April 22, 2008
Tuesday Interview: Vice Magazine: "Breakthrough Institute Wrests Environmentalism Away From the
In their Earth Day issue, Vice Magazine profiles Breakthrough Institute. At long last, Breakthrough finds a magazine interviewer who uses more profanity than its two co-founders. Little wonder it's the best Break Through book interview yet.
Here's a passage that speaks to the apocalyptic view of food riots, energy prices, and recession.
If advancing to a given level of comfort is the necessary first stage in environmentalism, what do you make of all the folks who say the only way to save the planet is to forsake civilization in favor of these Thoreau-lite, Into the Wild sort of lifestyles?
There's a lot of fuzzy-headed thinking about it. What you find people saying is something like, "There's not enough earth to go around. There aren't enough resources for the Chinese to live like we live." And they're making the same mistake Malthus made when he said, "Look, population is increasing exponentially but agricultural production is increasing at a much slower rate, so we're going to run out of food and there's going to be mass starvation." The error in that line of thinking is that it took for granted this notion that there wouldn't be any sort of technological innovation in agriculture.
It's the same with environmentalists today when they say, "There's not enough earth to go around." Well, this is because you're not factoring in technological progress. Yes, if we keep burning all the coal and oil we're set to burn we're going to have some pretty huge consequences in terms of the changing climate and its effect on food production and water availability and everything. But we are an adaptive species and we certainly have the capacity to invent energy sources that don't emit carbon dioxide. We also have the capacity to create new materials. When people say things like, "We're going to run out of resources," that implies that we're going to keep using the same set of resources in the future that we're using today, when of course if you look at even the recent past, we're using vastly different materials and resources now than we once used. Huge advances have gone into creating new materials and recycling old ones so that they can be infinitely reused.
So what happens is people make that error of foresight, then they wrap a whole morality around it. "Oh, the Chinese can't live like we live, therefore we all have to live like monks." Or, "Therefore we have to build a wall around the United States." So much of this comes from just a basic misunderstanding of how the economy works and technology progresses.