A Millennium Report Card

A Millennium Report Card

A Millennium Report Card

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Dec. 30 1999 7:19 PM

A Millennium Report Card

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter directed the State Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality to make a study of "probable changes in the world's population, natural resources, and environment through the end of the century." The result, issued in 1980, was Global 2000, remembered (perhaps a little unfairly) as the definitive expression of Carteresque malaise about the future. Copies of this report, which made a huge splash at the time and sold more than 1.5 million copies, are amazingly hard to come by today. The State Department library no longer has a complete set, and a receptionist at CEQ told Chatterbox it was inconceivable that a 20-year-old report would be retrievable there. The Martin Luther King public library in Washington, D.C., said its last copy disappeared from the shelves six years ago. Stephen Moore, an anti-doomsaying scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute, told Chatterbox that six months earlier a research assistant he'd asked to find a copy came back empty-handed. Internet searches turned up no used bookstores in the Washington area where you could buy Global 2000.

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Eventually, however, Chatterbox was able to procure a copy of the summary volume that was reissued by Seven Locks Press in 1991. Chatterbox then conferred with Moore and with Ronald Bailey, editor of the anti-doomsaying Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet, which was funded by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Moore, Bailey, Cato, and CEI can all be fairly described as having an ideological animus against the fretful liberalism of Global 2000, but then much the same can be said of the liberal establishment's attitude toward Moore, Bailey, Cato, and CEI. While Chatterbox didn't always buy Moore and Bailey's analyses, he guessed--correctly, it turned out--that they'd prove quite knowledgeable and rigorous on the facts. (Besides, nobody seemed to be around today at the World Bank.)

The general outlook projected in Global 2000 is neatly summarized at the beginning:

If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less  stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now [i.e., 1980]. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world's people will be poorer in many ways than they are today.

For hundred of millions of the desperately poor, the outlook for food and other necessities of life will be no better. For many it will be worse. Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now--unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends.

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Not exactly an invitation to break out the party hats on New Year's Eve. How close to the truth is it?

1.)  Population.Global 2000 predicts that the world population will grow from 4 billion in 1975 to 6.35 billion (according to "medium-growth projections") in 2000.

Comment: The world population hit 6 billion this past autumn. Moore pointed out that this means Global 2000 is off by nearly 6 percent. Bailey attributed the error to an overestimation of the total world fertility rate, which (his book documents) has nearly halved since the early 1960s. Chatterbox thinks Global 2000 got this one pretty close to correct, however, and believes that, with the least developed countries seeing very little decline in total fertility rate since the early 1960s, world population remains worth worrying about.

Grade:Correct.

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2.)  Food shortages.Global 2000 says the price of food, adjusted for inflation, will double between 1975 and 2000. Despite huge projected increases in food production, per capita food consumption in South Asia, the Middle East, and the less-developed nations of Africa "will scarcely improve or will actually decline below present inadequate levels. "

Comment: Moore and Bailey both said this isn't true. "China's now exporting food," Moore pointed out. "As is India," Bailey added. Overall, world food prices have "more than halved" since 1975, Bailey said. According to an index of food prices in Bailey's book, food prices in 1996 were up 8 percent since 1990, but down 113 percent since 1975. Today, Bailey says, world food prices are "back below the 1990 price."

Bailey said the total number of calories consumed is "substantially up" in South Asia and the Middle East, but he admitted Africa remains "a basket case."

Grade:Mostly Incorrect.

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3.) Energy.  According to Global 2000, between 1975-2000, "the world's remaining petroleum resources  per capita can be expected to decline by at least 50 percent." The price of energy will rise more than 150 percent, factoring out inflation, during this same period.

       Comment: Everybody agreed this is wrong. Although the price of oil has spiked lately, last time Chatterbox checked  it was $25 per barrel, which (factoring out inflation and taxes) was less than it was in 1973 (when oil prices were lower than they were in Global 2000's benchmark year of 1975).

       Grade:Incorrect.

4.)  Deforestation. Between 1975 and 2000, the Third World will lose 40 percent of its remaining forest cover.

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Comment: Neither Moore nor Bailey claimed to know much about this, but both cited an essay in an earlier edition of Bailey's book that said tropical deforestation rates were about 8 percent during the 1980s. Assuming the same rate of tropical deforestation in the 1990s, Global 2000 would be off by a factor of at least two. Chatterbox continues to worry that the rainforest is disappearing, but agrees the 40 percent figure is probably too high.

Grade:Incorrect.

5.)  Climate change. Global warming will alter the world's climate "significantly" by 2050.

Comment: Obviously nobody knows, but Moore and Bailey both grudgingly admitted that the evidence for global warming has grown since 1980.

Grade:Essentially correct.

6.)  Growing income disparities between wealthy and poor nations. GNP is projected to increase everywhere, especially in Latin America, but by 2000 North America, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan will average more than $11,000 in per-capita GNP (1975 dollars), while India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, will all remain below $200 in per-capita GNP (1975 dollars). Overall, the per-capita GNP gap between industrialized and Third World nations will grow from $4,000 in 1975 to "about $7,900" in 2000. 

Comment:Moore and Bailey agreed this all sounded about right. Bailey directed Chatterbox's attention to a chart that seemed to support this in a World Bank report called Entering the 21st Century   (see figure 8 in the introduction, "New Directions in Development Thinking"). 

Grade: Correct. 

Granting that the above sampling is hardly scientific, Chatterbox concludes that Global2000's pessimism is overstated roughly 50 percent of the time, and justified roughly 50 percent of the time. In other words, Jimmy Carter's commission was half right, which is about par for the course when it comes to predicting the future (to test this proposition, flip a coin several times). Another, perhaps less parochial, way to look at Global 2000 is to observe that the millennium is proving to be about 50 percent as disastrous as Jimmy Carter predicted it would be. This is either good news or bad news, depending on your temperament.