Thursday, 20 June 2013

The 'Save The Planet' Paradox

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I care about the planet, but I care about people more.  Let me put it this way - if the choice was: preserve the Yorkshire moors and kill 1 million British people, or build factories on the moors and the 1 million people get to live, I'd choose the latter, and I'm pretty sure just about everyone else would too.  When people say we need to 'Save the planet' I think they usually mean we need to 'save people'.  I say this because everyone knows that the planet has been surviving long before we came along, and it would survive perfectly well if we all died out.  Some will argue that by 'save the planet' people mean preserve its beauty, lower our emissions and reduce our carbon footprint - but as my Yorkshire moors example shows, people don't generally value these things over the preservation of human life - so saving the planet (by which it is meant ‘the globe’) must always be a secondary aim behind saving the planet (by which it is meant ‘life on the planet’). 

Therefore, if preserving life is the primary goal, then part of that goal (the most urgent goal in my view) is to bring an end to global poverty and help the neediest people out of their plight of impoverishment.  This leaves the 'save the planet' folk with a problem, because the only way to bring an end to global poverty and help the neediest people out of their plight is to help those people attain economic freedom, and the ability to trade, be self-sufficient, and productive in the broader market economy.  The only realistic way to achieve this is to generate the kind of industry and globalised expansion of the market that will increase our emissions and our carbon footprint, which comes at the cost of not preserving the natural world as well as we’d like. 

The upshot is, in the short-term future, to end global poverty we're going to have to increase our environmental damage, not reduce it.  Of course, as third world countries increase their infrastructure and market potential, they are largely going to be using the most ecologically efficient technology, so there is every reason to continue to develop and pioneer more environmentally efficient methods of industry.  But realistically, the things that are the biggest ingredients in achieving this - free trade, healthy imports/exports, high employment, sensible and equitable Government spending, a good legal system, cultural plurality, immigration, global travel, welfare systems, human rights, property rights, family rights, and freer citizens – are going to have an environmental cost that is more than compensated for by the good it will do for the neediest people in the world.

So instead of just asking “How can we best reduce our carbon footprint?”, I think people should be asking a more urgent question; “How can we best cope with the fact that our increased technology and a wider market economy has environmental costs as well as all the benefits it confers?”  That’s a much better question.  Stirring up people to become too obsessed with reducing emissions often causes them to be less mindful of coping with the costs of our increased technology and a wider market economy, which then has the concomitant danger of causing them to be less mindful of the immeasurably more good that increased technology and a wider market economy does for the world’s neediest.