Guest Opinion: The Prospect of Cornutopia
The Prospect of Cornutopia
Warming Didn’t Exist We Would Have To Invent
…a response to Bjørn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist
Chapter 7 Publications MMII
SUMMARY OF THE ARGUMENT
Bjørn Lomborg and other cornucopians claim that environmentalists are professional scaremongers and that environmental problems can be solved through technology and the accumulation of wealth. Maybe they can; but the world which the cornucopians postulate is not necessarily one that many people would want to live in.
In a society where the only allowable objections to progress are scientific ones, people who want to see limits to growth have until now relied on environmental arguments. As the implications of the cornucopian project become better understood, and as technologies become more pervasive, so moral, cultural and religious objections may come to the fore.
The Prospect of Cornutopia
by Simon Fairlie *
Over the last two decades a furious but not very well publicized debate has raged between a flourishing environmental movement and an apparently marginal group of academics and scientists, known as “cornucopians”. The environmentalists believe that as humans become wealthier and more numerous we will run out of environmental space, unless we tighten our belts. The cornucopians maintain that technology and economics will, inevitably, find solutions to these problems: as we dig deeper down into nature’s horn of plenty we learn how to get more from less.
Until recently, probably the most comprehensive presentation of the cornu-copian case was a collection of over 80 essays and articles published, in 1992, under the not very alluring title Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns.
The 60 or so contributors, who were all North American, included the founding father of the movement, the late Julian Simon. The selections ranged from scientific papers to rhetorical articles, and some, such as a proposal to dump all the United States’ solid waste into a single hole in South Dakota, were too dotty to take seriously.
Rational Readings claimed to “offer clear-headed scientific approaches, rather than emotional outrage”, but this did not prevent its editor Jay Lehr, characterizing environmentalists as charlatans, manipulators of people’s fears and latterday-Nazis.
The final essay, entitled “The Toxicity of Environmentalism”, by George Reisman, argued that “the nature of the environmental movement is that of a virulent pest . . . Only the most powerful, industrial-strength, philosophical and intellectual cleansing agents will do.
These cleansing agents are, above all, the writings of Ayn Rand and Ludwig Von Mises. These two towering intellects are, respectively, the leading advocates of reason and capitalism in the twentieth century.”
This sort of stuff no doubt sells well to a sector of the US market, but its appeal to rational readers on this side of the Atlantic is limited.
In the last few years the cornucopians have smartened up their act and they have finally found themselves a new media-friendly champion, who, as well as being a defector from Greenpeace, has the great advantage of not being American.
Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, has received widespread coverage in the UK press and is on the way to becoming a best-seller. An enthusiastic review of it by Britain’s most belligerent cornucopian, Matt Ridley, took the front cover of the Spectator in February 2002, while Stephan Budiansky echoed Lomborg in an attack on conservationist E O Wilson in the April issue of Prospect.
The threat that Lomborg represents to the environmental establishment prompted Scientific American in January to publish an 11 page rebuttal of his work.
Whatever your viewpoint, The Skeptical Environmentalist is a tour de force.
Lomborg doesn’t say much that can’t be traced back to Rational Readings - he even hypothesizes his own Great American Waste Tip which he sites in Oklahoma, rather than South Dakota - but he says it all in a more measured, systematic and potentially convincing way.
Armed with 173 graphs and 2,930 references, he goes through most of the environmental sacred cows (acid rain, overpopulation, pollution, deforestation and so on) purporting to show that all of these issues are either false alarms, or have been adequately dealt with.
Only global warming, which he calls the environmentalists’ “trump card”, is still a real threat, and here Lomborg argues that the costs of minimizing global warming are greater than the costs of living with it. The public, he repeatedly alleges, has been fed a “Litany” of illusory dangers which it swallows without question.
There is an element of truth in this account. There is little doubt that some of Lomborg’s accusations of statistical sleights of hand by tub-thumping organizations like Greenpeace and the Worldwatch Institute can be made to stick.
But the fact that environmentalists have been known to exaggerate their case is no reason to conclude that everything is going to be hunky-dory. Lomborg thumps his own tub pretty loudly, and, like his critics in Scientific American, I spotted many instances where he tailors statistics to fit his Panglossian vision.
Besides, much of his argument is based on projections, rather than facts. In climate research institutes around the world, scientists are feeding different data and different equations into computers and coming up with different models for global warming. Nearly all the scientists think that something is going to happen, but there is no consensus as to what. They can’t even agree whether global warming will make Britain hotter or colder. The fact that Lomborg backs the models that accord with his own vision for the future doesn’t make the rest of us any the wiser.
The Optimal Economic Path
In the face of ignorance, it is wise to take a precautionary approach.
But here, for the sake of argument, let us suppose that Lomborg and the other cornucopians are right; let us assume that the evidence in support of imminent global catastrophe really is slim and has been irresponsibly exaggerated. If this is so, an obvious question is how the public came to be fooled.
According to Matt Ridley, whose Spectator article was entitled “Profits of Doom”, and carried the strap line “Big Green Bullies”, it is because environmental campaigners feed the public with “a steady supply of peril” in order to line their pockets.
To those of us who work in the environmental sector on relatively low wages, Ridley’s theory is laughable. Advocating that people consume less may procure green campaigners a bit of charitable funding, but it is hardly the best way to attract advertising or corporate sponsorship.
If environmentalists are as good at cynically manipulating public opinion as Ridley suggests, then most of us could earn much more by working for the likes of Shell, or Saatchi and Saatchi, or even The Spectator.
Lomborg briefly voices similar complaints, but he has the wit to recognize that in a free market, the media provide what people pay to hear. At the end of his chapter on global warming he comes up with much more plausible reasons for public willingness to accept the Litany.
“Why is it that global warming is not discussed with an open attitude . . . but rather with a fervour more fitting for preachers of opposing religions? This is an indication that the discussion of global warming is not just a question of choosing the optimal economic path for humanity, but has much deeper political roots as to what kind of future society we would like.”
Absolutely right. And what sort of future society would Lomborg and his fellow cornucopians like to see? It is a society predicated on the indefinite accretion of vast amounts of wealth. Lomborg favours business-as-usual projections for a globalized economy where, in 2100, the average annual income per person, in real terms, will be around $110,000 per person in the developed world (at present it is less than $15,000); and in the developing world $70,000 per person (at present about $1,500).
These, incomes seem to me a little higher than would be obtained by the 2-3 per cent growth rate that Lomborg predicts elsewhere in his book, but they are not that far off, and anyway attaining them is only a matter of time. A 3 per cent growth in the economy means a doubling of wealth every 24 years or an 18-fold increase over a century.
One of the first questions that comes to mind is what on earth the average family of four is going to spend its $440,000 per year on. A fraction of this amount will provide all of us with the one car per two people which, from US experience, appears to be the saturation rate (though the market for pick-ups and SUVs is still growing).
That will be 5 billion cars in the world, ten times as many as at present, together with all the concrete and tarmac necessary to accommodate them. What next?
Will everyone be jetting around the world on a weekly basis from airports in every town?
Will each home have 10 rooms and a swimming pool, and if so where are we going to build them?
Will wages be so high and raw materials so cheap that everything becomes disposable?
Will digital hardware become obsolete in a matter of weeks, and then be trucked away to a hole in South Dakota?
Will we be subject to ever more invasive forms of hype and drivel, necessary to revive saturated markets and generate new demands?
None of this crucial detail is spelt out. We are only told, in the final words of the book, that we will be richer, healthier, better educated and less busy . . . “and that is a beautiful world”.
Well, that depends upon the eye of the beholder. The prospect of five billion or more middle-class geriatrics whiling away their days in vast climate-controlled shopping malls - not that far-fetched a caricature - is not necessarily very appealing.
The cornutopia that can be extrapolated from Lomborg’s projections strikes many of us, not as beautiful, but as pointless and disturbing.
In his mass of smiling statistics, there is one with an evil grin. While most kinds of premature death have declined over the last two centuries, figures for suicide have increased dramatically. Typically they have multiplied from one per 100,000 people in traditional societies, to around 20 per 100,000 in many urbanized countries, which is twice as high as the US murder rate.
The rate would no doubt be higher were it not for the increase in the use of anti-depressant drugs in urbanized societies - a statistic which Lomborg does not provide. As the myth of Midas warned us many centuries ago , the pursuit of unlimited wealth does not appear to lead to happiness.
Instead of addressing these concerns, Lomborg sidesteps them by resorting to the time-honoured defence of wealth. Quoting Al Gore, to the effect that we are heading towards a “dysfunctional civilization . . . a false world of plastic . . . we have lost our natural contact with the earth”, Lomborg ripostes that:
“Gore’s Litany . . . reveals an abysmal arrogance towards the developing countries of the world . . . To call such a civilization ‘dysfunctional’ is quite simply immoral . . . Securing growth so as to lift these people out of hunger and poverty is of the utmost importance “.
We can imagine Midas, advised by his vizier that turning everything into gold isn’t quite as beneficial as it might seem, responding: “Nonsense, so many of my subjects are poor. They need wealth and now I can give it to them. How dare you, who are already wealthy, deny them such an opportunity?”
It’s the argument used regularly by economists who claim that increased wealth in the rich countries will trickle (or, as cornucopians would have it, cascade) down to the poor in the Third World. And a very similar kind of moral leverage can be seen in the charge levelled by agribusiness, and repeated by Lomborg, that opponents of genetic engineering are denying poor people access to potentially life-saving crops - the classic example being vitamin-A enhanced “golden” rice.
The pursuit of fabulous wealth is not a matter of choice, it is a moral obligation, the 21st century white man’s burden.
If global warming is the environmentalists’ “trump card”, feeding the poor is the cornucopians’.
Lomborg devotes a considerable portion of his book to demonstrating that the green revolution, through the introduction of hybrid varieties dependent upon agricultural chemicals and irrigation, has increased crop yields and improved economic balance sheets.
Countries such as India and China, which 30 years ago looked as though they might become basket cases are instead becoming bread-baskets. Here, Lomborg is pitching at a straw man, since the increase in productivity is not seriously contested by the green movement.
Environmentalists, from both North and South, criticize the green revolution, not because it doesn’t produce the goods, but because these goods are dependent upon costly, hi-tech, environmentally dodgy, external inputs and only a minority of farmers can afford them.
In April this year, a group of farmers from the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, chosen by their local village councils, came to London to lobby MPs about the modernization programme that has been mapped out for their region.
The Vision 2020 project, drawn up recently with help from US consultants McKinsey and money from the UK Government Department for International Development, is precisely the kind of green revolution project that Lomborg advocates.
It predicts the removal from their lands of 20 to 25 million peasant farmers - thirty per cent of the Andhra Pradesh’s population - as they are replaced by machines, chemicals, and genetically engineered crops, including the aforementioned “golden rice”.
Not surprisingly, the visiting farmers are less than enthusiastic at the prospect of being levered off their land into sprawling metropolises like Bombay, in all likelihood to manufacture yet more baubles for the developed world.
They are adamant that they do not want the expense and insecurity of relying on GM crops and pesticides. They already have programmes, such as seed competitions, which help increase production, and they want research and investment to be directed into local crops, traditional organic methods and convivial technologies which leave their community, culture and landscape intact. Lomborg does not address the matter of whether world food production could be improved in this less draconian manner. But some of the data he provides to show that there is not a global food crisis - for example that at present humans only use 3.9 per cent of available biomass for food production- suggests that, yes, given the will, it quite possibly could.
He completely ignores the considerable body of research which shows that investment in traditional seed varieties and organic methods can produce increases in yield comparable to those achieved by chemically dependent crops.
This is a weakness that undermines the whole of The Skeptical Environmentalist: plenty of evidence is provided to show that unmitigated growth can solve environmental problems; the question whether there might not be a gentler way of solving these problems is simply ignored.
Nor does Lomborg care to enquire whether people in Third World countries wish to be thrown headlong into a way of life which they frequently observe to be spiritually and emotionally impoverished, or to use Al Gore’s word, dysfunctional. “Why do more people in rich countries commit suicide than in poor countries?” asks the Rwandan writer Nsekuye Bizimana. “People take pep pills, sedatives and alcohol, just to be able to talk to each other, and bear life. One must ask oneself whether or not technical development has brought these people more happiness than sadness.”
Dissolution of extended families and communities, loneliness and alienation, he judges, are the price that we pay in the North for our overriding obsession with acquiring wealth, and now we are trying to impose them on the South.
Bizimana quotes Mother Theresa: “The people of the Third World are derided because they can’t feed themselves. The people of the industrial countries have a far worse kind of hunger, which they can’t satisfy with technological achievement: the hunger for love, security and community.” The use of the word “derided” suggests that Mother Theresa has different views from Lomborg as to who precisely is guilty of “abysmal arrogance towards the developing countries”.
An Idea Whose Time Has Come?
But lets go back to Midas. We have reached the point where the novelty of turning things into gold is starting to pall. As our monarch rushes hither and thither transmogrifying everything he can lay his hands on, a much more serious problem arises. He can’t eat his breakfast because it turns to metal in his hands.
Midas is progressively destroying the very things he needs and loves, and the crunch comes when he goes to embrace his daughter and realises, just in time, that she too will turn to gold.
The developed world is approaching this point where satiation turns into deprivation. Diminishing returns in respect of material welfare are coming at an increasing cost: the wealth-generating technologies which Lomborg champions demand severe restrictions upon human freedom and unprecedented control over nature. Rising levels of car ownership eviscerate town centres and village communities, spread concrete and noise over the countryside, and in the UK require a planning system which imposes absurd restrictions upon where people can live - problems that can only get worse when the cornucopians bring us their promised “cheap clean fuel”.
A further round of nuclear power, involving the fabrication of plutonium in fast breeder reactors, will require formidable anti-terrorist security measures.
As genetically modified crops multiply across the face of the earth, even in regions where they are still illegal, it is not at all clear who or what will prevent bio-tech corporations mutating all species into “golden” ones, and relegating natural evolution to a zoo activity.
The climate management and “geo-engineering” which Lomborg advocates to reduce global warming - mass-fertilization of marine algae populations or releasing sulphur particles into the stratosphere - will condemn us to live in a global greenhouse of a different kind where the control knobs will be turned, not by the hand of God, but by a handful of scientists.
And what of the spectres that Lomborg doesn’t dare mention? What will artificial intelligence give birth to? Where will cloning lead us? How soon can we expect a breakthrough in nano-technology - the refabrication of matter at a molecular or atomic level?
Very soon, apparently: later this year researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology plan to launch 300 three legged robots the size of a thumb, complete with on-board computers, microscopes and biosensors.
The Nanowalkers, as they are called, will manipulate individual molecules and can perform 4,000 nano-manoeuvres and make 200,000 calculations per second.
Nanotechnology is the apotheosis of the cornucopian project of creating more from less. “There’s plenty of room at the bottom!” was physicist Richard Feynman’s cry when he flagged up the potential for nanotechnology in 1959.
“The manipulation of matter at the atomic level could create a utopian future of abundance, where just about everything could be had cheaply,” Bill Joy, wrote 41 years later in a famous article in Wired magazine.
But Joy, who is chief scientist at Sun MicroSystems and no Luddite, is far from enthusiastic about this utopia: on the contrary he is alarmed at its potential to create artificial species.
Robots which can be programmed to manipulate atoms can be programmed to replicate themselves. Self replicating “plants” with photosynthesizing “leaves”, Joy warns, could outcompete grass, crowding the biosphere with inedible foliage.
Artificial bacteria could kill off natural bacteria and reduce nature to dust. Or, as Pat Mooney has suggested, “what if a swarm of self-replicating nanobots concludes that a planet full of calcium carbonate is an idea whose time has come?”.
This sort of scenario is known in the trade as the “gray goo” problem and it would, as Joy says, “be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth.” At least Midas’s goo was gold.
Joy predicts that “the coming advances in computing power seem to make the building of an intelligent robot possible by 2030”; and in language that one does not expect to hear from a scientist concludes: “we are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil.”
A Clash of Religions
The ostensibly modest growth rate of 3 per cent, which the cornucopians insist will solve all environmental problems, and which is apparently necessary for the continuing health of the capitalist economy, shows every sign of propelling us at an exponential rate into a science fiction world which many alive today will to live to see.
Cornucopians profess to welcome the challenge; techno-Darwinists may see it as inevitable; but many more would view this particular cure for environmental degradation to be worse than the sickness.
Most normal people ( including Bill Joy and Al Gore), when they think about the future, would prefer to see some limits to growth.
Limits to growth, however are anathema to cornucopians, and this is key to an understanding of Lomborg’s book. His tirades against environmentalists who “use global warming as a stepping stone to other political projects ... a springboard for wider policy goals,” are directed against those of us who view an abundance of cheap, clean, carbon-neutral energy, not as a boon, but as a nightmare: and who find themselves breathing an involuntary sigh of relief when the IPCC comes up with another round of predictions of rising temperatures and sea levels, because this is the only lever we have to hold governments and industry back from a programme of unmitigated economic growth. (Unfortunately it isn’t holding the US back at the moment because Bush is a cornucopian).
When Lomborg argues that environmentalists should come clean about this - “in all honesty these goals should naturally be made explicit” - I’m inclined to agree with him, not only in the interests of honesty, but also because the rhetoric of mainstream environmentalism is proving inadequate to combat the spread of genetically modified organisms.
Lomborg’s other slant is to cast the global warming debate as “a clash of opposing religions” with environmentalists taking the role of wild-eyed prophets of doom:
“I have tried to present all the facts, to give us a rounded feel of the world, and I have tried to contrast it to our current understanding, stemming from the recurrent incantations of The Litany.”
Whether Lomborg’s facts are more reliable than those presented by environmentalists is not the concern of this essay. But it might be helpful to pursue Lomborg’s religious analysis a little further and see where it takes us.
As a Christian (of sorts) I personally have no difficulty in maintaining that the cornucopian agenda is an affront to God and is asking for trouble; but God doesn’t carry much weight in a response to a government consultation paper, so I usually focus on things like global warming.
Most people nowadays, however, do not believe in God, and still fewer in divine retribution: they are brought up to trust in Science. It is to the laws of physics and chemistry that they appeal for limits to growth and to exact penalties for exceeding those limits; and that may explain why they turn to the prophets of global warming, with their scientific warnings of a second Flood.
The Litany of environmental doom, Lomborg claims, is a myth, but myths usually serve a purpose. If global warming didn’t exist, we would have to invent it, to provide people with the rationale they seek for rejecting Lomborg’s “optimal economic path”.
The economy may call the tune on election day; but when it comes to Judgment Day, it’s religion, stupid.
If the public continues to sense that we are edging closer to Judgment Day, then the religious strains that Lomborg detects can only get louder.
Indeed he asks for them to be sung out loud and clear, and that is what this essay aims to do.
The nature of the debate is changing. The environmental problems that greens have been highlighting over the last few decades - pollution, global warming, acid rain, habitat loss - are by-products of certain technologies and can, in theory, be rectified or mitigated by more efficient ones.
But the ascendant technologies - gene, nano and silicon - represent an entirely new order of threat: it is not their side effects that we have to worry about, it is the technologies themselves.
They don’t affect the environment, they become the environment. Whether to reject them or accept them is a religious decision (or you may prefer to call it a moral decision), not a scientific one.
If human beings don’t want these technologies - and given a global “planning for real” exercise on the matter, I have no doubt that that is what the majority would decide - then it is hard to see any other solution than to stop all scientific research in this direction. Or, to quote one of the Andhra Pradesh farmers on gene technology: “Please take all this knowledge and plunge it into a deep ocean or sea, with all these papers and calculations, etc. so that it may not come out again on the television and in the papers”. Technological stasis of this kind is an unfamilar concept, will not be easy to achieve and many scientists will vigorously oppose it. My hunch is that for the next decade or two, the cornucopians will be successful in persuading governments that technological advance and limitless wealth will solve all our problems, while resistance to the dominant ideology will take an increasingly religious or cultural form.
If this is the case, let us hope that dissidents follow the example of Gandhi rather than that of Osama bin Laden.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Lehr, J. (ed) Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns, Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY, 1992.
2. Lomborg, B. The Skeptical Environmentalist (sic),Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pages referred to include pp. 62-67, 85, 99, 281, 318-324, 327-331, 342-348, 351-2. In the interests of brevity and clarity, some quotes taken from this book have been conflated, without (I believe) any change of meaning. Please check before citing elsewhere.
3. Cheap remarks like this have graced this debate ever since overpopulation prophet, Paul Ehrlich, allegedly called Julian Simon an imbecile, after losing a $10,000 bet about the price of metals - a story which cornucopians never tire of retelling.
4. One of a number of scenarios developed by researchers for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Lomborg favours the scenario which delivers a maximum of economic growth, see ibid. p.281.
6. Pimbert, M. and Wakeford, T., Prajateerpu: A Citizens’ Jury/Scenario Workshop on Food and Farming Futures for Andhra Pradesh, India, IIED London and IDS Sussex, 2002.
7. For example Pretty, J and Hine RE, Rural Poverty, Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture, DFID-University of Essex 2001; Wolfe, M.S., Recognising and Realising the Potential of Organic Agriculture, Elm Farm , 2001, argues that higher yields for non-organic crops are attributable to greater investment in non-organic research and breeding.
8. Bizimana, N., “The Myth of the Modern”, in Goldsmith et al, The Future of Progress, ISEC, 1992.
9. Arrogance also played a role in the rise of consumerism in Rwanda, according to Bizimana, whose analysis was written before the civil war reached its bloody climax: “Many industrial products offer more comfort than the traditional way of life and their negative effects only become evident later. The influx of every imaginable Western industrial product, has led to an even greater admiration of the West, but only a small portion of the population can afford them. The result is the creation of an arrogant bourgeoisie, who believe that Œthe more you have the better you are’. The benefits of modernization are rarely distributed equally. Thus those areas with fine modern installations despise the areas without. As a result, tension develops between different areas within the country. This is known as regionalism. In many African countries, regionalism corresponds to tribalism, because different tribes live in different regions. Money reigns, and thus people go to any measure to acquire it. This striving after money has inflicted serious damage upon our culture.” This quotation has been shortened.
10. Genetically modified Bt cotton was widely disseminated and grown in India before its recent legalization. Personal communication from Theo Simon.
11. Cameron, D., “Walking Small”, Technology Review, www.techreview.com, 1 March 2002; Mooney P. et al, Nanotech Takes a Giant Step Downward, http://www.etcgroup.org, 6 March 2002.
12. Joy, B., “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, Wired, April 2000, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy pr.html.
13. Pimbert, N., op. cit 5.
* - © Copyright Simon Fairlie .
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