Thursday, August 29, 2002

Johannesburg: Objection Sustained

This week’s Spectator has an excellent piece on the folly of pursuing that eco-ideal called sustainable development – just the goose chase that is currently engaging tens of thousands hard-working bureaucrats at the UN Summit in Johannesburg this week:

“The environmental lobby is correct that many human activities are, in simple terms, unsustainable. There is, presumably, a limit to the supply of fossil fuels — though the oil industries’ geologists continue to confound the Jeremiahs who once predicted that the last drop of petrol would disappear into the tank of some Chevrolet around 1990. But, given that fossil fuels are in finite supply, it makes no difference whether we keep on buying bigger and better cars or stick to the Kyoto protocol: any level of usage of oil is ultimately unsustainable. To conclude from this that the Western way of life is doomed is wrong. The history of mankind’s progress is one of passage from one unsustainable activity to another. Each time, technology has moved us on to better things before the crunch point has been reached.

“The mediaeval settlement of England depended on consuming vast quantities of native woodland. Between 1500 and 1700, a million acres of English woodland were destroyed in the quest for firewood and ships’ timbers — a rate of consumption which would have seen England’s last tree axed by 1900. So much for the ‘sustainable’ pre-industrial way of life. Just as wood was replaced by coal, so oil and gas will give way at some point to other fuels. But it won’t need an ‘Earth Summit’ to bring it about: the market alone will decide the point at which oil has become so scarce that some other means of powering machinery is to be preferred.”

As the late economist Julian Simon delighted in pointing out, human civilization is the history of substituting new materials, finding better processes, and applying more efficient technologies in the search for a safer and wealthier world. In other words, we don’t need to worry about running out of any particular natural resource because the dispersed intelligence of humanity will always find a substitute, generally a much better one, when any material becomes scarce enough. Whether it’s oil, steel, copper, or anything else we’re allegedly depleting, human beings have proven again and again their ability to invent around scarcity. In fact, it is unsustainable practices themselves that have done so much to make the world a better place to live – if companies and individuals didn’t run up against costly shortages, they’d never need to innovate in the first place.


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