“I have applied Simon’s framework to the issue of climate change, although my historical perspective allowed me to see more of the forest rather than obsess about a few trees. Try as I might, I just cannot ignore the unique and large-scale benefits brought to humanity by the ever increasing use of carbon fuels (e.g., from longer lives and better health to cleaner air and water, more abundant food and reforestation).”
Yesterday, Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, summarized their new book, Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change. Today, MasterResource is pleased to interview Professor Desrochers about his latest book.
Q. In his 1981 classic, The Ultimate Resource, Julian Simon decoupled population growth from resource depletion, rising pollution, food supply, and other popularly believed barriers to progress. Your book applies the “Simon model” to climate change. What inspired this extension?
P.D. Well, it’s a long story that involves some real-life experiences and much “standing of the shoulders of previous intellectual giants.”
I first read about Simon in a popular Québec magazine at the turn of the 1990s and eventually got my hands on The Ultimate Resource II and The State of Humanity not long after they were published. I was hooked and bought completely into Simon’s worldview.
I was then working on my economic geography doctoral dissertation on technology transfers across different lines of work. Part of my project involved bringing insights from the study of human creativity and the history of technology into the sub-discipline.
While doing this I kept stumbling across another topic I thought relevant to Simon’s framework but missing from his writings, namely how in a market economy, creative individuals have always had strong incentives to create valuable by-products out of polluting emissions and waste, in the process creating new wealth and lessening environmental impact.
For instance, at the beginning of the petroleum industry only the kerosene fraction was valuable, and the rest of the barrel typically ended up polluting the environment in various ways. In time, all these waste products (including gasoline) were put to good uses.
I eventually published a fair amount on the topic and some of this work found its way into the book. Those interested on my research output, can find our more here.
Q. And then academia?
P.D. Rather fortuitously, I was hired a few years later in a geography department where I inherited a dormant undergraduate course on energy issues. It had been taught a few years before by a former student of Vaclav Smil who had built it around his mentor’s 1994 Energy in World History.
The book was out of print by the time I showed up, so I decided to redesign the course. While I kept a strong historical emphasis, I also added and/or rotated a number of contemporary policy issues, including climate change.
I believe updating and refining this course material for a decade and a half has turned me into something of a decent energy generalist. The course syllabus is available online.
Q. I remember MasterResource featured your “Energy and Society” syllabus a few years back.
P.D. I was also given carte blanche to develop other undergraduate and graduate courses in which I spent much time educating myself on agricultural, environmental, business, public health, transportation, and intellectual history. (Links to my various course syllabi can be found here.)
Some additional topics I could justify reading about for course preparation and research work also included eugenics, population control policy and past fears of anthropogenic climate change, all of which are discussed to some extent in the book.
Q. Climate change—the never ending scare ….
P.D. Yes. I have applied Simon’s framework to the issue of climate change, although my historical perspective allowed me to see more of the forest rather than obsess about a few trees. Try as I might, I just cannot ignore the unique and large-scale benefits brought to humanity by the ever increasing use of carbon fuels (e.g., from longer lives and better health to cleaner air and water, more abundant food and reforestation).
Q. Simon himself was rather agnostic about anthropogenic climate change. On the one hand, he was dubious about the alarm as just the latest from the same Malthusian crowd. On the other hand, he believed that human ingenuity would effectively address it if it were to be a problem. How might he view this issue today?
P.D. Simon lived through the global cooling scare of the late 1960s and 1970s. He then saw how quickly the climate, environmentalist and population control establishments switched to obsessing about carbon dioxide emissions while deliberately ignoring or minimizing the role played by numerous natural factors.
Far from being an “inconvenient truth,” highly unlikely catastrophist scenarios based on CO2 emissions are now the only rationale left to support the pessimistic/Malthusian worldview in an ever cleaner, healthier, and resource-rich world. So I’m pretty sure Simon would insist we focus on manageable real world problems instead.
For my part, I have read too many historical documents on other environmental scares and alleged human impact on extreme weather events to consider the recent past as being outside the boundaries of human experience. I also don’t believe anyone who hasn’t already bought into the carbon dioxide obsession can really look at current cost-benefit analysis and not conclude that carbon fuel-powered economic development and the increased resilience that comes with it (from better infrastructure to public health measures) are infinitely more beneficial than energy rationing.
Q. So what does it mean to be a “climate optimist”?
P.D. I’m not sure “climate optimist” is the right term. I would personally describe myself as a climate realist inasmuch as I believe the climate will keep changing with or without human activities and that droughts, floods, typhoons, tornadoes and other bad things will not go away, even with meaningful (on a human scale) energy rationing.
Our only realistic option is to build ever more resilience against whatever nature will unavoidably throw at us. And in the coming decades I don’t see how this can be achieved without burning more carbon fuels.
Q. The major take away from your study is that CO2 freedom, or nonpriced CO2 emissions, is key to environmental progress, not only other human progress.
P.D. Right. In short, unlike the implicit assumption built into the models or worldview of environmental activists and scientists, there is no environmental virtue in lower human numbers and greater material deprivation.
For instance, the city where I live, Toronto, was a lot more polluted over a century ago when something like half a million very poor people (by today’s standards) depended on horses (and all the problems that came with them) and the extremely polluting coal burning technologies of the time than today when over five million much wealthier people enjoy much cleaner air and water and greener surroundings (among other things).
Of course, you can go back further in time and point out that poor people have had a significant environmental impact historically, from wiping out megafauna on most continents and bird species on many islands to profoundly transforming landscapes through repeated burning in order to increase the number of game animals. More relevant though is that, in more recent times, low productivity agriculture (from slash-and-burn to extensive grazing) and continued reliance on wild food have taken their toll on various ecosystems.
But while it is true that some of these practices could be sustained in the long run (in the process guaranteeing that their practitioners remain poor though), the fact remains that wealthier people in more economically advanced societies have inexorably reduced their impact on surrounding ecosystems because of their ability to replace things harvested on the surface of the planet (animals and plants) by better things made from stuff extracted from under the ground.
Think of cars, trucks and tractors replacing horses and mules (including the large amount of agricultural land devoted to feeding them), coal and natural gas replacing fuelwood and other biomass, synthetic dyes and textile replacing plants grown for their fibers or dying properties, mineral fertilizers replacing biomass, steel and concrete replacing wood…
Q. It is a fossil-fuel world….
P.D. Carbon fuels and everything they made possible (from tractors and container ships to plastic sheeting and irrigation systems) have also allowed humanity to concentrate food production in the best locations and to drastically increase yields, thus paving the way to the abandonment and reforestation of much marginal agricultural land.
Q. This gets to public policy.
P.D. What we need in order to fight environmental degradation is to make sure that people in less advanced parts of the world can also be the beneficiaries of these processes. There is no doubt in my mind that these beneficial substitutions will happen more quickly the cheaper carbon fuels are. Of course, the argument is even more powerful when you think of the social consequences of less affordable energy.
Now, as with everything else, bad political institutions in some parts of the world will result in greater pollution as more carbon fuels are burned. The solution, however, is not to ban or tax everything from coal to plastic bags, but rather to improve standards of living and public governance. In my opinion, our guiding principle as far as carbon fuels are concerned should be the creation of lesser problems than those that existed before.
Q. You have a co-author, Joanna Szurmak. Tell us about her.
P.D. Well, Joanna is very modest and tends to describe herself as an academic misfit, but she is a truly remarkable polymath. She has a graduate degree in electrical engineering and is currently pursuing a PhD in Science and Technology Studies on top of her full-time day job as an academic research librarian.
Joanna works, or has worked, with academic departments ranging from philosophy, psychology, and anthropology to robotics, computer science, and mathematics. She also has a long-standing interest in human creativity and is a first-rate writer. She was the perfect co-author and added much to the book. (Truth be told, the book would have been better if she had been able to free herself from other obligations.)
Q. You two are swimming upstream with this new project. What is the marketing plan?
P.D. Honestly, there wasn’t even a plan to write this book in the first place. Joanna and I originally agreed to write a short policy paper explaining why population control activists had always been wrong in the past (in short, humans are not like other animals because they trade, innovate and dig up underground resources).
We were then horrified when we caught up with the latest calls for population control in the name of climate change. I was on sabbatical leave and decided (without telling the policy think tank that had commissioned our original paper) that a more detailed rebuttal was in order. And truth be told, Joanna cut down on her sleep way too much over the last year in order to work on this…
Anyway, we’re glad a systematic debunking of the population control/climate change rhetoric is now available in the form of a short book. Our marketing plan (if you can call it that), is to write a few shorter pieces based on our book, e-mail as many people who might have an interest in this as we can and talk to anyone who will have us on their podcast or blogs. In the meantime, we’ve made freely available a couple of short pieces on the background and originality of the book and a summary of our key arguments.
Thank you Professor Desrochers