Beyond the Blinders: Economic Progress in the Age of Radical Environmentalism
By Vijay Jayaraj
The dominant global narrative is that the world is overpopulated and we are exhausting natural resources.
With the ongoing hysteria surrounding climate change, some even go so far as to suggest that human population growth is the cancer of the earth.
But what if I told you that these fears are baseless? That innovation and invention are making resources less scarce over time, even as population and resource consumption rise? That our ability to adapt improves as the world changes?
Here are some real facts that the mainstream media seldom acknowledge in this scaremongering era.
Despite two world wars and disease outbreaks like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and now the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, the world has become a better place to live in.
Forty-two percent of the world’s people lived in severe poverty in the early 1980s, and many more in the preceding centuries. As of 2015, only 10% did.
During the 1950s, almost all of today’s developing countries were under severe stress and food shortage. The agricultural revolution in the 1960s transformed many of these developing countries into agricultural superpowers, meeting their local demands and exporting food to the world.
Today, we live longer and healthier lives. Global average life expectancy rose from a mere 29 in 1777 to 71 in 2014. That’s over a 40-year gain. The number is even higher in Japan and the UK.
Some argue that humans, in order to achieve this socioeconomic progress, are using up natural resources and will soon run out of many. But that is far from the truth.
The Industrial Era Revolutionized Our Use of Natural Resources
Radical environmentalists put resource use in a bad light. They conveniently ignore the fact that the world has become more efficient in extracting, processing, using, and reusing natural resources.
In the past, wood served almost all energy needs. As a result, people rapidly cut down forests. But after the Industrial Revolution, the situation changed. Despite the rapid increase in population since then, Europe’s forests are growing in size.
How is this possible?
The trump card to this turnaround is human ingenuity in harnessing naturally available resources, aided by scientific discoveries.
The ability to harness raw materials is the greatest achievement of the 19th and 20th centuries. Instead of exclusively relying on wood for construction, transportation, industrial, and household needs, we now have an array of long-lasting, affordable, safe, efficient, and convenient alternatives.
Today we manufacture a diverse array of end products from raw materials. The same materials, in earlier centuries, would have served only a single service or even have been considered useless.
Using coal as fuel revolutionized the use of iron ore, enabling us to produce steel for construction. This drastically reduced our reliance on wood.
Coal is one of the key raw materials for all metallurgical processes that involve smelting — the process of extracting metal from ore. The global boom in coal use thus enabled an upgrade of metallurgical processes. Without this extraction, our homes and working places would lack most of the things we use today.
We are more efficient not only with the use of available resources but also with our time and energy.
Similarly, the advancement in agricultural technology — like drone-based precision agriculture and GMOs — has enabled us to produce crops that give a higher yield and to smaller areas of cultivation using less water and pesticides.
We have also revolutionized animal husbandry and now serve quality nutrition to billions across the globe. With improved insights into the microbiological world, we know how to restore the population and habitat of various species of plants and animals.
Illegal hunting, not population growth, is the primary explanation for the downfall of wildlife species across the globe. Through conservation efforts, some species that were pushed to the brink of extinction by over-hunting are making a comeback. The growing numbers of polar bears in the Arctic and the Bengal tigers of India give us a ray of hope.
Fake-news peddlers and fearmongers are losing this argument. The world has become a better place for us to live in, and we are making it better for other life forms as well.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England) is a research contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.