“It is encouraging that eco-modernists ‘reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s.’ However, they still ’embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation.’ So their rejection of top-down development and innovation is only partial.”
The New York Times has published a remarkable article. Remarkable for the Times, that is. It has taken to task the United States and other developed countries for engaging in heavy-handed eco-imperialism.
The impetus for the article is a new infrastructure development bank being created by China that will begin operations at the end of the year. Such a bank could, as noted by the Times, rival the World Bank and other development banks controlled by the United States. Indeed, the Obama administration initially encouraged countries not to join the bank, arguing that it could undermine the World Bank. But its advice went largely ignored as several poor Asian countries as well as several developed countries rushed to join.
“The reason for the defiance is not hard to find: The West’s environmental priorities are blocking their access to energy,” the Times states. The article goes on to point out that poor countries would like assistance to “build up the kind of energy infrastructure that could deliver the comfort and abundance that Americans and Europeans enjoy. Too often, the United States and its allies have said no.”
The story goes on to argue that the West’s brand of environmentalism is often counter-productive to genuine environmental progress.
If billions of impoverished humans are not offered a shot at genuine development, the environment will not be saved. And that requires not just help in financing low-carbon energy sources, but also a lot of new energy, period. Offering a solar panel for every thatched roof is not going to cut it.
Joyashree Ray, professor of economics at Jadavpur University in India is quoted as saying, “We shouldn’t be talking about 10 villages that got power for a light bulb. What we should be talking about is how the village got a power connection for a cold storage facility or an industrial park.”
Those who are making these types of environmental arguments call themselves eco-modernists. The newly released Eco-Modernist Manifesto describes their point of view. While there is much to quibble with in many of the assertions in the Manifesto, the rejection of the notion that we can improve the environment by hurting people–the paradigm of the traditional environmental movement–is a welcome development, however late. Conservatives and libertarians have opposed such thinking for years.
The Eco-Planning Delusion
There is also ample reason to doubt that a new development bank will actually lead to genuine and robust economic development, even without counter-productive environmental strings attached. Such top-down investments from international lending institutions have a dismal track record for obvious reasons. It is unlikely that far-away bureaucrats would have the specialized knowledge necessary to sensibly direct the economic development of a third world country.
It is encouraging that eco-modernists “reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s.” However, they still “embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation.” So their rejection of top-down development and innovation is only partial.
Genuine economic development and welfare enhancing innovation come from free people using their own specialized knowledge of time and place (Friedrich Hayek) to pursue their own well-being thereby enhancing the well-being of those around them (Adam Smith). The best intentions of government are often frustrated by agenda-driven special interest groups and by the inability of politicians and bureaucrats to avoid substituting their own interests for those of the people they are supposed to serve.
That said, the eco-modernists are more than welcome to the fight against authoritarian environmentalism.