Sunday, September 13, 2015

Big history and big fears

I once (very briefly) thought that the likes of Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg and Matt Ridley had delivered knock-out blows to the neo-Malthusians. But that could never be.

Nevertheless, I greatly enjoyed Ronald Bailey's The End of Doom. It is well researched and nicely written. Baily, for example, gives no quarter to the anti-GMOers in his Chapter 5 "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes."

On climate change, Bailey writes that he had changed his mind and that the balance of research he has seen persuades him that man-made global warming poses a significant problem. The chapter is wide-ranging and (as far as I can tell) well balanced. Long-run forecasts that involve climate as well as economics bring on a range of intellectual challenges that the author manages to introduce us to in just 68 pages. Is there a warming hiatus? How do we (will we) know? What are the costs and benefits of "doing something"? Is there a related severe weather uptick?  How can governments that subsidize waste in farming and water use be expected to make wise climate change policies? Solar energy? Nuclear?

Bailey seems to like the view of the Information Technology Innovation Fund view which he cites on page 234, "The paramount goal of climate change policy should be to make the unsubsidized cost of clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels ..." But I am not sure how policies in this field can remain entirely unsubsidized. At least the research could be subsidized. But will that be sealed off from politics? How?

I bring all this up because today's NY Times includes an essay by Timothy Snyder "The Next Genocide" which is apparently from his new book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (which I have not yet read). First, let me say that Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin is invaluable as we continue to try and make sense of 20th-century European history. But in today's essay Snyder recounts how an unhinged Adolf Hitler managed to link German nationalism and memories of food shortages to extreme neo-Malthusianism to crackpot euthenasia -- to bring on a world war and a holocaust. The author fears that the "Ecological panic, central to Hitler, could happen again."

Yes, the worst can always happen. But we are in the era of Deirdre McCloskey's Great Fact, the post-Enlightenment-post-1700 unheard of rise in human well-being. Unlike post-WW I Germans, many fewer people now alive harbor memories or fears of hunger or famine. Bailey reminds us that we are in the age of Norman Borlaug and that we can feed the peak population that is not far off.