The Scientific Alliance Newsletter - Changing and informed scientific debate

27th April 2012


People versus the planet
It is a recurring theme of the environmentalist movement that much of our species’ impact on the Earth is malign. Deep greens go so far as to see us as a blight on nature and in some basic way ‘unnatural’. James Lovelock captured the essence of this with his Gaia hypothesis, seeing the biosphere as effectively a self-sustaining system which would eventually react to our provocation to rid itself of the nuisance or, at best, put us firmly in our place. He has suggested over the last few years that burning fossil fuels would be our downfall, with the remnants of the human race surviving on a few high-latitude islands and near the Poles.

He fell out with many of his fellow greens by prescribing nuclear power as a necessary evil to be employed to avoid the coming apocalypse. However, in recent days, he has changed his mind and decided that his previous views on climate change were too extreme (‘Gaia’ scientist James Lovelock: I was ‘alarmist’ about climate change). Not that he’s changed his mind entirely; he is quoted in the article as saying “We will have global warming, but it’s been deferred a bit.”

But such eye-catching headlines do not change the basic pessimism about human life at the heart of environmentalism. The Royal Society has now produced a weighty report (People and the Planet) which follows in the footsteps of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, first published in 1972. Chaired by Sir John Sulston FRS (chair of the Institute for Science, Ethics and Innovation at the University of Manchester), this new study has been produced by a 22-strong working group of senior academics from the UK, China, USA, Africa and elsewhere (plus Jonathan Porritt, formerly the UK government’s sustainability advisor), who are very much part of the scientific establishment.

The message is again that humans are in danger of exceeding the finite resources of the planet because of a combination of continued population growth and overconsumption. The prescription they offer seems at first sight to be entirely reasonable. Real efforts should be made to lift 1.3 billion people out of extreme poverty, while the rest of us have to tighten our belts a little. The result would be a fairer, more equitable world without the extremes of poverty and wealth we see today.

But, like so much wisdom handed down by the world’s elite, this is an idealistic vision which may seem desirable but which cannot be made to happen by top-down edicts. The lessons of the 20th Century should have been learned: in a democracy, significant change can only achieved with the consent of the governed, while attempts to reach paradise through totalitarianism have been an unmitigated disaster. Life is a lot more complicated than it looks from the ivory tower.

What are described as three pressing challenges are put forward. The first – enabling the world’s poorest to have a better life – is surely a worthy goal, although the conventional solution of providing international aid has arguably done at least as much harm as good. The third is to reduce population growth (non-coercively), by a combination of education and contraceptive availability, which again few would argue with. But challenge number two is a more controversial one: “in the most developed and the emerging economies unsustainable consumption must be urgently reduced”.

Three of the nine recommendations of the working group address this issue:
2 - The most developed and the emerging economies must stabilise and then reduce material consumption levels through: dramatic improvements in resource use efficiency, including: reducing waste; investment in sustainable resources, technologies and infrastructures; and systematically decoupling economic activity from environmental impact.
8 - National Governments should accelerate the development of comprehensive wealth measures. This should include reforms to the system of national accounts, and improvement in natural asset accounting.
9 -Collaboration between National Governments is needed to develop socio-economic systems and institutions that are not dependent on continued material consumption growth. This will inform the development and implementation of policies that allow both people and the planet to flourish.

This is radical stuff, although much of it will be accepted as self-evident by many in today’s liberal elites. But what, you may ask, has this to do with science? The proposals are nothing less than a manifesto for rejigging the entire world economy, with the implicit assumption of, in effect, world government. For such a utopian (or dystopian, depending on your viewpoint) vision to be achieved, the ‘socio-economic systems and institutions’ would have to be such as to compel nation states to conform.

This entire proposition is based on the intellectual conceit that the authors (representing a wider global elite) know best. Using the tools of science, they know that everything will end in tears unless we change our ways. Rationally argued it may be, but this is part of thread which runs through human society from the earliest times. The great religions have taught their followers to obey divine law to avoid catastrophe; modern-day humanists teach us instead to conform to the constraints of nature.

But these constraints are, to a large extent, in our minds. Natural resources are not infinite, but civilization has developed by finding and exploiting new ones before old ones run out. Sustainability – perhaps the key buzzword in the present vocabulary of policymakers – need only be for a certain time horizon. The Royal Society’s message is that they know what all our resources are and they must be rationed. They forget one of the lessons of history; many barriers and constraints have been overcome, bypassed or found to be irrelevant on the path to today’s unparalled prosperity, which would have seemed fanciful only a generation or two ago.

Science is one of the key enablers of progress and prosperity. The disciplined application of our species’ inherent creativity has achieved enormous things. Of course we don’t live in a perfect world, but huge numbers of people live unimaginably better lives than previous generations could have expected. And these people care about the environment in a way which poorer societies simply cannot afford to. We need to have problems pointed out. We need to continue to improve human welfare and look after natural resources. But let’s allow optimism a chance.

Copyright © 2012 The Scientific Alliance, All rights reserved.