Development Strategies Out of the Ark: (Alex Cull)

(guest article by Alex Cull)

It’s something we’ve become used to hearing from the sustainability merchants. The WWF, for instance, tell us that if everyone in the world lived as we do in the UK we’d need three planets instead of just the one [1]. Add an extra planet to make it four, and everyone could live like an American, according to the WWF’s 2012 Living Planet Report [2]. “We are using 50 per cent more resources than the Earth can provide. By 2030, even two planets will not be enough” [3].

The obvious answer would be to acquire a few more planets – this corner of the galaxy does seem to be abundant with them – but that’s a matter for future centuries. In the meantime, what the WWF and fellow green outfits want us to do is consume less, so that we can all live happily and sustainably on the one planet Earth – which means that we ought to use less energy and raw materials, burn less fuel, eat less, travel less, move less, want less.

That Americans and Europeans should have to consume less goes without saying – we’ve always been the villains of the piece, where eco-catastrophe is concerned, and our comeuppance has long been overdue. But then there’s a problem. The Earth now has a population of 7 billion, set to reach about 10 billion by mid-century. Many people in the developing world want to have what Americans and Europeans have – our middle-class lifestyles and consumption patterns. And that, say the WWF, will send humanity’s global footprint off the scale.

This is the problem and the dilemma. The teeming masses are poor, and everyone agrees that poverty is a bad thing. But if the poor were to become rich and the hordes of Asia, Africa and Latin America all began to drive Ferraris and scoff smoked salmon canapés alongside their wealthy Western counterparts (I might be exaggerating just a little, for effect) – it would surely mean catastrophe. And not just for the salmon.

All this is straight out of Malthus, of course. “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race”, etc., and so forth [4]. Since the days when flares were first in fashion, the good reverend has been enjoying (if “enjoying” is quite the right word) a bit of a revival, one famous milestone being “The Limits to Growth” in 1972.

Another early milestone, somewhat less well-known, is the book “Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives”, by Paul R. Ehrlich and Dennis Pirages, published in 1974.

In Chapter 7 of “Ark II”, for example, the authors solve the problem of world poverty [5]. They say there are three things everyone must do. Firstly, people in rich countries must stop consuming so much. Secondly, rich countries should send massive amounts of money, in the form of development aid, to poor countries. Thirdly, “rising expectations in both ODCs and LDCs must be dampened”, i.e., people in both rich and poor countries should lower their expectations, with regard to consumption patterns and the way they live. (In the authors’ jargon, by the way, “ODCs” are “overdeveloped” countries, “LDCs” are less-developed countries.)

The authors expand on that problematic third point:

“Many leaders of the poor countries now have their minds set on repeating the mistakes that have been made by overdeveloped nations. They want polluting steel mills, automobile factories, and other types of heavy industry. They want to free themselves of dependence on the ODCs for manufactured goods and even to compete with the ODCs in some markets. It will be virtually impossible for a significant number of the LDCs ever to become industrialized along traditional lines for reasons that have been previously discussed. If, by some miracle, the job did get done, humanity would have to pay a terrible price in terms of environmental destruction.”

So, no industrialisation for the likes of Nigeria, Mexico or Vietnam. Where will they get manufactured products from, then? From the developed countries (say the authors) and at prices the poor countries can afford. But what if Nigerians want to drive BMWs? Well, sorry…

“The LDCs do not require many of the trinkets that seem to be essential in the overdeveloped areas of the world, and an immediate problem that can be tackled is setting new developmental priorities. Poor countries need effective mass transit and freight systems, bicycles, small motor scooters, farm-to-market roads, pest-proof storage facilities, and fertilizer plants. Most of them will have to depend on agriculture as a major source of income simply because they lack domestic deposits of minerals and fuels. Thus, leaders of LDCs might well consider moving in new directions and developing new types of societies that are not heavily dependent on consumption of material goods.”

So all that development aid would have strings attached. Lucky old LDCs, eh – no BMWs permitted but they’re allowed bicycles and fertiliser plants. However, the authors have some alternative lifestyle suggestions for those in poor countries who might otherwise hanker after “trinkets”.

“New satisfactions might be found in new forms of interpersonal relations, meditation, and appreciation of the natural environment, as well as turning inward to personal development rather than outward to the material world. In many countries this would simply mean reinstating traditional life-styles that have been displaced by the industrial onslaught.”

That last sentence invites some scrutiny, doesn’t it. How romantic it sounds! People in poor countries get given the chance to rediscover the traditional lifestyles (replete with personal development and appreciation for nature) they had forsaken when succumbing to the “industrial onslaught”. Rescued from all that nasty over-development!

Except… Something is missing. And that something is the rather obvious fact that people in poor countries (and in all countries, come to that) generally have their own ideas as to what they want. It is not for the authors or anyone else to decide whether a person living in Bangladesh or Ghana or Peru ought to desire something the authors deem a “trinket” and whether they should be able to acquire it or not. And it is not for people in developed countries to urge people in poorer countries to abjure industrialisation and return to “traditional lifestyles”.

The authors also write: “… it is clear that cherished beliefs that the LDCs can some day catch up with the industrial countries are nothing more than myths propagated by the ‘haves’ to keep the ‘have nots’ in line” – which seems to imply that people in developing countries are unable to think for themselves and are having ideas put into their simple heads by wily Westerners” [6].

This line of thinking is, of course, horribly patronising and neo-colonialistic tosh, not to put too fine a point on it. And really, you don’t need me to tell you that. But echoes of such attitudes have persisted in environmental circles – in their 2008 report “Survival of the Fittest”, for instance, Oxfam encouraged the maintaining of East African people in traditional lifestyles, instead of “inappropriate development policies” [7].

The authors go on to write:

“In an oversimplified analogy, the world today can be viewed as one in which a few wealthy people drive powerful automobiles and a lot of poor people walk but want powerful automobiles. Ways must be found to change this picture to that of a world in which everyone does some walking but may also have a motor scooter; where some people have small economical cars, many people ride on trains and buses, but nobody has or really desires a powerful automobile.”

This is where I would make the following suggestion: how about a world where a few people drive luxury cars, many people drive economical cars and some have motorbikes and scooters, many people ride on trains and buses and where many of the same people also cycle and walk? This is, after all, something not unlike what we have in the UK. A few people can afford to drive top-of-the-range cars, some aspire to do so but cannot afford it and many are perfectly happy to do without. A few people live in huge mansions but many are content with their two-bed flat or three-bed semi. A few might regularly dine on sirloin steak but many would settle for fish fingers with peas and baked potatoes. You get the idea. We have a mix of consumption patterns, and the best thing is there is no need for a committee to impose this situation upon us from on high. There is no call for a quota on Ferrari ownership. Why should Bangladeshis not be able, if they want, to have something similar?

The opposing argument, of course, would be that even that relatively modest mix of consumption patterns, if adopted everywhere, would sink the planet. But would it, really? Yes, the global human population is still rising, although it’s likely to peak later this century. And yes, many resources are finite. Nevertheless, we live in a world of 7 billion people and also a world where bumper harvests are being produced and where more people have been lifted out of extreme poverty than at any other time in history. This is not a perfect world, but it is certainly not the environmental hellhole predicted by modern Malthusians 40 years ago. Now they foresee us descending into an environmental hellhole over the next 40 years, hence all the extra non-existent planets they say we’ll need by then.

They could be right (anything’s possible) but I think their track record speaks for itself. This is the kind of people who were predicting global famine and mass starvation in the 1970s and ’80s and saying that the West should withhold food from poor countries unless they adopted draconian population-control measures. Now they are dampening rising expectations in the developing world, all in the name of sustainability. I often wonder why on earth anyone is still listening to them.

References

[1] http://www.wwf.org.uk/what_we_do/about_us/building_a_one_planet_future.cfm

[2] http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/1_lpr_2012_online_full_size_single_pages_final_120516.pdf

[3] http://wwf.panda.org/about_our_earth/all_publications/living_planet_report/2012_lpr/

[4] Thomas Malthus, “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, 1798.

[5] Paul R. Ehrlich and Dennis Pirages, “Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives”, 1974: Chapter 7, “Sailing Troubled Waters: The International System”, p.243

[6] Paul R. Ehrlich and Dennis Pirages, “Ark II: Social Response to Environmental Imperatives”, 1974: Chapter 7, “Sailing Troubled Waters: The International System”, p.233

[7] http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/bp116-pastoralism-climate-change-eafrica-0808.pdf

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17 Responses to Development Strategies Out of the Ark: (Alex Cull)

  1. johanna says:

    Nice post, Alex.

    The other thing the back-to-nature crowd fail to mention is life expectancy. It seems that either they are happy to allow people in poor countries to continue to die much earlier than us, or perhaps they want to reduce our life expectancy to their level?

    The correlation between economic prosperity and life expectancy is pretty direct. And if they claim to be able to graft our standards of public health and medical technology onto otherwise poor agrarian societies, they are simply lying.

  2. alexjc38 says:

    Thanks, johanna! I suspect that the authors would see lowered life expectancy as the lesser of two evils – if people die earlier, it’s sad but at least they’re no longer contributing to dangerous overpopulation, and are now part of the solution, as it were.

    On the subject of life expectancy, there’s a cheerful little article written by Paul Ehrlich in 1969 called “Eco-Catastrophe!”, in which he looks 10 years into the future and discovers – big surprise – ecological catastrophes happening absolutely everywhere.
    http://www.unz.org/Pub/Ramparts-1969sep-00024?View=PDF

    One scenario is of killer smog and chemical pollution reducing Americans’ life expectancy over the next decade, by ludicrous amounts. Studies “estimated that Americans born since 1946 (when DDT usage began) now had a life expectancy of only 49 years, and predicted that if current patterns continued, this expectancy would reach 42 years by 1980…”

    Unhappy migrant workers start to run riot in California: “The workers, calling themselves “The Walking Dead,” demanded immediate compensation for their shortened lives, and crash research programs to attempt to lengthen them.”

    Paul Ehrlich thus anticipates by 40 years the current Zombie Apocalypse fad. In fact, it would be a tough question to decide which scenario was less credible – the future world Ehrlich was imagining in 1969 or World War Z.

  3. johanna says:

    Well Alex, according to the CIA Factbook, the 2013 life expectancy in the US was 78.62 years, so they were just a wee bit out in that projection.

    Even the poorest countries hover around 50 years.

    Here’s the link listing life expectancies for info:

    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2102rank.html

  4. alexjc38 says:

    Agreed – it’s total fantasy.

    One irony is that life expectancy around the world has actually risen over the last few decades – a sign, you’d think, that things are going in the right direction.

    Although now this has given rise to talk of “cancer epidemics” and such, and we’re back in Ehrlich territory – can’t win with these people!

  5. j ferguson says:

    Alex,
    I too liked what you wrote. I don’t find the future unimaginable but maybe not reliably imaginable. My thought is that the rate of increase in population will diminish as impoverished areas of the world work themselves out of it enabled by the communications revolution which is now coming to them. increased longevity with reduced uncertainty about survival in later years seems to reduce birth rates wherever these conditions stabilize – and they seem certain to stabilize.

    One might also assume that agricultural productivity will continue to improve and energy-use for work done decline. There is a wonderful chapter in Dionysius Lardner’s book, The Steam Engine Explained and Illustrated (free in various ebook formats at gutenberg.org) written in 1850 speculating on the likely impact of cheap swift transportation on England. Among his observations is that steam railways would reduce amount of land required to support horse which then be converted to human support – reduced cost of food through reduced cost of transportation and so forth.

    It seems that few of the forecasters of doom are able to look at what it going on right now and extrapolate it into the future. I wonder how many of the people who write these books are technically aware even in the slightest.

  6. alexjc38 says:

    @ j ferguson, many thanks – also thanks for the introduction to Dionysius Lardner’s book, which is fascinating. There are some striking passages in it, including this one, from Chapter 1:

    “… how much more imposing will the subject become when the effects which the steam engine has produced upon the well-being of the human race are considered. It has penetrated the crust of the earth, and drawn from beneath it boundless treasures of mineral wealth, which, without its aid, would have been rendered inaccessible; it has drawn up, in measureless quantity, the fuel on which its own life and activity depend; it has relieved men from their most slavish toils, and reduced labour in a great degree to light and easy superintendence. To enumerate its present effects, would be to count almost every comfort and every luxury of life.”

    The author understood, in the mid-19th century, something that many greens seem to have forgotten; without cheap and abundant energy, we’re back to a life of “slavish toils”.

  7. j ferguson says:

    Alex, it does make you wonder where the doomsayers have been while all of this was going on. I don’t know about you but I was never enchanted by slavish toil.

  8. Dodgy Geezer says:

    …And yes, many resources are finite….

    Er… no, they are NOT. I presume that you haven’t read Julian Simon – you wrote a long piece on his specialist subject without mentioning him once. Read him, and then come back and tell us where you went wrong…

  9. alexjc38 says:

    @ Dodgy Geezer, yes I think I was somewhat thoughtless in my wording, at that point. A timely reminder of Julian Simon and “The Ultimate Resource”, which I’ve dipped into but should really read all the way though – thanks!

  10. Dodgy Geezer says:

    Alas, I find that I am both abrupt and rude on the net, and then disarmed by a soft answer! I apologise for my shortcomings earlier.

    For the benefit of those who are less lightly to see any published work of Simon’s, he points out that what we often refer to as ‘resources’ really aren’t. They are ‘raw materials’. Take oil as an example. For years it bubbled up out of the ground, getting in people’s way and ruining a perfectly good desert. Then a gentleman named Edward Butler arrived on the scene in the 1800s, and showed that there were advantages in running the newly-developed internal combustion engine (which up until then had run on gas) with petrol, a distillate of oil.

    All of a sudden, oil became a valuable resource commodity, and people have worried about Peak Oil ever since. But what was the ‘resource’? It seems to be oil, but then oil was NOT a ‘resource’ in 1700. Had it changed? Not exactly. What Simon identified as the resource was actually two things – the raw material (oil) plus ‘human ingenuity’. It was this inventive streak in humans which gives us the ability to create resources out of any raw materials we find around us.

    In theory raw materials may run out – though we do have a planet-full of them, and much more in places we can currently reach in our local solar system. Nothing, of course, is ever destroyed completely – raw materials can always be recovered or re-created. But as far as we know, human ingenuity is infinite. More importantly, the more humans there are, the more ingenuity there is. Simon did not fear a never-ending expansion of humanity, because he knew that there would always be sufficient ingenuity to make each generation’s lives better and better, and produce infinite amounts of resource. Which is where we came in…

  11. NoFixedAddress says:

    Thanks Alex. I appreciated your article.

    When ever I see a quote from Ehrlich I am sure I nearly hear the sound of one hand clapping.

  12. alexjc38 says:

    @ NoFixedAddress, thanks!

    @ Dodgy Geezer, I’ve been reading up on my Julian Simon, and like this account of how whale-oil, formerly a valuable resource, then became effectively a non-resource when human ingenuity came into play (as per your comment above):

    “Because of increased demand due to population growth and increased income, the price of whale oil for lamps jumped in the l840′s, and the U.S. Civil War pushed it even higher, leading to a whale oil “crisis.” This provided incentive for enterprising people to discover and produce substitutes. First came oil from rapeseed, olives, linseed, and camphene oil from pine trees. Then inventors learned how to get coal oil from coal. Other ingenious persons produced kerosene from the rock oil that seeped to the surface, a product so desirable that its price then rose from $.75 a gallon to $2.00. This high price stimulated enterprisers to focus on the supply of oil, and finally Edwin L. Drake brought in his famous well in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Learning how to refine the oil took a while. But in a few years there were hundreds of small refiners in the U.S., and soon the bottom fell out of the whale oil market, the price falling from $2.50 or more at its peak around l866 to well below a dollar.”

  13. David Ross says:

    Your comment:

    “The obvious answer would be to acquire a few more planets – this corner of the galaxy does seem to be abundant with them – but that’s a matter for future centuries.”

    reminded me of some bumper-sticker type responses to the activities of the eco-zealots Earth First!, (better known for providing the Unabomber with his list of targets) that went something like this

    “Earth First! We’ll strip-mine the other planets later.” : )

    This was years before the movie Avatar, by the way.

  14. I know nothing of Unabomber and his thoughts, but stripmining other planets or asteroids is a venerable scifi theme.
    The heyday of eco-faction in the sixties and seventies corresponds to the beginning of the decline of scifi literature, and its replacement by the clunking Hollywood version initiated by Kubrick with his 2001 Space Odyssey. Imaginative poetic ideas thrown out by genius dropouts from engineering schools cannot be transferred to the screen without losing their magic, and they were replaced by in print by the ponderous pessimistic musings of tenured professors.
    Could environmentalism be merely the poisonous byproduct of the decline of science fiction?

  15. alexjc38 says:

    NASA’s Kepler mission has apparently just found upwards of 700 exoplanets, so it looks as though there’s plenty of real estate to acquire, once we have the means, hopefully before the Romulans – or whoever it turns out to be – get there first.

    It would be interesting to trace the influences that went into enviro-disaster SF (for want of a better term.) John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids was published in 1951 and The Kraken Wakes (which features melting ice caps and catastrophic sea-level rise) in 1953, so there must have been something in the air even then.

  16. manicbeancounter says:

    The yearning for a past Golden Age is nothing new at all. The Victorians spent a lot of time glorifying the squalor of medieval life.

  17. alexjc38 says:

    Some Victorians certainly painted an unduly romantic picture of the Middle Ages. I found the fantasy novel “The Well at the World’s End” by William Morris (published 1896) an enjoyable read, for instance, but the setting is like an impossibly rosy version of the Medieval Warm Period. What hardship there is mostly comes from the plot and characters – otherwise, to my recollection, there’s little sign of any squalor, famine or pestilence!

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