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Technology and the environment: the case for optimism

By Matt Ridley - posted Friday, 15 March 2002

I want to make three main points. First, we are habitually too pessimistic about the environment. Second, the invention of new technology is not necessarily a threat to the environment; rather it is usually the best hope of environmental improvement. And third, pessimism about new technology and the environment can itself be harmful.

I am not saying that every environmental trend in every place and at every time is benign; there are plenty of things that are getting worse. Nor am I saying that technology cannot have bad environmental side effects. It can. What I am saying is that we often overlook how many environmental features are improving; and even more we overlook how those improvements are caused by new technology.

I realise that even to make these mild claims is highly unfashionable. Indeed, they are so against the conventional wisdom that they might be termed heresy. I know what happens to heretics: my ancestral relation, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, was burnt at the stake in Oxford for his views. I use the term heresy deliberately: showing your concern for the environment has become one of the superstitions and dogmas of our age. To bring reason to bear on it is considered bad form.


In good faith

It was a faith I used to believe in. I joined Friends of the Earth. I had that old red and yellow 'Atomik-kraft nein danke!' sticker on the bumper of my first car. I was a true product of the 1970s, and right into the late 1980s I regarded myself as a mainstream environmentalist, if not by then an active one. I still regard myself as an environmentalist but I often find myself in almost diametrical disagreement with most of those who professionally use that title. I don't remember exactly what changed my mind but one influence was the work of two American economists whom I encountered when living in Washington in the late 1980s - Julian Simon and Aaron Wildavsky, now sadly both dead.

Julian Simon was a man obsessed with statistics. He was never caught out with an unchecked fact. Laboriously he compiled thousands of graphs and charts to demonstrate his belief that the world was getting better not worse. He discovered, of course, that facts are much less persuasive than the fire-and-brimstone sermons used by those he was arguing against. Pessimism just makes better box office than optimism. For centuries we have taken doom mongers more seriously than starry-eyed optimists. It just seems to be in our nature. It is no more realistic to ask greens to stop being apocalyptic than it was to ask a 16th century puritan to stop preaching hellfire and damnation.

Yet, for centuries the doom mongers have been wrong. Look at the statistics: life expectancy increasing, deaths from hunger falling, medical treatment improving, age-corrected cancer mortality declining, air quality improving almost everywhere, water quality improving in most rivers and lakes, rate of loss of tropical rain forest falling rapidly, net loss of land to desert now officially zero, energy use per unit of GDP falling rapidly, and so on. Most things are getting better most of the time.

What is always getting worse, apparently, is the future. Predictions remain pessimistic. Remember acid rain and how it was going to destroy forests all across Europe and North America? By 1986, the UN reported that 23% of all trees in Europe were moderately or severely damaged by acid rain. What happened? They recovered. The biomass stock of European forests actually increased during the 1980s. The damage all but disappeared. Forests did not decline; they thrived. Ditto in North America: 'There is no evidence of a general or unusual decline of forests in the United States or Canada due to acid rain,' concluded the official, independent study.

Scare tactics

Yet did you read this in the press? Again and again, we find that the initial scare is given far more coverage than the later climb-down. H.L. Mencken once said: 'The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safetv - bv menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary'.

Incidentally, not everybody got everything wrong. One quotation from the 1970s was actually rather prophetic.


'Who knows what will be the next [environmental concern] to attract public attention? Perhaps it will be the problems of changing world climate'. That was written by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh in 1977.

The fact that so many past predictions were wrong should give us pause for thought about global warming. Even if the models of predicted climate change prove accurate (and given the accuracy of two-day weather forecasts, I have my doubts about 100 year climate forecasts), there is a massive bias towards pessimism in the reporting of its likely effects. Buried in Nature magazine recently was a report that rising temperatures around Heard Island in the Antarctic Ocean have resulted in dramatic increases in the numbers of breeding animals: king penguins are up from three pairs in 1947 to 25,000 pairs today, Heard Island cormorants are back from the brink of extinction and far seals now number 28,000 pairs. Imagine how much coverage would have been given to the story if those trends were in the other direction.

I'm not saying global warming will not bring some bad results for conservation or for human-kind. I'm just saying it will also bring some good results and people are not nearly so interested in studying or reporting them. The mother of all howlers was the prediction of future scarcity of resources in the 1970s. The view that the oil, the food and the minerals were going to run out shortly was not confined to cranks. It was something we almost all believed. The Club of Rome, which published Limits to Growth in 1970 said total global oil reserves amounted to 550 billion barrels. 'We could use up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end of the next decade', said President Jimmy Carter. Sure enough, between 1970 and 1990 the world indeed used 600 billion barrels of oil. So, according to the Club of Rome, reserves should have been overdrawn by 50 billion barrels by 1990. In fact, by 1990 unexploited reserves amounted to 900 billion barrels - not counting the tar shales.

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This article was first published in the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering journal – Focus No. 120 – January/February 2002, pp.7-14.

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About the Author

Matt Ridley is the author of 'Genome.- the Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters' (1999) and Chairman, International Centre for Life, Newcastle.

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