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Technology and the environment: the case for optimism
- Matt Ridley
Prince Philip Lecture,
May 8, 2001
(This lecture was delivered by the British journalist Matt Ridley at
the Royal Society of Arts recently in the presence of Prince Philip;
I thank Matt for sharing this text with Agbioview--CSP)
Tonight I want to make three main points. First, that we are
habitually too pessimistic about the environment. Second, that the
invention of new technology is not necessarily a threat to the
environment, but is usually the best hope of environmental
improvement. And third, that pessimism about new technology and the
environment can itself be harmful.
I would like to make clear at the outset what I am NOT saying. I am
not saying that every environmental trend in every place and at every
time is benign; there are plenty of things that are getting worse.
Nor am I saying that innovation cannot have environmental side
effects. Clearly it can. But I am saying that we often overlook how
many environmental features are improving; and even more we overlook
how those improvements are caused by new technology.
By far the worst wave of species extinctions among large animals
since the extinction of the dinosaurs was caused by stone-age people.
About 50,000 years ago, the first people to reach Australia quickly
wiped out the 25 largest mammals and birds. About 13,000 years ago,
the first people to reach North America took just 300 years to wipe
out three-quarters of all large mammals including mammoths and ground
sloths. The same happened in South America, Madagascar, New Zealand
and Hawaii: stone tools wreaked ecological havoc. The idea that only
modern technology causes problems is clearly a myth.
I realise that even to make these three mild claims is highly
unfashionable. Indeed, they are so against the conventional wisdom
that they might be termed heresy. And I know what happens to
heretics. My ancestral relation, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, was burnt at
the stake in Oxford for his views. I use the term heresy
deliberately: showing your concern for the environment has become one
of the superstitions of our age. To doubt is considered bad form.
It was a faith I used to believe. I joined Friends of the Earth. I
had that old red and yellow `Atomikkraft nein danke!' sticker on the
bumper of my first car. I was a true product of the 1970s and right
into the late 1980s I regarded myself as a mainstream
environmentalist, if not by then a very active one. I still regard
myself as an environmentalist, especially on local matters, but I
often find myself in almost diametrical disagreement with most of
those who professionally use that title. I don't remember exactly
what changed my mind but one influence was the work of two American
economists whom I encountered when living in Washington in the late
1980s -- Julian Simon and Aaron Wildavsky, now sadly both dead.
Julian Simon was a man obsessed with statistics. He was never caught
out with an unchecked fact. Laboriously he compiled thousands of
graphs and charts to demonstrate his belief that the world was
getting better not worse. He discovered, of course, that facts are
much less persuasive than the fire-and-brimstone sermons used by
those he was arguing against. Pessimism just makes better box office
than optimism. For centuries we have taken doom mongers more
seriously than starry-eyed optimists. It just seems to be in our
nature. It is no more realistic to ask greens to stop being
apocalyptic than to ask a sixteenth century puritan to stop preaching
hellfire and damnation.
Yet for centuries the doom mongers have been wrong. Look at the
statistics. Life expectancy increasing, deaths from hunger falling,
medical treatment improving, age-corrected cancer mortality
declining, air quality improving almost everywhere, water quality
improving in most rivers and lakes, rate of loss of tropical rain
forest falling rapidly, net loss of land to desert now officially
zero, energy use per unit of GDP falling rapidly. And so on. Most
things are getting better most of the time. (charts)
What is always getting worse, apparently, is the future. Predictions
remain pessimistic. Remember acid rain and how it was going to
destroy forests all across Europe and North America? By 1986, the
United Nations reported that 23% of all trees in Europe were
moderately or severely damaged by acid rain. What happened? They
recovered. The biomass stock of European forests actually increased
during the 1980s. The damage all but disappeared. Forests did not
decline; they thrived. Ditto in North America: `There is no evidence
of a general or unusual decline of forests in the United States or
Canada due to acid rain,' concluded the official, independent study.
But did you read this in the press? Again and again, we find that the
initial scare is given far more coverage than the later climb-down.
H.L.Mencken once said that `The whole aim of practical politics is to
keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety
-- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them
Of course, not everybody got everything wrong. One quotation from the
1970s was actually rather prophetic.
`Who knows what will be the next [environmental concern] to attract
public attention? Perhaps it will be the problems of changing world
climate.' That was written by you, sir, in 1977.
The fact that so many past predictions were wrong should give us
pause for thought about global warming. Even if the models of
predicted climate change prove accurate (and given the accuracy of
two-day weather forecasts, I have my doubts about hundred-year
climate forecasts), there is a massive bias towards pessimism in the
reporting of its likely effects. Buried in Nature magazine last month
was a report that rising temperatures around Heard Island in the
Antarctic ocean have resulted in dramatic increases in the numbers of
breeding animals: king penguins are up from 3 pairs in 1947 to 25,000
pairs today, Heard Island cormorants are back from the brink of
extinction and fur seals, once all but extinct, now number 28,000
pairs. Imagine how much coverage would have been given to the story
if those trends were in the other direction.
I'm not saying global warming will not bring some bad results for
conservation or for humankind. I'm just saying it will also bring
some good results and people are not nearly so interested in studying
or reporting them.
The mother of all pessimistic predictions was the scare about the
future scarcity of resources in the 1970s. The view that the oil, the
food and the minerals were going to run out shortly was not confined
to cranks. It was something we almost all believed.
The Club of Rome, which published `Limits to Growth' in 1970 said
total global oil reserves amounted 550 billion barrels. `We could use
up all of the proven reserves of oil in the entire world by the end
of the next decade,' said President Jimmy Carter. Sure enough,
between 1970 and 1990 the world indeed used 600 billion barrels of
oil. So, according to the Club of Rome, reserves should have been
overdrawn by 50 billion barrels by 1990. In fact, by 1990 unexploited
reserves amounted to 900 billion barrels--not counting the tar shales.
The Club of Rome made similarly wrong predictions about natural gas,
silver, tin, uranium, aluminium, copper, lead and zinc. In every
case, it said finite reserves of these minerals were approaching
exhaustion and prices would rise steeply. In every case except tin,
known reserves have actually grown since the report; in some cases
they have quadrupled.
But environmentalists have been a little more circumspect since 1990
at predicting the exhaustion of minerals. That year, a much-admired
environmentalist called Paul Ehrlich sent Julian Simon a cheque for
$576.07 in settlement of a wager.
Ehrlich would later claim that he was `goaded into making a bet with
Simon on a matter of marginal environmental importance'. At the time,
though, he said he was keen to `accept Simon's astonishing offer
before other greedy people jump in'. The deal was this. Ehrlich would
be allowed to choose five minerals: tungsten, nickel, copper, chrome
and tin. They agreed how much of these metals $1,000 would buy in
1980, then ten years later recalculated how much that amount of metal
would cost and Ehrlich agreed to pay the difference if the price
fell, Simon if the price rose. Simon won easily; indeed, he would
have won even if they had not adjusted the prices for inflation, and
he would have won if Ehrlich had chosen virtually any mineral: of 35
minerals, 33 fell in price during the 1980s. Only manganese and zinc
So much for minerals. The record of mispredicted food supplies is
even worse. Paul Ehrlich wrote in 1968:
`Agricultural experts state that a tripling of the food supply of the
world will be necessary in the next 30 years or so, if the 6 or 7
billion people who may be alive in the year 2000 are to be adequately
fed. Theoretically such an increase might be possible, but it is
becoming increasingly clear that it is totally impossible in
He was not alone. Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute began
predicting that population would soon outstrip food production in
1973 and still does so regularly. He's in the papers every time there
is a temporary increase in wheat prices. So far he has been wrong for
The facts on world food production are truly startling for those who
have only heard the doomsayers' views. Since 1961, the population of
the world has more than doubled, but food production has increased
even faster. As a result, food production per head has risen by over
20% since 1961 (chart). Nor is this improvement confined to rich
countries. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation,
calories consumed per capita per day are 27% higher in the third
world than they were in 1963.
Incidentally, both Lester Brown and Paul Ehrlich were given so-called
genius awards by the MacArthur Foundation.
Global 2000 was a report to the president of the United States
written in 1980 by a committee of the great and the good. It
predicted that population would increase faster than world food
production, so that food prices would rise by between 35% and 115% by
the year 2000. Instead the world food commodity index fell by 55%.
Why are these Malthusian predictions so spectacularly wrong? After
all, resources are limited and at some point we will surely run out
of them. We optimists have been compared to the man who said `So far
so good' as he fell past the tenth floor of the skyscraper. The
answer brings me to the second part of my argument: the invention of
technology. Julian Simon argued, and I believe we need to start
taking him seriously, that almost no resource is actually finite. He
used to say that `resources come out of people's minds more than out
of the ground or air'. He meant that everything we use, whether it is
food or oil or copper or clean water, can be made more abundant by
applying ingenuity to its extraction and use. And that is what we
keep doing. By plant breeding, we make agricultural land a more
productive resource. By inventing offshore drilling we discover
reserves of gas we did not think were there. And by inventing
fibre-optic cables, we replace copper cables. In all cases, the size
of the resource depends on the technology used to exploit it.
Substitution is especially important. If a resource becomes scarce,
its price rises and substitutes become competitive. Oil was first
drilled in the nineteenth century because whale oil was getting
expensive. Coal was first mined for industrial purposes because the
sixteenth century British cast-iron industry was running short of
wood. According to the latest theories, the reason agriculture was
first invented in the middle east 9,000 years ago was not because
nobody had thought of it before but because wild game was getting
scarce. Notice in all three cases that the invention of a substitute
technology saved a so-called renewable, natural resource by replacing
it with a so-called finite one. Whales, woods and wild game may be
renewable, but they are much more easily exhausted than oil, coal or
The Italian academic Cesare Marchetti has produced a graph which
shows how humanity's source of primary power has gradually shifted
from wood to coal to oil to gas during the last century and a half
(chart). Each of these fuels is successively richer in hydrogen and
poorer in carbon than its predecessor, so we seem to be moving
towards using pure hydrogen (chart). Presumably, we will be making it
from water or natural gas with some kind of cheap electricity perhaps
from nuclear power.
In other words, de-carbonisation of the world economy, accompanied by
a shift from dirty to cleaner technologies, is occurring without any
political direction. It is driven by human inventiveness. These kinds
of ideas are derided by environmentalists as `technical fixes'. But
actually it was technical fixes that saved the whales, the woods and
the wild game before.
I predict that we will survive global warming and that we will do so
no thanks to treaties, global energy policies, or consumer restraint.
Instead we will decarbonise our economy with new inventions.
Inventions that the environmental movement will mostly oppose.
For instance, the shift to natural gas in power generation was almost
universally criticised as a dangerous move: the notorious `dash for
gas'. Why? Gas does not need men working underground in black
tunnels; it does not spill and make slicks; it is the least carbon
rich fossil fuel of all; it can be transported very cheaply in pipes;
it can be burnt in combined cycle turbines producing 20 or 30% more
conversion efficiency than any other fuel. And above all it does not
require the wrecking of the landscape with forests of hideous,
uneconomic, unreliable, unecological, taxpayer-subsidised,
concrete-hungry, golden-eagle chopping wind turbines. To replace
natural gas with wind, hydro or tidal power, with their insatiable
demands on large acreages of our most precious landscapes, would not
in my view be green.
This is the vast benefit of fossil fuels: that they spare the
landscape. Because we have them, we don't need to cook over wood
fires, to dam streams for water mills, to grow hay for bullocks to
cart our goods to market. So despite 55 million people crammed into a
small island we can afford to leave many of our woods for nature, our
streams for fishing and our paddocks for horseyculture. To try to
turn the clock back to the medieval pattern of local renewable energy
in the name of sustainability would do more harm than good.
If this is true of power generation, it is doubly true of
agriculture. We have heard a lot recently about the supposed
drawbacks of intensive agriculture. Like intensive power production,
so intensive agriculture spares the landscape. We produce vastly more
food from every acre than we could have dreamed about two generations
ago. Hybrid seeds, inorganic fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and
mechanisation are responsible for the failure of Lester Brown's and
Paul Ehrlich's neo-Malthusian predictions. They have fed the world
with more and more food at less and less cost.
As a result modern farming is less land-hungry than its predecessors.
Hunter-gathering needs about 5,000 acres to support a human being in
a temperate climate. Short fallow organic agriculture needs about ten
acres. Intensive, conventional agriculture needs about one acre.
Hydroponic, artificially-lit greenhouses can feed 1,000 people from
According to the economist Indur Goklany, had farm technology and
yield been frozen at 1961 levels, then producing as much food as was
actually produced in 1998 would have required increasing the acreage
farmed from 12.2 billion acres to 26.3 billion acres or from 38% to
82% of global land area (chart). That would have meant destroying
forests, draining swamps, irrigating deserts and exterminating
species on an unimaginable scale.
In those 37 years India, for example, doubled its population, more
than doubled its food production, but increased its cultivated land
acreage by only 5%. Its area devoted to wood land expanded by more
than 20%. The tiger survived - thanks to the intensification of
agriculture. As Indur Goklany has put it:
`By reducing hunger, agricultural technology has not only improved
human welfare and reduced habitat loss, but has made it easier to
view the rest of nature as a source of wonder and not merely as one's
next meal or the fire to cook with. It also decreased the
socioeconomic cost of conservation.'
That is a point we can appreciate in this country. The very fact that
we can have a vigorous debate about the future of the countryside is
testament to the value of agricultural intensification. If food was
still produced at low intensity by traditional methods, we would not
have the luxury of choosing other uses of the land - hobby farming,
say, or conservation. Commercial farming would outbid every other use
-- as it did in the 1950s.
Using hydroponics, inorganic fertiliser, electric light and genetic
modification we could in theory feed the entire world from a
multi-storey farm the size of Wales. The rest could be returned to
wildlife conservation. I don't think it will go that far. I think
there will always be a market for local produce and for food produced
in traditional ways. I hope there is, because I like that kind of
food. But I have no illusions that my preference is good for the
planet; it is the most selfish thing I could do. The people who
deserve our accolades for saving the planet are not the hair-shirted
ones wandering around saying `Woe is us!', but the much maligned
white-coated boffins of Monsanto who are steadily reducing the land
we need for agriculture.
It is true that islands of nature do not do well in a sea of
intensive exploitation. National Parks, whether in Africa or
Yellowstone, arouse resentment among local people who have to put up
with the depredations of wildlife on their livelihoods. But a lot of
this is a matter of ownership. National parks suffer from the same
problems of neglect and underinvestment as anything that belongs to
the state. Where entrepreneurs are encouraged to provide refuges for
nature privately, a very different ethos prevails. But I am arguing
that we can soon afford to have islands of exploitation in a sea of
nature, rather than the other way round. A few factory farms
surrounded by a landscape managed for beauty, wildlife and recreation.
A thousand years ago, we needed to exploit the landscape to produce
not just our food, but our fuel (wood), our transport (horses), our
textiles (wool), our building materials (wood), even our fertiliser
(clover). We needed every square inch. Today we can get almost all of
those things from comparatively tiny factories. We can afford to
leave much of the rest to nature - thanks entirely to new technology.
I suggest that by far the most powerful influence on how we treat our
environment is not how much we care, nor how much we pass laws, but
what technology we invent. You only have to remember the fuel
protests of last year to see how hard it is going to be either to tax
people out of their cars or to shame them out of their cars. But it
would be a doddle to tempt them out of their cars if we had better
transport running on clean fuel. The innovation does not have to be
driven by a green motive. Indeed, when it is, we will be faced with
nonsenses like wind power.
I cannot emphasise this point too strongly. The environmental
movement is perpetually chastising us for our profligacy and urging
us to be more ascetic and to return to older ways. Given what we know
about human nature, and given the lessons of ascetic movements in the
past, this will not succeed. We'll throw a party on the eve of
Armageddon. But my point is that it is the wrong sermon anyway.
Economic development and ecological salvation are not alternatives;
they go together. Six billion people going back to nature would
simply destroy nature. But as we become more affluent, more
technologically dependent and more isolated from nature, so we can
afford to look after nature. It may seem a deeply paradoxical idea to
today's greens, but it deserves a fair hearing.
OK, you say, but innovation itself is driven by regulation. People
invent clean technologies only when they must comply with legal
limits on pollution. So what we need to do is to draw up strict rules
for protecting the environment and force inventors to help us meet
them. There is a limited truth in this.
But a legal pollution limit effectively acts as a free licence to
pollute so long as the polluter keeps below the limit. He has no
incentive to drive his emissions even lower. The United States
introduced tradeable emission permits in its 1990 clean air act
precisely to address this issue - to internalise the externalities as
the jargon goes. Bad polluters would have to buy permits from better
polluters who could thereby profit from driving down their emissions.
As Washington correspondent of the Economist at the time, I covered
the debate. Environmentalists were virtually unanimous in their
condemnation of the scheme - only the Environmental Defence Fund was
prepared to support it. The idea of polluters buying their way out of
their obligations appalled them. It offended against the creed of
asceticism. Yet in practice it worked well because the polluters were
far more keen on being sellers than buyers of pollution permits. So
emissions reduction went farther and faster and cheaper than anybody
had predicted. By 1995 sulphur emissions were 40% below the required
level and the system was estimated to be saving $3 billion dollars a
year compared with command and control. In effect, where polluters
had previously argued that emission control was too expensive, the
new system called their bluff.
Inventions that seem to have nothing to do with the environment can
be the greenest of all. Consider silicon. Large chunks of the world
economy now depend on manipulating electrons in silicon wafers. This
invention has done much for communication, automation and computing.
It is hard to think of a more benign trend from the environmental
point of view. Silicon is superabundant; it is cheap; its products
are light to transport; its production carries few and small
pollution risks; its power demands are low. And it has freed many of
us from work in heavy industry, where we generated worse
environmental problems. In the north-east of England where I live, I
now drive my children to school through the same suburbs as my
parents drove me to school through. When I was a boy, each morning we
would pass the pit at Seaton Burn just as the night shift was coming
above ground: men with soot-black faces with lamps on their helmets.
Today we pass commuters heading for a call centre (and fewer people
are unemployed). It may not be a great place to work, but it beats
digging coal 300 feet below ground.
Or consider pesticides. In the 1940s, the commonest insecticide was a
compound of arsenic, lethal to humans and birds as well as insects.
It was replaced by DDT, which was virtually harmless to people, but
because of its persistence in the environment it had knock-on effects
for otters and hawks. DDT was replaced in turn by synthetic
pyrethroids, which persist in the environment for only a short time
and kill only target species. So otters and hawks have returned
(chart). Pyrethroids are being replaced by genetically modified Bt
plants that produce an organic pesticide from inside the plant,
cutting out the need for sprays and reducing the collateral impact on
non-target species to almost nil. Only, of course, Greenpeace does
not want this improvement, so the rest of us may not be allowed to
have it either.
This is what is so painfully wrong with the precautionary principle.
Now, you say, he has surely gone too far. What can be wrong with
taking a precautionary approach to the future - better safe than
sorry. What is wrong with it is simply this: it ignores the risk of
doing nothing. Had we not improved agriculture we would have faced a
stark choice between famine and the cultivation of all wild land. Had
we not drilled for oil in the 1860s, we would have wiped out the
whales. Standing still is not a risk-free option. It is precisely
because today's technology is too dirty and dangerous and wasteful
that we must encourage inventors to improve on it. And that has been
true ever since technology consisted of a stone-tipped spear capable
of felling a mammoth.
If the world is getting better all the time for nature, why are
species still going extinct, then? Why are habitats under threat? Why
is pollution getting worse in some places? Not because we are using
new technology, but because there are more of us. Population growth,
especially in the third world, brings pressure to bear on the
environment and on resources. As somebody who loves wild places, I
will not deny that the world would be a nicer place with fewer
people. But I am not volunteering for euthanasia, and nor I notice
are most environmentalists. The misanthropy that many of them none
the less express verges on the criminal. Garrett Hardin, a much
admired eco-guru, has said `freedom to breed is intolerable'.
Remarks like that are intolerable. But that is not the worst of them.
They are also unnecessarily pessimistic. By a miracle the graph of
world population is gradually flattening out. I say a miracle because
as a zoologist I find it immensely surprising that any species could
be capable of voluntarily limiting its fecundity. But the facts are
undeniable. There is no need for coercion to achieve population
control. In every nation on earth, when health, prosperity and
freedom reach a certain level, the `demographic transition' occurs
and birth rates fall rapidly. It happened here about a century ago.
It is happening in Bangladesh and Kenya now. As a result, estimates
of peak world population in the mid 21st century have been falling
steadily for 40 years. Where once we thought there would be 15
billion and rising, we now expect only 9 billion and falling (chart).
And all you have to do to make this happen is reduce infant
mortality, improve living standards, encourage female education and
allow access to family planning - was there ever an easier policy to
Of course, nine billion is still a lot. But there is absolutely no
evidence that it is unsustainable, that it is beyond the carrying
capacity of the planet. Quite the reverse: all the evidence suggests
that we can feed and fuel that number with ease and still increase
the land devoted to conservation.
Well, you may say, he can only afford his optimism because of the
good work the environmental movement has done over the years to raise
public consciousness and to generate concern for the environment. To
some extent I am prepared to concede this point. Especially on
species in danger of extinction, and especially where local issues
are concerned, consciousness raising is important. But I fear that
the environmental movement has too often promulgated a counsel of
despair. It has spoken of an `uncontrolled' population explosion; of
an `inevitable' famine; of an `irreversible loss of rain forest'; of
a permanent climatic catastrophe, of a total exhaustion of natural
resources. This is the language of fatalism.
Nor is it confined to the greens. The media do not even pretend to be
objective on this matter; they cheer-lead the alarmism. Listen to
this from that supposedly sober magazine New Scientist last week:
`The damage we do is increasing. In the next 20 years, the population
will increase by 1.5 billion. These people will need food, water and
electricity, but already our soils are vanishing, fisheries being
killed off, wells are drying up, and the burning of fossil fuels is
endangering the lives of millions. We are heading for a cataclysm.'
So we are told that because of ecological limits, we must now prevent
the poor using exactly the tools that enriched the rich - technology
and free trade. Steeped in false nostalgia for a supposedly better
past, we are told to retreat, not to press ahead. We are told that
economic progress can only be bought at the cost of the environment.
This is not just flying in the face of experience. It is also
disgracefully complacent. It ignores the cost of standing still.
Joseph Schumpeter once pointed out that in the early 19th century,
those giants of economics Malthus, Mill and Ricardo were all agreed
that economic stagnation was imminent and that the law of diminishing
returns was about to cramp economic progress forever. Yet in fact, as
we now know, they stood on the threshold of a wave of progress that
has generated ten times the population, twice the life expectancy and
a hundred times the wealth yet with pollution getting better not
worse. Do we have to repeat their complacent mistake?
So there you have the heresy. I think it possible to be in favour of
saving the planet without being a pessimist or an enemy of new
technology. Like Yogi Berra I subscribe to the maxim `Never make
predictions, especially about the future'. But I'll break my rule
just this once to predict that in 2050 the 9 billion people in the
world will have a far better living standard than today; large parts
of Scotland and Brazil will be managed wilderness devoted to wildlife
and recreation; the air in Bangkok will be cleaner than today; most
cars will run silently on hydrogen fuel cells; fossil fuels will be
barely needed; GM crops will grow in butterfly-rich fields. Oh yes,
and we will have dismantled every last wind turbine in Wales.