Hope and Light for the Winter Solstice
by Loren Cobb
Perhaps it is time for an antidote! Herewith, a warming blast of hope and light delivered to you by The Quaker Economist, just in time to join the season's festivals of lights and song.
Good News on Population
For at least the last forty years we have been subjected to bleak projections of the effects of runaway population growth, including famine and disease in Asia and Africa, catastrophic environmental degradation, and a Malthusian nightmare of war and deadly epidemics. Now the good news: the world's population growth rate peaked in 1969 and has been declining ever since. The critical number to watch, however, is the total fertility rate, defined as the average number of children each woman will have in her lifetime. A world fertility rate under about 2.1 indicates that population will eventually begin to decline.
Total fertility rates all over the world have been in sustained decline, in response to improvements in female education and infant mortality, and to rapid rural-urban migration. In most of the countries of the world it is now below 2.0. It is now probable that the world's population will reach a peak well before 2050, after which it will begin an accelerating decline. I expect news media to run ever more frequent scare headlines about population implosion, but I submit that this will be no disaster at all. Instead it will be a superb development for the environment, for life in our crowded cities, for political stability, for education levels, and for crime in all its forms.
Scare headlines about a greying population unable to take care of its elderly are equally off base, in my opinion. Adjustments that allow for disability while raising the retirement age can cope with this problem, as we are already seeing in Japan.
Good News on Energy
Up until about a decade ago, the world's petroleum industry added more petroleum to its inventory of reserves than it extracted. Now the situation is reversed, energy prices are rising, and the process of switching to alternatives has begun. Natural gas, which causes much less pollution than petroleum, is now the source of most new energy reserves, but it seems extremely unlikely that natural gas can ever fully replace petroleum. The good news, however, is that the energy intensity of the world's economy has been dropping at an annual rate in excess of 1.5% since 1985 (2.1% per year since 1996), during an era of generally flat energy prices. (Energy intensity is defined as total energy consumed per unit of economic activity.)
As efforts to improve industrial and transportation efficiency shift into high gear due to rising energy prices, the rate of improvement in energy intensity will accelerate, to an average of at least 3% per year. At this rate the world's economy can continue indefinitely, despite declining total energy supplies. If energy intensity can improve at 4 or 5% per year and I think it can then the result will be a period of perhaps 25 years of ever-increasing efficiency, dropping total energy consumption, rising energy prices, and a progression of alternative energy sources that will likely end in a solar/hydrogen economy. For more details on how this may unfold, see More Profit with Less Carbon, by Amory Lovins.
I realize that the prospect of living through a turbulent and disruptive energy transition terrifies many people, but I see it as, on balance, an overwhelming good. The transition will be extremely good for the environment, good for public health, good for the economy, and good for our sanity. Cities will grow upwards instead of sprawling outwards, telecommuting will become the norm wherever possible, air pollution will fall dramatically, cars will lose two-thirds of their weight, public transportation will come into widespread use, and the production of greenhouse gasses (the probable cause of global warming) will decrease dramatically.
For those who fear that this process will choke off economic and social improvements in the developing world, I suggest taking another look. Countries that are only just now industrializing have the opportunity to build their factories on energy-efficient principles from the start, rather than engaging in costly retrofitting as in the developed world. Dropping energy intensity also implies that they will not need anywhere near as much energy to industrialize as did the developed world in the days of coal and petroleum.
Good News on International Law
Amid the dreadful headlines of explosions and deaths in war, it may be difficult to see the signs of significant progress in international law and government, but those signs are plentiful for anyone who cares to look beneath the surface.
Most people who hear the phrase "world government" think of an executive and a bureaucracy. This is a serious misconception, in my view. Instead, I believe that the proper core of world government is the system of international courts and prosecutors that is now under development. The purpose of these courts is to impose the Rule of Law upon those who, until very recently, have been largely above the law: sovereign states, dictators, war criminals, and multinational corporations.
I anticipate that world government will remain headless without an executive deep into the foreseeable future, and I suspect that the world will be better off this way, without a strong executive or an extensive bureaucracy. A system of justice, on the other hand, is absolutely essential. The good news for international politics is that this is precisely what is now appearing on the scene.
Eventually, even recalcitrant countries like the USA and China will realize that there is no substitute for international Rule of Law.
Law that provides for monitoring and certification of free democratic elections lags behind international criminal law, but I think it will catch up over the next ten years or so. At present there is no binding certification process for elections; instead we have an informal system of volunteer election observers provided by the international institutions such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States, and we have private election observers from groups like the Carter Center in Atlanta.
I believe that eventually it will be seen that the cost to the world of defective or fraudulent national elections is so high that they must be prevented by application of international criminal law, working to complement national laws with international oversight and sanctions. I see this as a critical step in improving governance worldwide.
Good News on Corruption
It would be difficult to overstate the impact and importance of the recent work of a tiny private organization, Transparency International, in educating the world about the profoundly deleterious effects of governmental corruption. As recently as five years ago, widespread and systemic corruption was accepted as an unavoidable fact of life in many nations. Now seen as an evil that can and should be fought and brought under better control.
Most citizens of developed nations are completely unaware of their nations' past history of corruption, and of the decades-long battles that were fought to free their governments from this scourge. In my experience, they are equally unaware of just how pervasive and severe systemic corruption is around the world, especially in countries that seem mysteriously entrapped in a perpetual cycle of poverty and political instability. Yet in my view it is precisely systemic corruption which lies at the heart of these vicious cycles, filling governmental offices in nation after nation with cronies, crooks, and incompetents.
The good news is that the word on corruption is getting out, and that opinion leaders around the Third World are aware as never before of the nature of the beast. Positive changes are happening right now, in several dozen countries, and I anticipate a sustained surge of activity in the coming decades.
The ubiquitous spoils system of political appointments is under attack all over the world, which is wonderful but not in itself sufficient. Even more important will be a campaign to clean up judicial systems courts and prosecutors which may require international cooperation and assistance. Who can prosecute a corrupt attorney general's office? In the USA this is done with a Special Prosecutor, appointed by the president and responsible to a trusted court. In countries whose entire judiciary is compromised, it may be necessary to fall back upon international special prosecutors, appointed by the president or the Security Council, and responsible to a special-purpose tribunal.
Want More Good News?
It is there if you look for it, hidden underneath the scary headlines and alarming predictions from those who make their living by pandering to fear, pessimism, and depression. The first step of emancipation is to learn to recognize when your emotions are being manipulated for profit. The second step is to take a careful independent look at long-term trends and causal relations, using your own best objective judgment. I think you will like what you see.
The third step, of course, is to read The Quaker Economist. We never shrink from bad news, but neither do we make a profession of adrenaline-pumping alarmist stories. Our goal is to give you measured and accurate analysis, in full context, with the best long-term perspective of which we are capable.
Santayana once said, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I love that quote, but I would add one additional idea: "... and those who fail to study the future will be rudely surprised!"
A magnificent yuletide season to everyone,
Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer!
There's a good deal I agree with and a good deal I disagree with, but let me concentrate on one disagreement. I'm by no means as cheery as you are about world government through courts and prosecutors. Think of the history of independent prosecutors in this country and ask yourself if you want that globalized. As for courts, I think their saving grace except when they operate in an environment where competition is structured in a healthy way (which is not the case when one side systematically chooses the court) is that they can on most matters be overruled by legislatures. And I foresee no world legislature coming into being for the foreseeable future that could be expected to behave well.
I sincerely pray that your Hope and Light for the Winter Solstice prevails. If we are able to purge our own government of the many corrupting forces and influences which seem to be prevalent I will have considerably more optimism than I have right now. In any case, I wish you all a wonderful holiday season (Christmas, the beginning of Chanukah and Kwanza all fall within the same two days this year. Is that a first?) and a most wonderful year to come.
Thanks again for a stimulating TQE! The innovation of including one or more hyperlinks as needed is most welcome. I tried to check on your population assurances and Google led me to a UN Population Program haystack. I’m sure there is useful information in there somewhere, but the best I could do was from 1995 with low projection of 7 billion people topped out by 2050, or 9 to 11 billion and growing on alternative projections. So help us with hyperlinks where you can!
I can do with all the optimism you have to spare, but I am a bit suspicious of these rate arguments. You know that Bush wants us to focus on lowering the rate of increase of the rate of fossil fuel emissions. (i.e. We should adopt a target that itself implies continued growth of fossil fuel emissions.)
What do the absolute numbers for population, World GDP, atmospheric CO2 (and other greenhouse gasses) and temperature change look like for 2050? It is comforting to know that a way out exists (if it is not already too late). But if the atmosphere continues to be an open access resource into which nations can dump their waste CO2 at no cost, how long will it take for the Rocky Mountain Institute technologies to get traction? I am more persuaded by Jared Diamand's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.
I would welcome TQE revisiting this topic from time to time. There is much public policy that supports increased global warming, that deserves deconstructing by TQE.
Wilfred Candler, Annapolis Friends Meeting (MD).
Thanks for the good news. But in this day and age of maniacal attention to political correctness, I find it interesting that you focus on the solstice rather than on Christmas. Just an observation from a libertarian-leaning Christocentric Quaker... In the Light,
Good news is always pleasant! One small note concerning this statement: "The first step of emancipation is to learn to recognize when your emotions are being manipulated for profit." Gain would be a better term than profit, which usually refers to money. Profit is a subset of gain, and gain conveys power. We should be concerned about the creation of power, its distribution, its uses and responses to it. Non-profit organizations exist to obtain power, just like profit-making enterprises. Each has governance problems, and the merits of the outcomes achieved by each are complex and hotly disputed.
On a related plain, Kenneth Boulding offered some wisdom when discussing how Quakers lost control of the Pennsylvania legislature in the 1740s for failing to send a militia to the western frontier to deal with the Indians. He said that Quakers lost power to gain influence. I believe that this is the safer course, consistent with humility and nonviolence.
J.D. Von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
I recently discovered The Quaker Economist and your other articles posted online. I'm not a Quaker, but went to Earlham College and feel a strong affinity. Can you recommend what you think may be the best biography of Gandhi? I was fascinated with your comments about him in the article A Quaker in the Military. Thank you for presenting to Quakers a more balanced view on some issues than many otherwise might not get!
I appreciated your favorable picture on the future of energy. It confirms my belief that we don't really need any fancy national energy policy but need to trust in a free market system for energy. Subsidies for fossil fuels should be gradually eliminated and we should let energy prices gradually rise to reflect their true cost and value. This would probably do more to promote alternative energy sources than anything. Some type of purchase subsidy might be in order for the truly needy. In friendship,
Joseph Mills, Kalamazoo Friends Meeting.
I too look with optimism that someday international law will be honored. But the US courts will not acknowledge that under our constitution, all treaties and conventions are the law of our land. Often they barely even acknowledge our constitution. Witness the many issues in today's America involving detainee torture, unending detention without trial or charges, extraordinary rendition, waving of rights to privacy and secret wire-taps, etc. Our country is not headed in the optimistic direction you seek, except perhaps as a massive reversing swing back to democratic principles and away from autocracy.
I look forward to international law being applied to our current resident of the White House and a large number of his partners in war crimes in and around the Potomac. Their orchestrated killing of 100,000 + Iraqis and who knows how many Afghans in the name of the "war on terror" makes it shameful to call oneself an American.
I met a counter-protestor who was carrying a sign that read Viva Bush on the streets of Denver recently, when King Bush was in town. I said to him, "I do agree that Bush should live, but only if behind bars for he is a war criminal who has trashed not only our constitution but international law." [...] He said to me that the USA can enforce its will anywhere anytime, and that it is not bound by any international treaty, or by any other nation. That is the force of shallow selfish thinking that must be overcome. I want to be an optimist, but...
Rich Andrews, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
Thanks for the Christmas gift! I knew there was some good on the horizon somewhere. I like the one about factories in developing countries using the latest in energy efficient technologies. And with rising fuel prices they have even more reason to do this. I think the economists who predict that the market will correct global warming may be on to something.
Blessings for a warm holiday.
Rich Ailes, Middletown Meeting, Lima, PA.
Magnificent and inspiring! Thank you so for pointing out what is so obvious to me. The world for humankind is today the most wonderful world that humankind has ever known, and this condition is likely to continue to improve in the forseeable future.
As a side note, I suspect that rapidly declining fertility rates are more directly correlated to rising per capita incomes than to specific levels of female education or levels of infant mortality. I support the theory that it is underlying per capita income growth that drives educational achievement, reduces infant mortality, and lowers fertility rates. (Unrepentent capitalist that I am) And as world incomes are projected to continue rising everywhere except the dungeon known as North Korea, your rosy predictions are even more likely to become reality.
Thank you for the spirit of christmas, in the spirit of Christ.
Christopher Viavant, Director, Utah Health Choice Network.
Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, by James Gilligan, MD. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.