Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.CreditMicheline Pelletier/Sygma, via Getty Images
By Bret Stephens
Feb. 8, 2018
In 1919, the director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines offered a dire warning for the future. “Within the next two to five years the oil fields of this country will reach their maximum production, and from that time on we will face an ever-increasing decline.”
Nearly a century later, in July 2010, The Guardian ran a story with an ominous headline: “Lloyd’s adds its voice to dire ‘peak oil’ warnings.” Citing a report by the storied London insurer, the newspaper warned that businesses were “underestimating catastrophic consequences of declining oil,” including oil at $200 a barrel by 2013, a global supply crunch, and overall “economic chaos.”
I thought of these predictions on seeing the recent news that the United States is on the eve of breaking a 47-year production record by lifting more than 10 million barrels of crude a day. That’s roughly twice what the U.S. produced just a decade ago, and may even put us on track to overtake Saudi Arabia and even Russia as the world’s leading oil producer. As for global production, it rose by some 11 percent just since the Lloyd’s report, and by almost 200 percent since 1965.
Call it yet another case of Apocalypse Not. In his fascinating new book, “The Wizard and the Prophet,” Charles C. Mann notes that President Roosevelt — Teddy, not Franklin — called the “imminent exhaustion” of fossil fuels and other natural resources “the weightiest problem now before the nation.” Prior to that, Mann adds, there were expert forecasts that the world would soon run out of coal. Later on, the world became fixated on the fear of running out of food in the face of explosive population growth.
The wizard and the prophet of Mann’s title are, respectively, Norman Borlaug and William Vogt, the former the agronomist widely credited as the father of the Green Revolution, the latter the founder of what Hampshire College’s Betsy Hartmann calls “apocalyptic environmentalism.”
“In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem,” Mann writes. “Our prosperity is temporary, he said, because it is based on taking more from than earth than it can give. If we continue, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale, perhaps including our extinction.”
In our own day, people like Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein have made careers saying more or less the same thing. This is a world where the clock is permanently set at two minutes to midnight, and where only a radical transformation of modern society (usually combining dramatic changes in personal behavior along with a heavy dose of state intervention) can save us. Above all, the Vogtians say, we need less: less consumption, less stuff, fewer people, and so on.
Borlaug and the Borlaugians take a different view. It’s not that they see environmental threats as bogus: The world really would have suffered catastrophic famines if Borlaug hadn’t developed high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat. Oil is a finite resource, but whether reserves last 50 or 500 years will probably depend less on overall supply than on technologies to extract and use those reserves more efficiently.
The same goes for climate change, which will not be helped by some centrally planned, Chinese-style “Green Leap Forward,” but by a multitude of technological advances that in turn require a thriving capitalist economy to fund, develop, commercialize and make affordable. The foolish idea that capitalism is the enemy of the environment misses the point that environmentalism is itself a luxury that few poor countries can adequately afford. If you doubt this, contrast the air and water quality in New York City with that of any similar-sized city in the developing world.
I fall in the Borlaugian camp. That’s worth noting because one of the more tedious criticisms by the environmental left is that people like me “don’t care about the environment.” But imputing bad faith, stupidity or greed is always a lousy argument. Even conservatives want their children to breathe.
It also misses the point. As Mann notes, Borlaugians are environmentalists, too. They simply think the road to salvation lies not through making do with less, but rather through innovation and the conditions in which innovation tends to flourish, greater affluence and individual freedom most of all.
There’s also this: So far, the Borlaugians have mostly been right. To the extent that starvation is a phenomenon of recent decades — as in places like North Korea and Venezuela — it is mainly the result of gross political mismanagement, not ecological disaster. Peak oil keeps being defeated by frackers and deepwater explorers. As my colleague Nick Kristof recently pointed out, by most metrics of human welfare, the world keeps getting better with every passing year.
If environmental alarmists ever wonder why more people haven’t come around to their way of thinking, it isn’t because people like me occasionally voice doubts in newspaper op-eds. It’s because too many past predictions of imminent disaster didn’t come to pass. That isn’t because every alarm is false — many are all too real — but because our Promethean species has shown the will and the wizardry to master the challenge, at least when it’s been given the means to do so.