Perspectives on Progress, Continued—The Environment
It’s become common in some circles to blame the very technological advances that have indisputably improved both quantity and quality of life for almost the entire planet with the Mother of All Crimes—destroying the earth. As Steven Pinker explains in “Enlightenment Now”:
Green ideology begins with an image of the Earth as a pristine ingénue which has been defiled by human rapacity. As Francis put it in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise be to you), “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life . . . [who] now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her.” The harm, according to this narrative, has been inexorably worsening: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” The root cause is the Enlightenment commitment to reason, science, and progress: “Scientific and technological progress cannot be equated with the progress of humanity and history,” wrote Francis. “The way to a better future lies elsewhere,” namely in an appreciation of “the mysterious network of relations between things” and (of course) “the treasure of Christian spiritual experience.” Unless we repent our sins by degrowth, deindustrialization, and a rejection of the false gods of science, technology, and progress, humanity will face a ghastly reckoning in an environmental Judgment Day.
As with many apocalyptic movements, greenism is laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer. For example, Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society wrote, “We need to radically and intelligently reduce human populations to fewer than one billion. . . . Curing a body of cancer requires radical and invasive therapy, and therefore, curing the biosphere of the human virus will also require a radical and invasive approach.”
The biggest problem with green ideology is that, depending the particular flavor adopted by its proponents, it’s implementation requires embracing either extraordinary cruelty or useless, silly fantasies. For instance, those Greenies who would protect Mother Earth by depopulating it would actively inflict immeasurable suffering on untold hundreds of millions even if the least intrusive means of depopulation (for instance, mandatory limits on the number of offspring) were used, and they’d consider the resulting misery to be a “small price to pay.” Were inflicting this misery the ONLY solution, then they MAY be right, though one could make a compelling moral argument to the contrary. But, as we’ll see, it’s not the only solution.
In contrast to the totalitarians, those Greenies who advocate significantly less intrusive and abusive approaches simply don’t grasp human nature and so propose beautiful sounding non-solutions.
For instance, the less totalitarian Greenies have convinced themselves (wrongly) that humanity’s desire for progress and comfort isn’t innate but rather is “conditioned”. It’s not that humans really want the luxuries provided by consumerism, they insist, it’s just that humanity has been brainwashed by the wealthy elites to have an insatiable appetite for more and more “things.” With the proper education, humans could be conditioned instead to place the earth’s interest above self interest, they assure us.
This fantasy is contradicted by an overwhelming number of facts, facts that are conveniently ignored by these idealistic Greenies. Consider, for instance, the largest mass-migration of humans in history over the last couple hundred years—the mass migration from the rural countryside to urban population centers. This migration has occurred in Europe, in India, in China, in South America, and it started long before radio and television were common. Before moving to the cities in pursuit of the (comparative) creature comforts offered by urban living, most of these people lived in remote villages largely insulated from the influence of mass media. Was it really brainwashing by the elites that motivated this migration? Of course not. Rather it was the human individual’s innate desire to improve his lot and that of his family.
Further, the idea that this innate desire for progress and creature comforts can be offset with sufficient “education” designed to cause individuals to value the collective’s interest above self-interest was conclusively disproved by the communist experiment of the last century. Decades of propaganda, mass indoctrination, education camps, and appeals to place the community’s interest above self-interest completely failed to change human nature. This was true regardless of the geography or the culture in which the experience was attempted.
The simple fact is that neither approach (the totalitarian one or the fantastical one) is likely to work. But there is one approach that might, and it’s the very thing that the Greenies blame for our present problems: The technological approach.
As Pinker points out, pollution is, quite simply, a function of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law states that we can’t increase structure and order in one area without increasing in entropy (disorder) in others. Said another way, it’s literally impossible (a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) to create zones of organized health and comfort (for instance, safe and comfortable homes) without imposing an entropy burden on the environment in the form of “waste, pollution and other forms of disorder.” To believe otherwise is sheer fantasy, a fantasy that, to their credit, the totalitarian greenies at least don’t fall for. The totalitarians may be exceedingly cruel and have a dim view of humanity and technology, but at least their proposed solution is workable in theory just not in practice. (Let’s hope!)
So, if we cannot improve our lot in life without burdening the environment with additional entropy, and if educating people to voluntarily sacrifice their own family’s comfort for “the greater good” of Mother Earth is doomed to failure, and if compelling people by force to accept a less comfortable and satisfying life seems insanely maniacal and cruel, then we have only one option that stands any chance of succeeding: Improving efficiency. If we can, via science, develop ways of improving lives while lessening (though never eliminating) entropy, then we can mostly have our cake and eat it too.
And this is, in fact, what’s been happening. For instance, according to the EPA and despite a massive increase in population since 1970, the US has slashed its emission of some of the most detrimental pollutants—carbon monoxide, oxides of oxygen, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers—by fully two-thirds! A two-thirds decline in less than half a century! And as Pinker notes “the declines don’t just reflect an offshoring of heavy industry to the developing world, because the bulk of energy use and emissions comes from transportation, heating, and electricity generation, which cannot be outsourced.” Pinker continues:
Many of the improvements can be seen with the naked eye. Cities are less often shrouded in purple-brown haze, and London no longer has the fog—actually coal smoke—that was immortalized in Impressionist paintings, gothic novels, the Gershwin song, and the brand of raincoats. Urban waterways that had been left for dead—including Puget Sound, Chesapeake Bay, Boston Harbor, Lake Erie, and the Hudson, Potomac, Chicago, Charles, Seine, Rhine, and Thames rivers (the last described by Disraeli as “a Stygian pool reeking with ineffable and intolerable horrors”)—have been recolonized by fish, birds, marine mammals, and sometimes swimmers. Suburbanites are seeing wolves, foxes, bears, bobcats, badgers, deer, ospreys, wild turkeys, and bald eagles. As agriculture becomes more efficient (chapter 7), farmland returns to temperate forest, as any hiker knows who has stumbled upon a stone wall incongruously running through a New England woodland. Though tropical forests are still, alarmingly, being cut down, between the middle of the 20th century and the turn of the 21st the rate fell by two-thirds (figure 10-4). 24 Deforestation of the world’s largest tropical forest, the Amazon, peaked in 1995, and from 2004 to 2013 the rate fell by four-fifths.
And, we’ve only just begun. With solar and other forms of green power expanding exponentially and on a consistent curve, the world is only about seven years away from shattering its multi-thousand year dependence upon burning wood and fossil fuels for energy. Technologies are being developed to cost-effectively clear our oceans and rid the world of the famous Pacific garbage patch. Biodegradable alternatives to plastic have been developed and are exponentially increasing in adoption. And, because the world has grown wealthier and the birth rate of wealthy nations always collapses, populations are expected to plateau by the year 2055 or so.
As populations plateau and technological improvements continuously improve to reduce pollution and waste, entropy produced per person will plummet continuously starting around 2050 (if not well before). A continuous decline in harmful entropy per person with a nonetheless constantly-improving quality of life is the very definition of a “sustainable” solution to the world’s environmental problems. In fact, it’s the only solution. And it’s a technological one.