culture wars logoarchive about us linkscontactcurrent
archive
about us
links
contact
current

 

Buy this book

Digital download

The Real Environmental Crisis
Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy

Jack M Hollander


Peter Rossi

Extremist modern environmentalism debunked (again).

One of the fundamental beliefs of modern environmentalism is that economic growth is bad for the environment. Economic growth, on the Greens' account, is meant to lead to pollution, habitat loss, global warming, cultural homogenisation, exploitation of the poor, and according to Greenpeace, war for oil. Frequent news releases and publications alert us to the impending doom that economic growth is supposed to be leading us toward. Jack Hollander provides a substantial challenge to these false accusations, and in doing so, hammers another nail into the coffin of modern environmentalism.

The thirteen chapters include separate discussions of population, food, global warming, water, automobiles and energy. In each, Hollander first provides a short and simple introduction to the (alleged) problem, and then proceeds to challenge it using solid science. This is a procedure that has been used many times before to dissect the errors of environmentalism, yet as soon as one head is cut off the Green hydra, another appears. With Malthus and Ehrlich the problem was catastrophic over-population (which hasn't happened, and according to the UN is not going to), with the Club of Rome it was an energy crisis (which has not materialised), then it was global cooling, and with the modern Greens, it is nuclear power, global warming and genetic modification.

If the perennial nature of environmentalism was not bad enough, the righteousness of its advocates is similarly concerning. As we have seen in religious disputes, and recently with Lomborg and the dishonest Danes, those who dare to challenge orthodoxy are slurred and ridiculed. It is a clear indictment of environmentalism that it chooses to follow the example of religion in dealing with dissenters rather than scientific argument and paradigmatic revolution. Perhaps the best way to assess the impact of this book is the extent to which it is slandered by the Greens. As they say, the truth hurts.

In the author's own words '[t]he 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' (p16). The basic argument is that as we become richer we can afford to care about the environment. We (in the affluent developed world) do not have to worry about where our next meal is coming from or whether the water we have is safe to drink. The numerous basic amenities we take for granted are sadly lacking for 5/6 of the global population. Therefore, whilst the rich can afford to preserve their environment, the poor have to exploit their environment ruinously to survive: '...people on the edge of starvation are understandably myopic about the benefits of long-term management' (p61).

As Hollander thoroughly demonstrates, economic growth and environmental improvement go hand in hand, so the priority for the poor should be economic development. To give just a few examples of the two different environments the rich and poor inhabit: the US federal government spent $3bn trying to save salmon in a river in Idaho (p65), enforcement costs of the US Endangered Species Act are tens of billions of dollars (p185), the total cost of the US Clean Air Act is between $1.5 and $3.5 trillion (p117), whilst indoor air pollution from inefficient stoves and dirty fuel (dung, wood, coal) kills 1 million children annually in India and Sub Saharan Africa (p107).

So while Hollander makes it clear that rich = green, he also points out that economic growth does lead to pollution. However, the crucial point is that this pollution is temporary and is rectified by further economic growth. For example, total US emissions of six main pollutants in 1999 were 31% below 1970 levels, even though in the same period population increased, GDP increased 147% and coal use in electrical generation increased almost 300% (114). In light of the facts presented by Hollander (and before him by Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg and others), it is clear that the best hope for the poor and for the environment in the developing world is economic growth. While this is a widely accepted argument (although not by Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, British journalist George Monbiot and other misanthropes), a similar consensus does not exist as to how we get from poverty to wealth.

If there is a weakness in the book it concerns this issue of wealth creation. Hollander believes that environmental improvements 'have come about because the majority of citizens in this and every other democratic affluent society demands a clean and liveable environment' (3). If this democratic explanation were true, why do Green parties have such a poor electoral record and why are people so attached to gas-guzzling cars? Surely, if the citizens of a democracy really demanded a clean environment they would all be living some version of The Good Life. This is clearly not the case.

Instead, a much more powerful explanation involves the profit motive of the market and government regulation. In this quote and in other places in the book, Hollander seems to buy into the Green idea of participatory democracy that involves numerous stakeholders and is premised on society having some sort of innate right to a clean environment. However, participatory or deliberative democracy (or global justice, global governance, fair trade...) are even more flawed than traditional democracy. Arguably, the stakeholder notion is a perversion of the one man - one vote ideal, where powerful lobby groups such as Greenpeace expect to have their view translated into policy, because they believe they are an important stakeholder in society. In this way, Green subsidies for renewable energy are precisely the same as protectionist US steel tariffs: a well organised sub group of society captures a slice of the political cake at the expense of individual voters.

Although the majority of the book that deals with scientific refutation of Green mendacity is welcome and compelling, the prescriptions of how to get from poverty to wealth are ambiguous at best. To be fair though, this is not the primary point of the book, and for such prescriptions, one has to look to economic science. There is a final lesson to take from this book concerning methods of dealing with the Greens. As with any non-scientific, religious movement, facts are in the service of ideology. This is why environmentalism has prospered - no matter how many forecasts are proven wrong, the ideology lives on. So although Hollander's factual analysis will probably make little impression (after all, religion has positively thrived in the absence of proof), his placement of poverty at the centre of the discourse is a potentially fruitful approach.

No-one can seriously argue against the alleviation of poverty (except Monbiot and co), so Hollander has created a consensual starting point which reduces the degree of polarity that often accompanies environmental discussion. The question moves on from what causes environmental ruin, to how do we alleviate what we know causes environmental ruin.


All articles on this site Culture Wars.