This is the text of my article published on spiked on 2 March.
There are two main ways in which the relationship between man and nature can be understood. Some contend that humans should reshape the natural world for their own benefit, while others argue that humanity should respect natural limits.
The first view can be traced to Francis Bacon (1561-1626). The brilliant English philosopher, statesman and scientist ushered in the Enlightenment view that humans should seek to dominate nature. By this he did not mean that nature should be destroyed, as is sometimes alleged by greens, but rather harnessed to meet human needs.
Many key Enlightenment figures, including the French encyclopédistes Jean le Rond d’Alembert and Denis Diderot, recognised the key contribution Bacon made to modernity. Immanuel Kant, the great German Enlightenment philosopher, hailed Bacon in the preface to his Critique of Pure Reason (1781).
There is a strong argument that Bacon created the preconditions for the idea of progress. Writing in his classic study, The Idea of Progress (1920), John Bagnell Bury said that, for Bacon, ‘the true object… of the investigation of nature is not, as the Greek philosophers held, speculative satisfaction, but to establish the reign of man over nature; and this Bacon judged to be attainable, provided new methods of attacking the problems were introduced’.
In retrospect, Bacon’s supporters were right to recognise the importance of his insights. By reshaping and harnessing nature for our own benefit, we have created a far more prosperous society. It is hard to imagine the whole panoply of aircraft, cars, computers, electricity grids, hospitals, schools, railways, roads, telephones, universities and the like without it. Yet Bacon is virtually forgotten, except by the green and feminist authors who deride him for allegedly advocating the rape of nature.
In fact, mass prosperity and economic progress have brought enormous benefits to humanity. There are many ways in which this improvement can be measured, but perhaps the most striking is average life expectancy. It has increased from about 30 in 1800 to over 70 today. That increase alone – which it should be remembered is a global average – gives the lie to the claim that only the wealthy have benefited from mass affluence. An average of over 40 extra years of life is a considerable feat, worthy of huge celebration.
Yet this view that humans should strive to dominate nature has fallen out of favour. Since the 1970s, an alternative conception of man’s relationship to nature has become dominant. This perspective holds that humans should be constrained by natural limits. If they do not accept such limitations, so the argument goes, we will suffer all sorts of nasty consequences.
Historically, this view was most commonly associated with Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). For Malthus, these limits were expressed in the form of overpopulation. His Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, argued that if the human population was not kept in check, then there would be famine and war. Malthus’s essay has influenced conservatives, miserablists and misanthropes ever since.
As it happens, Malthus’s argument was not original. Many had argued before him that humans were constrained by natural limits. He gained prominence because his views were a direct riposte to the optimism of Enlightenment thinkers such as Nicolas de Condorcet, William Godwin and Adam Smith. He restated the case for pessimism when it was on the defensive, and sought to undermine faith in the power of human reason.
Over the past two centuries, Malthus’s predictions of doom have fared terribly. The global population is over seven times the size it was in his day, and yet people are far better off. Although the world is far from perfect, the average person lives a longer, better and healthier life than ever before. Under such circumstances it should not be a surprise that Malthusians have been on the defensive for over a century and a half.
Sadly, similar ideas have come to the fore again, albeit in a modified form, since the 1960s. The emphasis this time around is not so much on population – although that preoccupation has not disappeared – but the idea of overconsumption. Contemporary green thinking has reinvented the idea of a natural limit in a slightly different guise.
This notion is not confined to campaigning groups or self-proclaimed green political parties. Since the 1970s, it has become mainstream among Western governments and international organisations. Often the discussion is posed in terms of the need for sustainability – essentially a codeword for permanent austerity. From this starting point, the green-minded deride popular consumption and argue that the economic development of poor countries needs to be constrained for the sake of the environment.
One of the main goals of Andrea Wulf’s widely acclaimed The Invention of Nature is to rewrite the history of green thinking with the dashing Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) as its founder. Although he is little-known in the English-speaking world – or at least he was until Wulf’s book became a bestseller – the German scientist and explorer was a much more attractive figure than Malthus.
He was perhaps the best-known scientist of his age – comparable in fame to Napoleon – and a renowned explorer. He met and influenced a tremendous range of historical figures, including German literary giants such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, US president Thomas Jefferson, and the South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar. Charles Darwin, writing in his autobiography, credited Humboldt with giving him the ‘burning zeal’ to study the natural sciences. Humboldt’s best-known expedition was a six-year trip to Latin America, where, despite facing many hardships, he did a systematic botanical study of tens of thousands of plants in the region. Humboldt was also staunchly anti-slavery and opposed to colonialism.
If Wulf’s book was a straightforward biography of an unfairly neglected historical figure, it would deserve all of the plaudits. But its many admirers seem either to ignore or fail to recognise the significance of the ill-advised second goal the author set herself. In the prologue, she states that she aims to ‘understand why we think as we do about the natural world’. But, in that respect, the book is a failure. For one thing, to achieve that objective it would be necessary to write an entirely different book. Rather than focus on Humboldt, she would need to examine critically the changing perspectives of the natural world. On an even more basic level, the discussion of Humboldt’s life leads to a neglect of green ideas that existed before him.
The main focus of Wulf’s study is what Humboldt called his Naturgemälde (which can be roughly translated as his ‘painting of nature’). This was a sketch drawn by Humboldt that showed that nature was a complex web in which everything is connected. In that respect, it anticipated the idea that contemporary greens sometimes refer to as Gaia.
Yet Wulf, rather than drawing out its significance, more or less asserts that this is a foundational idea for green thinking. She fails to point out that the claim that humans are merely part of nature, rather than playing a special role, is a key element of anti-humanism. From a green perspective, it is reasonable to see humans as fundamentally on a par with any other animal. Indeed, from this vantage point, humans can be seen as worse than any other animal as they are viewed as destroying the world’s natural balance. In this way, the idea that humans are simply a part of nature is just another way of arguing that humans should respect natural limits.
As it happens, Humboldt himself was an empiricist rather than someone with a broader interest in philosophical issues. His Naturgemälde was simply an attempt to describe nature as he saw it. Unlike Malthus, he did not draw out any overt political views from his conception of nature. Wulf is essentially reading history backwards when she classifies Humboldt as a green thinker.
This unfortunate tendency of projecting the present on to the past is also apparent in the several references she makes to climate change. She may be right in arguing that Humboldt was the first scientist to recognise that humans can alter the climate. However, this claim shows that she fails to recognise what is distinctive about the contemporary debate. Even most of those derided today as ‘climate deniers’ would accept that human action can modify the climate. The distinctive feature of the current green orthodoxy is that it contends that a rapacious humanity is laying the ground for catastrophic climate change. It overestimates the extent to which humans cause problems and underestimates our capacity to devise solutions.
The Invention of Nature therefore works as a fascinating biography, but it is a total failure in its second stated goal of exploring how humans understand the natural world. It is a misguided attempt to rewrite the history of green thinking with the adventurer and scientist Humboldt as its founder. It fails to understand what is distinctive about green thinking or appreciate that its intellectual antecedents predate Humboldt.
The multi-authored Ecomodernist Manifesto represents an alternative attempt to put a positive spin on environmentalism. Its writers concede that economic progress has brought enormous benefits, but contend that it is right to hold on to an environmentalist ideal.
To maintain this position, they essentially split the idea of natural limits in two. They argue that humans should reduce their impact on nature, but they do not need to live in harmony with it: ‘We affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonise with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.’
It is hard to see how such a position is tenable. Economic and social progress depend precisely on humanity increasing its impact on nature. We need to enhance our control over the natural world, rather than step back from it. Hunger, disease and even straightforward scarcity still present formidable challenges. Even tackling climate change, to the extent it is a problem, will demand enhancing the technological powers of humanity, not scaling back.
The Ecomodernist Manifesto’s writers attempt to square this circle by advocating what they call a ‘decoupling’ of human development from environmental impacts. That means allowing humans to flourish, while protecting nature at the same time. But couching the arguments in this way blurs a key distinction. It may be that humans decide, for example, that they want to leave some of the planet as wilderness. But that should be on the basis of what is in the interests of humanity, rather than a belief in the need to respect natural limits.
By couching the manifesto in such pragmatic terms the authors manage to avoid the overt miserablism of much green thinking. However, there are clear signs that anxiety about economic progress is lurking not far beneath the surface. For example, the manifesto talks of the need to bolster resource productivity – the efficiency with which raw materials are harnessed – but it avoids any mention of labour productivity. Yet it is labour productivity – the amount that can be produced for each hour or day of human labour – that is key to economic progress. To abolish scarcity on a global scale – in other words, to make everyone affluent – would require a huge boost to average levels of labour productivity.
A related problem is indicated by the references to alleviating poverty. At first sight, this seems unobjectionable. Who could be against such a goal? But the manifesto focuses on reducing the most extreme forms of material deprivation and, by implication, eschews the goal of prosperity for all.
Ecomodernism cannot work as a coherent vision because green thinking is fundamentally opposed to modernity. A truly modern vision has to be based around the needs of humanity. It makes no sense to talk about the planet – which, when it comes down to it, is basically just a lump of rock – as if it has its own independent interests. The planet is not, and cannot, be a conscious being.
The ecomodernists are simply trying to give green thinking a makeover. They are playing down its anti-human premises and blurring its negative consequences. They are repackaging a miserablist and misanthropic outlook in a bid to make it seem palatable.
Now, more than ever, it is important to insist on a humanist conception of the relationship between man and nature This means insisting that humans should not constrain their ambition and creativity for the sake of the natural world. On the contrary, we owe the enormous gains we have made to our success in bolstering our control over nature. If anything, we need to take this process even further, rather than scaling back.
Perhaps it is also time to rehabilitate the reputation of Francis Bacon and his immense contribution to modernity. Without his insight, that humans should strive to dominate nature, we would all be far worse off.
Spiked has published an article by me critiquing “progressive” environmentalism. I will upload the full text at a later date but in the meantime it is available here.
I’ll be debating the Divide, a new film on inequality and fairness, at the University of Birmingham on the afternoon of Wednesday 24 February. I hope some of you can come along. Details can be found here.
I do not normally upload work-related articles on to this blog as they are often too technical. However, this comment may be of more general interest. It is from the February issue of IPE.
Pension funds and asset managers should focus more on their role of providing retirement income and less on political questions. Indeed, it would be best if the pensions industry ditched entirely what has become known as ESG (environmental, social and governance).
The focus on ESG within the pensions industry is astounding. There are inevitably big debates about climate change, sustainability, child welfare, human rights, divesting from Israeli firms and much more. No doubt, such discussions make participants feel good but they should consider their negative consequences.
For a start, they seem to have forgotten that most people still receive a meagre retirement income. For example, a recent study of the British market by Aviva estimated that the current typical saving and investment is only £53,793 (€71,900, excluding the value of their home). That would deliver income of between £3,117 a year if an annuity is bought, or £3,635 each year if invested in a drawdown plan over 25 years. On top of a basic state pension of up to £115.95 a week that amounts to a total weekly income of perhaps £185 per person.
Naturally such figures should be put into perspective. The basic state pension in Britain is lower than in many countries. The estimate is also an average. Relatively affluent individuals do much better but many people subsist on a bare minimum. The aspiration should be that everyone has a reasonable retirement income.
Not that the pensions industry is primarily responsible for the low level of payouts. Pension levels depend fundamentally on the general level of prosperity. Any payout is ultimately derived from an economy’s current output. When people invest for retirement they do not build up a stock of goods and services for future consumption. In essence, they get a claim on economic production once they have retired.
This points to one reason why ESG is problematic. Its environmental preoccupations lead to a curbing of economic growth. For example, the discussion of climate change often leads to the conclusion that consumption should be curtailed. Yet it is rising prosperity that provides the possibility of better pension payouts for all. Similarly greens forget that coal power can be enormously beneficial to poorer countries in particular.
ESG is also fundamentally undemocratic. Political topics should be debated in the public realm in a free society and not be restricted to the relatively narrow world of financial institutions, public officials and campaigning groups.
The plaudits given to Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, for his comments on climate change typify this undemocratic tendency. An unelected technocrat should not be using his position to make public statements on such matters.
Political discussions belong in the sphere of politics rather than inside the pensions industry.
I will be debating “are greens the friends or the enemies of progress?” at the Zurich Salon on the evening of Tuesday 19 January. The other speakers are Thomas Vellacott (CEO of WWF Switzerland), Silvio Borner (professor of economics) and Stephen Tindale (director of the Alvin Weinberg Foundation). It will be chaired by Sabine Beppler-Spahl of the Freiblickinstitut think tank. More details of the event can be found here.
This is my book review from yesterday’s FT.
What would you do if you were walking past a shallow pond in which a small child was drowning? There can be little doubt that the vast majority of people would wade in to save the child even if it came at the relatively trivial cost of getting their clothes muddy.
This is the starting point of a famous essay by Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, first published in 1972. It has just been republished, along with two additional essays by Singer and a foreword by Bill and Melinda Gates.
Of course, Singer does not stop with the example of the drowning child. His next step is to argue there is no moral difference between letting the child drown and letting one die in a faraway country as a result of extreme poverty.
The two cases are different in psychological terms, though. The small child in the hypothetical example is in front of you whereas those living in severe poverty are generally a long way away. But in moral terms, Singer argues, the challenge posed is the same.
In both cases it is possible to eliminate the suffering at no risk to our physical well-being. We might get our clothes muddy or be able to afford fewer luxuries, but that is miniscule when set against the value of a human life.
Over the years Singer’s argument has inspired countless philanthropic initiatives around the world. With the endorsement of Bill and Melinda Gates in this new edition it has gained public recognition from perhaps the world’s greatest philanthropists.
Perhaps its influence is not surprising since, at first sight, its argument seems unimpeachable. Who, after all, would want to be seen arguing the case for letting a small child drown? However, a closer examination shows there are reasons to question Singer’s moral reasoning. In particular, the use of a small child as a starting point risks infantilising the people it is ostensibly designed to help: the poor themselves. It casts western philanthropists as heroic saviours of the helpless and those living in dire conditions as passive victims of dire circumstances.
An alternative starting point would be to see human beings as capable of shaping and reshaping their own circumstances. People have the ability to transform the world around them for the better, rather then simply lying back helplessly and accepting their fate.
This sense of agency is the main force for eliminating poverty. Perhaps the most striking recent example is China’s widely acknowledged success in lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty from the 1980s onwards. This was achieved by a drive to transform its economy, rather than allowing itself to become the object of western pity.
That is not to say contemporary China is perfect or that its model should be followed slavishly. Only that, through their own efforts, people have often succeeded in lifting themselves out of poverty through economic growth.
Indeed, long before China’s rapid surge in development began in the late 1970s, that is precisely how the west’s own prosperity was created. Western affluence is primarily the result of concerted action by earlier generations, rather than the gift of external charity.
This alternative view does not, of course, preclude saving drowning children or even giving aid to those suffering in an emergency. A key problem with Singer’s argument is precisely that it blurs these exceptional circumstances with the everyday business of conquering poverty.
In fact, Singer is, at least in passing, critical of the forces that do most to eliminate poverty. In his original 1972 essay on famine he favourably cited two of the most prominent critics of economic growth of the time.
There are additional reasons to resist Singer’s arguments. His explicit condemnation of those who fail to accept a duty to eschew new clothes or cars for the sake of the poor risks generating resentment. He is essentially trying to guilt-trip westerners into giving up luxuries.
Yet there is not a fixed amount of wealth in the world. It is quite possible — indeed, it has been the norm in recent times — for the world’s poor to have become richer at the same time as the affluent countries have also become wealthier. Those who want to contribute to famine relief or poverty alleviation should be free to do so. But viewing the world’s poor as mere passive recipients of western charity is a temptation that should be resisted.
Famine, Affluence, and Morality, by Peter Singer, Oxford University Press
I will be debating Inequality: should we really be worried? at a Battle of Ideas satellite event at the Kulturhuset Stadsteatern in Stockholm on at 2.15pm next Saturday. There are two other sessions the same afternoon on Migrants, Refugees and Borders and Europe’s Changing Drugs Laws. Please come along if you are in the area.
I will be speaking at an extra Battle of Ideas session on whether we need the new Sustainable Sevelopment Goals from the United Nations at 4pm this coming Saturday.
I will be speaking on the End of the East Asian miracle? at the Battle of Ideas at 5.30pm on Saturday 17 October. Come along to the session or, better still, to the whole weekend.
This is my latest book review for the Financial Times.
It is hard to imagine how the rapid development of many poorer economies in recent decades could have happened without the emergence of super-rich individuals. No doubt for most Financial Times readers the two go together. The rise of popular prosperity depends on the vibrancy of wealth- creating entrepreneurs.
But it is important to remember that many people do not see it that way. For some critics, the existence of the super-rich alongside many millions in poverty is immoral. For many others, life is inevitably a zero-sum game: more riches for the few must, by definition, mean less wealth for the many.
Rich People Poor Countries should be understood against the backdrop of this debate. Caroline Freund, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington DC-based think-tank, begins the book with an exchange that encapsulates the contrasting views. At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, referred to the relief charity’s findings that the richest 1 per cent of the world’s population would own more than 50 per cent of the world’s wealth by 2016.
In response, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, the advertising group, said: “I make no apology for having started a company 30 years ago with two people and having 179,000 people in 111 countries and investing in human capital each year to the tune of at least $12bn a year.”
The first part of Freund’s work is essentially a taxonomy of the super-rich in the emerging world. Her study’s starting point was an examination of the changing composition of the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires. From there she worked with an assistant, Sarah Oliver, to research every individual to determine how they achieved their fortune and the sectors with which they are associated.
On this basis, she determined that extreme wealth in emerging markets is largely self-made. Although some wealth is acquired by inheritance, its importance is declining. The typical emerging market billionaire builds a globally competitive mega-company that also plays a role in transforming their home country.
There are, of course, variations by region and sector. East Asia is, not surprisingly, the most dynamic. Mainland China went from being unrepresented in 1996 to making up 40 per cent of east Asian billionaires by 2014. The Middle East was exceptional in a negative sense, as the only region where inherited wealth had increased.
The second part of the book argues strongly that the rising prosperity of poorer countries has been closely associated with the growth of large companies. As countries have grown richer, so have companies and, in many cases, individual entrepreneurs.
In 1996, fewer than 3 per cent of global Fortune 500 companies were from emerging markets. By 2014, the figure was nearly 30 per cent. These large companies have played a central role in generating employment and exports for poorer countries. They have also helped economies shift from an emphasis on agriculture to industry and services. Of course, it is always possible some individuals will accrue great wealth by corrupt means. For Freund, an important way to guard against this is to ensure companies operate in a competitive environment.
This includes making it easy for individuals to set up businesses and maintaining an openness to trade. In such conditions, she argues, it is harder for powerful forces to hijack the wealth creation process for their own benefit.
Although Rich People Poor Countries clearly shows how the development process is closely connected to the rise of large companies, it is unlikely to convince sceptics. It is doubtful that those with a moral aversion to the accumulation of extreme wealth will be convinced simply by facts. And those who believe development is tightly constrained by scarce resources will continue to insist that more for some must necessarily mean less for others.
Winning the debate on the benefits of popular prosperity requires a culture war waged on several fronts. It means, among other things, showing through the force of argument that everyone can benefit from a wealthier society. It is also necessary to tackle the moral qualms about mass affluence. The fight cannot be won with evidence alone.
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Ferraris For All, my book defending economic progress, has just been published in an extended edition in paperback and on Kindle with a new chapter on the inequality debate.Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.de,
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