Russil Wvong / Politics / Global issues FAQ

Global Issues FAQ

by Russil Wvong

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

4. Poverty

5. Other views of the big picture

1. Which global problems are most important?

I'd say the following:
  1. Nuclear war.
  2. The environment.
  3. Poverty.

2. Nuclear war

Why is nuclear war still a threat?

The risk of nuclear war is much lower, now that the Cold War is over. But there's still seven or eight countries with nuclear weapons: the US, Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel. There's also countries which are working towards nuclear capability: Iran, North Korea, Libya.

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.

Are nuclear weapons any more dangerous than conventional weapons?

  1. Some people argue that nuclear weapons are no more dangerous than conventional weapons. They point out that during World War II, the Allies destroyed Dresden and Tokyo using non-nuclear bombs.

    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?

  2. Nuclear weapons have two characteristics: (a) they cause massive and indiscriminate destruction, and (b) there's no effective defense against them, except for massive retaliation.

    Which is how we got to where we are today, with the US and Russia each having thousands of nuclear weapons in their arsenals, enough to kill everyone in the world several times over.

    If more countries acquire nuclear weapons, this dynamic between potential adversaries could put the world in an extremely dangerous position.

Does the US need nuclear weapons or not?

Not if it were possible to ban them, and to verify that no country had them. The US doesn't have any rivals which are capable of seriously challenging the US military using conventional weapons. A verifiable ban on nuclear weapons would increase US security considerably--the US is much more vulnerable to nuclear attack than to conventional attack.

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.

What's happening now?

Both the US and Russia have reduced the size of their nuclear arsenals considerably since the end of the Cold War. Under the START II treaty (signed by George Bush and Boris Yeltsin in January 1993, ratified by the US Senate in January 1996 and by the Russian Duma in April 2000), both the US and Russia will reduce their strategic nuclear weapons to no more than 3500 warheads by December 2007.

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.

What else could be done to reduce the risk of nuclear war?

Taking nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.

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.

3. The environment

Is it really possible to destroy the environment?

The danger isn't that we'll completely destroy the ability of the environment to support life, or even human life. The danger is that we may be exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment.

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.

So are we exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment, or not?

It depends on whether you pay more attention to economists or biologists. Economists tend to be optimistic; biologists tend to be pessimistic.

Here's what the ecologists say, from

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.

... 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.

Also see for a country-by-country breakdown.

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?

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 [2050]. 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.

Also see

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.

Won't economic growth take care of the problem?

It's been argued (e.g. by Julian Simon) that for practical purposes, our resources are infinite, because of continuous technological improvements. I'm skeptical that technical progress will continue indefinitely, because of the problem of diminishing returns: the easiest problems are solved first (e.g. wheelbarrows), and the remaining problems will get harder and harder. As the Economist points out (December 31, 1999, pp. 10-14), perceptible economic growth is a phenomenon that's only occurred over the last 250 years; to expect it to continue indefinitely seems unwarranted.

Is climate change really a serious problem?

Even the Economist, which is fairly skeptical when it comes to predictions of doom, accepts that global warming is happening, and that measures to reduce carbon emissions are needed now, as an insurance policy if nothing else.

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.

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.

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.

What should rich countries be doing to reduce over-consumption?

  1. At the individual level, I think the most important thing we each could do to protect the environment would be to spend less and to SAVE MORE MONEY. Spending = consumption of natural resources.

    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 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.

  2. At the national level, we should be using taxes to charge households and businesses for environmental costs, such as carbon emissions; and reducing income taxes by an offsetting amount.

    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 ( and more environmentally concerned economists such as Herman Daly ( agree on this.

  3. Herman Daly further argues in The Steady-State Economy that natural resource extraction should be limited to fixed levels, using tradable permits which are auctioned off.

    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.

  4. We should also be encouraging energy conservation, and putting more money into research on alternative energy sources.

    According to the US Department of Energy, oil production will peak between 2030 and 2050 ( 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.

  5. Some other actions that would be useful: strengthening regulations to protect endangered species; harvesting renewable resources (such as timber) at a sustainable rate; more public education and environmental awareness.

  6. And finally, something completely different: science fiction writer Bruce Sterling suggests that instead of scolding people into reducing their consumption, we should offer a visionary, glamorous lifestyle which happens to be environmentally friendly, one in which social status isn't based on burning carbon. See

What should poor countries be doing to reduce over-population?

It's up to the individual countries to decide, since they're the ones who have to deal with the environmental consequences. It's difficult to imagine the people of a country accepting population control forced on them by outsiders.

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.)

4. Poverty

Which countries suffer the most from poverty?

According to the World Bank, there's 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty, on less than $1 a day. They're primarily in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and China.

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.

How much should we care?

There's basically three possible answers.

  1. The first answer is that we should try to help when we can, but that the primary responsibility for improving the lives of people in poor countries rests with the leaders of those countries. They're the ones who are best positioned to act effectively.

    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.

  2. A second answer is that the rich countries are largely responsible for poverty, through past imperialism and colonialism, unfair trade, interest payments on past loans, and the IMF's structural adjustment programs. This analysis is basically Marxist, with the poor countries in the role of the proletariat being exploited by the bourgeoisie. It's sometimes coupled with calls for radical restructuring of the global economic system.

    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.

  3. A third answer, from critics of foreign aid such as Michael Maren (The Road to Hell) or Graham Hancock (The Lords of Poverty), is that we should do nothing, that foreign aid can never help, it can only make things worse.

    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.

What should poor countries be doing?

  1. In the 1950s and 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that poor countries should industrialize through import substitution, using tariff barriers or import quotas as a temporary measure to protect new manufacturing industries. (Historically, manufacturing in the US, Germany, and Japan developed behind such barriers.)

    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.

  2. The current conventional wisdom is that the success of the Asian tigers is due to free trade and foreign investment. This implies that poor countries need to open up and liberalize their economies, reducing government control and regulation.

    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.

  3. In fact, it's difficult to come up with a general prescription for most poor countries. Circumstances are different for each country. Still, the following factors seem to be important:

For a description of how the Singaporean government dealt with these issues starting from the mid-1960s, see The Singapore Story, by Lee Kuan Yew.

What about famines?

Amartya Sen (Development as Freedom) has found that famines don't occur because there's no food; they occur because people don't have enough income to buy food. To prevent famine from occurring, you need to replace the income of the people who are at risk of starving. This is surprisingly easy to do, because the people who are most at risk are very, very poor, and replacing their income is cheap.

Despite its poverty, India hasn't had a major famine since independence.

Why has progress been so slow?

To make progress, you need a government that's effective and that's committed to improving the well-being of its people. Without such a government, all the aid in the world isn't going to help.

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.

What should rich countries be doing to help?

Mostly removing obstacles. High levels of foreign debt, for example. (Debt and interest payments from the poor countries to the rich countries exceed foreign aid flowing in the other direction.) Trade barriers which protect farmers in rich countries, at the expense of farmers in poor countries, are another 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.

What's the situation now?

China's been doing pretty well. Since Deng Xiaoping opened up China's economy in 1978, it's been growing rapidly. 270 million people have been lifted out of absolute poverty. (The Economist, March 10, 2001.)

India started economic reforms 10 years ago. It's struggling, but the reforms appear to be making a difference.

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.

5. Other views of the big picture

Other websites:

Some books which look at the future, covering the spectrum from gloomy to very gloomy:

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Created: 2001/06/28
$Date: 2002/03/09 16:40:08 $