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Guest Commentary / July 18, 2022

Lessons From Sri Lanka

Another failure of environmentalism.

By Mark W. Fowler

A reader from Northwest Tennessee might wonder what Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) has to do with our area. Read on for the answer. Sri Lanka is an island — 268 miles long and 139 miles wide — to the south of India, home to 22 million people. It was formerly a British colony until gaining its independence in 1948. Until the 1970s, it was largely rural and poor, with most involved in subsistence farming. Buddhism and Hinduism were the predominant religious influences. But in the 1970s, liberalization of the economy led to increases in agricultural productivity. Natives migrated to the cities, and modest industrialization occurred based on tire manufacturing and clothing. Tea became the leading export, contributing over a billion dollars in revenue. Liberalization led to the use of first-world farming techniques using tractors, fertilizer, and pesticide — until the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) movement arrived.

ESG is a criteria for socially concerned investors. Reduced to its essence, it means shifting to more “organic” methods of farming, meaning labor-intensive farming, use of natural fertilizer, and decreased dependence on machinery and fossil fuels. It is based on the idea that advanced farming techniques are unsustainable in the long run, damaging to the planet, and lead to overpopulation. This is not unlike the concerns of Rev. Malthus, who predicted that societal development would lead to mass starvation due to unsustainable population growth. Paul Ehrlich, formerly a science advisor to President Obama, is a proponent of this theory and persuaded Sri Lankan leadership to adopt it, in effect returning Sri Lanka to subsistence farming. The nation has a near-perfect score of 98 on the ESG scale. America stands at 5.

As a consequence, the use of chemical fertilizer was banned in Sri Lanka over the objection of the agricultural community. What happened was entirely predictable but necessary in the eyes of those comfortably ensconced in the offices of the United Nations and Western think tanks. Fundamentally, the notion was that the world could not sustain energy-intensive farming to sustain poorer populations, and they would be limited to subsistence or “organic” farming.

From June 2021 to June 2022, food prices rose 80%. Five hundred thousand people of a population of 22 million slipped into poverty. General annual inflation rose to 55%. Crop production on most small lots fell 55%-60% and on the plantations by 33%. Tea exports collapsed, and Sri Lanka recently defaulted on foreign debt payment. It has accumulated a large debt to China.

The widespread misery led to large public rioting over hunger. The president was run out of his palace (why do presidents always live in palaces in poorer countries?), and police were forced to use water cannons on the populace to control rioting.

All because the ruling elites became enchanted with the notion of their superlative and largely imaginary wisdom to fundamentally transform society. It is hard to fathom that some theoretical and as-of-yet unrealized global environmental benefit is worth the mass misery that has been visited on Sri Lankans. Governmental elites are fascinated with power and prone to try to impose their version of utopia on the masses without regard to the catastrophic effects.

How is Sri Lanka related to the United States? Green energy enthusiasts are seeking to impose renewable power on our economy. So blind are they that they fail to see the irony of shifting to electric cars when Texas and California have suffered brownouts and blackouts in times of peak demand. They fail to understand that for the near future, most electricity is generated by coal. No new nuclear plants have been built in decades, and wind and solar are largely understood by realists to be insufficient to sustain anticipated demand. Petroleum refining capacity is operating at maximum capacity, with no new refineries built in decades. The present administration and progressives generally have repeatedly expressed antipathy to fossil fuel development. Who do they think will invest in petroleum infrastructure when many millions were lost with the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline?

And where do we find ourselves today? Dependent on China for many economic essentials including computer chips, medicines, antibiotics, and surgical masks. Facing 9% inflation and shortages of baby food, fuel, and fertilizer. While the stock market plummets, progressive leadership touts the appointment of a “transgender” woman as an admiral to the public health service, a lesbian woman of color as the presidential spokesperson, and a gay man as transportation secretary. Whatever value those accomplishments may have, they are of little concern to the families struggling to put food on the table and fuel in their vehicles. In the meantime, Rome burns.

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