Put away your Eco-Guilt

Monbiot again a couple of weeks ago:

For years we’ve been told that people cannot afford to care about the natural world until they become rich; that only economic growth can save the biosphere, that civilisation marches towards enlightenment about our impacts on the living planet. The results suggest the opposite.

Who has been telling us this “for years” ? Monbiot neglects to tell us- perhaps it is just made up. I assumed however that he was referring to Goklany’s Environmental Transition.

In the early stages of development the primary aim is – as would be expected – promoting growth. But as countries become wealthier they can afford to broaden their focus. ‘The richer a country, the greater its ability to do something about environmental concerns,’ says Goklany. ‘And the reason is simple – they have the economic infrastructure and the human capital to do something about it.’ In effect, the richer countries have the ability to buy themselves a better environment.

According to this theory, nations tend to clean up their act as they get wealthier- once the immediate needs of food and housing and medicine are catered for, there are resources available for cleaning the air and the water. This theory is modeled using the Environmental Kuznets Curve which shows the theoretical point at which despoiling the environment to power growth gives way to that same growth being used to improving the environment. No one who has traveled in a developing country would claim I think that they generally have cleaner air or cleaner water. You only have to compare the air quality of Beijing with that of London to see a striking example. London no longer has the pea-soupers of the 1940s and 50s, but Beijing- which is at a comparable stage of development to London 50 years ago – lives in a permanent and deadly pea soup. Will China be able to use some of its new-found wealth to clean the air so its citizens can go out without face-masks? Time will tell.

The visually sumptuous film Perfume- the Story of a Murderer has a fascinating behind the scenes short on the DVD which I watched a few years ago. In order to replicate the street scenes in the first part of the movie of 18th Century Paris, an entire department had to work for weeks to produce enough pure unadulterated knee-deep filth. The EPA would never allow this these days- and nor would citizens of the developed nations.

This is not to say there is some kind of inevitable straight-line process of development through these stages. As Yandle et al suggest (pdf)

Saying all this may tempt one to think that higher incomes alone will solve most environmental problems. Unfortunately, life is not that simple. If it were, transfers of income from richer to poorer societies—through foreign aid, for example—would enable the recipients to avoid environmental destruction. The movement along an environmental Kuznets curve is also a movement through a well-known set of property rights stations.

Wealth and growth are necessary- but not sufficient in themselves- to guarantee a cleaner environment.

Tim Worstall has already pointed out that it is what people do, not what they say they care about, that counts:

We might change out minds a little bit about this if we are to talk of climate change: for it is true that emissions from people living in the rich world are higher than of those living in the poor. But do also note what is happening: we rich world people are putting in place the expensive plans required to lower those emissions. Feed in tariffs, cap and trade, carbon taxes: whether you want to “take climate change seriously” or not is entirely up to you. But there’s absolutely no doubt that it is us in the places that apparently don’t care about it that are actually doing things about it.

Another example of this with regard to climate change is shale gas: rich world innovation has resulted in the development of cleaner shale gas which has succeeded- in the US at least- where treaties and carbon caps and taxes have so far failed: an overall reduction in CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, most of the increase in CO2 is coming from the still-developing world who rely on cheaper coal to drag themselves out of poverty.

Worstall has looked before at this issue, pointing out that in the IPCC reports, some of their scenarios actually show the highest growth leading to the lowest emissions.

We don’t have to stop economic growth at all, we can quite happily have around the same amount of it that we had in the 20 th century. So that’s a large number of the Green Miserablists shown to be wrong. We don’t have to reduce or even severely limit our energy consumption: we just have to get the growth in our consumption from other than the usual sources. A large number of the Energy Miserablists shown to be wrong there too.

It is not even just how clean the environment becomes however, but the further up Maslow’s hierarchy we climb, the more likely we are to become environmentalists. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus so perceptively point out in their book Breakthrough, environmentalism is not a reaction against modern industrial society, but a product of it.

All this should make Mr. Monbiot very happy, but no, it is not enough for the eco-zealot and True Believer: for them, it is not enough to do good deeds if you do not also feel a suitable amount of Eco-Guilt. However, if you go around asking people to tell you for a survey how much they care, different cultures may tell you very differently without any correlation necessarily to how much they are actually doing. A rich society with a very clean environment for example may list their environment low on a list of concerns simply because it is already fairly well looked after. Equally, in a different culture, asking you to rate your eco-guilt could very well be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The peasant farmer who has to feed and cook for her children today and tomorrow and every day will slash and burn for short-term gain, and even cut down the last tree in sight if needs be, while richer societies have more energy-dense fuels that actually allow them to preserve wilderness. There is similarly plenty of evidence that early humans caused plenty of environmental degradation, probably including species extinction. Protecting endangered species does seem to be a modern invention, and not mainly because there was no need in the past.

Monbiot’s Rewilding project- while worthy and interesting in itself- unfortunately seems to me to barely hide his misanthropy. He reminds me of a modern Thoreau, who idealized Nature while still having his Mum do his laundry.

It is quite right that we should want a clean environment and use some of our wealth to protect wild nature, but surely we can do this without the need to look down our noses at the hoi-polloi who like to do a bit of shopping as well.