My response in Shanghai Daily

In: Daniel In The News

14 Jun 2011

Shanghai Daily has published my response to the critical article on Ferraris for All by Wang Yong, the newspaper’s comment editor. I am not sure if the guy with the mortar board and Ferrari in the accompanying illustration is meant to be me. I have also pasted the text of the article below.

WALKING along the banks of the River Thames in my hometown of London it is difficult to believe what it was once like.

In the mid-nineteenth century it was full of untreated human waste and a source of widespread cholera. As late as 1957 pollution levels were so high that is was considered biologically dead.

But after a concerted clean-up operation it is now home to about 120 fish species and 400 types of invertebrates.

It is for reasons such as this that I disagree with Wang Yong’s criticisms of “Ferraris for All,” my book defending economic progress, in Shanghai Daily on June 4 (“There must be more to the good life than a Ferrari”).

It seems to me that he grossly underestimates the benefits of economic progress.

This is not to argue the world is perfect, far from it, but greater prosperity has on balance made it a hugely better place for humans to live in.

Wang Yong’s article is infused with a peculiar nostalgia for the past. At one point he says that “many of our ancestors lived fulfilling and smoke-free lives precisely because there were no Ferraris, or internal combustion engines.”

Given the first practical internal combustion engine was invented in 1859, that takes him back over 150 years. Later on he describes the Industrial Revolution, which first emerged in Britain in the eighteenth century, as “the industrial pollution.”

But would Wang Yong really want to go back to live back then? Would he like to live in a world without modern medicine? Without vaccinations? If he had a toothache, would he be happy to do without dentists?

All reputable figures show that, on balance, humans live longer and healthier lives than ever before.

Perhaps the most striking of all is that average global live expectancy has increased from about 30 in 1800 to about 68 years today. That alone indicates a staggering improvement in human welfare.

We have also, on average, become better educated, more intelligent (at least as measured by IQ), more mobile, taller and wealthier.

The average person today, even the average poor person, has access to opportunities his ancestors could not have dreamed of.

Previous generations

Wang Yong also romanticizes how previous generations lived. Before the invention of the internal combustion engine, and contrary to his argument, people lived far from smoke-free lives.

No doubt large numbers died from indoor air pollution as a result of burning such fuels as dung, straw and wood.

Even today, according to figures from the World Health Organization, about two million people worldwide die every year from inhaling such fumes. The vast majority are too poor to be connected to the electricity grid.

The important point is not that economic progress is without problems but that over time it brings considerable benefits. Its advantages easily outweigh the disadvantages.

In addition, it brings the means to overcome the challenges it creates. The clean-up of London’s formerly polluted River Thames discussed at the start of this article is a perfect illustration.

Wang Yong’s specter of Shanghai being over-run by cars shows that he does not appreciate this point. His argument that if everyone in Shanghai had a car it would lead to a monumental killer smog is what I would call “naive extrapolation.”

It reminds me of the nineteenth century predictions that London would eventually be covered in manure because of the rising number of horse-drawn carriages. Instead cars took their place.

Economic growth not only allows us to have more but also to do things better. So future cars might not produce any smog as they could be powered by alternative energy sources such as electricity or by hydrogen fuel cells. It would also be necessary to improve Shanghai’s infrastructure considerably so it could handle so many more cars.

Similar points could be made about China’s recent drought and about the tragic accident at Japan’s Fukushima’s nuclear plant. China’s drought is certainly a serious challenge that demands a concerted effort to resolve. But it is a mistake to use it as an argument against progress.

For one thing, any solution is likely to demand a large input of resources such as aid to farmers and an improved water infrastructure. Yet it is economic growth which provides these resources.

Any assessment of the impact of the drought also has to be set against the historical record.

It does not compare to China’s not-so-distant past in which many millions of people died in famines. The fact that China has become so much richer means that such a terrible outcome is mercifully unlikely.

Similarly Japan’s nuclear disaster, while serious, needs to be put into its proper perspective.

Considering the massive natural forces ranged against its nuclear reactors, an earthquake of 9.0 on the Richter scale and the subsequent tsunami, they survived remarkably well.

No doubt improved reactor designs would perform better but this should not detract from what is already possible. Any risks involved in nuclear power also have to be set against those involved in generating other forms of energy. For example, as Chinese people know only too well, coal mining can be extremely dangerous.

On the benefits side, it is also vital to recognize the huge advantages of having access to plentiful energy. It is no exaggeration to say that without sufficient energy the economic base of modern society would collapse.

Indeed, if the whole world is to reach a decent standard of living we will have to generate far more energy than we do now.

Without the huge benefits that economic progress has brought our lives would be far more impoverished then they are now. Hopefully we can continue this progress into the future.

Prosperity does not guarantee the good life but it is the necessary foundation.