton a crucial lesson. If the
immigration restriction movement was to succeed, it would have to be rooted in
an emotional appeal to those who felt that their country, their language, their
very identity was under assault. "Feelings," Tanton says in a tone reminiscent
of Spock sharing some hard-won insight on human behavior, "trump facts."

I have never, ever understood why Americans get so unbelievably bent out of shape when they encounter a language other than English, but unfortunately this bizarre brand of xenophobia is fairly prevalent in this country, and Tanton has taken to tapping into it.  The article continues on to describe how Tanton has been very successful in making common cause with a broad range of people, from liberal activists to outright racists.

I found the article interesting as much for the descriptions of all the tactics and campaigns that failed to motivate the anti-immigration base in the past.  My sense from the article is that Tanton understands full-well that if the illegal immigrants were actually 12 million Canadian English-speaking Anglos, he would not be having near the success in getting people riled up about immigration.

* its amazing how many people talk about the world approaching some resource limit, but in fact no one has ever offered any shred of evidence as to where the world's population is vis-a-vis some mythical "carrying capacity".  Every prediction that we are approaching the limits of growth have been wrongJulian Simon pointed out that the only resource that matters is the human mind, and it never runs short.  He used commodities prices to prove his point, and beat Ehrlich in his famous bet. 

Great Example of Zero-Sum Thinking

In perhaps the best example I have seen since Paul Ehrlich of zero-sum thinking, junkscience.com links to this article at the BBC:

A study by the New Economics Foundation (Nef) and the
Open University says 16 April is the day when the nation goes into
"ecological debt" this year.

It warns if annual global consumption levels matched the UK's, it would take 3.1 Earths to meet the demand.

How many times does this sort of stuff have to be wrong before it stops getting printed by "science writers" in the media.  Malthus made the same argument over a century ago, and Ehrlich has been making one bad prediction after another along these lines since the late 60's  The report relies on this concept:

The findings are based on the concept of "ecological
footprints", a system of measuring how much land and water a human
population needs to produce the resources it consumes and absorb the
resulting waste.

Of course, no one mentions that this "ecological footprint" number has changed dramatically with technology, not only in the last 200 years but even in the last 30.  For example, total US Farm acreage has fallen for the last fifty years, while agricultural production has grown between two and five times in the same period.   Its a stupid, meaningless analysis that says that if nothing else changed, and suddenly consumption went up, there would be a crisis.  It relies on the lack of imagination of both the authors (and to an extent, the audience), arguing that since they can't think of any way to grow production any further, it must not be possible.  I can just picture these guys as prehistoric man sitting in a cave making the same pronouncements of disaster for the species, all while their peers are busy outside playing with bone tools under the big black monolith.

More on the zero-sum fallacy here.

 

Great Moments in Muddled Thinking: I

I was excited this week to find a copy of the original 1968 version of Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb."  I have been itching to find such a copy so I can demonstrate just how wrong and wrong-headed his zero-sum limits-to-growth thinking is. 

Now, one may ask, why even bother?  You could argue that thoughtful folks have dismissed Paul Ehrlich and his ilk for years, particularly after Julian Simon owned him in their famous bet.  However, I find two compelling reasons to take the time to fisk a forty-year-old book:

  • Paul Ehrlich and his brethren actually have not been disowned by much of the intelligentsia.  The media still breathlessly reprints Ehrlich's and his cohorts' predictions of disaster, despite the fact that all their past predictions have utterly failed to come true.
  • The fundamental mistakes he makes in his analysis are constantly repeated today.  These mistakes include:
    • Static analysis - blind projection of trendlines without any allowance for individuals actually doing something to alter those trends, particularly in response to pricing signals.  This leads not only to predictions of disaster, but to the consistent conclusion that only governments coercing individuals on a massive scale can avert dire consequences for humanity
    • Zero confidence in humanity - every analysis implicitly contains the assumption that we will never know how to do more than we know how to do today.  Kind of an anti-Kurzweil mentality
    • Zero-sum economics - the common misconception that wealth can only come at the expense of poverty elsewhere.

I have not had a chance to dig into it, but I will leave you with this tasty teaser from the back cover:

MANKIND'S INALIENABLE RIGHTS

  1. The right to eat well
  2. The right to drink pure water
  3. The right to breathe clean air
  4. The right to decent, uncrowded shelter
  5. The right to enjoy natural beauty
  6. The right to avoid regimentation
  7. The right to avoid pesticide poisoning
  8. The right to freedom from thermonuclear war
  9. The right to limit families
  10. The right to educate our children
  11. The right to have grandchildren

Well, that seems to cover it.  Anyone want to bet I don't find anything about property rights in this book?  Gotta go read the book now, since I have so many questions now:  Is it OK if someone kills me with a conventional bomb rather than a nuclear one?  Can I sue McDonald's on the basis that yesterday's lunch was a violation of my right to eat well?  And just how do I force my kids to have sex and procreate?  I can't wait to find out.

Myth of Peak Oil

Note:  I have posted a more recent article with updated data here.

Mises Blog has a good article on the "Peak Oil" meme.  You may have gotten investment solicitations urging you to invest in oil because production is supposedly going to peak in 2006.

Oil production will peak some day.  I do not know when.  I do know that when I was in high school debate in the late 1970's, the topic one year was on resource policies.  I read everything there was at the time on oil supply as well as other critical mineral supplies.  Most "experts" at the time were predicting that oil would "run out" in about 1985 or 1990.  As you can see below, folks who invested in oil in 1980, after a price run-up similar to the one we have seen lately, got slaughtered.

Usgasoilprices19181999_1

Think twice or maybe three times about this graph before you invest.  Notice that there is no long term trend in real oil prices, even over one hundred years!  To make money buying oil, you have to do it on timing, buying ahead of sharp temporary increases.  And given that we are at the top of one of those sharp increases, can now really be the time to buy?

You can never get all the oil out of a field, and the exact amount of oil you can recover is dependent on how much you want to spend to do it, which in turn is related to oil prices (or expectations of oil prices).  The first 20% of the oil in a field might just squirt out under its own pressure.  The next 20% might have to be pumped.  The next 20% might need high pressure water injection to help it.  The next 20% might need expensive CO2 injection to help it.  If you ask the field manager how much oil was left, he would give you different answers at $20 and $45 a barrel, because he would make different assumptions about how far along this investment curve he would go.

If you are still thinking about investing, do one more thing: Study the famous bet between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon:

In 1980, economist |Julian Simon| and biologist Paul Ehrlich decided to put their money where their predictions were. Ehrlich had been predicting massive shortages in various natural resources for decades, while Simon claimed natural resources were infinite.

Simon offered Ehrlich a bet centered on the market price of metals. Ehrlich would pick a quantity of any five metals he liked worth $1,000 in 1980. If the 1990 price of the metals, after adjusting for inflation, was more than $1,000 (i.e. the metals became more scarce), Ehrlich would win. If, however, the value of the metals after inflation was less than $1,000 (i.e. the metals became less scare), Simon would win. The loser would mail the winner a check for the change in price.

Ehrlich agreed to the bet, and chose copper, chrome, nickel, tin and tungsten.

By 1990, all five metal were below their inflation-adjusted price level in 1980. Ehrlich lost the bet and sent Simon a check for $576.07. Prices of the metals chosen by Ehrlich fell so much that Simon would have won the bet even if the prices hadn't been adjusted for inflation. (1) Here's how each of the metals performed from 1980-1990.