Global Warnings

From global warming to the threat of terrorism, pesticides, and the loss of bio-diversity, the media pelt us with a constant barrage of one-sided warnings. We need to put all of these warnings in perspective, so that we can figure out which ones really should concern us, and when we should act on them.

You know how you are told to give your kids organic food because pesticides will give them cancer? Well, it’s technically true that there is a link between the chemicals and illness, but the risk is miniscule in any well-regulated country.

There is another threat that you haven’t been told much about. One of the best ways to avoid cancer is to eat lots of fruit and vegetables. Organic items are 10% or 20% more expensive than regular produce, so most of us naturally buy less when we “go organic.”

If you reduce your child’s intake of fruits and vegetables by just 0.03 grams a day (that’s the equivalent of half a grain of rice) when you opt for more expensive organic produce, the total risk of cancer goes up, not down. Omit buying just one apple every 20 years because you have gone organic, and your child is worse off.

My intention isn’t to scare people away from organic food. But we should hear both sides of any story.

Consider a tale that has made the covers of some of the world’s biggest magazines and newspapers: the plight of the polar bear. We are told that global warming will wipe out this majestic creature. We are not told, however, that over the past 40 years – while temperatures have risen – the global polar bear population has increased from 5,000 to 25,000.

Campaigners and the media claim that we should cut our CO2 emissions to save the polar bear. Well, then, let’s do the math. Let’s imagine that every country in the world – including the United States and Australia – were to sign the Kyoto Protocol and cut its CO2 emissions for the rest of this century. Looking at the best-studied polar bear population of 1,000 bears, in the West Hudson Bay, how many polar bears would we save in a year? Ten? Twenty? A hundred?

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Actually, we would save less than one-tenth of a polar bear.

If we really do care about saving polar bears, we could do something much simpler and more effective: ban hunting them. Each year, 49 bears are shot in the West Hudson Bay alone. So why don’t we stop killing 49 bears a year before we commit trillions of dollars to do hundreds of times less good?

From the promotion of organic food to declarations of the polar bear’s imminent demise, the media pelt us with a constant barrage of one-sided warnings. The list of urgent concerns is topped by global warming, but also includes terrorism, pesticides, and the loss of biodiversity – and seems to have virtually no end. All the while, we know of the terrible conditions that still face the majority of the world’s population, with more than a billion poor, two billion without electricity, and three billion without clean drinking water and sanitation.

Much of my work is to make sense of all these global warnings. I try to put them in perspective and figure out which ones really should concern us, and when we should act on them.

Perhaps surprisingly, not everything of concern should be dealt with immediately. If we don’t have a good way to fix a problem, it might be better to focus on something else first. After all, when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, it’s hard to worry about what global temperatures will be 100 years from now.

Things have improved immensely in both the developing and developed worlds. In the last 100 years, scientists have won many of the most important battles against infectious diseases, to the extent that poverty is now the main reason for a lack of treatment. Global average life expectancy in 1900 was 30 years; today, it is 68 years.

Food has become more plentiful and affordable, especially in the developing world, where calorie availability has increased by 40% per person over the past 40 years, while food prices have more than halved. Consequently, the proportion of hungry in the Third World has dropped from 50% in 1950 to less than 17% today, while worldwide incomes have increased more than three-fold.

Perhaps most importantly, all of these positive trends are expected to continue. The United Nations estimates that average life expectancy will reach 75 years by the middle of the century, and that the proportion of those going hungry will drop below 4%.

By the close of the century, incomes will have increased six-fold in industrialized countries and 12-fold in developing countries, making the average person in the developing world richer in 2100 than the average American or European is today. The number of poor will drop from a billion to less than five million.

None of this means we should stop worrying about the future. But it does mean that we can quit panicking and start thinking calmly to ensure that we focus on the right issues. Global alarm bells might cause pangs of guilt for wealthy Westerners, but they don’t give us an adequate understanding of what’s going on. We all need to hear both sides of the story.