Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Before You Vote Green, Please Learn Some History

Pessimists ‘have been repeatedly and decisively proven wrong.’

Joanna Szurmak & Pierre Desrochers

The Donner Prize is a $50,000 Canadian literary award. The latest winner will be announced this evening in Toronto. Among the five contenders is Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change.

Written by University of Toronto geography professor Pierre Desrochers and researcher Joanna Szurmak, it contributes sorely needed historical perspective.

Concern about the state of the natural world isn’t new. Rather, it’s as old as civilization. The authors tell us Aristotle justified infanticide due to “fears that population growth would outstrip local resources.”

Confucius, alive in 500 BC, worried that too many children would lower the wider community’s standard of living. Tertullian, a Christian theologian who died in 240 AD, felt that war, famine, and natural disasters “have to be regarded as a remedy” since humanity was placing too much stress on Nature.

In other words, say Desrochers and Szurmak,

the same ideas about resources, development, environment and population have been reborn – or, perhaps, recycled – every generation. (italics mine)

Throughout history, but particularly over the past 200 years, the “pessimists have been repeatedly and decisively proven wrong.” But it makes absolutely no difference. The green choir keeps singing the same gloomy song.

Even though matters are improving dramatically, children continue to be told their future is in jeopardy. Not because of unconscionable levels of government debt. But because our disrespect for Mother Earth has allegedly triggered dangerous climate change.

Population Bombed! strives mightily to replace age-old fears with hard facts. In reality, humanity is behaving more responsibly and using resources more efficiently than ever before:

Americans now grow more food on fewer acres, eat more sources of meat that are less land-intrusive, and use water more efficiently so that water use is lower than in 1970.

…the area covered by forests in the US has increased from 720 million acres in 1920 to 766 million acres in 2012…

…the Environmental Protection Agency reports that air pollution has fallen by 67% since 1980… [bold added by me]

Fossil fuels are vigorously defended in this book. When considered from a historical perspective, they’re vastly superior to the energy sources they replaced.

Due to drought, silt, and freezing temperatures, the water wheels of the 1830s operated for only 160 days out of a typical year. When mines depended on wind power for drainage, reports one historical source, during long periods of calm weather “the mines were drowned, and all the workmen thrown idle.”

The authors point out that:

carbon fuels made possible, for the first time, large-scale, reliable and affordable long-distance transportation.

It’s easy to romanticize horse-drawn stage coaches, but they were uncomfortable, slow, insecure, and at the mercy of the elements. The horses relied on in urban centers routinely injured and trampled people. Their

excrement and carcasses were a source of deadly diseases such as typhoid fever, yellow fever, cholera and diphtheria. In the late nineteenth century, New York City horses produced well over four million pounds of manure each day, sometimes piled up to a height of between 40 feet and 60 feet in vacant lots. The replacement of horses by cars and trucks powered by petroleum products thus dramatically improved public health.

…Tractors and mother machines, which do not get sick, do not require care when not being used, and do not consume more than a fifth of the food they help to grow, have replaced much less powerful and reliable horses and mules.

This book discusses the Environmental Kuznets Curve – an absolutely crucial concept. This curve illustrates that “many pollutants first rise with economic development, but then fall as income exceeds a threshold level.”

Phrased another way, industrialization – the process by which societies drag themselves out of abject poverty – invariably leads to a cleaner environment. Once people are no longer at risk of starvation, they have the time, the resources, and the inclination to clean up their immediate surroundings.

This is yet another reason to celebrate the fact that the “share of the global population living in extreme poverty fell from approximately 84% in 1820 to well below 10% today.”

Seen from a historical perspective, we’re getting so many things right. We’re moving in a positive direction on so many dimensions. Fears about humanity’s impact on the natural world are ancient fears. They’re understandable fears. But in 2019 they prevent us from seeing the big picture.

This leads to dumb decisions about how tax dollars should be spent. And about what deserves attention.

In recent weeks, some Canadian city councils have declared a “climate emergency.” Unanimously. Without a single dissenting voice.

The unsophisticated nature of these decisions is disconcerting. The people involved need to up their game. They need to educate themselves and provide real leadership, rather than behaving like mindless lemmings.

They should start by reading this book.

 Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change
Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak

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This entry was posted on May 1, 2019 by in historical perspective and tagged , .
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