Nature-Worship or Science?

There is a review of Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive” in the London Review of Books. The reviewer, Partha Dasgupta, is an economist. The review is titled “Bottlenecks”. It’s a long review, with an overview of the book. The book has been praised in reviews and on the web by deep ecologists, Greens, Gaians, and the other usual suspects. Professor Dasgupta isn’t singing in that chorus. He is impressed with Diamond’s research and the analysis, up to a point.

He says:

… By his reckoning, the situation today is worse than it has ever been: as well as the old dangers of deforestation and so forth, we now have to deal with anthropogenic climate change, the accumulation of toxic chemicals, energy shortages and a near-full use of the Earth’s photosynthetic capacity. The concluding chapters of the book are devoted to speculations on the contemporary human condition, responses to dismissals of the concerns of environmentalists by sceptics, and a meditation on our hopes and the perils we face. Which is when the book skids and becomes a mess.

A little later, he elaborates:

The more important reason why Diamond’s rhetoric doesn’t play well any longer is that it presents only one side of the balance-sheet: it ignores the human benefits that accompany environmental damage. You build a road, but that destroys part of the local ecosystem; there is both a cost and a benefit and you have to weigh them up. Diamond shows no sign of wanting to look at both sides of the ledger, and his responses to environmental sceptics take the form of ‘Yes, but . . .’ If someone were to point out that chemical fertilisers have increased food production dozens of times over, he would reply: ‘Yes, but they are a drain on fresh water, and what about all that phosphorus run-off?’ Diamond is like a swimmer who competes in a race using only one arm. ‘In caring for the health of our surroundings, just as of our bodies,’ he writes at one point, ‘it is cheaper and preferable to avoid getting sick than to try to cure illnesses after they have developed’ – which sounds wise, but is simply misleading bombast. Technology brings out the worst in him. At one point he claims that ‘all of our current problems are unintended negative consequences of our existing technology,’ to which I felt like shouting in exasperation that perhaps at some times, in some places, a few of the unintended consequences of our existing technology have been beneficial. Reading Diamond you would think our ancestors should all have remained hunter-gatherers in Africa, co-evolving with the native flora and fauna, and roaming the wilds in search of wild berries and the occasional piece of meat.

This kind of appraisal of Professor Diamond’s nature-worshipping anti-development tendencies is not new. What Professor Dasgupta brings to the debate is an economic analysis of sustainable development that goes below the surface of the dirt-worshipping ideology of Diamond’s book. The greater part of his review is devoted to an introduction to the modern economics of sustainable development. It’s a good essay.


2 responses to “Nature-Worship or Science?”

  1. garth danielson Avatar
    garth danielson

    I am feeling a little more fond of the dirt tonight, not here in Minneapolis where it is cold and rainy but somewhere nice with some trees and no ticks. From a practical side we can not all live in the country, and if I hadn’t just finished the sixth No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency book I would feel more like getting an apartment on an upper floor and getting away from the dirt. The small city setting of the No. 1 Ladies series is painted so attactively it makes it desirable. If only it weren’t so hot. I do remember fondly the days of my youth that were spent in the country, or in small towns. Sometimes I get the urge to retire to a small town but I fear the reaper and really plan to live near enough to a hospital so as to be that much safer.
    Some where between the left and right side of the argument on ecolapse is the truth. I am not sure what it is but I do now that we can not always pull our fat out of the fire at the best of times. A guy I know told me that we could not destroy the earth. He gets this from listening to conservative talk radio. He thinks more in ablsolute terms. I think they think the world is big. I don’t, you can hardly see it from the sun. Not so big. I do believe that we could make parts inhospitable due to our large numbers of careless people.
    Selfishly I am hoping I don’t have to be there to see it. I wouldn’t want to survive by eating someone, let alone having to grow my own vegatables. I’ve done that growing crops thing, it’s a lot of work, more so, I am betting, after the radiation settles. Mind you, if you only had to grow one ear of corn for the season, this might be good. If you could genetically alter giant vegatables to grow and prepare themselves, that would be even better.

  2. Brave Kelso Avatar
    Brave Kelso

    There was a Tom Clancy novel involving ecological warriors who wanted to release chemical or biological agents to wipe out everybody except a small elite – themselves – so humanity could get a new start. Somewhere near the end of the novel, the good guys drop several of the worse fanatics in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest and tell them to survive.
    I like being outside. I camp, canoe, kayak, hike, hunt. I enjoy being outside, and having that freedom. I also like shelter, food, leisure. The deep ecologist admires primitive nature as a concept and a personal Garden of Eden. He can’t see other people there, except his compliant and nubile Eve and a few other people in his tribe. His vision of nature is kind of obvious, and his criticisms of other people’s ideas of the good life seem to be based in his personal tastes. That’s not to say that he doesn’t have a valid point. It’s easy to write off the deep ecologists when they are focussed on their dreams. The American economy tends to suck up and waste resources on fulfilling frivolous wants – in fact it is pretty good at dreaming up things that people don’t need and selling them.

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