In 1850, London was a miserable place. A baby boy born in that year and at
that location could only expect to live to 40. The world that baby was born into
had raw sewage running in the streets, heavy fogs of air pollution and such
putrid drinking water most people drank beer. A mere one hundred years later —
within the lifetime of that baby’s grandchildren — a child born in England
could expect to live to 73.
The story of what happened to make this possible demonstrates the capacity of
societies to adapt in positive ways to change and provides evidence to argue the
future will be much brighter than the past.
The casual consumer of current affairs could be forgiven for concluding we
are all going to hell in a handbasket — the never-ending procession of
depressing stories report that there is a rain forest disappearing here or a
famine there, the monotony only broken up with truly horrific disasters like the
2006 Boxing Day tsunami. And the solutions to future catastrophes proposed are
even gloomier — Jared Diamond would like to force population control on the
developing world, and rich countries seem intent on imposing a myriad of micro
controls on consumer behaviour. But what all of these proposals share is a
profound pessimism — at worst the world’s population has to reduce consumption
(that is, wealth) substantially, and at best it just needs to share around the
current amount. With all this gloom it is a rare person who thinks that, by and
large, the massive gains in health and wealth over the past century will be
repeated in this one.
Lack of evidence for pessimism
But this pessimism doesn’t match the empirical evidence. Two recent books,
Robert Fogel’s The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe,
America, and the Third World and Indr Goklany’s The Improving State of
the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a
Cleaner Planet reveal that these perceptions do not match the reality.
Contrary to the depressing prognostications of Ian Lowe, Al Gore, James Lovelock
and Jared Diamond, the world is, indeed, getting better.
But just how these improving conditions reveal themselves is instructive. In
the nineteenth century Dutch men were on average 164cm (5’ 4") tall. Today the
average Dutch man is 181cm (6’). All other rich nations show similar, if
slightly less pronounced, increases in height. As Nobel Prize winning economist
Robert Fogel shows in The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, the
reason for this dramatic height increase was the eradication of the persistent
and prevalent malnutrition that existed prior to the industrial revolution.
Fogel’s book demonstrates clearly the link between economic development and
nutrition. Until the 1880s, most people just didn’t get enough food to do a
full day’s work and as a result they were not productive as required to earn
what they needed to buy enough to eat. This vicious circle existed until the
massive leaps in productivity from the industrial revolution were coupled with
the equally important transformations in public health and sanitation. Together,
these factors meant that all people, most especially the poorest, had the energy
to be productive members of society to the benefit of all.
One of the outcomes of Fogel’s work is an understanding of the symbiosis
between nutrition, sanitation and technological progress. Instead of
technological improvements merely facilitating physiological improvements, for
example when the invention of a vaccine eliminates a lethal disease, it now
appears that improvements in nutrition and physiology contribute significantly
to the process of economic growth and technological progress. By feeding the
world properly the current enormous drain on the world’s resources through
subsistence is eliminated enabling humanity to develop the technologies
necessary to drive further advances in the future.
Development reduces environmental impact
In his The Improving State of the World, Indur Goklany reveals that as
societies get richer their impact on the environment at first goes up before
declining significantly and then levelling out. At first, people place the
highest priority on economic development — alleviating the cold is more
important than avoiding bad air pollution from burning wood and coal inside the
home — and due to lack of education or knowledge people may in fact be unaware
of environmental problems. But as a society becomes wealthier and gains more
knowledge, reducing environmental impacts rises on its priority list. Certainly,
working out how to do so can be a slow process. As a consequence, those
societies developing first take longer than those who can simply copy what
worked — Japan’s rapid industrialisation after the Second World War benefited
enormously from the experience of Western industrialisation. What this means is
that there is no logical reason to assume that today’s developing nations will
need to wreak the environmental havoc seen when Europe and Northern America
industrialised. Nor is there any necessity to attempt to limit China and India’s
quest for developed world living standards. Indeed, the evidence from Fogel and
Goklany suggests that the planet is best served by pursuing global growth
towards new technological frontiers.
If developing countries are allowed to pursue growth without being limited,
then they will have a greater chance of lifting themselves out of mass poverty to the point
where they voluntarily seek improved environmental outcomes. A corollary of this
is that the rules which the developed world attempts to impose upon developing
nations will, in the long run, harm, rather than help the environment. For
example, European import laws that force Chinese factories to match Europe’s air
pollution standards reduce China’s growth and therefore reduce China’s capacity
to lift very poor people out of poverty — rather than allowing China to decide
when improving air pollution is a priority.
The advocates of imposing developed world environmental rules on the
developing world assume that the only way to achieve improved environmental
outcomes is to legislate. Yet this has not been the experience of the developed
nations. Clean air and water laws were enacted in the United States in early
1970s, but the major improvements in cleaning up air and water-borne pollutants
occurred much earlier. Indeed, most pollutants peaked in the 1950s and 1960s and
declined thereafter — well before environmental legislation, as individuals and
firms gave themselves the benefit of breathable air and safe drinking water. The
force of law is useful in forcing laggards to catch up with society’s evolving
standards but its main value comes after the society has voluntarily adopted
Looking at the evidence
The group of activists who see the world as a glass half-empty have a patron
saint in Thomas Malthus, the eighteenth century English economist most famous
for predicting population growth will always outstrip food production, leading to
"gigantic inevitable famine". Today’s neo-Malthusians blame environmental
problems as a product of population, affluence and technological progress, and
believe that technology is unable to keep up with the destruction on the
environment. They disregard the evidence that shows how rising affluence has
been correlated with a cleaner environment in every society, and contend that
humanity is now at a tipping point, unable to develop the needed new
technologies to avert the apocalypse. And all this gloom is before any
discussion of global warming evaporates what little joy remains for these
Goklany collects an impressive amount of evidence to refill the half-empty
glasses of the pessimists. On every measure — life expectancy, healthiness,
access to clean water, infant mortality, child labour or literacy rates —
global measures of the human condition show an improvement, not backsliding.
Most people alive today are poor, but they are less poor than they were and,
with the sorry exception of sub-Saharan Africa, are continuing to both grow
richer and dramatically improve the quality and length of their lives.
The pattern of improvement over even just the past fifty years is evident in
many other key indicators of wellbeing — global infant mortality has fallen
from 157 deaths per 1,000 live births to 57 today, about where the developed
world was in 1955. Malnutrition has declined dramatically, particularly for the 40 per cent of the population living in China and India where food supplies
have increased 80 per cent and 50 per cent respectively. Education is an
important precondition for improvements in a range of life giving behaviours
such as sanitation, nutrition and hygiene, as well as the key driver of
technology adoption that leads to greater development. Between 1970 and 2000
global illiteracy rates dropped from 46 per cent to 18 per cent. Instead of
almost half the world’s population being unable to read, that figure is now
fewer than one in five.
For the first time in history less than fifty per cent of the world’s
population are absolutely poor but even more revealingly, the absolute numbers
of the poorest have stabilised since 1950 despite a doubling of the total human
population in that time.
While income is not a perfect indicator of wellbeing, the biggest issue
confronting the world’s leaders today must still be poverty reduction. Despite
impressive advances over the past 50 years, 2.7 billion people lived on less
than US$2 a day in 2001 while the comparable measure for the average person in a
developed country is US$100 a day, fifty times that of the poorest. In a
compelling rebuttal to the popular view that globalisation is driving
inequality, average global income inequality has decreased over the past fifty
years although it remains at unacceptable levels.
There are persuasive reasons to believe that the eradication of utter poverty
can be achieved over the next century. Doing so remains the single most
humanitarian act possible. And it does not take heroic growth assumptions to
envisage it. In his sweeping 2008 survey of global economic history, Contours
of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD, Angus Maddison coalesces the current state
of thought on long-run economic growth to venture into predicting the next
thirty years. The world economy grew by 3.9 per cent annually from 1950 to 2003.
The per capita GDP of poor countries more than trebled from US$1,094 to US$3,816
over that period despite a doubling of population. Over that period the average
annual rate of GDP growth for poor countries was 4.3 per cent with China
delivering an astounding 8.6 per cent annual growth since 1990. If we look
forward to 2030 — even if the annual growth rate for developing countries fell
back to a much more conservative 3.5 per cent — 22 years from now the average
GDP per capita in poor countries in 2030 would be US$6,090, well above the
average per capita value of the rich countries in 1950. In one generation, using
growth assumptions well below what the countries are actually achieving today,
all bar sub-Saharan Africa will be richer than Australia was in 1950.
Forecasting is an inexact science and averages can obscure wide variations
within countries. However, without any doubt by 2030, on existing patterns, the
number of people living in abject poverty will be less than a quarter of today’s
number even despite continuing population growth in poor parts of the world. In
2030 there will still be 600 million very poor people, overwhelmingly in
sub-Saharan Africa. But for almost everybody else life will be longer, healthier
and easier. Women especially will face a brighter future with increased literacy
rates and additional opportunities.
Importantly these predictions hold true irrespective of uncertainties over
climate change — in fact, the greatest mitigation of the effects of climate
change will come from economic growth providing currently extremely poor people
with choices about where they live and how they earn a living.
Despite the predictions of Malthus being utterly wrong for 200 years, his
doom-saying descendants argue that his predictions will be nevertheless proved
correct in the next fifty years — as population at last out runs food
production. A key reason the world is apparently going to run out of food and
become an environmental wasteland is attributed to the nouveau riche
Indians and especially Chinese scoffing far more meat than in the past. In
addition to the deep racism that consigns the currently poor to being ever poor
in the name of environmental salvation, the facts do not meet the pessimists’
claims. Food remains cheaper than in 1960 when it was in turn cheaper than 1820.
Indian agriculture was transformed by the green revolution from mass starvation
in the mid 1960s when the US made vast emergency shipments to wade off
widespread famine to be self-sufficient in grain by 1974. Chinese agriculture
continues to make enormous advances in productivity as a range of modern
agricultural practices are adopted. Developing world agricultural productivity
still lags that of the developed world by a large factor strongly suggesting
further possible yield growth from existing farmland.
Certainly, grain and oilseed prices have doubled in two years — evidence,
say the sceptics, that we are eating more than is sustainable and there is
little room for additional consumption. But most of the increase in the cost of
grain and oilseed is not pressures of population but from policy decisions. Rich
countries are taking massive tracts of prime farmland out of food production.
Increasing amounts of oilseeds are grown not for food, but to support a
misplaced policy of so-called energy security for the US and a warm feeling of
environmental goodness for the Europeans. In a series of deeply inequitable and
misguided policies, US and European governments have mandated the use of biofuel
despite it adding as much to global warming as fossil fuels once all the inputs
of growing it are included. The impact of these policies has been to
dramatically raise grain prices — the key food for most of the world’s poor —
by subsidizing some of the richest farmers on the planet.
The causes of today’s poverty are well known: corrupt officials stealing
resources, trade barriers stopping exports, poorly developed property rights and
appalling infrastructure coupled with chronic malnutrition and disease, lack of
sanitation and drinking water and significant illiteracy. All of these obstacles
inhibit the right of poor subsistence farmers, the world’s poorest people, from
escaping utter depredation.
Blocking the escape hatch
The governments of the poorest nations — which by no coincidence are usually
deeply corrupt dictatorships — are the root cause of poverty in the developing
world. Nevertheless, increasingly the actions of rich outsiders, both nations
and NGOs, must be blamed for exacerbating misery. Some non-government opponents
of science have been remarkably successful at stopping beneficial developed
world technology being used in the developing world. Two striking examples
illustrate the rank hypocrisy of those who say they want to help the poor but
act to harm them.
First is the successful banning of the pesticide DDT for malaria control by
many developing countries’ governments. This action was urged particularly by
Scandinavian environmentalists. Today, malaria kills approximately 1.3 million
people a year (by comparison there are an estimated 172,000 deaths from war
annually). Yet malaria was eliminated from many countries by the use of DDT and
no other method has been found to be as effective. Data from KwaZulu-Natal in
South Africa showed around 600 cases in 1992. With DDT banned in 1996 the number
of cases rose to 40,000 in 2000 when it was, thankfully, reintroduced. By 2002
the number of cases was 3,500.
Second are the actions by Greenpeace and Actionaid in 2002 to convince the
increasingly dictatorial Zambian President to reject food aid for his starving
people because it may have contained genetically modified (GM) maize. At the
time some GM food had begun to be distributed and its withdrawal caused rioting.
Zambia continues to suffer from mass starvation and its government continues to
prefer the accolades of Greenpeace to feeding its people.
To meet the challenges of an increasingly richer population that will consume
far greater quantities of food than is currently the case existing farmland will
need to become more productive. As discussed above, there is significant scope
for developing countries to achieve the sorts of yields seen in developed
countries and through technology diffusion to climb the productivity ladder much
faster than the current leaders. Already China is the third biggest producer of
GM crops in the world (after the US and Canada) and is aggressively buying
premium genetics in dairy and beef cattle to improve its herds.
Feeding everyone adequately must be the key to creating the conditions
whereby the entire planet is not dragged down by the environmental catastrophe
caused by abject poverty. A bit of development can be an ugly thing for the
environment as trees are cut down for firewood and to clear the land, fisheries
are depleted, air pollution soars and waterways are fouled. The key to
minimising those effects is to lift people out of poverty as rapidly as possible
as they themselves will demand clean air and clean water as soon as they have
the energy to do more than scratch out a bare living.
Louise Staley is Director Food and Environment Unit at the Institute of Public Affairs in
Melbourne where she specialises in food policy issues and agricultural
regulation. This article was originally published in the IPA Review.