Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Affluence Or Poverty--Which Is Better For The Environment?

I was going to stay away from the brouhaha surrounding Al Gore's energy bill, and his proclivity to preach about reducing greenhouse gas emissions while himself producing a ton of them, but I read a piece by James H. Joyner Jr., at TCS Daily, that was such good common sense that I had to pass it along. He basically gives Gore a pass on the question of hypocrisy, saying that he doesn't know enough about Gore's stated policies, and carbon offsets and whatnot to render a judgement. His focus is more on the question of whether affluence or technologically backward poverty is better for the environment, and humanity. Here's a snippet:

Where Gore and I differ is that my aim is for more people to get to live like Gore. While environmental degradation in general and global warming in particular are real problems, certainly a serious case can be made that they pale in comparison with the ravages of poverty. Further, if millions of people not starving to death isn't its own reward, UC-Berkeley professor emeritus of energy and resources Jack Hollander explains in The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy, that, contrary to conventional wisdom, as societies become more affluent, they produce less pollution. That's not particularly surprising, when you think about it, as those whose basic human needs are met have both the inclination and resources to worry about cleaning up their environment.
Joyner makes the case for something that I have believed for a long time; the solution to our environmental problems lies in more and better technology, not less technology. He quotes Jesse Ausubel, the director of Rockefeller University's Program for the Human Environment:
Inefficiency always costs much. Around the year 1000, before the invention of good chimneys, people in cold climates centered their lives around an open fire in the middle of a room with a roof louvered high to carry out the smoke, and most of the heat. Open fireplaces demanded constant replenishing and thus a large woodpile behind every house. A smart stove did not emerge until 1744. Benjamin Franklin's invention greatly reduced the amount of fuel required and, thus, the size of the woodpile was reduced for those who could afford the stove.
Advancing technology is constantly moving us forward in our efforts to preserve our environment, giving us more energy efficient, and less polluting wood stoves, cars, light bulbs, factories, furnaces, sewage treatment, batteries, water heaters, commuter trains, photographic equipment, and even nuclear power plants. That's just off the top of my head. New technologies are also taking things that once would have gone to landfills and giving them a second life, making more and more use of recyclable materials. Have you seen some of the decking materials and fabrics they are making out of old milk containers? The key to environmental responsibility does not lie in turning off all the amenities of modern life. (Heck, if it weren't for technology, most of us wouldn't even know there were global environmental issues.) It lies in promoting prosperity and creativity which will continue to address the rightly-raised environmental concerns of society--with technological progress. Joyner's got a bit more to say. Go have a look.