My friend John Baden of the Foundation for Research into Economics and the Environment reminds me that twenty years ago, the National Centre for Policy Analysis in Dallas commissioned a report on Environmental Myths and Realities. Nine of the ten myths focused on the consequences of consumer behaviour. The myths (and facts) included: Americans were especially wasteful (they weren't), packaging was bad (it isn't), recycling is always good (not always), biodegradable is best (not always), America's running out of landfill (twenty years on and it still isn't a problem), and we are running out of resources (er... we have more known oil reserves, for example, than we've ever had).
Twenty years ago, of course, most people were worried about the coming ice age and the population explosion. Today, it's warming, and population implosion – we in Europe are producing children at far less than the replacement rate, and on current trends the population of Russia will be down by a quarter come mid-century.
One of the interesting thing about problems is that they change. And for those that remain, people find fixes to them. As Baden will tell you, you don't run out of material resources when property rights are secure and the market is permitted to work – fostering discovery, substitution and conservation. 'Scarcity,' he says, 'has never won a race against creativity when marketable commodities are at issue.' The stone age didn't end because we ran out of stone, enterprising people just found better things to make tools of. No, the real problem is when people, for idealistic reasons, undermine the market system. Then you find out what shortages and ecological disasters are.