Review of Improving the State of the World

In: Uncategorized

15 Jan 2007

My review of Indur Goklany’s Improving the State of the World (Cato 2007) for Fund Strategy magazine (15 January 2007) can be found below. An article based on an interview with Goklany should appear in spiked later on this week:

One of the great tragedies of contemporary life is that we are gripped by what could be called the “miserabilist tendency”. There is a pervasive sense that things are generally worse than in the past and the outlook for the future is even more negative. This bleak view is embodied in popular books such as Steve Lowe and Alan McArthur’s Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit? (Time Warner 2005). Unfortunately, it is not just them. The whiners, who would previously have been assigned the status of pub bore, have become hugely influential in policy making, the media and academia.

Under such circumstances Indur Goklany, an American policy analyst, has written a genuinely important book. From a careful analysis of masses of data he shows that life for human beings is better than ever before. Of course the world is far from perfect. But the combination of economic growth and technological development could make things better still in the future.

The inclusion of so many statistics does not make for easy reading but it is worth the effort. Statistics are not perfect but they are necessary to help overcome impressionism. Too many people rely on a vague sense of how they think life today compares with the past. Far better to look at the hard data. Perhaps the single most important set of statistics relate to life expectancy. It is staggering to realise the average life expectancy in the world before the industrial era was 20-30 years. In other words, the average person would be lucky to reach the age of 30. By 2003 the figure had risen to 66.8 years. So thanks to growing prosperity the average person had more than doubled their lifespan, with an extra 36.8 or more years of life.

Of course there remain inequalities between the rich countries and the developing world. The average person in the developing world today lives 63.4 years – although this is still more than double that in the pre-industrial era – compared with 75.6 years in the developed world. However, today’s gap of 12.2 years between the two compares with 25.2 years in the early 1950s. Both sets of populations are living longer, although the gap between the two is narrowing.

A similar trend is apparent in relation to infant mortality. In the pre-industrial era it was more than 200 per thousand live births – more than 20% of babies died before reaching their first birthday. It was a common experience for parents to see their babies die. Today the global average figure is 56.8 and in the developed world it is 7.1

The single most important factor behind these improvements is the spectacular rise in agricultural productivity. Food is cheaper and more easily available than ever despite massive increases in the world’s population. For example, average daily food supplies rose from a global average of 2,254 calories per person in 1961 to 2,804 calories in 2002. Whereas food supplies in the developed world rose by 24% over that period, the increase for developing countries was 38%.

The improving trend disguises some remaining tragedies. Globally more than 850 million people are undernourished – they cannot meet their basic needs for energy or protein. About 3.75 million deaths a year can be attributed to insufficient food supplies.

Under such circumstances, Goklany is strongly in favour of genetically modified crops. He argues that such technology could boost agricultural productivity still further, making it possible to feed more people better than ever before.

He also dismisses health and environmental concerns in relation to GM as unfounded. On health he points out that 300 million Americans and tens of millions of visitors have consumed GM food with no apparent ill effects since 1996. If there are any as yet undiscovered problems, they are likely to be hugely outweighed by the benefits of higher agricultural productivity.

The Improving State of the World also argues that greater use of GM crops could be better for the environment. If less land is needed to produce food then more will be available for forestry and other uses. This greater availability of unfarmed land could also bolster biodiversity.

Although Goklany’s book is heavy in its use of figures it would be wrong to see it as a statistical almanac. It includes useful and insightful arguments too. For example, it argues that economic development is typically characterised by an “environmental transition”. In the early stages of development, as countries industrialise and urbanise, their environments tend to worsen. But then, as they become more prosperous, the environment generally improves.

Most key indicators follow this trend. For instance, British cities were hellish places to live when Charles Dickens was writing in the mid-nineteenth century. Goklany quotes a passage from the The Old Curiosity Shop describing a London darkened by coal dust and factory smoke. It should also be remembered that at that time diseases such as cholera and typhoid, carried by polluted water, were rife. In contrast, London today is an immensely clean and healthy place. And even third-world cities are much better than Victorian London as they have learned from the experience of the developed world.

Goklany uses the concept of environmental transition to draw astute conclusions about future possibilities. He concedes that the world’s fish stocks are currently on the wrong side of the environmental transition, with supplies dwindling through over-fishing. However, the conclusion he draws is the need to develop modern aquaculture – farming the sea using modern technology – just as agriculture was developed in the past. That way the productivity of food production from the sea could rise enormously.

The Improving State of the World is an excellent antidote to the painful whining of the miserabilist tendency. The world is far from perfect but complaining about how bad everything is only reinforces cynicism rather than opening the way to improving things further.