Cooking the books for a better environment

Published September 1, 2002

In early July, the World Wildlife Fund issued a report warning that mankind is strip-mining the Earth so rapidly we’ll be forced to colonize two additional planets by 2050 to support current trends in resource consumption.

The press, predictably, went wild, and global politicians—gearing up for the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development taking place in Johannesburg on August 26-September 4—intoned that the end was nigh lest we change our wicked western ways.

But a close look at the report—”Living Planet Report 2002″—suggests something else: that cooked books and fraudulent accounting are not the exclusive purview of corporate CEOs.

The WWF offers a “Living Planet Index” by which it purports to measure the health of the world’s ecosystems. The index is an average of three other indexes, which purport to measure the abundance of various forestland, freshwater, and marine animal species. According to WWF, the “Living Planet Index” declined by 37 percent between 1970 and 2000.

But take a closer look: The WWF arbitrarily chose 282 species populations to represent forest ecosystem health, 195 species to represent freshwater ecosystem health, and 217 species to represent coastal ecosystem health. There are a lot more species than that. Why did they choose some species as indicators and not others? The report doesn’t say.

Even worse, the report doesn’t specify which species were chosen as indicators. The opportunity for mischief immediately becomes obvious. Choose whitetail deer as an indicator and American forestlands look pretty darn healthy. Choose wolves as your species indicator and forests look like they’re going to hell.

The bigger question, however, is why measure environmental health by an arbitrary selection of animal population data? There are, after all, a number of equally plausible alternatives.

We could measure the amount of the planet covered by forestland (it’s increasing). We could measure trends in water pollution (it’s going down). We could measure ecosystem health by plant populations (there are far more plants than animals, and plants are even more fundamental to the food chain). We could measure trends in the diversity of life within these ecosystems (it remains essentially unchanged). We could measure the availability of resources produced by these ecosystems (price data illustrate growing resource abundance, not increasing scarcity, across the board).

Finally, why exclude a discussion of something like air quality from what purports to be a “Living Planet Index”? Probably because air quality is rapidly improving throughout the world and has been doing so for as far back as the data go—an inconvenient fact if you’re in the doomsday business.

The real selling point of “Living Planet Report 2002,” however, is its purported measurement of the ecological “footprint” of the human race. Our footprint is defined as the total area of the planet used by mankind to produce food, energy, and infrastructural services. According to the WWF, “human consumption of natural resources” in 1999 “overshot the Earth’s biological carrying capacity by about 20 percent.” This, of course, would be a neat trick if it were true.

The WWF reports correctly that the amount of the planet mankind uses for growing crops, grazing animals, harvesting timber, fishing, and supporting various human infrastructure has more or less remained constant over the past 40 years (about 35 percent of the planet’s surface). But the amount of land the WWF claims is used to produce energy has doubled over 40 years, twice as much as is used to feed the planet’s hungry masses.

But the WWF didn’t simply calculate how much land is being used to produce oil, gas, and coal (which is, in fact, trivial). It calculated how much forestland is necessary to absorb all the carbon dioxide emitted from fossil fuels. By only the wildest stretch of the imagination can one discern a human “footprint” in wild and uninhabited forests sucking-up carbon dioxide (which, after all, is plant food). If anything, those emissions are contributing to forest health by fertilizing them mightily, an argument made convincingly by Sylvan Wittwer, former chairman of the National Research Council’s Board on Agriculture.

It’s this bogus “footprint” calculation that is used to project mankind’s alleged need for two new planets by 2050.

And even if we accept the footprint calculation, projecting it into the future assumes the world’s resources are fixed and finite. Mankind has proven extraordinarily capable of turning non-arable land into arable land, increasing yields from existing cropland and forests, and inventing new resources out of thin air with routine advances in science, technology, and production innovations. The declining inflation-adjusted prices of virtually all resources in the marketplace tell the real story.

There’s plenty of room to argue public policy could be more environmentally sensitive. But there’s no need to cook the books in order to scare mankind into joining a Green doomsday cult.

Jerry Taylor is director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute,