Friday, September 04, 2009

Question "Environmental" Policy

Sometimes truth is counter-intuitive. The following comes from Kairos Journal. It is a sound and wise corrective to some of what we read in the media.

Is Economic Progress Killing Our Planet?

Ever since the birth of the modern “Green Movement” in the 1960s,1 the view has gained ground that economic and technological progress poses an increasing threat to the natural environment. Rising population and economic growth, it is said, cause increased pollution, deforestation, and the destruction of biodiversity and natural habitats. But is this really true?

Not according to two controversial but comprehensive studies of these issues published in the past decade.2 In these two studies, Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg and environmentalist expert Indur M. Goklany subject conventional environmentalist claims to a detailed and exhaustive analysis based on the same mass of official and unofficial statistical data mined by ecological doomsayers to support their case. Since Lomborg is a former member of Greenpeace and Goklany served on the team that negotiated the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, their criticisms of environmentalist doom-mongering are all the more telling.3

What do their findings reveal? Whilst acknowledging that our world faces very real and serious environmental problems, especially in developing countries, both scholars insist that the overall balance sheet is still a positive one. Despite a more than seven-fold increase in the global population over the past two centuries, average life expectancy in the world as a whole (the single most significant measure of human wellbeing) rose from about 31 years in 1900 to 66.8 by 2003.4 Not only are many more human beings living longer, healthier lives with greater access to better and cheaper food, education, and medical care, but they are also doing so on a cleaner planet, most of whose natural resources are nowhere near exhaustion.5

The key to understanding this paradox is that economic growth and technological progress increase the efficiency with which natural resources are used (and therefore preserved), and by creating wealth and raising expectations, they provide both the incentives and the means to clean up the environment. For instance, it is significant that as a result of rising agricultural productivity, the amount of land per head required for the production of food has steeply declined, lessening the pressure on natural habitats and biodiversity. As a result, between 1961 and 2002, global cropland per capita declined by 44%.

However, if global agricultural productivity had been frozen at 1950 levels, at least another 3.33 billion acres would have been needed to feed the world’s population in 2002—that is equivalent to an area greater than Brazil, India, and South Africa combined.6 Similarly, whereas deforestation has been occurring in developing countries,7 reforestation has been taking place in the developed world, which gained an extra 29 million hectares of woodlands between 1990 and 2000.8 For such reasons, allegations that half the world’s species will become extinct within a generation are wide of the mark. Lomborg in fact argues that the true figure is closer to 0.7% over the next 50 years.9

As for pollution, the long-term trends are fairly encouraging. Concentrations of pesticide residues in birds, fish, and humans have declined in the developed world since the 1960s,10 and the sulfur emissions responsible for acid rain have fallen in both Europe and the United States.11 Urban air pollution in London has also decreased by more than 90% since 1930,12 a pattern typical of most major cities in the developed world.13 In addition, the percentage of people in the developing world with access to safe drinking water and sanitation rose from 30% and 23% respectively in 1970, to 80% and 53% in 2000.14 Not good enough, perhaps, but still progress.

The Bible challenges us to be good stewards of God’s creation and to care about truth. That means that not only must we protect our environment, but we must also beware of exaggerated claims about how bad things are.


1 This decade saw the publication of two key works that helped to launch the modern environmentalist movement: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962) and Paul R. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine, 1968).
2 See Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001) and Indur M. Goklany, The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 2007).
3 Lomborg and his team of researchers originally set out to disprove American economist Julian Simon’s claims that “Our doomsday conceptions of the environment are not correct” (Lomborg, xix). What they found instead was that while not everything Simon said was correct, “contrary to our expectations – it turned out that a surprisingly large amount of his points stood up to scrutiny and conflicted with what we believed ourselves to know” (ibid).
4 Goklany, 31.
5 For a summary of the evidence supporting this conclusion and refuting the pessimists, see Lomborg, “Things Are Getting Better,” 3-33; and Goklany, “The Improving State of Humanity” and “Long-Term Environmental Trends,” chapters 2 and 6.
6 Goklany, 123.
7 Ibid., 160 and 453, n. 169.
8 Ibid., 453, n. 169. According to Lomborg, “the longest data series from the UN’s FAO show that global forest cover has increased from 30.04 percent of the global land area in 1950 to 30.89 percent in 1994, an increase of 0.85 percentage points over the last 44 years” (Lomborg, 13).
9 Lomborg, 17.
10 Goklany, 128-129.
11 “[I]n the EU, emissions have been cut by a full 60 percent since 1984” (Lomborg, 13).
12 Ibid., 11.
13 See Goklany, 130-149. Also Lomborg, 163-175.
14 Lomborg, 21.

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