This list of Frequently Asked Questions is intended for people who
(a) are concerned about global and humanitarian problems, or
(b) are wondering if civilization is likely to collapse in the near future.
This FAQ is my attempt to sort out a coherent view of the big picture from the mass of conflicting information that's available. Most of our awareness of global issues comes from television, but I think that television doesn't help much when trying to understand these issues -- it gives the impression that the world's just a huge mess, that governments are ineffective or corrupt, and there's nothing we can do about it. I find that print materials (e.g. books) are much better at explaining complex issues in detail.
I'm not an expert on these issues; these are my personal views, based on what I've read. However, I do try to present evidence to back up my arguments, and to consider alternative viewpoints. I also try to avoid simplistic explanations, blaming, and other forms of escapism.
1. Which global problems are most important?
2. Nuclear war
3. Environmental sustainability
5. Other views of the big picture
In particular, the US and Russia have very large nuclear arsenals: as of March 2002, they each have more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, down from more than 25,000 each at the height of the Cold War.
Finally, there's the possibility that a sub-state group such as al-Qaeda might acquire nuclear weapons.
But it's hard to imagine the world being destroyed using conventional weapons, whereas it's relatively easy to imagine using nuclear weapons. Why is that?
Since your opponent has the ability to retaliate, it doesn't make sense to use your nuclear weapons: this would be mutual suicide.
But at the same time, if you rule out using your nuclear weapons in advance (or unilaterally disarm), your opponent can launch a nuclear strike against you without fear of retaliation.
So your choices are suicide or surrender.
If more countries acquire nuclear weapons, this dynamic between potential adversaries could put the world in an extremely dangerous position.
In the meantime, it makes sense for the US to continue to negotiate bilateral reductions--including provisions for verification--with Russia. (Unilateral reductions are faster, since prolonged negotiations aren't required, but there's no way to verify any unilateral reductions that Russia makes.)
The main deterrent that the US would need to maintain as long as other countries have nuclear weapons is probably its submarine-launched missiles, since these can't be destroyed by a first strike. You'd only need a few of these to provide an effective deterrent.
Note: This assumes that the existing NATO and US-Japan alliances remain in place, maintaining the balance of power in Europe (between Western Europe and Russia) and in Asia (between Japan, China, and Russia). For more information, see George Kennan, Around the Cragged Hill, pp. 194-198. Kennan is a historian and former State Department official, best known for formulating the Cold War doctrine of containment; he has some very interesting things to say about US foreign policy.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (which came into effect in 1970) was extended indefinitely in 1995. It makes it more difficult for countries without nuclear weapons to acquire them.
The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (signed in 1996) reinforces the NPT: without nuclear testing, you can't design nuclear weapons. The treaty has not been ratified by the US (the US Senate voted against it in October 1999).
The US is currently working on a National Missile Defense system which would be able to intercept incoming ballistic missiles. So far NMD tests haven't been going very well. In addition, there's concerns that the NMD would violate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (in effect since 1972), under which the US and Russia both agree not to deploy a national missile shield, and that the NMD could destabilize the current nuclear balance, e.g. by causing China to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal.
Ratification of the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.
Funding Russian efforts to decommission nuclear weapons and keep track of nuclear warheads.
Tighter controls over disposal of nuclear waste from nuclear reactors.
The carrying capacity of an ecosystem is the maximum population that it can support indefinitely. When this maximum is exceeded, the carrying capacity degrades rapidly. It's quite possible that we may exceed the sustainable carrying capacity for some period of time (drawing down resources); eventually a population crash will result.
It's probably best to think about the state of individual countries, rather than the world as a whole, for two reasons. First, it's quite possible that some countries are exceeding their carrying capacity (either because of over-consumption or over-population), while others are not. Second, policies to control population size and consumption are best carried out at the national level, rather than the international level; international cooperation is very limited. We don't have a world government, and we're not likely to get one.
Another way of looking at it is that our economy depends on a physical resource base: agricultural land, clean water, oil. If we destroy this resource base, either through over-consumption or over-population, our economy and our society will collapse.
For an ugly example, see the article "Easter Island's End", by Jared Diamond (physiologist and evolutionary biologist, author of the Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel).
Briefly, Easter Island was initially forested, and the first Polynesian settlers depended on the trees to build canoes, which they could use to hunt dolphins for food. Eventually, all of the trees were cut down. As a result, food supply crashed, and so did the population--it dropped by as much as 90%, with the islanders resorting to cannibalism.
Basically, the trees were harvested as if they were a non-renewable resource.
Here's what the ecologists say, from http://www.ire.ubc.ca/ecoresearch/ecoftpr.html:
The ecological footprint is an accounting tool for ecological resources. Categories of human consumption are translated into areas of productive land required to provide resources and assimilate waste products. The ecological footprint is a measure of how sustainable our life-styles are.Also see http://www.rprogress.org/resources/nip/ef/deficittable1_nations.html for a country-by-country breakdown.
... Preliminary estimates show that the ecological footprint of today's consumption in food, forestry products and fossil fuels alone might already exceed global carrying capacity by roughly 30%. About 3/4 of the current consumption goes to the 1.1 billion people who live in affluence, while 1/4 of the consumption remains for the other 4.6 billion people.
And here's what the economists say. William Nordhaus, "Lethal model 2: The limits to growth revisited," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 1992 Issue 2:
In short, the data on real input resource prices do not indicate that major appropriable resources have taken a major turn toward scarcity during the last century... But what about the future? Is the power of exponential growth of population, energy use, and pollution leading humanity into an inevitable rendezvous with catastrophe?Also see http://mit.edu/krugman/www/BACKWRD2.html.
I have repeatedly emphasized that our estimates are crude, the models are primitive, the future is uncertain, and our ignorance is vast. But it is hardly interesting to say we don't know, so I will hazard the guess that resource constraints are likely to be a small but noticeable impediment to economic growth over the next few decades in advanced industrial countries--although an obstacle that will continue to be surmounted by technological advance.
On the basis of current knowledge about identified economic, geological, and environmental factors, I estimate that the resource slowdown will be on the order of one-third of one percentage point a year between now and the middle of the next century . This compares with an estimated growth of output per capita of around 1.5 percent a year over the last century in advanced industrial countries. It would take either a massive slowdown in productivity growth or a massive underestimate of the constraints to growth before the resource constraints would actually produce a decline in global living standards.
Who's right? It's hard to say. We should be seeing rising prices as resources become scarcer. Recently, we've been seeing sharply higher energy prices; other than that, commodity prices have been pretty low. But it's quite possible that we're using too much fresh water and emitting too much carbon dioxide; they're not traded as commodities, as far as I know.
It seems unwise to take the optimistic view at this point. We should be starting to take precautions, in case the biologists are right.
From the Economist, April 5, 2001:
The alleged uncertainties of climate science are not a justification for Mr Bush’s actions. It is notable that even such heavyweight companies as Ford, BP and Royal Dutch/Shell, all of which opposed Kyoto, have since shifted their positions towards supporting its general aims, if not its specific targets. This is because they recognise that the overwhelming consensus among the climate scientists is that global warming is real, that its effects will eventually be damaging or even catastrophic, and that the evidence of man’s role in it is strong enough to warrant some action now.For more detailed information, see The Human Impact on the Natural Environment (4th edition, 1993), by Andrew Goudie. It's a geography textbook, but it's quite readable. Goudie appears to be fairly objective, giving coverage to a range of opinions on controversial issues such as global warming, while making it clear what the majority scientific opinion is. Also has interesting material on deforestation and desertification.
The chief authority on this matter is the UN’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, which includes most of the world’s leading climate scientists. In the group’s latest and most alarming assessment, it said that the earth could warm up by between 1.4°C and 5.8°C over the next century. Sceptics have tried to rubbish this prediction, pointing out that the IPCC gives no indication of relative probabilities for that range. Now, a team of (comparatively sceptical) experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led by Henry Jacoby has completed that elaborate number-crunching exercise (see chart 1). By their reckoning, the median rise in temperature that the world can expect, if no action is taken, is a troubling 2.5°C.
And we're consuming a lot more than we need to. How much more? According to political scientist Ronald Inglehart, there's very little correlation between per-capita income and subjective well-being above US $6000 per year. See http://wvs.isr.umich.edu/images/papers/genes2.gif for a visual summary from the World Values Survey.
So how do you save more money? Having a budget and sticking to it would be a great start. I know, it seems totally prosaic and hardly worthwhile in the grand scheme of things, but if it helps you to decide to drive a smaller, less expensive car, or to keep taking the bus for a while, or to live in a smaller house, or to adopt some energy-saving measures, that's worth something. (Besides which, you should be saving more for your retirement anyway, right?)
If you don't already have a budget, the best advice I've seen on setting up a budget is the chapter in The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias.
From the standpoint of an individual consumer or business, not having to pay for environmental costs (e.g. air pollution) is equivalent to receiving a subsidy. The simplest way to ensure that consumers and businesses take these costs into account is to use environmental taxes.
Both orthodox economists such as Paul Krugman (http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/green.html) and more environmentally concerned economists such as Herman Daly (http://www.dieoff.org/page64.htm) agree on this.
The underlying problem is that when natural resources are extracted, the resources are counted as income. This is a mistake, in the same way that counting a withdrawal from a bank account as income would be a mistake. Setting limits on the rate of resource extraction would solve this problem.
According to the US Department of Energy, oil production will peak between 2030 and 2050 (http://www.eia.doe.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/presentations/2000/long_term_supply/sld001.htm). This doesn't mean that we'll run out of it, just that it'll become more and more expensive.
This should cause usage to drop, and substitutes to be developed. But it may still be painful--the reason that oil is so widely used is that it's cheaper than any of the current alternatives.
The example that comes to mind is China's one-child policy, but there's less coercive policies that could be used to discourage population growth, such as Singapore's "Two is Enough" campaign, or even programs to educate girls (increased female literacy appears to reduce birth rates).
See Amartya Sen's article Population: Delusion and Reality for a forceful argument against coercive population control.
For poor, overpopulated countries, improving agricultural productivity (in a sustainable way) is another key issue.
Over the next century, the countries that seem most at risk for overpopulation are in Africa and South Asia, although population growth is slowing in most countries. (World population quadrupled from 1.5 billion in 1900 to 6 billion in 2000; over the next century, it's expected to grow by 3-4 billion, not to quadruple again.)
At these income levels, people typically lack access to basic health services and clean water; they may also be malnourished. As a result, they suffer from low life expectancy, high child mortality, and diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
For country-by-country numbers, see the World Bank's World Development Report 2000/2001, Table 2: Quality of life. Note that China and Sri Lanka do a better job of providing basic health and education than most poor countries.
Wars and natural disasters also increase the miseries of poor people. As of June 2001, there's fighting in Congo (involving no less than six countries), Angola, Sierra Leone (and Guinea and Liberia), Sudan, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka.
According to Michael Ignatieff (The Warrior's Honor), we have a range of moral responsibilities. The strongest ones are towards those closest to us, our family and friends (and ourselves); the weakest ones are towards strangers. But we do have obligations to help strangers if we can, weak as these obligations may be. And the horrors of the twentieth century have shown that there are situations where people are severed from those who could normally help them, and are at the mercy of strangers--that is, us.
Bruce Cockburn has a song along these lines: Call It Democracy.
This argument ignores the massive efforts after World War II and decolonization to develop the economies of the poor countries, through institutions such as the UN, the World Bank, and the IMF. (Particularly during the Cold War, the US had a strong incentive to maintain stability and to demonstrate the benefits of capitalism.) People were optimistic that after decolonization, the former colonies would be able to catch up quickly.
The four "Asian tigers" (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore) achieved spectacular economic growth during the 1960s and 1970s, following policies based on high savings rates, expansion of basic education, and export-oriented manufacturing. Later, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and China followed suit. But the policies that were put in place in many other countries, such as India--import substitution, centralized government regulation and planning--simply didn't work.
But it's simply untrue that foreign aid never works. The Marshall Plan worked. The reconstruction of Japan after World War II worked. Micro-credit works. Expert advice sometimes works. Dr. Norman Borlaug's agricultural research has saved hundreds of millions of people from famine.
A variation on this argument is that we should do nothing because reducing mortality in poor countries only aggravates overpopulation in those countries, thus making problems worse; in the long run, it'd be better to let disease and hunger enforce limits on population growth.
But poverty, child mortality, and fertility are not independent of each other: as child mortality is reduced, female literacy increases, and consumption increases, people start having fewer children. Access to better health services can be coupled with controls on population growth, such as government programs to encourage the use of birth control.
The results have been disappointing. Manufacturers haven't become efficient enough to be competitive without tariff barriers, for a number of reasons: lack of skilled labor, lack of management skills, social disorganization, small market size.
Paul Krugman and Maurice Obstfeld (International Economics) point out that this story is too simple. Except for Hong Kong, the Asian tigers haven't had free trade, and they've had plenty of government involvement in the economy. Their tariff levels have been relatively low (estimated to be 24% in 1985), but not much lower than in sub-Saharan Africa (34%).
Krugman and Obstfeld suggest that the growth of the Asian tigers is better explained by their very high savings rates, which supported high investment rates, along with massive improvements in basic education. But the story is still unclear.
So establishing political and social stability is very important, perhaps more important than anything else.
Conversely, without savings--if consumption exceeds production--a country can easily borrow its way into huge debts.
Despite its poverty, India hasn't had a major famine since independence.
You need political stability and social cohesion. This has been a particular problem for sub-Saharan Africa.
You need to be following the right policies. Even with honest, dedicated leadership, if your leaders are following the wrong policies, you won't get very far. That's what happened to Tanzania, for example.
The rich countries could be giving more foreign aid. There's a target of 0.7% of GDP which was agreed upon in 1970; as of 1999, only the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway met the target. Most of the rich countries have never reached this target.
There isn't enough demand for pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs for diseases that primarily affect poor countries, such as malaria or sleeping sickness. It doesn't make sense for a pharmaceutical company to develop a new drug unless it'll produce annual sales of $350 million. (The Economist, August 14, 1999.) Rich countries could help by offering to buy such drugs when they're developed, providing a guaranteed market.
India started economic reforms 10 years ago. It's struggling, but the reforms appear to be making a difference. http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/TotW/India.html
Sub-Saharan Africa is still suffering from political instability, and AIDS is making things worse. There's some bright spots, such as Botswana and Uganda. http://www.worldbank.org/research/aid/africa/intro.htm
$Date: 2002/03/09 16:40:08 $