Fables about non-living resources?

Continuing my review of Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s Betrayal of Science and Reason (1996): “Non-living resources” means the Earth’s mineral wealth – i.e. the stuff that geologists find and mining engineers dig up. The Ehrlichs frame their discussion regarding brownlash dismissal of concern over the finite nature of these resources by reference to the “conflict between the Wise Use movement and the environmental community”. But what is the “environmental community”? Well, in my piece on the ecological challenge for Socialism, I explained that concern for the environment… “can either be focused on the needs of humans (i.e. ‘anthropocentric’ [environmentalism] – such as movements concerned with nature conservation and the wise use of resources); or it can be focused on the needs of nature as a whole (i.e. ‘ecocentric’ [ecologism] – such as movements concerned with wilderness and biodiversity preservation).” If the above is taken as a given, then the Ehrlich’s “environmental community” is actually people at the ecocentric end of the spectrum – those who see nature as having an intrinsic value in and of itself; rather than just an instrumental value arising from what we can do with it. The Ehrlich’s also state that, in their opinion, the issue of private property rights and the desire to make money from land ownership underlies all brownlash attacks on environmental protection and/or preservation. After all, this is why the brownlash is called “the brownlash” – because it seeks to get around and/or repeal all environmental protection legislation that gets in the way of deriving an income from nature’s capital. As such, the first fable the Ehrlich’s tackle is substitutability – the idea that we need not worry about depleting nature’s finite resources because human beings will eventually invent an alternative – Cornucopian technical optimism. This, however, is a utopian fantasy akin to the medieval pursuit of alchemy: If humanity realised that it was not wise to deplete the atmosphere of ozone, why can it not agree anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions should be stopped? Well, funnily enough, the answer is partly substitutability. We had a substitute for CFCs (the ozone-depleting chemicals), and we have a substitute for fossil fuels. The difference is that, no-one wants to stop milking the fossil fuel cash cow – at least not until it is dead, anyway! The Ehrlich’s second fable is that only “business as usual” guarantees future prosperity. Environmental regulation is seen only as a cost. The benefit of environmental protection is not recognised (or at least not acknowledged). However, there are two principle flaws in this line of argument, namely (1) that perpetual growth means that we are running out of environment; and (2) that less developed nations are running out of patience with their ongoing inequality of opportunity. This latter point is, of course, the main reason for the failure of the UNFCCC process: Why should less developed nations have to forego the chance to develop along Western lines? Conversely, if we in the West are responsible for the vast majority of historical emissions – the consequences of which will now fall primarily on those that did not produce them – why should we not carry the majority of the financial burden of rectifying the problem – and pay them to install the necessary infrastructure to do the same? Another favourite brownlash fable is that being Green will require us to return to the Dark Ages. Again, this paints environmental concern as a zero sum game. There are many costs but no benefits. However, it is only possible to sustain this argument by ignoring all the benefits already accrued by the implementation and enforcement of the environmental legislation to which we have become accustomed; and to deny that there is any benefit from constantly striving to improve the efficiency with which we use finite resources (i.e. reduce, re-use, and recycle). Many of the brownlash’s most vociferous advocates have focussed on the way in which market prices of commodities have generally fallen over time but – unless substitutes are found and/or rates of extraction equal rates of recycling – we can guarantee that everything will run out eventually. Do we not therefore have a moral obligation to future generations to minimise (rather than maximise) our use of all these non-renewable resources? Finally, what about water? The brownlash don’t like to talk about water: This is probably because World War 3 might well be fought over access to water. All around the world, groundwater is being consumed faster than nature can recycle it; nowhere more so than in hot dry climates. For example, groundwater from deep aquifers beneath the Sahara desert (whose vast store of water has accumulated over thousands of years) is being pumped out at completely unsustainable rates. Therefore, despite the fact that vast areas of very low population density remain, this unsustainable rate of resource consumption is yet more evidence of overpopulation. Tomorrow, we turn to fables about biodiversity; threatened and endangered species; and – potentially – mass extinction of species…


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Betrayal of Science and Reason, Ecological Modernisation, Economics, Environment, Intergenerational Injustice, Limits to Growth, Politics, Scepticism, Sustainable development and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Fables about non-living resources?

  1. jpgreenword says:

    I believe you have summarized the root of almost every argument I’ve ever read (or heard) against environmental protection of any kind. “Betrayal of Science and Reason” sounds like a very interesting read… except I’d probably just get angry all the time! Thank you for your analysis of the novel.


  2. Donald says:

    Australia has built “just in case” desalination plants, they are rarely used, only turned on to keep them in good working order… Even if the real truth is that they were built during Australia’s worst ever drought and then turned off after the big dry was over because we had no further use for them… But they shall be needed one day, at least we have them.


    • jpgreenword says:

      I recently read about report (I think it was on the Grist web site) that talked about the up-and-coming industry of water. Even if Australia does not need the water, they may begin exporting it. For example, in southern China, over a billion people depend on Himalayan glaciers for water. As global warming becomes more severe, that water supply will be put at risk creating a need for the importation of water.


      • Rick_Altman says:

        Having got an MSc in Hydrogeology and spent most of the last 20 years working in the field of groundwater resources and/or pollution, this has always been a major concern of mine. Unfortunately, it has taken me far too long to realise I was too idealistic – and not sufficiently commercially-minded – to make a success of a consultancy career. Even more unfortunately, however, making the switch to lobbying and/or influencing policy is not proving that easy… The disappearance of Himalayan glaciers within the next 50 years will be an environmental catastrophe and a permanent reminder of human arrogance, stupidity and stubbornness. It will also, as you say, cause major water supply problems for what will by then be the worlds two most populous countries – China and India. I really do not know how any other country on Earth could hope to meet that demand: Widespread use of desalination plants would seem the only feasible solution.


  3. Donald says:

    Although we have no problems with water at the moment, and even though we have so much water under Queensland soil to make it resemble an underground sea … we learnt a huge lesson from the last big dry and shall be prepared for another forever more. We spent billions on the plants and when working they use a tremendous amount of energy but at least we are all secure in the knowledge that we will never go thirsty. We are actually building many more .. the new ones are all sea-plants which not only desalinate water, they also provide electricity for a few homes … very environmentally friendly, others should follow our lead 🙂


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