Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Magazine article The Spectator

The Spectator's Notes

Article excerpt

'It's a milestone round his neck', I heard a football manager saying on the Today programme. It was not what he meant to say, but it seems apposite to my own case, since I am writing this on my 50th birthday.

This bittersweet event gives me an egocentric framework in which to consider Sir Nicholas Stern's new report on climate change. I have no idea whether Sir Nicholas is right in his predictions about the level of global warming, or of the ill effects of that warming, or in his prescriptions for how to prevent it. But the passage of 50 years does make me question the confidence with which people predict such changes. The best example is population growth. When I was born, there were roughly 2.75 billion people in the world. Today, there are roughly 6.5 billion people. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, people -- often the sort of people who today worry most about climate change -- alleged that such a growth would produce the collapse of civilisation. The population guru Paul Ehrlich wrote, 'In the 1970s and 80s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death.' As a result, such people considered Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae encyclical of 1968 deeply wicked because they believed its rejection of artificial contraception condemned billions to poverty and an early grave. These people turn out to have been completely wrong. Far from undermining prosperity, the growth in the world's population has helped to drive it. Thanks to the modern farming methods so hated by environmentalists, it has become possible to feed the world efficiently wherever reasonably free economies are permitted to exist. I am grateful to Matt Ridley for drawing my attention to a study which shows that if we were to feed our current world population using the yields of 1961, we would need to cultivate 82 per cent of the world's land surface. As it is, though, modern agriculture allows us to manage by cultivating only 38 per cent. If only we would accept GM crops, we could succeed with much less. None of this means, necessarily, that population growth does not cause serious problems, but it ought to make one pause. In the case of global warming, the unanimity of so many scientists is very suspicious: it makes one feel that they are acting as a monopoly in their own interest (funds, power, publicity). Their sentences too often begin with the words 'The science says . . . ', as if that could be asserted absolutely. When governments start to act against climate change, the efficacy of what they do will be highly uncertain. What will be certain, however, will be higher taxes (moralistically enforced in a 'Don't you know there's a war on?' tone of voice) and a vast extension of bureaucratic power. Having survived 50 years of people prophesying doom, I feel tempted to walk round with a placard saying 'The End Is Not Nigh'.

'T he most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of its inhabitants, ' said Adam Smith, effectively predicting in 1776 what has so spectacularly come to pass in our lifetime. It is good news that the Bank of England is putting him on the £20 note, with the approval of Gordon Brown, another son of Kirkcaldy. I think Smith would have been highly impressed with the amazingly rapid circulation of currencies today, although he did warn about the 'Daedalian wings of paper money'. There is so much that he said to which Mr Brown should listen. …

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