How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World?: A Scorecard from 1900 to 2050, edited by Bjørn Lomborg (Cambridge University Press, 401 pp., $34.99)
Bjørn Lomborg is well-known as a climate “skeptic.” He has frequently voiced concerns that money spent battling climate change could shift scarce resources away from more urgent global problems, such as malaria and HIV/AIDS. But the most recent book by the self-proclaimed “skeptical environmentalist” does more than just voice concern; it attempts to evaluate the damage caused by a variety of problems—from climate change to malnutrition to war—and project future costs related to these same issues. In How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World?, Lomborg and a group of economists conclude that, with a few exceptions, the world is richer, freer, healthier, and smarter than it’s ever been. These gains have coincided with the near-universal rejection of statism and the flourishing of capitalist principles. At a time when political figures such as New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and religious leaders such as Pope Francis frequently remind us about the evils of unfettered capitalism, this is a worthwhile message.
The doubling of human life expectancy is one of the most remarkable achievements of the past century. Consider, Lomborg writes, that “the twentieth century saw life expectancy rise by about 3 months for every calendar year.” The average child in 1900 could expect to live to just 32 years old; now that same child should make it to 70. This increase came during a century when worldwide economic output, driven by the spread of capitalism and freedom, grew by more than 4,000 percent. These gains occurred in developed and developing countries alike; among men and women; and even in a sense among children, as child mortality plummeted.
Why are we living so much longer? Massive improvements in public health certainly played an important role. The World Health Organization’s global vaccination efforts essentially eradicated smallpox. But this would have been impossible without the innovative methods of vaccine preservation developed in the private sector by British scientist Leslie Collier. Oral rehydration therapies and antibiotics have also been instrumental in reducing child mortality. Simply put, technological progress is the key to these gains—and market economies have liberated, and rewarded, technological innovation.
People are not just living longer, but better—sometimes with government’s help, and sometimes despite it. Even people in the developing countries of Africa and Latin America are better educated and better fed than ever before. Hundreds of thousands of children who would have died during previous eras due to malnutrition are alive today. Here, we can thank massive advancements in agricultural production unleashed by the free market. In the 1960s, privately funded agricultural researchers bred new, high-yield strains of corn, wheat, and various other crops thanks to advances in molecular genetics. Globalization helped spread these technologies to developing countries, which used them not only to feed their people, but also to become export powerhouses. This so-called “green revolution” reinforced both the educational progress (properly nourished children tend to learn more) and the life-expectancy gains (better nutrition leads to better health) of the twentieth century. These children live in a world with fewer armed conflicts, netting what the authors call a “peace dividend.” Globalization and trade liberalization have surely contributed to this more peaceful world (on aggregate). An interdependent global economy makes war costly.
Of course, problems remain. As Lomborg points out, most foreign aid likely does little to boost economic welfare, yet hundreds of billions of dollars in “development assistance” continue to flow every year from developed countries to the developing world. Moreover, climate change is widely projected to intensify in the second half of the twenty-first century, and will carry with it a significant economic cost. But those familiar with the prior work of the “skeptical environmentalist” understand that ameliorating these effects over time could prove wasteful. Lomborg notes that the latest research on climate change estimates a net cost of 0.2 to 2 percent of GDP from 2055 to 2080. The same report points out that in 2030, mitigation costs may be as high as 4 percent of GDP. Perhaps directing mitigation funding to other priorities—curing AIDS for instance—would be a better use of the resources.
Lomborg’s main message? Ignore those pining for the “good old days.” Thanks to the immense gains of the past century, there has never been a better time to be alive.
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