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Why Is Paul Ehrlich So Hard to Ignore?

Blog Post | Science & Technology

Why Is Paul Ehrlich So Hard to Ignore?

Blame evolution, which primes us to be alert to danger, even when we know better.

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Paul Ehrlich’s memoir, “Life: A Journey through Science and Politics,” comes out next week. It probably won’t sell as many copies as “The Population Bomb” (1968). But neither will it flop—and it should. Mr. Ehrlich, 90, whom the media treat with an obsequious deference—see the recent cringe-worthy segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes”—will again profit from the capitalist consumption he’s spent his life decrying.

Mr. Ehrlich is a purveyor of “doom porn” at a time when the world has never been more prosperous. Developed countries are astonishingly rich, and even in developing nations the share of the population in absolute poverty has fallen to single digits. Mr. Ehrlich in 1968 predicted mass starvation; instead obesity is rising, even in Africa. So why don’t people ignore him? Ignorance is no excuse when we carry the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets.

The answer is that humans have evolved to prioritize bad news. “Organisms that treat threats as more urgent than opportunities,” wrote Nobel Prize-winning behavioral psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “have a better chance to survive and reproduce.”

As Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler explain in “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think,” our brains have limited bandwidth and need to focus when a threat arises. Most information is first sifted through the amygdala, a part of the brain that is “responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear,” Messrs. Diamandis and Kotler write. “The amygdala is always looking for something to fear.”

That is a very powerful impulse that can deceive even the most dispassionate and rational observers. A study by Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka found that even when people expressly say they are interested in more good news, eye-tracking experiments show they are in fact much more interested in bad news.

Mr. Ehrlich built a career pandering to these inclinations, starting with “The Population Bomb.” In 1970 he said that “if I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” That got the attention of Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist, who a decade later challenged Mr. Ehrlich to a wager.

It was structured as a commodities futures contract. Simon agreed to sell Mr. Ehrlich $200 each worth of chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten in 1990 at 1980 prices. The bet would pay off for Mr. Ehrlich if the metals became scarcer and thus costlier. On the settlement date, the total price had declined from $1,000 to $423.93. Mr. Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for the balance, $576.07.

While issuing one failed prognostication after another, Mr. Ehrlich went on to win a series of prestigious prizes. When the MacArthur Foundation gave him a “genius grant” in 1990, Simon quipped: “MacArthur! I can’t even get a McDonald’s!”

What does Mr. Ehrlich’s memoir say about the bet? The book isn’t out, but its index is already available on Amazon. Simon’s name doesn’t appear.

Blog Post | Food Prices

Eight Centuries of Increasing Food Abundance in England: Summary

Basic food commodities have become far cheaper, and virtually all workers have reaped the benefits.

Human progress is often incremental, but many positive trends have become clearly visible over time. One of these trends is the growing abundance of food. My recent series of articles looked at the affordability of food relative to wages in England between the 13th century and the present. It covered dairy (milk, butter, and cheese), meat (pork, mutton, and beef), baking (flour, sugar, and eggs), and grains (wheat, rice and oats).

Professor Gregory Clark of the University of California, Davis, has conducted extensive research into the economic history of England. As part of his research into the condition of the working class in England, Clark has developed an extensive data set containing nominal prices of goods and nominal wages of skilled and unskilled workers in England between the 13th and 19th centuries. Note: Clark assumes a 10-hour workday before 1720.

Using the concept of time prices developed by Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley, we calculated the number of hours that someone must work to earn enough money to buy a particular food item.

In this analysis, Clark’s nominal prices of food items served as the nominator, and nominal hourly wages, which come from Clark and from the UK Office of National Statistics’ Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, served as the denominator.

Figure 1: Compound annual growth rates for skilled and unskilled workers

For unskilled laborers, the compound annual growth rate of all the items analyzed increased from 0.19 percent on average before the 1860s (going back to 1200s for some commodities) to 1.38 percent since the 1860s.

Similarly, for skilled laborers, the compound annual growth rate increased from 0.17 percent on average before the 1860s (going back to 1200s for some commodities) to 1.37 percent since the 1860s.

Over the course of this series, we showed how workers have benefited hugely from the growth in wages since the Industrial Revolution. However, this growth has accelerated since the end of World War II. When basic food commodities became cheaper, all workers saw the benefits.

Many compare their circumstances in the present to others who are relatively better off. However, compared to almost any period in history, everyone has benefited as basic commodities became far more affordable.

Blog Post | Wellbeing

Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

How much progress?

Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 42

David Ansara: Unlocking Africa’s Potential

David Ansara, the Chief Executive of the Free Market Foundation, a South African think tank, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss progress and problems in Africa.