Occasionally, I have mused that environmentalism has a hidden agenda. Some parts of the environmentalist agenda are not controversial. Cleaning up the air and the water are surely good things.
Yet, once environmentalism declared war on carbon dioxide and descended into catastrophic thinking the narrative lost touch with the facts. Those who purveyed apocalyptic visions of industrialized nations destroying the planet were prophesying that we were going to pay a steep price for our capitalist sins.
In short I suspected that environmentalism had become yet another reactionary attempt to roll back the Industrial Revolution, to litigate us back to the Stone Age. The idea is as old as the Revolution itself. Martin Wiener chronicles some of it in his book English Culture: The Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980.
Now one Jeremy Caradonna, a Canadian history professor wants us to get lathered up over the state of the environment. In particular, he believes that industrial progress is a “narrative” that needs to be undermined because it has produced so much pollution.
Writing in the Atlantic, Caradonna says:
For instance, consider the growth of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere since 1750. Every respectable body that studies climate science, including NASA, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been able to correlate GHG concentrations with the pollutants that machines have been spewing into the atmosphere since the late-18th century. These scientific bodies also correlate GHGs with other human activities, such as the clearing of forests (which releases a lot of carbon dioxide and removes a crucial carbon sink from the planet), and the breeding of methane-farting cows. But fossil fuels are the main culprit (coal, gas, and oil) and account for much of the increase in the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The main GHGs, to be sure, are carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and a few others, many of which can be charted over time by analyzing the chemistry of long-frozen ice cores. More recent GHG levels are identified from direct atmospheric measurements.
If you are not terrified yet, try this:
What we learn from these scientific analyses is that the Industrial Revolution ushered in a veritable Age of Pollution, which has resulted in filthy cities, toxic industrial sites (and human bodies), contaminated soils, polluted and acidified oceans, and a “blanket” of air pollution that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, which then destabilizes climate systems and ultimately heats the overall surface temperature of the planet.
Fancy that, the Age of Pollution. If we accept these apocalyptic visions as gospel truth we will shut down the electric grid and ban gasoline powered cars today.
Matt Ridley, among others, has argued persuasively that things have been getting better. In fact, they have gotten much better. Industrialization and free enterprise have improved human life on most of the planet. To see it you need to ignore the narratives and look at the facts.
Industrialization did pollute, but it also cleaned up the pollution. Perhaps, it’s a minor detail, but it’s worth noting.
The air is much cleaner than when I was young, with smog largely banished from our cities. Rivers are cleaner and teem with otters and kingfishers. The sea is still polluted and messed with in every part of the world, but there are far more whales than there were 50 years ago. Forest cover is increasing in many countries and the pressure on land to grow food has begun to ease.
And he adds:
The weather is not getting worse. Despite what you may have read, there is no global increase in floods, cyclones, tornadoes, blizzards and wild fires — and there has been a decline in the severity of droughts. If you got the opposite impression, it’s purely because of the reporting of natural disasters, which has become a lot more hysterical. Besides, thanks to better infrastructure, communications and technology, there has been a steep decline in deaths due to extreme weather.
Globally, your probability of dying as a result of a drought, flood or storm is 98 per cent lower than it was in the 1920s. As Steven Pinker documented in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, the number of deaths in warfare is also falling, though far more erratically. The ten years 2000-10 was the decade with the smallest number of deaths in warfare since records began in the 1940s. That may not last — indeed, it is looking like this decade may be worse. But it may be better.
As for the larger picture, the virtues of industrialization, consider this, again from Ridley:
The average person lives about a third longer than 50 years ago and buries two thirds fewer of his or her children (and child mortality is the greatest measure of misery I can think of). The amount of food available per head has gone up steadily on every continent, despite a doubling of the population. Famine is now very rare. The death rate from malaria is down by nearly 30 per cent since the start of the century. HIV-related deaths are falling. Polio, measles, yellow fever, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid, typhus — they killed our ancestors in droves, but they are now rare diseases.
Where Cardonna regales us with charts about pollution levels, Ridley offers data about the lives of human beings.
As for the charge that capitalism produces increased inequality, Ridley explains that, in truth, it has decreased the gap between rich and poor:
As for inequality, the world as a whole is getting rapidly more equal in income, because people in poor countries are getting richer at a more rapid pace than people in rich countries. That has now been true for two decades, but it has accelerated since the great recession. The GDP per capita of Mozambique is 60 per cent higher than it was in 2008; that of Italy is 6 per cent lower. A country like Mozambique has been out of the headlines recently and now you know why: things are mostly going right there.
Of course, it could all unravel at any time. The forces of reaction are on the march and they will do everything in their power to bring down Industrial capitalism and the civilization it created.
Ridley sees this clearly:
Of course, like anybody I can still talk myself into gloom. Scotland could break away. Militant Islam could tear our communities apart. European bureaucrats could strangle innovation even more than they do already. When asked what I most worry about, I always reply “bureaucracy and superstition” because these are what brought down previous civilisations in Ming China or Abbasid Arabia.
Be warned that being cheerful guarantees you will never be taken seriously. The philosopher John Stuart Mill said: “Not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”
Obviously, a great deal depends on who is in charge. It’s not just European bureaucrats who are stifling innovation and economic growth. America has its own reactionary clerisy—to use Joel Kotkin’s word—that is hell bent on undermining free market capitalism.
If it succeeds, it will not spell the end of progress or the end of Industrialization. Other nations will inevitably take the lead and advance humanity’s prospects toward a better tomorrow.
Finally, it is always useful to retain a bit of skepticism. I believe that Ridley is largely correct. Idem for Steven Pinker. But theirs is big picture thinking. The course of true progress does not run smooth. It has hiccups and setbacks and even calamities. The forces of reaction produced an enormous amount of carnage during the twentieth century, from wars to famines to genocidal massacres, and it was not very long ago.
Besides, don’t we know that people are always more optimistic before a crash?