Pessimism and the Political Environmental World View

I remember listening in 1970 to an acquaintance explain that the world would basically end in five years due to overpopulation. She explained why in a fairly cogent manner, and it seemed fairly logical to me at the time. When she finished, I was horrified and asked her what could be done to prevent or at least delay this terrible future scenario. "Nothing!" she exclaimed with grim satisfaction. "It is too late to do anything now.'' At first I was shocked, and then I felt a complete sense of disbelief. "If there is really nothing to be done,'' my mind told me, "to hell with it, pass the joint.'' (This was 1970, I repeat.)

In the mid-1980s, the philosopher and mathematician Douglas Hof-stadter wrote a little allegorical story about a town that knew it was doomed, but somehow the people in the town couldn't summon up the will to take the necessary steps to save themselves. Hofstadter was referring to what then seemed an imminent nuclear peril, as Reagan and Brezhnev faced off. But history shows that perhaps Hofstadter was overly pessimistic (although his prognosis certainly seemed valid at the time). Somehow, the world did manage to come up with a solution to a very difficult problem and to more or less deal with the crisis. I will discuss the issue of nuclear weapons more in the epilogue.

For decades, environmental issues have been as much political as they are scientific in nature. It isn't always easy to place a political label on all environmentalists (for example, consider the Austrian right-wing politician Jorg Haider, who is a strong environmentalist). Many labor unions, which would otherwise have liberal or left-leaning views, have not been terribly proenvironment when such issues conflict with the economic interests of the membership. In the former Soviet Bloc, China, and other Communist countries, the environmental movements were closely associated with anti-Communist reform movements. However in the United States and Western Europe, people who identify themselves as environmentalists have always tended to be more liberal or left-leaning than those who care little about the environment.

I have never understood why pessimism has for so long been associated with a liberal or progressive political world view. Perhaps if people ultimately seek a revolution, they might argue that things are bad and need changing. Perhaps liberals' generally pessimistic view is due to a complex mixture of mistrust of technology and those in charge at both the governmental and corporate levels.

I have already mentioned the Worldwatch Institute as a responsible and intelligent group whose publications and data are valuable and trustworthy. And yet the general tone of the WWI, like most environmental organizations, is still highly pessimistic. The following are a group of chapter headings from a recent WWI report on the state of the world: "Poverty Persists,'' "Teacher Shortages Hit Hard,'' "Women Subject to Violence,'' "Farmland Quality Deteriorating,'' "Forest Loss Unchecked,'' "Freshwater Species at Increasing Risk,'' "Toxic Waste Largely Unseen,'' and "Prevalence of Asthma Rising Rapidly'' (Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2002, On the subject of population growth, the report offers four figures; the first two show the total human population, which is of course still growing, and the caption is "Population Continues to Grow.'' The next figure is the number of people added. The fourth figure shows that the rate of population growth has been slowing. Many environmental organizations would not have even bothered to present this last and quite hopeful data. Perhaps it is valuable to keep stressing all that still remains to be done, but one gets the sense that if there is anything negative to say, it gets center stage. The culture of pessimism among the environmental movement is so ingrained that one only expects the tone of the messages to be, "Oh dear, more bad news.''

To balance the pessimists on the left, we have the optimists on the right. These are folks who dismiss concerns about air quality, global warming, new disease outbreaks, antibiotic resistance, etc. with statements that generally point to previous unconfirmed fears, reassurances that the environment can take care of itself as it has always done, and that technological progress is responsible for more good things than bad things. These people have faith in technology, they believe in the triumph of man over natural obstacles (some would say over nature itself), and have no patience for caution or concern related to the forward march of progress.

Some conservatives think that any voice raised against any aspect of unrestricted private enterprise is subversive and socialistic. They see proponents of the natural world and environmental quality as secret agents of destruction of the capitalist system. (In the Soviet Union, the same voices were condemned as agents for the destruction of Communism.)

The antienvironmentalist free-market world view (as exemplified by Bjorn Lomborg in his recent book The Skeptical Environmentalist) is based on an illusory idea that natural market forces (meaning without governmental interference or regulation) will correct societal problems such as pollution. The idea that economic and technological forces are primarily responsible for the decrease in pollution and improved quality of life and that regulatory policy is a minor and sometimes irrelevant factor is simply not supported by the facts, as I have tried to document throughout this book. The antiregula-

tion stance of the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s was based on the issue that regulations and "government bureaucracy'' cost jobs. The slogan "if you're out of work and hungry, eat an environmentalist'' became popular, and examples of seemingly absurd interference in the lives of ordinary people by regulation-crazy bureaucrats were everywhere. One example is the case of the snail darter, a small endangered fish found near the site of a Tennessee dam project. The Supreme Court halted the $100 million project, which was nearly completed, to protect the fish. President Carter ultimately signed an amendment to the Endangered Species Act that exempted the dam from compliance with the act and allowed the project to continue.

Perhaps a useful way to view this political debate on environmental issues is from a scientific world view, the one that I favor. Many scholars have used Darwinian principles to try to understand social and historical dynamics, and there are many books and articles on this subject. The basic idea, related to the application of the principle of natural selection to human social affairs, is easily stated: natural selection works in biology in the absence of external controls or a controller. One can hypothesize that cultural evolution also works according to the same principle. Some people see control (for example, in the form of regulations or legal restrictions on business) as therefore generally counterproductive to a successful society, even controls with the best of intentions. One could argue that this principle explains the collapse of overly planned and centrally controlled totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union. However, what many on the right tend to overlook is that the free market should be not only defined by the interests of those with capital and economic power, but also by the interests of workers, of consumers, and of other groups with various agendas.

A free market also includes government regulations inspired by public demands for better protection, lower prices, better working conditions, etc. It includes a free and critical press, nongovernmental organizations, fringe movements, and the expression of many different points of view. It is the complex interplay of all these forces in a free society that allows the real free market to work as a form of cultural natural selection and to allow for maxi mum efficiency and benefit for all. Problems occur in an unfree society when certain members of the free market cannot express their interests. This occurs in totalitarian regimes on both the left and the right, and it is most profound in autocratic systems based on religious or nationalist agendas.

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