“Environmental degradation is not a function of increased population and economic growth. It is rather a society’s (mis)handling of industrial wastes and sewage and its capacity to innovate that matter.”
“If certain environmentalists approve of destroying mountain tops to install intermittent energy producing wind turbines, why do they not approve of destroying a mountain top to mine valuable minerals allowing for the construction of superior energy storage devices and medical instrumentation?”
“Gibbs is apparently unaware of the appalling environmental record of communist regimes. As documented by many people (including Marxist intellectuals), waste and inefficiency reigned supreme in the absence of private property and a profit-and-loss price system.”
The Michael Moore-sponsored documentary Planet of the Humans has generated much debate since it was made freely available on Earth Day. The documentary’s creators Jeff Gibbs and Ozzie Zehner have since addressed many technical issues raised by their pro-renewable energy critics. But one thing they did not expand upon much in the documentary–although it was made more explicit in an Earth Day Live Stream and in a shorter interview with The Hill-–is the worldview that underlies their documentary.
1) Humans are hitting many limits all at once, in addition to the very real threat of climate change. We are in deep trouble.
Eco-pessimism has a long history. Most actual data, from life expectancy and resource availability to the extent of the forest cover and air pollution, nevertheless suggest continued improvement for decades. (See especially Marian L. Tupy and Gale L Pooley’s Simon Abundance Index.) Positive trends have been documented by, among others, Julian Simon, Bjorn Lomborg, Indur Goklany, Johan Norberg, Hans Rosling, Gregg Easterbrook, Steven Pinker, Ronald Bailey and the websites Our World in Data and Human Progress.
At odds with the longitudinal empirical evidence, many sustainable development and degrowth theorists believe that “the historical record of industrialisation in every country is that economic growth is associated with a wide range of forms of environmental damage – from resource depletion to climate change.”
The notion that current levels of population and affluence are already exceeding natural limits, however, does not come from actual data, but from a few influential frameworks such as the IPAT identity, the Ecological Footprint and Planetary Boundaries, which, because of their built-in assumptions, equate smaller population numbers and greater material poverty with lesser environmental impact.
The reality of a subsistence lifestyle is quite different: Small groups of humans have had a huge impact on nature through (over)hunting and the large-scale use of fire to create landscapes more suitable to game animals or agriculture. According to the philosopher of science Maarten Boudry, the environmental impact of hunter-gatherers was “substantially higher, per capita” than ours because they laid “a larger claim on the ecosystem, in return for a much lower standard of living.”
Climate change models have also predicted much more warming than has been observed in the real world, although if warming does worsen, a more affluent and energy-rich society can deal more resiliently with both the human impacts and environmental threats of floods, fires, or other damage.
2) Putting billionaires, bankers, industrialists and their foundations—in other words capitalism and the profit motive—at the heart of our plan to “save the planet” has been a mistake.
As Karl Marx acknowledged, the “capitalist mode of production extends the utilisation of the excretions of production and consumption.” In this fashion, the “so-called waste” was typically turned “into new elements of production, either of the same, or of some other line of industry” in order to improve “the rate of profit.”
Marx described industrial waste recovery as the “second big source of economy in the conditions of production” after the economies of scale. In other words, the profit motive has always rewarded manufacturers who turned freely available polluting emissions into lucrative by-products.
Private property has also provided strong incentives to take care of resources and land, if only because one would get better value for them.
Gibbs is apparently unaware of the appalling environmental record of communist regimes. As documented by many people (including Marxist intellectuals), waste and inefficiency reigned supreme in the absence of private property and a profit-and-loss price system.
Temporary stewardship or communal ownership have so often translated into tragedy of the commons scenarios in the absence of the immediate incentives that come with individual responsibility. As the English agricultural writer Arthur Young famously observed long before Marx: “Give a man the secure possession of bleak rock, and he will turn it into a garden; give him nine years lease of a garden, and he will convert it into a desert.”
3) Things made by industrial civilization will not save us from industrial civilization.
We are born, live and die surrounded by the “things made by industrial civilization.” Estimates suggest that before industrial civilization life expectancy was around 30 years in all regions of the world. Today the global average life expectancy is above 70 years. Why do we need saving from industrial civilization?
4) “Green” energy is not an attempt to save the planet—but to save our lifestyles. Wealth. Capitalism itself.
Wealth is not necessarily an evil. We all want to have more than enough to survive. In fact, it would be counter-productive to demonize a universally desired state. Perhaps it is even an evolutionary drive.
Those without a surplus eke out an existence that barely satisfies their needs, let alone allows them to think of wants. What matters is not that one has wealth, but what one does with a surplus. Those with a surplus can turn around and improve their surroundings and the lives of others. Before condemning wealth, look at the possibilities it could open, as well as the intentions that come with it.
With the governments as engaged in both the financial and regulatory aspects of the major developed world economies as they have been for decades, barely a shadow of free enterprise and a true market remain, although there is still enough space, for the most part, for private property and a sense of responsibility. While it is not difficult to condemn crony capitalism for the distortion of incentives and the outright theft of tax money, it should not lead to the condemnation of the market economy, the only socioeconomic order that rewards personal responsibility, a modicum of long-term thinking, and off the wall innovation.
Crony capitalists who make their money by gaming the political system rather than creating superior products are happy to cash in on “green energy” mirages that would never see the light of day without taxpayers’ money. There, we agree with Moore and his collaborators: There are far too many pigs at that trough, but they are merely following the skewed incentives. Only a major change of incentives could positively refocus these market behaviours.
5) We cannot have our planet and eat it too.
Humanity can spare much of the surface of the planet (plants and animals) and enjoy the benefits of higher standards of living by digging resources from below the ground. Although not perfect, carbon fuels and various minerals have drastically reduced harvesting pressures on wild resources such as whales (whale oil, perfume base), trees (lumber, firewood, charcoal), birds (feathers), agricultural products (fats and fibres derived from animals and plants, leather from livestock, dyes from plants and animals) and other wildlife (ivory, furs, skin).
This large-scale substitution process allowed our ancestors to, in the words of historical demographer E. A. Wrigley, “break free from photosynthesis,” even if only the ongoing or most recent photosynthesis.
In 1944, anti-Malthusian geologist Kirtley Fletcher Mather observed that a
hundred years ago, nearly 80 per cent of all the things men used were derived from the plant and animal kingdoms, with only about 20 per cent from the mineral kingdom. Today only about 30 per cent of the things used in industrialized countries come from things that grow; about 70 per cent have their sources in mines and quarries.
If certain environmentalists approve of destroying mountain tops to install intermittent energy producing wind turbines, why do they not approve of destroying a mountain top to mine valuable minerals allowing for the construction of superior energy storage devices and medical instrumentation?
6) Infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide, and there is no “green,” “sustainable” version of growth.
The economist Erich Zimmermann observed in 1933 that, before the emergence of humans:
the earth was replete with fertile soil, with trees and edible fruits, with rivers and waterfalls, with coal beds, oil pools, and mineral deposits; the forces of gravitation, of electro-magnetism, of radio-activity were there; the sun set forth his life-bringing rays, gathered the clouds, raised the winds; but there were no resources.
Resources, he argued, “are not, they become, they evolve out of the triune interaction of nature, man, and culture, in which nature sets outer limits, but man and culture are largely responsible for the portion of physical totality that is made available for human use…” This constant transformation of extremely abundant but otherwise useless “physical stuff” into economic resources is best conveyed by the so-called McKelvey box.
As a result of market processes and human ingenuity, economically recoverable coal, petroleum and natural gas reserves are now more abundant than ever. In Zimmermann’s words, “knowledge is truly the mother of all resources.”
Environmental degradation is not a function of increased population and economic growth. It is rather a society’s (mis)handling of industrial wastes and sewage and its capacity to innovate that matter. For instance, air pollution in London was much worse in 1900 – when Londoners were much less numerous and much poorer – than today. Needless to say, London, Paris, New York, and all other major cities also struggled at the time with horse manure, a public health problem that was much worse than anything that would come afterward.
More recently, the journalist Charles Mann observed that Paul and Anne Ehrlich opened their Population Bomb with a vivid description of the polluted conditions they had observed in New Delhi in 1966, a situation they attributed to overpopulation.
Yet, as Mann writes, the Indian capital at the time had a population of approximately 2.8 million while that of Paris was near 8 million. “No matter how carefully one searches through archives,” Mann observes,
it is not easy to find expressions of alarm about how the Champs-Élysées was alive with people. Instead, Paris in 1966 was an emblem of elegance and sophistication.
Needless to say, this was partly the result of increased carbon fuel usage that had made possible significant advances in wealth creation, some of which in turn made possible advances such as sanitizing drinking water and removing and treating garbage and sewage.
7) There is no technology that does not come from a profound cost to our Mother Earth.
To give but one refutation: Beginning with the work of geographer Alexander Mather, many analysts have documented a forest transition in all wealthy and many developing economies, meaning a shift from a shrinking to an expanding forest area. Over time transportation improved, agriculture became more productive, humans left the countryside en masse to move to cities, and much marginal agricultural land was abandoned and allowed to “re-wild.”
8) The mining, smelting, manufacturing, mountain dissolving, forest clearing, pit digging, air polluting, water poisoning, human exploiting, and fossil fuel burning necessary to bring us our “green” energy are no small matter.
9) No “breakthroughs” in green technology will eliminate their significant and growing impact on the living planet.
True, they are inherently flawed.
10) Constant promises of “technological advancements” is the dangling of a shiny object in front of humans to distract us.
In 1844, a young Friedrich Engels famously wrote that the “productive power at mankind’s disposal is immeasurable” and the “productivity of the soil can be increased ad infinitum by the application of capital, labour and science.”
Engels refuted Malthus by observing that “science increases at least as much as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation [but] science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression.”
A century later the progressive American economist Clarence Ayres echoed and clarified Engels’ insight by emphasizing the importance of “the principle of combination” in human creativity. The exponential growth or proliferation of technical devices could thus be explained because “the more devices there are, the greater is the number of potential combinations.”
New and better technology, in turn, meant that natural resources were really “materials” that could become ever more abundant as “natural resources are defined by the prevailing technology” rather than what nature had made available to humanity.
Constant promises of technological advancements is what humans do. Humans have evolved culture as a way of keeping engaged and appreciating their moment here. Those who do not appreciate this aspect of humanity seem to miss the beautiful yet fragile nature of our intellect and our engagement with the world and each other.
Part II tomorrow will complete this bullet-by-bullet rejoinder to executive producer Jeff Gibbs’s defense of ‘Planet of the Humans.’
Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak are authors of Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change (2018), a major contribution to the sustainable development literature. The authors describe their book here; an interview with Desrochers about the book is here.