Green smoke-screen

16th June 1995 at 01:00
Life on a Modern Planet. By Richard North. Manchester University Press #163;10. 99. - O 7190 4567 3. Small is Stupid. By Wilfred Beckerman. Duckworth #163;20. - 0 7156 2640 X. Preserve or Destroy. By Jonathan Croall. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation #163;6.95. - O 903319 69 1.

In 1958, when the economist J K Galbraith coined the phrase, "the conventional wisdom", he observed that "Just as truth ultimately serves to create a consensus, so in the short run does acceptability. Ideas come to be organised around what the community . . . finds acceptable".

Life on a Modern Planet and Small is Stupid set out to dismantle the prevailing conventional wisdom on environmental questions. This might be summarised as apocalyptic; increasing pressure on finite resources, environments worldwide damaged beyond repair, further economic development an unmitigated disaster for the planet.

Deep Greens (and fellow-travelling eau-de-nils) may not be stopped in their tracks by these books but they should certainly consider them. They present a many-stranded critique of the cruder forms of environmentalism.

The movement is accused of being woefully a-historical. Environmentalist gurus emerge amazingly unscathed from spectacularly inaccurate forecasts. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich told us, "The fight to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines - hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death". This did not happen. In 1972, the Club of Rome Limits to Growth study claimed that its computerised extrapolations showed with total certainty that the world would run out of most major resources by 2000. This is not going to happen. Environmentalism's striking lack of interest in history is further exemplified by its neglect of actual achievements in, for instance, pollution control from the 19th century onwards.

Beckerman and North recognise that, environmentally, good news is no news.North notes "a curious appetite for the view that something - perhaps nearly everything - is amiss. We are uncomfortable with material progress, and feel that we must pay some unspecified price for it. Disasters almost seem heaven-sent". Beckerman puts it more trenchantly; "The Greens need environmental scares as arms manufacturers need wars."

Both books remind us that increased environmental sensitivity is incontrovertibly a by-product of affluence - "the Club of Rome discovered the limits to growth while gathered on the terrace of a villa overlooking a hillside belonging to its founder". The pervasive misanthropic flavour of much environmentalist argument provides some inviting targets - the preference for wildlife "blinding us to the existence of humans in Africa",the fact that it is notoriously easier to solicit donations to save the planet from imminent catastrophe than to raise funds for drains or clean water in the Third World, the curious predilection for the quality of life of future generations, edging out concern for contemporary poverty.

It would be wrong to portray these important books as merely polemical. Richard North, in particular, does not seek to dismiss the Green movement as misguided, but rather to restore debate to its rightful central place. His substantial survey explores most major issues - the Green Revolution, desertification, pesticides, global warming, oil slicks re-cycling, elephants, whales, rain forests - and carefully sets out alternative analyses and scenarios. Much has been made of the book's ICI financing; but North's treatment of food supply discusses the "vicious cycle of pesticide application" and ICI's "lack of appreciation of the strengths of the case against the chemicals they were selling" in a way which lends credibility to his "no strings" claim. Similarly, the strictures on rich world energy policies and responsibilities would alone absolve the author of any facile Panglossian optimism.

Life on a Modern Planet is appropriately global in scope, but in no way superficial. The chapter on chlorine (a substance that in some ways encapsulates the entire history of environmental politics) is uncompromisingly technical. However, the reader comes to relish North's journalistic flair for the piquant vignette. The energy saved by using a kilo of broken glass takes a car for a mile and a quarter. If you drive further than this to the bottle bank, are you being ecologically unsound? North notes that an earlier generation's blind faith in scientific progress has been replaced by a conviction (equally impervious to argument) that we are all being steadily and insidiously poisoned. His own faith is in the peer-group appraisal process applied to scientific findings and the steadily increasing sophistication of regulatory mechanisms, often operating well ahead of public anxieties.

Small is Stupid is a fiercer and more concise contribution to this overdue debate. Its title, a sardonic swipe at the revered father-figure of environmental economics, E F Schumacher (Small is Beautiful 1973) conveys its flavour well. Beckerman, an economist, here re-visits a debate that he last enlivened in 1972 with In Defence of Economic Growth. The book's serious message is that there is no necessary correlation between prosperity and environmental degradation - a point effectively established by M S Bernstam in his 1991 IEA paper, The Wealth of Nations and the Environment. The greatest environmental threat comes from poverty, and Beckerman inveighs against those who advise poor countries to be chary of putting economic growth before the preservation of the environment. This, he says, displays "an appalling degree of insensitivity". North calls it eco-imperialism. Generally, the arguments are rather better served by the latter's patient, exploratory tone, than by Beckerman's exasperated scorn for "sustainable development" and similar "meaningless slogans".

After these sweeping overviews, Jonathan Croall's terse and well -researched study of the world's greatest growth industry provides some welcome specificity. Tourist destinations, whether Devon villages or Himalayan peaks, are being "loved to death". This timely book thoughtfully progresses from indictment to prescription via a group of encouraging case studies.

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