Poverty: Public Enemy #1

Published July 1, 2003

The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy

Jack M. Hollander
University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003
251 pages, cloth, $27.50

Professor Jack Hollander, an expert on energy and environment at the University of California – Berkeley, has produced a volume that charts a path to a better and more sustainable environment for the world’s population. Eminently readable, Hollander’s work makes the argument that poverty leads to pollution and stands in the way of its control. Not a new argument, but seldom has it been presented so well.

Hollander’s chapters cover the adequacy of food supply, water and air pollution, and global warming. He offers a very sensible discussion of energy sources, from fossil fuels to solar and nuclear. All in all, it is a book that sticks to facts and avoids hype.

The facts presented and arguments advanced are very much in the spirit of Julian Simon and others. The important difference is that Hollander is an active scientist (not a statistician), author or coauthor of more than 100 research publications, and editor of 20 books, mostly dealing with energy and environmental topics. In the mid-1970s he served as the director of the first (and only) national energy study carried out by the National Academy of Sciences. He therefore brings great credibility to the debate between technological optimists and anti-technology doomsday prophets, whose voices have been amplified by the media.

Economic Growth Essential

The book makes the point that a global transition sparked by economic growth is essential in bringing about an environmentally sustainable world. It runs counter to the conventional argument, first enunciated by Malthus–and resurrected in 1972 by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth–that an increasing standard of living of a growing population is unsustainable. Hollander’s book, written for the non-expert public but with the credibility of a recognized expert, argues that this extreme pessimism is not justified by science, economics, demography, or history.

Environmental orthodoxy holds that an affluent society is a polluting society. But Hollander argues that affluence, while not guaranteeing a better environment, is a key ingredient–a necessary but not sufficient condition, if you will.

Hollander traces the rise of environmentalism and how it turned from conservation into an anti-technology movement with distrust of government, the oil companies, and the nuclear industry. The movement’s transformation was spurred by many factors: advances in analytic chemistry, allowing for the detection of trace amounts of chemicals, the Viet Nam war, Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring.

Hollander cites as examples the unscientific ban on DDT and the anti-nuclear energy movement–spurred by reaction to nuclear weapons but transferred to an unreasonable fear of even minute amounts of radiation. I would have included opposition to supersonic transport aircraft, which spawned concern about the stratospheric ozone layer and led to the adoption of the Montreal Protocol, the first international agreement to ban certain chemicals.

Optimistic Future

After this introduction, the book follows a logical course. It starts by describing the environmental problems of the poor–unable to deal with pollution until they acquire enough affluence to meet their basic needs for survival.

This leads Hollander to a discussion of population growth, which he views optimistically. With falling fertility rates everywhere, Hollander notes, “it should no longer be looked upon as a serious long-term global problem.” Similarly, the food problem is illusionary; the existing surplus will increase in the Second Green Revolution thanks to advances in biotech. Hollander also addresses anti-biotech opinion based on the “precautionary principle.”

Hollander’s outlook is not quite so sanguine for world fisheries; nearly a quarter are badly overfished or completely depleted. The answer, he explains, has to be sought in better institutional arrangements that assign property rights. But that is difficult to do for the poor in coastal regions who depend on fish for survival. Again, technology can help, in the form of aquaculture.

The book describes the remarkable progress in water and air quality in affluent nations where only a century ago drinking water was generally not safe, and 50 years ago killer smogs were common. [I survived the 1952 episode in London; it was not pleasant.] But once these basic health goals are achieved, it becomes important to decide just “how clean is clean enough?”

In principle, cost-benefit analysis can address such questions but faces problems of both data and politics. Hollander does not delve into what really drives the politics, especially of air pollution, acid rain, and stratospheric ozone depletion. These are often driven by ideology rather than by science or economics.

Energy Abundance

When turning to energy sources in the last part of the book, Hollander correctly notes there was never an oil crisis in 1973, and certainly no shortage. In opposition to those who see oil production peak before 2010 [as, for example, Princeton’s Prof. Deffeyes in his book, Hubbert’s Peak], Hollander sees no problems in the foreseeable future. I think he is right in that there are vast resources of heavy oil and tar sands still to be exploited.

For oil as a transportation fuel, the efficiency of automobiles is of prime importance. Hollander presents a realistic appraisal of the hybrid-electric car and the eventual fuel cell car. He shows coal consumption growing steadily.

When it comes to renewables, solar energy is “free but not cheap.” Its contribution to the country’s overall energy mix is increasing slowly, thanks to an array of generous government subsidies. Nuclear fission energy based on uranium, notes Hollander, is quasi-renewable. Opposition to nuclear energy is largely emotional, based on irrational fears of low-level nuclear radiation.

Warming Fears Overstated

Hollander gives a most expert discussion of climate change in the chapter titled “Is the Earth Warming?” With the ongoing increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, one would expect some warming to occur; but it is difficult to discern a small human contribution in the presence of large natural temperature variations. Hollander mentions the difficult-to-explain cooling observed between 1940 and 1975 and the apparent lack of atmospheric warming in the last 20 years as recorded by satellite data. He thus reaches the inescapable conclusion that the human contribution is much weaker than expected from a simple warming theory that does not address the complexity of the real atmosphere.

The consequences of a possible warming are not necessarily bad, Hollander further notes, and the remedies suggested by the Kyoto Protocol would achieve negligible results at a huge cost. Informed estimates put the cost to the U.S. economy at $2.3 trillion over the next decades–about twice the cost for all other nations combined.

At first glance, climate change does not seem to fit Hollander’s paradigm. The problem of global warming–if indeed it is a problem–would not disappear if world poverty were cured. Indeed, one can argue affluence would make global warming worse. This seems to be the secret belief of the environmental elite.

But that is an illusion. The “problem” of climate change–whether warming or cooling, natural or manmade–can best be met by adjustment. And adjustment becomes easier with affluence and more difficult with poverty. Witness the impact of floods, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, or any other disaster on less-developed nations.

The remedies against greenhouse warming being peddled by environmental activists–the energy-rationing schemes of the Kyoto Protocol and the even more stringent measures to follow after 2012–would destroy economic growth and tend to make us as poor as the rest of the world. Instead, we should be helping the rest of the world become as rich as we are.

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the non-profit Science & Environmental Policy Project in Arlington, Virginia. http://www.sepp.org