TCS Daily

The Invisible Hand's Green Thumb

By Nick Schulz - June 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Adam Smith may not have known it at the time he penned his famous phrase, but it's turning out that the invisible hand happens to have a green thumb.

A growing body of research supports a controversial proposition, one that's forcing environmentalists and the general public to rethink long-held views on business, markets, energy use, technology and the environment. The proposition is that, as the subtitle of an important new book puts it, "poverty, not affluence, is the environment's number one enemy."

The book is The Real Environmental Crisis by Jack Hollander, an emeritus professor of energy and resources at the University of California-Berkeley. Dr. Hollander has studied energy and environmental science for half a century. He considers himself an environmentalist, and he wrote his book to combat what he calls a "crisis of pessimism" about the environment today.

"Can you remember a day when you opened your morning newspaper without finding a dramatic and disturbing story about some environmental crisis?" he writes. "The implication in most of these stories is that you and I are the enemy - that our affluent lifestyles are chiefly responsible for upsetting nature's balance; polluting our cities, skies, and oceans; and squandering the natural resources that sustain us. ... Such media reportage reflects the pervasive pessimism about the future that has become the hallmark of today's environmental orthodoxy. Its central theme is that the affluent society, by its very nature, is the polluting society."

This criticism can be heard from major green groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, and from anti-globalization protesters around the globe smashing windows and lamenting the evils of global capitalism. Whatever the intentions of the critics, the problem with the critique is that it's false.

"There is plenty of evidence to support an optimistic view of the environmental future," Dr. Hollander says.

Indeed, one irony in the debate over global environmental health is that those who criticize the developed world's thriving free markets, material culture, and technological sophistication for alleged pernicious ecological effects have it precisely backwards. As Dr. Hollander points out, "affluence does not inevitably foster environmental degradation. Rather, affluence fosters environmentalism," as wealthy countries can afford the luxury of an environmental ethic.

The real trouble with the modern environmental movement's extreme pessimism isn't just that it's false. It's that it distracts attention from genuine environmental problems.

Consider the environmental issue we hear the most about today, global warming. Some politicians and activists warn of an impending crisis that is a direct result of our affluence: The burning of fossil fuels that powers our modern industrial and technological society is dangerously warming the planet. The cure is found in the form of the Kyoto Protocol and other measures designed to limit energy use and economic activity.

For Dr. Hollander, this view has two flaws. First, the science of global warming is inconclusive.

"The evidence for a human contribution [to global warming] is, at best, suggestive. Hard evidence simply doesn't exist. Does that mean the human effects are not occurring? Not necessarily. But media coverage of the global warming issue has been so alarmist that it fails to convey how flimsy the evidence really is. Most people don't realize that many strong statements about a human contribution to global warming are based more on politics than on science.

"The climate-change issue has become so highly politicized that its scientific and political aspects are now almost indistinguishable. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) upon which governments everywhere have depended for the best scientific information, has been transformed from a bona fide effort in international scientific cooperation into what one of its leading participants terms 'a hybrid scientific/political organization.'"

Hollander believes that the politicization of climate change is where the environmental movement may have overplayed its hand and he expects more and more scientists to begin rebuking claims based on unsound science. Why? The humanitarian and ecological stakes are too high to stay silent. The proposed cures for climate change run the risk of doing more long-term environmental damage by curbing the global economic growth necessary to lift people out of poverty.

The Clinton administration, which lobbied hard for the Kyoto Protocol, estimated that the Kyoto Protocol alone would cost the United States alone $300 billion a year in lost gross domestic product. That's a big hit to both the domestic and global economies. And even Kyoto's supporters admit it would do little to mitigate climate change - it's merely a first step to many more Kyoto-style regulations.

More importantly, Kyoto would harm those people in the developing world who are least able to afford an economic slowdown. By perpetuating poverty, the Kyoto Protocol's victims would include not only the economy, but the environment as well.

Hollander argues that "poverty is... linked to violence against the environment and that a global transition from poverty to affluence is essential to bringing about an environmentally sustainable world." In other words, poverty is, as Indira Gandhi put it, the world's "worst polluter," so alleviating poverty through economic growth should be the first goal of any environmentalist. It's not just good for mankind; it's good for Mother Earth as well.

A version of this article appeared earlier in the Wall Street Journal.

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