The Ecology of Environmentalism, or the False Dichotomy

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin


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"It wasn't just predictable curmudgeons like Dr. Johnson who thought the Scottish hills ugly; if anybody had something to say
about mountains at all, it was sure to be an insult. (The Alps: "monstrous excrescences of nature," in the words of one wholly
typical 18th-century observer.)"

Stephen Budiansky, "Nature? A bit overdone", U.S. News & World Report, December 2, 1996

The concept of "nature" is a romantic invention. It was spun by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century as a confabulated utopian contrast to the dystopia of urbanization and Darwinian, ruthless materialism. The traces of this dewy-eyed conception of the "savage", his alleged harmony and resonance with nature, and his unmolested, unadulterated surroundings can be found in the more malignant forms of fundamentalist environmentalism and in pop-culture (the most recent example of which is the propaganda-laden cinematic extravaganza, “Avatar”).

At the other extreme are religious literalists who regard Man as the crown of creation with complete dominion over nature and the right to exploit its resources unreservedly. Similar, veiled, sentiments can be found among scientists. The Anthropic Principle, for instance, promoted by many outstanding physicists, claims that the nature of the Universe is preordained to accommodate sentient beings - namely, us humans.

Industrialists, politicians and economists have only recently begun paying lip service to sustainable development and to the environmental costs of their policies. Thus, in a way, they bridge the abyss - at least verbally - between these two diametrically opposed forms of fundamentalism. Similarly, the denizens of the West continue to indulge in rampant consumption, but now it is suffused with environmental guilt rather than driven by unadulterated hedonism.

Still, essential dissimilarities between the schools notwithstanding, the dualism of Man vs. Nature is universally acknowledged.

Modern physics - notably the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics - has abandoned the classic split between (typically human) observer and (usually inanimate) observed. Environmentalists, in contrast, have embraced this discarded worldview wholeheartedly. To them, Man is the active agent operating upon a distinct reactive or passive substrate - i.e., Nature. But, though intuitively compelling, it is a false dichotomy.

Man is, by definition, a part of Nature. His tools are natural. He interacts with the other elements of Nature and modifies it - but so do all other species. Arguably, bacteria and insects exert on Nature far more influence with farther reaching consequences than Man has ever done.

Still, the "Law of the Minimum" - that there is a limit to human population growth and that this barrier is related to the biotic and abiotic variables of the environment - is undisputed. Whatever debate there is veers between two strands of this Malthusian Weltanschauung: the utilitarian (a.k.a. anthropocentric, shallow, or technocentric) and the ethical (alternatively termed biocentric, deep, or ecocentric).

First, the Utilitarians.

Economists, for instance, tend to discuss the costs and benefits of environmental policies. Activists, on the other hand, demand that Mankind consider the "rights" of other beings and of nature as a whole in determining a least harmful course of action.

Utilitarians regard nature as a set of exhaustible and scarce resources and deal with their optimal allocation from a human point of view. Yet, they usually fail to incorporate intangibles such as the beauty of a sunset or the liberating sensation of open spaces.

"Green" accounting - adjusting the national accounts to reflect environmental data - is still in its unpromising infancy. It is complicated by the fact that ecosystems do not respect man-made borders and by the stubborn refusal of many ecological variables to succumb to numbers. To complicate things further, different nations weigh environmental problems disparately.

Despite recent attempts, such as the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF), no one knows how to define and quantify elusive concepts such as "sustainable development". Even the costs of replacing or repairing depleted resources and natural assets are difficult to determine.

Efforts to capture "quality of life" considerations in the straitjacket of the formalism of distributive justice - known as human-welfare ecology or emancipatory environmentalism - backfired. These led to derisory attempts to reverse the inexorable processes of urbanization and industrialization by introducing localized, small-scale production.

Social ecologists proffer the same prescriptions but with an anarchistic twist. The hierarchical view of nature - with Man at the pinnacle - is a reflection of social relations, they suggest. Dismantle the latter - and you get rid of the former.

The Ethicists appear to be as confounded and ludicrous as their "feet on the ground" opponents.

Biocentrists view nature as possessed of an intrinsic value, regardless of its actual or potential utility. They fail to specify, however, how this, even if true, gives rise to rights and commensurate obligations. Nor was their case aided by their association with the apocalyptic or survivalist school of environmentalism which has developed proto-fascist tendencies and is gradually being scientifically debunked.

The proponents of deep ecology radicalize the ideas of social ecology ad absurdum and postulate a transcendentalist spiritual connection with the inanimate (whatever that may be). In consequence, they refuse to intervene to counter or contain natural processes, including diseases and famine.

The politicization of environmental concerns runs the gamut from political activism to eco-terrorism. The environmental movement - whether in academe, in the media, in non-governmental organizations, or in legislature - is now comprised of a web of bureaucratic interest groups.

Like all bureaucracies, environmental organizations are out to perpetuate themselves, fight heresy and accumulate political clout and the money and perks that come with it. They are no longer a disinterested and objective party. They have a stake in apocalypse. That makes them automatically suspect.

Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist", was at the receiving end of such self-serving sanctimony. A statistician, he demonstrated that the doom and gloom tendered by environmental campaigners, scholars and militants are, at best, dubious and, at worst, the outcomes of deliberate manipulation.

The situation is actually improving on many fronts, showed Lomborg: known reserves of fossil fuels and most metals are rising, agricultural production per head is surging, the number of the famished is declining, biodiversity loss is slowing as do pollution and tropical deforestation. In the long run, even in pockets of environmental degradation, in the poor and developing countries, rising incomes and the attendant drop in birth rates will likely ameliorate the situation in the long run.

Yet, both camps, the optimists and the pessimists, rely on partial, irrelevant, or, worse, manipulated data. The multiple authors of "People and Ecosystems", published by the World Resources Institute, the World Bank and the United Nations conclude: "Our knowledge of ecosystems has increased dramatically, but it simply has not kept pace with our ability to alter them."

Quoted by The Economist, Daniel Esty of Yale, the leader of an environmental project sponsored by World Economic Forum, exclaimed:

"Why hasn't anyone done careful environmental measurement before? Businessmen always say, ‘what matters gets measured'. Social scientists started quantitative measurement 30 years ago, and even political science turned to hard numbers 15 years ago. Yet look at environmental policy, and the data are lousy."

Nor is this dearth of reliable and unequivocal information likely to end soon. Even the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, supported by numerous development agencies and environmental groups, is seriously under-financed. The conspiracy-minded attribute this curious void to the self-serving designs of the apocalyptic school of environmentalism. Ignorance and fear, they point out, are among the fanatic's most useful allies. They also make for good copy.

A Comment on Energy Security

The pursuit of "energy security" has brought us to the brink. It is directly responsible for numerous wars, big and small; for unprecedented environmental degradation; for global financial imbalances and meltdowns; for growing income disparities; and for ubiquitous unsustainable development.

 

It is energy insecurity that we should seek. 

 

The uncertainty incumbent in phenomena such "peak oil", or in the preponderance of hydrocarbon fuels in failed states fosters innovation. The more insecure we get, the more we invest in the recycling of energy-rich products; the more substitutes we find for energy-intensive foods; the more we conserve energy; the more we switch to alternatives energy; the more we encourage international collaboration; and the more we optimize energy outputs per unit of fuel input.

 

A world in which energy (of whatever source) will be abundant and predictably available would suffer from entropy, both physical and mental. The vast majority of human efforts revolve around the need to deploy our meager resources wisely. Energy also serves as a geopolitical "organizing principle" and disciplinary rod. Countries which waste energy (and the money it takes to buy it), pollute, and conflict with energy suppliers end up facing diverse crises, both domestic and foreign. Profligacy is punished precisely because energy in insecure. Energy scarcity and precariousness thus serves a global regulatory mechanism.

 

But the obsession with "energy security" is only one example of the almost religious belief in "scarcity".

A Comment on Alternative Energies

The quest for alternative, non-fossil fuel, energy sources is driven by two misconceptions: (1) The mistaken belief in "peak oil" (that we are nearing the complete depletion and exhaustion of economically extractable oil reserves) and (2) That market mechanisms cannot be trusted to provide adequate and timely responses to energy needs (in other words that markets are prone to failure).

At the end of the 19th century, books and pamphlets were written about "peak coal". People and governments panicked: what would satisfy the swelling demand for energy? Apocalyptic thinking was rampant. Then, of course, came oil. At first, no one knew what to do with the sticky, noxious, and occasionally flammable substance. Gradually, petroleum became our energetic mainstay and gave rise to entire industries (petrochemicals and automotive, to mention but two).

History will repeat itself: the next major source of energy is very unlikely to be hatched up in a laboratory. It will be found fortuitously and serendipitously. It will shock and surprise pundits and laymen alike. And it will amply cater to all our foreseeable needs. It is also likely to be greener than carbon-based fuels.

More generally, the market can take care of itself: energy does not have the characteristics of a public good and therefore is rarely subject to market breakdowns and unalleviated scarcity. Energy prices have proven themselves to be a sagacious regulator and a perspicacious invisible hand.

Until this holy grail ("the next major source of energy") reveals itself, we are likely to increase the shares of nuclear and wind sources in our energy consumption pie. Our industries and cars will grow even more energy-efficient. But there is no escaping the fact that the main drivers of global warming and climate change are population growth and the emergence of an energy-guzzling middle class in developing and formerly poor countries. These are irreversible economic processes and only at their inception.

Global warming will, therefore, continue apace no matter which sources of energy we deploy. It is inevitable. Rather than trying to limit it in vain, we would do better to adapt ourselves: avoid the risks and cope with them while also reaping the rewards (and, yes, climate change has many positive and beneficial aspects to it).

Climate change is not about the demise of the human species as numerous self-interested (and well-paid) alarmists would have it. Climate change is about the global redistribution and reallocation of economic resources. No wonder the losers are sore and hysterical. It is time to consider the winners, too and hear their hitherto muted voices. Alternative energy is nice and all but it is rather besides the point and it misses both the big picture and the trends that will make a difference in this century and the next.

Note on Adapting to Climate Change

How must society adapt to rapid climate change to minimize severe upheaval?

The question makes two explicit assumptions, both of which are controversial and disputed: that climate change is rapid and that it will result in severe upheaval. Similarly, it is not clear whether the best reaction to global warming should be societal, or individual (or, perhaps, global).

That global warming is happening has now been established. Yet, such a forcing is likely to take centuries to induce any discernible climate change on the planetary level. Moreover: self-interested and well-paying hype aside, we know close to nothing about the hypercomplex set of interactions between various greenhouse gases, the atmosphere, the oceans, the Earth's orbit, volcanic eruptions, human activities, the unforeseen outcomes and by-products of well-meaning regulation and technologies (such as biofuels), solar dynamics, plate tectonics, and thousands of other factors, the vast majority of which are yet to be discovered. 

Environmentalism is, therefore, poor science or pseudo-science: it is a pernicious and venal form of faddish hubris. In our current state of ignorance, the more ambitious variants of "solutions" such as geoengineering are far more dangerous than the threats of global warming.

Two things are clear, though: (a) Climate change had happened frequently and repeatedly, long before and ever since humans strode the scene; and (b) Some regions of Earth will greatly benefit economically from global warming. Others, inevitably, will suffer and will have to adapt. None of this sounds like a "severe upheaval", let alone life-threatening as the more rabid and sensationalist environmentalists will have us believe.

We should take an inventory of what we know and act upon it resolutely (mitigation): emissions from fossil fuel combustion should be tamed, captured, stored, sunk, and sequestered (aerosols to be further studied in conjunction with global dimming and ozone depletion); measures for population control and family planning enhanced; alternative and renewable fuels should be studied and incentives provided to energy-efficient, clean and green technologies; cement manufacture should be tweaked; cap and trade (or tax) schemes implemented on the national, corporate, and individual levels; weather-resistant, energy-conserving, and green construction technologies pioneered; the diets of livestock should be adapted to restrict biological emissions; deforestation and reforestation should be rationalized as should be land use; drought-related indigenous agricultural and water management knowledge and crop varieties should be preserved; flood defenses erected or strengthened; and weather-monitoring capacity should be extended and modernized. These measures make good sense, whatever the urgency of the problem facing us.

But, we should invest the bulk of our scarce resources in research and innovation. We should accept that climate change is inevitable and work out ways of harnessing it to our benefit. We should come up with new agricultural methods and strains; new types of tourism; new irrigation techniques; water desalination, diversion, transport, and allocation schemes; ways of sustaining biological diversity and of helping the human body adapt and cope; and global plans to cope with energy production problems, poverty, and disease triggered by global warming.

For the next few centuries, global warming is inexorable and largely irreversible (as the IPCC essentially admits). To think otherwise is completely delusional. Better to re-imagine our existence on this planet (adaptation). As temperatures rise in certain locales (and drop in others!), new economic activities and routes of commerce would be made possible or rendered feasible; new types of produce and forests will flourish; new technologies will be developed to cater to a novel and growing set of needs.

We would do well to not consider global warming as a crisis, but as a massive change. And even if we insist on regarding it as a cataclysm, as the Chinese saying goes, there are opportunities in every predicament. The initial costs of every transformation and transition in human history have been steep (recall the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, the transition from Communism to Capitalism). Climate change is not likely to be the only exception. Such a massive realignment implies severe disruption and great distress. But, invariably, tectonic shifts are followed by an extended period of creativity and growth. This time will be no different.


Also Read:

The Misconception of Scarcity

The Self-Appointed Altruists

Burning the Oil - Development and Ethnic Tensions

The Emerging Water Wars

Negentropic Agents and the Increase of Entropy


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