The Real Environmental Crisis Part 2




UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS                       2003


Introduction: A Crisis of Pessimism (Cont.)

The environmental legacy of Vietnam

Although the influence of science on the environmental movement remained strong during the 1960s and 1970s, the influence of politics became even stronger. This was the era of the Vietnam War, a time when distrust of government, always endemic in the American psyche, reached new heights. In this period, during which the environmental mantra “small is beautiful” became popular, people’s distrust extended beyond government to almost all large institutions. In particular, major technology corporations were increasingly perceived as remote and unresponsive, essentially enemies of the people. During the so-called energy crisis of the 1970s the distrust was directed especially against the major oil companies, which the media portrayed as largely responsible for the gasoline shortages accompanying the 1973 Arab oil producers’ boycott. Another target of distrust was the large electric utilities, which at that time were heavily engaged in constructing power plants, including nuclear power plants, to meet the nation’s rapidly growing use of electricity.

  • A major victim of the public’s loss of trust was the institution of science and technology itself. Awe of science and scientists gave way to distrust during the Vietnam period.


Transformation to pessimism

The Vietnam period also saw the beginnings of change in the image of environmentalism, from champion of nature’s grandeur and source of optimism and vision to its current sense of doom and gloom about the earth’s future. In the new environmental politics, “pro-environment” has become increasingly identified with anti-technology attitudes and, especially, with antinuclear politics. Starting in Europe, opposition to nuclear-generated electricity has long been a principal plank in the platforms of the Green political parties. And the U.S. Green Party’s 2000 platform called for “early retirement of nuclear power reactors”; a national shift away from “corporate industrial farming,” which it labeled as “biodevastation”; and rejection of agreements encouraging trade liberalization, such as the World Trade Organization, which it portrays as “run by corporate interests unaccountable to public input or even legal challenge.”

  • Technological innovation enabled by affluence and freedom has been a major source of the environmental progress already made by industrial societies, and the global penetration of innovative technologies will most likely be a crucial ingredient for achieving a future sustainable environment throughout the world.
  • Doomsday pronouncements contain grains of truth embedded in a sea of exaggeration.
  • Without jumping ahead into the details of the scientific subjects they encompass, which is the task of subsequent chapters, I assert here that broad-brush statements mislead the public and, in some instances, are scientifically inaccurate.
  • They usually represent the earth’s productive capacity as rapidly diminishing, which is not the case. They usually represent population growth as a global threat, which is not the case. And they usually represent global warming as definitely linked to human activities, which has not been established.
  • Countering such environmental pessimism with a factual basis for environmental optimism is one of the objectives of this book.


Optimism, not inaction

Please do not misunderstand me. Espousing optimism about the environment does not imply being complacent or sweeping environmental problems under the rug. On the contrary, optimism implies a “can do” attitude that makes success in dealing with such problems more likely. Despair and inaction are more likely to arise from pessimism about the future than from optimism. Nor does environmental optimism equate with denial. Of course, real environmental concerns are still with us. They always have been, and they always will be. As long as humans, imperfect species that we are, live together in this increasingly interdependent global village, there will be problems arising from people’s activities and interactions, as well as risks arising from human adventures and technological innovations. The environment is no exception. Although, obviously, not all environmental problems are caused by human activities, humans everywhere bear a collective responsibility to care for this planet as best we can, on the basis of the scientific knowledge we have.

  • Scientists, specialist organizations (whether representing environmental or other interests), and the media have a collective responsibility not to cross the line separating truth, however well or poorly known, from self-serving rhetoric.
  • Unfortunately, by exaggerating many environmental problems far out of proportion to the actual or potential threats they may pose to society’s future, the purveyors of doomsday rhetoric create a climate of confusion and fear about the environment among a citizenry inadequately equipped with the scientific background needed to calibrate such rhetoric.

Environmental exaggeration also emanates on occasion from political leaders. In his book Earth in the Balance, former vice-president Al Gore states that climate change is “the most serious threat we’ve ever faced,” and “Our insatiable drive to rummage deep beneath the surface of the earth, remove all of the coal, petroleum, and other fossil fuels we can find, then burn them as quickly as they are found – in the process filling the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other pollutants – is a willful expansion of our dysfunctional civilization into vulnerable parts of the natural world.” In contrast to the book’s extreme rhetoric, Gore’s actual voting record on environmental issues in the Senate was centrist.

  • With environmental matters, as with most others, informed discussion is the key to effective decision making in a democratic society.
  • I believe that a truthfully informed public is more likely than a fearful public to be supportive of meaningful responses.


Environment of the poor

People living in poverty perceive the environment very differently from the affluent. To the world’s poor – several billion people – the principal environmental problems are local, not global. They are not the stuff of media headlines or complicated scientific theories. They are mundane, pervasive, and painfully obvious:

HUNGER – chronic undernourishment of a billion children and adults caused not only by scarcity of food resources but by poverty, war, and government tyranny and incompetence.

CONTAMINATED WATER SUPPLIES – a major cause of chronic disease and mortality in the third world.

DISEASES – rampant in the poorest countries. Most could be easily eradicated by modern medicine, while others, including the AIDS epidemic in Africa, could be mitigated by effective public health programs and drug treatments available to the affluent.

SCARCITY – insufficient local supplies of fuelwood and other resources, owing not to intrinsic scarcity but to generations of overexploitation and underreplenishment as part of the constant struggle for survival.

LACK OF EDUCATION AND SOCIAL INEQUALITY, ESPECIALLY OF WOMEN – lack of education resulting from high birthrates and increasing the difficulty for families to escape from the dungeons of poverty.

The challenges for overcoming global poverty are immense and cannot be overstated. How then can this writer be optimistic about the environmental future, given that poverty and a degraded environment are so inextricably intertwined? My optimism arises from several strongly held convictions.

First, my conviction that there is an absolute human obligation, increasingly recognized by people everywhere, that the world must lift its poor out of poverty.  In spite of the ubiquitous forces of selfishness, ignorance, and tyranny working to perpetuate poverty and inequality, progress is being made – halting and slow but real nonetheless. In developing countries, a child born today can expect to live 8 years longer than one born 30 years ago. Five times more rural families have access to safe water, and average incomes have almost doubled.

Second, my conviction that the vicious and self-perpetuating cycle that connects poverty and environmental degradation can best be broken by attacking and eliminating the source of the problem – poverty.

Third, my conviction, based on history and science, that affluence and freedom are friends to the environment, indeed, that the road to affluence and freedom provides the only practical pathway to achieving a sustainable future environment.

These convictions provide the motivation and intellectual foundation for this book.

With history as our guide, we can be confident that today’s poor people, as they begin climbing the economic ladder and enjoying some measure of freedom, will attend first to basic personal and family problems of sustenance and health, just as yesterday’s poor did. With the increase of freedom and affluence – both are crucial – people are then likely to become motivated and increasingly able to apply the necessary political will, economic resources, and technological ingenuity to address environmental issues more broadly.

  • Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, there is no inherent conflict between a healthy economy and environmental quality; actually they go hand in hand.
  • Today’s developing societies hold a tremendous advantage over yesterday’s. they do not need to tread through the entire learning experience in each technology area; instead they can “leapfrog” over the pathways (and mistakes) of the industrial pioneers and jump straightaway to the environmentally kinder and smarter technologies of the 21st century.

There is little basis for the fear that worldwide economic development will bring about massive environmental deterioration from the newly affluent becoming unrestrained consumers imitating the technology-oriented ways of the rich. In this century consumerism can increasingly mean replacing old and polluting technologies with new, resource-efficient and environmentally friendly technologies. Technological innovation and economic efficiency – the major keys to environmental quality – can be expected to take root increasingly in the developing nations as they make the transition to democracy and affluence. Supported by new technologies and management arrangements, agriculture, fishing, and manufacturing in the developing world have the potential eventually to become resource efficient and environmentally sustainable. As our knowledge increases, an increasing awareness of the importance of healthy ecosystems – a critical factor to achieving a sustainable environment – can be expected to develop among people everywhere. Gradually, both the poor and the rich will reduce the unwise use of forests and other natural resources, as all people progress towards affluence and democratic choice.

  • Nor is the fear that development will bring with it unsustainable exploitation of energy resources.
  • The amounts of fossil fuels will continue to increase for several decades because of technological inertia, but in the longer term cleaner and more efficient energy technologies will become economically accessible in the developing world, and these have the potential to reduce greatly the pollution problems traditionally associated with fossil fuel burning.


Sustainability with affluence

The core message of this book is that an environmentally sustainable future is within reach for the entire world provided that affluence and democracy replace poverty and tyranny as the dominant human condition.

In the following chapters, evidence bearing on the nature of the affluence-environment link is presented and analyzed.

The major issues are explored in the context of the following supporting themes:

v  Poverty is the world’s most critical environmental problem. Reducing poverty throughout the world should be a top priority for environmentalists. Human development should include not only freedom of economic choices but also freedom of democratic choices.

v  Affluence and the technological innovation it enables are among the most important ingredients for achieving a future sustainable global environment.

Chapter 1: A World Apart

Chapter 2: Six Billion and Counting

Chapter 3: Can the Earth Feed Everyone?

Chapter 4: Fish Tales

Chapter 5: Is the Earth Warming?

Chapter 6: Water, Water Everywhere

Chapter 7: The Air We Breathe

Chapter 8: Fossil Fuels – Culprit or Genie?

Chapter 9: Solar Power to the People

Chapter 10: Nukes to the Rescue?

Chapter 11: Wheels

Chapter 12: Don’t Harm the Patient

Chapter 13: Choices

Notes. Index. About the Author

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