Energy, development and environmentalism

By Scientific Alliance

If environmentalism has an overarching theme, it is that our species should deliberately curtail its development for the sake of others. Some may see this as pure unselfishness, an enlightened and humble view of humankind’s place in the web of nature. Others would regard it as simple foolishness; after all, what other species would willingly compromise its own welfare for that of others?

Like any debate, there is no simple black and white answer. Following just our instincts with no regard for the consequences would ultimately be suicidal. On the other hand, some deeper Greens regard humans as a blot on the planet and would seemingly be quite happy if we chose to self-destruct.

In fact, people do not normally blindly follow their instincts with no thought for the consequences (although there are, of course, individual exceptions to the rule). Take the lessons of economics. People who distrust private industry and the profit motive are convinced that this is the road to ruin, and that production should be organised on the basis of some more worthy principle than the desire to make money. They might point to the virtual collapse of the banking system and feel vindicated.

But for every apparent failure of capitalism (and, by anyone’s reckoning, the banking crisis has been a pretty dramatic failure, although primarily one of regulation), there are numerous success stories. Some of these are relatively short-lived, but many large, successful companies have a long and distinguished history. Nevertheless, the profit motive is, for many, summed up by the words of the anti-hero Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street: ‘Greed is good’.

This is a vast over-simplification: uncontrolled greed with no thought of the consequences is unlikely to be good for anyone, but the assumption implicit in criticisms of multinationals by the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation lobby is that they are just trying to make as much money as possible without concern about either human misery or environmental degradation.

People who make lots of money are usually in for the long haul. Yes, they would be happy to make money in the short term, but they also want to be able to do the same in years to come. There are actually rather few examples of companies deliberately choosing short term success over longer term growth and profitability. Infamous cases such as Enron and the Bernie Madoff scandal are actually examples of fraud rather than the  inevitable consequences of free markets.

The situation is similar if we look at economic growth, human welfare and environmental impact. The Industrial Revolution did lead to appalling pollution at times, and the lives of factory workers were pretty hard, (but then it would hardly have been much better if they had been working the land). But as industrial societies have prospered, then so has the desire for a cleaner environment and better welfare grown. And the results are everywhere for us to see.

The two essentials of life are food and energy. Limit the supply of either of these, and you have a crisis. Even in rather primitive societies in the tropics, where heating is unnecessary, the energy provided by burning wood is needed to cook food. Although critics of modern society may harp back to the simplicity of life in earlier times, there is evidence that our ancestors did not have such a benign relationship with the natural world as we might imagine.

A clear case in point is the Maori arrival in New Zealand in the 13th century. By modern times, about half the original forest had been felled, and there were no large land mammals left; they had been hunted to extinction. There are other examples of civilizations collapsing, apparently because resources had been exhausted (eg Easter Island, although the facts remain controversial).

In a globalised world, local resource shortages are not a problem, as long as there is sufficient money to pay for imports. Whatever the downside of globalisation may be, the failure of any society because of limitations to one or two key resources can no longer happen as long as they have something else to trade. And this does not have to be to the detriment of our environment.

The point is that trying to move societies back to some non-existent golden age where humans lived in harmony with nature is simply nonsense. Progress, which generally involves increased use of energy in one form or another, is not without its problems, but our species’ innate adaptability and capacity for innovation makes us capable of solving them. The dark satanic mills, polluted air and water and squalid housing of the Industrial Revolution have been done away with without compromising economic growth.

It is right that environmentalists should ask difficult questions and make us all think about the implications of what we are doing. But all the evidence is that as our standard of living improves, so does our concern for the environment. We will solve today’s problems, just as our predecessors solved theirs. Turning the clock back is not the answer.

Scientists are human

The recent scandals about the behaviour of the core group of scientists (and others) at the heart of the IPCC has highlighted once again the fact that scientists are human. Hiding data from critics, ensuring that only approved views were published in key journals, and willingly using unsupported projections from activist groups which supported the cause; all are signs of a groupthink mentality which brooks no dissent.

As if to reinforce these uncomfortable messages, this week there has been a furore in quite a different field: stem cell research. The charge is that some scientists are preventing publication of key results in prestigious journals at the peer review stage in order to give themselves the chance to publish first on similar topics. This is hardly surprising. The peer review system is meant to ensure that papers published are up to standard scientifically, but there will always be a temptation for anonymous reviewers to allow their prejudices to compromise their objectivity.

One of the manifestations of this is the tendency to publish mainly ‘safe’ science, which is consistent with the prevailing received wisdom. Review by experts in a narrow field tends to screen out the radical papers which may have something to offer. It is a small step to find a rival scientist’s paper lacking in some way. Perhaps the answer is, as some have suggested, to publish reviewers’ comments. But we are dealing with human nature here, and there will never be any easy answers.


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