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How the left discovered pessimism

Here is an op-ed I wrote for today’s Australian newspaper:

POLLYANNA is a fool; Cassandra was wise. As a self-proclaimed “rational optimist” who argues that the world has been getting better for most people and that the future is likely to be better still, I am up against a deep prejudice towards pessimism that dominates the intelligentsia. As John Stuart Mill put it, “not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage”.

What is more, pessimism has become a hallmark of the Left, chiefly because it justifies activism. Once upon a time conservatives lamented the way the world had gone to the dogs since the golden age (and some still do), while socialists championed growth, technology and innovation to liberate the working class.

Today, infected by Malthusian ecology, the Left relentlessly preaches millennial doom and technological risk: the climate is heading for catastrophe; resources are running out; population is growing too fast; farming cannot keep up; habitat is being destroyed; poverty, hunger, pollution, disease and greed are only going to get worse. A dramatic change in human stewardship of the planet is needed.

Based on the trajectory of the past five decades, and even (or especially) if the world economy grows rapidly, this century is likely to see mild climate change, cheap and abundant resources, falling population, ample food, more wilderness, and the average person becoming gradually – though erratically – wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, freer, kinder, more peaceful and more equal. Each of the past five decades has almost certainly seen records set for each of those adjectives for the world as a whole.The evidence suggests that these predictions are likely to be wrong.

Yet the pessimism monster is irrepressible. No matter how many scares are proved wrong, the next set of dispatches of doom are treated with the same reverential respect.

Remember what the media said about the Y2K computer bug? “This is not a prediction, it is a certainty: there will be serious disruption in the world’s financial services industry . . . It’s going to be ugly” (The Sunday Times); “10 per cent of the nation’s top executives are stockpiling canned goods, buying generators and even purchasing handguns” (New York Times); “Army Fears Civil Chaos From Millennium Bug: Armed Forces Gearing Up To Deal With Civil Chaos” (Canada’s Globe and Mail). In the event nothing happened, but the media were soon saying the same thing about the next scare.

There’s a broad constituency for pessimism. No pressure group ever got donations by telling its donors calamity was unlikely; no reporter ever got his editor’s attention by saying that a scare was overblown; and no politician ever got on television by downplaying doom.

What is more, pessimism demands that “something must be done”, providing the excuse for businessmen and bureaucrats to hatch a plot against the public’s purse. Prophecies of doom can be profitable.

In its environmental incarnation, a pessimistic view of the world, because it diagnoses that things are going wrong, demands a top-down re-ordering of the world economy. Last January at Davos, no less than UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon described the world economic model as a “global suicide pact” that would result in disaster if it was not reformed: “We need an environmental revolution”.

Governments all round the world are interfering with markets to try to bring about this environmental revolution. One of the policies they have adopted has taken 5 per cent of the world’s grain crop and turned it into biofuel to power motor vehicles. This has driven up food prices, increased malnutrition and encouraged the destruction of rain forest, while enriching farmers.

Yet, given that the planting and harvesting of biofuels use about as much oil as the fuels they displace, it has had precisely zero effect on carbon emissions. Nonetheless, it is considered a green, progressive policy.

Another policy is to bribe rich landowners to festoon the most picturesque landscapes with concrete pads on which are placed gargantuan steel towers topped with wind turbines containing two-tonne magnets made of an alloy of neodymium, a rare earth metal mined in inner Mongolia by a process of boiling in acid that produces poisoned lakes filled with mildly radioactive and toxic tailings.

The cost of this policy is borne by ordinary electricity users and their would-be employers. So far, the wind industry’s contribution to cutting carbon emissions is precisely zero, because it provides less than 0.5 per cent of world energy use and even that has to be offset by keeping fossil fuel plants running for when the wind does not blow.

Oh, and wind turbines have killed so many white-tailed eagles in Norway, wedge-tailed eagles in Tasmania and golden eagles in California that local populations of the species are in increased danger of extinction. And this is a green, “clean”, progressive policy?

The biofuel and wind industries are now powerful commercial lobbies. Optimists, by contrast, have less excuse to interfere, so they cannot build constituencies of vested interests.

Market champions believe the best way to make the world rich, clean and safe is to let people trade and innovate by encouraging the international mobility of goods, services, people, ideas and technology.

The consequence would be: “great improvement in the overall health and social conditions of the majority of people, energy and mineral resources abundant . . . because of rapid technical progress, which reduces the resources needed to produce a given level of output and increases the economically recoverable reserves, rapid technological progress [that] ‘frees’ natural resources currently devoted to provision of human needs for other purposes which increases ecologic resilience”.

Is this a quote from some starry-eyed free-market zealot? No. It is the official description of one of the model economic scenarios devised by the UN intergovernmental panel on climate change to calculate carbon emissions in the 21st century. It is the scenario that produces the greatest prosperity in the most sustainable way with by no means the highest emissions.

In other words, Ban Ki-moon’s very own organisation admits a golden future awaits the world if we trust the world’s free economic model and stop interfering. Since that would never do, pessimism prevails over common sense.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  Uncategorized