Thursday, June 5, 2008

We are our most valuable resource

The monthly publication of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Chemistry in Australia, has just printed my reply to an article they reprinted from Chemical and Engineering News a few months ago. It is not on the Web, and I don't have the scanner attached at the moment, but this is what I said:

Just felt compelled to write in response to the reprinted article by Rudy Baum, ‘Too many people?’, in ‘Your say’.

I grew up in the desert of Arizona, and I too have been saddened to see that landscape submerged under urban sprawl. I have no doubt that rising global temperatures will shift Earth’s arid bands further from the equator, making Victorian rangelands and many other environments more marginal for agriculture. I mourn every species lost as we humans have spread across the arid landscapes of America and Australia with our livestock and feral animals.

However, I think there is no evidence whatsoever that we need a ‘new economic paradigm’. In my lifetime, I have seen our current economic paradigm deliver incredible benefits to the peoples of Asia, and more and more countries reach a standard of living where responsible environmental management can become a duty, rather than an unaffordable luxury. As standards of living rise, population growth rates fall. In Europe today I understand only Albania and Iceland have birth rates above replacement level. Even countries like Iran are rapidly nearing zero population growth. At some point in the next fifty years, on current trends, world population growth is going to stop. This will be long before we reach the limits of the carrying capacity of the Earth. Long before we even come close.

The suburbs of Phoenix may be ugly, but the density of population in the Arizona deserts is less than historical population densities in many Asian deserts. Furthermore, population density need not correlate directly with environmental degradation. Those suburbanites are not grazing goats in the desert. They are not collecting firewood there. I confidently venture that they are using much less water per capita than Australian suburbanites are. You would need thousands of them to make the same impact as one irrigated cotton farm- cotton farms like the ones that used to line the highway between Tucson and Phoenix, and which were all gone the last time I was there.

Not long ago I visited another desert landscape rapidly being covered by urban sprawl, in Dubai. I didn’t find it depressing. I found it exhilarating, and was filled with wonder at the capacity of human beings to create, to build, to adapt. As we humans change the world, we adapt to the changes we make. The richer we are, and the better-educated we are, the better we adapt.

There is no need to run around calling for a new economic paradigm. Why should anyone listen to us, anyway? We have no special expertise in social engineering. If we want to change the world, let us do it in the time-honoured way that scientists have been changing the world for centuries: by figuring out interesting things about the universe that can be used to solve technical problems. There are cost-neutral or cost-saving actions that we can take to reduce the waste associated with our economic system by orders of magnitude. All that is required is that we continue to think imaginatively, and in an evidence-based way.

I guess what I am trying to say can be summed up in the words: ‘half full, not half empty’. Even the shift in the arid bands further from the equator is very far from being an unmitigated catastrophe - when was the last time you heard about drought in the Sahel?

(Why was there a reprinted editorial from Chemical & Engineering News in ‘Your say’, anyway? Don’t we have any opinions of our own, making it necessary for us to import American ones? I at least have been a naturalised Australian since 1996.)

Best regards,

Chris Fellows MRACI


Jenny said...

wow, I read that and thought "well written" and didn't read the idea it was you.

Jenny said...

I read it in the magazine I mean ...not in the blog

Chris Fellows said...

Aw, shucks! You are too kind, jenny :)

Anonymous said...

I agree. They should run their own opinions. For those outside the country, the American Chemical Society has a rather ugly reputation, as does Rudy Baum.

Just check out their page on Sourcewatch.