This month we review an unusual study that suggests the earth's resources are growing faster than they are being consumed, and a disturbing report on the human cost of industrial pollution.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
Pie in the sky
The Ultimate Resource
by Julian Simon
UK: Martin Robertson (hbk) £9.50
US: Princeton University $ 14.50
So many people play ‘Ain’t it awful’ these days that it’s a bit of a surprise to meet someone who plays ‘Best of all possible worlds’. Julian Simon doesn’t go quite that far— he does admit to a few blemishes — but that’s certainly his game. Here’s his own summary of his book.
The standard of living has risen along with the size of the world’s population since the beginning of recorded time. And with increases in income and population have come less severe shortages, lower costs, and an increased availability of resources, including a cleaner environment and greater access to natural recreation areas. And there is no convincing reason why these trends toward a better life and toward lower prices for materials (including food and energy), should not continue indefinitely.
Contrary to common rhetoric, there are no meaningful limits to the continuation of this process. . . There is no physical or economic reason why human resourcefulness and enterprise cannot forever continue to respond to impending shortages and existing problems with new expedients that, after an adjustment period, leave us better offthan before the problem arose.
Illustration: Clive Offley
Is it a case of Julian Simon, Pie in Sky Man - or should we take it more seriously? We should. Simon musters a lot of evidence (including some fascinating charts and statistics) which, even if it doesn’t entirely convince you of his thesis, provides a provocative challenge to doomcasters.
His argument is based on four main propositions. First, he questions the idea of finite resources: the earth’s resources are not finite in the sense of consisting of a measurable absolute amount of this or that, which will be used up by a certain date. New ideas for extraction, use, or of substitution are brought in as it becomes economic to do so. This accounts for the fact that most prices of raw materials have been falling steadily (with hiccoughs) for centuries, and that estimates of’reserves’ continually rise. A line one foot long is finite —but the number of points it can be sliced up into is not. Looked at this way the world’s resources are infinite.
Will these trends continue? What Simon calls ‘engineering forecasts’ — that is, forecasts based on physical limitations and technology — suggest they will not. But economic forecasts, based on price trends over decades and even centuries, suggest they will. His figures show, for instance, that the scarcity of copper as measured by its price (relative to wages and to the consumer price index) has been falling since 1800.
His third proposition is that human beings contribute more in ingenuity and the creation of resources than they consume. But there is a timelag while humans grow to maturity — and this leads us to see them as a burden rather than an asset This argument about population is perhaps the most controversial part of the argument and it occupies a major, indeed an excessive, part of the book.
The fourth proposition, which arises out of the other three, is that for each step backward we make 1.001 steps forward. Nature is not a cornucopia, but the human mind is— thus his title: The Ultimate Resource.
All this is fascinating, and Simon usually makes a good case — although his over-enthusiasm can be irritating. Grab your hat, he says — and, in the next paragraph, grab your hat again.
But what’s the relevance to reality — to the real world where most people live? Even if Simon is right that the world as a whole is not short of resources, that doesn’t help the people who don’t have access to them. Simon writes very much from a North American point of view; if there is more in the world than we thought, then Americans, we can be sure, will be major beneficiaries. There are plenty of medicines in the world — but not at prices the poor can afford. Simon may be right about infinity — but to the poor the concept of infinity means even less than it does to most of us.
Dying for a Living
by Lloyd Tataryn
Can: Deneau and Greenberg $12.95
Industrial pollution may not seem a central issue yet for the Third World. But as attention is focused on diseased workers in industrialised countries and public concern grows about the physical dangers workers are expected to endure, some corporations are pulling up stakes and quietly heading for countries where health standards are lower and workers unorganised.
‘Multinationals go where the costs are lowest; where there are no unions and no environmentalists,’ says Robert Paelke, Canadian political scientist, quoted in Lloyd Tataryn’s Dying for a Living. In his study of occupational and environmental health controversies in Canada, Tataryn concentrates on three industrial tragedies: lung disease and cancer from asbestos dust at Thetford Mines, Quebec; deaths from radiation exposure in the uranium mines of Elliott Lake, Ontario; arsenic poisoning in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories.
It tackles some basic questions: is industry justified in gambling with people’s health to run profitable operations? Should decisions on ‘acceptable’ levels of risk be made without the consent of the workers exposed to those risks?
Many of the most serious diseases aren’t visible until after a debilitating latency period — of anything from five to 30 years. The delayed action has a defusing effect on public opinion. ‘It’s not that citizens who argue on behalf of the company are cold and callous,’ writes Tataryn. ‘If the same miners worked with machines that consistently cut off their arms and the town were populated with a horde of miners with stumps, the community would probably storm the companies en masse.’
He asks whether it is true that a government’ s response to a health crisis is measured by the amount of media attention it gets. The Sunday Times coverage of the thalidomide tragedy in Britain, he says, is credited with forcing an extra $50 million compensation for the victims. But ‘people cannot insist on reforms if they are never made aware of the consequences of (their) exposure to contaminates’.
As ‘poverty and poison must be as unwelcome in Indonesia as they are in Southern Ontario’, Tataryn’s study rings a warning knell to Third World countries bent on rapid industrialisation.